Josiah Royce (1855-1916) was born at 207 Mill St. in Grass Valley, high in the Sierra gold country, and spent the first 10 years of his life there. He remembered the town as full of weather-beaten old shacks and rusting machinery. Years later his wife described it as “a place that was nothing in a situation that was nowhere.”
This gives too bleak a picture. During Royce’s childhood Grass Valley had the richest gold mines in California. They yielded a million dollars a year for almost a decade, remained productive for another hundred, and supported a population of 20,000 souls.
Grass Valley’s best-known residents in the early days were Lola Montez, the woman who cast a spell on Bavaria’s king and captivated Gold Rush audiences with her “Spider Dance,” and her little protege, Lotta Crabtree, an actress said to have influenced Mary Pickford’s vigorous dramatic style.
When Lola Montez had had enough of Grass Valley, she moved on to new adventures. The Royce family, having failed to make its fortune, also moved on, to San Francisco where it continued to fare poorly. But at fourteen years of age, Josiah began to display extraordinary talents. He completed a year’s work in mathematics in a matter of days at Boys’ High School, and devised his own logarithm tables. His stunned teachers arranged for him to finish high school at the University of California.
The university Royce entered was a small, struggling school in Oakland. It didn’t move north into the barren Berkeley hills until his junior year. Nevertheless, his undergraduate years were fruitful, and he later said of them:
“The principal philosophical influences of my undergraduate years were: 1. The really very great and deep effect produced upon me by the teaching of Professor Joseph Le Conte—himself a former pupil of Agassiz, a geologist, a comparatively early defender and exponent of the Darwinian theory, and a great light in the firmament of the University of California of those days; 2. The personal influence of Edward Rowland Sill, who was my teacher in English during the last two years of my undergraduate life; 3. The literary influence of John Stewart Mill and Herbert Spencer, both of whom I read during those years.”
By the time he graduated some of his professors believed he should have further schooling. The university did not offer a program in philosophy, his chosen field; for that he needed to go to Europe, if he could find financial assistance. The professors interceded with the university’s president, Daniel Coit Gilman, and he induced some anonymous Berkeley businessmen (still unknown today!) to provide a fund for Royce. The young man wrote to Gilman, “Your influence in getting me this assistance is going to be the making of my whole life.”
Royce studied at Heidelberg, Leipzig, and Gottingen, immersing himself in the brilliant idealistic speculations of Immanuel Kant and G.W.F. Hegel, and developing deep confidence in his own ability. After completing his doctoral degree at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, he had to face the fact that he’d spent years preparing for a career that didn’t exist: there were no philosophy departments in American universities. While he was stuck in this quandary, William Rowland Sill reached out to him with the offer of a position teaching English in Berkeley.
1878—Back to Berkeley
Royce knew he could do great philosophical work and he sensed that Berkeley’s intellectual isolation might stop him from doing it. He accepted Sill’s offer reluctantly. His fears were realistic. Sill wrote to Gilman (now at Johns Hopkins), “He will do excellently well here... only, he must not stay too long in the wilderness for his own good.”
As soon as Royce arrived in Berkeley he began writing to Gilman and others, imploring them to help him find work in the East. These letters give us an unguarded insight into Royce’s situation and an unvarnished picture of academic life in Berkeley’s early days:
“Here in the university I am after all much alone. It is not what it used to be when I was a student. The classmates are scattered, of course; and to be an instructor is to look on old scenes through new glasses. My own students are plastic, sometimes bright, often amusing; but they are no companions. The members of the faculty are cordial enough; but all old teachers are self-absorbed men, with plans of their own. And I have plans of mine too, of course; and so we live for the most part to ourselves, each as happy as he finds it convenient to be, and without much love for communion with the others.” (September, 1878)
“At Berkeley, as you doubtless know, we live on in a very quiet way, without much to make us afraid, and also without much encouragement, kept alive by our own enthusiasm when we have it, and allowed to come as near death as we choose if we find enthusiasm irksome. The public says very little about us and knows, I fear, even less.” (September, 1880)
“Our regents, a miscellaneous and comparatively ignorant body, are by fits and starts meddlesome, always stupid, not always friendly, and never competent or anxious to discover the nature of our work or of our ability.” (May, 1882)
When William James offered him a temporary appointment at Harvard, Royce accepted immediately. He remained there for thirty four years. But he had not wasted his time in Berkeley. He had been pondering the themes of his first two books, The Religious Aspect of Philosophy (1885) and California (1886).
The Religious Aspect of
In The Religious Aspect of Philosophy Royce addressed the religious thought of his time which, he considered, “has reached a position which arouses the anxiety of all serious thinkers...” He hoped to reinvigorate it by offering a new philosophical proof for the existence of God.
He presented this proof in a long, complex argument which is not easily summarized. Briefly, then: he argued that our ability to distinguish what is true from what is false, or in error, depends on a source of truth which is independent of us and eternally consistent. He described this source as “an infinite unity of conscious thought to which is present all possible truth.” This consciousness, the Absolute, is God.
Most of us find this notion of the Divine far too abstract and remote, but Royce offered it earnestly as a philosophically secure (and non-denominational) foundation for theology. In the long run, he hoped, it would strengthen religious belief and, ultimately, be of assistance to people in need, “the poor and lonely, the desolate and the afflicted when they demand religious comfort, and want something that shall tell them ... how to take up once more the burdens of their broken existence.”
Royce also argued for the existence of “moral insight” rooted in recognition of the reality of other human beings. A person who rises above his own subjective concerns to an understanding of the moral insight will know it means “...not merely, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ but ‘Insofar as in thee lies, act as if thou wert at once thy neighbor and thyself.’ ‘Treat these two lives as one life.’”
He thought “the great aim” must be to produce the moral insight in as many people as possible, so as “to prepare the way for ... the highest good,” thus bringing about the “sense of community, the power to work together, with clear insight into our reasons for so working.” “This,” he concluded, “is the first need of humanity.” It was the theme of his next book.
In 400 densely written pages California (1886) portrays the destruction by the Americans of California’s pastoral, feudal Mexican society, and the conflict within the Americans between their best and worst impulses. Royce saw these events, which were then very recent, as flowing from failures to act in obedience to the moral insight.
As always, his purpose was constructive. He wanted to illustrate how after a period of anarchy, lessons were learned and applied. He found the triumph of the early Californians in the painful and protracted efforts of decent men and women to build homes, businesses, and a workable, just civil government. In Kevin Starr’s words, “The road back from anarchy demonstrated what Royce felt was the very essence of the moral act: the transcending of present evil.”
Some critics have faulted Royce’s interpretation of his material. Charles Chapman, for example, said Royce “selected materials from the standpoint of a previously determined thesis, and made sweeping generalizations from inadequate sources.” He saw California as a moralistic screed written through the lenses of “puritanical glasses.” Even so, it survives as an essential work on the period. And one of its major points—that California is a land where diverse populations must find ways to exist together—is still germane.
The Grass Valley-Josiah Royce Library
Today the beautiful town of Grass Valley honors Josiah Royce, Lola Montez and Lotta Crabtree, without quite knowing who any of them were. The Lola Montez house has been refurbished (and occupied by the Chamber of Commerce); Lotta Crabtree’s is nearby, still a private residence. Royce’s home is long gone, its location marked by a historical placard. It was replaced in 1916 by a public library which, in a gesture which seems genuinely appropriate, has recently been re-named “The Grass Valley-Josiah Royce Branch” of the Nevada County Public Library.