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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
George Henry Lewes (1817–1878)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
THE WORK of Mr. Lewes admirably illustrates the intellectual change which characterizes the nineteenth century. He was born in London April 18th, 1817, and died at the Priory, St. John’s Wood, November 28th, 1878; so that the active period of his life covered those years when, consciously or unconsciously, many thinkers were being strongly affected by the influence of Auguste Comte, and when the investigations and teachings of Spencer, Darwin, Huxley, and others were revolutionizing science and philosophy, and in a large degree theology also. Lewes reflected the spirit of the time in the most positive fashion. He was a careful student of philosophy, but rejected the metaphysical method. He was as ardent a seeker as any Gradgrind for “facts, sir! facts!” but the facts which he sought were those which seemed capable of use in a larger and more stable philosophy. He would perhaps have claimed that the house which is to endure must be built from the foundation up, and not from the chimney down. English in birth and fibre, much of his youth was spent in France and Germany, so that insular prejudices did not control him. Devoted to investigation and to philosophical speculation, he nevertheless inherited from his grandfather, who had been a prominent actor, a love of the drama and predilection for the stage which tempered the influence of his more abstruse studies and broadened his outlook upon life. He studied medicine, but did not pursue the profession, because he could not endure the sight of so much pain as he was called upon to witness. For a time he was an inmate of a notary’s office, and again for a short period he tried commerce and trade in the employ of a Russian merchant. The attractions of literature were too great to be exceeded by any other, even by those of the stage, to which he was greatly drawn. He indeed appeared behind the footlights at various times, even so late as in 1850, when he sustained a part in a play of his own called ‘The Noble Heart’; and he appears to have been an actor of some ability. His Shylock was considered especially good.  1
  As early as in his sixteenth year, Lewes had written a play for private performance. At nineteen he was discussing Spinoza as a member of a philosophical debating club. At about this time he planned a work in which philosophy should be treated from the physiological point of view; and thus began the undertaking which claimed his most earnest thought for the remainder of his life. His career in this respect may be divided into three periods. In the first, through his ‘Biographical History of Philosophy,’ published in 1845–6, he undertook to show the futility of metaphysics. In it he combined a history of philosophical theories with entertaining biographical sketches of those who propounded them; and thus clothed the dry bones, and gave living interest to what might otherwise have offered little to attract the ordinary reader. The work was afterward much modified and extended, and reissued as a ‘History of Philosophy from Thales to Comte.’ In his second period he became a careful investigator of biological phenomena, and subsequently published the results of his investigations in a number of interesting and popular works: ‘Seaside Studies’ (1858), ‘Physiology of Common Life’ (1859–60), ‘Studies in Animal Life’ (1862). In the third he combined, as it were, the results of the work of the two preceding periods, in the ‘Problems of Life and Mind,’ in four volumes (1874–1879); in which he sought to establish the principles of a rational psychology, and to lay the foundations for a creed. In this series may also be included his work on ‘Comte’s Philosophy of the Sciences’ (1853); ‘Aristotle: A Chapter from the History of the Sciences’ (1864); and ‘The Study of Psychology: Its Object, Scope, and Method’ (1879). He was always deeply interested in the philosophy of Auguste Comte; but criticized Comte freely, and thereby, he says, lost his friendship.  2
  In 1854, upon uniting his fortunes with those of George Eliot, he made a visit to Germany; and at Weimar he completed his ‘Life of Goethe,’—next to the ‘History of Philosophy,’ probably the best known of his works. He had previously (1849) published a ‘Life of Maximilian Robespierre.’ His early love for the drama, in addition to the work previously cited, recorded itself in ‘The Spanish Drama: Lope de Vega and Calderón’ (1847), and in ‘On Actors and the Art of Acting’ (1875). He was also the author of two novels,—‘Ranthorpe’ (written in 1842 but not published until 1847), and ‘Rose, Blanche, and Violet’ (1848). He was not at his best, however, in fiction.  3
  Mr. Lewies wrote extensively for the reviews, and upon a great variety of topics. His style is, as Leslie Stephen well says, “bright, clear, and independent.” His views were positive, and he did not mince his words. Though the biographer of Goethe, whom he esteemed very highly, he was not fond of the German literary style; and he admired Lessing in part, it is said, because he was “the least German of all Germans.” Von Schlegel he called a philosophical impostor, and Cousin he thought a charlatan. He was the first editor of the Leader, and subsequently of the Fortnightly; and as an editor he was successful, but he disliked the drudgery. In the Fortnightly he introduced the custom of signed reviews. He was an important member of a literary circle which included, among others, Carlyle, Thackeray, and J. S. Mill.  4

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