The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 11. Erewhon Revisited
Erewhon Revisited, published in 1901, is an ironist’s way of using the conclusions to which Essays and Reviews (1860), and Seeley’s Natural Religion (1882), had been tending years before. The book is as much a sequel to The Fair Haven as it is to Erewhon. In his accustomed way, Butler plants a “seedling idea,” in this case, the supposed miraculous ascent of Higgs from Erewhon twenty years before. In ironical analogy, he traces from it the origin of religious myth, of sacrosanct scriptures, of legend and sophistry crystallising round public credulity and of the exploiting of the new religion by unscrupulous professional magnates such as Hanky and Panky. Erewhon Revisited has less of the free imaginative play of its predecessor; it is apt to seem, in that respect, sterilised and rigid, like the later satires of Swift; but, in sharp brilliance of wit and criticism, in intellectual unity and coherence, it surpasses Erewhon. All the skill which Butler had acquired by his controversies in marshalling evidence and in reviewing a whole system of thought in all its bearings is put to the happiest use, especially in the effects of climax made possible by the structural perfection of the work; the furious outburst of Higgs against Hanky, for instance, in the cathedral; and, again, the ecclesiastical round table conference, debating whether Sunchildism shall be supported as a supernatural religion or not—a perfect piece of high intellectual comedy.
There is, apparently, a Voltairean subversiveness about all this which may obscure Butler’s real view and intention. Voltaire is the supreme rationalist; Butler puts no excessive faith in reason; he found it, both in its extremes and in its mean, illogical. In God the Known and God the Unknown, he offers, seriously, though it is not usual with him to do so, conjectures which transcend reason. He had, moreover, the utmost respect for certain simple religious tenets, which he defined in the concluding chapter of his Life of Dr. Butler, and in the advice given by Higgs at the ecclesiastical conference, and which he saw, in a measure, exemplified in the religion of the Italian peasantry. He asserted, not in jest, his membership “of the more advanced wing of the English Broad Church.”