Leslie Stephen, an English man of letters, was the son of James and Jane Venn Stephen, both of whom came from families in the innermost group of the reforming Evangelicals who formed the so-called Clapham Sect. He attended Eton, briefly and unhappily, and then went to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he was made a fellow in 1854.
Fellows had then to be ordained in the Church of England, and Stephen took holy orders and eventually became a priest, although he was not deeply religious. At the same time, religious doubt and disaffection began to trouble him.
In 1862, as a result of these doubts, he resigned his fellowship, and in 1864 he left Cambridge for good. By 1865 he had completely lost all religious belief. He settled in London and began writing for various journals. Thereafter he wrote continually, copiously, and on a very wide range of topics.
|Jane Venn Stephen|
In 1867 he married William Makepeace Thackeray’s daughter Harriet Marian. She died in 1875, leaving him with one child. Three years later he married Julia Jackson Duckworth, a widow. They had four children, one of whom became the writer Virginia Woolf. Julia Stephen died in 1895.
Stephen was for many years editor of the Cornhill Magazine. In 1882 he accepted an invitation to edit the newly projected Dictionary of National Biography. The success of the project was largely due to his lengthy period of arduous service in this position (he wrote 387 of the biographies himself). Stephen was knighted in 1901.
Stephen was not a considerable innovator, in philosophy, in historical method, or in literary criticism. He had, however, very great gifts of rapid narration and clear and lively exposition. His work on the history of thought is based on massive reading and wide acquaintance with the social, political, and religious aspects of the periods of which he wrote.
If it is neither original in its criticism nor profound in its understanding of positions, it is still useful and has not been entirely superseded because of its grasp of the broader contexts of thought and the skill with which it brings out the continuities from one period to another and from earlier formulations of problems to later ones.
It was Stephen who made Thomas Huxley’s coinage agnostic an English word, and the problems and beliefs springing from his agnosticism underlay both his major historical works and his philosophical writings. He rejected theism of the sort he had originally been taught because he rejected the doctrine of original sin and because the problem of evil seemed to him insoluble.
To evade this problem by confessing the transcendence and incomprehensibility of God was, he thought, to change from a believer into a skeptic, and in that case the part of honesty was simply to avow oneself an agnostic. But true Victorian that he was, he felt that morality, by this view, becomes gravely problematical. If there is no deity to sanction moral principles, why will—why should—men obey them?
To answer these questions was part of Stephen’s aim in his investigations of eighteenth-century thought. He dealt more systematically with them, and with others, in his least successful and most tedious book, The Science of Ethics. The agnostic, he held, must place morality on a scientific basis, and this means that there must be nothing in his ethics that is outside the competence of scientific inquiry.
Brought up on John Stuart Mill and profoundly influenced by Charles Darwin, Stephen attempted to cut through what he impatiently dismissed as academic debates about morality by showing that moral beliefs were the result neither of excessively rational utilitarian calculation nor of mysterious intuition but of the demands of the social organism in its struggle for survival.
Since the healthy survival of the social organism must increasingly coincide with conditions that bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number of those individuals who are the “cells” in the “social tissue,” utilitarianism is not entirely false. But its atomistic analysis of society is erroneous, and its criterion of rightness is neither adequate nor entirely accurate.
|John Stuart Mill|
The healthy survival of society, and of oneself as part of it, can alone serve as sanction for morality, and the rules for that health, which are mirrored in our instincts and our deepest habits and appear in consciousness as intuitively known moral rules, can be put on a scientific basis only when we come to possess, as we do not yet, a scientific sociology.