He was born in London, the son of RB Seeley, a publisher, author of several religious books and of The Life and Times of Edward I, which was highly regarded by historians. Seeley developed a taste for religious and historical subjects. He was educated at the City of London School and at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he was head of the classical tripos and senior chancellor’s medallist, was elected fellow and became classical tutor of his college. For a time he was a master at his old school, and in 1863 was appointed professor of Latin at University College, London.
His essay Ecce Homo, published anonymously in 1866, and afterwards acknowledged by him, was widely read, and prompted many replies, being deemed an attack on Christianity. Dealing only with Christ’s humanity, it dwells on his work as the founder and king of a theocratic state, and points out the effect which this society, his church, has had upon the standard and active practice of morality among men. Some who comdemned the book seem to have forgotten that it was avowedly “a fragment,” and that the author does not deny the truth of doctrines which he does not discuss. Its literary merit is unquestionable; it is written with vigour and dignity; its short and pointed sentences are never jerky, and there is a certain stateliness in the admirable order of their sequence.
His later essay on Natural Religion, which denies that supernaturalism is essential to religion and maintains that the negations of science tend to purify rather than destroy Christianity, satisfied no one, and excited far less interest than his earlier work. In 1869 he was appointed professor of modern history at the University of Cambridge. His influence as a teacher was stimulating; he prepared his lectures carefully and they were largely attended. In historical work he is distinguished as a thinker rather than a scholar. He valued history solely in its relation to politics, as the science of the state. He maintained that it should be studied scientifically and for a practical purpose, that its function was the solution of existing political questions. Hence he naturally devoted himself mainly to recent history, and specially to the relations between England and other states. His Life and Times of Stein, a valuable narrative of the anti-Napoleonic revolt, led by Prussia mainly at Stein’s instigation, was written under German influence, and shows little of the style of his short essays. Its length, its colourlessness, and the space it devotes to subsidiary matters render it unattractive.
Far otherwise is it with his Expansion of England (1883). Written in his best manner, this essay answers to his theory that history should be used for a practical purpose; it points out how and why Britain gained her colonies and India, the character of her empire, and the light in which it should be regarded. As an historical essay the book is a fine composition, and as a defence of the empire is unanswerable and inspiring. It appeared at an opportune time, and did much to make Englishmen regard the colonies, not as mere appendages, but as an expansion of the British state as well as of British nationality, and to remind them of the value of Britain’s empire in the East. Seeley was rewarded for this public service by being made K.C.M.G., on the recommendation of Lord Rosebery.
His last book, The Growth of British Policy, written as an essay and intended to be an introduction to a full account of the expansion of Britain, was published posthumously. He married in 1869 Miss Mary Agnes Phillott, who survived him.