Since the 1830s the Victorians and those who have followed them have identified several opposed trends, tendencies, movements, or loosely organized schools of Victorian thought. Here are some of them:

1. Progressive vs. Conservative

At the very beginning of Victoria's reign, John Stuart Mill argued that contemporary British thought divided into progressive and conservative schools derived from Jeremy Bentham and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Following Mill's lead, modern critics have identified followers of each strain or party.

Progressives, Liberals, or Rationalists: James Mill (Mill's father), Mill himself John Bright

Conservatives, Tories, or Reactionaries: Carlyle, Disraeli, Pugin, Newman, Arnold, Ruskin, Morris

2. Radical Progressive vs. Tory Radical vs. Conservative

Another take on political schools recognizes that the terms , liberal, radical, and conservative mean different things in the twentieth century than they did in the last.

Progressives, Liberals, or Rationalists: James Mill (Mill's father), J. S. Mill, Thomson, Bradlaugh, John Bright. Characteristic beliefs: middle-class fear of government intervention, emphasis upon freedom of action. In today's political context, this once extreme left-wing movement from the early nineteenth century would be considered reactionary or a party of extreme right.

Tory Radicals, Christian Socialists, Marxists: Carlyle, Arnold, Ruskin, Morris. Characteristic beliefs: need for strong central government, welfare or interventionist state; anti-aristocractic; ambivalent attitude toward middle class.

Conservatives, Tories, or Reactionaries: Carlyle, Disraeli, Pugin, Newman, Keble, Pusey, Hopkins Characteristic beliefs: pro aristocracy, medieval revival, social hierarchy, established (or official) state religion.

3. Hebrew vs. Hellene (or Moral vs. Aesthetic)

Using Matthew Arnold's opposition of an emotional, fundamentalist (or Puritanical) Evangelical Protestantism to an elite Hellenic school, a series of scholar-critics, of whom Graham Hough and David DeLaura are the most important, have proposed the following kind of opposition:

Hebrews: Ruskin, Carlyle, Dickens, Eliot, Mrs. Gaskell, the Brownings. Characteristic forms: prophetic modes, social protest, autobiographies emphasizing conversion, dense, often grotesque image and analogy, contemporary, often middle-class subjects.

Hellenes: Newman, Arnold, D. G. Rossetti, Swinburne, Pater, Wilde. Characteristic forms: would-be elitist subjects, emphasis on clarity, greater use of classical myth, secular version of Tractarian notions of reserve.

4. Believers vs. Nonbelievers

Orthodox Believers: Newman, Keble, Ruskin (early), C. Rossetti, E. B. Browning, MacDonald, Hopkins

Idiosyncratic, unorthodox believers -- usually liberal Christians: Dickens, MacDonald, Ruskin (after 1870), Tennyson, R. Browning (?)

Nonbelievers: Bentham, Mill, Carlyle, Darwin, Huxley, Clough, Arnold, Ruskin (late 1850s through 1860s), D. G. Rossetti, Morris, Swinburne, Hardy, Eliot, Thomson

Suggested Readings

Buckley, J. H. The Victorian Temper: A Study in Literary Culture. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1964.

DeLaura, David J. Hebrew and Hellene in Victorian England: Newman, Arnold, and Pater. Austin: U of Texas P, 1969.

Houghton, Walter E. The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870. New Haven: Yale UP, [c. 1956].

Johnson, E. D. H. The Alien Vision of Victorian Poetry. Princeon: Princeton UP, 1952.

Mill, John Stuart. "Bentham" and "Coleridge," Autobiography and Other Writings. Ed. Jack Stillinger. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969. Originally appeared in 1838-1840 The London and Westminster Review.


Victorian Web Overview Philosophy

Last modified 28 February 2002