1670 – Birth of rationalist philosopher, John Toland in Ardagh.

John Toland (30 November 1670 – 11 March 1722) was a rationalist philosopher and freethinker, and occasional satirist, who wrote numerous books and pamphlets on political and religious philosophy, which are early expressions of the philosophy of the Age of Enlightenment. He was educated at the universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Leiden and Oxford and was influenced by the philosophy of John Locke.


Very little is known of Toland’s early life. He was born in Ardagh on the Inishowen Peninsula, a predominantly Catholic and Gaelic-speaking region in northwestern Ireland. His parents are unknown. He would later write that he had been baptized Janus Junius, a play on his name that recalled both the Roman two-faced god Janus and Junius Brutus, reputed founder of the Roman republic. According to his biographer Pierre des Maizeaux, he adopted the name John as a schoolboy with the encouragement of his school teacher.

Having formally converted from Catholicism to Protestantism at the age of 16, Toland got a scholarship to study theology at the University of Glasgow. In 1690, at age 19, the University of Edinburgh conferred a master’s degree on him. He then got a scholarship to spend two years studying at University of Leiden in Holland, and subsequently nearly two years at Oxford in England (1694-95). The Leiden scholarship had been provided by wealthy English Dissenters, who hoped Toland would go on to become be a minister for Dissenters. In Toland’s first book Christianity Not Mysterious (1696), he argued that the divine revelation of the Bible contains no true mysteries; rather, all the dogmas of the faith can be understood and demonstrated by properly trained reason from natural principles. For this argument he was prosecuted by a grand jury in London, and the book was also burnt by the public hangman in Dublin, because it was contrary to the core doctrine of faith. After his departure from Oxford Toland resided in London for most of the rest of his life, but was also a somewhat frequent visitor to the European continent, particularly Germany and the Netherlands. He lived on the Continent from 1707 to 1710. The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica says of him that at his death in London at age 51 “he died… as he had lived, in great poverty, in the midst of his books, with his pen in his hand.” Just before he died, he composed his own epitaph: “He was an assertor of liberty, a lover of all sorts of learning … but no man’s follower or dependent. Nor could frowns or fortune bend him to decline from the ways he had chosen.”

John Toland was the first person called a freethinker (by Bishop Berkeley) and went on to write over a hundred books in various domains but mostly dedicated to criticizing ecclesiastical institutions. A great deal of his intellectual activity was dedicated to writing political tracts in support of the Whig cause. Many scholars know him for his role as either the biographer or editor of notable republicans from the mid-17th century such as James Harrington, Algernon Sidney and John Milton. His works “Anglia Libera” and “State Anatomy” are prosaic expressions of an English republicanism which reconciles itself with constitutional monarchy.

After Christianity Not Mysterious, Toland’s views grew – bit by bit – more radical. His opposition to hierarchy in the church also led to opposition to hierarchy in the state; bishops and kings, in other words, were as bad as each other, and monarchy had no God-given sanction as a form of government. In his 1704 Letters to Serena – in which he coins the expression ‘pantheism’ – he carefully analyses the manner by which truth is arrived at, and why people are prone, as the Marxists might express it, to forms of ‘false consciousness.’

In politics his most radical proposition was that liberty was a defining characteristic of what it means to be human. Political institutions should be designed to guarantee freedom, not simply to establish order. For Toland, reason and tolerance were the twin pillars of the good society. This was Whiggism at its most intellectually refined, the very antithesis of the Tory belief in sacred authority in both church and state. Toland’s belief in the need for perfect equality among free-born citizens was extended to the Jewish community, tolerated, but still outsiders in early eighteenth century England. In his 1714 Reasons for Naturalising the Jews he was the first to advocate full citizenship and equal rights for Jewish people.

Toland’s world was not all detached intellectual speculation, though. There was also an incendiary element to his political pamphleteering, and he was not beyond whipping up some of the baser anti-Catholic sentiments of the day in his attacks on the Jacobites. He also produced some highly controversial polemics, including the Treatise of Three Im-posters, in which Christianity, Judaism and Islam are all condemned as the three great political frauds.

His republican sympathies were also evidenced by his editing of the writings of some of the great radicals of the 1650s, including James Harrington, Algernon Sydney, Edmund Ludlow and John Milton. In his support for the Hanoverian monarchy he somewhat moderated his republican sentiments; though his ideal kingship was one that would work towards achieving civic virtue and social harmony, a ‘just liberty’ and the ‘preservation and improvement of our reason.’ But George I and the oligarchy behind Walpole were about as far from Toland’s ideal as it is possible to get. In many ways he was thus a man born both too late and too early.

Contributions to natural philosophy:

Toland influenced Baron d’Holbach’s ideas about physical motion. In his Letters to Serena, Toland claimed that rest, or absence of motion, is not merely relative. Actually, for Toland, rest is a special case of motion. When there is a conflict of forces, the body that is apparently at rest is influenced by as much activity and passivity as it would be if it were moving.

Toland is generally classed with the deists, but at the time when he wrote Christianity not Mysterious he was careful to distinguish himself from both skeptical atheists and orthodox theologians. After having formulated a stricter version of Locke’s epistemological rationalism, Toland then goes on to show that there are no facts or doctrines from the Bible which are not perfectly plain, intelligible and reasonable, being neither contrary to reason nor incomprehensible to it. All revelation is human revelation; that which is not rendered understandable is to be rejected as gibberish.

After his Christianity not Mysterious, Toland’s “Letters to Serena” constitute his major contribution to philosophy. In the first three letters, he develops a historical account of the rise of superstition arguing that human reason cannot ever fully liberate itself from prejudices. In the last two letters, he founds a metaphysical materialism grounded in a critique of monist substantialism. Later on, we find Toland continuing his critique of church government in Nazarenus which was first more fully developed in his “Primitive Constitution of the Christian Church”, a clandestine writing in circulation by 1705. The first book of “Nazarenus” calls attention to the right of the Ebionites to a place in the early church. The thrust of his argument was to push to the very limits the applicability of canonical scripture to establish institutionalized religion. Later works of special importance include Tetradymus wherein can be found Clidophorus, a historical study of the distinction between esoteric and exoteric philosophies.

His Pantheisticon, sive formula celebrandae sodalitatis socraticae (Pantheisticon, or the Form of Celebrating the Socratic Society), of which he printed a few copies for private circulation only, gave great offence as a sort of liturgic service made up of passages from heathen authors, in imitation of the Church of England liturgy. The title also was in those days alarming, and still more so the mystery which the author threw around the question how far such societies of pantheists actually existed. The term “pantheism” was coined by Toland to describe the philosophy of Spinoza.

Toland was famous for distinguishing exoteric philosophy – what one says publicly about religion – from esoteric philosophy – what one confides to trusted friends. In a recent book on Toland, Fouke analyses Toland’s ‘exoteric strategy’ of speaking as others speak, but with a different meaning. He argues that Toland’s philosophy and theology had little to do with positive expression of beliefs, and that his philosophical aim was not to develop an epistemology, a true metaphysical system, an ideal form of governance, or the basis of ethical obligation, but to find ways to participate in the discourses of others while undermining those discourses from within. Fouke traces Toland’s practices to Shaf-tesbury’s conception of a comic or ‘derisory’ mode of philosophising aimed at exposing pedantry, imposture, dogmatism, and folly.

Impact and legacy:

Toland was a man not of his time; one who advocated principles of virtue in duty, principles that had little place in the England of Robert Walpole, governed by cynicism and self-interest. His intellectual reputation, moreover, was subsequently eclipsed by the likes of John Locke and David Hume, and still more by Montesquieu and the French radical thinkers. Edmund Burke in his “Reflections on the Revolution in France” wrote dismissively of Toland and his fellows: “Who, born within the last 40 years, has read one word of Collins, and Toland, and Tindal, and Chubb, and Morgan, and that whole race who called themselves Freethinkers?”

Still, in Christianity not Mysterious, the book for which he is best known, Toland laid down a challenge not just to the authority of the established church, but to all inherited and unques-tioned authority. It was thus as radical politically and philosophically, as it was theologically.

Further reading:

See Mosheim’s Vindiciae antiquae christianorum disciplinae (1722), containing the most exhaustive account of Toland’s life and writings; A Life of Toland (1722), by one of his most intimate friends; Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Mr John Toland, by Pierre des Maizeaux, prefixed to The Miscellaneous Works of Mr John Toland (London, 1747); John Leland’s View of the Principal Deistical Writers (last ed. 1837); G. V. Lechlers Aeschichte des englischen Deismus (1841); Isaac Disraeli’s Calamities of Authors (new ed., 1881); article on “The English Freethinkers” in Theological Review, No. 5 (November, 1864); J. Hunt, in Contemporary Review, No. 6. Margaret Jacob, The Newtonians and the English Revolution (Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 1976); Daniel C. Fouke, Philosophy and Theology in a Burlesque Mode: John Toland and the Way of Paradox (New York: Prometheus Books, 2008).



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