Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) was a British philosopher, a man of letters, one of the leading critics of the late Victorian Age, and the first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography. Father of modernist author Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) and artist Vanessa Bell (1879–1961) he was also a noted mountaineer, having served as president of the Alpine Club and editor of the Alpine Journal.
He was born in Kensington Gore on November 28, 1832. He was educated at Eton, at King’s College, London, and at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he was elected to a fellowship in 1854 and became junior tutor in 1856. He was a religious skeptic. In 1859 he was ordained but his study of philosophy, together with the religious controversies surrounding the publication of On the Origin of Species (1859) by Charles Darwin, caused him to lose his faith in 1862, and in 1864 he resigned from his positions at Cambridge and moved to London.
The transparency in his thinking coupled with sincerity makes him a link between the Victorian and Rationalism of the 18th century continuing in the 19th century in the utilitarian school of philosophers. Twice in novels, one by his own daughter Virginia Woolf in To The Light-House and the other by George Meredith (Ramsay in To The Light House and Vermon Whitford in The Egoist) he figured as the basis of characters.
He started writing in Cornhill Magazine, The Nation (a political magazine), The Saturday Review, etc. He ungrudgingly helped the publication of PallMall Gazette in 1865. Hours in a Library (1874-1897) is a remarkable book of his critical essays. His Essays on Free Thinking and Plain Speaking is basically a powerful agnostic manifesto. The book makes him a leader of the agnostic school, and a chief challenger of popular religion, which he charged with being unable to satisfy genuine spiritual needs.
Stephen’s main philosophical work was his Science of Ethics (1882), evolutionary ethics, but he also wrote extensively in the history of ideas, including History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1876) in which he explained the arguments of the old English deists and the skepticism of Hume and then wrote English Utilitarianism (1900). In 1900 appeared his “An Agnostic’s Apology” in the Fortnightly Review; this further revealed his private convictions and helped familiarize the public with the term “agnostic” which had been invented in 1870 by Thomas Huxley. In 1882 he produced his Science of Ethics, in which he summed up his final conclusions on the dominant problems of life, in light of his study of Mill, Darwin, and Spencer.
His well-known work is his Editorship of the English Men of Letters containing his admirable biographies of:
1. Samuel Johnson (1878)
2. Alexander Pope (1880)
3. Jonathan Swift (1882)
4. George Eliot (1902)
5. Thomas Hobbes (1904)
As biographies, they are almost unflawed and highly interesting. His contribution to the reinforcement of the Cornhill Magazine as its editor is really praise-worthy.
Stephen’s English Literature and Society in the Eighteenth Century (1904) was a pioneer work in the sociological study of literature.
Also read; Thomas Lodge and his famous works