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01 Jul

The First (un)Known Irish Atheist

A warehouse at Old Bushmills

The Old Bushmills HDR Warehouse (crop)
(c) Ben Kor/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

There was Toland, of course, but given he describes himself as a deist at one point and a pantheist at another, it is not entirely clear that he was an atheist as we understand the term.

However in 1730, Wetenhall Wilkes published a book in Belfast called An Essay on the Existence of God, particularly in answer to Two Atheistic Letters of Mr. I— T— dated from Dublin 1729. As described, JT is unquestionably an atheist. To put the date into context, the man commonly acknowledged as the first atheist to openly deny the existence of gods was Jean Meslier, whose writings were only circulated (mostly in extracts and clandestinely) after his death in 17291.

According to Wilkes, J—h T—r wrote two letters to him dated 13th December 1728 and 3rd May 1729. In the extracts Wilkes quotes, Mr JT outlines his materialistic philosophy. Wilkes also mentions a meeting in which JT and others defended their views to a sympathetic group.

JT’s arguments suggest wide reading in philosophy. In his argument as given by Wilkes the only philosopher he cites by name is Hobbes. However he also seems to draw on Spinoza’s Ethics (Chapter I, see propositions II and II) when he argues that God could not have produced the material world since nothing can confer a quality on another it does not itself possess. The assertion that motion is an ‘internal property’ of matter was also put forward by John Toland in his Letters to Serena and may have its source there 2.

The picture JT gives of a chaos of particles “tumbled into their present Order” by some form of storm, is similar to Epicurean atomism, where the universe is made of particles that come together by chance. JT asserts, in line with Epicurius, that “we are all born at adventure”, in other words by chance. Unlike Epicurus, JT argues for “the practice of Libertinism”; given there is no Law in Nature, and no personal immortality, JT believes there is no reason to “go without my Pleasure.” Again echoing Toland (in Christianity not Mysterious), he suggests religion is merely a trick, a way to control the masses3.

The obvious question is, of course, did JT actually exist or was he a convenient mouthpiece created by Wilkes to be refuted? David Berman (in the Dictionary of Irish Philosophers), thinks JT did exist. “Wilkes’ account seems too circumstantial, and the letters are too thoughtful, to be pure invention” 4.

It is plausible that Wilkes would have philosophically astute friends in Dublin. Born in Killdrumfetran, Kilmore, co. Cavan, he was educated in Mr. Lanes Academy in Dublin, attending Trinity College in 1721, aged fifteen. An earlier student, John Shadwell, describes the syllabus in 1703 as “a farrago of conflicting hypotheses, drawn from Aristotle, Descartes, Colbert, Epicurus, Gassendi, Malebranche, and Locke”5. Wilkes was still in Dublin six years later, when he married in St Andrews in 1727.

At the time of printing the Essay on the Existence of God in 1730 he was a curate in Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim. However he had money troubles and the sale of his inheritance in 1735 didn’t solve them. Five years after printing the Essay he was working as a ganger in Bushmills.

He ended up confined for debt in the Dublin prison known colloquially as the Black-Dog. Wilkes’ answer was to address another (much more respectable) philosophical connection. He wrote a poem in 1737 addressed and dedicated to Jonathan Swift, called The Humours of the Black-Dog … by a Gentleman in Confinement. Wilkes may have met Swift through Swift’s connection to the Sheridans in Cavan. There is no record Swift took any action but the poem sold well. Wilkes published a second part in 1737, followed by further poems on the theme of prison.

Wilkes continued to write in Dublin, culminating in the popular A letter of genteel and moral advice to a young lady: being a system of rules and informations, digested into a new and familiar method, to qualify the fair sex to be useful, and happy in every scene of life, published by subscription in Dublin in 1740 (Swift subscribed for twenty copies). He settled in London in 1741 and had taken Anglican orders by 1746. Wetenhall Wilkes died on 25 March 1751 as rector of South Somercote (or South Summer Court), near Louth, Lincolnshire6.

As for JT, we know nothing more of him. David Berman has not been able to identify JT or find another source mentioning him. All that we know of him (if he did exist) are his arguments.

Examples of Wilkes’ work

References

  1. The best known edition is Voltaire’s (1762) Testament de Jean Meslier, Geneva: Cramer (translation online on marxists.org) This text softened the text making Meslier seem more a deist than a atheist.
  2. David Berman (2004) “J— T—” in Thomas Duddy (eds) Dictionary of Irish Philosophers, Bristol, UK:Thoemmes, pp. 339-340
  3. Berman (2004), p. 339
  4. Berman (2004), p. 340
  5. Arthur Robert Winnett (1974) Peter Browne: Provost, Bishop, Metaphysician, London : S.P.C.K, p. 29.
  6. Katherine O’Donnell (2004) ‘Wilkes, Wetenhall (1705/6–1751)’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/68295.
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