Look forth!—that stream behold, That stream upon whose bosom we have passed Floating at ease, while nations have effaced Nations, and death has gathered to his fold Long lines of mighty kings:—look forth, my soul (Nor in this vision be thou slow to trust) The living waters, less and less by guilt Stained and polluted, brighten as they roll, Till they have reached the eternal city—built For the perfected spirits of the just.(360)
LECTURE IV. DEISM IN ENGLAND PREVIOUS TO A.D. 1760.
ISAIAH lix. 19.
When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him.
The forms assumed by free thought in the fourth great crisis of the Christian faith, which commenced with the rise of modern philosophy, and has continued with slight intervals to the present time, have been already stated(361) to be chiefly three, corresponding with the three nations in which they have been manifested.
In this lecture we shall sketch the history of one of these forms—English Deism—by which name the form of unbelief is denominated which existed during the close of the seventeenth and the first half of the eighteenth century. If the dates be marked by corresponding political history, its rise may be placed as early as the reign of Charles I; its maturity in the period from the revolution of 1688 to the invasion of the Pretender in 1745; its decay in the close of the reign of George II, and the early part of that of George III.(362)
This long period was marked by those great events in intellectual and social history which were calculated to awaken the spirit of free inquiry. It witnessed the dethronement of constituted authorities—intellectual, ecclesiastical, and political; the constant struggle of religious factions; and on two occasions civil war and revolution. It was affected by the rise of the philosophy of Bacon, and the positive advances of natural science under Newton and his coadjutors. It comprehended moments marked by the outburst of native genius, and others influenced by contact with the continental literature, both with the speculative theology of Holland and the dramatic and critical literature of France.(363) Above all it was illumined by the presence of such an array of great minds in all departments of intellectual activity as can rarely be matched in a single period. If, when the human mind in the middle ages was warmed into life after the winter of its long torpor, under the genial influence of the revival of literature, the renewal of its power was marked by a disposition to throw off the trammels which had bound it in the night of its darkness, how much more might such a result be expected when it was basking under the sunshine of meridian brightness, and exulting in the consciousness of strength.
A special peculiarity of this period likely to produce effects on religion has been already mentioned. The philosophy of this age compared with former ones was essentially a discussion of method. The two rival philosophies which now arose are generally placed in opposition to each other, as physical and mental respectively, that of Bacon being conversant with nature, that of Descartes with man.(364) But in truth in one respect both were united. Each was analytical; each strove to lay down a general method for investigating the sphere of inquiry which it selected. Both were reactions against the dogmatic assumptions of former systems; both assumed the indispensable necessity of an entire revolution in the method of attaining knowledge. Accordingly, though differing widely in appealing to the external senses or the internal intuitions respectively, they both built philosophy in the criticism of first principles. Hence, independently of any particular corollaries from special parts of their systems, the influence of their spirit was to beget a critical, subjective, and analytical study of any topic. When applied to religion, this is the feature which subsequently characterizes alike the unbelief and the discussion of the evidences. Difficulties and the answers to difficulties are found in an appeal to the functions and capacities of the interpreting mind. This appeal to reason was denominated rationalism in the seventeenth century, prior to the present application of the term in a more limited and obnoxious sense. The specific doctrine arrived at by this process, which allows the existence of a Deity, and of the religion of the moral conscience, but denies the specific revelation which Christianity asserts, was called theism or deism. (21)
In the period which we have mentioned as marking the first stage of deism, extending from its commencement to the close of the seventeenth century, the peculiarity which characterized the inquiry was the political aspect which it bore. The relation of religion to political toleration(365) gave occasion for examining the sphere of truth which may form the subject of political interference.
Two writers of opposite schools are usually regarded as marking the rise of deism, both of whom belonged to this phase of it, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, and Hobbes. Both formed their systems in the reign of Charles I.(366) The one rejected revelation by making religion a matter of individual intuition, the other by making it a matter of political convenience.
Lord Herbert,(367) the elder brother of the saintly poet, if looked at as a philosopher, must be classed with Descartes rather than with Bacon, though chronology forbids the idea that he can have learned anything from Descartes. It is probable that while on his early embassy in France he came under the same intellectual influences which suggested to Descartes his views. Fragments of knowledge and partial solutions derived from older philosophies exist before a great thinker like Descartes embodies them in a system. Herbert may have been led by the indirect effect of such influences to a theory of innate ideas, independently of Descartes; or he may have arrived at it by reaction against the Pyrrhonism of some of the French writers of the preceding age, such as Montaigne, with whose writings he was familiar.
His works furnish his views on knowledge and on religion, both natural, heathen, and Christian. They include a treatise on truth, which suggested another on the cause of errors. The views on religion therein named, further suggested one on the religion which could be expected in a layman, and this again a critique on heathen creeds, written to show the universality of the beliefs so described.(368)
In discussing truth(369) he surveys the powers of the human mind, and places the ultimate test of it in the natural instincts or axiomatic beliefs. These accordingly become the test of a religion. The true religion must therefore be a universal one; that is, one of which the evidence commends itself to the universal mind of man, and finds its attestation in truth intuitively perceived. Of such truths he enumerates five:(370)—the existence of one supreme God; the duty of worship; piety and virtue as the means thereof; the efficacy of repentance; the existence of rewards and punishments both here and hereafter. These he regards as the fundamental pillars of universal religion; and distinguishes from these realities the doctrines of what he calls particular religions, one of which is Christianity, as being uncertain, because not self-evident; and accordingly considers that no assent can be expected in a layman, save to the above-named self-evident truths. His view however of revelation is not very clear. Sometimes he seems to admit it, sometimes proscribes it as uncertain. His object seems not to have been primarily destructive, but merely the result of attempts to discover truth amid the jarring opinions of the churches of his day.(371)
The ideas which his writings contributed to deist speculation are two; viz., the examination of the universal principles of religion, and the appeal to an internal illuminating influence superior to revelation, "the inward light," as the test of religious truth. This was a phrase not uncommon in the seventeenth century. It was used by the Puritans to mark the appeal to the spiritual instincts, the heaven-taught feelings; and later by mystics, like the founder of the Quakers, to imply an appeal to an internal sense.(372) But in Herbert it differs from these in being universal, not restricted to a few persons, and in being intellectual rather than emotional or spiritual. It was not analysed so as to separate intuitional from reflective elements, and seems to have been analogous to Descartes' ultimate appeal to the natural reason, the self-evidencing force of the mental axioms.(373)
If it was the anxiety to find certainty in controversies concerning theological dogmas, which suggested Herbert's inquiries, it was the struggle of ecclesiastical parties in connexion with political movements which excited those of Hobbes.(374)
In his philosophical views he belonged to an opposite school to Herbert. A disciple of Bacon, he was the first to apply his master's method to morals, and to place the basis of ethical and political obligation in experience; and in the application of these philosophical principles to religion, he also represented the contrary tendency to Herbert, state interference in contradistinction from private liberty, political religion as opposed to personal. The contest of individualism against multitudinism is the parallel in politics to that of private judgment against authority in religion. While some of the Puritans were urging unlimited license in the matter of religion, Hobbes wrote to prove the necessity of state control, and the importance of a fulcrum on which individual opinion might repose, external to itself; and referring the development of society to the necessity for restraining the natural selfishness of man, and resolving right into expedience as embodied in the sovereign head, he ended with crushing the rights of the individual spirit, and defending absolute government.
The effect of the application of such a sensational and materialist theory to religion will be anticipated. He traced(375) the genesis of it in the individual, and its expression in society; finding the origin of it in selfish fear of the supernatural. The same reason which led him to assign supremacy to government in other departments induced him to give it supreme control over religion. Society being the check on man's selfishness, and supreme, deciding all questions on grounds of general expedience; the authority of the commonwealth became the authority of the church.(376) Though he had occasion to discuss revelation and the canon(377) as a rule of faith, yet it is hard to fix on any point that was actual unbelief.
The amount of thought contributed by him to deism was small; for his influence on his successors was unimportant. The religious instincts of the heart were too strong to be permanently influenced by the cold materialist tone which reduced religion to state craft. With the exception of Coward,(378) a materialist who doubted immortality about the end of the century, the succeeding deists more generally followed Herbert, in wishing to elevate religion to a spiritual sphere, than Hobbes, who degraded it to political expedience. A slight additional interest however belongs to his speculations, from the circumstance that his ideas, together with those of Herbert, most probably suggested some parts of the system of Spinoza.(379)
The two writers of whom we have now been treating, lived prior to or during the Commonwealth. From the date of the Restoration the existence of doubt may be accepted as an established fact. During the reaction, political and ecclesiastical, which ensued in the early part of the reign of Charles II, it is not surprising that doubt concealed itself in retirement; but the frequent allusions to it under the name of atheism,(380) in contemporary sermons and theological books, proves its existence. Indeed the reaction contained the very elements which were likely to foster unbelief among undiscerning minds. The court set a sad example of impurity; and the excessive claims of the churchmen, alien to the spirit of political and religious liberty, were calculated to generate an antipathy to the clergy and to religion.
Toward the end of Charles's reign, a feeling of this kind expresses itself in the writings of Charles Blount,(381) who availed himself of the temporary interval in which the press became free, owing to the omission to renew the act which submitted works to the censor,(382) to publish with notes a translation of Philostratus's Life of Apollonius of Tyana, with the same purpose as Hierocles in the fourth century, to disguise the peculiar character of Christ's miracles, and draw an invidious parallel between the Pythagorean philosopher and the divine founder of Christianity. Subsequently to Blount's death, his friend Gildon, who lived to retract his opinions,(383) published a collection of treatises, entitled "The Oracles of Reason;" a work which may be considered as expressing the opinions of a little band of unbelievers, of whom Blount was one.(384) The mention of two of the papers in it will explain the views intended. One is on natural religion,(385) in which the ideas of Herbert are reproduced, and exception is taken to revelation as partial and not self-evident, and therefore uncertain; and the objections to the sufficiency and potency of natural religion are refuted. A second is on the deist's religion,(386) in which the deist creed is explained to be the belief in a God who is to be worshipped, not by sacrifice, nor by mediation, but by piety. Punishment in a future world is denied as incompatible with Divine benevolence; and the safety of the deist creed is supported by showing that a moral life is superior to belief in mysteries. It will be seen from these remarks that Blount hardly makes an advance on his deist predecessor Herbert, save that his view is more positive, and his antipathy to Christian worship less concealed.
At the close of the seventeenth century two new influences were in operation, the one political, the other intellectual; viz., the civil and religious liberty which ensued on the revolution, generating free speculation, and compelling each man to form his political creed; and the reconsideration of the first principles of knowledge(387) implied in the philosophy of Locke.(388)
The effect of these new influences on religion is very marked. Controversies no longer turned upon questions in which the appeal lay to the common ground of scripture, as in the contest which Churchmen had conducted against Puritans or Romanists, but extended to the examination of the first principles of ethics or politics; such as the foundation of government, whether it depends on hereditary right or on compact, as in the controversy against the nonjurors(389) before the close of the century; or the spiritual rights of the church, and the right of every man to religious liberty and private judgment in religion, as in the Convocation and Bangorian(390) controversy, which marked the early years of the next century. The very diminution also of quotations of authorities is a pertinent illustration that the appeal was now being made to deeper standards.
The philosophy of Locke, which attempted to lay a basis for knowledge in psychology, coincided with, where it did not create, this general attempt to appeal on every subject to ultimate principles of reason. This tone in truth marked the age, and acting in every region of thought, affected alike the orthodox and the unbelieving. Accordingly, as we pass away from the speculations which mark the early period of deism to those which belong to its maturity, we find that the attack on Christianity is less suggested by political considerations, and more entirely depends on an appeal to reason, intellectual or moral.
The principal phases belonging to this period of the maturity of deism, which we shall now successively encounter, are four:
(1) An examination of the first principles of religion, on its dogmatic or theological side, with a view of asserting the supremacy of reason to interpret all mysteries, and defending absolute toleration of free thought. This tendency is seen in Toland and Collins,
(2) An examination of religion on the ethical side occurs, with the object of asserting the supremacy of natural ethics as a rule of conduct, and denying the motive of reward or punishment implied in dependent morality. This is seen in Lord Shaftesbury.
After the attack has thus been opened against revealed religion, by creating prepossessions against mystery in dogma and the existence of religious motives in morals, there follows a direct approach against the outworks of it by an attack on the evidences,
(3) In an examination, critical rather than philosophical, of the prophecies of the Old Testament by Collins, and of the miracles of the New by Woolston.
The deist next approaches as it were within the fortress, and advances against the doctrines of revealed religion; and we find accordingly,
(4) A general view of natural religion, in which the various differences,—speculative, moral, and critical, are combined, as in Tindal; or with a more especial reference to the Old Testament as in Morgan, and the New as in Chubb; the aim of each being constructive as well as destructive; to point out the absolute sufficiency of natural religion and of the moral sense as religious guides, and the impossibility of accepting as obligatory that which adds to or contradicts them; and accordingly they point out the elements in Christianity which they consider can be retained as absolutely true.
The first two of these attacks occur in the first two decades of the century: the two latter in the period from 1720 to 1740, when the public mind not being diverted by foreign war or internal sedition, and other controversies being closed, the deist controversy was at its height. After examining these, other tendencies will meet us, when we trace the decline of deism in Bolingbroke and Hume.
The first of these tendencies just noticed is seen in Toland,(391) who directed his speculations to the ground principles of revealed theology,(392) and slightly to the history of the Canon.(393)
Possessing much originality and learning, at an early age, in 1696, just a year after the censorship had been finally removed and the press of England made permanently free, he published his noted work, "Christianity not Mysterious," to show that "there is nothing in the Gospels contrary to reason, nor above it; and that no Christian doctrine can properly be called a mystery." The speculations of all doubters first originate in some crisis of personal or mental history. In Toland's case it was probably the change of religion from catholic to protestant which first unsettled his religious faith. The work just named, in which he expressed the attempt to bring religious truth under the grasp of the intellect, was one of some merit as a literary production, and written with that clearness which the influence of the French models studied by Dryden had introduced into English literature. Yet it is difficult to understand why a single work of an unknown student should attract so much public notice. The grand jury of Middlesex was induced at once to present it as a nuisance, and the example was followed by the grand jury of Dublin.(394) Two years after its publication the Irish parliament deliberated upon it, and, refusing to hear Toland in defence, passed sentence that the book should be burnt, and its author imprisoned—a fate which he escaped only by flight.(395) And in 1701, no less than five years after the publication of his work, a vote for its prosecution passed the lower house of the English convocation, which the legal advisers however denied to be within the power of that assembly.(396) Toland spent most of the remainder of his life abroad, and showed in his subsequent works a character growing gradually worse, lashed into bitterer opposition by the censure which he had received.
His views, developed in his work, Christianity not Mysterious, require fuller statement. He opens with an explanation of the province of reason,(397) the means of information, external and internal, which man possesses; a part of his work which is valuable to the philosopher, who watches the influence exercised at that time by psychological speculations; and he proposes to show that the doctrines of the gospel are neither contrary to reason nor above it. He exhibits the impossibility of believing statements which positively contradict reason;(398) and contends that if they do not really contradict it, but are above it, we can form no intelligible idea of them. He tries further to show that reason is neither so weak nor so corrupt as to be an unsafe guide,(399) and that scripture itself only professes to teach what is intelligible.(400) Having shown that the doctrines of the gospel are not contrary to reason, he next proceeds to show that they do not profess to be above it; that they lay claim to no mystery,(401) for that mystery in heathen writers and the New Testament does not mean something inconceivable, but something intelligible in itself, which nevertheless was so veiled "that it needed revealing;"(402) and that the introduction of the popular idea of mystery was attributable to the analogy of pagan writers, and did not occur till several centuries after the foundation of Christianity.(403)
It is possible that the book may have been a mere paradox,(404) the effort of a young mind going through the process through which all young men of thought pass, and especially in an age like Toland's, of trying to understand and explain what they believe. But students who are thus forming their views ought to pause before they scatter their half-formed opinions in the world. In Toland's case public alarm judged the book to have a most dangerous tendency; and he was an outcast from the sympathy of pious men for ever. If he was misunderstood, as he contended, his fate is a warning against the premature publication of a paradox. The question accordingly which Toland thus suggested for discussion was the prerogative of reason to pronounce on the contents of a revelation, the problem whether the mind must comprehend as well as apprehend all that it believes. The other question which he opened was the validity of the canon.(405) Here too he claimed that his views were misunderstood. It was supposed that the mention made by him concerning spurious works attributed to the apostles, referred to the canonical gospels. Accordingly, if in his former work he has been considered to have anticipated the older school of German rationalists, in the present he has been thought to have touched upon the questions discussed in the modern critical school. The controversy which ensued was the means of opening up the discussion of the great question which relates to the New Testament canon, viz., whether our present New Testament books are a selection made in the second century from among early Christian writings, or whether the church from the first regarded them as distinct in kind and not merely in degree from other literature; whether the early respect shown for scripture was reverence directed to apostolic men, or to their inspired teaching.
If Toland is the type of free speculation applied to the theoretical side of religion, lord Shaftesbury(406) is an example of speculations on the practical side of it, and on the questions which come under the province of ethics.
The rise of an ethical school parallel with discussions on the philosophy of religion is one of the most interesting features of that age, whether it be regarded in a scientific or a religious point of view. The age was one in which the reflective reason or understanding was busy in exploring the origin of all knowledge. The department of moral and spiritual truth could not long remain unexamined. In an earlier age the sources of our knowledge concerning the divine attributes and human duty had been supposed to depend upon revelation; but now the disposition to criticise every subject by the light of common sense claimed that philosophy must investigate them. Reason was to work out the system of natural theology, and ethics the problem of the nature and ground of virtue. Hence it will be obvious how close a relation existed between such speculations and theology. The Christian apologist availed himself of the new ethical inquiries as a corroboration of revealed religion; the Deist, as a substitute for it.
Lord Shaftesbury is usually adduced as a deist of this class. He has not indeed expressed it definitely in his writings; and an ethical system which formed the basis of Butler's sermons,(407) cannot necessarily be charged with deism. But the charge can be substantiated from his memoirs; and his writings manifest that hatred of clerical influence, the wish to subject the church to the state, which will by some persons be regarded as unbelief, but which was not perhaps altogether surprising in an age when the clergy were almost universally alien to the revolution, and the Convocation manifested opposition to political and religious liberty. The ground on which the charge is generally founded is, that Shaftesbury has cast reflections on the doctrine of future rewards and punishments.(408) It is to be feared that sceptical insinuations were intended; yet his remarks admit of some explanation as a result of his particular point of view.
The ethical schools of his day were already two; the one advocating dependent, the other independent morality; the one grounding obligation on self-love, the other on natural right. Shaftesbury, though a disciple of Locke, belonged to the latter school. His works mark the moment when this ethical school was passing from the objective inquiry into the immutability of right, as seen in Clarke, to the subjective inquiry into the reflex sense which constitutes our obligation to do what is right, as seen in Butler. The depreciation accordingly of the motives of reward, as distinct from the supreme motive of loving duty for duty's sake, was to be expected in his system. The motives of reward and punishment which form the sanctions of religious obligation, would seem to him to be analogous to the employment of expedience as the foundation of moral. His statements however appear to be an exaggeration even in an ethical view, as well as calculated to insinuate erroneous ideas in a theological. It is possible that his motive was not polemical; but the unchristian character of his tone renders the hypothesis improbable, and explains the reason why his essays called the "Characteristics" have been ranked among deist writings.
We have seen, in Toland and Shaftesbury respectively, a discussion on the metaphysical and ethical basis of religion, together with a few traces of the rise of criticism in reference to the canon. In their successors the inquiry becomes less psychological and more critical, and therefore less elevated by the abstract nature of the speculative above the struggle of theological polemic.
Two branches of criticism were at this time commencing, which were destined to suggest difficulties alike to the deist and to the Christian; the one the discovery of variety of readings in the sacred text, the other the doubts thrown upon the genuineness and authenticity of the books. It was the large collection of various readings on the New Testament, first begun by Mills,(409) which gave the impulse to the former, which has been called the lower criticism, and which so distressed the mind of Bengel, that he spent his life in allaying the alarm of those who like himself felt alarmed at its effect on the question of verbal inspiration. And it was the disproof of the genuineness of the Epistles of Phalaris by the learned Bentley,(410) which first threw solid doubts on the value attaching to traditional titles of books, and showed the irrefragable character belonging to an appeal to internal evidence; a department which has been called the higher criticism. This latter branch, so abundantly developed in German speculation, is only hinted at by the English deists of the eighteenth age, as by Hobbes and Spinoza earlier; but we shall soon see the use which Collins and others made of the former inquiry.
The form, though not the spirit, of Toland and Shaftesbury, might by a latitude of interpretation be made compatible with Christianity; but Collins and Woolston, of whom we next treat, mark a much further advance of free thought. They attack what has always been justly considered to be an integral portion of Christianity, the relation which it bore to Jewish prophecy, and the miracles which were wrought for its establishment.
Collins(411) must be studied under more than one aspect. He not only wrote on the logic of religion, the method of inquiry in theology, but also on the subject of scripture interpretation, and the reality of prophecy.(412)
It was in 1713 that he published "A discourse of free-thinking, occasioned by the rise and growth of a sect called Free-thinkers." This is one of the first times that we find this new name used for Deists; and the object of his book is to defend the propriety of unlimited liberty of inquiry, a proposition by which he designed the unrestrained liberty of belief, not in a political point of view merely, but in a moral. His argument was not unlike more modern ones,(413) which show that civilization and improvement have been caused by free-thinking; and he adduces the growing disbelief in the reality of witchcraft, in proof of the way in which the rejection of dogma had ameliorated political science, which until recently had visited the supposed crime with the punishment of death.(414) After thus showing the duty of free-thinking,(415) he argued that the sphere of it ought to comprehend points on which the right is usually denied; such as the divine attributes, the truth of the scriptures, and their meaning;(416) establishing this by laying a number of charges against priests, to show that their dogmatic teaching cannot be trusted, unchallenged by free inquiry, on account of their discrepant(417) opinions, their rendering the canon and text of scripture uncertain,(418) and their pious frauds;(419) concluding by refuting objections against freethinking derived from its supposed want of safety.(420)
The book met with intelligent and able opponents; the critical part, containing the allegations of uncertainty in the text of scripture, and the charge of altering it, being effectually refuted by Bentley. The work is an exaggeration of a great truth. Undoubtedly free inquiry is right in all departments, but it must be restrained within the proper limits which the particular subject-matter admits of;—limits which are determined partly by the nature of the subject studied, partly by the laws of the thinking mind.
Eleven years afterwards, in 1724, Collins published his "Discourse of the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian religion." This work is chiefly critical. It does not merely contain the incipient doubts on the variety of readings, and the uncertainty of books, but spreads over several provinces of theological inquiry. Under the pretence of establishing Christianity on a more solid foundation, the author argues that our Saviour and his apostles made the whole proof of Christianity to rest solely on the prophecies of the Old Testament;(421) that if these proofs are valid, Christianity is established; if invalid, it is false.(422) Accordingly he examines several of the prophecies cited from the Old Testament in the New in favour of the Messiahship of Christ, with a view of showing that they are only allegorical or fanciful proofs, accommodations of the meaning of the prophecies; and anticipates the objections which could be stated to his views.(423) He asserts that the expectation of a Messiah among(424) the Jews arose only a short time before Christ's coming;(425) and that the apostles put a new interpretation on the Hebrew books, which was contrary to the sense accepted by the Jewish nation; that Christianity is not revealed in the Old Testament literally, but mystically and allegorically, and may therefore be considered as mystical Judaism. His inference is accordingly stated as an argument in favour of the figurative or mystical interpretation of scripture; but we can hardly doubt that his real object was an ironical one, to exhibit Christianity as resting on apostolic misinterpretations of Jewish prophecy, and thus to create the impression that it was a mere Jewish sect of men deceived by fanciful interpretations.
The work produced considerable alarm; more from the solemn interest and sacredness of the inquiries which it opened, than from any danger arising from excellence in its form, or ability in the mode of putting. It anticipated subsequent speculations,(426) by regarding Christianity as true ideally, not historically, and by insinuating the incorrectness of the apostolic adoption of the mystical system of interpreting the ancient scripture.
A writer came forward as moderator(427) between Collins and his opponents, who himself afterwards became still more noted, by directing an attack on miracles, similar to that of Collins on prophecy;—the unhappy Woolston.(428) A fellow of a college(429) at Cambridge, in holy orders, he was for many years a diligent student of the fathers, and imbibed from them an extravagant attachment to the allegorical sense of scripture. Finding that his views met with no support in that reasoning age, he broke out into unmeasured insult and contempt against his brother clergy, as slaves to the letter of scripture.(430) Deprived of his fellowship,(431) and distracted by penury, he extended his hatred from the ministers to the religion which they ministered. And when, in reply to Collins's assertion, that Christianity reposed solely on prophecy, the Christian apologists fell back on miracles, he wrote in 1727 and the two following years his celebrated Discourses on the Miracles. (22) They were published as pamphlets; in each one of which he examined a few of the miracles of Christ, trying to show such inconsistencies as to make it appear that they must be regarded as untrustworthy if taken literally; and hence he advocated a figurative interpretation of them; asserting that the history of the life of Jesus is an emblematical representation of his spiritual life in the soul of man.(432) The gospels thus become a system of mystical theology, instead of a literal history. In defence of this method he claimed the example of the ancient church,(433) ignoring the fact that the fathers admitted a literal as well as a figurative meaning. Whether he really retained towards the close of his life the spiritual interpretation,(434) or merely used it as an excuse for a more secure advance to the assault of the historic reality of scripture, is very uncertain.
The letters were written with a coarseness and irreverence so singular, even in the attacks of that age, that it were well if they could be attributed to insanity. They contain the most undisguised abuse which had been uttered against Christianity since the days of the early heathens. Occasionally, when wishing to utter grosser blasphemies than were permissible by law, or compatible with his assumed Christian stand-point, he introduced a Jewish rabbi, as Celsus had formerly done, and put the coarser calumnies into his mouth,(435) as difficulties to which no reply could be furnished except by figurative interpretation. The humour which marked these pamphlets was so great, that the sale of them was immense. Voltaire, who was in England at the time, and perhaps imbibed thence part of his own opinions, states the immediate sale to have exceeded thirty thousand copies;(436) and Swift describes them as the food of every politician.(437) The excitement was so great, that Gibson, then bishop of London, thought it necessary to direct five pastorals to his diocese in reference to them,(438) and, not content with this, caused Woolston to be prosecuted; and the unhappy man, not able to pay the fine in which he was condemned, continued in prison till his death.(439)
In classifying Woolston with later writers against miracles, he may be compared in some cases, though with striking differences of tone, with those German rationalists like Paulus who have rationalized the miracles, but in more cases with those who like Strauss have idealized them. His method however is an appeal to general probability rather than to literary criticism.
The next form that Deism assumed has reference more to the internal than the external part of Christianity, the doctrines rather than the evidences. Less critical than the last-named tendency, it differs from the earlier one of Toland in looking at religion less on the speculative side as a revelation of dogma, and more on the practical as a revelation of duties. While it combined into a system the former objections, critical or philosophical, the great weapon which it uses is the authority of the moral reason, by which it both tests revelation and suggests a substitute in natural religion, thus using it both destructively and for construction.
Dr. Tindal,(440) the first writer of this class, had early given offence to the church by his writings; but it was not till 1730, in his extreme old age, that he published his celebrated dialogue, "Christianity as old as the Creation, or, the Gospel a Republication of the Religion of Nature." This was not only the most important work that deism had yet produced, composed with care, and bearing the marks of thoughtful study of the chief contemporary arguments, Christian as well as Deist, but derives an interest from the circumstance that it was the book to which more than to any other single work bishop Butler's Analogy was designed as the reply.
Tindal's object is to show that natural religion is absolutely perfect, and can admit of no increase so as to carry obligation. For this purpose he tries to establish, first, that revelation is unnecessary,(441) and secondly, that obligation to it is impossible. His argument in favour of the first of these two positions is, that if man's perfection be the living according to the constitution of human nature,(442) and God's laws with the penalties attached be for man's good,(443) nothing being required by God for its own sake;(444) then true religion, whether internally or externally revealed, having the one end, human happiness, must be identical in its precepts.(445) Having denied the necessity, he then disputes the possibility, of revelation, on the ground that the inculcation of positive as distinct from moral duties, is inconsistent with the good of man, as creating an independent rule.(446) Assuming the moral faculty to be the foundation of all obligation, he reduces all religious truth to moral. It is in thus showing the impossibility of any revelation save the republication of the law of nature that he notices many of the difficulties in scripture which form the mystery to the theologian, the ground of doubt to the objector. Some of these are of a literary character, such as the assertion of the failure of the fulfilment of prophecies, and of marks of fallibility in the scripture writers, like the mistake which he alleges in respect to the belief in the immediate coming of Christ.(447) Others of them are moral difficulties, points where the revealed system seems to him to contradict our instincts, such as the destruction of the Canaanites.(448) In reference to this last example, which may be quoted as a type of his assertions, he argues against the possibility of a divine commission for the act, on the principle asserted by Clarke,(449) that a miracle can never prove the divine truth of a doctrine which contravenes the moral idea of justice; or, in more modern phrase, that no supposed miracle can be a real one, if it attest a doctrine which bears this character. In the present work Tindal denied the necessity and possibility of a new revelation distinct from natural religion. He did not live to complete the concluding part of his book, wherein he intended to show that all the truths of Christianity were as old as the creation; i.e. were a republication of the religion of nature.
Tindal is an instance of those who have unconsciously kindled their torch at the light of revelation. The religion of nature of which he speaks is a logical idea, not an historic fact. The creation of it is analogous to the mention of the idea of compact as the basis of society, a generalization from its present state, not a fact of its original history. It is the residuum of Christianity when the mysterious elements have been subtracted. But in adopting the idea, the Deists were on the same level as the Christians. Both alike travelled together to the end of natural religion.(450) Here the Deist halted, willing to accept so much of Christianity as was a republication of the moral law. The Christian, on the other hand, found in reason the necessity for revelation, and proceeded onward to revealed doctrines and positive precepts.
The works of the two writers Morgan and Chubb in part supply the defect left in Tindal, the omission on the part of deism to show that Christian truths were a republication of natural religion; the former especially attacking the claims of the Jewish religion to be divine, the latter the claims of the Christian.
Morgan's chief work,(451) the "Moral Philosopher," was published in 1737. Starting from the moral point of view, the sole supremacy and sufficiency of the moral law, the writer exhibits the necessity of applying the moral test as the only certain criterion on the questions of religion, and declines admitting the authority of miracles and prophecy to avail against it,(452) an investigation suggested partly by the questions just named of the ground of unbelief, and partly by the circumstance that the Christian writers were beginning to dwell more strongly on the external evidences when unbelievers professed the internal to be unsatisfactory. The adoption of this test of truth prevents the admission of an historic revelation with positive duties. He thinks with Tindal that natural religion is perfect in itself, but seems to admit that it is so weak as to need republication,(453) which is a greater admission than Tindal made in his extant volume. When however he passes from the decision on the general possibility of revelation to particular historic forms, the Mosaic and Christian, he discredits both. The infallibility of the moral sense is still the canon by which his judgment is determined. On this ground he disbelieves the Jewish religion,(454) selecting successive passages of the national history, such as the sacrifice of Isaac, the oracle of Urim,(455) the ceremonial religious system,(456) as the object of his attack. A degree of interest attaches to his criticism on these points, in that it was the means of calling forth the celebrated work of Warburton on the Divine Legation of Moses.
The same principles of criticism mislead him in his examination of Christianity. The hallowed doctrine of the atonement forms a stumblingblock to him, on the ground of the transfer of merit by imputation.(457) He regards Christianity as a Jewish gospel, until it was altered by the apostles, whose authority he discredits by arguments not unlike the ancient ones of Celsus. The method of Morgan is more constructive than that of his predecessors. Not denying the historic element of Christianity by idealizing it as Collins, he attempts a natural explanation of the historic facts. The central thought which guides him throughout is the supreme authority of the moral reason. His works open up the broad question whether the moral sense is to pronounce on revelation or to submit to it, and thus form a fresh illustration of the intimate dependence of particular sceptical opinions and methods upon metaphysical and ethical theories.
In the period which we are now examining, deism was almost entirely confined to the upper classes. It was in the latter part of the century that it spread to the lower, political antipathy against the church giving point to religious unbelief. Chubb,(458) whom we next consider, is one of the few exceptions. He was a working man, endowed with strong native sense; who manifested the same inclination to meddle with the deep subject of religion which afterwards marked the character of Thomas Paine and others, who influenced the lower orders later in the century. In his general view of religion, Chubb denied all particular providence, and by necessary consequence the utility of prayer, save for its subjective value as having a reflex benefit on the human heart.(459) He was undecided as to the fact of the existence of a revelation, but seemed to allow its possibility.(460) He examined the three great forms of religion which professed to depend upon a positive revelation, Judaism,(461) Mahometanism, and Christianity. The claims of the first he wholly rejected, on grounds similar to those explained by Morgan, as incompatible with the moral character of God. In reference to the second he anticipated the modern opinions on Mahometanism, by asserting that its victory was impossible, if it had not contained truth which the human spirit needed. In examining the third he attacked, like Morgan, the evidence of miracles(462) and prophecy,(463) and asserted the necessity of moral right and wrong as the ground of the interpretation of scripture.
One of his most celebrated works was an explanation of "the true gospel of Jesus Christ," which is one of the many instances which his works afford of the unfairness produced by the want of moral insight into the woes for which Christianity supplies a remedy, and into the deep adaptation of the scheme of redemption to effect the object proposed by a merciful Providence in its communication.(464) It will be perceived that the three last writers whose systems have been explained, resemble each other so much as to form a class by themselves. They restrict their attack to the internal character of revelation, employ the moral rather than the historical investigation, embody the chief speculations of their predecessors, and offer, as has been already stated, a constructive as well as a destructive system; morality or natural religion in place of revealed.(465)
An anonymous work was published in 1744, which merits notice as indicating a slight alteration in the mode of attack on the part of the deists. It was entitled, The Resurrection of Jesus considered, and is attributed to P. Annet, who died in the wretchedness of poverty.(466) It was designed in reply to some of the defences of this subject which the writings of Woolston and others had provoked. Its object was to show that the writings which record the statement of Christ's prediction of his own death are a forgery; that the narrative of the resurrection is incredible on internal grounds, and the variety in the various accounts of it are evidences of fraud. It indicates the commencement of the open allegation of literary imposture as distinct from philosophical error, which subsequently marked the criticism of the French school of infidelity, and affected the English unbelievers of the latter half of the century.
Deism had now reached its maximum. The attention of the age was turned aside from religion to politics by the political dangers incident to the attempts of the Pretender; and when Hume's scepticism was promulgated in 1749 it was received without interest, and Bolingbroke's posthumous writings published in 1754 fell comparatively dead. These two names mark the period which we called the decline of deism. Bolingbroke's views(467) however depict deistical opinions of the period when it was at its height, and are a transition into the later form seen in Hume, and therefore require to be stated first, though posterior in the date of publication.
Bolingbroke's writings command respect from their mixture of clearness of exposition with power of argument. They form also the transition to the literature of the next age, in turning attention to history. Bolingbroke had great powers of psychological analysis, but he despised the study of it apart from experience. His philosophy was a philosophy of history. In his attacks on revelation we have the traces of the older philosophical school of deists; but in the consciousness that an historical, not a philosophical, solution must be sought to explain the rise of an historical phenomenon such as Christianity, he exemplifies the historic spirit which was rising, and anticipates the theological inquiry found in Gibbon; and, in his examination of the external historic evidence, both the documents by which the Christian religion is attested, and the effects of tradition in weakening historic data, he evinces traces of the influence of the historical criticism which had arisen in France under his friend Pouilly.(468)
His theological writings(469) are in the form of letters, or of essays, the common form of didactic writings in that age. We shall briefly state his views on deity, futurity, and revelation.
He teaches the existence of a deity, but was led, by the sensational philosophy which he adopted from Locke, to deny the possibility of an a priori proof of the divine existence,(470) and contends strongly that the divine attributes can only be known by observation of nature, and not by the analogy of man's constitution. He considers too that the deity whose existence he has thus allowed, exercises a general but not a special providence;(471) the world being a machine moving by delegated powers without the divine interference. The philosophy expressed in Pope's didactic poetry gives expression to Bolingbroke's opinions(472) on providence.
In his views of human duty Bolingbroke refers conduct to self-love as a cause, and to happiness as an end; and doubts a future state,(473) either on the ground of materialism, or possibly because his favourite principle, that "whatever is, is best," led him to disbelieve the argument for a future life adduced from the inequality of present rewards. Future punishment is rejected, on the ground that it can offer no end compatible with the moral object of punishment, which is correction.
When he passes from natural religion to revealed, he allows the possibility of divine inspiration, but doubts the fact; rebuking those however who doubt things merely because they cannot understand them. In criticising the Jewish revelation,(474) he puts no limits to his words of severity. He dares to pronounce the Jewish history to be repugnant to the attributes of a supreme, all-perfect Being. His attack on the records is partly on account of the materials contained in them, such as the narrative of the fall, the numerical statistics, the invasion of the Canaanites, the absence of eternal rewards as sanctions of the Mosaic law; and partly on the ground of the evidence being, as he alleges, not narrated by contemporaries. In giving his opinion of Christianity, he repeats the weak objection already used by Chubb, of a distinction existing between the gospel of Christ and of Paul;(475) and tries to explain the origin of Christianity and of its doctrines, suggesting the derivation of the idea of a Trinity from the triadic notions of other religions. But he is driven to concede some things denied by former deists. He grants, for example, that if the miracles really occurred, they attest the revelation;(476) and he therefore labours to show that they did not occur, by attacking the New Testament canon(477) as he had before attacked the Old; attempting to show that the composition of the gospels was separated by an interval from the alleged occurrence of the events; applying, in fact, Pouilly's incipient criticism on history which has been so freely used in theology by more recent critics.
These remarks will exhibit Bolingbroke's views, both in their cause and their relation to those of former deists. It will be observed that they are for the most part a direct result either of sensational metaphysics or of the incipient science of historical criticism.
The inquiry was now becoming more historical on the part both of deists and Christians. Philosophy was still the cause of religious controversy, but it had changed in character. It was now criticism weighing the evidence of religion rather than ethics or metaphysics testing the materials of it. The question formerly debated had been, how much of the internal characteristics of scripture can be supported by moral philosophy; and when the conviction at length grew up, that the mysteries could not be solved by any analogy, but were unique, it became necessary to rest on the miraculous evidence for the existence of a revelation, and make the fact guarantee the contents of it. Inasmuch however as the revelation is contained in a book, it became necessary to substantiate the historical evidence of its genuineness and authenticity. Bolingbroke's attacks are directed against a portion of this literary evidence.
Historical criticism, in its appreciation of literary evidence, may be of four kinds. It may (1) examine the record from a dogmatic point of view, pronouncing on it by reference to prepossessions directed against the facts; or (2) make use of the same method, but direct the attack against the evidence on which the record rests; or (3) it may examine whether the record is contemporary with the events narrated; or (4) consider its internal agreement with itself or with fact.
We have instances of each of these methods in the examination of the literary evidence on which miracles are believed. The first, the prepossession concerning the philosophical impossibility of miracles, is seen in Spinoza; the second, the impossibility of using testimony as a proof of them, in Hume; the third, the question whether they were attested by eyewitnesses, is the ground which Bolingbroke touches; the fourth, the cross-examination of the witnesses, is seen in Woolston. Of these, the first most nearly resembles the great mass of the deist objections to revelation, being philosophical rather than critical. The second forms a transition to the two latter, being philosophy applied to criticism, and is the form which deism now took. The two latter are those which it subsequently assumed.(478)
These remarks will explain Hume's position,(479) and show how he forms the transition between two modes of inquiry; his point of view being critical, the cause of it philosophical. His speculations in reference to religion are chiefly contained in his Essays on the Human Understanding. A brief explanation is necessary to show the dependence of his theology on his philosophy.
The speculations of Locke, as we have before had occasion to notice, gave an impulse to psychological investigations. He clearly saw that knowledge is limited by the faculties which are its source, which he considered to be reducible to sensation and reflection; but while denying the existence of innate ideas, he admitted the existence of innate faculties. Hartley carried the analysis still farther, by introducing the potent instrument offered by the doctrine of the association of ideas. Hume, adopting this principle, applied it, in a manner very like the independent contemporaneous speculations of Condillac in France, to analyse the faculties themselves into sensations, and to furnish a more complete account of the nature of some of our most general ideas, such, for example, as the notion of cause. The intellectual element implied in Locke's account of the process of reflection here drops out. Faculties are regarded as transformed sensations; the nature of knowledge as coextensive with sensation. According to such a theory therefore, the idea of physical cause can mean nothing more than the invariable connexion of antecedent and consequent. The notion of force or power which we attach to causation becomes an unreality; being an idea not given in sensation, which can merely detect sequence.
Such was Hume's psychology; an attempt to push analysis to its ultimate limits; valuable in its method, even if defective in its results; a striking example of the acuteness and subtle penetration of its author. There is another branch of his philosophy in which he is regarded as a metaphysical sceptic, in reference to the passage of the mind outwards, by means of its own sensations and ideas, into the knowledge of real being, wherein he takes part with Berkeley, extending to the inner world of soul the scepticism which that philosopher had applied to the outer world of matter. In the psychological branch Hume is a sensationalist, in the ontological a sceptic. The latter however has no relation to our present subject. It is from the former that his views on religion are deduced. In no writer is the logical dependence of religious opinion on metaphysical principles visible in a more instructive manner. For we perceive that the influence adverse to religion in his case was not merely the result of rival metaphysical dogmas opposed to religion, such as were seen in the Pantheists of Padua, or in Spinoza; nor even the opposition caused by the adoption of a different standard of truth for pronouncing on revelation, as in his fellow English deists; but it sprung from the application of the subjective psychological inquiry into the limits of religious knowledge, as a means for criticising not only the logical strength of the evidence of religion, but specially the historic evidence of testimony. We consequently see the influence exercised by the subjective branch of metaphysical inquiries in the discussion not only of the logic of religion, but also of the logic of the historic aspect of it.
Hume's religious speculations(480) relate to three points:—to the argument for the attributes of God, drawn from final causes; to the doctrine of Providence, and future rewards and punishments; and to the evidence of testimony as the proof of miracles. Though he does not conduct an open assault in reference to any of them, but only suggests doubts, yet in each case his insinuations sap so completely the very proof, that it is clear that they are intended as grounds not merely for doubt, but for disbelief. His doctrine of sensation is the clue to his remarks on the two former. He argues that we can draw no sound inferences on the questions, because the subjects lie beyond the range of sensational experience. It is however in consequence of his remarks on the last of the three subjects in his essay on Miracles that his name has become famous in the history of free thought.
The essay consists of two parts. In the first he shows that miracles are incapable of proof by testimony. Belief is in proportion to evidence. Evidence rests on sensational experience. Accordingly the testimony to the uniformity of nature being universal, and that which exists in favour of the occurrence of a miracle, or violation of the laws of nature, being partial, the former must outweigh the latter. In the second he shows, that if this is true, provided the testimony be of the highest kind, much more will it be so in actual cases; inasmuch as no miracle is recorded, the evidence for which reaches to this high standard. He explains the elements of weakness in the evidence; such as the predisposition of mankind to believe prodigies, forged miracles, the decrease of miracles with the progress of civilization, the force of rival testimony in disproof of them, which he illustrates by historic examples, such as the alleged miracles of Vespasian, Apollonius, and the Jansenist Abbe Paris.(481) The conclusion is, that miracles cannot be so shown to occur as to be used as the basis of proof for a revelation; and that a revelation, if believed, must rest on other evidence.
The argument accordingly is briefly, that testimony cannot establish a fact which contradicts a law of nature; the narrower induction cannot disprove the wider. The reasoning has been used in subsequent controversy(482) with only a slight increase of force, or alteration of statement. The great and undeniable discoveries of astronomy had convinced men in the age of Hume of the existence of an order of nature; and modern discovery has not increased the proof of this in kind, though it has heightened it in degree, by showing that as knowledge spreads the range of the operation of fixed law is seen to extend more widely; and apparent exceptions are found to be due to our ignorance of the presence of a law, not to its absence. The statement of the difficulty would accordingly now be altered by the introduction of a slight modification. Instead of urging that testimony cannot prove the historic reality of the fact which we call a miracle, the assertion would be made that it can only attest the existence of it as a wonder, and is unable to prove that it is anything but an accidental result of an unknown cause. A miracle differs from a wonder, in that it is an effect wrought by the direct interposition of the Creator and Governor of nature, for the purpose of revealing a message or attesting a revelation. That testimony can substantiate wonders, but not distinguish the miracle from the wonder, is the modern form of the difficulty.
The connexion of Hume's view with his metaphysical principles will be evident. If nature be known only through the senses, cause is only the material antecedent visible to the senses. Nature is not seen to be the sphere of the operation of God's regular will; and the sole proof of interference with nature must be a balancing of inductions. It will be clear also that the true method of replying to Hume has been rightly perceived by those who consider that the difficulty must be met by philosophy, and not by history.
Suppose the historic evidence sufficient to attest the wonder, it does not prove that the wonder is a miracle. The presumption in favour of this may be indefinitely increased by the peculiarity of the circumstances, which frequently forbid the idea of a mere marvel; but the real proof must depend upon the previous conception, which we bring to bear upon the question, in respect to the being and attributes of God, and His relation to nature. The antecedent probability converts the wonder into a miracle. It acts in two ways. It obliterates the cold materialistic view of the regularity of nature which regards material laws to be unalterable, and the world to be a machine; and it adds logical force to the weaker induction, so as to allow it to outweigh the stronger. No testimony can substantiate the interference with a law of nature, unless we first believe on independent grounds that there is a God who has the power and will to interfere.(483) Philosophy must accordingly establish the antecedent possibility of miracles; the attribute of power in God to effect the interruption, and of love in God to prompt him to do it. The condition therefore of attaining this conception must be by holding to a monotheistic conception of God as a being possessing a personal will, and regarding mind and will as the rule by which to interpret nature and law,(484) and not conversely measuring the mental by the material. In this manner law becomes the operation of God's personal fixed will, and miracle the interposition of his personal free will.
It will be perceived that in distinguishing miracle from wonder, we also take into account the final cause of the alleged interposition as a reason weighty enough to call forth divine interposition. As soon as we introduce the idea of a personal intelligent God, we regard Him as acting with a motive, and measure His purposes, partly by analogy to ourselves, partly by the moral circumstances which demand the interposition.(485)
These remarks may furnish the solution of the puzzle whether the miracle proves the doctrine, or the doctrine the miracle.(486) Undoubtedly the miracle proves the particular doctrine which it claims to attest; but a doctrine of some kind, though not the special one in point, some moral conception of the Almighty's nature and character, must precede, in order to give the criterion for distinguishing miracle from mere wonder. Miracles prove the doctrine which they are intended to attest; but doctrines of a still more general character are required to prove the miracle.
This examination of the doctrine of Hume will not only illustrate our main position, of the influence of intellectual and philosophical causes in generating doubt, or at least in directing free thought into a sceptical tendency, but will illustrate the application made of that special department of metaphysics which relates to the test of truth, to discredit the literary proof of revelation as an historic system.
We have now sketched the natural history of deism, by showing that in this as in former periods the forms which free thought assumed were determined by the philosophy, and, in a slighter degree, by the critical knowledge of the age.
The inquiry into method in the seventeenth century had led men to break with authority, and rebuild from its foundations the temple of truth. Locke, imbibing this spirit, had gauged anew the human understanding, and had sought a new origin for its knowledge, and given expression to the appeal to the reasoning powers, which marked the age. Political circumstances had not only generated free inquiry, but had required each man to form his political creed. In all departments reason was appealed to. Even the province of the imagination was invaded by it, and perfection of form preferred to freshness of conception in art and poetry. The doubt of the age reflected the same spirit. Whether its advocates belonged to the school of Descartes or of Locke, both alike examined religion by the standard of psychology and ethics. That which was to be believed was to be comprehended as well as apprehended. Yet the appeal was not made to reason in its highest form; and, with a show of depth, philosophy nevertheless failed to exhibit the deepest analysis.
We have watched the exhibition of the successive phases of the attack, and have seen reason, first examining the method of theology, protesting against mystery in doctrine or morals; next criticising the historic reality of the evidence offered for its doctrines; then denying the moral utility of revelation, or attacking the doctrines and internal truths; lastly denying the validity of testimony for the supernatural.
In the later steps the influence of the French school of speculation is already observable, mingling itself with English deism. Consequently the subsequent traces of unbelief in England must be deferred till the nature of this movement has been explained.
Deism stands contrasted with the unbelief of other times by certain peculiarities. In its coarse spirit of bitter hostility, and want of real insight into the excellence of the system which it opposed, it recalls in some respects the attack of the ancient heathen Celsus; and the difficulties propounded are frequently not dissimilar to those stated by him, though resulting from a different philosophical school. The tenacious grasp which it maintained of the doctrine of the unity of God would cause it to bear a closer resemblance to the system of Julian, if the deists had not lacked the literary tastes which strengthened his love for heathenism. The monotheism constitutes also a line of demarcation between deism and more modern forms of unbelief. It restrained the deists from falling into the forms of subtle pantheism previously noticed, and the atheism which will hereafter meet us. The character of their doubts too, selected from patent facts of mind and heart, which appealed to common sense, and were not taken from a minute literary criticism, which removes doubt from the sphere of the ordinary understanding into the world of literature, separates them from more modern critical unbelief.
Standing thus apart, characterised by intense attachment to monotheism, and placing its foundation in the great facts of nature, deism errs by defect rather than excess; in that which it denies, not in that which it asserts. It is a system of naturalism or rationalism; the interpretation which reason, without attaining the deepest analysis, offers of the scheme of the world, natural and moral. Its only parallel is the particular species of German thought derived from it which existed at the close of the last century, and sought like it to reduce revealed religion to natural.(487)
Whether emotional causes, personal moral faults coincided with these intellectual causes, and were the obstacle which prevented the attainment of a deeper insight into the mysteries of revelation, and made them to halt in the mysteries of nature, ought to be taken into account in forming a judgment on the concrete cases, but does not so properly belong to the general consideration in which we are now engaged, of tracing the types of deist thought. Some of the deists were very moral men, a few immoral; but the truth or untruth of opinions may be studied apart from the character of the persons who maintain them.
The movement, if viewed as a whole, is obsolete. If the same doubts are now repeated, they do not recur in the same form, but are connected with new forms of philosophy, and altered by contact with more recent criticism. In the present day sceptics would believe less than the deists, or believe more, both in philosophy and in criticism. In philosophy, the fact that the same difficulties occur in natural religion as well as in revealed, would now throw them back from monotheism into atheism or pantheism; while the mysteries of revelation, which by a rough criticism were then denied, would be now conceded and explained away as psychological peculiarities of races or individuals. In criticism, the delicate examination of the sacred literature would now prevent both the revival of the cold unimaginative want of appreciation of its extreme literary beauty, and the hasty imputation of the charge of literary forgery against the authors of the documents. In the deist controversy the whole question turned upon the differences and respective degrees of obligation of natural and revealed religion, moral and positive duties; the deist conceding the one, denying the other.
The permanent contribution to thought made by the controversy consisted in turning attention from abstract theology to psychological, from metaphysical disquisitions on the nature of God to ethical consideration of the moral scheme of redemption for man. Theology came forth from the conflict, reconsidered from the psychological point of view, and readjusted to meet the doubts which the new form of philosophy—psychology and ethics—might suggest.
The attack of revealed religion by reason awoke the defence; and no period in church history is so remarkable for works on the Christian evidences,—grand monuments of mind and industry. The works of defenders are marked by the adoption of the same basis of reason as their opponents; and hence the topics which they illustrate have a permanent philosophical value, though their special utility as arguments be lessened by the alteration in the point of view now assumed by free thought.
The one writer whose reputation stands out preeminently above the other apologists is bishop Butler.(488) His praise is in all the churches. Though the force of a few illustrations in his great work may perhaps have been slightly weakened by the modern progress of physical science,(489) and though objections have been taken on the ground that the solutions are not ultimate,(490) mere media axiomata; yet the work, if regarded as adapted to those who start from a monotheistic position, possesses a permanent power of attractiveness which can only be explained by its grandeur as a work of philosophy, as well as its mere potency as an argument. The width and fulness of knowledge displayed in the former respect, together with the singular candour and dignified forbearance of its tone, go far to explain the secret of its mighty influence. When viewed in reference to the deist writings against which it was designed, or the works of contemporary apologists, Butler's carefulness in study is manifest. Though we conjectured that Tindal's work(491) was the one to which he intended chiefly to reply, yet not one difficulty in the philosophy, hardly one in the critical attacks made by the various deists, is omitted; and the best arguments of the various apologists are used. But both the one and the other are so assimilated by his own mind, that the use of them only proves his learning, without diminishing his originality. They are so embodied into his system, that it is difficult even for a student well acquainted with the deist and apologetic literature to point precisely to the doubt or parallel argument which may have suggested to him material of thought. And thus, though his work as an argument ought always to be viewed in relation to his own times, yet the omission of all temporary means of defence, and the restricting himself to the use of those permanent facts which indelibly belong to human nature, and to the scheme of the world, have caused his work to possess an enduring interest, and to be a κτῆμα ἐς ἀεί. The persuasive moderation of its tone also proves that Butler had really weighed the evidence. In its absence of arrogant denunciation, and its candid admission that the evidence of religion is probable, not demonstrative; and in the request that the whole evidence may be weighed like a body of circumstantial proofs, we can perceive that Butler had felt the doubts as well as understood them, and evidently meant his works for the doubter rather than for the Christian; to convince foes, or support the hesitating, rather than to win applause from friends.
The real secret of its power however lies not merely in its force as an argument to refute objections against revelation, but in its positive effect as a philosophy,(492) opening up a grand view of the divine government, and giving an explanation of revealed doctrines, by using analogy as the instrument for adjusting them into the scheme of the universe.(493) He seems himself to have taken a broad view of God's dealings in the moral world, analogous to that which the recent physical discoveries of his time had exhibited in the natural. In the same manner as Newton in his Principia had, by an extension of terrestrial mechanics, explained the movements of the celestial orbs, and united under one grand generalization the facts of terrestrial and celestial motion; so Butler aimed at exhibiting as instances of one and the same set of moral laws the moral government of God, which is visible to natural reason, and the spiritual government, which is unveiled by revelation.
Probably no book since the beginning of Christianity has ever been so useful to the church as Butler's Analogy, in solving the doubts of believers or causing them to ignore exceptions, as well as in silencing unbelievers. The office of apologetic is to defend the church, not to build it up. Argument is not the life of the church. It is therefore a proof of the philosophical power and truth of Butler's work that it has ministered so extensively to the latter purpose, by actually reinforcing and promoting the faith of professing Christians. It has acted not only as an argument to the deists, but as a lesson of instruction to the church.
Few efforts of free thought seemed more unpromising in yielding any useful results than deism; yet by its agitation of deep questions, which are not the mere phantoms of a morbid mind, but real and solid difficulties and mysteries in revelation, it was the means of creating Butler's noble work, and is a fresh illustration of the beneficent arrangement of the Almighty, that makes knowledge progress by antagonism, and overrules evil for good.
But there is another weapon for repelling unbelief besides the intellectual; just as there are two causes for creating it, the one intellectual, the other emotional. Thus, in the period that we are now considering, though we may believe that many hearts were cheered and many doubts hushed by the Christian apologies, yet the revival of religion(494) which marked the eighteenth century, and which by spreading vital piety prepared an effectual check against unbelief, when the lower orders were afterwards invaded by it, was due to the spiritual yearnings created by the ministrations of men, often rude and unlettered, who told the wondrous story of Christ crucified, heart speaking to heart, with intuitions kindled from on high. The sinful began to feel that God was not afar off, reposing in the solitude of his own blessedness, and abandoning mankind to the government of conscience and to the operation of general laws, but nigh at hand, with a heart of fatherly love to pity and an ear of mercy to listen. The narrative of Christ the Son of God, coming down to seek and to save that which was lost, awoke an echo in the heart which neutralized the doubts infused by the deist. And it is a comfort to every Christian labourer to know that if he cannot wrangle out a controversy with the doubter, he can speak to the doubter's heart.
Few would compare the irregular missionaries of spiritual religion in the last century with the great writers of evidence. The names of the latter are honoured; those of the former are unknown or too often despised. It might seem strange, for example, to institute a comparison between the two contemporaries, bishop Butler and John Wesley. Yet there are points of contrast which are instructive. Each was one of the most marked instruments of movement and influence in the respective fields of the argumentative and the spiritual; the one a philosopher writing for the educated, the other a missionary preaching to the poor. Butler, educated a nonconformist, turned to the church, and in an age of unbelief consecrated his great mental gifts to roll back the flood of infidelity; and died early, when his unblemished example was so much needed in the noble sphere of usefulness which Providence had given him, leaving a name to be honoured in the church for generations. Wesley, nursed in the most exclusive church principles, kindled the flame of his piety by the devout reading of mystic books;(495) when our university was marked by the half-heartedness of the time; and afterwards, when instructed by the Pietists of Germany,(496) devoted a long life to wander over the country, despised, ill-treated, but still untired; teaching with indefatigable energy the faith which he loved, and introducing those irregular agencies of usefulness which are now so largely adopted even in the church. He too was an accomplished scholar, and possessed great gifts of administration; but whatever good he effected, in kindling the spiritual Christianity which checked the spread of infidelity, was not so much by argument as by stating the omnipotent doctrine of the Cross, Christ set forth as the propitiation for sin through faith in his blood. The earnestness of the missionary may be imitated by those who cannot imitate the philosopher's literary labours. Gifts of intellect are not in our own power. But industry to improve the talents that we possess is our own; and the spiritual perception of divine truth, and burning love for Christ which will touch the heart, and before which all unhealthy doubts will melt away as frost before the sun, will be given from on high by the Holy Ghost freely to all that ask. "Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord."(497)
LECTURE V. INFIDELITY IN FRANCE IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY, AND UNBELIEF IN ENGLAND SUBSEQUENT TO 1760.
ISAIAH xxvi. 20.
Come, my people, enter thou into thy chambers, and shut thy doors about thee: hide thyself as it were for a little moment, until the indignation be overpast.
We now approach the study of a period remarkable no less in the history of the world than in that of religious thought, in which unbelief gained the victory in the empire of mind, and obtained the opportunity of reconstructing society and education according to its own views. The history of infidelity in France in the eighteenth century forms a real crisis in history, important by its effects as well as its character. For France has always been the prerogative nation of Europe. When wants intellectual or political have been felt there, the life of other nations has beat sympathetic with it as with the heart of the European body. Ideas have been thrown into form by it for transmission to others. It will be necessary to depict the free religious thought, both intellectually and in its political action; to characterise its principal teachers; to show whence it sprung, and to what result it tended; to point out wherein lay the elements of its power and its wickedness; to show what it has contributed to human woe, or perchance indirectly to human improvement.
The source of its influence cannot be understood without recalling some facts of the history of French politics and philosophical speculation. What was the cause why English deists wrote and taught their creed in vain, were despised while living and consigned to oblivion when dead, refrained almost entirely from political intermeddling, and left the church in England unhurt by the struggle; while on the other hand deism in France became omnipotent, absorbed the intellect of the country, swept away the church, and remodelled the state? The answer to this question must be sought in the antecedent history. It is a phenomenon political rather than intellectual. It depended upon the soil in which the seed was sown, not on the inherent qualities of the seed itself.(498)
The church and state have hardly ever possessed more despotic power in any country of modern times, or seemed to all appearances to repose on a more secure foundation, than in France at the time when they were first assailed by the free criticism of the infidels of the eighteenth century. Each had escaped the alterations which had been effected in most other countries. The clergy of France had in the sixteenth century successfully resisted the Reformation, and gained strength by the issue of the civil wars which supervened on it. In the seventeenth century, though compelled to admit toleration of their Protestant adversaries, they had contrived before the end of it to obtain a revocation of the edict, even though the act cost France the loss of a million of her industrious population, and though the enforcing of it had to be effected by the means of the dragonnades, in which a brutal soldiery was let loose on an innocent population.(499) Thus the church, united with rather than subjected to the state, adorned by great names, asserting its national independence in the pride of conscious strength against the metropolitan see of Christendom,(500) possessed a power which, while it seemed to promise perpetuity, stood as an impediment to progress and a bar to intellectual development.
Nor was the cause of liberty more hopeful in relation to the state than the church. The crown, in passing through a similar struggle against the feudal nobility to that of other countries, had succeeded in securing its victory without yielding those concessions to the demands of the people which in our own country were extorted from it by the civil war. The strength gained by the defeat of the nobility in the wars of the Fronde, offered the opportunity for an able sovereign like Louis XIV to dry up all sources of independent power, by centralizing all authority in the monarchy. Proud in the consciousness of internal power and foreign victory, surrounded by wealth and talent, with a court and literature which were the glory of the country, he seemed likely to transmit his power to coming generations. But the inherent weakness of despotism was soon apparent. Unrestrained authority appertains only to the Divine government, because power is there synonymous with goodness; but it is always unsafe in human. The wisdom which partially supplied the place of goodness in Louis XIV being wanting in his successor, unchecked selfishness produced the corruption which brought inevitable ruin.
These remarks on the political state of France will sufficiently show why a free criticism directed against either religion or tyranny should assume revolutionary tendencies, and should manifest an antipathy to social and ecclesiastical institutions, as well as to the principles on which they were supposed to depend.
But the forces operating in the world of mind, as well as in society, must also be understood, in order to estimate the influence of unbelief in France. In a previous lecture we have seen that in the middle of the seventeenth century the philosophy of Descartes had created a complete revolution in modes of thought. It was only in the philosophy of Spinoza that it produced theological unbelief; but by its indirect influence it had led generally to an entire reconsideration of the first data of reasoning, and the method of establishing truth; and thus had stimulated the struggle of reason against faith, of inquiry against credulity, of progress against reaction, and of hopefulness in the future against reverence for the past. The activity of mind displayed in the literature of the reign of Louis XIV is its first expression.(501) But thoughts ferment long in society before they fully express themselves in form: they first exist as suggestions; then they become doubts; lastly, they pass into disbelief. It was not until the time of the regency,(502) which ensued after the death of Louis, that the literature became impressed with a thoroughly new tone.(503)
Other causes of a more direct kind cooperated. The English philosophy of Locke, which marked an epoch in speculation, was introduced at that time. This philosophy however could not have resulted in those speculations which arose in France, if it had not been carried farther by the analysis which Condillac employed in that country, analogous to that of Hume in Scotland. In itself it expressed the reasoning type of mind and thought which reigned throughout the English literature; but the corollaries from it which produced harm were no part of the original system.(504) Condillac, desiring to carry out the analysis of the origin of knowledge, lost sight of the intellectual element in Locke's account of the process of reflection; denied the existence of innate faculties as well as innate ideas; and attempted to show that man's mind is so passive, so dependent on the evidence of the senses for the material of its thoughts, and on language for the power to combine them, that its very faculties are transformed sensations.(505) From these premises it was not hard for his followers to draw the inferences of materialism(506) in philosophy, selfishness in morals, and an entire denial of those religious truths which cannot be proved by sensuous evidence. This philosophy began to leaven the mind of France, and was accepted by nearly the whole of French unbelievers.
Such was the intellectual state of France in reference to the standard of appeal contemporaneously with the political and ecclesiastical condition before described. In the state and church all was authority; all was of the past; in the world of literature and philosophy all was criticism, activity, hope in the future. Into a soil thus prepared the seeds of unbelief on the subject of religion were introduced. We cannot deny that they were imported mainly from England. Doubt had indeed not been wholly wanting in France. In the preceding centuries Montaigne(507) and Charron,(508) and, at the commencement of the one of which we speak, Bayle(509) and Fontenelle,(510) were probably harassed with disbelief, and their influence was certainly productive of doubt. And free thought, in the form of literary criticism of the scriptures, had brought down the denunciation of the French church on Richard Simon.(511) But undoubtedly the direct parent of the French unbelief was English deism.(512) In no age of French history has English literature possessed so powerful an influence.(513) England had recently achieved those liberties of which France felt the need. It had safely outlived civil war and revolution, and had established constitutional liberty and religious toleration. In England the victims of the French oppression found shelter. Being itself free, it became the refuge for the exile, the shelter for the oppressed. It thus became the object of study to the politician, and of love to the philanthropist. Its literature too, in two branches, viz. political inquiry, and, towards the middle of the century, romance, offered subjects for imitation. Montesquieu studied the former; Rousseau and Diderot the latter. But England furnished also a series of fearless inquirers on the subject of religion, whose works became the subject of study and of translation.(514) Voltaire spent three years of exile in England,(515) at the time when the ferment existed concerning Woolston's attack on miracles, and both knew Bolingbroke personally, and translated his writings.
Having now explained the sources of doubt in France; we must next direct our attention to the course of its speculations, and to the chief authors.
If we estimate its course by literary works, or by social and political movements, we may distribute the history of it into two periods; one comprising the first half of the century, wherein it attacks the French church and Christianity; the other, the latter half, wherein it mingles itself with the demand for political change, and assaults the state,(516) until its effects are seen in the anarchy of the French revolution. In the former of these periods the unbelief is tentative and suggestive. About the time of the transition to the second, in the pride of supposed victory it becomes dogmatic. Christianity is supposed to be exploded. Philosophy seeks to occupy its place in the social and intellectual world. The early doubters and Voltaire mark the former of these epochs. Diderot and the French encyclopaedists, with the ramification of their school at the court of Frederick II of Prussia, form the point of transition. Rousseau marks the opening of the second period, when unbelief was attempting to reconstruct society and remodel education. The selfish philosophy of Helvetius and his friends then carries on the course of the history of unbelief, until in the storm of the revolution it shows itself in the teaching of Volney, and the absurd acts of the theophilanthropists.
The name of Voltaire, which the logical and chronological order introduces first to our notice, is so preeminent, that his character and teaching may express the history of the early movement in France.
The story of his life, so far as we require now to be made acquainted with it, can be briefly told.(517) Born toward the close of the seventeenth century, he manifested, as a legend assures us, such a doubting spirit, even in boyhood, that his priestly preceptor predicted that he would prove a Coryphaeus of deism. His rare precocity of intellect early acquired for him a reputation in the world of letters. Compelled to become an exile in England,(518) he studied its politics, its science, and its scepticism. On his return to France, he endeavoured to introduce among his countrymen the cosmical and mathematical doctrines of Newton; and made himself conspicuous in history, in poetry, in fiction, and above all, in theology, by his attacks on revealed religion and the French church. About the middle of the century, accepting an invitation to the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia, he aided thence the introduction of infidel doctrines in Germany. A few years later he withdrew into retirement at Ferney, but was able from his seclusion to wield an intellectual power throughout Europe.
It was from this retirement that he denounced the acts of tyranny, or supposed injustice, inflicted by the French church. His indignant denunciations in the cases of the Sirven,(519) of La Barre,(520) and above all of the Calas,(521) gained for him the commendation and sympathy of Europe, and remain as monuments of the power of the pen.
Such was his life. Let us search in it for the secret of his power, and inquire what were his views in the department which we are studying.
His character has been analysed by so many critics, especially by one of our own countrymen in an essay of rare power, now become classical, that the opportunity of original investigation is impossible, and the attempt undesirable.(522)
In the opinion of this writer, the secret of Voltaire's strength was the tact which he displayed in expressing the wants of his time to his countrymen in the precise mode most suited to them.(523) He belonged to the class of those who exercise their influence in their own lifetime—men of the present, not men of the future; accordingly, whether he be viewed as a man, in his own personal qualities, in the moral and intellectual properties which constituted his character, or as an artist, in the manner in which he conveyed his thoughts to the world, he will be found to be the loftiest exponent and type of the spirit of his age. It was an age without originality, without spiritual insight, careful of manners rather than morals, corrupted by selfishness, led by ambition, dissatisfied with the present, and anxious for deliverance; but unable to espy the real causes of the mischief, and to escape confusing principles with men; fond of form rather than material; classical rather than Gothic; critical rather than reverent; proud of its own discoveries, without appreciation of the efforts of the past.—Such are the qualities which characterised the times of Voltaire,(524) and in their most striking form marked his mind.
To qualities which were thus in some sense formed in him by circumstances, he added remarkable ones which were Nature's special gift to him. His extraordinary tact and good sense, both in dealing personally with individuals and in literary criticism; his fiery ardour, and vehement spirit of proselytism; his singular penetration of vision, and power to arrange in the clearest mode the thoughts which he wished to transmit; above all, his wit and wonderful power of satire were qualities which, though in some degree shared by his countrymen, cannot be explained by mere circumstances, but are natural gifts. These three intellectual endowments, acuteness, order, and satire,(525) are regarded by the authority that we are taking for our guide, as the qualities which formed the secret of his power as a writer, and at the same time as the sources of intellectual temptation which prevented him from gaining a deeper insight into truth, and deprived him of influence with posterity. For his quickness prevented the exercise of the reflection, the patient meditation, which is the only high road to solve the mysteries of existence. It has been well said,(526) that Voltaire saw so much more deeply at a glance than other men, that no second glance was ever given by him. His power of order assisting his quickness, was a still further temptation. Though far inferior in erudition to some of his contemporaries, such as Diderot, and in depth of feeling to Rousseau, lacking originality, and borrowing most of his philosophical thoughts at second hand, he yet surpassed them all by a matchless power of arrangement. The perfection of form diverted attention from the subject matter. He possessed method rather than genius, intellect rather than imagination. But above all his other powers, his most singular gift was his power of satire. When stimulated by a sense of injustice, or of hatred against men or systems, it made him omnipotent in destruction. This satirical power contributed to preclude the possession of depth of reflection. Ridicule has an office in criticism. It is the true punishment of folly. But it has been well observed,(527) that it is dangerous to him who employs it, as being directly opposed to humility. The satirist places himself above that which he ridicules, and makes himself the judge: the humility of the listener is laid aside; the selfish belief of his own infallibility is fostered; forbearance and sympathy are laid aside. The critic argues, the satirist only laughs. Pity may be compatible with humour, but only contempt with satire. Voltaire was by nature a satirist; and when his mockery was applied to a subject like Christianity or religion, his utter want of reverence not only caused him to substitute a caricature for a picture, but prevented him from exercising discrimination in distinguishing Christianity from its counterfeit, religion from the ministers of it. Hence his attacks on Christianity partake of the tone of blasphemy; and he manifests in reference to religion, which to most readers was the most sacred of subjects, a tone of indescribable scurrility, which was not only inexcusable and disgraceful if viewed merely in a literary point of view, but constituted politically a public outrage against the dearest feelings of others which no citizen has a right to perpetrate.(528) This tone too was mainly his own; and is not to be found, except in rare instances, in the English deists from whom he borrowed.