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An Honest Man

Moore: G.E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles

by Paul Levy
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 335 pp., $18.95

G.E. Moore (1873-1958) was one of the most distinguished and most influential philosophers of the twentieth century in spite of having published only three full-length books during his long life: Principia Ethica (1903), Ethics (1912), and Some Main Problems of Philosophy (1953). His Philosophical Studies (1922) was a collection of articles, perhaps the best known of which was “The Refutation of Idealism” of 1903. In that famous paper Moore attacked Berkeley’s doctrine that to be is to be perceived; at the same time he continued the assault on all forms of idealism that he had begun in “The Nature of Judgment” of 1899, a paper which Bertrand Russell regarded as the first shot in a war against Kant, Hegel, and their British followers. Soon Russell fired his own formidable guns against idealism, and the philosophical movement known as realism was launched. Both Moore and Russell joined most of the rest of mankind in believing that tables and chairs exist independently of perception, but at the same time they agreed with Plato that timeless attributes, which they identified with the meanings of common nouns and adjectives, exist independently of thought.

In accordance with this Platonic realism, Moore held that moral goodness, the goodness of things that are worth having purely for their own sakes, exists independently of thought. In Principia Ethica—the book upon whose historical significance Paul Levy concentrates—Moore argued that although we can understand the attribute of being good, we cannot give a correct analysis or definition of it because, like yellowness, it is a simple and therefore unanalyzable property. Moore held, moreover, that unlike yellowness, goodness is not what he called a natural quality, one that might be expressed in a scientific description of an object. However, in a chapter of Principia Ethica entitled “The Ideal” Moore went beyond this logical thesis and asserted that the most valuable things possessing this unanalyzable property of goodness are “states of consciousness, which may be roughly described as the pleasure of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects.”

What I have called Moore’s logical thesis commanded the intense interest of professional philosophers, who argued for decades about the alleged indefinability and non-naturalness of goodness while paying comparatively little attention to Moore’s substantive moral judgments, such as the one I’ve quoted about human intercourse. By contrast, writers influenced by J.M. Keynes’s “My Early Beliefs” have held that non-philosophers in and out of Bloomsbury did just the reverse: they paid little attention to Moore’s logical reflections but they cared so much about his moral judgments that they converted his praise of friendship into homosexual propaganda. Or, as Russell once said, they degraded Moore’s moral judgments by advocating what Russell called “stuffy girls’-school sentimentalizing” in the name of those judgments.

Paul Levy is not primarily interested in expounding or assessing the views, whether logical or moral, that Moore advanced in Principia Ethica or in any other published work that attracted the interest of professional philosophers. Levy’s main concern is to combat the view that Moore influenced literary figures, economists, journalists, and other nonphilosophers by persuading them to accept the moral judgments he made in his chapter on the ideal. Levy finds that view excessively intellectual because it implies that Moore’s impact on Lytton Strachey, J.M. Keynes, and others was merely a matter of convincing them of “truths.” Instead, Levy holds, Moore’s influence was more personal: his candor, purity, innocence, and other winning qualities captivated Englishmen who were not philosophers between the 1890s and the First World War.

In order to show this, Levy tells us a story that is interesting in some parts, dull in others, a story that is partly familiar but also full of new information about Moore because Levy was given exclusive access to Moore’s papers while writing this book. As the subtitle of the book indicates, Levy’s story is mainly devoted to an account of Moore’s connection with the Cambridge Apostles, a secret intellectual organization to which he was elected in 1894 and which he dominated for a number of years. A cursory examination of Levy’s list of the 255 members elected between 1820, when the society was founded, and the First World War will reveal the names of Tennyson, Henry Sumner Maine, James Clerk Maxwell, Henry Sidgwick, F.W. Maitland, Alfred North Whitehead, G.H. Hardy, Bertrand Russell, Roger Fry, Leonard Woolf, E.M. Forster, J.M. Keynes, Rupert Brooke, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

By the time Moore’s name was inscribed on this distinguished roster, many Apostles seemed to be preparing for membership in the Bloomsbury Group, and that is why Principia Ethica looms so large in Levy’s story. In order to explain how the Apostle Moore prefigured the saint of Bloomsbury, Levy tries to show the connection between several youthful papers that Moore read to the Apostles and his Principia Ethica, a book that Bloomsbury spoke about with bated breath and unabated enthusiasm.

By trying to re-create Moore’s life as an Apostle, Levy wishes to show, among other things, how the Apostles’ tradition of candor in discussion encouraged the young Moore to demonstrate the moral qualities of honesty and openness that Bloomsbury came to adore. And although this part of the book is often illuminating, it is also boring when the author offers summaries of sophomoric discussions by the Apostles of matters that do not throw light on Moore’s thought or character. In addition to reporting meetings of the Apostles, Levy tells us about an unsuccessful effort to publish a collective work called “The Manifesto,” which was to popularize some of Moore’s views; and he gives us an informative account of Moore’s attitudes toward the First World War.

As I have said, Levy tries, on the basis of his narrative, to combat a certain view of Moore’s influence. But I must confess that it is difficult to understand what Levy calls his “radical stance towards the orthodox interpretation of Moore’s influence on people other than professional philosophers” in the period Levy treats. He admits that those who were influenced asserted that they believed truths that they found in Moore’s writing. Indeed, he says that they took “only as much from Principia Ethica as suited their needs.” Are we to conclude, then, that they did not really believe what they “took” from Moore’s writing? Well, yes and no. Levy tells us that “in professing belief in Moore’s ‘philosophy,’ his Bloomsbury disciples were, for the most part, gesturing in order to demonstrate their loyalty” to the man they loved.

And Levy also tells us that “the appropriate gesture of allegiance to him meant saying that one believed his propositions and accepted the arguments for them.” Such talk about “gesturing” and saying that one believed propositions and accepted arguments suggests that Moore’s followers were insincere or stupid in their demonstration of allegiance to Moore, and that they said they believed his propositions and accepted his arguments when in fact they did not. But at the end of the very paragraph in which this talk about gesturing appears, Levy assures us that “the gesture of allegiance in no way excludes the possibility that the belief is sincerely and genuinely held.”

In my opinion Levy can’t have it both ways. Either Moore’s admiring followers were making insincere or stupid gestures of allegiance to his beliefs merely because they loved him, or they sincerely and intelligently accepted what he said when they “took” what suited their needs from Principia Ethica. I do not see how one can genuinely accept a thinker’s beliefs if all one does is to make a gesture of allegiance to him by lovingly mouthing his statements and arguments. I do not deny, of course, that Moore’s followers could have simultaneously admired his character and agreed with his beliefs. Nor do I deny that the force of his personality could have combined with his arguments to persuade some of his admirers to agree with those beliefs. Had Levy said this, his central thesis would have been less ambiguous. And because that thesis is ambiguous, I am not sure that I understand his “radical stance” toward what he calls the orthodox interpretation of Moore’s popular influence. Furthermore, the ambiguity of Levy’s central thesis probably explains why he never substantiates it in the narrative that takes up most of the book. That thesis has only the fuzziest connection with Levy’s narrative and I think Levy would have been better off if he had not inserted it into his introduction.

Levy notes that according to Keynes’s memoir “My Early Beliefs,” Moore’s admirers “did not get out of Principia Ethica what Moore had put into it.” Levy should have told his readers more about what Moore did put into it. As it is, Levy presents only the sketchiest account of Moore’s views of goodness as an indefinable, non-natural quality and of his so-called “Ideal Utilitarianism,” the views that Moore’s followers allegedly neglected when they pledged allegiance to a man who, according to Levy, we must regard as a sort of beloved mesmerist.

Levy is equally disappointing when he deals with the relevant views of those whom he supposes to have been mesmerized. At one point he tells us that Keynes “almost neglected to read the first four or five chapters” of Principia Ethica, whatever that means. But, as Levy notes on the basis of an essay by the Cambridge philosopher Richard Braithwaite, Keynes was quite familiar with the theory of duty Moore advanced in Chapter V, “Ethics in Relation to Conduct.” Why, then, doesn’t Levy go on to point out that in A Treatise on Probability, upon which Keynes had begun work in 1904, he takes the trouble to quote a long passage from Chapter V and reject as invalid an argument of Moore that bears directly on Moore’s theory of duty in Chapter V? Keynes led readers of “My Early Beliefs” to think that he had not taken “the slightest notice” of Chapter V of Principia Ethica, but this is belied by the criticism he directed at that chapter when he criticized Moore for depending on the frequency theory of probability that Keynes rejected.

Another one of Moore’s apostolic admirers, Lytton Strachey, is also said by Levy to have “almost neglected to read the book’s first four or five chapters.” Yet in 1903 Strachey wrote an enthusiastic letter to Moore after reading Principia Ethica—a letter that Levy reproduces—in which Strachey makes clear that he did not neglect to read at least part of the first chapter, since he quotes from it. Moreover, Strachey says in that letter: “The last chapters interest me most, as they were newer to me than the rest.” Note the plural “chapters,” which would include the penultimate Chapter V. Yet, on p. 238, Levy seems to give unqualified endorsement to the view of Strachey’s biographer Holroyd, who says that Strachey turned his back upon “ethics in relation to conduct,” the subject of Moore’s Chapter V.

On the same page Levy also appears to endorse Holroyd’s statement that “the impact which Moore had on [Strachey] was pre-eminently not one of morals but of morale,” a statement that Levy seems to accept in the following summary remark: “In short, Lytton saw in Principia Ethica a justification for homosexuality.” But if Lytton Strachey saw a justification for homosexuality in Principia Ethica, was it not a moral justification that he saw there? In that case, why wouldn’t Strachey regard a justification of homosexuality as a matter of “ethics in relation to conduct”?

A good question, for soon after one reads what looks for all the world like Levy’s endorsement on p. 238 of Holroyd’s view that Strachey turned his back on Moore’s “ethics in relation to conduct,” we find Levy writing on p. 239: “[Leonard] Woolf did not overlook Moore’s chapter on ‘Ethics in Relation to Conduct’ (nor, really, did Strachey, who wrote to Woolf at the time of publication, ‘The last two chapters—glory alleluiah!’).” In his parenthetical remark Levy now rejects the view of Holroyd that Strachey turned his back on “ethics in relation to conduct,” that is to say, on Moore’s Chapter V.

Often, then, Levy is unconvincing and even exasperating when he tries to offer explanations or interpretations. Either he is unclear, as he is in presenting the main thesis of his book, or he does not supply requisite evidence, as when he tries to say why Moore never spoke out publicly against the use of Principia Ethica as homosexual propaganda. Levy’s view is that although Moore was not a homosexual, he had “experienced homosexual feelings when he was young, and he was too honest about himself to deny the past or repudiate attitudes and opinions that he had earlier entertained—even though he never thought that they were correctly derived from his arguments in Principia Ethica.”

Yet if we ask how Levy knows that Moore failed to speak out against the misuse of Principia Ethica for the reasons that Levy gives, we find nothing like a satisfactory answer in this book. Indeed, I am led to observe that if Moore was as honest as Levy says he was—and I think Moore was—he would have made a clean breast of everything: he would have revealed both his youthful and later feelings and beliefs as well as the motives for silence attributed to him by Levy. I think that some of the things that Levy says about Moore’s attitude toward Russell are also incompatible with Levy’s assertions about Moore’s honesty and candor. Levy says that when Moore in old age acknowledged his great debt to Russell, he was merely being diplomatically nice to another old man, but in my opinion this completely underestimates Moore’s honesty, a trait that made him so endearing to so many people throughout his life.

In criticizing this book as I have, I do not wish to deny that Levy has painstakingly excavated much important information about a central figure in Anglo-American philosophy of the twentieth century, about a number of his friends, and about his influence on them. Levy has also successfully described certain aspects of Moore’s character that were as vividly manifested at seventy as they were in his youth. I can testify to this from personal experience. I first met Moore in 1942, when he was visiting professor at Columbia and I was a young instructor of philosophy who attended his seminars in two academic years. My wife and I saw a good deal of Moore and his wife in those years, and I think that Levy is absolutely right when he says that Moore was a great and lovable man. He was candid about his feelings, honest and fierce in argument, willing to admit philosophical mistakes, and certainly kind.

I emphasize the last trait in spite of a remark by Wittgenstein that Moore was not kind but “kindly,” and another one to the effect that Moore had a conscience but no heart. Wittgenstein knew Moore far better than I did, but Wittgenstein seems to have needed exaggerated evidence of kindness from his friends, evidence that Moore must have been incapable of giving. Moreover, I think the remark that Moore had no heart is absolutely absurd.

Elsewhere I have tried to give a picture of Moore as he was at Columbia in the early Forties.* To me he was both a moral and an intellectual hero. One could disagree with his views and yet profit enormously from philosophical exchange with him. He would attack what he thought were his own mistakes with as much ferocity as he attacked the mistakes of others. He could make you feel that nothing mattered but reaching the truth when he demolished the views of some of the more pompous professors who attended his seminars along with the young; and that trait could well have been nurtured by his life among the Apostles, where Cambridge undergraduates were on an equal footing with dons.

Therefore, in spite of my reservations about Levy’s book, I think he has performed a service by revealing as much as he has about the admirable Moore. And, in my view, Levy has also shown how a clear-headed analytic philosopher exerted influence on twentieth-century Englishmen who, if they had been Americans, would have dismissed Moore as a trivial, logic-chopping philosopher. I do not remember New York intellectuals or New York professors of literature or history in the Forties paying much attention to Moore, a man who, as Levy shows, had such great impact on E.M. Forster, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, G.L. Dickinson, and G.M. Trevelyan. I can remember Moore’s wife Dorothy telling me that when Moore spent some time in Princeton, Allen Tate paid no attention to him until Tate heard that he was the father of the poet Nicholas Moore. How appropriate, then, for Levy to use as an epigraph the following poem by Nicholas Moore:


For my father, G.E. Moore, OM, the Cambridge philosopher

Here lies the great philosopher
Who did not like the world to err,
Who did not err himself, but died
Forever not quite satisfied
That he was not a silly, though
His wise friends never thought him so.

  1. *

    Memories of G.E. Moore,” reprinted in my Pragmatism and the American Mind (Oxford University Press, 1973), pp. 254-261.

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