Thomas Hill Green

From New World Encyclopedia

Thomas Hill Green (April 7, 1836 – March 26, 1882) was an English philosopher and brought idealism into England. Green challenged the laissez faire economic policy of his time and criticized the utilitarianism and empiricism that were the theoretical foundations of the policy. He argued for the distinction between the normative dimension of the "desirable" and the factual realm of the "desired." Green professed the belief that utilitarians and empiricists did not make the distinction adequately. He argued that individual freedom for the pursuit of happiness had to be aligned with and be restricted by the public good.

Politically, Green was considered a liberal; he asserted that government must represent the general will and that when it fails to do so, it should be changed. His Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation, was published in 1895. He expressed belief that a minimal government was justified because it maximizes the freedom of the individual. He further contended that the state could intervene to prevent the freedom of some citizens being curtailed by others, and to prevent all citizens from becoming enslaved to destructive influences. Green's arguments changed the course of liberalism in England by redefining the concept of freedom. Green's definition included certain rights guaranteed to the people by protective government policy. Green's teachings were, directly and indirectly, the most potent philosophical influence in England during the last quarter of the nineteenth century.


Thomas Hill Green was born on April 7, 1836, at Birkin, a tiny village in the West Riding of Yorkshire, England, of which his father was rector. His father was a descendant of Oliver Cromwell. Green’s mother died when he was only one year old, and together with his sisters and three brothers, Thomas was brought up by a nanny. Until the age of fourteen, he was educated entirely at home, primarily by his father, and then attended Rugby School from 1850 to 1855. At Rugby Green was a lazy student, and gained few distinctions in academics or sports. His fellow students, including Henry Sidgwick, thought him serious. In 1855, Green entered Balliol College, Oxford, where he came under the influence of Benjamin Jowett, one of the first to bring Hegel’s writings to England. Green became fascinated by idealism.

Green spent his life teaching. In 1860, after lecturing in ancient and modern history, he was made a college fellow. In 1865 and 1866, he was assistant commissioner with the Schools Inquiry Commission, then returned to academic life as a Balliol college tutor. His first important article, "The Philosophy of Aristotle" appeared in 1866, the beginning of a series of Hegelian articles such as "Essay on Christian Dogma" and "Popular Philosophy in Its Relation to Life."

In 1871, he married Charlotte Byron Symonds, sister of his close friend John Addington Symonds. In 1874, he published his famous Introductions to Hume's Treatise of Human Nature. In 1878, he was made Whyte's Professor of Moral Philosophy. The lectures he delivered as professor form the substance of his two most important works, the Prolegomena to Ethics and the Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation, which contain the whole of his positive constructive teaching. Green was active in local politics through the University, temperance societies, and the local Oxford Liberal association. During the debate on the Second Reform Act, he campaigned for the franchise to be extended to all men living in boroughs, regardless of property qualification. As part of his activities in the Liberal party, in 1881, Green gave the Lecture on Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract which became one of his most famous statements of his liberal philosophy. At this time, he was also lecturing on religion, epistemology, ethics, and political philosophy. Then, at the height of his intellectual powers and academic career, Green died from blood poisoning on March 15, 1882. In addition to Green's academic friends, almost two thousand local people attended his funeral.

Thought and works


Most of Green’s major works were published posthumously, including his lay sermons on Faith and The Witness of God, the essay On the Different Senses of “Freedom” as Applied to Will and the Moral Progress of Man, Prolegomena to Ethics, Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation, and the Lecture on Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract. Green's views were previously known indirectly through the Introduction (1874) to the standard edition of Hume's works by Green and T.H. Grose (d. 1906), fellow of The Queen's College, Oxford, in which he criticized the traditional doctrine of British empiricism.

Rejecting sensationalism, he argued that the essence of a being consisted in its being related to other things, that relations exist only for a thinking consciousness, and that, therefore, the world is constituted by mind. In his Prolegomena to Ethics (1883), Green submitted an ethics of self-determination, which he epitomized in the phrase “Rules are made for man and not man for rules.” He argued that self-determination was present when humanity was conscious of its own desires, and that freedom occurred when people identified themselves with what they considered morally good.

Politically, Green was a liberal; he asserted that government must represent the general will and that when it fails to do so it should be changed (Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation, 1895). He believed that a minimal state was justified because it maximizes the freedom of the individual, but that the state could intervene to prevent the freedom of some citizens being curtailed by others, and to prevent its citizens from becoming enslaved to a destructive influence, such as alcohol.

As an educationalist, he helped to found the City of Oxford High School for Boys.


In order to correctly understand the theory of Thomas Hill Green, it is important to have some knowledge of the social and political circumstances in the United Kingdom at the end of the nineteenth century. During that period the Conservative Unionist Party, known as the Conservative Party, passed a number of labor laws, such as the Factory Law in 1874 and the Seamen’s Law in 1876. The Conservative Party also campaigned for shortening working hours, guaranteeing employment and wages, and expanding workers’ rights. The socialistic tendency of the Conservative Party was a response to the social crisis which resulted from the financial panic of 1873, in England. Although the Liberal Party promoted the principle of laissez-faire against the socialist policy of the Conservative Party, the theory of laissez-faire did not offer any immediate alleviation of the sufferings of the working class. The Liberal Party was faced with the dilemma of whether to hold staunchly to their former ideas, or participate in protective social policies like labor legislation. Thomas Hill Green changed the course of liberalism in England by introducing a concept of “freedom,” which included certain rights guaranteed to the people by protective government policy such as labor legislation, and reshaping the conventional principle of laissez-faire, which was founded ideologically on utilitarianism and empiricism.

Green did not wholeheartedly deny utilitarianism. He reinterpreted Jeremy Bentham’s idea of “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” to emphasize, not “the greatest happiness,” but “the greatest number,” meaning that the greatest number of people should receive equal opportunity without discrimination. Green thought it was impossible to quantify pleasure and define “the greatest happiness.”


Hume's empiricism, combined with a belief in biological evolution (derived from Herbert Spencer), was the chief feature of English thought during the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Green represented primarily the reaction against doctrines which, when carried out to their logical conclusion, not only "rendered all philosophy futile," but were fatal to practical life. By reducing the human mind to a series of unrelated atomic sensations, this teaching destroyed the possibility of knowledge, and by representing man as a "being who is simply the result of natural forces," it made any theory of conduct meaningless; for life in any human, intelligible sense implies a personal self which knows what to do, and has the power to do it. Green was therefore driven, as a practical necessity, to raise again the whole question of humans in relation to nature. He maintained that when people have discovered what humanity itself is, and what its relation to his environment is, people shall then know the function of humans and what they are fitted to do. In light of this knowledge, people shall be able to formulate a moral code, which will serve as a criterion for actual civic and social institutions. These institutions naturally and necessarily form the objective expression of moral ideas, and it is in some civic or social whole that the moral ideal must finally take concrete shape.

Religious thought

During the mid-nineteenth century, developments in geology and evolutionary theory, along with the impact of Higher Criticism, led many Christians to question the doctrinal authority and the moral views of the Church of England. Green’s pupil, Scott Holland, along with others such as W.T. Davidson, regarded Green as a potential rescuer of religious life in England:

[Many people came to believe that] Scientific Analysis held the key to the universe. Under this intellectual dominion we had lost all touch with the Ideals of life in Community. There was a dryness in the Oxford air, and there was singularly little inspiration to be felt abroad. We were frightened; we saw everything passing into the tyranny of rational abstract mechanism … Then at last, the walls began to break. A world of novel influences began to open to us. Philosophically the change in Oxford thought and temper came about mainly through the influence of T. H. Green. He broke for us the sway of individualistic Sensationalism. He released us from the fear of agnostic mechanism. He gave us back the language of self-sacrifice, and taught us how we belonged to one another in the one life of high idealism. We took life from him at its spiritual value (quoted in Carpenter, 1959, p. 483).

However, Green’s religious beliefs were so unorthodox that many contemporaries questioned whether he could be called a Christian at all. He was open to the unorthodox religious theories of thinkers like Hegel, Strauss, Baur, and Lotze, and did not accept the dogma of the Church of England.

In his Essay on Christian Dogma, Green characterized the formulation of religious creeds as an attempt to create an authoritative expression of those doctrines by which all Christians, irrespective of time and place, should judge the varying interpretations of their faith. Green asserted that in reality, these religious creeds were not eternal truths, but devices employed by humans to solve particular historical problems, such as the need to convey the essence of the teachings of Jesus Christ once his life had passed from living memory. Green believed that religious creeds, no matter how sincerely they might have been formulated, were used more to legitimize the teachings of subsequent religious leaders than to communicate the timeless message of Jesus (CD 162–3).

Green distinguished between “sight,” denoting the acceptance of the divinity of Christ and the existence of God as a result of physical evidence, and “faith,” belief in God and Christ without the need for earthly signs. Those who required miraculous signs in order to believe in God would only be able to regard them “as mere wonders” and not as a means of strengthening their faith. He believed that miracles, as conventionally conceived of, were unintelligible, and took the position of St. Paul, that “miracles” were brought about by the faith of believers.

The true or highest faith [is] represented as that which by a purely spiritual act takes Christ, as the manifestation of God, into the soul without waiting for conviction by sensible signs (F 253).

Though he regarded faith as “a primary formative principle” (F 263). Green maintained that reason was essential to human salvation, because, properly directed, it could bring an individual to a more developed understanding of the spiritual, and to a clearer recognition of his own true nature. This in turn would result in a deeper awareness of God as the source of knowledge and existence, and a greater love for God.

Rational self-consciousness … is an element of identity between us and a perfect being, who is in full realization what we only are in principle and possibility (F 267–8).

Reason spoke to man in the form of conscience; God's law could only truly be found within the conscience of every human being. Therefore, the individual should use conscience to question church orthodoxy.

Though Green believed that the desire for earthy fame was a consequence of sinful pride, he did not think that a true Christian should withdraw from society. Instead, he believed that the faith of one person could serve to awaken faith in another, and that communication between believers was “the communication of God to Himself” (The Witness of God, 241). When a believer tested his beliefs against the beliefs of others in his spiritual community, God’s word became clearer in the minds of all. Green also humanized the notion of immortality and reinterpreted the unique divinity of Jesus Christ.

The eternal consciousness

Green’s earlier lectures from the late 1860s and early 1870s, especially his philosophical work Prolegomena to Ethics (1883), developed a theory of the creation of ethical subjects and objects, and discussed motivation and responsibility, freedom, duty, the moral development of the will, the deficiencies of the leading eighteenth century British ethical theories, and the universality of the moral law. Green frequently examined the relation of God to the moral world. In his mature writings, Green characterized the unfolding of the “eternal consciousness” as the increasing manifestation of God in the world, both in the will of the individual and in the realization in society of the Christian concept of God. He believed that God’s earthly presence increased as the unity between humanity’s will and reason, and the will and reason of God, increased. An individual came to understand what was ultimately true and good by assimilating accumulated social wisdom and using his conscience to reformulate it. To the extent that individuals in society failed to be conscious of God’s nature and failed to act on that consciousness, God did not properly exist. Not only did humanity depend on God, but God depended on humanity. By worshiping God, the individual was essentially worshiping the divine elements within himself.

Green believed that the “eternal consciousness” existed within every human being, whether or not it was recognized or manifested. He began with the assertion that the mind of the individual experiences sensations, and understands them to demonstrate the presence of a particular object in space and time. This object was a creation of the mind which perceived it. Like Kant, Green believed that the perceiving mind made use of objective categories which preceded experience. The individual attempted to understand “an objective world, … [by which] is meant a world of ascertainable laws, as distinguished from a world of unknowable ‘things-in-themselves'” (PE 38). Green called this world "nature." The “eternal consciousness” was always the ultimate critical principle by which humanity’s perceptions and beliefs could be judged.

Nature of humanity

According to Green, the characteristic which distinguished people from other animals was self-consciousness. To ask, "What is man?" was to ask "What is experience?" for experience meant “that of which I am conscious.” The facts of consciousness are the only facts which, at first, people are justified in asserting to exist; however, they are valid evidence for whatever is necessary to their own explanation, that is, for whatever is logically involved in them.

The simplest mental act of the human mind, the act of sense-perception, is never merely a change, physical or intellectual, but is the consciousness of a change. Human experience consists, not of processes in an animal organism, but of these processes recognized as such. The act of perception is a synthesis of relations in a consciousness which distinguishes between the "self" and the various elements of the perceived "object" which give rise to sensations.

The whole mental structure which is called knowledge consists, at its simplest and its most complex, of the "work of the mind." Locke and Hume held that the work of the mind was a subjective creation, unreal because it was "made by" man and not "given to" man. Green, however, maintained that knowledge was human experience of an objective, intelligible, ideal reality, which could be accounted for only by the existence of some "principle which renders all relations possible and is itself determined by none of them;" an eternal self-consciousness (God) which knows in whole what people know in part. Human experience is God gradually made manifest.

Ethics and moral philosophy

Green regarded ethics as the same process of perception and experience extended to the exploration of humanity’s nature and society. This investigation was not conducted by a "separate moral faculty," but by that same reason which is the source of all our knowledge. Self-reflection gradually revealed human capacity, human function, and, consequently, human responsibility. It made the individual conscious of certain potentialities, in the realization of which man's true good must consist. This consciousness, combined with an investigation into the surroundings humanity lives in, resulted in the gradual evolution of a “moral code.” Personal good was perceived to be realizable only by actualizing the conceptions thus arrived at. So long as these remain potential or ideal, they provide the motive for action; the idea of some "end" or "good" which humankind presents to itself as an end, in the realization of which one would find his true self.

Theory of the will

The determination to realize the self in some definite way constituted an "act of will," which was neither arbitrary nor externally determined. For the motive, which may be said to be its cause, lay in the man himself, and the identification of the self with such a motive was a self-determination, which was at once both rational and free. The "freedom of man" was constituted, not by a supposed ability to do anything he might choose, but in the power to identify himself with that true good which reason revealed to him as his true good.

Green argued that an individual’s will was always free, “since in all willing a man is his own object to himself, the object by which the act is determined, the will is always free … [that is] willing constitutes freedom” (DSF 1). The act of willing something implied that an individual was deliberating, “seeking to realize an idea of his own good which he is conscious of presenting to himself” (PE 106). An action undertaken without deliberation was not an act of will and therefore was not free. The desire which motivated an individual to undertake a particular act was part of the will itself, and therefore part of the essence of that individual. Therefore, an individual could not blame his actions on an external temptation, because the desire to fulfill that temptation was part of the individual’s essential nature. Self-satisfaction was always the object of the will, and its fulfillment was always “free.”

Social theory

Green held that the individual's application of moral rules was itself a form of moral education. An ideal law should be an external expression of the individual’s true will. By following such a law, the individual would be able to curb those desires which detracted from the realization of his divine nature, and his will would come closer to the “attainment of its own perfection” (DSF 21). By following such a law the individual would be acknowledging his ability to become more like God than he was at present. Following an ideal law could also help to form the individual by reinforcing his values and his experience of the “eternal consciousness.” Recognition that existing laws, social institutions and values were imperfect and in contradiction to the logical structure of the “eternal consciousness” would awaken in the individual a desire to correct them.

The Principles of State Action

Green held that the state should foster and protect the social, political and economic environments in which individuals would have the best chance of acting according to their consciences. He himself was a temperance reformer and believed that it was legitimate for the state to curtail the individual's freedom to accept the slavery of alcoholism. At the same time, he perceived that state intervention also had the potential to curtail opportunities for conscientious action, thereby stifling the moral development of the individual. The state should intervene only where there was a proven and strong tendency of a particular liberty to enslave the individual. Green observed that local councils and municipal authorities tended to produce measures that were more imaginative and better suited to the daily reality of a social problem, and favored the ‘local option;’ for example, allowing local authorities to decide on the issuing of liquor licenses in their area. The ultimate power to allocate such tasks should rest with the national state.

Theory of Rights

In order for an individual is to follow his conscience, Green believed that he must be free from external interference. Legal “rights” were necessary to protect the individual’s freedom of thought, speech, and action. Green defined a “right” as

A power of which the exercise by the individual or by some body of men is recognized by a society either as itself directly essential to a common good or as conferred by an authority of which the maintenance is recognized as so essential (LPPO 103).

The national state itself was legitimate to the extent that it upheld a system of rights and obligations that was most likely to foster individual self-realization. Rights, however, were determined neither by purely political calculation nor by philosophical speculation, but by the underlying conceptual structure of a society.

Good consisted in the realization of personal character; the moral ideal, as a whole, could be realized only in some society of persons who, while remaining ends to themselves in the sense that their individuality is not lost but rendered more perfect, find this perfection attainable only when their separate individualities are integrated as part of a social whole. Society is as necessary to form persons as persons are to constitute society. Social union is the indispensable condition of the development of the special capacities of the individual members. Human self-perfection cannot be gained in isolation; it is attainable only in inter-relation with fellow-citizens in the social community.

The law of being, so revealed, involves in its turn civic or political duties. Moral goodness cannot be limited to, still less constituted by, the cultivation of self-regarding virtues, but consists in the attempt to realize in practice that moral ideal which self-analysis has revealed as ideal. From this fact arises the ground of political obligation, for the institutions of political or civic life are the concrete embodiment of moral ideas in terms of our day and generation. But, as society exists only for the proper development of Persons, people have a criterion by which to test these institutions, viz, do they, or do they not, contribute to the development of moral character in the individual citizens? It is obvious that the final moral ideal is not realized in any body of civic institutions actually existing, but the same analysis which demonstrates this deficiency points out the direction which a true development will take. Hence, arises the conception of rights and duties which should be maintained by law, as opposed to those actually maintained; with the further consequence that it may become occasionally a moral duty to rebel against the state in the interest of the state itself, that is, in order better to subserve that end or function which constitutes the raison d'être of the state. The state does not consist in any definite concrete organization formed once for all. It represents a "general will" which is a desire for a common good. Its basis is not a coercive authority imposed upon the citizens from without, but consists in the spiritual recognition, on the part of the citizens, of that which constitutes their true nature. "Will, not force, is the basis of the state."


Green's teaching was, directly and indirectly, the most potent philosophical influence in England during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, while his enthusiasm for a common citizenship, and his personal example in practical municipal life, inspired much of the effort made in the years succeeding his death to bring the universities more into touch with the people, and to break down the rigor of class distinctions. Green’s ethics are believed to have influenced, among others, John Dewey and Alfred North Whitehead. He was directly cited by many New Liberal politicians, such as Herbert Samuel and H. H. Asquith, as an influence on their thought. It is no coincidence that these politicians were educated at Balliol College, Oxford. Recently, Roy Hattersley has called for Green's work to be applied to the problems of twenty-first century Britain.

Works and commentary

Green's most important treatise—the Prolegomena to Ethics practically complete in manuscript at his death—was published in the year following, under the editorship of A.C. Bradley (4th ed., 1899). Shortly afterwards, R.L. Nettleship's standard edition of his Works (exclusive of the Prolegomena) appeared in three volumes:

  1. Reprints of Green's criticism of Hume, Spencer, G. H. Lewes
  2. Lectures on Kant, on Logic, on the Principles of Political Obligation
  3. Miscellanies, preceded by a full Memoir by the Editor.

The Principles of Political Obligation was afterwards published in separate form. A criticism of Neo-Hegelianism will be found in Andrew Seth (Pringle Pattison), Hegelianism and Personality.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Benn, A.W. The History of English Rationalism in the XIXth Century. Longmans, Green & Co., 1906.
  • Brink, David O. Perfectionism and the Common Good: Themes in the Philosophy of T. H. Green. Oxford University Press, 2003. ISBN 978-0199266401.
  • Dimova-Cookson, Maria. T. H. Green's Moral and Political Philosophy: A Phenomenological Perspective. Palgrave Macmillan, 2001. ISBN 978-0333914458.
  • Fairbrother, W.H. Philosophy of T.H. Green. Cambridge, 2002. ISBN 1-904303-12-9.
  • Muirhead, J.H. The Service of the State: Four Lectures on the Political Teaching of T.H. Green. J. Murray, 1908.
  • Ritchie, David George. Principles of State Interference. Ayer Co Pub, 2002. ISBN 978-0836950601.
  • Thomas, Geoffrey. The Moral Philosophy of T.H. Green. Oxford University Press, 1988. ISBN 978-0198247883.
  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

External links

All links retrieved April 30, 2023.

General philosophy sources


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