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Sir Leslie Stephen

Sir Leslie Stephen

The English historian, critic, and editor Sir Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) was one of the great popularizers of Victorian thought and literature.

Leslie Stephen was born in London on Nov. 28, 1832, the son of Sir James Stephen, a leading Evangelical and distinguished undersecretary in the Colonial Office. By birth and education Leslie was a member of the Victorian intellectual aristocracy, and his upbringing was typical of his class and time. Educated at Eton and at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, he first determined on an academic career, which required his entry into Anglican orders. He was ordained deacon in 1855 and priest in 1859. A few years later, in a typically Victorian intellectual crisis which led him to religious doubt as a result of his reading of the works of J. S. Mill, he resigned his Cambridge fellowship and in 1867 began a literary career.

The whole of Stephen's outlook for the rest of his life was shaped by this early crisis. Increasingly he came under Darwinian influences and moved steadily toward agnosticism. In 1875 he resigned his priesthood. His first and most important work, English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (2 vols., 1876), revealed the full scale of his agnostic values and assumptions. For Stephen, with his strong Evangelical background, the great goal of 19th-century philosophy was to preserve the ethics of theism in an increasingly nontheistic world. Between 1878 and 1882 he wrote a work of philosophical synthesis which he hoped would win him a reputation as a major thinker by putting the traditional ethics on a scientific base of utilitarianism and Darwinism. The work, entitled The Science of Ethics (1882), was such a failure that it permanently altered Stephen's career and caused him to devote the rest of his life to high-level journalism and editing.

From 1882 to 1889 Stephen was editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, and during this time 26 volumes appeared; he also contributed 378 biographical articles. He produced, in addition to a number of lesser works, two substantial studies, The English Utilitarians (1900) and English Literature and Society in the Eighteenth Century, which was published on the day of his death, Feb. 22, 1904.

Stephen was neither a great thinker nor an original scholar. His writings, though often lucid and intelligent, were Victorian period pieces which reveal as much about the author and the age in which he lived as they do about their subjects.

Further Reading

The fullest biography is still Frederic W. Maitland's happy memoir, Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen (1906). Noel G. Annan, Leslie Stephen: His Thought and Character in Relation to His Time (1952), is an intellectual biography. A brief consideration of Stephen as historian is Sidney A. Burrell's essay, "Sir Leslie Stephen (1832-1904)" in Herman Ausubel and others, eds., Some Modern Historians of Britain (1951).

Additional Sources

Annan, Noel Gilroy Annan, Baron, Leslie Stephen, New York:Arno Press, 1977.

Annan, Noel Gilroy Annan, Baron, Leslie Stephen: the Godless Victorian, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986, 1984.

Annan, Noel Gilroy Annan, Baron, Leslie Stephen, his thought and character in relation to his time, New York: AMS Press, 1977.

MacCarthy, Desmond, Leslie Stephen, Philadelphia, Pa.: R. West, 1978. □

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Stephen, Leslie (1832–1904)


Leslie Stephen, an English man of letters, was the son of James and Jane Venn Stephen, both of whom came from families in the innermost group of the reforming Evangelicals who formed the so-called Clapham Sect. He attended Eton, briefly and unhappily, and then went to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he was made a fellow in 1854. Fellows had then to be ordained in the Church of England, and Stephen took holy orders and eventually became a priest, although he was not deeply religious. At the same time, religious doubt and disaffection began to trouble him. In 1862, as a result of these doubts, he resigned his fellowship, and in 1864 he left Cambridge for good. By 1865 he had completely lost all religious belief. He settled in London and began writing for various journals. Thereafter he wrote continually, copiously, and on a very wide range of topics.

In 1867 he married William Makepeace Thackeray's daughter Harriet Marian. She died in 1875, leaving him with one child. Three years later he married Julia Jackson Duckworth, a widow. They had four children, one of whom became the writer Virginia Woolf. Julia Stephen died in 1895.

Stephen was for many years editor of the Cornhill Magazine. In 1882 he accepted an invitation to edit the newly projected Dictionary of National Biography. The success of the project was largely due to his lengthy period of arduous service in this position (he wrote 387 of the biographies himself). Stephen was knighted in 1901.

Stephen was not a considerable innovator, in philosophy, in historical method, or in literary criticism. He had, however, very great gifts of rapid narration and clear and lively exposition. His work on the history of thought is based on massive reading and wide acquaintance with the social, political, and religious aspects of the periods of which he wrote. If it is neither original in its criticism nor profound in its understanding of positions, it is still useful and has not been entirely superseded because of its grasp of the broader contexts of thought and the skill with which it brings out the continuities from one period to another and from earlier formulations of problems to later ones.

It was Stephen who made Thomas Huxley's coinage agnostic an English word, and the problems and beliefs springing from his agnosticism underlay both his major historical works and his philosophical writings. He rejected theism of the sort he had originally been taught because he rejected the doctrine of original sin and because the problem of evil seemed to him insoluble. To evade this problem by confessing the transcendence and incomprehensibility of God was, he thought, to change from a believer into a skeptic, and in that case the part of honesty was simply to avow oneself an agnostic. But true Victorian that he was, he felt that morality, by this view, becomes gravely problematical. If there is no deity to sanction moral principles, why willwhy shouldmen obey them?

To answer these questions was part of Stephen's aim in his investigations of eighteenth-century thought. He dealt more systematically with them, and with others, in his least successful and most tedious book, The Science of Ethics. The agnostic, he held, must place morality on a scientific basis, and this means that there must be nothing in his ethics that is outside the competence of scientific inquiry. Brought up on John Stuart Mill and profoundly influenced by Charles Darwin, Stephen attempted to cut through what he impatiently dismissed as academic debates about morality by showing that moral beliefs were the result neither of excessively rational utilitarian calculation nor of mysterious intuition but of the demands of the social organism in its struggle for survival. Since the healthy survival of the social organism must increasingly coincide with conditions that bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number of those individuals who are the "cells" in the "social tissue," utilitarianism is not entirely false. But its atomistic analysis of society is erroneous, and its criterion of rightness is neither adequate nor entirely accurate. The healthy survival of society, and of oneself as part of it, can alone serve as sanction for morality, and the rules for that health, which are mirrored in our instincts and our deepest habits and appear in consciousness as intuitively known moral rules, can be put on a scientific basis only when we come to possess, as we do not yet, a scientific sociology.


works by stephen

Stephen's works are far too numerous to be listed completely here. Essays on Freethinking and Plainspeaking (London: Longmans, Green, 1873) and An Agnostic's Apology and Other Essays (London: Smith, Elder, 1893) contain most of his better-known popular essays. The Science of Ethics (London: Smith, Elder, 1882) is his only purely philosophical work. His important historical studies are History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (2 vols., New York: Putnam, 1876; 3rd ed., 1902); The English Utilitarians (3 vols., London: Duckworth, 1900); and Hobbes (London: Macmillan, 1904). To these the lectures in English Thought and Society in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1904) provide a valuable supplement.

works on stephen

The standard biography is F. W. Maitland's charming Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen (London: Duckworth, 1906), which contains an adequate bibliography of Stephen's work. Noel Annan, in Leslie Stephen (London: MacGibbon and Kee, 1951), studies Stephen as a representative Victorian thinker and as a link between the Clapham Sect and the Bloomsbury Group.

J. B. Schneewind (1967)

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"Stephen, Leslie (1832–1904)." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . 23 Apr. 2017 <>.

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"Stephen, Leslie (1832–1904)." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . Retrieved April 23, 2017 from