Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The Writings of John Toland


Perhaps the most surprising aspect of any discussion of the religious outlook of John Toland is that far from it being a debate confined to the past, it has a contemporary feel to it. A Guardian article by Paul Harrison stated that people are still for “some helpful guidance about our place in the universe. It continued that people are looking for a religion that does not suspend rational thought or assume an “invisible realm”.

Indeed, one of the foremost scientists of the 20th century Albert Einstein was attracted to this idea. Even more recent scientists such Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins have looked for a religion that would stress the beauty of the universe revealed by science.

This type of religion has been given many names such as religious atheism, religious humanism but according to Harrison, “they all share two basic premises: acceptance of the natural world as revealed by the senses and science, and a deeply religious response to that revelation”.
While this ongoing quest for a more rational religious outlook has a modern ring to it to what extent does it compare with the religious outlook of the John Toland who was writing in the late 17th and early 18th Century? Toland coined the term Pantheism in 1705 to describe his religious worldview. Toland who was in awe of the physical universe and believed that “minds were an aspect of the body”.

While Toland never defined himself as a deist and was committed to the idea of “Pantheist esotericism” this has not stopped scholars and historians both old and new from putting him into the arms of the deists. According to R E Sullivan “scholars who have characterised him as a Deist have usually enveloped the label with a patchwork of qualifications and elaboration”. This love of inaccuracies and downright falsehoods has tended to make a concrete assessment of Tolland’s outlook somewhat difficult.

Although to be fair Toland himself has not helped things much. On a number of occasions he would use the words atheism and deism as interchangeable, this intellectual absentmindedness enabled writers such as the Arian William Whiston(9 December 1667 – 22 August 1752) to “judge the deists to be atheists who had been so abashed by Richard Bentley’s Boyle lecturers that, after the mid-1690s, they confined themselves to undermining revealed religion. More orthodox writers often shared Whiston’s impression of the essential radicalism of these men. Bentley himself thought, “that since the ranks of atheism included all those who denied God’s creation or government of the world, they included deists: those who adopted the less offensive title were attempting to disguise their real allegiance”.

It is clear that until Toland defined his beliefs as pantheists anyone who deemed themselves materialists were classed as either a deist or atheists. Two of the most important materialists of the day Hobbes and Spinoza were regularly called deists. Many anti-deists saw Toland’s usage of the word pantheist as a neologism to say that he was really a deist.

Augustans were particularly guilty of this misinformation According to Sullivan they could not “agree on a single principle typical of deism but that did not deter them from lumping individuals together as deists”. After the publishing of Toland’s Christianity not Mysterious they defined a deist as someone who believed in such a movement. They lumped together figures such as Spinoza, Blount and Toland. Accused Spinoza and Toland of being atheists while another group had Spinoza and Blount in a list of Atheists without mentioning Toland or deism.
These inaccuracies could be interpreted as intellectual carelessness or as Professor Yoltons saw as “Augustan manipulation of theological characterisations, labels of slander which had accrued to terms like Socinian, Unitarian and Deist. Were meant and understood as synonymous with atheist”.

While it is difficult to untangle the web of inaccuracy and misinformation as to who was a deist and what was deism it would be wrong to say that no writers in the late 17th century and early 18th century were deists. Sullivan states that “They adopted this name in order to describe either their coolness toward revelation or their adherence to some kind of natural system of belief and practice. In many cases, they seem to have believed in religious principles, which resemble at least some of those that Herbert had offered in De Veritate. Sometime before 1730 Tindal had become a professing deist, but neither Toland nor Collins ever made such a profession.”

John Toland was born in near Londonderry, Ireland on November 30 1670. He was christened in a Catholic Church but converted to Protestantism at the age of 15. Toland achieved a degree from the University of Edinburgh in 1690. He studied in England, Germany and Holland. From an early age Toland’s somewhat unorthodox views made it difficult for him the make a living. He made money writing political pamphlets and biographies for aristocrats. Toland wrote on wide range of subjects from a religious tolerance and civil liberty.

One of his early works was Christianity Not Mysterious, provoked outrage amongst clerics because it sought to explain that human reason could explain biblical mysteries. Clerics burnt the book and one said, “Mr. Toland to himself should be burnt”. Toland recognised that his views would elicit controversy and always kept on the move. He started to write anonymously and in foreign languages, it is reported that he knew ten.

Although his views were somewhat unorthodox he managed to develop some powerful readers. He discussed philosophy with the German writer Willhelm von Leibniz and the Queen of Prussia, Sophia Charlotte. In Clito (1700) and his Letters to Serena (1704) he was to express his earliest thoughts on Pantheism. He believed that “All things were full of God”, and the sun in my father, the earth my mother, the world is my brother and all men are my family”. This egalitarian and internationalist viewpoint began to attract widespread attention. The Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno had a great influence on Toland He would translate and defended Bruno’s Latin treatise on the infinite universe.

It would not be long however that his outspoken views and reluctance at anonymity would bring him trouble, his work Christianity not Mysterious provoked a storm. It must be said that Toland presented himself as a “Visible, available and vulnerable” target for those who wanted to find heretics. It was perhaps not all his own making.

He was after all writing at a time when there was a volatile atmosphere around parliament. It is clear that as Sullivan states he became “A pawn in the political struggle between the lower church bishops and the emerging high church party for the control of the Church of England. The insurgents appointing themselves the church’s defender against both external and internal, found in Toland a notorious figure whom they could identify with the most threatening foes”

One thing that stands out from reading any of Toland’s work that he was a complicated man of high intelligence and erudition. However what is increasingly difficult to provide is an in-depth assessment of his beliefs and principles. Biographers have found it notoriously difficult to find materials that give a clear picture of him. According to A R Sullivan, “Toland habitually covered his tracks and the bulk of his papers have been destroyed”.

The controversy over whether Toland was a deist or not has tended to obscure a much broader question as to his role in the beginnings of the enlightenment in Britain or as some Irish historians claimed the Irish enlightenment. His Christianity Not Mysterious was seen as an attack not only on Christianity; Swift was to call it “the great oracle of the anti –Christians” but also on the political establishment both in Ireland and England.

It is, therefore, important to place Toland within the context of late 17th-century political debate. Although primarily a religious tract, his work was published only 50 years after the English civil war and played his writings added to the discussion on political sovereignty that was developing in the latter part of the 17th century.

It is clear that Toland wanted as wide as a possible audience for this debate. In his preface to Christianity Not Mysterious, he said that he writes for “ordinary readers “and he was critical of writers who spurn the “vulgar”. In that sense it would be accurate to describe Toland as a freethinker who owed a considerable debt to Locke who set the precedent for this type of thinking in his essay Concerning Human Understanding.

According to the Frederick C Beiser the publication of Toland's Christianity Not Mysterious was the high point of the controversy over deism that began around 1696 and did not calm down until the 1740s. Beiser also cites the debate over deism as one of the most important events in the beginning of the enlightenment. Beiser said Toland’s writings posed a question “are there any mysteries or truths above reason in Christianity? Or are all its beliefs subject to critical reason. By questioning the very possibility of revelation, the dispute cast doubt upon the rules of faith, which claimed to be, in one form or another, sources of knowledge of revelation”.
Of his Letters to Serena Beiser goes on to state “Toland’s naturalism was so radical that he attempted to eliminate all traces of the supernatural philosophy as well as religion. Thus in the fifth Letter to Serena he sketched a new cosmology, whose purpose is to dispense with any need for supernatural intervention in the workings of the machine that we call the universe. Here his targets were the Newtonian concepts of space and matter, which permitted Newton to postulate Gods constant presence in the natural order”

While his book produced a bombshell it was perhaps to Toland’s misfortune that he took all the flak. Beiser believed it was not particularly original piece of work and thought it was common coin throughout 17th century Britain and abroad to question revelations. Indeed, perhaps greatest threats to the status quo could be seen in Hobbes materialism or Spinoza’ naturalism. Beiser maintains that Toland did make an original contribution to the debate.


Jonathan Israel rejects also the notion that British Deism was an essentially insular phenomenon and regards the British Deists such as John Toland (1670-1722) as deriving their ideas primarily from Spinoza.


According Ann Talbot “ If the British to Deists produced little that was original this was not the case with the Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), who put forward theories of historical development and language that were so original they seem uncannily ahead of their time. Israel identifies some of Vico’s key ideas as distinctly Spinozist. While he is overtly critical of Spinoza, Vico takes a secular view of history, as does Spinoza, which for neither man depends upon divine intervention. Again like Spinoza, Vico regards religion as arising from the irrational fears and drives of humanity. Spinoza argued that religions arose by a natural psychological process as men imagined that the world had been designed for their benefit by a ruler or rulers and attempted to influence these powerful beings when destructive and disturbing natural events were seen as evidence of divine wrath. He considered that religious leaders used apparent miracles to establish a hold over the minds of the credul
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