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?
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’.
Continue reading “Toland: the republican who argued for (limited) monarchy”
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.
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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’.
Continue reading “Incendiary: John Toland and the birth of the Irish Enlightenment”
In any case, there was undeniably a pervasive and powerful continental influence in the forming of Toland’s deism. Crucial to his development as a thinker were his long sojourns in the Netherlands and Germany; starting with his stay in Leiden in 1692-3. Still more pivotally formative were the years 1699-1702, when he spent much time, in part as a diplomatic messenger, in both those countries[…]
Toland was not as facile and unoriginal as many detractors alleged. Indeed his more significant writings, such as his “Letters to Serena”, “Adeisdaemon”, “Origines Judicae”, and his astounding quasi-theological project, the “Nazarenus” (1718), in which he seeks to dechristianize Christianity and remodel it as a republican civic religion designed only to teach the common people morality, demonstrate his original, creative side and some depth. Moreover, he had an exceptionally strong consciousness of the public sphere and the need, on republican grounds, not just for an ‘entire library of conscience’ but a robustly constructed civic religion based on a ‘purified Christianity’ (i.e. dechristianized civic religion) which would provide political society with ‘rules for virtue and religion’. His contribution to the development of the Radical Enlightenment was in fact rather substantial.
From Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, by Jonathan I. Israel. The first paragraph is taken from page 610, the second from page 613. Double quotes replace the italics in the original text.
“A satire on factions within the Church of England. A beast with seven human heads: Richard Baxter a label attached to his neck reading, “A shove to ye heavy arst Christian” (the title of a book supposed to have been written by him); Matthew Tindal, labelled “Rights of ye Christian Ch. asserted”; Benjamin Hoadly, “H – y on Governmt.”; a pope, “Solemn League & Covenant”; Daniel Defoe, “Review” (referring to his journal of that name); John Tutchin or George Ridpath, “Observator” (referring to their journal of that name); and, John Toland, “Milton” (referring to his biography of the poet).” (Links are to Wikipedia)
This print shows the difficulties inherent in building a single Established Church in both Britain and Ireland. Even leaving aside the generic pope (whose head is in the centre), there are a wide range of views among Protestantism that the Established Church was struggling to accommodate. Two of the heads depicted have Presbyterian leanings (Baxter, Defoe); Hoadly and Tutchin were Whiggish Anglicans; Tindal and Toland were deists. An Irish link besides John Toland: Toland’s patron Robert Molesworth was a friend of fellow “Old Whigs” Matthew Tindal and Benjamin Hoadly.
Continue reading “Toland: face of faction”
In a recent biography, Alan Harrison notes that Toland was christened a Catholic with the name Janus Junius. Toland himself was the origin of this assertion as reported by des Maizeaux; but Harrison suggests it is more likely he was christened Seán Eoin. Both these names occur in Irish and derive from different forms of John: Seán from the Norman-French Jehan and Eoin from the Latin Johannes. While distinguishable in Irish, the two names become identical in English: John John. Harrison concludes accordingly that Janus Junius ‘may be an elaborate verbal joke on Toland’s part, echoing the anglicized version of his own name and at the same time indicating qualities he considered important in his personality: Janus the two-faced god (very much a trickster symbol incidentally) indicating his propensity for looking at things in more than one way and for his sayings to be capable of more than a simple literal interpretation; and Junius recalling the name of Junius Brutus, the reputed founder of the Roman Republic which in terms of political philosophy, was Toland’s ideal period’.
Richard Kearney writing on John Toland.
Postnationalist Ireland (1997). Chapter 10: “John Toland; An Irish Philosopher?” p. 131.
John Toland may have felt apprehensive when he landed in Dublin in the summer of 1697. Aged twenty-seven, his recently published book Christianity not Mysterious had already got him into trouble in England. The premise of the book was that the original message of Christianity was easily understood and accessible to human reason but had been usurped and turned into gibberish in divinity schools to serve the interest of an emergent priestly class.
Toland, referring to himself in the third person, humorously described the reception he encountered on his arrival in an appendix to subsequent editions of the book.
“Mr Toland was scarcely arriv’d in that country when he found himself warmly attack’d from the Pulpit, which at the beginning could not but startle the People, who until then were equal Strangers to him and his Book, yet they became, in a little time, so well accustomed to this Subject that it was as much expected of the course as if it had been prescribed in the Rubrick. This occasioned a Noble Lord to give it for a reason why he frequented not the church as formerly, that instead of his saviour Jesus Christ, one John Toland was all the discourse there.”
[…]John Toland was born in Ardagh, near Ballyliffen in the Inishowen peninsula in Donegal, in 1670. Schooled locally, he converted to Protestantism in his teens. His enemies were to later claim that he was the son of a Catholic priest, an accusation which Jonathan Swift was happy to broadcast. It was Swift who gave Toland that title The Great Oracle of the Anti-Christians in his 1708 satirical That the Abolishing of CHRISTIANITY in ENGLAND, May, as Things now Stand, be attended with some Inconveniences.
From Tom Wall’s The Inishowen Oracle in the Dublin Review of Books
A book by Leonard O’Brian exploring the work of five Irish philosophers.
- John Scottus Eriugena
- John Toland
- George Berkeley
- Francis Hutcheson
- Iris Murdoch