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09 Dec

Saving Milton: his friend Lady Ranelagh and his defender John Toland

John Milton dictating 'Paradise Lost' to his daughter due to his blindness

John Milton is most famous today for his epic poem Paradise Lost, a poem that was almost lost due to the cause of Milton’s fame (or infamy) in 1660: his work writing defences of the Commonwealth against Royalist attacks. These were written when Milton was Secretary of Foreign Tongues to the Council of State from 1649. The works included Eikonoklastes (1649, justifying Charles I’s execution) and The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth (1660, arguing against the Restoration). After the Restoration, Milton had to be hidden by friends: he eventually was arrested and held in custody for a few months. Friends in high places worked to ensure he was included in the Act of Pardon. Their success meant that Milton could complete his half-finished epic poem 1.

Milton had first come to attention as a poet. His first published work was Lycidas, an acclaimed pastoral elegy written for Dorothy Moore‘s brother Edward King. It’s plausible that Dorothy Moore met at some point, though as far as I’m aware there is no record of it. In the 1640s Milton became acquainted with members of the Hartlib circle, including Samuel Hartlib, John Durie, Henry Oldenburg and Lady Ranelagh. Milton and Hartlib probably met in 1643 and in 1644 Hartlib circulated Milton’s tract Of Education, To Master Samuel Hartlib2.
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04 Sep

Descartes vs Toland

Toland also argues that there is no benefit in making a distinction between what is inconsistent with reason and what merely appears to be inconsistent with reason, and then accepting that we may be required by divine revelation to believe what appears to be irrational. Toland’s answer to this is remarkably similar to Descartes’s: if we relax the criterion of what is credible to admit propositions that at least appear to be irrational, then there is no limit to what we may be invited or required to believe. […]

However in contrast to Descartes, Toland seems to establish reason not only as a criterion of what we can believe, but also as a criterion of what is possible for God.

Desmond M. Clarke (1997)”Toland on Faith and Reason” in Philip McGuinness, Alan Harrison and Richard Kearney (eds) John Toland’s Christianity not Mysterious: Text, Associated Works and Critical Essays, Dublin: Lilliput Press, pp. 293-301.
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01 Jul

Michael Brown on the Centrality of Ulster

The Union of Craic (see embedded tweet below)

This image of the Union of Craic reminded me of Michael Brown’s opening to his political biography of John Toland. 

Inishowen is isolated. A promontory on the northern reaches of the Donegal coast, located on the north-western corner of Ireland it is a remote peninsula which seems removed from the concerns of wider Irish, let alone British politics.

Yet this image is deceptive, for in fact Inishowen is near the very heart of the British Isles. The map of the archipelago, when turned on its side, makes this apparent, for the province of Ulster juts out into the Irish Sea and is nestled between the Argyllshire region of Scotland, the north Welsh region where the island of Anglesey gestures towards County Down, and the Cumbrian coastline of England. This position at the heart of the British Isles has had the unfortunate consequence of making the province the archipelago’s charnel house: when the political structures of governance and representation have become unstable or illegitimate, Ulster has been the central arena of contestation…

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24 May

John Toland: the myth-maker of English republican theory

With the support of powerful men he met through Molesworth, Toland published editions of works by republican authors including Edmund Ludlow, Algernon Sidney, John Milton and James Harrington.

Republishing the thought of those associated with regicide was, unsurprisingly, controversial. Toland claimed to be merely laying out these ideas to a free public to be judged. However the truth was more complicated. Collaborating with others to obtain and organise the texts, Toland shaped them to suit the needs of the radical Whigs. His preface to Oceana reiterated Molesworth’s contention that the English government is, under William, “already a commonwealth”. He purged the militant puritanism from Ludlow’s memoirs, silently added original material to the editions of Sidney and Harrington reflecting contemporary concerns, and wrote a life of Milton to shape how the accompanying works were read. He also wrote defending Milton’s denial that Charles the First was a martyr.

Though his editorial work Toland created a narrative spanning the seventeenth century in which virtuous republican heroes battled absolutism, arbitrary government and clerical powerseeking. Toland became the myth-maker of English republican theory.

From Irish Republicanism in the early 18th century: Molesworth, Toland and Hutcheson, a talk given at the “What is a Republic?” conference at Maynooth University, 23rd May 2016 (online at academia.edu)

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06 Apr

Belief and the Blind Man

Painting of a line of blind men leading each other

The blind leading the blind. Oil painting after Pieter Bruegel. Wellcome Library, London (CC BY 4.0)

It may sometimes seem to readers of this blog that too many Irish philosophers of the past were far too interested in religion. However an argument that is first outlined in a religious context may have applications elsewhere.

The thesis of John Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious is clearly outlined in its subtitle: “A treatise shewing that there is nothing in the gospel contrary to reason, nor above it: and that no Christian Doctrine can be properly call’d a mystery.” Toland’s position is that “reason is the only Foundation of all Certitude” against the Divines who “gravely tell us, we must adore what we cannot comprehend”1. It is impossible, says Toland, to believe what we cannot understand2:

A man may give his verbal assent to he knows-not-what…but as long as he conceives not what he believes, he cannot sincerely acquiesce in it

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28 Apr

Honest, Noble and Most Ancient

Toland testimonial

The text of a testimonial given by the Franciscans of Prague to John Toland, taken from A collection of several pieces of Mr. John Toland (1726) edited by Pierre Desmaizeaux after Toland’s death in 1722 (on Google Books). This testifies that John Toland came from a honest, noble and most ancient family from the Innisowen peninsula. There were many rumours about Toland’s background, including that he was the illegitimate son of a priest.

John Toland visited the Irish College in Prague in 1708 and met Francis O’Devlin (the second signatory above), renowned for his work in the Irish language. The college itself was founded in 1629. Its first superior was Patrick Fleming, mentioned previously in connection with the Irish colleges in Leuven and Rome. He, along with fellow-Irishman Matthew Hoar, was killed on 7 November 1631 by Calvinist peasants while fleeing a threatened attack on Prague in the Thirty Years War.

More on the Irish College in Prague is in the Irish Times today (Andy Pollak, 28th April 2015). Surprisingly the College library contained a work by Toland: his edition of the works of English republican James Harrington Oceania.

The latin text of the testimonial:

Infra scripti testamur Dom. Joannem Toland ortum esse ex honesta, nobili & antiquissma Familia, quae per plures centenos annos, ut Regni Historia mostrant memoria, in Peninsula Hiberniae Enis-Oën dicta, prope urbem Londino-Deri in Ultonia, perduravit. In cujus rei firmiorem fidem, nos ex eadum Patria oriundi propriis manibus subscripsimus, Pragae in Bohemia, hac die 2 Jan. 1708.

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01 Apr

Marsh’s comment on Christianity Not Mysterious

A page of Toland's "Christianity Not Mysterious", annotated by Marsh © Marsh's Library (CC)

A page of Toland’s “Christianity Not Mysterious”, annotated by Marsh
© Marsh’s Library (CC)

Narcissus Marsh was a member of the Irish Parliament that ordered the burning of Christianity not Mysterious (1696) by the public hangman in Dublin on 11 September 1697. Nonetheless, he retained a copy which still survives in the library he founded. Marsh has underlined the last four words of Toland’s assertion that “This I stand by still, and may add, I hope, that I have clearly prov’d it too” and noted waspishly in the margin:

‘You have often said it indeed, but yet proved nothing, unless saying a thing is so be proving it to be so’.

This annotation was not enough for him; Marsh was the one who commissioned Peter Browne to write a response, published as a A letter in answer to a book entitled, Christianity not mysterious as also, to all those who set up for reason and evidence in opposition to revelation & mysteries published in 1697.

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17 Mar

Appropriating Patrick: Keating, Ussher, Toland and the Early Irish Church

A statue of St Patrick in an antique shop window (c) david perry/flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A statue of St Patrick in an antique shop window
(c) david perry/flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The very oldest texts in any language written in Ireland that have survived relate to St Patrick. One, the Confessio, outlines his own account of his life. To the modern reader, it may seem sparse. There is no mention of Pascal fires, of shamrock or of snakes.

The tale of St Patrick developed over time, and to fulfil different purposes. Muirchú’s Latin Life of Saint Patrick, compiled around the year 680 which includes tales of wonders, was written to confirm Armagh’s pre-eminent place in the Irish Church. Patrick was said to have arrived in Ireland in 432AD to undermine the earlier Palladius who was documented to have arrived in 431AD. The development of the myth continued into the 15th century, with examples to be found in the Book of Lismore and the Leabhar Breac. This tradition emphasised St Patrick as a wonder worker and a prophet. At the same time secular writings such as the 12th century Acallamh na Senorach include stories of Patrick meeting the Fianna.

The Norman invasion saw a parallel tradition emerge, starting with Gerald of Wales’ outline of Patrick’s life in Topographia Hibernica, which included a debunking of the legend of the banaishment of the snakes. Jocelin of Furness’ account, based on resources some of which are now lost, was written as part of the Anglo-Norman attempt to appropriate the saint. Written at the same time as the shrine in Downpatrick was established, it portrays Patrick as a miracle-working prophet, whose mother was related to St. Martin of Tours.
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08 Jun

John Toland: “Brahminical theology”

© Trustees of the British Museum (reproduced under  standard terms of use

Design for a monument to Sir William Jones. © Trustees of the British Museum (standard terms of use)

From pages 172-3, Sea of Faith (1984) by Don Cupitt:

There is one rather puzzling early example of knowledge of Indian religion. John Toland (1670-1722), an eccentric freelance Anglo-Irish writer and pamphleteer, was a man known to Leibniz. A theological radical, he was the inventor of the word ‘pantheism’, and in quoting precedents for this idea he mentions ‘the Brahminical theology’. Where Toland learnt this, I do not know. It is usually said that the first translations of Indian sacred texts into European languages came much later: Charles Wilke’s version of the Gita(1785), Sir William Jones’s Shakuntala (1789) and The Laws of Manu (1794) and […] Peron’s translation of some fifty of the Upsanisads(1802).”

Intriguing. But even if texts were not available in European languages, there were certainly people from the Indian subcontinent in London, notably Lascars serving on ships from India. He had also spent time in Holland which also had links with East Indies. Might Toland have learned this though word of mouth?

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02 May

Toland: the republican who argued for (limited) monarchy

Sophia of Hanover

The young Sophia of Hanover
Wikimedia, public domain.

At first glance it may seem bizarre that John Toland, whose first book was burned by Act of Parliament, was a member of Lord Macclesfield’s delegation in 1701, delivering the Act of Succession to the Electress Sophia. This Act named her the heiress to Anne (soon to be Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland), as her closest Protestant relative. (The religious distinction was crucial; there were scores of closer Catholic relatives.)

In fact this was just one piece in an ongoing role advocating for Protestant liberties and the Hanoverian succession, a fact made odder in modern eyes because Toland was a republican. Not merely an armchair republican, Toland was actively engaged in editing and re-publishing English republican works of the 1650s (Milton, Ludlow, Sidney and Harrington). However he was living in a time when republicanism was still vilified and linked to regicide and rebellion; naturally so given the Civil War and rule of Cromwell were events in living memory. To become respectable republicanism became more moderate.

In reviving and reworking republicanism, Toland was not working alone. He moved in Whig circles, supported by figures such as Robert Molesworth (of the Molesworth Circle) and Lord Shaftesbury. In these circles, and for ‘commonwealthsmen’ around Europe “the act that confirmed the succession of Sophia of Hanover was a republican device to exclude both popery and tyranny.” (1). It was, after all, subtitled ‘for the further limitation of the crown and better securing the rights and liberties of the subject’.
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