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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Thomas Hill Green (1836–1882)

ONE of the most interesting phases of thought in the second half of the nineteenth century is that known as the Neo-Hegelian movement in England. Certain English students of the deeper problems of life, dissatisfied with the prevailing philosophies in their own country, turned to Germany for light and believed that they found it in the philosophy of Kant, as modified and supplemented by Hegel. Among the leaders of the movement were J. W. Stirling, the brothers John and Edward Caird, and William Wallace, all of whom have helped to make Hegel’s doctrine known to English and American students; but the most prominent and influential of the group was the subject of this sketch, Thomas Hill Green.

Green was born in Birkin, Yorkshire, on the 7th of April, 1836, and was the youngest of four children. His mother died in his infancy, and the children were left to be cared for and educated by their father. In 1850, when he was fourteen, Thomas went to Rugby, where he did not shine as a scholar, being uninterested in his studies and lagging behind his class. In 1855 he entered Balliol College, Oxford, and came fortunately under the teaching of Benjamin Jowett, who succeeded in rousing his latent energies. He became interested in history and philosophy, and in 1860 was elected a Fellow of Balliol, beginning his career as a teacher by lecturing on ancient and modern history. Two years later he gained the Chancellor’s prize for an essay on ‘The Value and Influence of Works of Fiction.’ In 1864 he lectured before the Edinburgh Philosophical Institution on ‘The English Commonwealth,’ a favorite subject which he treated with much ability.

The course of his philosophic studies is not known, nor at what time he became acquainted with Hegel’s works, which were destined to have so great an influence on his opinions and life. But after lecturing for a short time on history he began to teach philosophy, which he had come to recognize as the true field of his life work.

For a time, indeed, he had hesitated in the choice of a profession. Changes in his religious views prevented him from following his father’s example and entering the ministry; and notwithstanding his interest in public affairs, he seems to have had no inclination toward journalism. But in teaching philosophy he found a congenial occupation which made him pecuniarily independent. For many years, however, his position at Oxford was that of a tutor only, and it was not until 1878 that his abilities received adequate recognition in his appointment as Whyte’s Professor of Moral Philosophy.

In 1871 he had married Charlotte Symonds, daughter of Dr. Symonds of Clifton and sister of John Addington Symonds, one of Green’s oldest friends. Whether she was interested in his philosophical work or not, she shared his sympathy with the poor, and devoted herself largely to their cause. Only seven years of married life, however, were granted to Green, and only four years in his professorship; for on March 26th, 1882, after a brief illness, he died.

His biographer, Mr. Nettleship, gives many interesting reminiscences of this fine thinker. Ordinarily very undemonstrative, he was capable of strong affection, and whenever he broke through his reserve was a delightful companion. He had a true love for social equality and a high sense of the dignity of simple human nature; and he hoped, he said, for a condition of English society in which all honest citizens would recognize themselves and be recognized by each other as gentlemen. “We hold fast,” he wrote, “to the faith that the cultivation of the masses, which has for the present superseded the development of the individual, will in its maturity produce some higher type even of individual manhood than any which the Old World has known.” With such sentiments he was naturally a radical in politics; and so far as his professional duties permitted, he took an active part in political discussion. He declared his political aim to be “the removal of all obstructions which the law can remove to the free development of English citizens.” He was a warm friend of the American Union during the Civil War, and a sympathizer with liberal movements throughout the world. He was pledged also to the advancement of popular education, and labored especially, like Matthew Arnold, for the better education of the middle classes. Taking him all in all, he stands for the most noble and thoughtful type of modern citizen, devoted to the pursuit of truth and to the highest interests of his fellow-man.

Of Green’s writings only a small portion were published during his lifetime; the most important being perhaps the two introductory essays prepared for the complete edition of Hume edited by himself and T. H. Grose in 1874. His principal ethical work, the ‘Prolegomena to Ethics,’ appeared in 1883 under the editorship of his friend A. C. Bradley; and all his writings except the ‘Prolegomena’ were issued a few years later in three volumes, edited with a memoir by R. L. Nettleship. In literary form, his essays display his most finished work, his philosophical papers being often obscure from overcrowding of the thought. The main outlines of his ideas and the leading principles of his philosophy are, however, unmistakable. “Philosophy was to him,” says Mr. Nettleship, “the medium in which the theoretic impulse, the impulse to see and feel things more clearly and intensely than everyday life allows, found its most congenial satisfaction. The strength, the repose, the mental purgation which come to some men through artistic imagination or religious emotion, came to him through thinking.” From Kant, Green took his theory of knowledge, according to which substance and cause, and all the relations that subsist between things, are mental creations; while the material world, which to most men appears so substantial, has no real existence. From Hegel he took the doctrine of pantheism, which formed the metaphysical basis of his ethics and his religion. According to this view our minds are only manifestations of God; or as he otherwise expresses it, the Divine spirit reproduces itself in the human spirit, while the material world exists only for thought. In ethics also he was indebted to Hegel, holding with him that the ultimate end of moral action is the self-realization or self-perfection of the individual—a theory not easily reconcilable with Green’s political views nor with his ardent interest in social reforms.

The best expression of his doctrines is found in the ‘Prolegomena to Ethics,’ his ablest constructive work; which, though mainly devoted to the discussion of ethical subjects, contains several chapters on the metaphysical questions with which ethics is so closely connected. His ethical instructions are the most valuable, not only in the ‘Prolegomena,’ but in certain of the essays and in the ‘Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation.’ If he impresses the impartial critic as an able and earnest inquirer, whose system of philosophy is incomplete, yet the world has reason to be grateful to so honest and brave a thinker; for Green’s writings must long remain suggestive and stimulating in a high degree.