Sympathies and Natural Histories 

This post was written by Holly Boud, HC Intern

“How little the real characteristics of the working-classes are known to those who are outside them, how little their natural history has been studied, is sufficiently disclosed by our Art as well as by our political and social theories.

“The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies.”

In my Victorian seminar, we read from George Eliot’s “A Natural History of German Life” (1856) and discussed the origins of natural history studies. What do you think of when you hear “natural history”? Museums come to mind—maybe in New York or London, maybe you’ve only seen it in movies. Dinosaurs, cavemen, rocks, fossils, plants, animals, etc. Natural history spawned disciplines such as geology, anthropology, and paleontology.

The premise (in perhaps oversimplified terms) is to observe the material world around us and, in so doing, be able to understand the past history of the world. Studies of natural history began with the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries but took on a new vibrant energy in the nineteenth. Anyone with leisure time seemed to have their “thing” that they collected—bugs, butterflies, rocks, etc., and they would arrange their displays for their curiosity cabinets or whatever to show the progress of perhaps the size or color of the different specimens.

Eliot applies the same technique—posing the question—as to whether or not we understand people in the same ways that we try to understand the world. Can we look at a small group of people in a particular environment and make inferences as to their lives, cultures, values on a larger scale?

She situates her discussion of natural history within a larger framework of sympathy, which is what I found to be most interesting. She posits that being able to sympathize with other people, especially disenfranchised classes, is at the heart of good art. Good art is able to tap into the sympathies of people that contemporary social, political, and legal elites cannot do well when looking at mere statistics and numbers. She says, “The thing for mankind to know is, not what are the motives and influences which the moralist thinks ought to act in the laborer or the artisan, but what are the motives and influences which do act on him,” and “[w]e want to be taught to feel, not for the heroic artisan or the sentimental peasant, but for the peasant in all his coarse apathy, and artisan in all his suspicious selfishness.” To be able to sympathize with others, in their ugliness, in their mistakes, in their inadequacies, not in spite of them is true sympathy and true humanity.

I never thought about natural history as a way to understand the human situation, but the connections Eliot makes are telling and instructive. Interdisciplinary studies is a hot topic in academia right now, and I think Eliot makes a really interesting case for integration of studies—art, literature, natural history, etc. Novelists, for example, widely drew from the popular obsession with natural history in the nineteenth century, and they were able to redefine realism to be of significance to humanists as well as scientists. Perhaps the different disciplines are not as mutually exclusive as we sometimes make them out to be, and each gives us tools to fulfilling that elusive of all injunctions—that is, to be a good human. By understanding questions natural scientists pose, we can find better ways to approach questions regarding humanist studies.

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1 Comment

  1. Kristine Hansen says:

    What an interesting post, Holly. I am glad you shared it. I hadn’t thought of natural history in quite this way, but it makes a lot of sense. This makes me want to read Eliot’s essay.

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