Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Seeley, John Robert
SEELEY, Sir JOHN ROBERT (1834–1895), historian and essayist, born in London on 10 Sept. 1834, was third son of Robert Benton Seeley [q. v.], publisher. From his father Seeley imbibed a love of books, together with a special bias towards history and religious thought. He went first to school under the Rev. J. A. Barron at Stanmore. It was a school where no prizes were given, but where more attention than usual was paid to English literature. From Stanmore he went on to the City of London school, then already winning a reputation under Dr. George Ferris Whidborne Mortimer [q. v.] Here he made such rapid progress that he entered the sixth form when little over thirteen. But the work was too hard for him, and physical exercise was neglected. His health suffered; he was obliged for a time to leave school. Forced to give up his classics, he took to reading English, and obtained a knowledge of English authors very rare in boys of his age. He had already read through ‘Paradise Lost’ four or five times before he left school. In 1852 he went to Cambridge, entering the university as a scholar of Christ's College. He studied classics principally; he read widely, not neglecting the accurate scholarship in vogue at Cambridge, but paying attention by preference to the literary qualities and the philosophical and historical contents of his authors. He impressed at least one of his teachers by his remarkable command of language and expression. In society he was somewhat reserved and shy, but he made some warm friends. Among his contemporaries at Christ's were C. S. Calverley, W. (now Sir Walter) Besant, Skeat, Peile, and other men who afterwards came to distinction. Seeley was known as one of the ablest of an able set. His conversation was noted for its dialectical subtlety and terseness, and, though not combative, he never shrank from thorough discussion. Ill-health compelled him to defer his degree for a year, but in 1857 he graduated, his name appearing, along with three others, at the top of the classical tripos. The senior chancellor's medal, which he also obtained, marked him out as, upon the whole, the best scholar of his year.
Shortly afterwards he was elected to a fellowship in his own college, and was appointed classical lecturer. This post he held for two years. In 1859 he published, under the pseudonym of John Robertson, his first book, a volume of poems, which contains a poem on the choosing of David, versifications of several psalms, and a series of historic sketches, chiefly monologues of historic personages. His mind was clearly busy on the two topics which interested him most through life—religion and history; but the dramatic and personal element is more prominent than in his later works. In 1859 he left Cambridge to take the post of chief classical assistant at his old school. In 1863 he was appointed professor of Latin in University College, London. Here he remained for six years. But the study of his professorial subject did not satisfy him; his mind was actively at work on the problems of Christian doctrine regarded from an historical point of view. In 1865 he published ‘Ecce Homo,’ in some respects the most remarkable of his works. It is an attempt to present the life, work, and teaching of Christ in a simple and positive form, avoiding textual and other dubieties, sketching and connecting the larger features rather than elaborating details. He assumes in general the authenticity of the gospel narrative, but deals with the person of Christ on its human side only. The book immediately attracted attention, and, though intentionally uncontroversial, provoked a storm of controversy, in which Mr. Gladstone (Good Words, ix. 33 et sqq.), Cardinal Newman, Dean Stanley, and others took part. Its title and the limitation of its scope were held to imply a denial of certain doctrines which the author deliberately avoided discussing. In the preface to a subsequent edition he defended himself against misconstructions, without however committing himself to positive assertions on the subjects in question. The book was published anonymously, but the secret of its authorship was not long maintained. In the preface to the first edition Seeley hinted at another volume dealing with some of the topics omitted in ‘Ecce Homo.’ But ‘Natural Religion,’ published in 1882, cannot in this sense be regarded as a sequel to the former work. ‘Natural Religion’ avoids discussing the supernatural basis of faith, but does not therefore deny its existence. It endeavours to widen the conception of the word ‘religion,’ which the author declares unduly narrowed, and to establish the possibility of a reasonable religion without the supernatural element. The work was not so well received as ‘Ecce Homo.’ The style is equally vigorous, the argument as lucid, but the subject is devoid of that personal interest and association possessed by the earlier book, while the view of religion which it advocates appeals only to the few.
In 1869 Seeley became professor of modern history at Cambridge in the place of Charles Kingsley, and at Cambridge he remained for the rest of his life. He had as yet published nothing historical beyond some short papers, but historical speculation had interested him from early years. His lectures at once made a great impression. They were carefully prepared, epigrammatic in style, animated in delivery, attractive and stimulating from the originality, width, and suggestiveness of their views. For many years his classes were large, and were by no means confined to those who were making history a special study. Besides lecturing, he held weekly classes for the purpose of discussing historical and political questions with advanced students. These gatherings were called ‘conversation classes,’ but they became, at least latterly, a sort of monologue, in which the professor took his class through a regular course of political science.
In the inaugural lecture which he delivered when appointed professor he defined his view of the connection between history and politics, and laid down the lines on which his teaching was consistently to run throughout his tenure of the professorship. He insisted on the principle that a knowledge of history, but especially of the most recent history, is indispensable to the politician. And by history he meant political history—not biography, nor the history of religion, art, or society, but the history of the state. With this view, when the historical tripos was established at Cambridge in 1873, he infused into it a strong political element. He would indeed have preferred to call it a political tripos, and to make history subordinate to politics. His lectures were, with few exceptions, confined to the history of the last two centuries, and his attention was mainly given to international history, to the action and reaction of states upon each other. The history of Great Britain as a member of the European system was, he maintained, a subject strangely and unduly neglected in favour of domestic or constitutional history by British historians.
For some time Seeley's labours were not restricted to Cambridge. The income of his chair was at first very small, and he was compelled to supplement it by giving lectures in the large towns of the north and in Scotland, where he achieved a high reputation as a lecturer. Some of his public addresses and other papers were collected in a volume entitled ‘Lectures and Essays,’ and published in 1870. The most important of these are perhaps the essays on the ‘Fall of the Roman Empire’ and on ‘Milton,’ and his inaugural lecture at Cambridge.
While still professor of Latin Seeley had, at the request of the Oxford University Press, begun an edition of the first decade of Livy. A volume containing the first book of Livy was published in 1871. The introduction is original and suggestive, and displays his capacity for forming clear and positive conclusions on complicated historical problems. But such antiquarian research was not very congenial to him, and he never continued the edition.
Some years after he became professor of history an anonymous benefactor made an addition to the income of the chair, while about the same time the Cambridge University Press gave a practical illustration of the endowment of research by paying in advance for a work on which Seeley was engaged. He was thus enabled to give up extraneous employment, and to devote himself to his professorial lectures and to the book in question. This book, ‘The Life and Times of Stein,’ is probably Seeley's most solid and lasting contribution to historical knowledge, but it was not one of his most successful productions. He had little taste for personal detail or for simple narrative, and the character of Stein hardly lends itself to attractive biographical treatment. But as an elucidation of the anti-Napoleonic revolution, and of the share taken by Stein and Prussia in the revival of Germany, the book has no rival in the English language. ‘The Expansion of England,’ published in 1883, was a greater success so far as public reputation is concerned. This little volume consists of lectures delivered in the university, very slightly altered or amplified for publication. It sketches with a remarkable unity of view and vigour of treatment the great duel with France which began with the revolution of 1688 and ended with Waterloo. No previous writer had so succinctly and so pointedly emphasised the colonial and commercial aspects of that struggle. The book was eagerly taken up by a very large public: it drew attention, at an opportune moment, to a great subject; it substituted imperial for provincial interests; and it contributed perhaps more than any other single utterance to the change of feeling respecting the relations between Great Britain and her colonies which marks the end of the nineteenth century.
The study of British foreign policy occupied Seeley during the greater part of the remainder of his life. His original intention was to write a detailed history of this subject during the period covered by the ‘Expansion.’ But he found it necessary to supply an introduction, and, in tracing the origin of those principles and antagonisms on which the policy of the eighteenth century was based, he was gradually forced back to the reign of Elizabeth. It was the protestant reformation, definitely adopted by Elizabeth, which in his view determined all the subsequent relations between England and the great maritime states of the continent. Thus, what had been intended for a short introduction gradually swelled into a considerable book, which he left completed, but not finally revised at his death. It was published in 1895, under the title ‘The Growth of British Policy,’ 2 vols. In this work Elizabeth, Cromwell, and William III are displayed as the great founders of the British empire, and religion and commerce as the leading motives which directed their action. Before actually setting to work on this book Seeley had published (1886) a concise ‘Life of Napoleon,’ expanded from an article in the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica.’ It is a masterly summary of Napoleon's aims and actions, but is written perhaps from too hostile a point of view, and, while doing justice to Napoleon's great powers, deprives him of all claim to originality as a statesman. A little book on ‘Goethe,’ published in 1893, and a volume of ‘Lectures on Political Science,’ issued posthumously, complete the list of Seeley's published works. The volume on Goethe is an amplification of some papers published in the ‘Contemporary Review’ in 1884. It is a study of Goethe the philosopher and teacher, rather than of Goethe the poet or the artist. As in the essay on Milton, it is rather what the author had to say than the way he said it which seems to have been most interesting to Seeley. This little volume was undertaken as a relief from severer work, for which illness made him unfit.
The last years of his life were rendered less productive than they might have been by the attacks of the disease—cancer—to which he eventually succumbed. He was elected fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, in October 1882, and in 1894 was made K.C.M.G. on the recommendation of Lord Rosebery. He had long been in somewhat weak health, and suffered much from insomnia; but he bore his troubles with marvellous patience, and attended to his professorial duties whenever not actually incapacitated by illness. He died at Cambridge on 13 Jan. 1895.
In his teaching of modern history Seeley adopted, though he did not formulate, the view that ‘history is past politics, and politics present history.’ Historical narrative without generalisation had no value for him; he always tried to solve some problem, to trace large principles, to deduce some lesson. If the conclusions which he reached could be made applicable to present difficulties, so much the better. History was to be a school of statesmanship. So eager was he to establish general principles that his conclusions occasionally appear paradoxical, and are sometimes open to dispute. But his method is at once stimulating and productive, and his whole conception of the subject tends to place it on a high level of public utility. Of the duties of the individual towards the state Seeley formed a high ideal, and, though not an active politician, he held strong political views. In later life he was a liberal unionist, and on more than one occasion raised his voice in public against home rule. He was for several years closely connected with the Imperial Federation League, and, though he never traced out any definite scheme of federation, there was nothing that he had more at heart than the maintenance of the union between Great Britain and her colonies. In university politics he took little part; the routine of academic business and the labour of examinations were alike distasteful to him. He never, even in his younger days, went much into society. In 1869 he married Mary Agnes, eldest daughter of Arthur Phillott, by whom he had one child, a daughter, who survives him.
His chief published works are: 1. ‘David and Samuel, with other Poems, original and translated, by John Robertson,’ 1859. 2. ‘Ecce Homo,’ 1865. 3. ‘Lectures and Essays,’ 1870. 4. ‘The first Book of Livy, with an Introduction, Historical Examination, and Notes,’ 1871. 5. ‘English Lessons for English People’ (written in collaboration with Dr. Abbott), 1871. 6. ‘The Life and Times of Stein, or Germany and Prussia in the Napoleonic Age,’ 1878. 7. ‘Natural Religion,’ 1882. 8. ‘The Expansion of England.’ 9. ‘A Short Life of Napoleon I,’ 1885. 10. ‘Goethe reviewed after Sixty Years,’ 1893. 11. ‘The Growth of British Policy: an Historical Essay,’ 1895. 12. ‘Lectures on Political Science,’ 1895.[Articles in the Cambridge Review and the Christ's College Magazine by Professor Hales; article in the Caius College Magazine by Dr. Venn; memoir prefixed to the Growth of British Policy, by Professor Prothero; private information.]