16. Middlemarch.

An eminent philosopher among my friends, who can dignify even your ugly furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has shown me this pregnant little fact. Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent.

We begin our cluster on Philosophical novels with Middlemarch, George Eliot’s massive and masterful “study of provincial life”. A sometimes overwhelming number of characters populate a small manufacturing town in the English Midlands around 1830—but the novel focuses on a few “later-born [Saint] Theresas”. People like Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate aspire to do some good in the world, but what does “doing good” look like? And can good be achieved in the world without a nuanced ethical relationship to the others who make up that world? Chris and Suzanne explore how these questions play out in Eliot’s characters, and also look towards Baruch Spinoza, who is quietly behind Eliot’s philosophy.

Show Notes.

Middlemarch. [Project Gutenberg. Librivox.]

The portrait of John Locke.

Chaucer: Man of Law’s Tale.

Teresa of Ávila.

Bernini: Saint Teresa in Ecstasy.

Eliot’s translation of Spinoza’s Ethics will be republished next year.

In the meantime, another translation of the Ethics.

In Our Time has a helpful episode about Spinoza, and they mention Eliot at the very end.

A.S. Byatt on Middlemarch.

Ibn Tufayl: Hayy ibn Yaqzan.

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