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.
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.
Continue reading “Appropriating Patrick: Keating, Ussher, Toland and the Early Irish Church”
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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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.
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 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.
Continue reading “John Locke in Ireland”
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.
Continue reading “Wetenhall Wilkes, the poet of the Black Dog, and the First (un)Known Irish Atheist”
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.