John Robert Seeley was Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge between Kingsley and Acton. One of the few eminent Victorians who inspired no memorial biography, he was best remembered as the author of The Expansion of England (1883), a sweeping historical manifesto in favour of the unification of the British Empire. The book survived as long as the Empire itself, but otherwise Seeley was neglected until in recent years Richard Shannon and Sheldon Rothblatt both identified him as a leading figure in the reorientation of the Victorian élite. Plainly there was scope for an intellectual biography to match the ideas to the man, and the task was undertaken as a PhD by Deborah Wormell. It is appalling to learn that she died this February at the age of 33, shortly after revising her thesis for publication. She was a most accomplished intellectual historian.
Dr Wormell got to know Seeley’s ideas and patterns of thought intimately, but his more private self must have been hard to crack. He kept no diary and there is little record of his emotional history, or even the small beer of his social and professional activities. But there is enough to form a picture of an earnest, highly-strung and rather withdrawn personality. A strict fundamentalist home, a nervous breakdown at school, a deep but carefully controlled conflict with his father, a thorny marriage and bouts of depression, all indicate a frustration with people relieved by the pursuit of ideas. Most of Seeley’s joy in life was obtained from his work. He wrote exhilarating prose and was a stimulating teacher, at his best in conversation classes with students. One of them recalled him as ‘witty, charming, sympathetic, entirely void of self importance, never making ignorance an excuse for sarcasm’.
Seeley sprang from the Evangelical branch of the intellectual aristocracy. His family tree sported an abundant crop of churchmen, scholars and female philanthropists. His father, a publisher and bookseller, was a dogmatic religious enthusiast, and as a young man in the 1850s Seeley experienced the crisis of belief that afflicted so many of his contemporaries. In the aftermath of his breakdown he rejected his father’s ideas and embraced the theology of the Broad Church movement. This was the decisive, liberating moment in his mental life, as great an event as a conversion to liberalism by the son of a Stalinist. No longer was revelation confined to the Bible or the emotions of the sinner. Rather, God revealed himself ‘in ten thousand ways’ and ultimately through the process of history. Even the virtuous atheist, Seeley concluded, bore witness to divine providence.
Equipped with his new faith, Seeley was ready to resolve the tensions in his mind between science and religion. As a Classics don in London during the 1860s, he was strongly influenced both by Maurice and the Christian Socialists, and by the Positivists around Beesly. These two circles mixed like oil and water, but it was characteristic of Seeley to try reconciling them. Dismayed by their failure to co-operate, he sought for a solution in the realm of ideas, and gave it to the world as Ecce Homo, a highly controversial study of the teachings of Christ. In essence a work of political theory, Ecce Homo was Seeley’s prescription for the government of industrial Britain. Coasting skilfully around the supernatural aspects of the story, Seeley presented Jesus as the founder of an ethical society devoted to the welfare and progress of humanity – a ‘proto-Benthamite’, as Sidgwick remarked. Science and Christianity were twin aspects of revelation, and the moral was that clergymen and scientific humanists should close ranks against the doctrines of materialism and the class war.
Published when he was 31, Ecce Homo revealed a young man ambitious for leadership and skilled in the arts of communication. Perhaps these were qualities that weighed with Gladstone when in 1869 he appointed Seeley to his Regius chair: but he offered the job to two other candidates first and obviously had reservations. They turned out to be fully justified, for in the end Seeley was to turn violently against his patron. Like other Liberal intellectuals of the day, and the middle classes in general, he began to gravitate away from Gladstone towards nationalism and imperialism.
The transition – from theology to history, from Broad Church to Greater Britain – was a natural enough development for Seeley. As a Broad Churchman he cherished the engaging notion that God had made England and its Church for each other, like body and soul. The Nation was an organic community of sacred significance, and the State itself a religious agency. From this it was but a short step to the view that the rise of the Nation-State was divinely ordained. As Regius Professor, Seeley laboured on a three-volume life of the Prussian statesman Stein, designed to show that he was the founding father of German unity. Asked on one occasion whether he would write a sequel to his life of Jesus, he dumbfounded friends by explaining that he had already done so – in his Life and Times of Stein. From our point of view, there is something suspect about a philosophy that begins with Jesus as the founder of an international brotherhood and proceeds towards an admiration for Bismarck, and Seeley himself was aware of skating on thin ice. The principle of nationality, he argued, was dangerously ambiguous and could easily become the pretext for aggrandisement.
Seeley intended Stein to be a landmark in historiography and a triumph of progressive scholarship. When it was poorly received by the critics, he railed against the corruption of opinion, but his biographer has little to say in his defence. In a patient examination of his scholarship and its reception, she explains why his practice invariably fell short of his pretensions. As a positivist, Seeley believed in history as a science. He complained bitterly against writers who treated it as a branch of belles lettres, and stunned the young G.M. Trevelyan by denouncing Carlyle and Macaulay as ‘charlatans’. The past, he believed, was governed by laws and general principles, and these would reveal themselves to any dispassionate investigator surveying the evidence. An armour-plated naivety protected him from the realisation that he was a sublimely a priori thinker, his method consisting, as Dr Wormell puts it, of ‘an effort to prove empirically what he already believed intuitively’. And since he was confident from the start of the conclusions he would arrive at, his research was never exhaustive. In preparing Stein he read widely, and visited Germany, but never looked in the archives.
Seeley was more important as an educational reformer than as an innovator in scholarship. He took a prominent part in the movement for the professionalisation of teaching at Cambridge, which Sheldon Rothblatt analysed in his Revolution of the Dons. Active in the promotion of higher education for women, he drew the line at his own daughter, who was not even allowed to go to school. ‘When I was brought face to face with a real child,’ Seeley confided, ‘the notion of forcing anything so tender to make any great continuous effort seemed utterly shocking.’ Where other children were concerned, he attached high importance to secondary education. True to his faith in the principle of nationality, he urged that less time should be spent on the Classics and more on the teaching of English and political history.
For Seeley, the whole of life and culture revolved around the power of the state. The function of education was political and so, of course, was the function of history. In his inaugural lecture at Cambridge, he declared his intention of turning the study of history into a ‘school for statesmanship’. To understand the past would be to master the future, and in a series of lectures in 1881 Seeley announced his discovery of the great and guiding purpose of English history – the expansion of the English overseas. Few as yet understood its significance: ‘We seem, as it were, to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind.’ But the colonial settlements of Canada, Cape Colony and Australia represented a world-wide community in the making, a Greater Britain whose subjects might one day be unified under a federal state. Both Russia and the United States were destined to be super-powers: Britain alone among the European nations had the resources to equal them.
In its day The Expansion of England offered a rallying cry as electrifying as the European idea after 1945. But the British Empire was even more of a patchwork quilt than Western Europe. Asians and Africans were alien to the core community and India figured in Seeley’s argument as an extraordinary anomaly. Worse, there were separatist tendencies among England’s far-flung kith and kin, while the Irish were agitating for Home Rule. Seeley knew that the fate of the Empire was an open question, but hoped for a wave of imperial consciousness that would carry all before it. Forced to deny the validity of Irish nationalism (Ireland was ‘inorganic’), he turned angrily against Gladstone when the Grand Old Man opted for Home Rule. ‘I seriously think,’ he wrote, ‘that if all the wicked men in England were rolled into one wicked man, he would be a mere muffer and bungler in mischief compared to Gladstone.’ Propelled at last into the political arena, Seeley ended his career as an active Liberal Unionist and founder member of the Imperial Federation League.
Dr Wormell’s book bears out G.M. Trevelyan’s description of Seeley: ‘a fine old Victorian of a fighting dogmatic breed’. He was never in the top flight of original thinkers, and Dicey alleged that his main gift was the trick of placing received notions in a new light: ‘He is without a rival in handling the paradox of commonplace.’ More generously, it can be said that Seeley excelled in devising fresh and attractive syntheses from the ideas of his time. Honest and high-minded, he shared his thoughts openly with the world, but his conscious mind would surely have been surprised to learn what his unconscious was doing. He leaves the impression of a man whose intellectual strategies were devised with considerable cunning to sustain both himself and the professional élite he represented. He remained a strong Christian, but somehow relegated Christianity to a symbolic and passive role in affairs. He rejected ‘literary history’, but developed a splendidly persuasive prose style. He saw the contradiction between India and the Empire of colonial settlement, but found a loophole whereby the Indian Empire might after all prove to be the greatest of all British achievements. He celebrated the assertion of nationality in Germany and Italy, but denied its existence in Ireland. He correctly maintained that not one syllable of The Expansion of England could be quoted in favour of extending the Empire, yet Chamberlain and Rhodes were among his disciples, and he would surely have endorsed the Boer War had he lived to see it.
At the end of Seeley’s life Rosebery, at the prompting of the future King Edward VII, conferred on him the knighthood which Gladstone had withheld. It was a proper reward for a shrewd old statesman in disguise, a strategic apologist for Church and State.