The Victorian Sage: When Philosophy meets Literature

by Mark Wallace

Still the fullest analysis of the Victorian Sage comes from John Holloway’s 1953 book The Victorian Sage: Studies in Argument (London: Macmillan), and this book, though dated in some respects, is worth revisiting for its approach to the sage.

Holloway’s subtitle is worthy of note: Studies in Argument. Sage writing, then, is predominantly a form of arguing. Holloway’s opening chapter (“The Victorian Sage: His Message and Methods”), about which I will write in this post, starts with a rather vague description of the activity of his chosen sages (Carlyle, Newman, Arnold, Disraeli, George Eliot, Hardy):

[A]ll of them sought (among other things) to express notions about the world, man’s situation in it, and how he should live. (1)

The interest of the sage is of a “general or speculative kind in what the world is like” (1). The sage then is clearly somewhat akin to a philosopher, but he or she (Holloway neglects the “she” but one of his own examples is George Eliot) is a particularly general or speculative one; another way of saying this is that he or she is not a disciplinary philosopher.

But as well as offering a philosophico-moral outlook on life, the sage does something else. Holloway stresses that reading sage-writing “constitutes an experience for the reader” (11). The sage cannot be judged by the success of his or her doctrines, but by what work he or she does for the individual reader. This is difficult to quantify and communicate, obviously, and Holloway doesn’t get much further than the Victorian Sages themselves in this, using the Carlylean trope of vision: “acquiring wisdom is somehow an opening of the eyes” (9). The sages want the reader to experience an opening of the eyes, a quickening of perceptiveness (10). How do they go about this: by any means possible. “The sage has no standard bag of tools” (11). Thus the sage remains a slippery and elusive figure, moving us without us knowing how.

This brings the sage closer to the novelist: disciplinary philosophy is built on logical systems; novelists work by moving us. And Holloway follows this up: initial sages, Carlyle and Arnold notably, were essayists; but Holloway introduces Eliot, Disraeli and Hardy to illustrate how sage-writing and the work of the novelist were highly compatible. The sages were always attached to the notion of expounding their outlook through character (think of Teufelsdrockh in Sartor Resartus, or the many characters – Dryasdust et al. – in Carlyle’s more narrowly sage-like books). For the sage, their is no philosophy without an embodiment thereof, and the two are never separate, not even for expositional purposes:

Characters, because they can talk, can be authorities, more or less good or bad, for the points of view adopted or rejected by their creator; an more than this, they are not ventriloquist’s mouthpieces only, but people whom we get to know well and whose whole situation we are likely to live through sympathetically. (14)

So, the sage can be seen as half-philosopher, half-novelist. One has the focus on finding out about “man’s place in [the world], and how he should live” alongside the use of character, figurative language/tropes and other literary features. A philosopher without logic, a novelist without plot, the sage is both less and more than either of these more established intellectual figures.

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