Samuel Butler

December 4

Samuel Butler (1835)

It was on this date, December 4, 1835, that British writer Samuel Butler was born in Upton upon Severn in Langar Rectory, near Bingham, Nottinghamshire, England. Being the son and the grandson of clergymen, Butler began to study along the same lines, but in 1859 he refused to be ordained, traveled to New Zealand, and established a sheep farm with some success. He returned to London in 1864 and, while dabbling in music, biology and painting — he exhibited some of his paintings at the Royal Academy (1868-76) — took to literature. He published his first novel, Erewhon, (the title is the word "nowhere" spelled backwards) in 1871.

Erewhon, at first published anonymously, made Butler's reputation. In it he skewered the churches, but also attacked the theory of evolution, chiefly because Butler felt Darwin had not given his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, enough credit. There followed brilliantly witty satirical works, such as The Fair Haven (1873) and his criticism of Victorian society, The Way of All Flesh (1903). Butler also translated the classical Greek Iliad and Odyssey.

In his works he scarcely disguised his criticisms of Christianity, although he held the belief that there was an impersonal mind or purpose directing the universe. He once said, "An honest God's the noblest work of man," spoofing Alexander Pope's line, "An honest man's the noblest work of God." And in an essay called "Unprofessional Sermons" from his Note-Books, Butler wrote, "Prayers are to men as dolls are to children. They are not without use and comfort, but it is not easy to take them very seriously."

Samuel Butler (not to be confused with the Samuel Butler who wrote the satirical poem "Hudibras") died on 18 June 1902. In The Way of All Flesh, published after his death, Butler wrote, "A clergyman can hardly ever allow himself to look facts fairly in the face. It is his profession to support one side; it is impossible, therefore, for him to make an unbiased examination of the other."

NB: The text of Butler's Erewhon The Way of All Flesh and The Fair Haven can be found through the Project Gutenberg site.

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Thomas Carlyle


Thomas Carlyle (1795)

It was also on this date, December 4, 1795, that British historian Thomas Carlyle was born in Ecclefechan in Scotland. He was brought up in a strict Calvinist home and began his career as a teacher in 1813 while studying for the ministry. Carlyle abandoned his Christian beliefs in 1818 after reading Gibbon. After further study in German literature, especially Goethe, which he translated for the British public, Carlyle gave up the Holy Ghost and immortality, as well, adopting a Pantheism like Goethe's.

This rejection of Christianity and embrace of a vague spiritual belief can be seen in one of Carlyle's most famous works, Sartor Resartus (1834), published in Fraser's Magazine. He made his reputation as a historian with his 1836-7 French Revolution. But he wrote many essays, as well, including one on Voltaire in which he praises the French writer for having given "the death-stab to superstition." Carlyle is equally outspoken in his Frederick the Great (18 vols., 1858-65) and his Life of Sterling (1851), although he reviled not only the churches, but Positivism, Evolution — and Democracy (he believed, instead in the "great man" theory of history: see his On Heroes and Hero-Worship, 1840).

Carlyle admitted to the poet William Allingham that he was Agnostic, saying "I have for many years strictly avoided going to church and having anything to do with Mumbo-Jumbo."* About a future life, Allingham records Carlyle remarking, "We know nothing: all is, and must be, utterly incomprehensible."**

Carlyle's influence, if not his reactionary philosophy, was felt on later writers, including Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin. After his wife's death, in 1866, Carlyle wrote little. He died on 5 February 1881 in London. It was Thomas Carlyle who said, "Just in the ratio that knowledge increases, faith diminishes."† and "It is not possible that educated, honest men can even profess much longer to belief in historical Christianity."‡

* William Allingham, William Allingham: A Diary, 1907 (repr. 1967), p.
** Ibid., p. 269. Hallam Tennyson's Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1897, II, p. 410, says much the same.
† Quoted in Ira D. Cardiff, What Great Men Think of Religion, 1945, repr. 1972.
‡ Quoted in Rufus K. Noyes, Views of Religion, 1906.
NB: The text of Carlyle's French Revolution and On Heroes and Hero-Worship can be found through the Project Gutenberg site.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer.
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