Godless Art

In the absence of religion, is morality enough?


Last term, I was asked to serve on a panel on the subject of religion, organized by my colleague, Marilyn Piety, an expert on Kierkegaard and, as her Dickensian name suggests, a deeply devout person. As the sole literary scholar on the panel, and not a very pious one, I began my presentation by citing the great Victorian novelist and sage George Eliot on the subject of religion, as recounted by critic F. W. H. Myers, who met her some years before her death in 1880. Wrote Myers:

I remember how, at Cambridge, I walked with her once in the Fellows’ Garden of Trinity, on an evening of rainy May; and she, stirred somewhat beyond her wont, and taking as her text the three words which have been used so often as the inspiring trumpet-calls of men—the words God, Immortality, Duty—pronounced, with terrible earnestness, how inconceivable was the first, how unbelievable the second, and yet how peremptory and absolute the third. … I listened, and night fell; her grave, majestic countenance turned toward me like a sibyl’s in the gloom; it was as though she withdrew from my grasp, one by one, the two scrolls of promise, and left me the third scroll only, awful with inevitable fates. And when we stood at length and parted amid that columnar circuit of the forest trees, beneath the last twilight of starless skies, I seemed to be gazing … on a sanctuary with no Presence to hallow it, and heaven left lonely of a God.

Eliot did not get to this point overnight. She was an enormously pious young girl. In Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, the young heroine, Maggie Tulliver (an autobiographical portrait of its author at that age) is obsessed with God. Maggie reads Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, a book that greatly influenced the young Eliot. But in 1853, her knowledge of German led her to another book, Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity, which she went on to translate. Feuerbach argued that God is not external to us but a projection of our best qualities as human beings. The Devil is the projection of our worst.

This way of thinking came to inform Eliot’s view of God, and influenced her understanding of art and the task of the artist. It also presaged the esthetic movement later in the century.

It is also my touchstone.

Eliot wrote: “The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. Appeals founded on generalizations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment already in activity; but a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment.”

Interestingly, Freud would write something similar 50 years later in Civilization and Its Discontents, when he faulted religion as a one-size-fits-all response. He called for more diversified ways of coping with life’s mysteries and vicissitudes, but didn’t address the moral aspect. I prefer Eliot’s morally inflected response.

Linking art and morality is not a fashionable position. Indeed, it can seem prissy and limited—stereotypically Victorian. But it need not be taken this way if, following Eliot, we choose to see art as the best means of extending our sympathies to each other.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up