The steps by which he strove to carry out his views were not unlike those of Constantine.(227) He first proclaimed the establishment of the emperor's religion as the religion of the state, permitting toleration for all others. He next transferred the Christian endowments to heathens, acting on the principle previously established by Constantine. But beyond this point he proceeded to measures which had the nature of persecution. He declared the Christian laity disqualified for office in the state,—a measure which could only be sophistically maintained on the plea of self-defence; and, afraid of the engine of education, forbade Christian professors to lecture in the public schools of science and literature: and probably he at last imposed a tax on those who did not perform sacrifice. At the same time he saw the necessity of a total reformation in paganism, if it was to revive as the rival of Christianity; and planned, as Pontifex Maximus, a scheme for effecting it, which involved the concealment of the absurdity of its origin by allegorical interpretation, together with the establishment of a discipline and organisation similar to the Christian, and special attention on the part of the priesthood to morality and to public works of mercy.(228) His bitter contempt for Christianity manifested itself in a public edict, which commanded that Christians should be denominated by the opprobrious epithet "Galilaeans;" and in some of his extant letters(229) he evinces a bitterness against it which finds its parallel in Voltaire and Shelley.
A work remains, the Philopatris, (18) usually falsely assigned to Lucian, but which internal evidence proves to belong to the reign of Julian, in which the unknown author, imitating the manner but wanting the power of Lucian, holds up to ridicule the sermons and teaching of some Christian preachers. This work probably conveys the creed of the imperial party, which is simply Deism. This however is not the only source for ascertaining the creed of Julian, and the nature of his objections to Christianity. In his letters, and in the reply of Cyril to his now lost work, we possess more exact means for determining his position and sentiments. (19)
He omitted, as we might expect, the grosser and more frivolous charges against Christianity which had been formerly expressed by those who were ignorant of its real character. Indeed he seems to have been willing to recognise it as one form of religion, but declined to admit its monopoly of claim to be regarded as the only true form. Though himself a Theist,(230)—his view of Deity being more simply monotheistic than that of his predecessors, derived furtively from the Hebrew idea transmitted through Christianity; he nevertheless considered that discrepancy of national character required corresponding differences in religion.(231) In his work he seems to have repeated some of the objections of the older assailants, Celsus and Porphyry; attacking the credibility of scripture and of the Christian scheme in its doctrines and evidences. He offered in it a criticism on primaeval and Hebrew history;(232) attacking the probability of many portions of the book of Genesis;(233) objecting to the Hebrew view of Deity as too appropriating in its character, and as making the divine Being appear cruel.(234) He denied the originality of the Hebrew moral law,(235) and pointed out the supposed defectiveness of the Hebrew polity; comparing unfavourably the type of the Hebrew lawgiver as seen in Moses, and of the king as seen in David, with the great heroes of Greek history.(236) The Hebrew prophecy he tried to weaken by putting it in comparison with oracles. In estimating the character of Christ, he depreciated the importance of his miracles;(237) and noticing the different tone of the fourth Gospel from those of the Synoptists, he asserted that it was St. John who first taught Christ's divinity.(238) He regarded Christianity as composed of borrowed ingredients; considered it to have assumed its shape gradually; and regarded its progress to have been unforeseen by its founder and by St. Paul;(239) attacked its relation to Judaism in superseding it while depending on it;(240) regarded proselytism as absurd; and directed some few charges, which may have been more deserved, against practices of his day, such as Staurolatry(241) and Martyrolatry.(242)
With the death of Julian the hopes of heathenism departed; and two eloquent orations of Gregory Nazianzen(243) still convey to us the Christian words of triumph. Christianity progressed, protected by the favour of the sovereigns. Heathenism no longer expressed itself in free examination of Christianity, and lingered only in the prejudices of the people. In the West it is merely seen as it pleads for toleration,(244) or makes itself heard in the murmurs which attributed the woes of the Teutonic invasions to the displeasure of the heathen gods at the neglect of their worship.(245) In the East it disappears altogether. Doubt there expires, because speculation ceases and Christian thought becomes fixed; nor will it be necessary in future to recur to the history of the eastern church.
In this survey we have tried to understand the objections alleged by unbelievers during the first four centuries, successively changing in character, from the calumnies of ignorance in the second century, to the statements of intelligent disbelief in the third and fourth, until they finally subside in the fifth into the murmuring of popular superstition; and have endeavoured to give their natural as well as literary history, by exhibiting them as corollaries from the various views concerning religion enumerated at the commencement of the lecture. The blind prejudices of the uneducated populace, and the attachment, merely political, to heathen creeds, manifested themselves in deeds rather than words; but each of the other lines of thought there indicated gave expression in literature to its opinion concerning Christianity; the flippant impiety of Epicureanism in Lucian, the debased form then prevalent of Platonism in Celsus, the subtle and mystic philosophy of the neo-Platonists in Porphyry, the oriental Theosophy in Hierocles, the romantic attachment to the old pagan literature in Julian.
If these causes be still further classified for comparison with the enumeration of intellectual causes stated in the previous lecture, we find only the adumbration of some of the forms there named. The attack from physical science, so prevalent since the era of modern discovery, is barely discernible in the passing remarks on the Mosaic cosmogony in Celsus and Julian.(246) The attack from criticism is seen in a trifling form in Celsus; in a superior manner in the perception which Porphyry exhibits of the literary characteristics of the Old Testament, and Julian of the New. The chief ground of the attack was derived from metaphysical science, which acted not so much in its modern form of a subjective inquiry into the tests of truth, as in the shape of rival doctrines concerning the highest problems of life and being, which preoccupied the mind against Christianity. If the eclectic attempts to adjust such speculations to Christianity which marked the progress of Gnosticism could have been embraced in our inquiry, the force of this class of causes would have been made still more apparent.
The obvious insufficiency however of this analysis to afford an entire explanation of the prejudices of these early unbelievers points to the close union before noticed(247)of the emotional with the intellectual causes. While asserting the possibility of the independent action of the intellectual element under peculiar circumstances as a cause of doubt, and while thus vindicating the importance of investigating the history of free thought from the intellectual side, we admitted the necessity of taking the probability of the action of the moral element into account when we pass from the abstract study of tendencies to form a judgment on concrete instances. Here accordingly, in the mental history of these early unbelievers, we already encounter cases where philosophy as well as piety requires that a very large share in the final product be referred to the influence of emotional causes. Christianity addresses itself to the compound human nature, to the intellect and heart conjoined. Accordingly the excitement of certain forms of moral sensibility is as much presupposed in religion as the sense of colour in beholding a landscape. The means fail for estimating with historic certainty the particular emotional causes which operated in the instances now under consideration. The moral chasm which separates us from heathens is so great that we can hardly realize their feelings.
If however we cannot pronounce on the positive presence of moral causes which produced their disbelief, we may conjecture negatively the nature of those, the absence of which precluded the possibility of faith. Christianity demands a belief in the supernatural, and a serious spirit in the investigation of religion, both of which were wholly lacking in Lucian. It requires a deep consciousness of guilt and of the personality of God, which were wanting in Celsus. It exacts a more delicate moral taste to appreciate the divine ideal of Christ's character than Hierocles manifested. Porphyry and Julian are more difficult cases for moral analysis. Porphyry is so earnest a character, so spiritual in his tastes,(248) that we wonder why he was not a Christian; and except by the reference of his conduct to general causes, such as philosophical pride, we cannot understand his motives without a more intimate knowledge than is now obtainable of his personal history. The difficulty of understanding Julian's character arises from its very complexity. Who can divine the many motives which must have combined with intellectual causes at successive moments of his life, to change the Christian student, into the apostate, to convert disbelief into hatred, and to degrade the philosopher into the persecutor? History happily offers so few parallels to enable us to form a conjecture on the answer, that we may be content to leave the problem unsolved.
We have now summed up the causes which operated in the first great intellectual struggle in which Christianity was engaged. No means exist for estimating the amount of harm done by the writings of unbelievers. The retributive destruction of some of them and the indignant alarm of the Christian apologists indicate the probability that these works had excited attention. But under a merciful Providence truth has in the end gained rather than lost by this first conflict of reason against Christianity. The church encountered the unbelievers by apologetic treatises, and met the Gnostics by dogmatic decisions. The truths brought out by the action and reaction, and embodied in the literature stimulated by Gnosticism, in the apologies created by unbelief, and in the creeds suggested as a protest against heresy, are the permanent result which the struggle has contributed to the world.
The contest however is not quite obsolete, and has a practical as well as antiquarian interest. Though the analogy to the attacks of ancient unbelievers must be sought in pagan countries in the objections of modern heathens, yet some resemblance to them may be found in the unbelief of Christian lands. Such parallels are frequently hasty generalizations founded on a superficial perception of agreement, without due recognition of the differences which more exact observation would bring to view; for identity of cause as well as result is necessary in order to establish philosophical affinity. In the present cases however the agreement is moral if not intellectual, in spirit if not in form, generally also in condition if not in cause. The flippant wit of Lucian, which attributes religion to imposture and craft, is repeated in the French criticism of the last century. Some of the doubts of Celsus reappear in the English deists. The delicate criticism of Porphyry is reproduced in the modern exegesis. The disposition to explain Christianity as a psychological phenomenon, as merely one form of the religious consciousness, an organic product of human thought, unsuited for men of superior knowledge, who can attain to the philosophical truth which underlies it, is the modern parallel to Julian.
Accordingly the conduct of the early church during this struggle has a living lesson of instruction for the church in Christian lands, as well as in its missionary operations to the heathen. The victory of the early church was not due wholly to intellectual remedies, such as the answers of apologists, but mainly to moral; to the inward perception generated of the adaptation of Christianity to supply the spiritual wants of human nature.(249) As the heathen realized the sense of sin, they felt intuitively the suitability of salvation through Christ; as they witnessed the transforming power of belief in Him, they felt the inward testimony to the truth of Christianity. The external evidence of religion had its office in the early church, though the belief(250) in magic and in oracles probably prevented the full perception of the demonstrative force due to the two forms of external evidence, miracles and prophecy. But the internal evidences,—Christ, Christianity, Christendom, were the most potent proofs offered,—the doctrine of an atoning Messiah filling the heart's deepest longings, and the lives of Christians embodying heavenly virtues.
The modern church may therefore take comfort, and may hope for victory. The weak things of the world confounded the strong, not only because the Holy Spirit granted the dew of his blessing, but because the scheme and message of reconciliation which the church was commissioned to announce, were of divine construction. Each Christian who tries, however humbly, to spread the knowledge of Christ by word or by example is helping forward the Redeemer's kingdom. Let each one in Christ's strength do his duty, and he will leave the world better than he found it; and in the present age, as in the times of old, Gnosticism and heathenism will retire before Christianity; the false will be dissipated, the good be absorbed, by the beams of the Sun of righteousness.
LECTURE III. FREE THOUGHT DURING THE MIDDLE AGES, AND AT THE RENAISSANCE; TOGETHER WITH ITS RISE IN MODERN TIMES.
LUKE xxi. 33.
Heaven and earth shall pass away; but my words shall not pass away.
We have studied the history of unbelief down to the fall of heathenism. A period of more than seven hundred years elapses before a second crisis of doubt occurs in church history. The interval was a time of social dissolution and reconstruction; and when the traces of the free criticism of religion reappear, the world in which they manifest themselves is new. Fresh races have been introduced, institutions unknown to the ancient civilization have been mingled with or have replaced the old; and the ancient language of the Roman empire has dissolved into the Romance tongues. But Christianity has lived through the deluge, and been the ark of refuge in the storm; and its claims are now tested by the young world which emerged into being when the waters of confusion had retired. The silence of reason in this interval was not the result of the abundance of piety, but of the prevalence of ignorance; a sign of the absence of inquiry, not of the presence of moral and mental satisfaction.(251) Even when speculation revived, and reason re-examined religion, the literary monuments in which expression is given to doubt are so few, that it will be possible in the present lecture not only to include the account of the second and third crises which mark the course of free thought in church history, but even to pass beyond them, and watch the dawn of unbelieving criticism caused by the rise of the modern philosophy which ushers in the fourth of the great crises named in a previous lecture.(252)
The former of these periods which we shall now examine, the second in the general scheme, may be considered to extend from A.D. 1100 to 1400. Its commencement is fixed by the date at which the scholastic philosophy began to influence religion, its close by the revival of classical learning. The history of free thought in it is complicated, by being to some extent the struggle of deeds as well as of ideas, a social as well as a religious struggle. It was the period which witnessed both the dissolution of feudalism and the theocratic centralization in the popedom; and while reason struggled on the one side against the dogmatic system, it struggled on the other to assert the rights of the state against the church, and to put restraints upon the privileges, dominion, and wealth, of the pope and clergy. The social struggle, to vindicate the liberty of the state against the undue power of the church, so far as it is the effect of free thought, appertains to our subject, in the same manner as was the case with the early attempts of a converse character of the Roman emperors to deny due liberty to the church, whenever, as in the case of Julian, they were the result of a deliberate examination of religion. Free thought in the middle ages is at once Protestantism, Scepticism, and Ghibellinism.(253)
The intellectual action in this crisis is marked by four forms;—(1) the criticism created by the scholastic philosophy, which has been thought to mark in Abelard the commencement of doubt; (2) the introduction of the idea of progress in religion, in the sense that Christianity is to be replaced by a better religion; (3) the idea of the comparison of Christianity with other religions, so as to obliterate its exceptional character; (4) the traces of disbelief in the doctrine of immortality. The two former are free thought as doubt, the two latter as disbelief.
It will be necessary, for illustrating the first of those forms, to explain the nature of the scholastic philosophy, so far as to show how it might become the means of producing heresy or scepticism, when applied to theology.
Scholasticism is the vague name which describes the system of inquiry common in the middle ages.(254) In truth it marks a period rather than a system; a method rather than a philosophy. In spite of difference of form, it links itself with the speculations of other ages in community of aim, in that it strove to gain a general philosophy of the universe, to reach some few principles which might offer an interpretation of all difficulties.
In the present age the science which attempts this grand problem is denominated Logic, or Metaphysics, according to the different sphere which it covers.(255) But in the middle ages these two fields were not clearly distinguished; in the same manner as in the Διαλεκτικὴ of Plato, method and the realities attained by method were not separated.(256) Yet it was mainly in reference to the former that scholasticism wears the aspect of a method, and to the latter the aspect of a philosophy. Adopting deduction as the type of a perfect science, it assumed its data partly on the ground of innate ideas, partly from the truths of revelation, partly from the metaphysical dicta of Aristotle; and from these principles attempted to work out deductively a solution of universal nature. It was the Σοφία of Aristotle executed from a Christian point of view. In respect to the logical method there was a general agreement of opinion, but difference of system arose in the metaphysical. The form that the problem of science then assumed was peculiar. Instead of examining the data from which deduction starts, with a view of finding their subjective certainty as thoughts, the inquirers strove to settle the problem of their objective nature as things. The question asked was this: Are the genera and species which the mind contemplates, in its attempts to classify and interpret phenomena, real in nature, or produced only by human thought and speech? A comparison with the modern mode of investigation will explain the importance which the question possessed, and the reason why it monopolized the entire field of inquiry.
The progress of discovery has forced upon us a subdivision of the sciences into two classes, unknown in the middle ages; in one of which we discover causes; in the other, in which we are unable to find causes, we rest content with classification by species and genera. In the former we discover antecedents, in the latter types.(257) But in mediaeval science, as in Greek, the latter class was regarded as the sole form of all perfect science. Hence the reason will appear why the question as to the true nature of genera and species had a monopoly of the field of inquiry; and also why the theory of predication was exalted into the most important part of logic.(258) Those who thought that genera had a real existence as essences apart from man's mind and from nature, were denominated Realists: those who denied to them any real existence, and considered them to be a common quality labelled by a common name, were Nominalists: those who held the intermediate view, and assumed them to exist, not only as artificial names but also as general classes in the human mind, were Conceptualists. With the realist, classification was not arbitrary, but true and determined for man. With the nominalist and conceptualist it was created by man, and amenable to correction.
The question, though now relegated from metaphysical to physical science, has still sufficient importance to enable us to perceive likewise the reason why these different theories could be the means of dividing men into parties. The bitterness with which a zoological inquiry of analogous character into the perpetuity of natural species(259) has been lately assailed may enable us to realize the earnestness shown on this point in the middle ages. The question, as viewed by the schoolmen, was really the fundamental one as respects knowledge; and the opinions on it are the counterpart to those which relate to the tests of truth and the nature of being in modern metaphysics. The spirit of realism was essentially the spirit of dogmatism, the disposition to pronounce that truth was already known.(260) Nominalism was essentially the spirit of progress, of inquiry, of criticism. Realism was in spirit deductive, starting from accepted dogmas: Nominalism was in spirit, though not in form, inductive. It tested classifications, and admitted opportunities for the existence of doubt. "Believe that you may know," was the expression of the former: "Know that you may believe," that of the latter.(261)
The two theories were of universal application to every subject of thought. An illustration will explain their relation to theology. In the foolish and almost irreverent attempts to explain by philosophy the nature of the triune existence of the divine Being, the realist assuming the reality of the one genus Deity, was prepared to allow identity of essence in the three species, the three members of the Divine Trinity. The nominalist, allowing only concrete existence, was obliged either to accept unity, only in a verbal sense, and be charged with tritheism, as Roscelin; or diversity only in a verbal sense, and incur the charge of Sabellianism, as Abelard.
Such was Scholasticism, and such its relation to philosophy and theology.(262) Existing for several centuries as an instinct, it became about the end of the eleventh century an intelligent movement.(263) At this period the problem was consciously proposed, and each of the three centuries which are comprised in our present period exhibits a different phase of the controversy. At first the movement was in favour of the nominalism in Roscelin and Abelard, and reason assumed an attitude of alleged scepticism: in the thirteenth century the victory was in the hands of intelligent realists like Aquinas, who used reason in favour of orthodoxy. In the fourteenth, nominalism revived in Occam; the provinces of faith and philosophy were severed, and the final victory on the metaphysical question remained in the hands of the nominalists.
The scientific position of Abelard will thus be clear. We must now study his intellectual character, as embodying the sceptical aspect which belonged to nominalism.
Abelard's character is in many respects one of the most curious in history.(264) The record of his trials, bodily and mental,(265) enlists the romantic sympathy of the sentimentalist, and commands the serious attention of the philosopher. His wonderful reputation at Paris as a public lecturer connects him with the university life of the middle ages, and presents him as the type of the class of great professors created by the absence of books and consequent prevalence of oral instruction. It was his vast influence which made his opinions of importance, and aroused the opposition of St. Bernard. It seems to have been the application of the nominalist philosophy to the doctrine of the Trinity, contained in Abelard's works on dogmatic theology,(266) which excited alarm. The council called at Sens(267) was a theological duel, wherein those two distinguished characters were matched, the most eloquent theologian and preacher against the most influential professor and philosopher; the saint against the critic. Bernard was right in his Theology; Abelard perhaps right in his philosophy.(268) This event however presents the effects of scholasticism in producing heresy rather than scepticism.
The great work which has laid Abelard open to the latter charge merits a brief notice. It was entitled the Sic et Non, and remained unpublished in the public documents of France till recent years.(269) It is a collection of alleged contradictions, which exist on a series of topics, which range over the deepest problems of theology, and descend to the confines of casuistry in ethics.(270) In the discussion of them Abelard collects passages from the scriptures and from the fathers in favour of two distinctly opposite solutions. He has however prefixed a prologue to the work, which ought to be taken as the explanation of his object.(271) He insists in it on the difficulty of rightly understanding the scriptures or the fathers, and refers it to eight different causes;(272) advising that when these considerations fail to explain the apparent contradictions of scripture, we should abandon the manuscripts as inaccurate, rather than believe in the existence of real discrepancies. He draws also a broad distinction between canonical scripture and other literature, strongly affirming the authority of the former.
Is this work sceptical? Is it designed under a fair show to serve the purpose of unbelief? Or is it merely an instance of the awakening of the spirit of inquiry, the free criticism exercised by nominalism, the desire to prove all dogmas by reason? In other words, was the freethinking of Abelard rationalism, or was it merely Protestantism and theological criticism?
These questions have met with different answers. The Benedictine editors, viewing his condemnation by St. Bernard as parallel to that of the biblical critic R. Simon(273) by Bossuet, declined to publish the manuscript of his work.(274) More recent inquirers, especially the philosophical critic Cousin, have regarded Abelard with a favourable eye. They consider his treatises merely to be a provisional scepticism, fortifying the mind against premature solutions. Some would even claim him as an early protestant, as the first of the line of men whose spirits, while fretting under the dogmatic teaching or the political centralization of the Western church, have unhesitatingly bowed before the authority of scripture.(275) Possibly these several views contain elements of truth. Abelard's character was complex, and the purpose of his book equally so. He embodied a movement, and experience had not yet taught men to distinguish in it the boundaries which separated the provinces of free thought. The argument in favour of scepticism drawn from the form of his work seems unfair. The statement of a series of paradoxes is lawful, if a solution of them be offered, or an explanation of the reason why a solution is impossible. The disputative, dialectical tone which assists in the work was the ordinary mode of instruction in the mediaeval universities, and finds a parallel in the method of thought observable in other ages. Abelard's statement of paradoxes, of an unsolved mass of contradictions, recalls, for example, the early paradoxes on motion which Zeno presented for the purpose of compelling acquiescence in the Eleatic teaching,(276) or the series of antinomies which Kant has given, as problems insoluble theoretically, but capable of harmony when viewed on the moral side.(277) In truth it is the mark, either, as in one of these cases, of the first awakening of the mind to curiosity; or, as in the other, of the last limit at which curiosity is compelled to pause. Abelard's method is like that which is observable in Socrates, and in those early dialogues of his disciple Plato, in which the pupil is working in his master's manner, wherein difficulties are propounded without being solved. The hearer is cross-questioned, with the view of being made to feel the necessity of possessing knowledge; and a method is offered to him by which he is to find the solution of problems for himself.(278) In this view Abelard's doubt is really the inquiry which is the first step to faith; the criticism which precedes the constructive process, the negation before affirmation.
While its form may be regarded as an embodiment of the scholastic method, the manner of handling marks the commencement of modern biblical criticism. The suggestions which he offers(279) in reference to false readings of manuscripts, the spuriousness of books, and the temporary character of the author's sentiments, as elements in determining the reality of a contradiction, or the necessary rejection of a passage on grounds of dogmatic improbability, mark a sagacity which has been perfected into a science by the growth of modern criticism. Thus far we have only the elements of inquiry and criticism which enter into doubt; yet it would be unfair to deny that something of unbelief may have been found in a restless care-worn spirit like that of Abelard; and if any one thinks that he intended in his work to leave the reader with the impression that the solution is impossible, or that the doubter's side is the stronger, then we may consider him to have been an unbeliever, and regard his teaching as an example, often witnessed in later times, of a concealed irony, which, while pretending to accept revelation, has represented its evidence as insufficient, and its doctrines as unprovable. If however he be taken to be a sceptic, it is only the infancy of doubt. It is unlike the bitter disbelief shown by the early antichristian writers, or by the doubters of modern times. Whatever was valuable in the free thought of Abelard outlived his time. The spirit of inquiry which spoke through him, continued to operate in his successors.(280) His method was even adopted by his opponents. His follower, Arnold of Brescia, carried free thought from ideas into acts, and suffered martyrdom in a premature struggle against the papal church.(281) Being dead, Abelard yet spoke, both politically and philosophically; and his character remains as a type of the spirit of mingled doubt and hope and inquiry which is exhibited in the free thought of any of those great epochs, when knowledge is increased, and when earnest minds are standing in doubt whether the new wine can be placed in the old bottles.
The movement, which was beginning to be felt in every branch of life and thought in the twelfth century, was still more manifest in the course of the thirteenth, an age, which, whether viewed in its great men or great deeds, its movements political, ecclesiastical, or intellectual, is the most remarkable of the middle ages, and one of the most memorable in history.(282) The activity of speculation is evidenced by the increasing alarm which alleged heresy like the Albigensian was causing, and by the establishment of the system of ecclesiastical police(283) which developed into the inquisition. About the middle of the century, the influence of free thought in religion is supposed to have made its appearance, in a work which originated with one of the newly created mendicant orders. A book which had appeared at the beginning of the century, entitled "the Everlasting Gospel," was now edited with an introduction by some person of influence in the Franciscan order.(284) The idea conveyed was, that, as there are three Persons in the Godhead, so there must be three dispensations; that of the Father which ended at the coming of Christ, that of the Son which was then about to conclude, and that of the Spirit, of which the religious ideal of the Franciscans was the embodiment.
The work caused immense alarm, and was condemned by the council of Arles,(285) on the ground that it assumed that Christianity was imperfect, and was to be replaced by a superior revelation developing from natural causes. It is doubtful whether the book was really intended to be sceptical. More probably it was mystical. Claiming to be founded on an apocalyptic idea,(286) it was a revival of the Chiliasm which haunted the Christians of Asia Minor in the early centuries; perhaps also it was the utterance of the spiritual yearning which marked the rise of the Franciscan order, and a protest against the worldliness of the times. It was connected too with the longings for political deliverance from the temporal dominion of the Popedom which were now beginning to be felt. In these latter aspects the idea, so far from being false, was an advance. Christianity from time to time admits a progress, but from within rather than from without; a deeper spiritual appreciation of old truths rather than a reception of new ones. The demand for progress becomes a ground for alarm only when it implies that the world has bidden farewell to Christianity, either through the mystical expectation of a Millennial reign which is to supersede it, or through the sceptical belief that our religion has only an historic value, and needs remodelling to meet the requirements of advancing civilization. If the latter was the meaning of this utterance of the Franciscan book, the idea was the germ of the modern conception of the function of Christianity in "the education of the race," the first statement of which is usually attributed to Lessing.(287)
The same century which gave birth to this mot, expressive of progress in religion, created also another which embodied the idea of the comparative study of religions. This phrase may have different meanings. It may signify the comparison of Christianity with ethnic creeds in its external and internal character, without sacrificing the belief that a divinely revealed element exists in it, which caused it to differ from them in kind as well as degree. Or it may mean a comparison of Christianity with other religions, as equally false with them, equally a deliberate and conscious invention of priestcraft which was the shocking view adopted by writers like Volney in the last century,(288) or else a comparison of it as equally true with them, as equally a psychological development of the religious intelligence, which is the view prevalent in many noted works on the philosophy of history in the present.(289) It was the second of these ideas, expressive of actual incredulity, which existed in the thirteenth century. It is traceable in the imputation made by Gregory IX(290) against the celebrated emperor Frederick II, that he had spoken of Moses, Christ, and Mahomet, as the three great impostors who had respectively deceived the Jews, the Christians, and the Arabs.
The very possibility of the existence of such a comparison presupposes intercourse with disciples of foreign creeds. The Christians now no longer possessed a merely vague knowledge of Jews and Mahometans. The crusades were expiring, the danger which evoked them had subsided, and the enmity which supported them was decaying. Europe had entered into relations of commerce, if not of amity, with Mahometan nations; and through contact with them had come to measure them by an altered standard, and to acquire the idea of comparing religions. Frederick II, to whom this expression is imputed, is stated to have manifested admiration of Mahometan literature, and affection for his Mahometan subjects who afforded him aid in carrying out the plans of civilization which his powerful mind had formed;(291) and it was his indifference to a crusade, induced probably by other causes, which led the Pope to impute to him the blasphemy just quoted. The contact with the East, half a century later, in like manner afforded the pretext for fastening a charge of unbelief on the Knights Templars.(292) Contact with Mahometans had thus, we have reason to believe, created a latitude of thought in many parts of Christendom.
The same idea of the comparison of Christianity with other creeds reappears in a tale of Boccaccio,(293) in which the three great religions are represented under the allegory of three rings which a father gave to his children, so exactly alike that the judges could not decide which was the genuine one of the three, and which the copies. It is also illustrated by the tradition of the existence of a book, entitled "De Tribus Impostoribus," which has been attributed almost to every great name in the middle ages which was conspicuous for opposition to the claims of the church, or for uneasiness under the pressure of its dogmatic teaching. The existence of the book is legendary: no one ever saw it: and the two distinct works which now bear the title can be shown to have been composed respectively in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: but the legend is a witness to the fact of the existence of the idea which the book was said to embody. (20)
It is perhaps in some degree to the influence of the doctrine of absorption in the Mahometan philosophy of Averroes, a commentator on Aristotle, who was the contemporary of Abelard, that we may attribute the disbelief in immortality to which we find a tendency toward the close of the thirteenth and during the fourteenth century.(294) Though it is probable that the indirect influence of the Arabic philosophy was felt earlier, in stimulating a demand for inquiry, a disposition to make dogmas submit to the test of reason, which has been shown to be the earliest form of mediaeval doubt; yet it was not until the thirteenth century that the works of Averroes definitely influenced scholasticism, through the teaching of Michael Scot and Alexander Hales, and by means of the rapidity of intellectual communication which forms so singular a feature in mediaeval history, spread their influence in Italy as well as in France. It was at this time that the doctrine of Averroes was attacked by Aquinas; and though the amount of its influence can hardly be estimated, we have the means of tracing the growth of dislike to its author in Christian lands, which is an incidental probability of the increasing danger to Christianity arising from it. In the middle of the thirteenth century the Franciscans study him without evincing hatred. About the end of it Dante describes him still without reproaches, though he places him in the Inferno along with other heathen philosophers:(295) but half a century later, in the pictures of the last judgment which exist in several states of Italy, each a little historic satire with its own peculiarities, we find Averroes depicted as the type of incredulity and blasphemy. In a fresco of the Campo Santo of Pisa, executed about 1335, when perhaps the recent canonization of Aquinas as an opponent of Averroes had directed attention to the influence of the Arabic philosopher, Orcagna has placed a separate bolgia, the lowest in his hell, for three persons,—Mahomet, Anti-christ, and Averroes.(296)
The disbelief of immortality was however too obvious a temptation in a corrupt age, as well as too generally spread, especially in the next century, to be wholly attributable to the subtle influence of the doctrine of absorption of the Arabic philosophy. A mediaeval English poet(297) attributes incredulity to the higher classes of his age; and Dante, in that poem which is a romantic picture of his contemporaries or predecessors, when devoting one circle of the Inferno to the habitation of the "more than a thousand" of those "who make the soul die with the body," attributes the cause of the sin to Epicureanism, a moral and not an intellectual cause.(298) It is a sad and humiliating thought to reflect also that a cause which must have increased incredulity, if it did not create it, was to be found in the vices of the clergy, especially near the papal court of Avignon. Most of the distinguished laymen whom history records as evincing unbelief belonged to the political party, which strove to repress the political centralization and temporal authority of the church; and it is to be feared that the causes just named were the means of repelling more deeply from religion the hearts of such persons whose interests or whose vices already led them to hate its promoters.(299)
We have thus collected the few traces which mark the history of free thought in the second great crisis of church history, and incidentally illustrated its connexion with social movements as well as religious, and shown its relation to intellectual or moral causes. On the intellectual side we have witnessed the scholastic philosophy giving activity to the spirit of change, and contact with Mahometan life and opinion imparting the latitude to Christian thought which passed into incredulity. On the moral we have noticed that the effect of social wants or of actual viciousness gave birth respectively to religious restlessness, or to actual disbelief of the supernatural. The church of the time was not unaware of the movement. In part it tried to repress it by persecution and by the Inquisition; but in part also by the lawful weapon of spiritual contest. The grand works of defence of the thirteenth century, which adjusted scholastic philosophy to dogmatic theology, and the spiritual activity of the mendicant orders, were real and lawful means of victory, appealing respectively to the intellect and heart.
The moral judgment formed on the movement seen in the whole period must vary with the phase of it viewed. The attack is not, like those of the early unbelievers, a struggle with which the sympathies of Christians cannot be enlisted. The darker aspects of it partake indeed of the same character; but it embodies a better element, a nobler form of movement, tainted perhaps with doubt, but not with disbelief; viz. the attempt of the human mind to assert its rights in philosophy, theology, and politics; and as the epoch closes, the great truth has made itself felt in the world as the result of the contest, that Christianity is supreme only within its own sphere, which it is the problem of religious philosophy to discover; that freedom of inquiry is to be used outside the boundary, but that speculation must expire in adoration within it.
A new crisis may be considered to commence in the fifteenth century, in consequence of the introduction of fresh influences through the classical revival. Yet as the two periods are connected in time, the transition is not sudden: the old influences gradually vanish away; the new ones had been slowly preparing before they became distinctly evident. The intellectual and social activity of the past period had been the means of educating the mind of Europe for the reception of the new forces which were now beginning to operate.(300)
The fifteenth century was a remarkable period for Europe, and preeminently for Italy. During several ages Italy had grown great by means of commerce and religion. The crusades, which had impoverished the rest of Europe, had enriched her; and the subjugation of the nations to the court of Rome had made her the treasury of Europe. Material wealth permitted the encouragement of the study of literature, which relations of commerce or of conquest with the Greek empire had been the means of reviving. Manuscripts were collected, and the remains of monuments of classic art were studied. The love of antiquity gave perfection to art, and influenced literature. The work which centuries had slowly prepared now came to perfection. The scholastic philosophy declined; the sources of ecclesiastical education and of the existing religion were weakened; and by the close of the fifteenth century the tone of the age was in all respects changed. The devotion which had expressed itself in the great Gothic works of devotion of early ages was expiring, at least in Italy, and art itself gradually became secular, and expressed ideas more earthly.
When such a moment of material prosperity, combined with intellectual and social change, ensues immediately on the movement previously sketched, we should expect to find religion subjected to re-examination, and placed in temporary peril. The history confirms the supposition. If we regard this crisis as embracing about two centuries and a quarter,(301) comprehending the classical revival, the opening of a new geographical world, and the great religious changes of the Reformation,—a period commencing with the Renaissance, and closed by the creation of modern philosophy;—we shall find two principal movements of unbelief for investigation, the one caused by literature, a return to a spirit of heathenism analogous to that already described in Julian; the second caused by philosophy, a revival of pantheism. The first belonged especially to the close of the fifteenth century, and had its seat for the most part in Tuscany and Rome; the second to the sixteenth, and was represented in the university of Padua. In both these movements, especially in the former, the open expression of unbelief in literature is rare, though the incidental proofs of its existence are abundant. It was a time of the dissolution of faith, not of overt attack. Unbelief was Epicurean indifference, rather than earnestness in destroying the old creed.
Two of the most obvious proofs that we can select for proving the existence of a state of unbelief(302) are, the ridicule of religion expressed in the burlesque poetry of the time, and the antichristian sympathies of several distinguished men.
It would be incorrect however to attribute the satirical allusions in the poetry wholly to the influence of the classical revival; for the romantic epic in which they occur is the offshoot of the old prose romance of mediaeval chivalry, which had in earlier ages amused the courts of princes by directing its banter against ecclesiastical persons and institutions.(303) But the tone of the poetry is now changed. The satire is directed against religion itself, not merely against the abuse of it, or the eccentricities of its adherents. Free thought is not merely political dissatisfaction, but religious unbelief. And with the alteration of the tone agrees also the increasing disposition to carry satire into the domain of the supernatural; which thus witnesses to the widespread unbelief in the hearers for whom it was designed. Italian critics have doubted indeed whether these epics are designed to convey a caricature, or pass beyond lawful satire:(304) yet even when allowance is made for the fact that they are an historic reproduction, and for the fund presented for humour by ecclesiastical peculiarities, it seems impossible to overlook the covert satire intended on church beliefs.(305) The intermixture of a comic element would not alone prove this. The miracle plays of the middle ages admitted comedy without intending irreverence;(306) and a gentle humour pervades many of the Autos of Calderon, which were acted on solemn festivals.(307) But there exists in the manner in which the supernatural element is managed by such poets as Pulci, Bello, and Ariosto, such evident purpose to bring into ridicule the existence of belief, that its parallel can only be found in the banter used by their imitator Byron, in his Vision of Judgment, and implies indifference both in author and reader; the expression of contempt, not of anger.(308)
The unbelief which existed in the courts for which this poetry was written, is a specimen of the general incredulity, or indifference to Christianity, which prevailed among the educated classes, and was fostered by classical studies and tastes. It seems strange to us, who have been long accustomed to regard classical culture as the basis of general education, and who are impressed with the conviction of the great assistance ministered by it to theological study, to regard it as the producing cause of unbelief. This result of it however was a transitory one, originating in the shock which arose from the novel thoughts and tastes which mingled themselves with the ancient pursuits, and altered the previous ideal of life. Ever since the earliest times, a chasm had unavoidably separated heathen literature from Christian; and a dislike to heathen studies existed, which found its full expression in Gregory the Great.(309) The result was, that the Christian civilization did not consciously admit the introduction of heathen thought; and when the mind awoke suddenly to a perception of its beauty and depth, though deeper spirits, like Erasmus, regarded it with the enlightened Christian approbation which Origen had formerly shown, others were led, like Julian of old, from their admiration of it, to look with indifference or hostility on Christianity. Some of the brilliant and elevated minds that adorned the court of the Medicis were suspected of unbelief, or of preferring Platonism to Christianity;(310) and after the woes of the French invasion at the end of the century had deepened the corruption of morals, and stamped out political liberty, the last freshness of artistic creation, which had linked the public mind to Christianity through the deep instincts of the taste, disappeared. The art and literature which succeeded are an index of the tone which prevailed. Gaining perfection in form by the imitation of classic models, they were cold, sensuous, unspiritual.(311) Classical mythology was intermixed with gospel doctrines; and the early years of the sixteenth century represent the semi-heathen tone of thought which was the transition to the perfect fusion which afterwards took place of the old learning and the new. It was an age similar to those of modern times in France and Germany, which have been called periods of humanism, when hope suggests the inauguration of a new moral and social era, and the pride of knowledge produces a general belief in the power of civilization to become the sole remedy for evil.(312)
The social conditions of the age added moral causes to the intellectual, which tended to increase the unbelief, especially in the literary classes. One of them is perhaps to be found in the fact that the church prizes were the only reward for authorship. By the beginning of the sixteenth century authors became largely appreciated through the press, and received patronage at the courts of the various Τύραννοι who had established themselves on the ruins of the old republics. In the absence of any law of copyright there was no protection for them,(313) and consequently no reward except church patronage, which was therefore conferred indiscriminately, and tended to foster disbelief in the very recipients of it. A merely professional hold of religion is the surest road to absolute disbelief. It is inconceivable that the ecclesiastical scandals which history blushes to narrate, could have been perpetrated by believers; and the unbelief imputed to persons in high station, such as Leo X with other popes, and cardinals such as Bembo, was doubtless, if true, partly the result of the degrading effects of professional insincerity.
Such a state of unbelief could not be permanent, whether it was the result of a decaying system, or of the introduction of new influences. Nor would we use unnecessarily a polemical tone in speaking of a period where there is so much cause for Christian humiliation; yet it is worthy of notice that such facts are a refutation of the attack which has frequently been made on Protestantism, as the cause of eclecticism and unbelief. The two great crises in church history, when faith almost entirely died out, and free thought developed into total disbelief of the supernatural, have been in Romish countries; viz., in Italy in this period, and in France during the eighteenth century. In both the experiment of the authoritative system of the catholic religion had a fair trial, and was found wanting.
Other causes besides the classical revival were operating to stimulate activity of mind and freedom of inquiry. It was an age in which the great system of the middle ages was finally dissolving. The discovery of new worlds seemed at once to call to Europe to break connexion with the old centre of ecclesiastical centralization; and to invite to that study of nature which should elevate, and as it were emancipate the mind, by teaching physical truth and the true method of discovery.(314) Political circumstances too, contributed toward the creation of ecclesiastical autonomy. The European nations had gradually grown into united families, and were now ready for cooperation in a system of balance of power.(315) The northern nations, long galled under the power of Rome, were panting for freedom; Germany first reforming her religion, and then throwing off her subjection; England first throwing off her subjection, and then compelled to reform herself. The old systems of thought were at an end. The change, like all social ones, was not abrupt, but it was decisive and final. It was the earthquake which shattered for ever the crust of error which had fettered thought.
It is a matter of wonder that the great revolutions just named passed with so little development of scepticism. In the nations north of the Alps there is hardly a trace. The charge of deism, directed in the fifteenth century against Pecock,(316) bishop of Chichester, appears to have been unfounded. The contest which Ulrich von Huetten carried on against the monks and schools of Cologne was literary rather than religious;(317) Huetten being the literary and political reformer rather than the sceptic. Even the most advanced spirits of the reformers,(318) Servetus and the Sozini, came forth from Italy, as from the centre of free thought. Nor were they unbelievers in the reality of a revelation; and they met with no support from the northern reformers. Servetus was martyred at Geneva, and the Sozini were banished into Poland. It was the spiritual earnestness which mingled with the intellectual movement in the Reformation, which prevented free thought from producing rationalism or unbelief. Protestantism was a form of free thought; but only in the sense of a return from human authority to that of scripture. It was equally a reliance on an historic religion, equally an appeal to the immemorial doctrine of the church with Roman Catholicism; but it conceived that the New Testament itself contained a truer source than tradition for ascertaining the apostolic declaration of it.(319)
But Italy was the witness of another sceptical tendency, besides that which resulted from the classic Renaissance, in the last remnant of the influence of mediaeval philosophy. Throughout the sixteenth century, pantheism manifested itself in connexion with the philosophical studies of the university of Padua. The form in which it made itself felt was the disbelief of the immortality of the soul on speculative grounds. The cause of the disbelief was the influence of the philosophy of Averroes before noticed.(320)
It will be necessary to explain this system with a little detail. It has been already stated that Averroes was a noted commentator on Aristotle in the twelfth century. The two ground principles of his philosophy were, the eternity of matter and the impersonality of mind. On this high subject there can be only two theories; the one theistic, which declares that God is free, a personal first Cause, and the Creator of matter, and that other minds are free and personal; the other pantheistic, which asserts that matter is eternal, and that individual minds are only the manifestation of the impersonal mind, into which the individual is reabsorbed. Averroes held the latter theory, claiming to derive it from Aristotle. It must be confessed however that Aristotle's views are uncertain on this point: he distinguished between mind, immortal and relative, the latter of which, being connected with body, ceased at death; the former outlived it. But he hardly stated the doctrine that all souls are part of the universal soul, and is silent about their reabsorption into it. These points were added by Averroes.(321)
The influence of the philosophy of Averroes is observable in three classes of thinkers; viz., the Spanish Jews of his own century, the scholastic philosophers of the thirteenth, and the philosophers of the university of Padua in the fourteenth and succeeding ages. The second of these effects has been already traced: we must now notice the third.
Padua was the great medical university of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and was a type of the tendency which at that time manifested itself in the north-eastern part of Italy toward material and rational studies, as in Tuscany to ideal and humanistic. It was the medical philosophy of Averroes which had first attracted attention to him. But the influence of his teaching was innocuous there until the sixteenth century, during the whole of which this university became the home of free thought.
Strict accuracy would require the separation of two tendencies in the Peripatetic school of Padua, each derived from one of Aristotle's commentators.(322) The one was the Averroist just named, which consisted in the disbelief of immortality on the ground of absorption. Man's soul, being part of the great soul which animates the universe, both emanates from it, and is again reabsorbed. The other was the Alexandrist, so called from following Alexander of Aphrodisias,(323) which consisted in a tendency to pure materialism, an absolute denial of immortality and of religion, which almost reaches the incredulity earlier expressed in the legend of the Three Impostors. Pomponatius is the declared representative of the latter view soon after the beginning of the century.(324) Frequently however the unbelief was secret, and a seeming show of orthodoxy was maintained by drawing a broad distinction between philosophy and theology; and by teaching that these views, though seen to be true in the one, were to be accounted false in obedience to the teaching of the other.
It is customary to class along with the Averroists some philosophers of a more original turn; some of whom were only indirectly connected with Padua, but rather were examples of an attempt to substitute a philosophy in place of that which was expiring. They are said to have manifested the same kind of pantheism, and to have been led by it to similar disbelief. Such are Cesalpini, Cardan,(325) Bruno, and Vanini. The charge is perhaps unfair against the two former, as they seem to have held the separate immortality of souls, which is more compatible with theism. The two latter represent the two schools just noticed, about the end of the sixteenth century.
Bruno(326) belonged mainly to the Averroist school, though his views were probably formed independently, and certainly extended farther. He not only held the existence of a soul pervading the universe, which is the form of Pantheism which has been already considered, but followed the earlier philosophy of the Neo-Platonists in identifying the soul with the matter which it animates; regarding the one as an emanation from the other, in the same manner as an effect is merely cause or force transferred. It is this belief which occurs in Spinoza, which is properly denominated Pantheism, where the Creator is forgotten in creation. The former line of Pantheism noticed in Averroes approaches more nearly to theism. Bruno's unbelief was not gay and flippant, but sombre and earnest. With a fantastical conceit which can hardly be explained, he travelled as the missionary to propagate his own views like a knight errant tilting at all opinions, with a soul especially embittered against the Christian priesthood.(327) On his return to Italy from his travels he fell into the hands of the church, and suffered death for his opinions.
Vanini(328) similarly led a wandering life, but is a character of less seriousness: occasionally he manifested the inconsistency of indifference to his own opinions. Reverencing the memory of Pomponatius, he expressed the same disbelief of the spiritual and of immortality. He was possibly an atheist. Certainly his views were tinged with deep bitterness against religion; and after leading a restless life, he suffered a cruel martyrdom for his belief.
Bruno and Vanini were the apostles of a doctrine which the world would no longer hear. The dawn of physical knowledge was turning men to a truer study of the universe, and caused their labours to be in vain. The age of indifference was gone. The alarm caused by the Reformation had kindled a strong ecclesiastical reaction, especially in Italy, and the religious earnestness and intellectual activity of Germany had awoke an intelligent reaction on the part of the Catholic church.(329) Hence these two writers incurred a danger unknown to their predecessors. Martyrs are men who are before their age or behind it. Their sad fate throws an interest around their lives. Unbelief must always have its confessors. It is to be hoped that the inhumanity of Christendom will never again cause it to have its martyrs.
The survey is now complete of the crisis which occurred in the transition from the middle ages to modern history, forming the third of those enumerated in a former lecture, we have witnessed amidst its complexity the manifestation of the same principles as in former epochs; the restlessness of the human mind struggling to be free, intellectually, politically, religiously; and we have endeavoured to trace the operation of the influence of classical literature and metaphysical philosophy in inducing the decay of Christian feeling and belief.
The means adopted for counteracting the movement were similar to those used in former periods, viz. an intellectual argument and a spiritual awakening. In some instances, indeed, in accordance with the spirit of the time, or more truly with the spirit of human nature, material force and cruelty were employed, and the unbeliever was silenced by martyrdom. But neither material power nor the autocratic unity of the Roman church was able to repress the growth of the human mind. Conviction must be directed, not crushed. The revival of books of evidences, as soon as printing became common, about the close of the fifteenth century, which were designed to confirm faith, was a more lawful form of warfare.(330) They were constructed however on a basis unsuited to an age when first principles were being reconsidered, being an attempt to establish the authority of the church and the duty of submission to an external form of faith, and lacked the surer basis adopted in Protestant works of evidence, which is found in the external divine authority of the Bible rather than the church. The creation of the order of the Jesuits, though directed more against Protestantism than against unbelief, was a witness, like the previous reactionary movement of the scholastic writers in the thirteenth century, to the wish to wrest the use of learning out of the hands of the opponents of the church, and to employ the weapons of reason in defence of it.
The judgment formed on this epoch of free thought, when we have separated from it the Protestantism which craves other satisfaction for the human mind than that which is implied in submission to human authority, and the scepticism which was merely transitional doubt, must be condemnatory. The unbelief was indeed a phase of the general improvement; but one which is instructive as a warning rather than as an example, illustrating the abuse not the use of free thought. The evil nevertheless was temporary, and belongs to the past; the good was eternal: and the elements of real intellectual improvement contained in the struggle have been taken up into the constitution of modern thought and society.
We have now considered three great epochs in the history of free thought, and watched Christianity in contact or conflict with the old heathen philosophy, with the thought Scholastic or Mahometan of the middle ages, and with the revival of classical learning. It remains to enter upon the consideration of the fourth, and to observe it in relation to modern science.
The seventeenth century introduced as striking a revolution in philosophy as the corresponding ones which the two preceding ages had produced in literature and religion.
Two distinct thinkers, Bacon and Descartes, from different points of view, perceived the necessity for constructing a new method of inquiry. Their position was similar to that of Socrates of old. They saw that if knowledge was to be rendered sound, it must be based on a new method.(331) They both alike sought it in experience; Bacon in sensational, Descartes in intellectual, the instinctive utterance of consciousness.(332) The indirect effects on religion produced by their teaching will be seen more fully hereafter. Our present object is to sketch the influence exercised by Descartes on the theological speculations of Spinoza, before passing in succeeding lectures to the detailed study of those peculiarities which free thought has presented in the different countries in which it has been manifested.(333)
Spinoza's memory has been branded with the stigma which attached to his character during life.(334) Born in Holland, of Jewish origin, his early repudiation of the legends of the Talmud in which he was educated, caused his excommunication by his own people. Finding himself an outcast, he sought society among a few sceptical friends, one of whom was a physician named Van den Ende, whom a sense of injustice united to him by the bond of common sympathy. His life was passed in retirement, in hard, griping poverty. Possessing a mind of great originality, and a fondness for demonstrative reasoning never surpassed, he lived a model of chaste submissive virtue, searching for speculative truth; branded as an atheist in philosophy while living, and regarded since his death as the parent of many of the worst forms of rationalism in religion. Yet his character is one that cannot fail to excite a certain kind of pity. Unlike the frivolous selfish atheism, the immoral Epicureanism, of the French unbelief of the following century, his investigations were grave, his tone dignified, his temper gentle, his spirit serious. It is to be feared that he did not worship God; but he at least worshipped, at the cost of social martyrdom, what he thought to be truth. If he did not believe in revealed religion, he at least tried to embody what he believed to be its moral precepts. Though we may shrink with horror from his teaching, we cannot, when we compare him with other unbelievers, withhold our pity from the teacher.
His works are short, but weighty. Of his important treatises, the one, the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, shows him as the Biblical critic; the other, the Ethica, exhibits his philosophy. In the former, written in early life, he derives his materials and mode of handling from the Jewish mediaeval theologian Maimonides; in the latter, the product of his riper years, from Descartes.(335) But he had undoubtedly come under the influence of Descartes before writing the former work, and it is certain that the effects of it on his own philosophical scheme are already discernible in it. We shall therefore commence with the latter, and attempt to understand his philosophy, and its application to religion, before studying his special criticism of Revelation.
Descartes had aimed, like the great thinkers of earlier times, to gain a general view of the universe of being; but had sought it by a different mode. Caring rather for certitude of method, reality in the highest principles, than for results attained, he had seen that a knowledge of being must rest on a knowledge of the consciousness which tells us of being. His principle, "Cogito, ergo sum," is the expression of this conviction. Therefore, carrying analysis into the human mind, he had grasped those ideas which appeal to us with irresistible clearness, and commend themselves as axioms requiring no proof; and from these ideas, or rather from the idea of cause, the primitive of them, regarded by him as innate, he had demonstrated a priori the being and attributes of God, and the principles which dominate in the great fields of knowledge.(336)
Spinoza's object was similar; but he sought to attain it in a different manner: rejecting, on the one hand, the dualism by which Descartes had opposed mind and matter, he regarded each as a different mode of the same primitive substance, and, on the other, the limited idea of the divine Being, he conceived that the mind of man realizes the notion of Him as unlimited. There are three different opinions in reference to our capacity of knowing the infinity of God. Either our knowledge of Him is only negative and relative; we know only what He is not, and our positive notions of His nature are drawn from the analogy of human personality; or, secondly, we have an intuition of His infinity, but so bare of attributes, that while it guarantees the reality of our apprehensions of Him, we are dependent on experience for its development into a conception; or, thirdly, the human mind can apprehend His infinity positively, antecedent to the application of limitations to it.(337) The last of these three views belonged to Spinoza, along with the ancient Eleatics, the Neo-Platonists of the early ages, and the principal schools of modern German philosophy. Accordingly he tried to work out with mathematical rigour in geometrical form a philosophy of existence, conceiving that the mind grasps the idea of God as infinite substance, and understands its development under two modes; viz. extension and thought: the former the objective act of Deity, the latter the subjective.(338) The universe therefore is nothing but the manifestation of God: God is the sum total of it; the unity in its variety; the infinite comprehending its finity. Cause and effect are identical; the natura naturans, and natura naturata. Causation is change; but it is nothing but substance assuming attributes, and attributes assuming modes. Phenomena are only the bubbles which arise on the bosom of the ocean and disappear, absorbed in its vastness. The universe is bound in one vast chain of fatalism, one grand and perfect whole. Man's perfection is to know by contemplation the universe in which he has his being.
Such a system has been called atheistic, because it is silent about the presence of a personal first Cause. It might be more truly denominated Pantheistic, not in the vague sense in which that term is applied to denote the belief in a Deity as an anima mundi, like that explained in reference to the Averroists,(339) but to imply that the sum total of all things, the universe, is Deity. Its influence on the question of revealed religion will be obvious. It admits that the phenomena which we attribute to miracle in the process of revelation are facts, but it denies their miraculous character.(340) They are the mere manifestation of some previously unknown law, turning up accidentally at the particular moment, some previously unknown mode in which the all-embracing substance manifests itself. In this view all religions become various expressions of the great moral and spiritual truths which they embody, and true piety consists in rising beyond them to the vision of the higher truths which they typify, and the practice of the principles which they enjoin as rules. "Dico," wrote Spinoza, "ad salutem non esse omnino necesse, Christum secundum carnem noscere; sed de aeterno illo filio Dei, hoc est, Dei aeterna sapientia quae sese in omnibus rebus, et maxime in mente humana et omnium maxime in Christo Jesu manifestavit, longe aliter sentiendum."(341)
Spinoza, though a Jew, had examined the claims of Christianity. Indeed the discussions, half political, half religious, of the Dutch theology, would have compelled the investigation of it, independently of his own largeness of sympathy with the philosophical history of human religion.(342) His philosophy of revealed religion is contained in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus.(343) This work was called forth by the disputes of the age, and had the political object of defending liberty of thought as necessary to the safety both of the state and of religion. The question of predestination had rent the Dutch church shortly before this time; and when the victory remained with the Calvinistic party, the opinions of the liberal Remonstrants were treated as crimes. Spinoza proposed in this work a plan, perhaps suggested by the perusal of Hobbes, for curing these dissensions. The book is a critical essay, in which he surveys the Jewish and Christian religions, and ends in the conclusion that certainty on the subject of a revelation is impossible; accordingly that the remedy for theological acrimony must be sought in a return to what he regards to be the simple doctrine which Christ taught, the love of God and one's neighbour; that philosophy and theology ought to be severed; the one aiming at truth and resting on universal ideas, the other at obedience and piety and resting on historic authority and special revelation. Hence, while uniformity of religious worship and practice was to be prescribed, he claimed that unlimited liberty of speculation ought to be tolerated.(344)
It is in the survey of Judaism and Christianity in the earlier part of this work that he exhibits the views in which he has anticipated many of the speculations of rationalism. He examines first into the grounds which Revelation puts forward for its claim to authority, viz. prophecy, the Jewish polity, and miracles;(345) next the principles of interpretation, and the canon of the two Testaments;(346) lastly, the nature of the divine teaching(347) endeavouring to show that the fundamental articles of faith are given in natural religion. In this way he exhibits his views on those branches which are now denominated the evidences, exegesis, and doctrines. In the discussion of prophecy he analyses the nature of prophetic foresight into vividness of imagination; and exhibits the human feeling and sentiment intertwined with it.(348) He regards the Hebrew idea of election as merely the theocratic mode of representing their own good success in that region of circumstances which was not in human power.(349) His explanation of miracles has been already stated: the course of nature seems to him to be fixed and immutable; and he argues that interference with its course is not a greater proof of Providence than a perpetual unchanging administration.(350)
As his philosophy is seen in the treatment of the evidences, so his criticism appears in the discussion of the canon. He examines the several books of scripture, and concludes from supposed marks of editorship that the Pentateuch and historical books were all composed by one historian, who was, he thinks, probably Ezra, Deuteronomy being the first composed.(351) The prophetic books he resolves into a collection of fragments. His opinions on this department would be rejected as immature by modern rationalist critics; yet they have an historic interest as marking the rise of the searching investigations into the sources and construction of the Hebrew sacred literature, which have been pursued in an instructive manner in modern times. His view respecting the nature of scriptural doctrines,(352) that they can be reduced to the teaching of natural reason, is a corollary from his philosophy, which cannot admit that any religious truth is obligatory which is not self-evident, and is analogous to the doctrine which a short time previously had been stated by Lord Herbert of Cherbury.(353)
These remarks will suffice in explanation of the criticism exhibited in this work. The book marks an epoch, a new era in the critical and philosophical investigation of religion. Spinoza's ideas are as it were the head waters from which flows the current which is afterwards parted into separate streams. If viewed merely as a specimen of criticism, they are in many respects very defective. For this branch was new in Spinoza's time. Learning had been directed since the Renaissance rather to the acquisition of stores of information concerning ancient literature than reflective examination of the authenticity and critical value of the sources. Yet Spinoza's sagacity is so great, that the book is suggestive of information, and fertile in hints of instruction to readers who dissent most widely from his inferences.(354) In Spinoza's own times the work met with unbounded indignation. Indeed hardly any age could have been less prepared for its reception. So rigorous a theory of verbal inspiration was then held, that the question of the date of the introduction of the Hebrew vowel points was discussed under the idea that inspiration would be overthrown, if the admission was made that they were introduced after the time of the closing of the canon.(355) The tone of fairness in Spinoza's manner, which compels most modern readers to believe in his honesty, and which presents so striking a contrast to the profaneness of subsequent scepticism, was then regarded as latent irony. The work on its appearance was suppressed by public authority; but it was frequently reprinted; and probably no work of free thought has ever had more influence, both on friends and foes, except the memorable work of Strauss in the present age. Not only have freethinkers been moulded by it, but it has produced lasting effects on those who have loved the faith of Christ. For Spinoza's work, if it did not create, gave expression to the tendency of which slight traces are perceptible elsewhere,(356) to recognize a large class of facts relating to the personal peculiarities of the inspired writers, and to the "human element," as it has been frequently called(357) in scripture, for which orthodox criticism has always subsequently had to find a place in a theory of inspiration; facts which first shook the mechanical or verbal theory, which, however piously intended, really had the effect of degrading the sacred writers almost into automatons, and regarded them as the pens instead of the penmen of the inspiring Spirit.(358) Indirectly the effect of Spinoza's thought was seen even in the English church. The difficulties which, through means of the English deists, it brought before the notice of the great apologetic writers of our own country, created the free, but perhaps not irreverent theory of revelation manifested in the churchmen of the last century,(359) which restricted the miraculous assistance of inspiration to the specific subject of the revealed communication, the religious element of scripture, and did not regard it as comprehending also the allusions, scientific or historic, extraneous to religion.
Nor is it merely in respect of criticism that Spinoza's views have affected subsequent thought. The central principle of his philosophy, the pantheistic disbelief of miraculous interposition which has subsequently entered into so many systems, was first clearly applied to theology by him. Wherever the disbelief in the supernatural has arisen from a priori considerations, and expressed itself, not with allegations of conscious fraud against the devotees of religion, nor with attempts to explain it away as merely mental realism, but with assertions that miracles are impossible, and nature an unchanging whole; this disbelief, whether insinuating itself into the defence of Christianity, or marking the attack on it, has been a reproduction of Spinoza.
In taking a retrospect of the long period over which we have travelled in this lecture, embracing the twofold crisis of free thought in the middle ages and the inauguration of the modern era, we cannot fail to be impressed with the grand idea of the permanent victory of truth, and the exquisite order according to which the fatherly providence of God makes all things conduce together for good. When the course of history is viewed in its true perspective, we perceive that Almighty love ruleth. The period has comprised most of the great movements, political or intellectual, which have occurred in European history since the Christian era. The fall of the Roman empire, the gradual reconstruction of society, the revival of learning, the invention of printing, the discovery of a new geographical world, the creation of modern philosophy, embraced in it, include the mention of almost every great event, with the exception of the French revolution, which has modified the character of the human mind, or affected the destiny of Christianity. At times it seemed as if Christianity was on the point of being extinguished by unbelief; at other times, the church seemed to lend itself to the extermination of all freedom of investigation. Yet Christianity has lasted through all these dangers, throwing off, like a healthy system, the errors which from time to time insinuated themselves into it, and diffusing its blessings of eternal truth into every region of life and thought. The past is the pledge of hope for the future.