America on the Brink   /   Fall 2020   /    Book Reviews

Heavenly Geometries

The first appearance in English of George Eliot’s translation of Spinoza’s Ethics.

Nathan Goldman

(Left) Page from the 1677 edition of Ethics; (right) Portrait of Baruch de Spinoza (detail) by Nick Oudshoorn; Alamy Stock Photo.

In 1855, Marian Evans—who would, four years later, begin publishing fiction under the pen name “George Eliot”—wrote a short piece for the British magazine Leader titled “Translations and Translators,” in which she discussed an unlikely pair of recent English editions of German books. One was an anthology of German lyric poetry; the other was Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. She had harsh words for the former, but effusively extolled the merits of the latter, arguing that it was all the more praiseworthy given the type of text in question. Kant’s “mighty book,” she wrote, was of a kind that required particular skill to translate:

The power required in the translation varies with the power exhibited in the original work: very modest qualifications will suffice to enable a person to translate a book of ordinary travels, or a slight novel, while a work of reasoning or science can be adequately rendered only by means of what is at present exceptional faculty and exceptional knowledge.

At the time, Eliot was engaged in her own translation of “a work of reasoning,” one hardly less forbidding than Kant’s opus: the Ethics of Benedictus de Spinoza. It’s perhaps because of this project that she was thinking in terms of power, a key concept for Spinoza. She had just completed a draft of Part IV, “On the Power of Man and on the Power of the Passions,” in which Spinoza makes a radical claim: “By virtue and power, I understand the same thing: i.e.... virtue is the very essence or nature of man, in so far as he has the power of doing certain things which can be understood by the laws of his nature alone.”

Spinoza’s Ethics is a compendium of radical claims, presented in a radical form—one made immediately evident in the book’s full Latin title: Ethica, ordine geometrico demonstrata (Ethics, Demonstrated in Geometrical Order). The Ethics distinguishes itself as a work of philosophy that makes use of a form native to mathematics: geometrical proofs. Each of its five parts lays out definitions and axioms and proceeds with a series of propositions accompanied by rigorous demonstrations, interspersed with corollaries, scholia, prefaces, and appendixes. By the end of the book—written in exile decades after a young Spinoza was branded a heretic and banished from the Amsterdam Jewish community in which he had been raised, and published posthumously in 1677—Spinoza has suggested that God has physical extension (and is perhaps identical with Nature), contested the claim that the mind and body are separable, proven that the world operates according to a principle of determinism, and reinterpreted the notion of human freedom accordingly.

Eliot likely first encountered Spinoza’s work in 1843; that same year, having taught herself Latin, she began to translate parts of his earlier Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (“Theologico-Political Treatise”), a project she later abandoned. As far as we know, Eliot’s translation of the Ethics, completed in 1856, is the first known English-language version of Spinoza’s opus—but it was not the first to appear in print. (That would be R.H.M. Elwes’s translation, published in 1883.) Eliot was, of course, solely responsible for the work—as far as is known, she was and remains the only woman to have ever rendered the Ethics in English. But in keeping with a common practice at the time, plans were made to attribute the published book to two men: her common-law husband, the critic George Henry Lewes, and an invented cotranslator. A disagreement over payment led to the dissolution of the original agreement with a publisher; a subsequent publication attempt also failed. With the exception of a limited-edition typescript that appeared in 1981 and quickly passed out of print, Eliot’s translation has spent the last 150 years sitting in manuscript form—first in the hands of the Lewes family, then at Yale University—serving as an occasional source for Eliot scholars, and otherwise as a potent piece of trivia: an unexpected intersection between the Victorian novelist and the Enlightenment philosopher.

This year, at long last, Eliot’s translation appeared in a proper edition, and under her own name. The volume, edited by the British philosopher Clare Carlisle, author of a recent biography of Søren Kierkegaard, presents the full text along with ample notes and a substantial introduction, which serves two functions. First, it’s an impressively accessible yet comprehensive survey of Eliot’s intellectual relationship to Spinoza, contextualized in terms of nascent British interest in the Dutch philosopher, whose provocative metaphysics was in Eliot’s day only just arriving by way of the German Romantics and Idealists. Second, it’s an inquiry into some of the ways of understanding the relationship between Eliot’s novels and Spinoza’s philosophy, drawing on other Eliot scholars as well as Carlisle’s own insights. Carlisle frames this link by arguing that Eliot’s “deep emotional intelligence” bears the imprint of Spinoza’s thorough treatment of human “affects,” and that Eliot, like Spinoza, was interested in “working out the ethical possibilities of human life within a deterministic universe.” For both, Carlisle contends, “the difference between bondage and freedom” was a matter of “self-understanding.” Carlisle also suggests that Spinoza’s “philosophy of encounter and transformation” and his collapsing of human beings into the mathematizable physical world—in the Ethics, he writes that he will “consider human actions and appetites as if the subject were lines, surfaces, or solids”—finds a parallel in Eliot’s treatment of the characters in her novels as, in the words of scholar S. Pearl Brilmyer, “loosely structured material formations, softly bounded forms open to reconfiguration or change.”

Although this excellent introduction surpasses the demands of the form, the real treasure here is the translation itself. Given the gorgeousness of Eliot’s own prose, her translation’s eloquence comes as no surprise. What’s most surprising is how little it differs, in the broad strokes, from contemporary translations. Still, there are many minute ways in which Eliot’s rendering stands out—for instance, she seems to have had a somewhat awkward preference for cognates. And there are also distinctions of greater consequence. For one thing, she worked from a less accurate Latin edition than those that are currently available. (The resulting errors and other infelicities are mentioned in endnotes—or, in especially important cases, occasional footnotes.) But perhaps the most significant stylistic difference between Eliot’s translation and contemporary versions is the one Carlisle calls attention to in her “Note on the Text.” In the modern context, in which the “history of philosophy is now a professional academic discipline,” Carlisle writes, “translators tend to regard it as their duty to offer readers a text that is as close as possible to the letter of the original,” whereas for Eliot, “translation was more an art than a science.” Thus, her version “is, by contemporary standards, eccentric.” This is most evident at the level of terminology; Eliot, Carlisle notes, “does not offer consistent translations of key terms in Spinoza’s vocabulary.” This makes for more pleasingly varying prose but greater difficulty comprehending an argument, especially one made with geometric precision.

Beyond vocabulary, Eliot’s unique style comes to the fore most prominently in the parts of the text that sit between and alongside the definitions, axioms, and propositions. In his book Spinoza: Practical Philosophy (translated by Robert Hurley), philosopher Gilles Deleuze—who is responsible for much of the modern interest in Spinoza—proposes that Spinoza essentially nested one text within another:

The Ethics is a book written twice simultaneously: once in the continuous stream of definitions, propositions, demonstrations, and corollaries, which develop the great speculative themes with all the rigors of the mind; another time in the broken chain of scholia, a discontinuous volcanic line, a second version underneath the first, expressing all the angers of the heart and setting forth the practical theses of denunciation and liberation.

Deleuze neglects to mention the prefaces and appendixes, in which Spinoza similarly permits himself to digress from his strict method. Where the philosopher’s personality shines through most strongly, so too does Eliot’s. For instance, consider these lines from the appendix to Part I:

Together with the many useful things in Nature, [men] necessarily found not a few injurious things, namely, tempests, earthquakes, diseases, etc.; these, they supposed, happened because the Gods were angry on account of offences committed against them by men, or because of faults incurred in their worship; and although experience every day protests, and shows by infinite examples that benefits and injuries happen indifferently to the pious and the ungodly, they do not therefore renounce their inveterate prejudice.

Here lives a music that is Eliot’s own. Where Edwin Curley—whose version Carlisle calls “the standard English edition”—has “had to find many inconveniences,” Eliot has “necessarily found not a few injurious things”; where Curley has “daily experience contradicted this,” Eliot has “experience every day protests”; where Curley has “they did not on that account give up their long-standing prejudice,” Eliot has “they do not therefore renounce their inveterate prejudice.” It’s not just that, leaving textual fidelity to one side, Eliot’s version sings more beautifully. It’s that one can hear in it the rhythm, the attune-  ment to language, that would one day help her to compose the sentences for which she is rightly renowned, like this famous one from the narrator of Middlemarch: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

Although we have little record of Eliot’s thinking about Spinoza beyond the translation itself and a few mentions in letters and diaries, those materials make clear that the young writer who would become George Eliot was deeply moved and invigorated by Spinoza’s ideas. But translation, of course, is not a pure contact with ideas; it’s an intimacy with language. In an 1849 letter to a friend, five years before she began to translate the Ethics, Eliot wrote, “For those who read the very words Spinoza wrote there is the same sort of interest in his style as in the conversation of a person of great capacity who has led a solitary life, and who says from his own soul what all the world is saying by rote.” In this formulation, character, philosophy, and style are inseparable. Eliot’s translation of the Ethics is significant as a major work of translation, as a key moment in the history of Spinozism, and as a means of understanding the translator’s intellectual history and the approaches to the world that would inform her novels. But it’s significant, too, as a kind of monument: In these words, a great artist gathered her powers.