Virgil Martin Nemoianu. Philosophy and Literature. Volume 34, Issue 1. April 2010.
George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda advances a conception of freedom with clear Spinozist affinities. The development of Eliot’s characters, and of their relationships to one another, can be understood fruitfully in terms of growth toward freedom or contraction to bondage, where the notions of freedom and bondage are very much in accord with Spinoza’s views in the Ethics. This is by no means to suggest that Eliot’s work is intended to be a vehicle for Spinoza’s philosophy, as though her relation to Spinoza were ideological. Eliot’s agreement with Spinoza is not passive reproduction of his thought, and, moreover, there is much more to Daniel Deronda than the presence of Spinozist ideas. Nevertheless, Eliot and Spinoza are mutually illuminating. Spinoza provides a theoretical foothold on Eliot, who in turn interprets and advances beyond him. Reading the two together makes available a view of human freedom which is at once an attractive interpretation of Spinoza and a significant component of Eliot’s ethics.
Eliot’s interest in the thought of Baruch Spinoza is well known and well documented. In 1849, she completed a translation of the Theological Political Treatise, followed, in 1856, by an edition of the Ethics. Her work on the latter, in particular, was bound to have a marked effect on her thinking. More than either Strauss’s Life of Jesus or Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity, Spinoza’s intricately complex systematic account of metaphysics, epistemology, moral psychology, and ethics demands an extraordinarily high degree of intellectual engagement and involvement from a careful reader, such as would be undertaking a translation. To know how to render Spinoza’s key terms-affectus or conatus or acquiescentia in se ipso-it is not enough simply to know Latin. A translator must also possess the depth of philosophical understanding to grasp the particular, and sometimes peculiar, role they play in his system as a whole. Eliot seems to have articulated this very issue in a letter to Charles Bray of December 4, 1849. Here, she distinguishes between a literal translation of the text-rendering “his Latin faithfully into English”—and a “more difficult translation”—”a true estimate of his life and works … an analysis.” While Eliot surely did not intend her novels to be this “more difficult translation,” it seems clear enough that Spinoza was a significant and lasting influence.
The question of Eliot’s conscious employment of Spinoza’s thought in her novels is not this essay’s concern. For the present purpose, it is enough to note that Spinoza was a major influence on Eliot. This allows us to see the initial plausibility of reading Eliot and Spinoza together; to some extent, Spinoza’s concerns are Eliot’s as well, so that to understand Spinoza will be a way toward understanding Eliot. To unpack their further affinity, it is necessary to make a first turn toward the Ethics before considering Eliot’s view of freedom in Daniel Deronda.
Spinoza is a determinist. Despite some disagreement about the precise way in which we ought to understand his view, it is clear that he rejects the metaphysically robust notion of a volitional faculty in the human being which is causally independent from the rest of the natural order. For Spinoza, God-or-Nature, the one substance that comprises everything, is the only thing which, strictly speaking, can be called free. God-or-Nature alone is unconstrained by anything outside of it and acts solely from the rational necessity of its own nature (Ip17). The human mind is a definite and determinate mode, following of necessity from God-or-Nature, under the attribute of thought (IIp11). And, like all finite things, the human mind is determined by other particulars and by the laws of nature of which it is the expression (Ip28).
It would be a mistake to construe this uncompromising determinism, in the case of the human being, as a gloomy fatalism. On the contrary: Spinoza must be reckoned among the philosophers most devoted to the ideal of human liberation. The culmination of the Ethics, in part five, is a joyful encomium of the human capacity for freedom. The focus of Spinoza’s criticism is the incoherent conception of human freedom as transcendence of nature or causal disconnection from the immanent world. Aware of our actions and ignorant of their causes, we think ourselves undetermined and call this freedom: “So the infant believes he freely wants the milk; the angry child that he wants vengeance; and the timid, flight” (IIp2s). In fact, however, our actions are determined by our desires, and the decisions of the mind and the actions of the body are nothing other than one and the same expression of these desires, considered now under the attribute of thought (and the laws of psychology) and now under the attribute of extension (and the laws of physics). The individual, so far from being “a dominion within a dominion” is, in fact, a part of nature and follows nature’s common order (IIpref, IVapp7). Genuine human freedom is not compromised by but requires this embeddedness in the world and the network of causes that comprises it. For a human being to be free, the desires which determine her behavior must arise from rational knowledge of herself and her situation relative to other human beings and the rest of what is. Only then can she act coherently and effectively, in a way that benefits her. If freedom indeed consisted in the exercise of an undetermined free will, one’s actions would have no necessary connection to the world; they would be arbitrary, and they would have to be considered more free to the extent to which they could be more arbitrary. The difference between human freedom and bondage, therefore, lies not in the randomness of a supposed disconnection from nature but in the degree to which one is determined to act by a rational grasp of the laws of one’s own nature and one’s place in the whole, or, more simply, by a rational grasp of one’s causes. One is more free to the extent that one’s acts are determined by reason in this way, and one would be less free to the extent to which one is not, whether this means being determined by ignorance or, if it were possible, not being determined at all.
Spinoza’s conception of human freedom has a clear moral dimension. Human freedom is determination by reason, and this, on Spinoza’s view, is what is properly called virtue: the power to benefit ourselves, to increase our well-being through rational understanding (IVp23-24). To be free is to live well, to benefit and perfect oneself as far as possible. Spinoza connects this closely with what he describes as being active, expressing one’s own power, so that one’s behavior follows from the laws of one’s own nature, as opposed to being passive, dragged hither and thither by the power of external things, so that one’s behavior follows only partially and confusedly from one’s own nature. The distinction between activity and passivity is, once again, the difference between determination by reason, or the affects or emotions that arise from adequate knowledge, and determination by ignorance, or the affects or emotions that arise from inadequate knowledge. Activity is striving to benefit oneself on the basis of a rational understanding of the natural order of which one is part, and passivity is striving on the basis of a confused and partial understanding. The one Spinoza calls the “free person” is, therefore, virtuous because she is rational. She understands the natural necessity that defines the development of her own nature, including her understanding, and her relation to other persons and things. Because knowledge is intentional, she acts in terms of this understanding, and since this understanding is rational, her actions will cohere with the world as it really is. She will act effectively, benefit herself, and live well. On Spinoza’s view, this means that the free person is less subject to passive emotions and the power of things external to her, instead living a life more characterized by active emotions of desire and joy (IIp58-59). It also means that when, as inevitably happens, circumstance militates against her, she is able to bear it with equanimity, understanding that this too is part of the natural order (IVapp32).
Spinoza’s account of moral freedom is egoistic, but it is important to see that, just as his determinism is deployed on behalf of freedom, his egoism entails a vigorous sociability. The free person enjoys her condition as a consequence of her reason, and reason is preserved and enhanced the more rational people there are. As rational understanding is one of the few goods that is shared with increase rather than diminution, the free person will want her good to be enjoyed by others as well, as widely and fully as possible (IVp36-37). Spinoza goes so far as to claim that two human beings who are free, rational, and active have “the same nature” and, working and living together, would “compose an individual twice as powerful as each one . . . as it were, one mind and one body” (IVp18s). However strongly such suggestions are intended, it is clear that freedom is expressed in community-indeed, even in the state-rather than in any sort of solitary, hermitic existence (IVp73). As Spinoza describes it, the common life of free persons would be characterized by mutual aid, including toward those who are irrational and passive (IVp37s1). Given both the nature of determinism and the benefit to be had from other rational individuals, the proper response to harms is not blame or repayment in kind but sympathetic aid aimed at educating irrational individuals toward freedom and activity, in a way sensitive to their condition.
Once and always for Spinoza, to be free in the only way that matters- to have the power to preserve, to persist in, to express one’s own being-is to be determined by reason, and above all by rational self-understanding. Freedom, so conceived, is not limited by what we more commonly refer to as duties and responsibilities to others. Since a rational person knows that there is nothing more valuable to her than another rational person (IVp35c1), her duties are the expressions and confirmations of freedom, properly understood. The more we are rational, the more we are free, the more we are able to benefit ourselves, and the more we will seek to benefit others (IVapp9). On Spinoza’s view, moral obligation, rightly understood, is not the restraint of freedom. Rather, it is only when we are free that we are able to act out of moral obligation.
While this is only a quick sketch of Spinoza’s treatment of freedom, it is enough to provide us with a way toward Eliot’s view in Daniel Deronda. Like Spinoza, Eliot takes freedom to depend upon embeddedness in a system of natural causes and to follow from understanding oneself and one’s relation to others in terms of this embeddedness. Perhaps with even more force than Spinoza, Eliot utterly rejects the conception of freedom as assertion of a will which is a self-contained causa sui. As we shall see, her characters who act from this confused notion of free will do the most harm to others and suffer the most harm themselves; they are, in fact, the most passive and the least free of all. For Eliot, those characters are most free who are determined by self-understanding and whose lives, therefore, express the concrete activity of benefiting themselves and others.
One example of the distinction between the passive bondage of ignorance and the active freedom of knowledge can be found in the differences between Daniel Deronda’s two main female characters with respect to music and the life of the artist. As the novel begins, Gwendolen Harleth is the model of a passive person. She is spoiled, thoughtless, and cruel, with an inflated sense of her virtues, founded on very inadequate, because very partial, knowledge of herself which is encouraged by the approbation of others who share her social position and its narrowness. Gwendolen’s imagined excellence is first pricked by Julius Klesmer’s assessment of her Bellini aria in Chapter 5. Indifferent to the taste of the assembled guests at Quetcham, Klesmer agrees earnestly with Gwendolen’s insincerely self-deprecating remarks, adding that she has “not been well taught,” produces her “notes badly,” and engages a form of music which is not authentic art but, instead, “expresses a puerile state of culture … without any breadth of horizon … self-satisfied … no cries of deep, mysterious passion-no conflict-no sense of the universal.” Unlike Catherine Arrowpoint, who has a genuine knowledge of music and is, therefore, able to contextualize Klesmer’s severity with fluid ease, Gwendolen is frozen into inaction and resentment: “with a sinking of heart at the sudden width of horizon opened round her small musical performance,” she refuses to sing further and sarcastically repeats Klesmer’s verdict on her capacity as the ostensible justification for her refusal (pp. 39-40).
This scene is repeated more forcefully and fully in Chapter 23, in which Gwendolen seeks Klesmer’s approval and aid for her scheme to save her family from ruin by becoming a stage performer. Klesmer provides Gwendolen with a sober assessment of her prospects: the difficulties of the artist’s life, her own unsatisfactory training, and, most of all, her unsuitable character, incapable of the openness and fortitude necessary “to love perfection and to labour for it … to endure, to wait, to say, I am not yet worthy, but she-Art, my mistress-is worthy, and I will live to merit her,” a judgment confirmed by the fact of Gwendolen’s intention to pursue art for the sake of a life of luxurious ease (p. 217). Though Klesmer is motivated by compassion grounded in knowledge, Gwendolen nevertheless experiences his honest attempt to bring her to self-understanding as “the pain of a bleeding wound” (p. 222). Once more, she is paralyzed by her experience and is rendered literally incapable of moving.
In both scenes between Gwendolen and Klesmer, Eliot is clear that her heroine’s passivity and powerlessness is the result of ignorance. In strikingly Spinozist fashion, this ignorance is described as the product of “vaguely imagined” states of affairs (p. 223, IIp29), themselves grounded in desires connected to Gwendolen’s fixation on the singularity of her own visual image, which Eliot contrasts with desire connected to systematic rationality: “To fill up the time she collected her volumes and pieces of music, and laying them on top of the piano, set herself to classify them. Then catching the reflection of her movements in the glass panel, she was diverted to the contemplation of the image there and walked towards it” (p. 214). This picture-thinking and its associated desires are revealed to be the fragmentary and partial results of random experience, “no better than the packed-up shows of a departing fair” (p. 223), the equivalent of Spinoza’s inadequate first kind of knowledge (IIp40s2), in the face of Klesmer’s account of real desire for art following from a necessary striving for exact knowledge, understanding, and action (p. 216), corresponding to Spinoza’s adequate second and third kinds of knowledge (IIp40s2). In Spinoza’s language, Gwendolen’s passive bondage depends upon her inadequate ideas (IIp3). She is unable to act productively or meaningfully precisely because of her confused ideas, of herself and her relation to the world, and the overpowering emotions of pain, fear, and resentment which they cause.
If Gwendolen Harleth presents us with a model of passivity and bondage, Mirah Lapidoth, measured against the same standard of adequate knowledge furnished by Julius Klesmer, expresses activity and freedom. Where Gwendolen imagines immediate and unquestioned recognition of her excellence and, therefore, is shocked and hurt by Klesmer’s criticism, Mirah is not at all surprised by him and is, in fact, “sure that he would scold her, like a great musician and a kind man” (p. 414). Mirah’s superior understanding of Klesmer’s character, her knowledge of the sort of art music (a setting of Leopardi’s All’Italia, Gretchen’s songs from Radzivill’s Faust) he will prefer, and, in the end, her ability to sing well and elicit a favorable (though still qualified) judgment from him are rooted in her having acquired rational knowledge of music through study with someone who understands it and so can provide critical oversight. Mirah’s most recent teacher is (the invented) Joseph Leo, whom she describes in terms-”so fierce and so good” (p. 415)-which parallel her prior assessment of Klesmer. Moreover, Klesmer is immediately familiar with Leo, and his judgment of Mirah’s talents and shortcomings as a singer repeat those of her former master. Leo has helped to lead Mirah to the freedom of reason (at least with respect to music), and the measure of this is the common understanding of music and the life of the musician she shares with Klesmer. Eliot captures this commonality beautifully through the repetition of the first two lines of the chapter’s epigraph, from Goethe’s West-östlicher Divan, as a sentence begun by Klesmer and completed by Mirah: “Vor den Wissenden sich stellen-you know the rest? Sicher ist’s in allen Fällen, said Mirah, promptly. And Klesmer saying, Schön! put out his hand again as a good-bye” (p. 416). Mirah and Klesmer alike belong to a community of those who understand the need for critical scrutiny of the knowledgeable, and this brings them closer to being knowledgeable themselves. Unlike Gwendolen, who resents critical scrutiny (p. 222), Mirah’s understanding of the value of another rational person brings her nearer to rationality, and so affords her greater capacity for freedom and activity in Spinoza’s sense: productive expression of her power and joyful satisfaction of her desires, in common with others like her.
Underlying these descriptions of Gwendolen and Mirah is a more fundamental opposition of attitudes about freedom. Gwendolen, primarily in the first half of the novel, regards herself as the independent and internally contained source of her choices, behavior, desires, power, and excellence. In one striking passage from Chapter 9, Gwendolen, agreeing with her mother that her will is simply uncontrollable, remarks astonishingly, “Dear mamma, I don’t find fault with you … How can you help what I am? Besides, I am very charming. Come, now” (p. 80). Eliot’s narrator later describes this as “One belief which had accompanied her through her unmarried life as a self-cajoling superstition, encouraged by the subordination of every one about her-the belief in her own power of dominating” (p. 363). Gwendolen takes herself to be free, where to be free means to be a self-contained causa sui. As she imagines things, the satisfaction of her desires about the world depends simply on this: that she will it. From such a perspective, any relation to others apart from one of mastery is thought to be a diminishment of freedom. Hence, “she dreaded Klesmer as part of that unmanageable world which was independent of her wishes-something vitriolic which would not cease to burn because you smiled or frowned at it” (p. 214). Gwendolen believes herself to become less free the more her desires, her self-understanding, and her actions are interwoven in causal relationships to anything not subject to her.
In clear contrast, Mirah understands herself to be, and is shown to be, more free and powerful the more her life is joined to those around her. She is taken to the brink of suicide by her father, who, much like Grandcourt to Gwendolen, has choked off all of her ties to the world that do not pass through him. She is brought back first through connection to Daniel Deronda and, specifically, her recognition of Deronda singing the Gondolier’s Song from Rossini’s Otello (pp. 161, 163). Music, as we have already seen, is for Mirah a form of knowledge, and thus a source of activity, power, freedom, and life which, in this experience, she is able to locate in Deronda. She is further revived by the Meyricks, by Klesmer, by Mordecai, and, finally and most of all, by Deronda’s love at the novel’s end, which, as Eliot’s narrator puts it, employing Spinoza’s term for the highest form of joyful freedom in understanding (Vp42), finally brings her to “full, blessed consciousness” (p. 679). Mirah twice waves off the suggestion that anyone might equally have served to free her, first in conversation with Mrs. Meyrick and again in response to Deronda (pp. 180, 312). Her freedom is the result of concrete, necessary connection to specific individuals and increases with the strength of the connection.
For both Eliot and Spinoza, then, human freedom depends upon rational self-understanding in terms of the network of causes of which one is part. One who lacks rational understanding in this sense is not free. The individual whose behavior, for example, follows from immediate first-person impressions and emotions, without rational oversight in the form of reflection on their causes, is enslaved by her passions, powerless to form desires that exhibit overall coherence, much less to satisfy them. She may of course imagine herself free. Indeed, a consequence of ignorant confidence in the completeness of immediate experience may be the belief that one possesses an unconditioned free will which becomes more powerful in proportion to one’s disconnection from or control over others. Nevertheless, such an individual is, as Spinoza puts it, “driven about in many ways by external causes . . . like waves on the sea, driven by contrary winds” (IIp59s) and indeed all the more as she becomes more convinced of her fragmentary image of freedom. By contrast, the individual who acts from-who is determined by-rational self-understanding lives in an ordered and self-consistent way. Less subject to limiting passions of fear and pride, she benefits herself by forming coherent desires and satisfying them effectively, and her actions exhibit what Spinoza calls active joy (III p58). Further, she understands the value of others in achieving and expanding this freedom. She knows that her own freedom is increased the more she is connected to other free and rational individuals, in relations of mutual aid, so she strives to form these relations and to bring others, along with herself, to reason and liberation.
In Daniel Deronda, the title character himself is the fullest embodiment of Eliot’s Spinozist view of freedom. Eliot is plain that Deronda’s development is to be understood as a movement from bondage to freedom. The reader’s first introduction to him as something more than Gwendolen Harleth’s mysterious observer occurs in Chapter 16, as a historical and psychological account of his circumstances until the period immediately following university. This is preceded, at the conclusion of Chapter 15, with the observation that Deronda “felt himself in no sense free” (p. 138). Chapter 63 bookends this description with Deronda’s realization that the liberation for which he had been yearning does not consist in freedom popularly so-called but in action on the basis of an understanding of his concrete and particular position in relation to the whole: “he came back with what was better than freedom-with a duteous bond which his experience had been preparing him to accept gladly” (p. 637).
What makes the difference between Deronda’s experience of bondage at the start of the novel and of authentic freedom at its end is not an act of willful individual self-assertion. His freedom is growth in selfconscious understanding of the gradual confluence of causes in his life. Eliot announces this point in the epigraph of Chapter 16, which casts the development of her characters in causal terms: “Men, like planets, have both a visible and an invisible history. The astronomer threads the darkness with strict deduction, accounting for every visible arc in the wanderer’s orbit; and the narrator of human actions, if he did his work with the same completeness, would have to thread the hidden pathways of feeling and thought which lead up to every moment of action” (p. 139). Deronda’s sense of bondage at the start of the novel is caused directly by his ignorance of his past, of his parentage and his ancestry-in short, by his lack of self-knowledge. This spurs him toward understanding himself in relation to the world he inhabits and toward aiding those in that world who suffer, as he does, from ruptures, incoherencies, and discontinuities in their own lives. Because he is barred from knowing the truth about his past, his inclination does not find any definite outlet in his own case but broadens into a wide ranging rational sympathy without any particular ends or objects. He strives to grasp the necessity that governs his experience, seeking “insight into the principles which form the vital connections of knowledge” (p. 152), regarding the behavior of others as causally determined, “part of mixed human natures having an individual history, which it was the bent of his mind to trace with understanding and pity” (p. 307), and, in general, trying to come to understanding of the causes which motivate his behavior (pp. 311-12, 434). Nevertheless, without knowledge of “a more definite place and duties” (p. 153), he is unable to turn his abstract rational sympathy toward clear, determinate action, and he longs for “some external event, or some inward light, that would urge him into a definite line of action, and compress his wandering energy” (p. 308).
Deronda’s movement toward freedom emerges from two encounters: one with Gwendolen Harleth, at the gaming table in Leubronn, and the other with Mirah Lapidoth, on the banks of the Thames. In complementary ways, these relationships serve to direct him toward determinate self-understanding and, so, a definite line of action. In Deronda’s periodic encounters with Gwendolen Harleth, he is put in the position of moral exemplar or moral educator, roles which require him to take his abstract understanding of the necessity that governs human affairs and see it articulated and applied in the concrete immanence of a particular life. What results is the outline of an ethics with a markedly Spinozist character. For Deronda, the focus of ethics is living well and freely. He rejects both pride and fear as sound motives to action, first warning Gwendolen away from celebrating increases in fortune at the expense of others (pp. 284-85) and later advising her against taking her marriage and the drowning of her husband as occasions for contracting into fearful self-abnegation (pp. 598, 657). Both glory and abasement are products of unhappy self-obsession, the “small drama of personal desires … spent in that narrow round, for want of ideas and sympathies to make a larger home for it” (p. 387). Deronda denies that one’s immediate first-person point of view is the proper perspective from which to judge one’s relation to the whole, and this position fits neatly with his criticism of an ethics consisting in blame or punishment of those who displease us (pp. 352-53). Together, these views bring Deronda very close to agreement with Spinoza that those who identify good and ill from the narrow perspective of rising and falling relative to their neighbors remain passively bound to their neighbors’ condition and are constrained to desire and pursue overall harms for the sake of proximate benefits (IVp57s, IVp63c). For Deronda, as for Spinoza, what is genuinely good will be beneficial to all (p. 374, IVp36). Living freely and actively requires not narrow score-keeping but, rather, the affirmation of life through broad and multiple connection to the world that comes of knowledge. This cures us of our petty self-regard and empowers us with respect to our desires and emotions (pp. 387-88, IVp38). The culmination of Deronda’s moral education of Gwendolen is, once more, that freedom consists in understanding oneself as part of the network of necessary causes comprising the world and, through understanding, taking possession of one’s own motive causes and acting deliberately. In Deronda’s words: “We must find our duties in what comes to us, not in what we imagine might have been” (p. 601), and again “What makes life dreary is the want of motive; but once beginning to act with that penitential, loving purpose you have in your mind, there will be unexpected satisfactions-there will be newly opening needs-continually coming to carry you on from day to day. You will find your life growing like a plant” (p. 658). Though Gwendolen may not yet be in a position to see it, self-knowledge brings her closer to freedom, and the moral duties that follow from the motive of determination by knowledge will turn out to be the expressions and confirmations of her freedom.
As Eliot’s narrator notes at the end of Chapter 35, “Those who trust us educate us. And perhaps in that ideal consecration of Gwendolen’s, some education was being prepared for Deronda” (p. 369). That Deronda’s aid to Gwendolen also serves as his own education only becomes fully clear in the parallel development of his relation to Mirah Lapidoth. When Deronda rescues Mirah from drowning, he is, both literally and figuratively, unmoored and drifting. In the course of the novel, it is through her that he is able to arrive at a concrete and particular understanding of his nature that both accounts for his history and aims him in definite ways toward future action. Deronda helps Mirah toward the reconstruction of her past so that she may be free; he is consciously aware that, “Something in his own experience caused Mirah’s search after her mother to lay hold with peculiar force on his imagination” (p. 175) and that “the very depth of the impression she had produced made him desire that she should understand herself to be entirely independent of him” (p. 177). This desire for her is the sympathetic reflection of his need for the recovery of his own past and his desire for his own freedom. In aiding Mirah, understanding what another like him requires to be free, and acting from that understanding, he is also taking steps toward aiding himself, a point suggested by Eliot when she has Deronda consider that, by drawing nearer to Mirah, he may also be drawing nearer to his mother (p. 162). Where Deronda’s relation to Gwendolen allows him to formulate the idea that freedom is expressed in sympathetic action that follows from an understanding of necessity, his relation to Mirah allows him to realize this idea in his own case.
Deronda’s development toward self-understanding and freedom through connection to Mirah deepens as his efforts on her behalf lead him to Mordecai. Eliot employs Mirah’s brother to show, among many other things, that Deronda’s trajectory in the text is not an act of selfcreation and, still less, transcendence of the world of human affairs. Instead, Deronda’s is a progressive growth toward consciousness of the causes that constituted his nature all along. This is facilitated by Mordecai’s a priori knowledge of Deronda’s Judaism and of his place in the future fulfillment of Mordecai’s ambitions for the Jews (pp. 327, 410, 428-30, 487). Put otherwise, Mordecai grasps that he and Deronda share the particular expression of a common rational nature, the “leaves from a common stem with stirrings from a common root” (p. 489), and seeks to lead Deronda to self-conscious understanding of this nature: “’It will be seen-it will be declared,’ said Mordecai, triumphantly. ‘The world grows, and its frame is knit together by the growing soul; dim, dim at first, then clearer and more clear, the consciousness discerns remote stirrings. As thoughts move within us darkly, and shake us before they are fully discerned-so events-so beings: they are knit with us in the growth of the world. You have risen within me like a thought not fully spelled: my soul is shaken before the words are all there. The rest will come-it will come’“ (p. 430).
Mirah and Mordecai together prepare Deronda to understand and to accept his heritage as constitutive of his identity and determinative of his future action. When the long-anticipated revelation of his Jewish birth finally arrives, it is Mirah and Mordecai who have created the conditions which allow him to contextualize the news and to behave meaningfully and productively on the basis of it: “It is quite true that you and Mirah have been my teachers … If this revelation had been made to me before I knew you both, I think my mind would have rebelled against it … What I feel now is-that my whole being is a consent to the fact. But it has been the gradual accord between your mind and mine which has brought about that full consent” (p. 642). Without his connection to them and the understanding they have helped him to develop, the empirical data of his birth would be nothing more than ambiguous fragments of information. Instead, “It is through your inspiration that I have discerned what may be my life’s task. It is you who have given shape to what, I believe, was an inherited yearning … Since I began to read and know, I have always longed for some ideal task, in which I might feel myself the heart and brain of a multitude- some social captainship, which would come to me as a duty, and not be striven for as a personal prize. You have raised the image of such a task for me” (p. 642). Through his relation to Mirah and Mordecai, therefore, Deronda is at last able to realize authentic freedom, that is, to take his abstract understanding of the causal necessity that governs human beings (like anything else in nature) and see its expression in the particularity of his own life and, so, to act in a definite way on the basis of this concrete understanding.
Eliot’s depiction of her title character’s development, then, expresses a pronouncedly Spinozist view of freedom. Deronda’s movement from bondage to active freedom occurs in a determined world. His freedom is not the indifferent exercise of an unconditioned free will. It depends upon acquiring rational knowledge of determination and understanding the particularity of his life and his relation to others in terms of this determination, as its expression. Such knowledge provides him, as Eliot would say, with a motive. It allows him to live actively, productively, and joyfully, to form coherent desires and satisfy them reliably, and to express his nature in a definite and determinate way. Moreover, his growth exhibits a sociability which is also at the heart of Spinoza’s freedom. Deronda explicitly and repeatedly rejects the notion that freedom consists in self-enclosure and separation from others, and still less in mastery. On his view, freedom is essentially bound up with the sympathetic, mutual aid of equals toward the growth of their common natures in reason, activity, and life. Put broadly, Deronda’s development reveals Eliot’s essential agreement with Spinoza’s view that freedom is not transcendence of the world but full, loving entry into it.
If the foregoing account is at all plausible, Eliot’s view of freedom in Daniel Deronda is very near to Spinoza’s. Yet, as we noted at the outset, Eliot is not merely transcribing Spinoza’s philosophy. Most obviously, her finely detailed descriptions of the organic interrelation of everyday particulars seem to carry no hint of the systematic rigor of the geometric method. In one sense, this is trivial: Eliot is a nineteenth century novelist and not a seventeenth century philosopher. In another, however, Eliot’s literary presentation of the conception of freedom she shares with Spinoza is a substantively significant move. Her conception of freedom is located in an imaginative representation of living experience. But, for Spinoza, imagination is inadequate and fragmentary knowledge of the first kind (IIp40s2). It should not be able to provide us with a sound account of freedom. By expressing a Spinozist conception of freedom in a literary mode, then, Eliot seems to have affirmed the imagination as productive of adequate knowledge. The text of Daniel Deronda provides ample support for this view, repeatedly portraying the characters’ understanding of necessity as closely linked to their habits of imagining themselves in the experiences of others. Eliot has turned Spinoza on his head.
Perhaps, however, this conclusion is too quick. Elsewhere in the novel, Deronda inwardly criticizes Hans Meyrick that, while he may be “tenderhearted and affectionate in intention” and “active in imagining what goes on in other people,” his imagination on behalf of others is governed by his own arbitrary emotional states. This is followed immediately by a description of Deronda trying to imagine Mirah’s present condition on the basis of a reconstruction of causes (p. 554). Further, Gwendolen is several times shown desperately trying to imagine Deronda’s experience but failing because of ignorance (pp. 467-68, 688), and Mirah’s father’s imagination is described as an entangling web spun from his “imperious gambling desire” (p. 675). It is difficult to resist the conclusion that, for Eliot, mere imagination, even with the best of intentions, is not enough: it is only reliable if it is in one current with reason. And here we are not far off from Spinoza’s view. At IVp1 and IIp35, he argues that falsity is a privation of knowledge. Imagination is not in itself false. Falsity is the affirmation of a partial idea of the imagination without regard to the systematic whole of knowledge of which it is part. It is the failure to contextualize the imagined idea with other ideas by ordering the imagination rationally. Now, one of the highest aims of Spinoza’s system is the progressive acquisition of the intuitive third kind of knowledge, which follows from reason (Vp25). Spinoza is very clear that the objects of the third kind of knowledge are particular things (Vp36s)-that is, the very sorts of things which are known, prereflectively, by the senses and the imagination (IIp40s2). Since the correction of error is not negation or elimination of the imagination but, rather, its rational integration, we may describe the third kind of knowledge as imagination brought into one current with reason in intuitive synthesis. For Spinoza too, therefore, the imagination, “redeemed” by reason in the third kind of knowledge, is a form of understanding and so a source of freedom.
In fact, Spinoza regards the third kind of knowledge as the mind’s “greatest virtue” (Vp25), and we might add, recalling the tight connection between the two, its greatest freedom. What this means is that the fullest realization of human freedom for Spinoza is located in and among the particular objects of imagination and sensation, apprehended intuitively as concrete expressions of the natural causal order. With this in mind, we are better able to see how Eliot is able to advance past Spinoza. While the philosopher can lead us toward the culmination of his system, he cannot realize it in his own work. The rationally ordered particulars of the immanent whole which are the location of human freedom must always remain beyond the bounds of the Ethics. Daniel Deronda is not so limited. Eliot’s freedom is present in Klesmer’s hand on the piano, in Mordecai awaiting Deronda on Blackfriars Bridge, and in Mirah’s response to Deronda’s confession of love, “Let us go and comfort Ezra” (pp. 208, 422-23, 679). Eliot, unlike Spinoza, is not confined to gesturing toward the immanent embodiment of human freedom; she instantiates it in her text. It surely formed no part of Eliot’s conscious intention to arrive so near to a particular philosopher. Indeed, there is much to indicate an intention to the contrary: her caustic criticism of the geometric method (p. 438), her rejection of the mechanistic in favor of the organic (p. 436), her focus on imaginative experience of particulars. Yet, for all that-and, in some respects, because of that- Eliot provides us with a more complete realization of the conception of freedom she shares with Spinoza than the philosopher can.