The Philosophy of
Lewis Carroll

by John Tufail

It has long been popularly held that, in gross contradiction to the fanciful mentality of his stories, Lewis Carroll himself was an ultraconservative personality in his every-day life. However, evidence recently discovered, some from his unpublished personal diaries, now reveals that this label as a traditionalist was likely in error.

By the mid-1840s the confusion of the earlier period1 had more or less left the Anglican Church in a position where three issues could be
Christian Socialism:
A movement within the Anglican Church based on the ideas of Coleridge, Hare and Sterling. Christian Socialism bitterly opposed political and economic programs founded on self-interest alone.
identified as the main areas of debate. These were 'Ritualism', 'Liberalism' and 'Christian Socialism'. Each of these movements had passionate and powerful supporters.

It was the debates, dialogues and controversies involving these movements which most relates to Carroll's experiences at Oxford....

With very few exceptions, the biographical writing on Carroll shows a tendency to deal with him as though he were at Oxford some ten years prior to the date on which he actually went up. To be precise the most influential writings on Carroll imply an Oxford still dominated by the Oxford Movement (see footnote 1) and fails to take account of the emergence of Christian Socialism and Carroll's relationship with this movement, not only in terms of similarity of ideas but also of his personal and literary contacts with some of the movement's most powerful supporters and advocates.

It should explained quite clearly here that the term 'Socialism' used here has very little to do with the modern useage of the word.

The most comprehensive published work which deals with Carroll's relationship with the religious movements of mid-19th c England is still Alexander Taylor's critical biography, The White Knight. This book, to be fair, does early in the first chapter acknowledge that the days of the Oxford Movement did not coincide with Carroll's attendance at Oxford.

     'He (Benjamin Jowett) was referring to the first Oxford
     Movement, which had so greatly stirred Charles Dodgson
     senior during his years at Daresbury (sic) and which was
     still having repercussions, though the main battle had
     been fought and lost before the younger Charles went to
     Rugby.  It was in a way the result of the great Reform
     Bill of 1832, the year of our Charles Dodgson's birth.
     So long as Members of Parliament were drawn from good
     Anglican Families they were content to leave Church
     government to the Bishops and Archbishops in the House of
     Lords.  But the Parliament which met in 1833 was a
     reforming Parliament and it proceeeded without delay to
     reform the Church of England.'

Taylor, however, is guilty of a glaring oversimplification of the political and religious position in Victorial England.

It is true that the Liberal Party was committed to reforming the Church Of England - not least because of the political power wielded by the 'Lords Spiritual' in the House of Lords! One of the purposes, for example, for the creation of new Bishoprics and the passing of legislation making it illegal to
(Engish Politics) A member of the conservative party, as opposed to the progressive party which was formerly called the Whig, and is now called the Liberal, party; an earnest supporter of existing royal and ecclesiastical authority.
hold two benefices more than a mile apart was to allow the Liberals to make inroads into an area that had been traditionally a bastion of Toryism. Thus it is somewhat naive to see this struggle in terms of the Liberals as the enlightened reformers and the Conservatives as the benighted reactionaries.

The ideological conflicts during this period simply cannot be seen purely in terms of a polarity between Liberal and Conservative thought, and similar complications intrude into analyses of the theological debates of the time.

An error which many commentators on Victorian England have made is to see the socio-political struggles of this period in terms of a simple continuum. It is a view which sees the various brands of 'Socialism' on the left. Liberalism in the Centre and the different strands of Conservatism on the right. When applied to Lewis Carroll, this model becomes even more simplified (and misleading) showing Liberal and liberalising movements on the left and Conservative and conservative elements on the right. This, unfortunately, is what Taylor does as he makes clear in this extract (parenthisis added):

    Long before (the Christ Church Oxford Act), however, the
    Dean (The new Dean,, Dr Liddle, Liberal appointee and
    father of Alice) had swept old Keys out of the
    cathedral, dog-whip, beer and all, and, after
    extensively altering the building, re-opened it to the
    general public. Dodgson scarcely knew what to make of it
    all.  Many of the Dean's proposal's were bound to
    improve his own standing at Christ Church, and when
    carried out actually did so.  But he had liked things
    slack and quaint, governed by use and want rather than
    reason.  On the whole his sympathies were with the
    departed Dean Gaisford, with Dr Pusey and the old guard.

    His political opinions, after wavering slightly in the
    year 1856, set permanently Conservative2.  He had been
    reading Alton Lock and was briefly stirred by the
    plight of the industrial masses and even by the
    possibility of doing something to improve matters.

This a particularly revealing section, for it helps explain some of the problems that not only Taylor but other Carroll biographers have faced. There are some relatively minor, and perhaps understandable errors of a throwaway nature, such as the last sentence in the first paragraph ('...his sympathies were with the departed Dean Gaisford, with Dr Pusey and the old guard). This is actually rather misleading, implying as it does that Dr Pusey and 'the old guard', were, ideologically speaking, synonomous. The fact is that very few of the 'old guard' (and particularly Dean Gaisford) had much sympathy for Dr Pusey's rather radical ideas.

However, the most fundamental error comes at the end of this extract.

In saying that Carroll's political opinions wavered slightly in the year 1856, Taylor points to Carroll's sympathetic reading of Alton Lock. The implication here is that Kingsley was not a Conservative. The plain fact is that Carroll's sympathetic reading of Alton Lock (and passionate diary notes) does not betray a wavering of Conservative belief.2

Charles Kingsley was a disciple of F. D. Maurice and Christian Socialism and Christian Socialism was a movement derived centrally and, in its formative years at least, fairly uncritically from the Coleridgean strand of High Toryism. The error comes from a simple transposition of meanings. The word
F. D. Maurice:
Frederick Denison Maurice (1805-72), theologian and founder of Christian Socialism movement. Influenced by Coleridge, bitterly opposed to political and economic programs founded on self- interest alone.
The principles of a body of 19th century English reformers who advocated better social and economic conditions for working people
The belief in a political unit governed by a deity (or by officials thought to be divinely guided)
'Socialism' as it is understood today incorporates many different forms, but in its common contemporary use is taken to mean that branch of politics furthest away from Conservatism - lying somewhere betwen Marxism and Liberalism. However, in the England of the 1840s, 50s and 60s, the political and ideological poles are best seen as Individualism (as represented by the various strands of Liberal philosophy) and the wide spectrum of collectivist ideologies. This includes Conservatism in its various manifestations, the many different forms of "Communism" which existed at the time, Chartism and even Theocratism. During this period, the use of the word 'Socialism', was not considered as belonging to the political left (always an amorphous designation), it was applied to a wide spectrum of political ideas and ideologies ranging from Rousseau and Proudhon to Robert Owen and Coleridge.

The one unifying concept in these disparate beliefs was that they rejected the Liberal view of Man and Society - the view that any society was nothing more than the sum of its aggregate parts. It can be seen, therefore, that to assume the terms Conservative and Socialist are mutually exclusive is, in the context of 19th c useage of the terms, both unjustified and wholly erroneous. There was, for example, no incongruity in an Anglican High Churchman and High Tory such as Charles Kingsley calling himself a Socialist. In the same way it was perfectly logical for a radical Tory, founding a new movement based primarily on the ideas expressed in Coleridge's later works to call that movement the Christian Socialist Movement - as, of course, F.D. Maurice did.

F.D. Maurice was educated at Cambridge University where he became a member of a radical Anglican debating society known as the Apostels Club. A close friend of John Sterling he embraced many of Sterling's ideas and thus fell early under the influence of Coleridge and Wordsworth. On leaving Cambridge the two friends purchased and jointly edited 'The Atheneum' a journal which became the platform for their attacks on what they saw as the underlying selfishness of Liberal individualism. In an article on James Mill in 1828 Maurice wrote that 'Mill does not profess to love wisdom, but only the consequences to which wisdom leads, and is therefore no more a philosopher than he who weds for money is a lover.'

Such criticism came very near to winning over to their views Mill's now more famous son, John Stuart but he could not accept Maurice's basic premise that the alternative to individualism was a Coleridgean form of Anglicanism.

During the same period Maurice began to develop and expound his ideas on the concept of 'Eternal Punishment' which were later, in 1853, to lead to his
(British) A teacher at a university of college (especially at Cambridge or Oxford).
expulsion from the Chair at King College, London, an event which was to lead him to Oxford where his congregation was to include a young Don by the name of Charles Dodgson.

In an article defending Shelley from a charge of atheism, Maurice argued that Shelley had, in fact, to some extent appreciated the idea of the love of God and had only been disgusted 'by the bigotry and intolerance of those who proclaimed that the God who became man is a cruel and revengeful being who would punish even errors of the intellect by an eternity of suffering'. During the 30s and 40s Maurice became increasingly attracted to the strict heirarchism of the High Anglican Church and was eloquent about the right of the established Church of England to educate the people, vehemently attacking the Whigs when they threatened to take this power out of its hands in the interest of an interdenominational - even secular - education. Maurice's
Principles of the founders of the Oxford movement; expounded in pamphlets called "Tracts for the Times".
attitude to dissenters was probably the area in which he was most opposed to Tractarian philosophy during this period as he insisted that non-conformists stood for principles in themselves valid, but which were included with other complementary ones within the established Church, though perhaps until then neglected by it. The Tractarians, however, rejected all such inclusive doctrines in favour of a strictly exclusive dogma.

During the 1848 revolutions Maurice was inspired by the Paris commune which he chose to see in terms of the 'neglected communism' in the monastries of the Christian Middle Ages. If the State was to be Liberal rather than Tory, he argued, then the Church must be communist. This Christian Communism, of course, should not be confused with the communism of the 'Communist Manifesto'. Rather it should be seen in the light of the general revival in the mid-19th c of medievalist ideas as typified in the political field by the 'Young England' movement, in art by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their acolytes and in literature by Tennyson, Wordsworth, Ruskin, MacDonald, Kingsley and others.

In the Church the two movements most closely associated with aspects of medievalist thought were those elements of the 'Oxford Movement' most closely
1) Any formal system of reasoning that arrives at the truth by the exchange of logical arguments. 2) A contradiction of ideas that serves as the determining factor in their interaction
Of or relating to or characteristic of rationalism: 1) The doctrine that reason is the right basis for regulating conduct. 2) The theological doctrine that human reason rather than divine revelation establishes religious truth
associated with Newman and the 'Christian Socialist movement as represented by Kingsley and Maurice. These two elements of Christian thought embraced a dialectical rather than rationalist concept of both secular and sacred philosophy.

One of the most striking aspects of what may be termed the 'dialectical school' of Tory radical thought during this period was the emphasis all the major Tory thinkers placed on language and the imagination.

In his essay, 'Coleridge, Newman and F.D. Maurice', Stephen Pricket makes this significant comment:

     'Maurice makes frequent acknowledgements of his debt to
     Coleridge - perhaps at greatest length in the preface
     to 'The Kingdom of Christ'.

He stresses, moreover, what we have seen here: that the poet and critic has played as great a shaping role in his thought as the philosopher and theologian. What he has learnt above all from Coleridge is a sense of language as a living creative poetic medium whose words and ideas are not defined in advance, but are forged, tempered, hardened into meanings by the literature from which they are inseparable - and by the needs of the society of which that literature is both
Relating to or of the nature of a legal trust (i.e. the holding of something in trust for another).
product and creator. This is what one critic has called the 'fiduciary' tradition of language. We take it on trust, Coleridge believed, because we cannot stand outside it (shades of Wittgenstein: 'It is the vehicle of our very consciousness and imagination. It is the vehicle of the activity by which our minds develop.').

Such a view of the relationship betwen language and reality stands in opposition to the traditional post-Baconian views of language. According to this view, to talk, as Bacon and his followers did, of language as something which the individual can isolate, observe and purify - return to a 'pure state', is nonsense. Language can only be 'purified' through acting on the world as a whole; for language IS the world and the world can only be comprehended through language. Such a view was derived by Coleridge through his twin concepts of organic growth and the principle of the dialectic. As Prickett states elsewhere in his article, 'it is this interaction between the organic development of an 'Idea' and its constant dialectical modification by the new and the unpredictable that Maurice finds so characteristic of human growth.'

One of the consequences of such views on the nature of language is to define language in a much looser sense than purely a system of formal oral and written sign systems. Rather, language incorporates the full vista of symbolic communication, a vista which cannot be analysed in its constituent parts without diminishing the dialectical nature of the whole.

A further consequence is that, to a very large extent, language by its nature is something over which the individual has only a very tenuous grasp - a point which Lewis Carroll recognised when he said in a letter to a friend on the 'meaning' of The Hunting of The Snark, "...words mean more than we mean to express when we use them; so a whole book ought to mean a great deal more han the writer means."

In the context of identifying the nature of the relationships between Carroll and Maurice (and those influenced by Maurice's ideas such as MacDonald, Tennyson, Kingsley and Ruskin), John Tulloch's comment on the centrality of Maurice's debt to Coleridge is of particular importance:

     'To the Aids to Reflection especially he (Maurice)
     expresses 'deep and solemn obligations.'  Whatever
     other influences, therefore, affected Maurice he struck
     his mental roots deep in Coleridge......It was the
     Coleridgian Movement, under whatever modifications,
     that he and Kingsley carried forward.'

It should be amply demonstrated by now that critics who associate Christian Socialism (certainly as it existed in the mid-19th century) with 20th c concepts of Socialism are likely to totally misunderstand the nature and complexity of the early 'socialist' movements.

The consequence of this to Carroll's critics and biographers has been to ignore a large body of evidence, autobiographical, literary and religious, which points to a synergy between the Colearidgean ideology, The political and theological views of C.L. Dodgson and the works of Lewis Carroll.

The first significant biographical evidence that Carroll was to fall, increasingly, under the influence of Coleridgean ideas is his diary entry for Jan 14 1855, which reads 'Read Coleridges 'Aids to Reflection' in the evening - it is one of those books that improve on a second reading: I find very little in it even obscure now'. As the diaries proper do not begin until January 1 of that same year, there is no way of knowing when Carroll first read this work or what his initial reaction was - but there is certainly evidence that he read it with increasing interest and approval. For example on 3 January 1858 Carroll returned again to the Aids; 'Began Coleridges Aids to Reflection.... I intend to make a sort of analysis of it this time.' Although the fact that Carroll read the same book (at least) three times over a two or three year period should not in itself carry too much significance, the fact that, at a time when he was reading voraciously and attempting to establish himself socially and professionally, he should make a 'sort of analysis' of this particular book (don't forget that at this period the ideas contained in Aids were very definitely frowned on at Oxford - even reading the book would have been considered subversive!) does add, however, some weight to the hypothesis that the work did hold some special - and increasing - significance for Carroll. There is no evidence that he honoured any other non-mathematical book (with one exception) in this way during the period.

Added to this biographical evidence is the fact that sandwiched between the second and third reading of Aids comes the single most poignant entry in the (published) diaries.

It is a matter of record that Carroll rarely used his diaries to expound his thoughts and ideas - but his diary entry for 7 January 1856 was one of the few exceptions. There is an intimation that Carroll found Charles Kingsley's book Alton Locke an exceptional book in his entry of 3 January 1856, 'Went on with Alton Locke a powerful and grandly written book.' However, four days later the full effect of the novel on Carroll's sensibilities becomes apparent:

     Finished Alton Locke.  It tells the tale well of the
     privations and miseries of the poor, but I wish he
     would propose some more definite remedy, and especially
     that he would tell us what he wishes to substitute for
     the iniquitous 'sweating' system in tailoring and other
     trades. If the book were but a little more definite it
     might stir up many fellow workers in the same good
     field of social improvement.  Oh that God, in his good
     providence, may make me hereafter such a worker!  But
     alas, what are the means? Each has his own nostrum to
     propound, and in the Babel of voices nothing is done.
     I would thankfully spend and be spent so long as I were
     sure of really effecting something by the sacrifice,
     and not merely lying down under the wheels of some
     irresistable jugernaut....

Throughout the entire diaries there is no other book which elicits such a powerful outpouring of emotion.

Carroll's reading habits the period 1855 - 1858 shows a consistency of ideological direction which if merely coincidental, is one of the most remarkable coincidences in literary history. Bearing in mind the close links between Coleridge and Kingsley (and later Kingsley and Maurice), it is quite eerie that Carroll began reading on 3 January of each of these years respectively Aids to reflections (1855), Alton Locke 1856, Hypatia (also by Kingsley) (1857) and (for the third time at least) Aids to reflection (1858).

It is a matter of great misfortune to Carroll scholars that the volumes of his diaries covering the period April 1858 to May 1862 disappeared, apparently shortly after Collingwood completed his biography of Carroll - there is no information, therefore, available as to whether Carroll's January prediliction for Colerdgean writing continued past 1858.

What can be shown, however, is that during in 1859 Carroll first sought out and made the acquaintance of one of Maurices closes disciples - a man who was to become one of his closest friends and confidants - the novelist George Macdonald. This fruitful meeting added a second Maurice disciple to the list of those with whom Carroll is known to both greatly admire and to have close personal contact, for in 1857 he had met, and struck up an imediate intellectual relationship with the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson who had been one of the few public figures to come to Maurice's defence when he was dismissed from his London Chair. This was also the period when Carroll was developing his interests in the visual arts and it is significant that his particular interest in this area was towards Pre-Raphaelitism and the artistic theories of John Ruskin.

When Carroll first met John Ruskin in October 1857 (he breakfasted with him) he had already devoured the Stones of Venice (in 1855) but was disappointed in Ruskin's physical appearance; 'His appearance was rather disappointing - a general feebleness of expression, with no commanding air, or any external signs of deep thought, as one would expect to see in such a man.'

Nevertheless Carroll's admiration for Ruskin is revealed in the Dies Notabilis which he awarded this diary entry. Carroll's personal contact with Ruskin, though never close enough to be termed friendship, was nevertheless close enough to allow a frank exchange of views and the tendering and soliciting of advice.

With regard to Carroll's contacts with members of 'The brotherhood', his most intimate relationship was that which he developed with the Rossettis' whom he like and admired - though he was also on good terms with Holman Hunt and Millais. Through George MacDonald he developed a fruitful relationship with 'The Brotherhood's' fellow artistic and philosophical traveller Arthur Hughes.

Sadly, Carroll's efforts to develop personal contacts with figures such as Tennyson, Ruskin and Rossetti has traditionally been dismissed by biographers as lionising (completely contradicting of course the other 'traditional' view of Carroll as a shy and austere man!). Little attempt has been made to look at these 'lions' to trace any common ideological thread. However, it is a curious fact that if Carroll was merely a lioniser, then he was a particularly discriminating one - and the terms 'discrimination' and 'lionising' are not terms normally thought complementary. Of even greater curiosity is the fact that in no work to date is there mention of the name F.D. Maurice in relation to Lewis Carroll.

Maurice's name, indeed, does not even rate a note or index mention in the five major biographies on Carroll (Collingwood, Green, Lennon, Hudson and Clarke), yet there is overwhelming evidence that Carroll was so impressed with Maurice and his theological views that, for almost the entire period that Maurice was preaching in the city of Oxford (Vere St. Church - not the university of course), Carroll risked the certain disaproval of the great majority of his fellow Dons by not only making Vere St. his regular place of worship, but also assisting Maurice in the performance of his duties.

Following his expulsion from London, Maurice was ostracised by the established Church both for his religious and political views and it was not until 1861 that he was able to gain a permanent post in a small. isolated Oxford parish. He remained at Vere St. for nine years, developing his ideas and using the pulpit of his church to expound his views. It is not known precisely when Carroll first heard Maurice speak or when he first attended a sermon at Vere St., though the probability is that is was in 1862 (i.e. very soon after Maurice was granted his post!). Interestingly, the first published diary entry that Carroll makes to attending a Maurice sermon places Maurice in London rather than Oxford (according to Morten Cohen, footnote vol 1 The Letters of Lewis Carroll); 'On July 20, 1862, Dodgson in London went to hear Maurice preach both in the morning and afternoon. 'Like his sermons very much....' he wrote (diaries). Cohen is quoting from the unpublished diaries here (vol 8.) and Carroll actually made no note of his whereabouts on this day. As Maurice was in full stipendary post in Oxford at this time, I suspect Cohen to be mistaken about the location of Maurice's sermons. Almost certainly it was in Oxford.

After this, because of the vandalising of the diaries,(not only did volumes of Carroll's diaries disappear - but in the remaining diaries large section have been excised) there is no further mention until June 1886 - but this is significant. 'June 24 1886; Maurice's Church as usual in the morning'. Again, April 17 1867; 'Went as usual to Vere St. Chapel....'

The words 'as usual' brook no misinterpretation.

The last diary entry referring to Maurice or Vere St. is April 5 1868 - about a year before Maurice left Oxford, however there is no evidence that Carroll changed his Sunday habits - in fact 1868 shows fewer Sunday entries than any other chronicled year. 1868, of course was marked, tragically, by the death of Carroll's father (in June) and he spent much time commuting between Oxford, Guildford and London.

~ end ~


...the confusion of the earlier period

The decade of Carroll's birth, the 1830s, was a decade of pain and controversy for the Church of England. It was a period when the established Bishoprics were conservative, intransigent and self-serving. (The Bishop of Ely, for example) was drawing a stipend of £50,000 a year while many of his parishioners were starving to death). With the Church losing adherents in droves, a group of young churchmen reacted against this complacency and a loose movement, based mainly at Oxford University (Hence the 'Oxford Movement') began to challenge the complacency of the established heirarchy with a series of letters, pamphlets and articles (hence 'Epistolarian'). This movement, though never fully agreeing within itself on many major theological principles, was united enough and determined enough to effect major reforms in the way the Church conducted its pastoral affairs and the disagreements within the movement itself had the advantage of creating serious theological debate within the Church which shook it out of its complacency.

...wavering of Conservative belief.

Conservatism (with a Capital C) during this period was emphatically different in beliefs and ideology that the modern day Conservative Party!

Carroll was always a Conservative - but rarely a conservative! The great philosophers of the Conservatives during this period were Carlisle and Coleridge. Ruskin (would you believe!) was a Conservative as were Kingsley and Maurice!!! Conservatism was the most radical of political groupings during the period following the Reform Act. Looked back to a period (vaguely medieval) when it was the duty of the Church and the Eablishment to ensure the well-being of all their parishioners/subjects (don't forget the word 'Communism' arose from a sense of commune first used to describe an idealised form of medievalism.

They abhored 'Liberalism' which they felt turned men into brutes and desecrated the land, flora and fauna.