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Understanding Thomas Hardy

Writer Thomas Hardy fits neatly into the general scheme of the literature of the second half of the nineteenth century, for he was about midway between writers Matthew Arnold and Walt Whitman. He believed in the efficacy of the knowledge given to one by an understanding of science; but he felt that new points of view should be impregnated with the ancient lore of the past. He believed that old wine should be kept in new bottles. He refused to follow the writers who called themselves realists into the morass of words that they accumulated in their attempts to portray life and character as they thought they were. Likewise, he refused to give himself to pure impressionism. He endeavored to preserve a balance between objective reality and his interpretation of it. He was in the old sense of the word a literary artist.

Hardy, of course, read the events of human life in the light of his conception of the Immanent Will. He believed that the skein of circumstance, woven blindly and flung forth indifferently, caught up in its web all human beings from the emperor in his palace to the unconscious lout lying drunk in the ditch. But Hardy was not satisfied to hold this view conjecturally. He scanned the pages of philosophy, of science, and of history to be certain that he read life aright. From them he evolved a view of life which has been called scientific determinism. It seemed to him that men moved as automata, each within his own sphere. Unseen forces played upon them; unseen powers directed them.

These forces, the physical manifestation of the metaphysical Immanent Will, were three in number, to which all others were subordinated. They were the power of heredity, the shaping power of education, and the influence of environment. From them there was no escape, for every choice seemingly made by the individual, Hardy thought, was dictated by so many thousand unseen circumstances so interwoven that it was almost impossible to realize the extent to which one was enmeshed in them. For evidence to substantiate this conclusion he could point to the past and to the present. The Greeks, for example, believed that the three Fates directed every action, no matter how minute, of mortals, and Immortals- of the peasant plodding in the field, and of Zeus waving his machinations on the cloud-kissed brow of Olympus. The Christian era had introduced into the intellectual world the contrary idea of Free Will; but the world had split on that interpretation of life during the Reformation, when John Calvin gave to the world from the dark caverns of his mind the gloomy doctrine of Predestination. In the nineteenth century, the western world was probably equally divided between the theory of Free Will maintained by the Roman Catholic Church and a few protestant denominations, and the theory of Predestination held by all churches stemming from Calvinism. Unexpectedly, aid from an unsought source came to those who maintained that human actions were predetermined, for the evolutionary theory, expounded by Darwin and Huxley, and the psychology which grew from it, gave weight to the idea that Predeterminism fitted better with facts than the theory of Free Will. Once an anthropomorphic God was out of the picture and His place taken by an evolving Consciousness, or whatever the mind of man chose to substitute, it was almost necessary to believe in a theory of life similar to that held by Hardy.