The Pragmatism of Samuel Butler (1835-1902)
Samuel Butler, English Victorian man of letters, is best known for his work on evolution and his three didactic and often satirical narratives: Erewhon, The Way of All Flesh, and Erewhon Revisited. In his writing Butler developed a philosophy of pragmatism, based on a belief in evolutionary progress, common sense, and the idea of a divinity expressed through human conduct. Butler's scientific works lay the theoretical ground-work for his pragmatism. Evolution was purposive, self-initiated. Guided by the principles of "memory" and "unconscious knowledge," man achieves "grace" by committing himself to the product of his senses, living according to "instinct" in the ordinary world. The natives of Erewhon live up to Butler's code of conduct, but his English protagonist, Higgs, fails to fully realize man's potential for enlightened progress. Erewhon is not as much a satire on the age of machines as a call to "instinct." Butler's pragmatism reaches new heights in the working out of his theories in human society. In The Way of All Flesh and Erewhon Revisited, Butler's pragmatism is colored by his personal frustrations and by the failure of his two protagonists to live up to his code of conduct. The Way of All Flesh adds the test of time to Butler's theory as a standard for measuring the achievement of individuals and families, since Ernest Pontifex cannot come to grips with the evolutionary forces at work in his own life. The aging Higgs in Erewhon Revisited turns to his son, George, as a representation of Butler's gentlemanly ideal; but the young man is not match for a changing social order. Butler's pragmatism could not encompass the dawning twentieth century and Butler's own deepening sense of failure.
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