Hierarchy, Beauty, and Freedom: D. H. Lawrence’s Response To Techno-Industrial Modernity

HomeArticlesHierarchy, Beauty, and Freedom: D. H. Lawrence’s Response To Techno-Industrial Modernity

The discussion which follows is intended to provide more evidence for what  a number of scholars have recently been contending about Lawrence’s fundamental ontological vision. It derives support from and provides support for the claims of Michael Bell, Graham Martin, Anne Fernihough, Fiona Becket, Robert Montgomery, Peter Fjågesund, Michael Black and others.[1]

Just as no philosopher would simply say that Lawrence’s explorations of the man-woman relationship relieves him or her of the duty to read Wittgenstein on the nature of language, so too the explorations of a littérateur into the triumph and tragedy of human existence cannot be taken as relieving him or her of the duty to study the more technical and abstract discussions of the “pure” philosophers.  The promise of a mutual illumination of the two dimensions of mind represented by literature and philosophy makes the effort worthwhile. As Michael Bell so wonderfully puts it: “the complexity of Wittgenstein’s thought has been overestimated and for the same reason the sophistication of Lawrence has been under-appreciated.”[2]

Lawrence’s Rejectionism and the Limits of Science

Lawrence’s attitude to modern civilization is not one that envisages a certain number of partial reforms as sufficient to its healthy state. Rather this civilization should be rejected root and branch. Lawrence’s rejectionist stance towards modern society is such a prominent feature of his thought that it is no surprise to find him attacking the very pillar of modern civilization itself – modern science.

From the strictly scientific point of view Lawrence is an “irrationalist” or even a profoundly “unscientific” if not simply anti-scientific writer. He flatly rejects the methodology which characterizes modern science.[3] For him the scientific method as a path to the ultimate truth is more or less bootless. It can only dig up what it itself has buried. Scientific reductionism has the effect of missing the wood for the trees when it comes to phenomena that are humanly interesting in the most direct sense. “The very statement that water is H2O is a mental tour de force. With our bodies, we know that water is not H2O, our intuitions and instincts both know it is not so” (LEA, 208).

When he turns to the very symbol of modern man’s scientific triumph he says that at the very moment you discover it “. . . the atom it will explode under your nose” (FUPU, 167). Thus “The moment you get down to the real basis of anything, it will dissolve into a thousand problematic constituents” (ibid).  And the more problems you solve, the more they will spring up “with their fingers at their nose, making a fool of you . . . you won’t get anything in the end but a formula and a lie” (ibid).[4]

Lawrence’s fundamental point is that the true world is ultimately beyond the reach of scientific method. For Lawrence the soul stands outside the material chain of causation and so can be free enough from its grasp to observe that chain’s operation while being unfettered by it.[5] Science is certainly capable of partial discoveries of one sort or another but given that it is the “whole” about which we seek knowledge then such discoveries in themselves are nothing to the point. That which bids fair to supply us with the kind of knowledge of the whole is most definitely not something like modern chemistry (A, 8). But such a higher form of knowledge should still qualify as scientific albeit in an evidently different sense than modern chemistry. Modern science as distinct from “true” science is forced to pretend it can look at the world from the “outside.”  But like Jonah it is not in position to discover where it is in fact located. “Jonah, sit still in the whale’s belly, and have a look around. For you’ll never measure the whale, since you’re inside him” (RDP, 313).

So for Lawrence the modern scientific project’s whole purpose involves the removal of the awe, wonder and amazement induced in us by our own experience of the world. Natural phenomena such as thunder, lightning and earthquakes are reduced to such things as temperature exchanges, the motion of electrons and variabilities in tectonic forces. But we know that art has often been inspired by natural phenomena, e.g. J. W. M. Turner’s paintings or Beethoven’s symphonies. Such artworks cannot be reduced to separate conceptual phenomena but have to be absorbed “whole cloth” as they are conveyed immediately to our senses. But these artistic representations of natural phenomena are not the “factual” thunder and lightning known to scientific reason. Such reasoning exiles them to the realm of pure imagination and unreality as though they have been superadded to actual reality as a kind of a footnote. But for Lawrence it is quite the opposite attitude that should prevail: it is the scientists who should justify their enterprises at the tribunal of art and not the other way around.

What would go to constitute true “irrationalism” for Lawrence would rather be in a dogged persistence in strictly scientific thinking when it has been shown incapable of a consistent appreciation of nature. The truly reasonable approach is to be open to the truths within us that are retrieved by a broader nosce te ipsum.[6] Lawrence, then, is not a natural scientist as usually understood but more precisely is a humanistic psychologist. Those he opposes are analytical reductionists who cannot see the true world because they look at it through the distorting lens of scientific abstraction.

Looking at ourselves from an especially “Lawrentian” vantage point it is apparent that as products of the modern, western society we “are bleeding from the roots.” Furthermore, we have plucked love from the “Tree of Life” turning it into a “grinning mockery” all the while expecting it to “keep on blooming in our civilized vase on the table.” It was nothing short of a catastrophe when man cut himself off from “the rhythm of the year” by turning his back on the natural order of things as reflected in the earth, sun and stars (LCL, 323). [7]

How then could western man get himself into such a predicament? Why did he follow down the blind alley of the unreasonableness of scientific reason and turn his back on the “Tree of Life”? Lawrence’s answer to this question is in part suggested when he says that our natural feelings must of necessity remain but unfortunately they have come invariably to stand opposed to our “ideals.” Once we hear the word “ideal” in this context we are immediately reminded of Plato. And unsurprisingly we find Lawrence is of the firm opinion that it is Plato who needs a “kick in the wind” above all.

A Kick in the Wind for Plato

According to Lawrence, the initial hyper-consciousness, which is at the root of all our problems, goes back to Plato. It was this father of the western rationalist tradition who distorted our sense of the natural order in the first place. The “smooth” Plato, he says, would have had a much truer relation to the universe if “somebody had suddenly stood on his head and given (him) a kick in the wind, and set the whole school in an uproar.” Furthermore, “If, in the midst of the Timaeus, Plato had only paused to say: ‘And now, my dear Cleon — (or whoever it was) — I have a bellyache, and must retreat to the privy,’” he would have enriched his “Eternal Idea of Man” (STH, 181).

For Lawrence, Plato was so “metaphysical” in his attitude to life he managed to forget the simple fact of “W. C.” Hence his final effect on life is to render it spectral, fantastical, opaque and ghost-like in nature. Lawrence’s point is that Plato viewed bodily reality with an unacceptable negativity which has had a deleterious influence on western thinking. Plato took flight from life as it must inevitably be lived and so no matter how much we admire him for “novelizing” his wisdom as opposed to sermonizing we cannot forgive him for his looking down on lived human existence as it is immediately experienced. “Plato makes the perfect ideal being tremble in me. But that’s only a bit of me. Perfection is only a bit, in the strange make-up of man alive” (STH, 195).[8] When Lawrence applies the adjective “little” to Plato in describing his dialogues as “queer little novels” there is an unmistakable tone of dismissiveness. We should not take Plato too seriously lest we be seduced away from life into his metaphysical “miasmic mist.”[9]

So we see Lawrence rejects modern society, rejects modern science and so rejects the civilization which has come to surround us. But then where does Lawrence’s radical rejectionism lead? Given the comprehensiveness of Lawrence’s negations and the spiritedness and energy of his anti-modernity, is he not obliged to provide us with some intimations of a solution or a “way out” if not a detailed road-map to the future? Should he be allowed to just leave things simply at a loud “I protest!”? If modern man has dug himself into a tremendous hole which bids fair to become his grave what if anything can we do about it in Lawrence’s view? Naturally we wish to see some signs of an answer to this question.

We fully understand of course that Lawrence will never point to anything that has been tainted by Plato’s “original” sin of reality hatred and this has to include the great tradition descending from his influence as possibly doing us any good. Western rationalism went all wrong with Plato because he never did receive that “kick in the wind” and such a kick might have succeeded in heading off not only Aristotle, but also Aquinas and the “beastly Kant.”[10] What is needed is a new animating spirit for the “post-modern” order to come. Lawrence makes his attempt.[11]

The Beauty of Togetherness, Or, the Revolution against Dullness

Lawrence is exceedingly critical of Jesus’s unwillingness to compromise with the “real world”:

“And if, when Jesus told the rich man to take all he had and give it to the poor, the rich man had replied: ‘All right, old sport! You are poor, aren’t you? Come on, I’ll give you a fortune. Come on.’ Then a great deal of sniveling and mistakenness would have been spared us all, and we might never have produced a Marx and a Lenin. If only Jesus had accepted the fortune!” (STH, 181)

For Lawrence, the central question for human consciousness since Plato has indeed been: “This world or the next?” Western civilization has developed in a space between the secularity of modern techno-scientific reason and the “Heavenly City” of western metaphysics.[12] But its Christian component always insisted that all our earthly crises are as nothing compared to perfect divinity and highest truth. In its heart Christianity was so “transcendental” and so otherworldly that it succeeded in leaving out of its calculations the dimension which exists between life and eternity. It made a rejection of this world so extreme as to be totally irrelevant to life as lived. When we aim too high with Jesus we end up in the depths of Bolshevism and the “Gulag Archipelago” about which Solzhenitsyn writes so powerfully and epically.[13]

The point here is that Lawrence would never let his “metaphysical” striving detach him from a commitment to nature and the natural order as a given and unalterable thing of which human life is a part. Lawrence was attempting to throw the modern scientific, technological and “secular” culture into radical relief against a broader and nobler conception of human life which drew men towards the eternal facts of love and death. The mistake of earlier thought was its insistence that we “lay up for (our)selves treasures in heaven”[14] when our lives must be lived and lived well here below. So Lawrence’s account of the root causes of modernity’s outstanding symptoms in fact traces the West’s problem much further back than the Renaissance and Enlightenment to a source to which many critics of the modern world would in fact turn for a solution. And that source is nothing other than Christianity itself![15]

Reading Lawrence we see him all throughout attempting to articulate a political principle which transcends the difference between capitalism and socialism with their shared presupposition of continuous modernization. This principle might echo the political science of ancient times at some level but certainly does not envision any kind of return to Spartanism or the specific form of republicanism associated with the Greek polis.[16] That principle might be described as “togetherness.” But in his usual paradoxical way Lawrence explains that we will have “hostile groupings of men for the sake of opposition” when social bonds are strong in such a way that “civil strife becomes a necessary condition of self-assertion.” The truth of his togetherness principle then is seen in the fact that class hatred is actually a reminder of a deeper human solidarity. “Class-hate and class-consciousness are only a sign that the old togetherness, the old blood-warmth has collapsed, and every man is really aware of himself in apartness” (LCL, 332).

The “togetherness” believed in by Lawrence is premised upon a deep commonality of memory, history and belonging. “‘Stick to Wragby as far as Wragby sticks to you,’” Sir Malcolm says to Constance in Lady Chatterleys Lover (273). There is a certain fellow-feeling which comes from shared experiences such that one’s share in community “psychology” is intuited rather than learnt or consciously acquired. Against these bonds of human community is pitted the modern phenomenon of “alienation.” Without a shared history and common folkways human beings come to exist “in a state of apartness and mutual distrust.” But the technologized conquest of nature disrupts the older shared intuitions and replaces our “natural” and intuitive blood-consciousness, and blood-warmth with mental conceptions, ideals, and grand designs.[17] This is the trend of our civilization “away from the physical or organic aspects of life and therewith towards greater physical separateness between individuals and the sexes.”[18] Modern man feels himself to be “an apart, fragmentary, unfinished thing” (A, 181).

For Lawrence not only is the “class struggle” more about social unity than social division, it is more about the ugliness of techno-industrial capitalism than it is about the fight against the unequal distribution of wealth under its sway. The problem of techno-industrialism then is coextensive with the problem of beauty. The spirit of man in the nineteenth century, he says, is betrayed by the fact of an ubiquitous “ugliness” (LEA, 291). In the “palmy Victorian days” the moneyed classes and promoters of industry committed the great crime of condemning the workers to “ugliness, ugliness, ugliness” (ibid). The working masses found themselves overwhelmed by “formless and ugly surroundings, ugly ideals, ugly religion, ugly hope, ugly love, ugly clothes, ugly furniture, ugly houses, ugly relationship between workers and employers” (291-292). The human soul needs actual beauty even more than bread. Indeed the “industrial problem” itself might have been solved if only those in positions of influence “had encouraged some form of beauty in dress, some form of beauty in interior life—furniture, decoration. If they had given prizes for the handsomest chair or table, the loveliest scarf, the most charming room that the men or women could make! (LEA, 292).”[19]

The Art of the Dialog

Lawrence does indeed believe in a kind of “holy” individualism – but not simply. He complements this belief with a firm faith in something like its opposite at one and the same time. What can be done to resolve this paradoxical contradiction in Lawrence’s thought?  Let us use the exchange between Levison and Rawdon Lilly in Chapter XX of Lawrence’s Aarons Rod as possibly yielding some kind of solution.

In response to Levison’s canvassing of the question of the historical and logical inevitability of socialist revolution Lilly insists that we must look “somewhere else.” He says this because “‘The idea and the ideal (of this logic) has for me gone dead—dead as carrion – ’” (AR, 280).[20]

Levison requests more precision from his interlocutor: “‘Which idea, which ideal precisely?’” Lilly responds:

‘The ideal of love, the ideal that it is better to give than to receive, the ideal of liberty, the ideal of the brotherhood of man, the ideal of the sanctity of human life, the ideal of what we call goodness, charity, benevolence, public spirited-ness, the ideal of sacrifice for a cause, the ideal of unity and unanimity—all the lot—all the whole beehive of ideals—has all got the modern bee-disease, and gone putrid, stinking.—And when the ideal is dead and putrid, the logical sequence is only stink.—Which, for me, is the truth concerning the ideal of good, peaceful, loving humanity and its logical sequence in socialism and equality, equal opportunity or whatever you like.—But this time he stinketh—and I’m sorry for any Christus who brings him to life again, to stink livingly for another thirty years: the beastly Lazarus of our idealism” (AR, 280).[21]

Levison resists this outcome and asks Lilly “‘What is your alternative? Is it merely nihilism?’” Lilly responds defensively here explaining that his “alternative” to the progressive dream is only “‘for no one but myself, so I’ll keep my mouth shut about it.’”(AR 280)

Levison is sure that such silence “‘isn’t fair.’” Lilly then retorts that he has no obligation to Levison to say what he thinks. So here we have Lilly giving a warning to his interlocutor that he doesn’t feel obliged to be fully forthright in discussing these matters. But Levison insists “‘if you enter into conversation, you have -’” Lilly: “‘Bah, then I didn’t enter into conversation’” (ibid). In other words he reiterating that he remains free to possibly not say what he “really thinks.” It is at this point that he launches into his defense of slavery agreeing “in the rough” with Argyle a third character:

“You’ve got to have a sort of slavery again. People are not MEN: they are insects and instruments, and their destiny is slavery. They are too many for me, and so what I think is ineffectual. But ultimately they will be brought to agree—after sufficient extermination—and then they will elect for themselves a proper and healthy and energetic slavery.” (AR, 281)

For his part Levison finds it “‘impossible that slavery should be healthy and energetic.’” Lilly then explains that “‘I mean it none the less. I mean a real committal of the life-issue of inferior beings to the responsibility of a superior being.’” Like a good liberal Levison immediately suggests sarcastically that distinguishing between those “‘who are the inferior and which is the superior (will) take a bit of knowing’” (ibid).

Lilly goes on to explain that his concept of slavery involves the voluntary surrender of the inferiors to the “‘permanent and very efficacious (military) power their superiors.’” But all this appears to Levison as an example of “the preposterous pretentiousness of a megalomaniac—one whom, after a while, humanity would probably have the satisfaction of putting into prison, or into a lunatic asylum” (AR, 282).

Whether they know it or not the Lillys of this world are destined for the “prison or the lunatic asylum for their criminal-imbecile pretensions.” This is because Levison has at his back the “the huge social power with which he, insignificant as he was, was armed against … those (pretensions) above set forth.” As the representative of social opinion Levison can gloat the “two inevitable engines of his disapproval” – social opinion and incarceration – are on his side against the “Lilly-ists” (ibid).

So we see here that Lilly is playing the role which thirty-eight years later Bertrand Russell was to accuse Lawrence of playing.[22] By having Lilly appear to Levison (and Russell) in the guise of a fascist megalomaniac Lawrence has communicated his thorough sensitivity to the issue. At a minimum we can say that Lawrence pre-empts Russell’s later attack in this passage by showing his full awareness of the problem of the preposterous, pretentious, political megalomaniac ripe for a lunatic asylum.

He ventures to remark that “‘It will take you some time before you’ll get your doctrines accepted.’” Despite the fact that Lilly had admitted a moment earlier that he would not be Levison takes Lilly to be “‘speaking seriously’” (ibid).

But then comes the big “Turn Around.” With a “peculiar, gay, whimsical smile” Lilly exclaims “‘Bah, Levison—one can easily make a fool of you. Do you take this as my gospel?’”

Incredulously and with some anger Levison says “Do you mean to say you don’t MEAN what you’ve been saying?” Levison had blithely assumed that Lilly was “speaking seriously” but Lilly promptly admits that he “should say the blank opposite with just as much fervor.” This prompts Levison to ask of him “Do you mean to say you don’t MEAN what you’ve been saying?”

“Why, I’ll tell you the real truth,” said Lilly. ‘” think every man is a sacred and holy individual, NEVER to be violated; I think there is only one thing I hate to the verge of madness, and that is BULLYING. To see any living creature BULLIED, in any way, almost makes a murderer of me. That is true. Do you believe it—?”

Levison’s summary comment before the crashing sound of a bomb going off ends the dialogue is that unwillingly “like most of us, got a complex nature which – C R A S H!” (ibid).

So at the critical moment Lawrence has his “stand in” switch gears so completely as to “out-Russell Russell” and become the most extreme individualist/libertarian imaginable when it comes to the sovereignty of the human individual. Clearly Lawrence juxtaposed these two trains of thought in one dialogic exchange in order to highlight the starkness of the contrast between the politics of obedient devotion and the politics of extreme “libertarianism.” In the short space of a few paragraphs he presents a political philosophy which on the one hand demands unquestioning submission to the naturally superior while, on the other hand he asserts the radical freedom of all individuals without any limiting principle. The significance of all this for understanding Lawrence’s art is revealed when we look at an analysis of the passage that overlooks Lawrence’s self-contradictory method.[23]

In the Levison-Lilly “debate” we see two contending political philosophies going “head to head.” The one philosophy is what we might loosely call “communitarianism” which seeks to establish that above all man is a socio-political being who must live in solidarity and belongingness with others if his life is to have any meaning at all. The other contending philosophy we can generally call “liberalism” for which the human individual is the sacred unit and the freedom and happiness of whom constitutes the standard for all ethical judgment. There is no final resolution of the tension between these two political “theologies” in the Levison-Lilly dialogue. Rather we are exposed to an indefeasible and irreducible collision between the two each of which are equally as valid as far as they go. In this way Lawrence has reminded his readers of the fundamental situation presented by Plato in his “Apology of Socrates to the Athenian Jury” which Hegel describes as two “valid moral powers on both the sides which come into collision.”[24]

So Lawrence believes devoutly in the complete sovereignty of the individual soul while at the same time defending the division of society into vertical class divisions as not in and of themselves a necessarily and inevitably bad thing. The only possible resolution of this contradiction other than alleging that Lawrence was a thoughtless writer is to say that it was his intention in presenting paradoxical exchanges like those in Aarons Rod to force the “Levisons” of the world to think and think hard.[25]


Lawrence wishes to press upon us an awareness that radical individual freedom and independence are good things but that subordination, hierarchy and inequality can be very good things as well. His point is that it is simply impossible to have both these principles extended to their fullest amplification in any given socio-political order. If this inherent and immoveable limitation to political life be allowed then the problem of justice in the political community is not susceptible of any kind of ultimate or total solution. This is due to the simple facts of the human condition itself. “Life makes and moulds, and changes the problem. The problem will always be there, and will always be different. So nothing can be solved, even by life and living, for life dissolves and revolves, solving it leaves it alone” (PS, 376).[26]

Lawrence’s teaching in all this then is that we have no choice but to learn to live somewhere on the spectrum between these two deeply desirable poles of egalitarian individual freedom on the one hand and hierarchical community solidarity on the other. The private and the public dimensions in the life of man are ultimately present in each individual and it is for this reason politics must vibrate between horizontal individuality and vertical community as conditions might dictate.

On the practical level Lawrence can only mean that persons who bear the responsibility for the public good should have an appreciation of the sheer centrality to human life of both the individualistic and the communitarian principle – of the twin ideas of human being and citizen – and as a result an understanding of why and how they are irreconcilable. He will then govern on the premise that it is beyond the power of mere legislative changes, policy adjustments and governmental reforms to solve the infinite or “existential” problem of human nature itself. The best possible politics will involve at one and the same time an acknowledgement of a principle of human apartness that sees in each individual a sovereign being not susceptible to being measured by the standards of any other, and a principle of  human togetherness as manifested in the shared enjoyment of the beautiful made available in the world.



[1] Michael Bell, D. H. Lawrence: Language and Being (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Paul Poplawski, “Philosophical and Religious Approaches,” in D. H. Lawrence: A Reference Companion, ed. Paul Poplawski (Westport, CT.: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996), 566-74; Anne Fernihough, D. H. Lawrence: Aesthetics and Ideology (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1993), 7; Peter Fjågesund, The Apocalyptic World of D. H. Lawrence (Oslo: Norwegian University Press, 1991), 94; Michael Black, D. H. Lawrence: The Early Philosophical Works, A Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 114, 174.

[2] Michael Bell, “Cambridge and Italy: Lawrence, Wittgenstein and Forms of Life,” in D. H. Lawrence in Italy and England, eds. George Donaldson and Mara Kalnins (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 1999), 27. The German-speaking philosopher who was closest to Lawrence in “friend of a friend” terms was Wittgenstein for whose Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) Lawrence’s one time very close friend Bertrand Russell wrote an introduction. We may note in passing here that the central character in Lawrence’s St. Mawr written in 1925 is a woman name “Lou Witt.”

[3] “To the scientist, I am dead. He puts under the microscope a dead bit of me, and calls it me. He takes me to pieces, and says first one piece, and then another piece, is me . . . life, and life only, is the clue to the universe” says Lawrence in STH, 193.

[4] Lawrence also says elsewhere: “Perhaps…atoms, electrons, units of force or energy (are)… the constant from which all manifest living creation starts out, and to which it all returns” (RDP, 308). See Sandra M. Gilbert, “Apocalypse now (and then). Or, D. H. Lawrence and the swan in the electron,” in The Cambridge Companion to D. H. Lawrence, ed. Anne Fernihough (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 235-252.

[5] In the words of St. Augustine “The wise man, although he consists of body and soul, is called ‘wise’ in virtue of his soul,” in Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), 261-263.

[6] See Thomas Hobbes, “The Introduction,” in Leviathan, ed. C. B. Macpherson (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), 2.

[7] See David J. Gordon “D. H. Lawrence’s Dual Myth of Origin,” in Critical Essays on D. H. Lawrence, eds. Dennis Jackson and Fleda Brown Jackson (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1998), 238-245; Anthony Burgess,  “Lorenzo,” in One Mans Chorus (New York: Carroll and Graff, 1998), 302-303 and Flame Into Being (London: Heinemann, 1985), 121; Aldous Huxley, “Introduction,” in D. H. Lawrence: Selected Letters (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961), 11-12; Mark Spilka, The Love Ethic of D. H. Lawrence (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1955), 12-16.

[8] Lawrence also says elsewhere: “The history of our era is the nauseating and repulsive history of the crucifixion of the procreative body for the glorification of the spirit, the mental consciousness. Plato was an arch-priest of this crucifixion” (LEA, 203). To say the least Lawrence gives ample evidence of having been swayed by that infamous anti-Christian Friedrich Nietzsche. See Rose Marie Burwell, “A Catalogue of D. H. Lawrence’s reading From Early Childhood,” The D. H. Lawrence Review, 3, 3 (1970): 207, 213, 235, 236, 239; Mitzi M. Brunsdale says that Lawrence “was confirmed in his rejection of traditional values by his reading of Nietzsche, where he also received a sense of his own worth as a creator of art.” See The German Effect on D. H. Lawrence and His works 1885-1912 (Berne: Frankfurt am Main; Las Vegas: Peter Lang, 1978), 299.; Colin Milton, Lawrence and Nietzsche (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 1986); David S. Thatcher, Nietzsche in England 1890-1914 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970), 14-15, 274-275; Paul Hultsch, “Das Denken Nietzsches in seinre Bedeutung fur England,” Germanish-Romanische Monatschrift, xvi (September/October, 1938); H. Steinauer, “Eros and Psyche: A Nietzschean Motif in Anglo-American Literature,” Modern Language Notes, 64, 4 (1949), 217-218; Emile Delavenay says that “Lawrence launches into a stream of thought emanating from Nietzsche and his German disciples,” in D. H. Lawrence: The Man and His Work (London: Heinemann, 1972), 454.

[9] See Michael Bell, “Lawrence and Modernism,” in Fernihough, Cambridge Companion, 179-196; Fiona Becket, D. H. Lawrence: Thinker as Poet (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1997); Peter Widdowson, D. H. Lawrence (London: Longman, 1992) and especially Widdowson’s introduction, “Post-modernising Lawrence.”

[10] Lawrence is at odds with his critic T. S. Eliot here: “(Bradley) was influenced by Kant (and Hegel and Lotze). But Kant (and Hegel and Lotze) are not so despicable as some enthusiastic medievalists would have us believe, and they are in comparison with the school of Bentham, catholic civilized and universal.” See T. S. Eliot, “Francis Herbert Bradley,” in Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1975), 199 and Frank Kermode, Lawrence (Fontana Collins, 1973), 29. See Robert Montgomery, The Visionary D. H. Lawrence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 3; as well as Michael Bell, Open Secrets: Literature, Education and Authority from J. J. Rousseau to J. M. Coetzee (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 6.

[11] Willson H. Coates and Hayden V. White describe Lawrence as seeing “evidences of the possibility of ‘new life’ beyond nihilism,” in The Ordeal of Liberal Humanism: an Intellectual History of Europe (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970), 344. Heidegger says: “If we let ourselves fall into the abyss denoted by this sentence – (Language speaks.) – we do not go tumbling into emptiness. We fall upward, to a height.  Its loftiness opens up a depth. The two span a realm, in which we would like to become at home, so as to find a residence, a dwelling place for the life of man,” in his Poetry, Language, Thought,  trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 191-192. George Steiner says that the vision of D. H. Lawrence involves “a range of intuitions and doctrines” that “can be exactly paralleled” in the thought of Heidegger, in Heidegger (London: Fontana Press, 1992), 149.

[12] Max Weber famously confronted Lawrence’s problem through his distinction between the pure or otherworldly “Ethics of Intention” [Gesinnungsethik] and the worldly and temporal “Ethics of Responsibility” [Verantwortungsethik]. Lawrence follows Weber in suggesting that the price to be paid for the original Christian “idealism” or Gesinnungsethik is the subsequent arrival of an equally determined Verantwortungsethik involving a “realism” so extreme as to disavow all concern with “intention” or “conscience” whatsoever. This over-reaction to the ethics of Jesus is to be seen in the political philosophy of Marxism-Leninism. “If only the evangelists had not pitched the best life so far beyond the capacity of mortal human beings then the Marxist-Leninist reaction would not have set in” (STH, 181). See Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation,” in Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, eds. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), 77‐128 and Robert Eden, Political Leadership and Nihilism: A Study of Weber and Nietzsche (Tampa: University Presses of Florida, 1985), 45, 48.

[13] Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation (New York: Basic Books, 1997).

[14] Matt. 6:20

[15] Sounding a lot like Lawrence, Alexander Solzhenitsyn asks “How did the West decline from its triumphal march to its present sickness?” So for Solzhenitsyn, and we may add here as well such names as Leo Strauss, Michael Oakeshott, Eric Voegelin, and Jacques Maritain, (to say nothing of Swift and Rousseau), there has been a “Great Wrong Turn of the West” between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. With this point Lawrence no doubt would be in complete agreement, i.e. the point that the prevailing Western view of the world became one which proclaimed and enforced the autonomy of man “from any higher force above him and could be defined as rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy.” See A World Split Apart: Commencement Address Delivered at Harvard University (New York: HarperCollins,1978); C. E. M. Joad affirms that “ours is an age which has…no beliefs in regard to the existence of an order of reality which is other than that which we see and touch,” in his Decadence: A Philosophical Inquiry (New York: The Philosophical Library Inc., 1949), 308-309. See also Karl Lowith, “Can There Be a Christian Gentleman?,” in Nature, History and Existentialism (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1966), 211.

[16] Lawrence at one point said “The Greeks, being sane, were pantheists and pluralists and so am I” (RDP, 313). So Lawrence is perhaps more Greek than Christian which is to say he is more Greek than Platonist if we allow that Plato was indeed a critic of Greek “pluralism.”

[17] Leo Strauss states the classical view as being that “unlimited technological progress and its accompaniment, which are indispensable conditions of the universal and homogeneous state, are destructive of humanity” in his On Tyranny, eds. Victor Gourevitch and Michael S. Roth (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2000), 208.

[18] Graham Martin provides us with a keen discussion of Lawrence and the “organic” but very importantly Graham Martin reminds his readers that for all his radical attacks on “mentalism” and how it has drained the life out of modern man, Lawrence nevertheless made an “implicit defence of Reason in its original Enlightenment role, that of the free play of criticism at the expense of reigning idols of tribe and marketplace, since ‘if we pause to think about it, it is not Reason herself whom we have to defy, it is her myrmidons, our accepted ideas and thought-forms.’” See his “Lawrence and Modernism,” in D. H. Lawrence in Italy and England, eds. George Donaldson and Mara Kalnins (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 1999), 145, 151. Martin’s point needs to be kept in mind when recalling Lawrence’s famous statement: “The intellect is only a bit and a bridle. What do I care for knowledge…We have got so ridiculously mindful, that we never know that we ourselves are anything …And we have forgotten ourselves.” See the letter to Collings January 17, 1913 in Selected Letters of D. H. Lawrence, ed. James T. Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 53.

[19] Lawrence adds that if “handsome space” for song and dancing had been duly allowed for then the industrial problem might not have become anywhere near as severe as it did (LEA, 292). Lawrence then suggests anchoring a social revolution in such simple and idiosyncratic measures as a few gentlemen brightening up their attire (LEA, 138). It is such a small thing one could say but at the same time this simple notion addresses the alienation and inhumanity visited on us by modern the West. Such things as dress and attire might seem secondary matters until we appreciate that they tie into Lawrence’s comprehensive response to the dilemma of western culture.

[20] On the question  “of a radical sense of inner nothingness” in modern literature and that literature as a “gloomy story” see J. Hillis Miller, The Disappearance of God (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press, 1963), 8-9, 13-14; Erich Heller, The Disinherited Mind (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961), 14-15; Gertrude Himmelfarb, On Looking Into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), 3-4; Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1993); William Barrett, Time of Need: Forms of Imagination in the Twentieth Century (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1972) and Death of the Soul: From Descartes to the Computer (New York: Anchor Press, 1986); Karl Löwith, Martin Heidegger and European Nihilism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 197-198; David Krell, Daimon Life: Heidegger and Life-Philosophy (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992), 231; Adam Sharr, Heideggers Hut (Cambridge, Mass.: The M. I. T. Press, 2006).  

[21] According to David Lodge, Lawrence’s wife, Frieda von Richtofen “put him in touch with progressive central European thought.” See his Write On: Occasional Essays (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986), 189. See also Martin Green, The von Richtofen Sisters: The Triumphant and the Tragic Modes of Love (London: Wiedenfield and Nicholson, 1974); Kermode, Lawrence, 29; Huxley, “Introduction,” 11-12.; George J. Becker, D. H. Lawrence (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980), 140-141; Hans-Georg Gadamer, Hegels Dialectic, trans. P. Christopher Smith (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1976), 100.

[22]  On Lawrence’s relationship to Bertrand Russell see Mark Kinkead-Weekes, D. H. Lawrence: Triumph to Exile 1912-1922 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Paul Eggert, “The biographical issue: lives of Lawrence,” in Fernihough, Cambridge Companion, 157-178; Michael Bell, “Thought, Language, Aesthetics and Being 1900–1940,” in Encyclopedia of Literary Modernism, ed. Paul Poplawski (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003); Barbara Mensch, D. H. Lawrence and the Authoritarian Personality (Basingstoke: Macmillan Publishers, 1991);Sachidananda Mohanty, Lawrences Leadership Politics and the Defeat of Fascism (New Delhi: Stosius Inc/Advent Books Division, 1993); 241; John Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses  (London: Faber & Faber, 1992), 35-36, 75-80; Cornelia Nixon, Lawrences Leadership Politics and the Turn Against Women (Oakland: University of California Press, 1986); Robert Darroch, D. H. Lawrence in Australia (Melbourne: Macmillan Publishing, 1981), 65; John Lowe, “Benjamin Cooley: A Factitious Composite,” Rananim: The Journal of the D. H. Lawrence Society of Australia, 4 (1996): 10-12; Norman Bartlett, “The Failure of D. H. Lawrence,” The Australian Quarterly (Dec., 1947); F. R. Leavis, D. H. Lawrence: Novelist  (Harmondsworth: Penguin,1955), 251-252, 175.

[23] James L. Jarrett makes a case that at a certain point Lawrence lost his keenness for “authoritarian” politics and more or less went over to liberalism loosely speaking. His evidence for this thesis he finds in Aarons Rod when Lilly famously says:  “I think every man is a sacred and holy individual, never to be violated etc” (AR, 282-283). See Jarrett’s  “D. H. Lawrence and Bertrand Russell,” in D. H. Lawrence: A Critical Survey, ed. Harry T. Moore (Toronto: Forum House, 1969), 184-185. But tellingly for his case Jarrett has truncated this interchange between Levison and Lilly which we have discussed above. In fact Lilly’s famous profession de foi about the sacredness of individuality is the immediate sequel to his having praised the politics of voluntary servitude and social inequality. Jarrett seems to have overlooked the possibility that Lawrence might have expected his close reader to see that his alter-ego character in Aarons Rod has freely consented to two radically different politico-ethical propositions at one and the same time leaving this reader to figure it out for himself. See Bertrand Russell, Portraits From Memory and Other Essays (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1956), 104-108, 112, 115-116.

[24] With the trial of Socrates, Hegel says, we see a situation in which “two opposed rights come into collision.” It is not at all “as though the one alone were right and the other wrong.” The first of these contending forces Hegel calls it “abstractly objective freedom” which is opposed to the “consciousness of subjective freedom.” This subjective freedom is the product of “self-creative reason” which is to say it is “the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Hence both Socrates (Lilly) and Athens (Levison) “suffer loss and yet both are mutually justified.” See Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy, trans. E. S. Haldane (London: Routledge & Kegan, 1955), 455. See also Roger Scruton, On Human Nature (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2017), 82.

[25] Lionel Trilling, Beyond Culture (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964), 150; Diana Trilling, “Introduction,” in The Portable D. H. Lawrence (New York: The Viking Press, 1954), 9;  Harry T. Moore The Priest of Love (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974), 143; Emily Hahn,  Lorenzo: D. H. Lawrence and The Women Who Loved Him (Philadelphia and New York: J . B. Lippincott, 1975), 122; Emile Delavaney, D. H. Lawrence: The Man and His Work   (London: Heinemann, 1972), 145-146; Keith Sagar, The Life of D. H. Lawrence (New York:  Pantheon, 1980), 72.

[26] See F. R. Leavis, “Mr. Eliot, Mr. Wyndham Lewis and Lawrence,” in The Common Pursuit (London: Chatto & Windus, 1958), 244.


This was originaly published in D.H. Lawrence, Technology, and Modernity, Indrek Manniste, ed. (Bloosmbury Academic, 2019).

Colin D. Pearce

Written by

Colin D. Pearce is a Professor of Political Science at Clemson University. He has published in a number of journals including the Canadian Journal of Political Science, The Journal of the History of Ideas, Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society, Studies in Literary Imagination, The Kipling Journal, The Simms Review, South Carolina Review, Perspectives on Politics, Interpretation, Humanitas, Clio, Appraisal, and The Explicator, Quadrant.