Unthinkable: Irish radical’s challenge to notion of God still relevant
As the Richard Dawkins of the early Enlightenment, John Toland created a pantheist outlook that’s still relevant today
Irish philosopher George Berkeley. Photograph: Hulton Archive
That John Toland is not a household name in Ireland has surely much to do with the influence of the Catholic Church on education. A scholar, philosopher and political activist, he was the Richard Dawkins of the early Enlightenment period, railing against clericalism and superstition with a fiery tongue.
Born in 1670 in Inishowen, Co Donegal, he grew up an Irish-speaking Catholic, and converted to Protestantism at the age of 14, allowing him to attend a secondary school. His first book Christianity Not Mysterious was declared heretical and was publicly burned, leading to Toland’s exile in England and, later, continental Europe.
But Toland was much more than a rabble-rouser and in recent years there has been resurgent interest in his philosophical work. Evidence of this is the publication of a new edition of Toland’s Letters to Serena (Four Courts Press), edited by Ian Leask, a lecturer in philosophy at the Mater Dei Institute, DCU, who argues that Toland is best understood as a “creative Spinozist, or neo-Spinozist”.
Some academics go so far as to credit Toland with “creating” the term pantheism, or to describe him as the father of “scientific pantheism” which emphasises the unity of the cosmos. This, in summary, provides today’s idea: There is no God over and above the world as a whole.
The philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1753) described Toland as a “freethinker”. Was he in fact an atheist by today’s standards?
IL: “Toland’s certainly a ‘freethinker’: he’s an important early Enlightenment philosopher who stresses reason and critical thought over the blind acceptance of authority, absolutism and dogma. Beyond this, though, so much of his intellectual effort is directed against ‘priestcraft’ and theological-political manipulation; and it seems likely that the original Blasphemy Act in England was passed largely as a response to his writings.
“Toland had more or less reduced scripture to an historical datum; he’d suggested that revelation was merely a ‘means of information’; and he’d argued that religious claims had no basis unless they conformed to philosophical criteria of ‘clarity and distinctness’. So to all intents and purposes, yes, he can also be understood as an atheist – although it’s worth noting that Toland, like so many radical and heterodox figures of his time, never identifies himself as such.”
How does he rate as a philosopher, or original thinker, as distinct from a polemicist?
“He was certainly a great polemicist – and recognised as such by important political figures of his era. But there’s also a real philosophical substance to his work that’s been seriously underestimated.
“He identifies what’s central in some of the main intellectual currents of his day; he transplants and fuses these, often synthesising apparently disparate elements, all for the sake of furthering his freethinking cause. For example, there’s something almost dizzying about the way he uses the thought of Leibniz and Newton to argue that we don’t really need a transcendent divine cause to explain motion in the universe – a claim that horrified both of the latter. Likewise his use of Locke’s notion that everything has an unknowable ‘essence’, and that we only know, directly, what the senses present. If this is the case, Toland suggests, the word ‘mystery’ is left devoid of any sort of privileged, sacred significance and becomes redundant in any discourse – even theological.”
What was his most significant contribution to philosophy?
“In some respects, the most striking thing about Toland is his very attitude: he’s fearless – to the point of recklessness; defiant of conservative orthodoxy; forever refusing cautious platitudes. And there’s this provocative energy and verve in his work. Conceptually, though, he’s probably most important for promulgating the notion of pantheism . . .
“For later, Romantic, writers, pantheism had connotations of the divinity infusing matter, of ‘God within the flowers’. But I think Toland’s original intention was very different: he wanted to naturalise the divine, and to deny the possibility of any transcendent principle, outside or above the cosmos. In this respect, his project can be seen as ‘spreading the word’ of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), the great monistic philosopher.”
How did his Irishness influence his thinking?
“In the last decade or so, there’s been an interesting attempt at ‘Irishing’ people like Edmund Burke – in other words, trying to assess how their thought is shaped by and expressive of their Irish context. Toland is crying out for similar treatment . . .
“I think all sorts of interesting connections could be made between Toland’s intellectual swagger and sheer irreverence, on the one hand, and his own direct experience of cultural dislocation and ‘being marginal’, on the other.”
Is he Ireland’s greatest philosopher?
“It’s impossible to give a definitive answer to this kind of question – not just because of the difficulties in quantification, but also because of the deserved reputation of some other great Irish philosophers, like Eriugena or Berkeley. We can safely say, though, that Toland should be taken far more seriously as a philosopher, and not just as a colourful historical figure.
“His work is important in terms of our own historical self-understanding: he’s one of the formative sources of the mainstream European Enlightenment, after all. But it’s also got a perennial or intrinsic significance, too: he asks us to consider how so many of our most cherished notions might actually be contingent cultural formations; whether we should ever believe what we can’t understand; or whether the universe has to have some ‘external’ cause or source.
“These questions have as much traction today as they did when Toland first posed them, three centuries ago.
ASK A SAGE
Question: What’s the point of a university?
John Toland replies: “The university is the most fertile nursery of prejudices, whereof the greatest is, that we think there to learn every thing, when in reality we are taught nothing.”
Send your deep thoughts to: firstname.lastname@example.org