Thomas Hill Green Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: Green was both a theorist and a reformer who established the Idealist school of philosophy at Oxford, contributed political ideas that facilitated the movement away from Liberalism, and was a powerful advocate of educational reform.

Early Life

Thomas Hill Green was the youngest of four children, born on April 7, 1836, into a family with extensive clerical affiliations. His mother died when he was one year old, and his father, the Reverend Valentine Green, assumed full responsibility for his youngest child, educating him until he was fourteen. The personality traits Green displayed during early childhood did not augur well for the future—he was shy, awkward, and indolent—and, indeed, these characteristics occasionally asserted themselves during his later life. At fourteen, Green was sent to Rugby, a public school that enjoyed some fame as a result of its recent leadership by Dr. Thomas Arnold, the father of poet and critic Matthew Arnold. Green appears to have been a willful student, choosing to do well only when his interest was aroused by the subject matter. While compounding his indolence with rebelliousness, Green did assert himself in translating a passage from John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644) and won a prize. On graduation, Green entered Balliol College at Oxford and began an association that lasted the rest of his life. That association did not begin auspiciously, because Green retained the same independence in pursuing his own interests and the same indolence that characterized his earlier life. Typical of his Oxford days was his fulfillment of the requirement that an essay be turned in every Friday. One of his friends remarked that Green’s essay was usually submitted on Saturday, but it was also the best essay submitted.

Green chose to stand apart from most of his fellow undergraduates. His strong sense of personal purpose and commitment to social equality made him interested in the working class and the poor. His reputation as a political and religious radical kept him out of the mainstream of undergraduate life; most of Oxford was not ready to accept a serious undergraduate whose politics were directed toward practical rather than romantic ends, and his view that law and morality are the sole result of man’s reason rather than natural law or innate rights undercut the foundation of popular Liberalism as it existed in Oxford during his student days. Green’s appearance may have led his peers to make assumptions about his personality. Green had thick black hair, a pale complexion, and brown eyes that were deep-set and thus gave the impression of seriousness.

Green was undecided about a career: The Church attracted him, but his unorthodox ideas led him to conclude that ordination in the Unitarian Church was the only honest possibility available to him; he also considered journalism a possibility. The problem was solved for him by the offer of a one-year appointment teaching ancient and modern history at Balliol, and by the end of the year he was elected to be a Fellow of Balliol College. During the subsequent eighteen years, Green assumed ever-greater responsibilities for running Balliol. He also accepted a broad range of responsibilities dealing with social and political reform outside the university.

Life’s Work

The work of historian Thomas Carlyle and two summer visits to Germany in 1862 and 1863 made Green reject the philosophy of John Stuart Mill, which was very popular at that time. Instead, Green’s philosophical thinking was shaped by Aristotle and the Germans Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Immanuel Kant. Like Kant, Green objected to the proposition of David Hume that knowledge was gathered by the impressions of the senses (that is, that knowledge was empirical) and to the notion that one should make choices based on the ability of the choice to give one happiness or to help one avoid pain, thus making morality and ethics a matter of calculating the alternatives. Green argued that information gathered by the senses was connected in the mind by a “consciousness” or a “spiritual principle” that actively participated in creating knowledge. “Consciousness” also allowed one to establish and obey moral rules higher than the pursuit of happiness or the avoidance of pain. The mere pursuit of happiness does not explain man’s pursuit of excellence, observance of duty, concept of a higher and lower self, or willingness to sacrifice oneself in so many varied ways. There was a spiritual principle ultimately underlying everything that could be realized through the practical activities of man. For Green, then, it was imperative for a person to make decisions based on whether the action would further his own development or that of others. Self-development and social development were the fundamental goals in Green’s system of thought. That emphasis marks the distinction between social reformers who believe that social problems can be solved by reforming the system and those who, like Green, consider the solution to...

(The entire section is 2073 words.)