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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.

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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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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21 Apr

John Toland: speaking freely

Now if it be a desirable thing to have the Truth told without disguise, there’s but one method to procure such a blessing. Let all men freely speak what they think, without being ever branded or punished but for wicked practices, and leaving their speculative opinions to be confuted or approved by whoever pleases : then you are sure to hear the whole truth; and till then but very scantily, or obscurely, if at all.

John Toland on free speech, in Clidophorus; or, Of the exoteric and esoteric philosophy (1720)

This quote not only gives Toland’s opinion of the importance of free speech but hints at ways to avoid trouble in places where it is not recognised, by speaking the truth obscurely. Toland goes on to speak of a Doctor who spoke of difficulties with religion esoterically though the form of a sermon, which gave a different message exoterically. Thus the one text can be read in two ways: one obscure for initiates and fellow travellers, and one overt and acceptable in public. Clidophorus is read not only for itself but for approaches to use reading Toland’s other works, especially Pantheisticon .

For more on esotericism in philosophical writing see this.

24 Mar

Newton in the Letters to Serena

The signature of Bruno’s ideas on motion and matter is evident throughout Toland’s Letters to Serena (1704). In Serena, matter is one, motion is inherent in matter, and no void exists. Toland’s matter is the source of life itself, whereas Newtonian matter is ‘sluggish, inactive, brute and stupid’. Toland fully accepted Newton’s physics. In fact he was one of the first writers to bring word of Newton’s science into France. However, he argued that Newton’s interpretation of his own laws was not the only possible interpretation.

The acceptance of Newton’s physics in Letters to Serena by the most notorious freethinker of the time had the effect of making Newton somewhat suspect to orthodox Anglicans. The first edition of Opticks (1704) had only sixteen queries; Newton added seven more between 1704 and the 1706 Latin version. However, there is in existence an early draft of the twenty-third query which differs significantly from the later (published) version. Thus Newton wrote and rewrote this query between the publication of Serena, and the Latin edition of Opticks in 1706. Here he tried to grapple with the significance of Toland’s hylozoism [the doctrine that all matter has life]. The draft version of the twenty-third query states:

it seems to have been an ancient opinion that matter depends upon a Deity for its laws of motion as well as for its existence. These are passive laws and to affirm that there are no others is to speak against experience. …all matter duly formed is attended with signes of life.

This text does not appear in the final version of query twenty-three. As the person who had given the English ruling class its ideological justification, publicly stating that ‘all matter duly formed is attended with signes of life’ would have undermined the status quo and aligned Newton with Toland and the heretic Bruno! One suspects that Newton may have become a prisoner of his own ideology, trapped in the cul-de-sac of orthodoxy.

From Philip McGuinness (1996) ‘The Hue and Cry of Heresy’ John Toland, Isaac Newton & the Social Context of Scientists, History Ireland, Issue 4.

23 Mar

Irish Times Unthinkable: Dr Ian Leask on the legacy of John Toland

17 Jan

Rude Enlightenment

Admittedly, Swift was not an easy man with whom to get on with, aggravating his church superior, Archbishop William King of Dublin, himself a truculent steward prone to picking fights.

Arbuckle was an equally thorny character who made enemies easily. He found it necessary to leave the University of Glasgow in a hurry when, as a student, he was involved in an altercation concerning the election of the rector. He retreated to Dublin, where he fell into favor with Robert, Viscount Molesworth of Swords—himself described by one acquaintance as “waspish” and prone to anticlerical outbursts.

These traits helped Molesworth to remain close to that most volatile and barbed of personalities, the freethinker John Toland. He promulgated a kind of literary subterfuge that Swift mocked in a series of texts, notably An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity, in which he mentioned Toland by name.

A selection of personality clashes in Enlightenment Dublin.

Quote from Michael Brown (2012) “The Biter Bitten: Ireland and the Rude Enlightenment” in Eighteenth-Century Studies, Volume 45, Number 3 (JSTOR)

To see just how rude it could get, see the post on James Arbuckle.

18 Sep

Incendiary: John Toland and the birth of the Irish Enlightenment

A book burning in London, 1643. (click for source)

A book burning in London, 1643. (Image  is figure 8 in “Incendiary texts”, referenced and linked below)

On 18th (some say 11th) September, 1697 the book “Christianity Not Mysterious” was burned in front of the Irish Parliament Buildings. This had been ordered by the Parliament who declared some days earlier that the heretical book “be publickly burnt by the hands of the common hangman” and the author “be taken into the custody of the Serjeant at Arms and…prosecuted”. Such burning of books by the hangman had been done in England since 1634 (ref), though letters from Molyneaux to Locke suggest it had not happened in Ireland before.

The book had already caused controversy. It was denounced when it was first published in 1696, the first edition anonymously and the second under Toland’s name. The book argues that “[T]here is nothing in the Gospel contrary to Reason, nor above it; and … no Christian Doctrine can be properly called a Mystery.” In other words, nothing in the Gospel can conflict with reason, the Gospel cannot transcend reason (so apparent conflicts with reason cannot be explained away as a mystery) and that no doctrine can at once be Christian and mysterious. The creation of mysteries within Christianity he attributed to innovations of competing sects.

This theory of the relationship between religion and reason went further than other supporters of reason such as Locke had dared. It was especially contentious in Ireland, since it undermined the position of the established Anglican Church over other churches. Archbishop Narcissus Marsh (of the Library) requested the Provost of Trinity College, Dr. Peter Browne, to write an answer to Toland’s book. Browne did so in his 1797 A Letter in answer to a book entitled Christianity not mysterious, condemning Toland as ‘an inveterate enemy of revealed religion’. Browne was later made the Bishop of Cork, due to Marsh’s influence, leading Toland to boast he had ‘made Browne a bishop’.
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29 Aug

John Locke in Ireland

In 1692 John Locke’s Essay concerning Human Understanding was put on the curriculum of Trinity College Dublin by the provost St George Ashe. This was the first university to do so, unsurprising given the book was only published two years before.

The book was added on the recommendation of William Molyneux, founder of the Dublin Philosophical Society and first translator of Descartes’Meditations into English. In 1692 Molyneux made a flattering reference to Locke in the dedication of his own book, the Dioptrica Nova. He sent a copy to Locke, sparking a correspondence that only ended when Molyneux died. Molyneux was immortalised on a later edition of Locke’s Essay as the creator of Molyneux’s Problem.

When, in 1695, John Toland published his Christianity Not Mysterious, which applied Lockean ideas to religion, Locke was by then known well enough for the arguments refuting Toland to employ the same Lockean ideas. The Irish Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment, described by David Berman, produced new theological positions, such as Theological Representationalism, and some important philosophers. “Without Locke’sEssay“, says Berman, “there would hardly have been a Berkeley, Hutcheson or Burke.” Much of Irish philosophy in this “Golden Age” rests on Lockean foundations, and Berkeley’s philosophy is rooted in disputes between different positions based on Locke.
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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.
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