On a rainy May evening [F. W. H.] Myers walked with his famous guest [sc. George Eliot] in the Fellows’ Garden of Trinity College, Cambridge, and she spoke of God, Immortality, and Duty. God, she said, was inconceivable. Immortality was unbelievable. But it was beyond question that Duty was ‘peremptory and absolute’. ‘Never, perhaps,’ Myers says, ‘have sterner accents affirmed the sovereignty of impersonal and unrecompensing Law. I listened and night fell; her majestic countenance turned towards me like a sybil in the gloom; it was as though she withdrew from my grasp the two scrolls of promise, and left me with the third scroll only, awful with inscrutable fate.’ […]
We cannot but be touched by Myers’s little scene, and perhaps the more because we will not fail to perceive the inauthenticity in which it issues: the very hollowness of the affirmation attests to the need it was intended to satisfy. We of our time do not share that need of the Victorians. We are not under the necessity of discovering in the order of the universe, in the ineluctable duty it silently lays upon us, the validation of such personal coherence and purposiveness as we claim for ourselves. We do not ask those questions which would suggest that validation is indeed there, needing only to be discovered; to us they seem merely factitious. But we must feel with those who were impelled to ask them.
Still, with what relief we hear the questions being brushed aside not long after they were put with such urgent hope. ‘The first duty in life’, said one of the great figures of Victoria’s reign, ‘The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible.’ And Oscar Wilde went on: ‘What the second duty is no one has yet discovered.’
Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticiy