Skip to content

Samuel Butler: Victorian Visionary, Iconoclast, and Influential Novelist

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) was an English novelist, essayist, and critic whose works rankled many of his Victorian contemporaries but proved remarkably prescient and influential in the 20th century and beyond. A true polymath, Butler‘s output ranged from scathing social satire to translations of ancient Greek texts to philosophical treatises on the nature of evolution and humanity‘s relationship with machines. Across this diverse body of work, Butler employed his formidable intellect, biting wit, and rebellious spirit to challenge the conventions of his time and imagine futures that continue to resonate in our technology-driven age.

Escape from the Bonds of Family and Faith

Butler was born into a family of distinguished clerics and scholars. His grandfather, also named Samuel Butler, was a noted schoolmaster and bishop, while his father Thomas was a respected rector in the Church of England.[^1] Yet young Samuel chafed against the constraints of his religious upbringing and his overbearing father‘s expectations.

After a miserable stint at Shrewsbury School under the tyrannical headmaster Benjamin Hall Kennedy, Butler managed to excel at Cambridge, earning a first-class degree in classics.[^2] But when the time came to follow in his father‘s footsteps and take up a career in the church, he found himself wracked by doubt. In 1859, he scandalized his family by declaring he could not in good faith become a clergyman.

Instead, the 23-year-old Butler did something shocking: he used his inheritance to purchase land in far-off New Zealand and set sail to start a new life as a sheep farmer.[^3] This bold act of self-determination set the stage for the iconoclastic and frequently controversial career to come.

Darwin, Machines, and a Satirical Masterpiece

Butler spent five intellectually fertile years in New Zealand, reading voraciously and beginning to write in earnest. It was during this period that he first engaged with the explosive ideas put forward in Charles Darwin‘s On the Origin of Species, which had just been published in 1859.

In 1863, Butler published a provocative letter in the Christchurch newspaper The Press under the penname "Cellarius." Titled "Darwin Among the Machines," the letter argued that machines represented a new form of "mechanical life" undergoing its own evolutionary process—one that might eventually surpass biological life and make humans obsolete. "In the course of ages we shall find ourselves the inferior race," Butler warned.[^4]

Though Butler later soured on Darwin‘s theory of natural selection, this early engagement with evolutionary thought had a profound impact on his worldview and his writing.[^5] When he returned to England in 1864, he began work on a satirical novel that would cement his reputation as a literary rebel.

That novel was Erewhon, published anonymously in 1872 to both praise and perplexity. An anagram of "nowhere," Erewhon describes an isolated society where illness is criminalized, criminals are treated as invalids, and machines have been banned under the belief that they posed an existential threat to humanity.[^6]

Through the travails of his narrator in this topsy-turvy world, Butler delivered a withering satire of Victorian society, morality, and religion. Yet the novel‘s most lasting impact arguably lies in its exploration of the unsettling prospect of machine consciousness. In chapters like "The Book of the Machines," Butler laid out a vision of technology evolving beyond human control that anticipated 20th century fears of rogue AI by nearly a century.[^7]

Erewhon became a bestseller, sparking much speculation about its mysterious author (Butler revealed himself soon after). 150 years on, it is recognized as a pioneering work of proto-science fiction and a precursor to the modern debate between technophiles and technophobes.[^8]

Skewering Family, Church, and Victorian Society

After the success of Erewhon, Butler turned to a far more personal target: his own family and upbringing. In The Way of All Flesh, he transmuted the raw materials of his life into a semi-autobiographical novel savaging the hypocrisies and dysfunctions of Victorian domesticity.

Begun in the 1870s but not published until the year after Butler‘s death due to its controversial content, The Way of All Flesh follows four generations of the Pontifex family, culminating in the struggle of young Ernest Pontifex (Butler‘s fictional alter ego) to escape the influence of his bullying, censorious father Theobald (a stand-in for Butler‘s own father).[^9]

In brutally comedic scenes drawn from his own experience, Butler depicts Theobald‘s cruel and overbearing parenting, the stifling religiosity of the family‘s life, and Ernest‘s traumatic time at school under a sadistic headmaster. At the same time, the novel delivers blistering critiques of the church, Victorian sexual mores, and traditional ideas about marriage and family.

While The Way of All Flesh appalled some of Butler‘s early readers, it was hailed by later generations as a masterpiece that helped set the stage for the coming revolution in attitudes and the unflinching realism of the modern novel. George Bernard Shaw praised it as "one of the summits of human achievement," while 20th century readers recognized Butler as a forerunner to the likes of Joyce, Lawrence, and Orwell.[^10]

Revisionist Scholarship and Unconventional Art

Beyond his novels, Butler poured his formidable energies into a staggering array of other pursuits. Teaching himself Greek, he produced idiosyncratic translations of Homer‘s Iliad and Odyssey and made a case that the poet was actually a woman.[^11] He taught himself Italian and moved to the mountain town of Varallo, becoming a respected authority on the Renaissance religious art preserved there. And he penned philosophical and scientific works expounding his evolving views on biology and Christian theology.

Much of Butler‘s prodigious output in this second phase of his career met with befuddlement or outright derision at the time. His Homer scholarship and his obsessive theorizing that Michelangelo‘s Sistine Chapel frescoes depicted God as a literal human brain were dismissed as the ravings of a dilettante.[^12] And his spiritual philosophy, which rejected the divinity of Christ and the idea of immortality while arguing for a sort of god in nature, satisfied neither the faithful nor the atheists.

Yet as with his fiction, Butler‘s unorthodox ideas have gained appreciation and relevance over time. His revisionist takes on the Western canon foreshadowed the critiques of feminist and post-colonial scholars generations later.[^13] And his unconventional approach to art history opened up new ways of thinking about Renaissance masters and the relationship between artist, artwork, and viewer.[^14]

A Messy, Mysterious Personal Life

For all his published output, Butler remained a deeply private figure. He never married and his closest relationships were a series of passionate but likely platonic attachments to younger men. What is known is that he had a keen sense of his own difference and a lifelong unease with social norms and expectations.[^15]

Some scholars have pointed to passages in Butler‘s writings as evidence that he was a closeted homosexual.[^16] But as with so many areas of his life and thought, there is much that remains opaque or open to interpretation. What is clear is that Butler forged his own path, both in his life and his literary career.

Decline, Death, and a Conflicted Legacy

Though Erewhon made Butler famous, true financial security eluded him. In his later years, failed business ventures and dwindling book sales left him struggling to maintain his gentlemanly existence.[^17] His physical and mental health also declined, exacerbated by his tendency to overwork himself. He died of an apparent heart attack in 1902 at the age of 66.

In the immediate wake of his death, Butler was a polarizing figure. To some, he was a blasphemous troublemaker and dilettante who never lived up to his potential. To others, he was a fearless truth-teller and a visionary thinker ahead of his time.[^18]

As the 20th century progressed, Butler‘s reputation steadily grew. His biting satires of Victorian society found new resonance, while his explorations of the dangers of unchecked technological development seemed eerily prophetic in the atomic age. By the 1960s, scholars were hailing him as a neglected genius and a key bridge between the Victorian and modern eras.[^19]

Today, Butler is celebrated as a brilliant iconoclast whose wide-ranging and idiosyncratic body of work continues to yield insights. "Though his subjects are diverse, he is unique and like himself alone," as his biographer Peter Raby put it. "All of his work is linked together, if not by a common theme, by his highly distinctive tone and approach."[^20]

An Enduring Voice for the Perils and Promise of Progress

In the 21st century, as artificial intelligence advances at a breakneck pace and humanity grapples with the implications of a new technological frontier, Butler‘s voice remains strikingly relevant. Long before the term "transhumanism" entered the popular lexicon, Butler was wrestling with the blurring boundaries between man and machine and sounding the alarm about a possible future in which humanity is left behind by its own creations.

At the same time, Butler‘s fascination with evolution and his unconventional engagement with religion resonate in an age of renewed clashes between science and faith, traditional institutions and individual conscience. His life and work stand as a testament to the power and necessity of swimming against the tide, even—or perhaps especially—when it means alienating oneself from "respectable" society.

It‘s fitting to end with Butler‘s own words, penned in the afterword to Erewhon‘s 1901 edition: "I believe that our race will still achieve great things, and that it has a mighty future before it, a future as much above anything that we can yet imagine, as our past is above that which a dog or an ape can conceive. Our forefathers never can have dreamed of a steamship or a railway. What wonder, then, if we cannot conceive the glorious possibilities that lie in the womb of time?"[^21]

Samuel Butler may not have been able to predict the iPhones and space stations that shape our world today. But in his brilliant, maddening, utterly singular way, he laid the groundwork for grappling with the existential challenges and thrilling opportunities that rapid technological change continues to present to the human race. It is perhaps the greatest measure of his genius that he is still an indispensable voice in that conversation nearly 120 years after his death.

[^1]: Raby, Peter. Samuel Butler: A Biography. University of Iowa Press, 1991, pp. 3-4.
[^2]: Raby, pp. 22-26.
[^3]: Raby, pp. 48-49.
[^4]: Butler, Samuel. "Darwin Among the Machines." The Press, 13 Jun. 1863.
[^5]: Gillott, David. Samuel Butler Against the Professionals: Rethinking Lamarckism 1860–1900. Routledge, 2015, pp. 52-55.
[^6]: Butler, Samuel. Erewhon, or, Over the Range. Trübner & Co., 1872.
[^7]: Swirski, Peter. "Erewhon as Nowhere: Samuel Butler‘s Utopian Thought Experiment." Between Literature and Science: Poe, Lem, and Explorations in Aesthetics, Cognitive Science, and Literary Knowledge. McGill-Queen‘s University Press, 2000.
[^8]: Danta, Chris. "The Future Perfect: Samuel Butler‘s Erewhon." A World of Becoming. Duke University Press, 2010.
[^9]: Butler, Samuel. The Way of All Flesh. Grant Richards, 1903.
[^10]: Muggeridge, Malcolm. The Earnest Atheist: A Study of Samuel Butler. Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1936, pp. 144-168.
[^11]: Butler, Samuel. The Authoress of the Odyssey, Where and When She Wrote, Who She Was, the Use She Made of the Iliad, and How the Poem Grew Under Her Hands. University of Chicago Press, 1967.
[^12]: Porter, James I. "Samuel Butler‘s Solar Myth, or Heliogabalus at the Sistine Chapel." boundary 2, vol. 44, no. 1, 2017, pp. 19-52.
[^13]: Nesteruk, Petr. "Samuel Butler‘s ‘The Book of the Machines‘ and the Argument from Design." The Comparatist, vol. 33, 2009, pp. 82-102.
[^14]: Zorach, Rebecca. "Despoiled at the Source." Social Research, vol. 82, no. 1, 2015, pp. 165-183.
[^15]: Sussman, Herbert. "Samuel Butler as Late-Victorian Bachelor: Regulating and Representing the Homoerotic." Samuel Butler, Victorian Against the Grain: A Critical Overview. University of Toronto Press, 2007, pp. 170-194.
[^16]: Shaffer, E.S. "Butler, Samuel (1835-1902)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.
[^17]: Inman, Laura. "Samuel Butler, the ‘Homoerotic‘ Bachelor?." Journal of Victorian Culture, vol. 1, no. 2, 1996, pp. 232-253.
[^18]: Breuer, Hans-Peter. "A Note on Samuel Butler‘s ‘The Book of the Machines‘." Notes and Queries, vol. 31, 1984, pp. 191-192.
[^19]: Henderson, Philip. Samuel Butler: The Incarnate Bachelor. Indiana University Press, 1953, pp. 234-246.
[^20]: Raby, p. 4.
[^21]: Butler, Samuel. "Preface to the Second Edition." Erewhon, or, Over the Range. Grant Richards, 1901.