John Robert Seeley
John Robert Seeley
Seeley (photograph by Philip Crellin, 1866)
|Died||13 January 1895 (aged 60)|
|Education||City of London School|
|Alma mater||Christ's College, Cambridge|
|The Expansion of England (1883)|
|Spouse(s)||Mary Agnes Phillot|
|Awards||Knight of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George|
Sir John Robert Seeley, KCMG (10 September 1834 – 13 January 1895) was an English historian and political essayist. He is most known for his book The Expansion of England (1883), which has continued to influence historical discussions about the British Empire until the 21st century.
- 1 Life
- 2 Works
- 3 Significance of empire
- 4 Notable Quotations
- 5 Works
- 6 Notes
- 7 Further reading
- 8 External links
Seeley was born in London. He was the son of R. B. Seeley, a publisher and the author of several religious books and of The Life and Times of Edward I. He was educated at City of London School, where he enjoyed history and theology, and at Christ's College, Cambridge, at which he was head of the Classical tripos and senior Chancellor's medallist. He was elected a fellow of Christ's and subsequently became a Classical tutor at the college.
Subsequently, Seeley was a master at his old school in London until, in 1863, he was appointed professor of Latin at University College, London. He was made Regius Professor of Modern History, Cambridge, in 1869.
Ecce Homo: A Survey in the Life and Work of Jesus Christ
Seeley's first published book was Ecce Homo: A Survey in the Life and Work of Jesus Christ, which published anonymously in 1865. It was controversial because it focussed almost entirely on Jesus's moral character, and his historical actions, as a founder and king of a theocracy, and excluded discussion of the theological interpretations of his life. The work attempts to demonstrate the consequences that Christ's theocracy, and its Church and society, had upon the standard and active practice of morality of men.
Seeley intended the book as an incomplete analysis of the subject. His text did not deny the truth of the doctrines that it did not address, but many critics objected to its representation of Christ.
Many considered the book to be extraordinary in its prose style in addition to in its content: it is characterised by relatively terse and fluid prose. Ecce Homo's anonymous status also added a significant dimension to the controversy surrounding its publication, as readers sought to discover the author's identity. George Eliot, John Henry Newman, William Ewart Gladstone, and Napoleon III were some of the more well-known figures believed to have written the book. Seeley was eventually discovered as the author, and from November 1866 his authorship became an open secret. However, Seeley declined to publicly acknowledge his authorship of Ecce Homo, which was only first officially stated in a posthumous edition that was published in 1895.
His later essay on Natural Religion, signed "by the Author of Ecce Homo," which denied that supernaturalism is essential to religion and maintained that the negations of science tend to purify rather than destroy Christianity, satisfied few and excited far less interest than his earlier work. In 1869, he was appointed professor of modern history at the University of Cambridge. He was a popular instructor and prepared his lectures carefully, which were well attended. In historical work, he is distinguished as a thinker rather than as a scholar. He valued history solely in its relation to politics, as the science of the state. He maintained that history should be studied scientifically and for a practical purpose, the solution of existing political questions. Thus, he naturally devoted himself mainly to recent history, especially to the relations between England and other states. His Life and Times of Stein, a valuable narrative of the anti-Napoleonic revolt, led by Prussia mainly at Heinrich Friedrich Karl von und zum Stein's instigation, was written under German influence and shows little of the style of his short essays. Its length, its colourlessness, and the space it devotes to subsidiary matters render it unattractive.
The Expansion of England (1883)
Far otherwise is it with his The Expansion of England (1883). Written in his best manner, that essay answers to his theory that history should be used for a practical purpose; it points out how and why Britain gained its colonies and India, the character of the British Empire and the light in which it should be regarded. As a historical essay, the book is a fine composition, and its defence of the empire was then very persuasive. His defence consists largely of the claim that British rule was in India's best interest. Seeley also questioned the usefulness of India to the power and security of Britain and even claimed that there was 'no doubt' that India vastly increased the responsibilities and dangers to Britain. The book contains this much-quoted statement: "we seem, as it were, to have conquered half the world in a fit of absence of mind". Expansion of England appeared at an opportune time and did much to make Englishmen regard the colonies not as mere appendages but as an expansion of the British state as well as of British nationality and remind them of the value of the empire in the East. The essay was reprinted ten times in the year in which it was published and many more times in later years. Seeley was rewarded for public service by being made a Knight of the Order of St Michael and St George, on the recommendation of Lord Rosebery.
In the spring of 1883, Seeley started a debate over the Tripos bachelor's honours exam at Cambridge, wishing it to concentrate on political history, but historians Frederick William Maitland, George Walter Prothero, Henry Melvill Gwatkin, and Mandell Creighton argued for a broader more scientific approach, reaching a compromise emphasizing the reading of primary sources, requiring a compulsory paper on "Political Science", with required readings including "Introduction to Political Science" (1896) by Seeley and "The Elements of Politics" (1891) by Sidgwick.
The Growth of British Policy
His last book, The Growth of British Policy, written as an essay and intended to be an introduction to a full account of the expansion of Britain, was published posthumously.
Inagaki Manjiro dedicated his Japan and the Pacific and the Japanese View of the Eastern Question (1890) to Seeley, who had taught him at Caius College.
In 1897, the history library of the University of Cambridge was named the Seeley Historical Library in his honour. In 1895 a memorial fund was raised to commemorate his services to the British Empire and to the University; the greater part of this fund was devoted to the endowment of the library. After moving from King's College and Caius College, in 1912, the collection relocated to the top floor of the newly reopened Arts School, Bene't Street, then in 1935 to the Old Schools. In 1968 the Seeley moved to the Sidgwick Site of Cambridge University as part of the new History Faculty building designed by James Stirling.
Significance of empire
Seeley wrote that the first chapter of the history of British India "embraces chronologically the first half of George III's reign, that stormy period of transition in English history when at the same time America was lost and India won... [and] covers the two great careers of Robert Clive and Hastings... [T]he end of the struggle is marked by the reign of Lord Cornwallis, which began in 1785".
The trial of Warren Hastings had been the final act in the efforts spanning the eighteenth century to harness imperial power, along with imperial wealth and prestige, securely to Britain, both as a "nation" and as a "state". Once Edmund Burke had succeeded in that endeavour, the stain of commercial origins could be removed, with the special mix of economic and political interests realigned as the expression of national interest and the blot of scandal washed out, as the moral mandate for a new kind of imperial project was launched.
Seeley was far more astute than many later imperial historians, as he complained that very transformation had made possible a national amnesia about the significance of empire in the history of England itself. His lectures were filled with a critique of the blinkers of English historiography: "They [our historians] make too much of the parliamentary wrangle and the agitations about liberty, in all which matters the eighteenth century of England was but a pale reflection of the seventeenth. They do not perceive that in that century the history of England is not in England but in Americas and Asia."
Justifications for empire
Seeley's account of imperial wars and conquest repeats the justifications made first by the conquerors themselves: that the sole objective of trade turned into political conquest by accident, rather than contrivance or calculation.
Most historians have argued that the East India Company was drawn reluctantly into political and military conflict in India and took an interest in territorial power and revenue only as a last-ditch effort to protect its trading activities. Among the narratives of imperial historians, Seeley concurred and wrote that India "lay there waiting to be picked up by somebody". He considered that what happened in India in the late 18th century was thus an "internal revolution" rather than a "foreign conquest".
"History is the school of statesmanship."
"History without politics descends to mere literature."
He is often believed to have said "History is past politics, and politics present history" (as previous versions of this page have erroneously stated) but did not.
- Ecce Homo: A Survey of the Life and Work of Jesus Christ. Roberts Brothers. 1866.
- Life and Times of Stein; Or, Germany and Prussia in the Romantic Age (3 vols.). Roberts Brothers. 1878.
- The Expansion of England. Little, Brown. 1922 .
- The Growth of British Policy. Cambridge University Press. 1922 .
- Introduction to Political Science: Two Series of Lectures. Macmillan. 1896.
- Elleke Boehmer, ed. (1998). "Expansion of England". Empire Writing: An Anthology of Colonial Literature, 1870–1918. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-283265-8.
- "Seeley, John Robert (SLY852JR)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
- Newman, John Henry; Tolhurst, James (2004). Discussions and arguments on various subjects. Gracewing. ISBN 978-0-85244-453-5.
- Gosse, Edmund (1906). English literature: an illustrated record. W Heinemann.
- Deborah Wormell (1980). Sir John Seeley and the uses of history. CUP Archive. ISBN 978-0-521-22720-9.
- Hesketh, Ian (2017). Victorian Jesus: J. R. Seeley, Religion, and the Cultural Significance of Anonymity. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. ISBN 9781442645776.
- Senate House Library online catalogue, UK: Lon.
- Hesketh, Ian (2014). "History is Past Politics, and Politics Present History': Who Said It?". Notes and Queries. 61: 105–108. doi:10.1093/notesj/gjt244.
- Bell, Duncan SA. "Unity and difference: John Robert Seeley and the political theology of international relations." Review of International Studies 31#3 (2005): 559-579.
- Hesketh, Ian. Victorian Jesus: J.R. Seeley, Religion, and the Cultural Significance of Anonymity (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017).
- Hesketh, Ian. "Writing History in Macaulay’s Shadow: JR Seeley, EA Freeman, and the Audience for Scientific History in Late Victorian Britain." Journal of the Canadian Historical Association/Revue de la Société historique du Canada 22#2 (2011): 30-56.
- Kenyon, John Philipps. The history men: the historical profession in England since the Renaissance (Univ of Pittsburgh Press, 1984.)
- Wormell, Deborah (1980). Sir John Seeley and the Uses of History. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521227209.
- G. W. Prothero, Memoir prefixed to Growth of British Policy (London, 1895)
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). . Encyclopædia Britannica. 24 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 580–581.
- Cousin, John William (1910). . A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: J. M. Dent & Sons – via Wikisource.
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John Robert Seeley
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- "John Seely" at Literary Encyclopedia
- Works by or about John Robert Seeley at Internet Archive
- The Expansion of England at Internet Archive
- Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 51, Seeley, John Robert by George Walter Prothero