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Believing After Darwin: the Debates of the Metaphysical Society (1869–1880)

Catherine Hajdenko-Marshall
p. 69-83


The Metaphysical Society is often referred to as a rather discreet debating society but the role it played in questioning the ideas pertaining to science and faith in the second half of the nineteenth century has rarely been properly discussed. The members of the Metaphysical Society were all well-known members of the Victorian elite who held a variety of religious and political views. They produced ninety-five papers over a period of eleven years which have never been analysed together as a coherent set. They attempted to find a way of believing after the discoveries of Charles Darwin as if religion had been challenged by science. In fact, what the papers reveal is that science and the methods of scientists could be used to explain religion and religious faith and that the opposition between science and faith was not as important as expected. The present article aims to show that the questions they asked are still very relevant to twenty-first century citizens—even in the diversity of the religious views presented and the methodology adopted. As such, the Metaphysical Society remains an interesting experiment, which failed, but which still has a lot to teach us.

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1Believing, in Victorian Britain, is a subject which unavoidably brings to mind a variety of related subjects: the changes due to the industrial revolution, the fear of democracy, scientific developments in the light of Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859) and a beginning of decline in religious belief. All these transformations were at the very core of thought in the second half of the 19th century. They raised questions as to how Christianity, how morals and ethics themselves, would survive in such a mutable world. Much worse, the elite were troubled by fears that the expansion of atheism—and the loss of a form of spiritual hope—would undermine society which would then descend into chaos.

2At the time of the publication of Darwin’s The Descent of Man in 1871, one of the main criticisms voiced was that it was a dangerous work precisely because it undermined, even more than any work before it, the belief in God. John Morley (a member of the Metaphysical Society) wrote that Darwin was wrong for “revealing his zoological conclusions to the general public at a moment when the sky of Paris was red with the incendiary flames of the Commune” (Morley, I, 101). The elite were concerned that the masses would demand more democracy and that the uneducated many, being no longer guided—or rather ruled—by religion, would destroy society.

3Therefore, it is not surprising that the Metaphysical Society was formed precisely at that time—in 1869—by a group of eminent Victorians who felt that the discoveries of science and faith should be discussed, in a spirit of fairness, in order to find in both these domains a common ground. Debating would allow the proponents of a variety of beliefs and ideas to state their theological or scientific case and thus to better understand one another. The unstated aim was to eventually try and find a new foundation on which to base authority—the authority, that as an elite (either religious, intellectual or political), they were losing.

4This unique debating experiment only lasted for eleven years, from 1869 to 1880, but the 62 members—who were all influential figures in the society of the second-half of the 19th century—produced ninety-five papers. This wealth of discussion provides a fascinating insight into the struggle to find a compromise—or indeed not to compromise at all—on the members’ ideas pertaining to faith and science. These debaters came from every sphere of influence. To name but a few, William Ewart Gladstone, Noel Roden, John Morley and Arthur James Balfour were among the Society’s political figures. The men of science included T. H. Huxley, John Tyndall, Henry Acland, G. Croom Robertson, J. J. Sylvester and William Kingdon Clifford, St. George Mivart. Religion had its defenders: the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Henry Edward Manning, the Catholic theologian, Father J. D. Dalgairns, the liberal Anglican, Frederick Denison Maurice, the Bishop of Peterborough and later Archbishop of York, William Connor Magee, the Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol, C. J. Ellicott, the Unitarian James Martineau. Philosophy was the domain of Henry Sidgwick, Shadworth Hodgson and Mathew Boulton. Among those who defended justice, history, poetry, journalism and any number of other fields, we find the historian James Anthony Froude, the positivist Frederic Harrison, the critic John Ruskin, Leslie Stephen, Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, Walter Bagehot, James Knowles, Richard Holt Hutton and the Poet Laureate, Alfred Lord Tennyson.

  • 1 See: Brown, 24–5. Arnold, even though he was in contact with several members does not seem to have (...)

5Not every great thinker of the age belonged to the Society. Among the great names missing are those of John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, John Henry Newman and Matthew Arnold.1 The first three were approached but declined—Mill because he doubted the viability of the Society, Spencer because of his health, Newman because he was shocked by the very existence of such a body (he felt Manning was endangering his reputation by being part of it).

6Why did these eminent Victorians decide to organize such a Society? How did they organize their debates debate and what papers did they produce? How did they attempt to present, explain and justify their beliefs? Their experiment failed but it did raise certain questions relating to methodology, the specialization of professions, the persistence of morality in an unreligious world and the recourse to spirituality in a shifting world.

The Metaphysical Society and its Initial Aims

7The members of the Metaphysical Society met once a month, 9 times a year (when Parliament was sitting), generally at the Grosvenor Hotel in London, to dine together and then listen to the paper one of them would give on a metaphysical subject, or on mostly anything to do with faith or science. They were not a secret society in any way, but they were discreet about their ways as, for some of them, their involvement could endanger their reputation. They were an odd combination of persons and, to accept such debates, they must all have felt a pressing moral and social duty to help society in the 1870s.

8In the words of one of its key members, Cardinal Manning:

  • 2 Cardinal Manning, “A Diagnosis and a Prescription”, paper no. 36, June 10, 1873.

The Society was avowedly founded with a view to bring together the most various and even opposite schools of metaphysical thought that is to say, the old and the new, the scholastic and the modern family of metaphysicians, who have multiplied and ramified into endless variations. All, however, may be reduced to two ultimate schools, namely, to those who take their point of departure from the intuitions of the Reason, and to those who take their point of departure from the reports of Sense.2

9It is the extremely daring and liberating approach that they took concerning such subjects which makes the papers of these 62 intelligent and very different persons so intriguing.

  • 3 See T. H. Huxley, “Agnosticism and Christianity” (Collected Essays, vol. V: Science and Christian T (...)

10The members can be roughly divided into three groups; the religious members, the scientists and the moderate members (generally politicians, thinkers or writers). What is most striking in the list of the 62 members is the variety of their religious beliefs. These ranged from the better-known Christian denominations—Anglicans or Catholics—to Unitarians or Arians, and right down to Deists, Agnostics and Atheists. In fact, Huxley coined the term “Agnostic” at one of the meetings of the Metaphysical Society to try and label what he believed in, as opposed to the other members.3 This is a detail which illustrates a problem at the time for no name existed for those who were neither atheist nor involved in any form of religion.

  • 4 H. Alford, W. Bagehot, A. Barry, W. B. Carpenter, J. A. Froude, W. E. Gladstone, A. Grant, J. Hinto (...)

11Not all the 62 members joined at once; the society started with 26 founding members:4 newcomers were co-opted once their name was put forward, seconded and a ballot took place. The members did not all attend at the same time—a meeting would normally involve some fourteen or fifteen members at a time, and sometimes up to over twenty people attended. Several letters found in the private papers of certain members indicate the efforts that were made to discuss matters in a spirit of openness and fair-play. This is how one member, William Connor Magee, Bishop of Peterborough, later Archbishop of York, depicted this rather unusual congregation of men in a letter to his wife dated 13 February 1873 (4 years into the existence of the Society):

. . . . I went to dinner duly at the Grosvenor Hotel. The dinner was certainly a strangely interesting one. Had dishes been as various we should have had severe dyspepsia, all of us. Archbishop Manning in the chair was flanked by two Protestant Bishops right and left—Gloucester and Bristol and myself—on my right was Hutton, Editor of the Spectator—an Arian; then came Father Dalgairns, a very able Roman Catholic priest; opposite him, Lord A. Russell, a Deist; then two Scotch metaphysical writers—Freethinkers; then Knowles, the very broad Editor of the Contemporary; then dressed as a layman and looking like a country squire, was Ward, formerly Rev. Ward, and earliest of the perverts of Rome; then Greg, author of “the Creed of Christendom”, now a Deist; then Froude, the historian, once a deacon in our Church, now a Deist; then Roden Noel, an actual Atheist and red republican, and looking very like one! Lastly Ruskin who read after dinner a paper on miracles! Which we discussed for an hour and a half! Nothing could be calmer, fairer, or even, on the whole, more reverent than the discussion. Nothing flippant or scoffing or bitter was said on either side, and very great ability, both of speech and thought, was shown by most speakers. In my opinion, we, the Christians, had much the best of it. Dalgairns, the priest, was very masterly; Manning, clever and precise and weighty; Froude, very acute, and so was Greg; while Ruskin declared himself delighted “with the exquisite accuracy and logical power of the Bishop of Peterborough”. There is the story of the dinner. Altogether a remarkable and most interesting scene, and a greater gathering of remarkable men than could easily be met elsewhere. We only wanted a “Jew and a Mahometan to make our Religious Museum complete”.
(MacDonnell, I, 284)

12More than anything, women were missing, but it was obvious from the creation of the Society that it would only be open to men, even though one woman—Lady Augusta Stanley—, the wife of Dean Stanley, was responsible for actually coming up with the idea of the Metaphysical Society. Originally, it was supposed to have been “The Theological Society” but several possible members who were approached, such as the wise Unitarian James Martineau, refused to join if the Society did not include all those interested in questions of belief, be they believers or unbelievers. This is how the Metaphysical Society was born on 21 April 1869 at a preliminary meeting where it was stated that the Society’s aim was “to collect, arrange and diffuse Knowledge (whether objective or subjective) or mental and moral phenomena” (Brown, 26–7).

The Papers: What They Reveal and How the Society Slowly Lost its Focus

13Over 11 years, the members produced 95 papers of varying lengths concerning theological, metaphysical, philosophical and scientific questions. The list of the papers makes interesting reading, sometimes even, amusing reading, such as with the paper “Has a Frog a Soul” (November 8, 1870) or “The Arguments for a Future Life” (April 9, 1872) or “The Personality of God” (May 12, 1874). Others are much more precise and shed a light on the concerns of the members at the time: such as the papers on euthanasia (July 8, 1873), utilitarianism (December 16, 1873), the rights of animals and vivisection (June 8, 1875) and the scope of metaphysics (February 10, 1880).

  • 5 James Knowles to Gladstone, 3 December 1869. Bodleian Library, special collections, microfilm of Gl (...)

14All the papers, minus four, were privately printed and sent to the members a fortnight in advance. They were all printed according to the same model: the name of the author never appeared, and they were as simple as possible as only the date and the title allowed the papers to be differentiated. This was done on purpose to ensure confidentiality for the papers. In a letter dated December 3, 1869, to Gladstone, James Knowles, who was Secretary of the Society for most of its existence (but who is better known as the editor of the Contemporary Review and later of Nineteenth Century), wrote: “I am requested to remind members that all papers are to be considered strictly private. . . . ”5 This explains why most papers were either destroyed or perhaps kept by some members, but never put together and published as a set. What did happen though, is that the papers were generally expanded after the discussions at the Metaphysical Society and subsequently published (mostly in the Dublin Review, in the Contemporary Review, in Nineteenth Century but also in Mind and as chapters in the books of some of the members). Lucy Toulmin Smith, the librarian of Harris Manchester College (Oxford), went on a quest at the end of the 19th century to try and complete the set the College had been given by Mrs Pattison. She sent at least 14 letters (conserved in the stacks of the College) to the surviving members, or relatives of members, to find the missing papers. The answers she received were invariably the same: that very few complete sets existed or that the will of the Society had been to keep the papers out of the public eye. For example, Henrietta Huxley, Thomas Henry Huxley’s widow, explicitly explained in a letter dated September 22, 1895, that:

  • 6 Henrietta Huxley to Lucy Toulmin Smith, 22 Sept. 1895. Harris Manchester College (Oxford), MS. M. N (...)

I have not hitherto come across any of these papers—and if I should do so—I do not think it would have been my husband’s wish that they should be given up—it having been one of the Society’s rules that the papers should be strictly private—to which he conscientiously adhered.6

  • 7 In Oxford, the Bodleian Library has got two sets but both are incomplete. The only nearly full set (...)

15All in all, if most of the papers have been published in an expanded form, the original versions have never been found nor used as key primary sources for the second half of the 19th century.7

16The papers fall into two broad categories: some answer one another, like a long conversation, whereas others just single out some of the subjects presented at the time of the creation of the Society. Allan Willard Brown, the Society’s only chronicler, sums it up in the following terms:

In this sense, the history of the Society is a long unfolding of one argument, constantly elaborated, modified, and redirected, and argument which can perhaps be stated as: “What must a man believe? What may or can a man believe?”—not only about God and “reality” but about his own nature. In the presumption of these high themes lie both the accomplishment and the interest of the Society. (Brown, 33)

  • 8 Letter of Manning to Acland, 17 Jan. 1873. Bodleian Library, Oxford, Special collections, MSS Aclan (...)

17What has also emerged is that the members often argued and that some, either offended or hurt or both, felt like leaving. There is, for example, one letter from Manning to Acland urging him not to leave the Society (on 17 January 1873) after what appeared to be a disagreement: “I hope you will not again think of leaving the Metaphysical Society. . . . What you said on Tuesday night seemed to me to be very much to the point and I hope in my comments I did not seem to imply any variance. I thought we were on the same track.”8

  • 9 Alastair Buchan, The Spare Chancellor. The Life of Walter Bagehot (Londres, Chatto and Windus, 1959 (...)

18Nevertheless, they had to make do with each other because they were all connected: Knowles, for example, was a very well-known architect who designed Tennyson’s house as well as those of other members, at the same time as editing the Contemporary Review and then the Nineteenth Century. Knowles also, as secretary of the Society, published the expanded versions of the papers and often asked other members to review them. The case of Walter Bagehot provides another example of how the network functioned. Bagehot was the editor of the Economist, but also the banker who acted as Gladstone’s “Spare-Chancellor” (title of a biography on Bagehot).9 He was a literary critic who wrote several articles with his friend and fellow member Richard Holt Hutton, himself the editor of the Spectator. Bagehot’s brother-in-law, William Rathbone Greg, was also a member and so was Bagehot’s former teacher, Carpenter. The Society also gave Bagehot the opportunity to meet other members, such as Ruskin and Tennyson, on whom he had written long articles.

19At least 10 members of the Metaphysical Society were also members of the Century Club, another male-only intellectual club which met every week to fight for university reform and which lasted from 1865 to 1881. The Century Club wanted Oxford and Cambridge to become open to every religion to help promote all able intellectuals, whether Anglican or not. In fact, in 1871, the Religious Test Act allowed Nonconformists to accept college fellowships without becoming Anglican clergymen. Just like the Metaphysical Society, the members of the Century Club conceived of themselves as a humanist elite whose role was to change mentalities by means of press articles and political action. Of course, the Second Reform Bill of 1867 allowed some of them to do just that: they could take certain key seats and play an active political role. In fact, the Metaphysical Society was the counterpart of the Century Club, but for matters of a more philosophical and religious nature. It is important to remember that these clubs’ networks were very much alive and those in them ranged from intellectuals to members of the clergy or to physicians. For example, Dr Andrew Clark, whilst being a member of both the Metaphysical Society and the Century Club, was Gladstone’s personal doctor but also became the private physician of several other members of the Society. Scientists from the Metaphysical Society, such as Huxley and Tyndall, were also members of the Century Club and of the prestigious X Club, all at the same time.

20Going through the exchanges of letters between the members, understanding these links, understandably provides insight into an influential, but somewhat secluded and exclusive elite. These men had a clear understanding of their social role as an elite at a time when the foundations of society had been shaken both religiously and politically. It is in this context of change that the 95 papers prove so enlightening. Although some papers are obscure, even insofar as the actual way in which they were written, others are absolutely fundamental because of the subjects discussed.

21Until last year, one key document was still missing: the Minute book of the Society which had been mislaid in the 1920’s after being sold at auction, and which contained key information on attendance and also on the Society’s quest for definitions of the terms discussed. The Minute Book has been found in Harvard (having been bought in 1947 by the friends of Harvard) and new light has been shed on the Society’s “Committee of Definition”. The latter was the name chosen by Cardinal Manning in a central paper given in 1873 entitled “A Diagnosis and a Prescription” in which he came up with the idea to give a definition of key terms for each paper, such as religion, faith or miracles, which would then be discussed in order to produce a common and accurate definition. The Minute Book mentions the Committee of Definition but it soon became obvious that Manning was attempting to introduce something which was not necessarily welcomed by other members. In Shadworth Hodgson’s incredibly well-kept set in Corpus Christi College (Oxford), the following annotation was found at the end of the famous paper Cardinal Manning had given on the subject of definitions:

  • 10 Corpus Christi College—Hodgson Collection, Shelfmark VI.22 (1873–1876), Paper 36, 11. “With Permiss (...)

Note to p.q. This is hardly fair to the Society. It looks as if the Secretary has been registering definition from the beginning, as they could be found in the Papers read, or in the Discussions. But no such thing. For some two or three meetings the Secretary has been asking, as opportunity offered, from Definition of theirs or of that from members, in conversation. That is all that has taken place. The list given, then, must be taken to represent the definition forming capacities of the Society.10

  • 11 Croom Robertson to Hodgson, 26 Nov. 1879. Corpus Christi College (Oxford)—Hodgson Collection, shelf (...)
  • 12 Ruskin’s diary, entry for May 1875, 2nd Sunday. Bodleian Library, Oxford, Special collections, MSS (...)

22Hodsgon’s annotation appears simply to be proof of Cardinal Manning’s attempt to impose his will. However, the private papers of certain members show that Cardinal Manning was not exactly popular. Prof. Croom Robertson referred to him contemptuously as “the Eminent” in a letter to Hodgson dated March 7, 1878, referring to a paper Manning had given; the letter ends “Left him floundering over Berkeley at 9.45. Could not stand it longer and saw no good in trying to put him right.”11 The best insult though remains Ruskin’s who in his diary for the entry of May 2, 1875, found Manning, “the most entirely complete representation[s] of humbug we have in the world”.12

23In fact, many of members rather disliked each other and over the years the contents of the papers became less polite. Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, for example, in most of the seven papers he gave, became progressively a fierce opponent of the Catholic members of the Society, often painstakingly using reasoned argument to tear to pieces transubstantiation or the existence of miracles (which must have shocked even the more open-minded Catholic members). The poor attendance in the second half of the 1870s is also proof that the Society had not fulfilled its aim; it had failed to try and elevate the debate into something different from a simple argument over reason and intuition.

24It is through these modest finds that a proper picture of the Society is appearing, revealing quite clearly that the network of these intellectuals ran along very distinct lines, with the pro-religion members on one side, and the unbelievers, or doubters, on the other. What seemed to be a club of gentlemen quietly discussing key philosophical and metaphysical questions was in fact a congregation of intellectuals who fought a good fight, albeit a gentlemen’s one, to impose their views on society by publishing papers and books, but also to permeate (and this was before the Fabians used the term) the body politic via the politicians who attended. Gladstone was a regular at the meetings even when he was PM in the 1870s and several other politicians frequently attended: Morley, Balfour, Robert Lowe or Noel Roden, for example. The very commendable unsaid aim of working to build a foundation on which later Victorian society would thrive, never materialised.

The Methodology Adopted and its Flaws

25One of the criticisms often aimed at the Society was—and still is—that it was a forum of intellectuals who exchanged in a courteous and amateurish way. The very fact that the members never even attempted to define what they meant by “Metaphysics” is itself rather telling. Nonetheless, even if some of the papers are sketchy, most shed a new personal light on their authors and show how their reflections and beliefs evolved over the 1870s. They were not just intellectuals wasting their time trying to understand what to believe in. They were initially genuinely convinced that their discussions would draw opposing sides to the middle ground.

26What soon became clear was that nobody was willing to change their views and that some even became fiercer in their dislike of religion over their years in the society (Fitzjames Stephen is a good example). Some—very few—did change but it was generally because of external reasons: Roden Noel, for example, returned to religion after the death of his son, whilst St George Mivart—the only scientist who was also a Catholic, eventually—after years of defending Catholicism, expressed his doubts about faith before his death. In reading the papers all together, one feels that the authors do not share the same frame of reference and that their thoughts could not possibly meet.

27The methodology they came to adopt to discuss questions of faith was also inadequate. The first papers from 1869 to 1873, were generally produced along the lines which had been decided upon at the outset: to debate openly and to “collect arrange and diffuse knowledge” (Brown, 26–7). Another objective of the Society at the time of its creation was to “collect trustworthy observations upon such subjects as: Remarkable mental and moral phenomena—normal or abnormal, the relations of brain and mind—and generally of physics and metaphysics, The faculties of the lower animals, etc., etc.” (Brown, 26–7). The first papers followed such a pattern until, in 1873, Cardinal Manning—who was chairman of the Society for the year—gave the defining paper entitled “A Diagnosis and a Prescription” referred to above. In it, Manning meant to help matters, but actually administered a blow to the Society which in the end was to prove fatal. He stated in a rather ominous way:

It is my painful duty as Chairman to announce that the Metaphysical Society has been visited by symptoms of aphonia. It will make no utterance tonight. . . . Had I known the impending danger in time, I for one would have endeavoured to avert the catastrophe; but I learned it too late to apply any stimulants, or to attempt any paper which could be offered to the Society as a thesis for discussion. Nevertheless, as I am officially bound to announce our disaster, I have laid the fact before you. . . . The Society was avowedly founded with a view to bring together the most various and even opposite schools of metaphysical thought. . . . For four years we have met and conversed, sometimes have contended, with great freedom of speech, perfect frankness, unfailing courtesy, and a kindliness which has never been for a moment overcast. . . . Three things may be chiefly noted as wanting in our discussions . . . a fixed and accepted Terminology . . . a common method, . . . the want of definitions.

28Such an approach was understandable but one remains rather perplexed with the solution prescribed. How could such a diversity of members agree on anything, let alone definitions of important terms but also on a common methodology? Manning, without stating it clearly and by insisting on the definition of key terms, was using a form of scientific methodology, albeit a very sketchy one, applied to human sciences. This meant trying to explain the very existence of God by means of a scientific and empirical method. There is quite a paradox in the use of such a method by men of faith, as if the only way to prove their point was to use the methodology of their opponents against them, on subjects on which this was practically impossible. It was doomed to fail.

29However, what is quite obvious here is that none of the Metaphysicians were opposed to the methods of science—quite the opposite. Therefore, the real debate was not science vs faith but whether or not faith could use science to justify itself.

30Admittedly, most of the papers which followed did not really comply with Manning’s rules but they all became much more focused on specialised subjects, which produced very rich papers. However, after 1873, the potential for debate became less obvious as if each faction was defending its own little corner. Slowly, some important members stopped attending or died, transforming the society as new members, more specialised in their range of interests, were brought in. By 1878, it became clear that the Society had changed.

31A rather discreet philosopher, Matthew Piers Watt Boulton (who also happened to have invented the ailerons of planes), gave a paper in April 1878, with the telling title: “Has a Metaphysical Society any raison d’être.” He started with the following words: “but before . . . breaking up our society, let us consider the matter a little further” and went to explain that such a Society had indeed a raison d’être but that the plurality of ideas meant that debate was impossible. In effect, this was a kiss of death as two years later, the Society was dissolved with only 7 members signing the dissolution notice.

32What was supposed to have been a judicial prescription—common definitions and a common methodology—eventually killed any debate because finding a common ground was impossible and it was their differences—and their distinctly different approaches—which had made debate interesting in the beginning. These men were mostly enlightened amateurs, however, this does not mean that the subjects they dealt with had no interest: the debates on vivisection, agnosticism, euthanasia, ethics or the theory of evolution were all capital.

33The legacy of the Metaphysical Society was to produce papers which deserve to be studied and, more to the point, understood within the context of three different debates at the core of the second half of the 19th century: (1) the debate over the decline of religion and the way in which this could endanger society, (2) very narrowly linked to it, the debate over how to find a new source of moral and social governance, and (3) in a more universal and contemporary light, the debate over science, religion and spirituality.

34As regards the first debate, it is obvious that the Metaphysicians were wrong in believing that a decline in religion would destroy the moral backbone of the mass of the population and lead—hand in hand with the extension of the suffrage—to the end of long-established British institutions and liberties. Their anxieties were linked to a period in time when society was changing and when the old elite—especially the religious one—no longer occupied the moral high ground in the same way as it had done before the first discoveries of science had challenged the divine nature of men.

35The second debate over the need of a new moral authority is much more complex in the sense that some of the papers of the Metaphysical Society attempt to link ethics and science in a way which had not been done before. This is the period when ethics were perceived as part of an evolutionary process in which a new moral foundation could be found. There was also the idea of compromise between morality and science which does appear in some of the papers. It is not surprising that works by former members of the Metaphysical Society such as Leslie Stephen’s The Science of Ethics (1882), James Martineau’s Types of Ethical Theory (1885), Henry Sidgwick’s Outlines of the History of Ethics for English Readers (1886) or Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics (1893) all centred on (albeit with different conclusions) a history of science or on a science of ethics. Here, it was as if through the teachings of science, a new moral ground would appear naturally. On this point especially the members disagreed, either for obvious religious reasons or, as for Huxley, because “the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it” (Huxley, Evolution and Ethics, 34). This question is central to the way in which our societies have evolved politically, towards either increased state intervention aiming to promote equality or decreased state intervention, because laissez faire is assumed to be the best way to let society develop. This debate, like the third one, concerning science, religion and spirituality, is far from over.

  • 13 Patrick Wintour, “‘Militant Secularisation’ Taking Hold of British Society”, The Guardian, 13 Febru (...)

36We are still on a par with the Victorians as regards the third debate. We have not solved the question of a divine intervention or not in the creation of mankind—and will most likely never do so. The latest debate which took place on this question, the one between the atheist—or agnostic as he appears to be—science writer Richard Dawkins and the Archbishop of Canterbury (as he was at the time) Rowan Williams at Oxford on February 23, 2012 on the theme of “The nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin”, seems straight out of the Metaphysical Society, and to echo the first famous Oxford debate which had taken place in 1860 between a future Metaphysician, Huxley, and Samuel Wilberforce. Even if things have evolved and Rowan Williams accepts the non-human origin of men, the debate concluded that it was impossible to categorically deny the existence of God, leaving Richard Dawkins, who has written extensively on atheism, to declare himself an agnostic. More interestingly, the views expressed at the time of the debate were that such a debate was not good for society. The chairman of the Conservative party, Lady Warsi, even complained about the “militant secularisation” of society.13 Newman or Manning would have not put it any differently in the 1870s.

37The papers presented by the members of the Metaphysical Society are a reminder that their questions are still our questions. Certainly, they were amateurs, but enlightened ones: inquisitive, cunning, bent on defending their own set of values, on keeping them alive in a changing world, of making them evolve with new discoveries. But they were also arrogant and sometimes backward in their thinking. The Society’s members belonged to an intellectual elite who rejected women and allowed them no place in their discussions, even if they had a real place in their homes. In some of the members’ views it was essential to ensure that such an elite was preserved, convinced as they were that it knew how better to guide, both politically and morally, an uneducated mass than it could itself.

38After the demise of the Metaphysical Society, new types of debating societies emerged—the Synthetic Society (a theistic society that seven former Metaphysicians joined), the Aristotelian Society for the Systematic Study of Philosophy (founded in 1879 by the Metaphysician, Shadworth Hodgson) or the Society for Psychical Research (founded in 1882 by another Metaphysician, Henry Sidgwick)—all much more specialized in their fields and less ready to admit diversity in their members.

39The final striking conclusion is that these papers provide different visions of the second part of the 19th century and, according to which paper is read, it is as if they embodied several “visions” of religious beliefs, morality and ethics, evolution and faith. For the speakers, believing was—just as it still is—a very private matter based on inner beliefs which are not easily explainable, not easily transferable. In this sense, the Metaphysicians’ questions, their ways of dealing with their differences and the papers they have bequeathed to us—often against their will—are still useful tools for understanding ourselves.

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The papers of the Metaphysical Society do not exist as a set yet—see footnote.

Brown A. W., The Metaphysical Society. Victorian Minds in crisis, 1869–1880, New York, Columbia University Press, 1947.

Buchan Alastair, The Spare Chancellor. The Life of Walter Bagehot, Londres, Chatto and Windus, 1959.

Huxley T. H., Evolution and Ethics, London and New York, Macmillan and Co., 1893.

Huxley T. H., “Agnosticism and Christianity”, Collected Essays, vol. 5, Science and Christian Tradition, London, Macmillan, 1904.

MacDonnell John Cotter, The Life and Correspondence of William Connor Magee, 2 vol., London, Isbister, 1896 (vol. 1).

Morley John, Recollections, London, Macmillan & Co., 1917 (vol. 1).

Ruskin John, “Diary”, Bodleian Library, Oxford, Special collections, MSS Eng. Misc.40827 (c227), 1874–1876.

Wintour Patrick, “‘Militant Secularisation’ Taking Hold of British Society”, The Guardian, 13 February 2012.

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1 See: Brown, 24–5. Arnold, even though he was in contact with several members does not seem to have been asked—or there are no records of it.

2 Cardinal Manning, “A Diagnosis and a Prescription”, paper no. 36, June 10, 1873.

3 See T. H. Huxley, “Agnosticism and Christianity” (Collected Essays, vol. V: Science and Christian Tradition, London, Macmillan, 1904), the whole essay but especially 310–1.

4 H. Alford, W. Bagehot, A. Barry, W. B. Carpenter, J. A. Froude, W. E. Gladstone, A. Grant, J. Hinton, R. H. Hutton, T. H. Huxley, J. Knowles, Sir J. Lubbock, E. Lushington, H. E. Manning, J. Martineau, R. Noel, C. Pritchard, A. Russell, J. R. Seeley, A. Stanley, A. Tennyson, J. Tyndall, W. G. Ward and 3 members were included but only later elected: Bishop Thirlwall, F. Harrison, and the Duke of Argyll.

5 James Knowles to Gladstone, 3 December 1869. Bodleian Library, special collections, microfilm of Gladstone’s letters, Add MS 44231, ff1860, Reel 14 (Pt4)—films 1677/1–31.

6 Henrietta Huxley to Lucy Toulmin Smith, 22 Sept. 1895. Harris Manchester College (Oxford), MS. M. N. C. MISC. 57, doc. 7.

7 In Oxford, the Bodleian Library has got two sets but both are incomplete. The only nearly full set I have been able to find is one (not catalogued) at Harris Manchester College (91 papers out of 95), together with the beautifully bound set belonging to the philosopher, Shadworth Hodgson, now kept in the vaults of Corpus Christi College. The British Library has only got 44 papers, Cambridge has got a microfilm copy of the Bodleian’s set and Manchester has got another incomplete set. Finding a reliable, complete set has been, so far, close to impossible. The author of this article is working with Bernard Lightman and Richard England on an edited version of the papers for OUP.

8 Letter of Manning to Acland, 17 Jan. 1873. Bodleian Library, Oxford, Special collections, MSS Acland d. 59–6, “letters from Clergymen”.

9 Alastair Buchan, The Spare Chancellor. The Life of Walter Bagehot (Londres, Chatto and Windus, 1959).

10 Corpus Christi College—Hodgson Collection, Shelfmark VI.22 (1873–1876), Paper 36, 11. “With Permission of the President and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Oxford”.

11 Croom Robertson to Hodgson, 26 Nov. 1879. Corpus Christi College (Oxford)—Hodgson Collection, shelfmark VI.23 (1877–1880). “With permission of the President and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Oxford”.

12 Ruskin’s diary, entry for May 1875, 2nd Sunday. Bodleian Library, Oxford, Special collections, MSS Eng. Misc.40827 (c227), 1874-1876, 99.

13 Patrick Wintour, “‘Militant Secularisation’ Taking Hold of British Society”, The Guardian, 13 February 2012.

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Catherine Hajdenko-Marshall, « Believing After Darwin: the Debates of the Metaphysical Society (1869–1880) »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 76 Automne | 2012, 69-83.

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Catherine Hajdenko-Marshall, « Believing After Darwin: the Debates of the Metaphysical Society (1869–1880) »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 76 Automne | 2012, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2013, consulté le 19 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Catherine Hajdenko-Marshall

Université de Cergy-Pontoise
Catherine Marshall is a Lecturer at the University of Cergy-Pontoise where she teaches British civilisation and the history of political ideas in Britain. Her doctoral thesis was on Walter Bagehot’s political and constitutional theory. She has published several articles on the development of political ideas in Victorian Britain in relation to Bagehot’s constitutional theory and is currently working on a critical edition of the papers of The Metaphysical Society (1869–1880) for OUP, with Bernard Lightman and Richard England.

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