“Peacemakers” sidebar: Eliot’s egoic ontology

A short post to accompany the Primitive Peacemakers series, with some quotes from Middlemarch that otherwise wouldn’t make it in.

Eliot repeatedly returns to the observation that individuals’ sense of the world—from morality to category to truth—is by default egocentric. This, in my read, is a logical extension of pragmatism from the level of cultural relevance to individual relevance.

Many of the residents of Middlemarch, we are told, “translate [their] own convenience into other people’s duties.” They are taken up with a certain partisan provincialism—often coinciding with religious absolutism—that Mr. Farebrother calls a “worldly-spiritual cliqueism,” where “the rest of mankind [is perceived to be] a doomed carcass” furnished by God so that they, the religious partisans, can be assured entrance to heaven. Mr. Farebrother, on the other hand, claims some ability to separate his own convenience and others’ duties—though this “allocentric” perspective of greater elevation can never totally supplant the original view.

Mr. Casaubon, too, was the centre of his own world; if he was liable to think that others were providentially made for him, and especially to consider them in the light of their fitness for the author of a “Key to all Mythologies,” this trait is not quite alien to us, and, like the other mendicant hopes of mortals, claims some of our pity.

Personal motivation—a sense of desire—organizes an otherwise chaotic and meaningless swirl of information into a heliocentric system, the facts orbiting around the egocentric perceiver. Other people, and their various plights, are merely instruments for one’s own happy providence. Eliot, waxing poetic, furnishes the analogy:

An eminent philosopher among my friends, who can dignify even your ugly furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has shown me this pregnant little fact. Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent—of Miss Vincy, for example. Rosamond had a Providence of her own who had kindly made her more charming than other girls, and who seemed to have arranged Fred’s illness and Mr. Wrench’s mistake in order to bring her and Lydgate within effective proximity.

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