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.

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