John Toland’s Christianity not Mysterious: text, associated works and critical essays, Philip McGuinness, Alan Harrison and Richard Kearney (eds.), (Lilliput Press, £25 hb, £11.99 pb) ISBN 187467597X, 1874675953

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 4 (Winter 1998), Reviews, Volume 6

‘If you would know more of him’, the philosopher John Toland wrote of himself, ‘search his writings.’ This recommendation, as sincere as it probably was, has been of little use to Toland scholars since his death in 1722. He could have just as helpfully advised his readers to consult the Bible in order to find answers to life’s vexing questions. Answers there might be, but the Bible says many things and it has exhibited a historical propensity to be read and understood in different, often conflicting ways. As an Irishman, from Ulster no less, Toland was well aware of this fact. Born into a Gaelic-speaking Catholic family on the Inishowen peninsula of County Donegal, he converted to Anglicanism before the age of sixteen, was a Presbyterian in Scotland at the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and at Leiden in Holland, and eventually professed to be a willing and committed member of the Church of England. Indeed, it is likely that Toland’s post-plantation, Ulster background and his early exposure to that province’s three major confessions contributed to his protean character and his ability to address such a vast range of issues in so many apparently contradictory ways. Thus, to compare Toland’s collected writings to the Bible is not meant to heighten the status of the former. Rather, it is to say that there is nothing simple about understanding John Toland.
This new edition of Toland’s most famous work, Christianity not Mysterious (first published in London in 1696) along with three associated works by him and eight critical essays by modern scholars is a bold, if only partially successful, attempt to unravel the mystery of the man who spent much of his life attempting to unravel religious mysteries. This edition of his magnum opus (the first ever published in Ireland in its entirety) is an attempt to rehabilitate Toland as a leading thinker in the theological and scientific debates of the early Enlightenment. Equally, it is the editors’ intention to establish Toland as a seminal figure in the development of Irish and British identities. Despite the efforts of Toland and many others, these two identities were never made fully compatible in the age of developing nation states, as for example Scottish and British identities were. And now, three centuries later, with the likelihood of new political structures in Northern Ireland, increased secularisation and prosperity in the Republic, devolution in the United Kingdom and a European Union that makes physical and psychological borders among constituent nations increasingly anathema, notions of Irishness and Britishness are again being scrutinised. As the editors of this volume say in the preface, ‘many of the long cherished mainstays of our mental maps are being irrevocably altered… The legacy of John Toland, philosopher of change, is that his life and times shed a welcome light on the origins and nature of many of our treasured identities on these islands. We need all the help we can get.’
The editors’ recourse to Toland for help indicates that investigations such as this one into the origins and nature of treasured identities are increasingly needed on the islands of Ireland and Great Britain precisely because they continue to face such strong opposition from the political and religious establishments (until recently in both parts of Ireland these might have still been called the politico-religious establishment, singular, as in Toland’s time) whose own power—and again we see parallels with Toland’s era—depends upon the maintenance of long-cherished and exclusionary ideas. Thus the purpose of this new volume, to question, to stimulate debate, and ultimately to scrape off the accretions of so many troubled years, mirrors the very purpose of Toland’s work when it was originally published. Three hundred years on, the space in which religious and political debate takes place in Ireland is not so hot that Toland’s book would be burned by order of the Irish parliament (as it was in 1697), but it is a testimony to Toland’s remarkable mind, and less appealingly, to the weight of Irish history and Anglo-Irish relations, that his work retains some of the subversiveness it contained upon publication.
If the strength of this volume is its Tolandian purpose, its weakness derives from its Tolandian disunity. Toland was at different times of his life (and perhaps simultaneously!) a Catholic, Dissenter, Anglican, republican, monarchist, deist, pantheist, hired-gun and free-thinker. He was also at times Irish, English and British, and tried to blur the distinctions between these identities by using the terms West, North and South British for Irish, Scottish and English respectively (being perhaps the first to do so). Toland’s corpus was correspondingly varied. His writings ranged from deism and rational anti-Trinitarianism to blatant anti-clericalism; from celebrations and reprintings of famous English republicans such as Milton, Harrington and Shaftesbury to a scheme for maintaining a limited standing army; from restrictions on the Hanoverian succession to later enthusiasm for the same; from pantheistic musings on the divine and dynamic nature of all matter to a defence of the eternal verities of republicanism as embodied in the English institutions of king, lords and commons; from attacks on Jacobites, Roman Catholics and the French to advocacy of Jewish citizenship; from dismissals of all Christian ritual to a promotion of early Irish Christianity—and many other subjects besides. By his own admission, Toland was a Whig and much of his writing articulated his party’s political concerns. However, unlike some of his fellow Enlightenment authors, Toland’s work lacked a unifying thread such as the empiricism that runs throughout Locke, or the singularity of purpose of Voltaire that stems from his dictum, ‘ecrasez l’infame’.
Collections of articles are by their nature disjointed, but what is disconcerting to the reader here is that the critical essays which follow Christianity not Mysterious and the associated works, often do not relate to or help to elucidate the texts. This creates a cleft in the book not unlike that which Richard Kearney insightfully suggests existed in Toland’s own mind. That said, the two halves contain many admirable parts. Toland’s own work is, as the editors say, a ‘stylish paean to reason’ in which he sets out to prove that no Christian doctrine is mysterious. He remarked that ‘mystery’ in the Gospels does not signify what cannot be known by man, but rather what is revealed only to the chosen few. Faith needs the confirmation of reason because mystery cannot confirm itself: ‘Could that Person justly value himself upon his being wiser than his Neighbours, who having infallible Assurance that something call’d a Blictri [a commonly used nonsense word] had a Being in Nature, in the mean time knew not what this Blictri was?’ The influence of Toland’s acquaintance John Locke, whose The Reasonableness of Christianity was published in the previous year (1695), is apparent in their shared empirical approach to religious questions. However, while Locke tried to prove that Christianity was acceptable to reasonable men, Toland insisted that what was mysterious and miraculous about Christianity must be discarded. And ‘in that single amendment’, wrote the historian Peter Gay in his celebrated study of the Enlightenment, ‘the essence of revealed, dogmatic religion evaporated’. Not that Toland believed man could know everything about what is: ‘As we know not all the Properties of things, so we can never conceive the Essence of any Substance in the World’. But we can be certain of what we perceive: ‘God…has endu’d us with the Power of suspending our Judgements about whatever is uncertain; and of never assenting but to clear Perceptions’. For Toland, as for Locke, what we know is what we clearly perceive. What we do not know is meaningless and should be of no concern.
When Toland’s ‘militant rationalism’ met with his investigations into Christian patristics, it made a potent brew. But what disturbed the Irish Protestant establishment about Toland’s work was not that his views could conceivably lead to spiritual despair instead of liberation or anti-intellectualism instead of inquiry. Instead, it was his indictment of all forms of ritualised Christianity. Toland claimed that mysteries and ritual were not original to the Christian church but were added on by converted Jews and most especially by pagan Gentiles. ‘We should never hear of the Transubstantiation, and other ridiculous fables of the Church of Rome’, said Toland, ‘nor of any of the Eastern Ordures, almost all received into this Western sink’. Mysteries and deliberate mystifications were perpetuated by priests for the purpose of confusing their flock and maintaining power. However, lest Protestants believe that these well-worn Reformation criticisms were directed uniquely at Roman Catholics, Toland insisted that: ‘A wise and good Man…knows no Difference between Popish Infallibility, and being oblig’d blindly to acquiesce in the Decisions of fallible Protestants’. As the editors say in the preface to this volume: ‘To impute fallibility to the post-1690 Protestant elite was to destroy the moral foundation for Penal Law rule over both Catholics and Presbyterians’.
In a country as religiously charged as Ireland, it is apparent why Toland had few friends of any confession—contemporary or historical. Indeed, he has often not been recognised as an Irish philosopher at all. For example, a once standard reference work, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York 1967) calls him an ‘English deist, philosopher, diplomat, political controversialist, secular and Biblical scholar, and linguist’, before stating that he was ‘born near Londonderry, Ireland’. The questions for scholars therefore, are not only the difficult ones: ‘Who was John Toland, what was he trying to do in his work and how?’; but in contemporary terms of identity, ‘What was John Toland?’ Was he really and simply English?
The essential purpose of the critical essays that form the second half of the book is to show that Toland cannot be so easily classified. Richard Kearney’s opening essay is an outstanding study of Toland’s Irishness that does not presume Irishness on the grounds of birth. Instead, in a subtle argument waged against a Limerick bishop who proclaimed as recently as 1985 that Toland was essentially English in that he did not ‘represent the Irish mind as such’, Kearney shows how Irish nationalism has been as aggressively hostile to non-Catholic Irish (‘real’ Irish equals Catholic Irish) as English cultural expropriation has been greedy for the things it likes (‘We’ll take Burke, but you can keep Tone.’). Kearney goes on to argue that ‘Toland is a typical Irish thinker in that his genius for dual forms of identity epitomises a crucial feature of Irish culture, nowhere more dramatically manifest than in the eighteenth century’. (p.220) In this same category he finds Swift, Congreve and Burke, and more recently, Wilde, Joyce, Yeats and Beckett. ‘That such a hypothesis challenges the orthodoxy of narrow Irish nationalism…is undeniable’, but as Kearney says, it is a ‘risk worth taking…especially at the historical juncture at which we find ourselves some three centuries after Toland.” (p.220) If the genius of the Irish mind is its ability to contain what were once considered to be contradictory identities, then the question becomes how to create an Irish identity that allows for such complexity, and just as importantly, how to create the space wherein this new identity can emerge.
David Berman’s contribution also emphasises Toland’s Irishness and reiterates his thesis that Toland deserves to be called the ‘father of Irish philosophy’, (because Christianity not Mysterious spawned a whole series of Irish critics and defenders throughout the eighteenth century). He gives a summary and brief exegesis of Toland’s many works, and concludes that Toland was ‘an adventurer in scholarship, the bravest Irish freethinker’. But what does ‘freethinker’ mean other than that Toland was free from the vice-grip of religious orthodoxy. Berman does not say. Certainly Toland had his own agenda. In an essay on his Celtic background and historical interests, Alan Harrison states that his scholarship was always ‘subordinate to the polemical message’. In one example, Harrison points out how Toland’s promotion of the early Irish Christian Culdee movement was similar to that of the antiquarian Archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher. Both men insisted that early Irish Christianity differed from Roman Catholicism. For Ussher this meant that Protestantism was in fact a return to the Irish past rather than a schismatic novelty, while for Toland the Culdees represented a form of rational, tolerant, egalitarian republicanism. Ussher’s view was no doubt less far from the truth, but for both men early Irish Christianity represented an indigenous golden age. And as with Yeats two centuries later, we find a romanticised version of the Celts being put to work for a specific political agenda.
Desmond Clarke’s essay moves Toland from Ireland onto the European stage but almost out of the Enlightenment altogether. Rather than seeing Toland as an early Enlightenment figure (as he is often identified along with Spinoza, Locke and Newton) Clarke finds the roots of Christianity not Mysterious in a long-standing epistemological debate to which Descartes, Amyraut, Bayle and many others on both sides of the religious divide had contributed: ‘Toland’s critique falls squarely within a tradition of inquiry that was well established by the middle of the seventeenth century’. (p.301) The novelty of Toland’s approach came from the influence of Locke’s empiricism, but the questions he asked, says Clarke, ‘remain to be articulated in the language of each generation’. What are the limits of what is humanly credible? Can we believe something that is allegedly beyond our conceptual capacities? What would it mean to believe something that is logically incoherent?
Stephen Daniel offers insight into how Toland may have answered these questions by taking a similar, contextually grounded, European approach. He believes that Toland’s theological works can best be understood, and Toland’s supposed contradictions better reconciled, by examining his education in Scotland and Holland, and in particular the influence of the Renaissance logician Peter Ramus in Calvinist intellectual circles. Daniel suggests that by ‘determining how Ramist principles in particular qualify the Scholastic, Cartesian, or Lockean terminology used by Toland, we are in a better position to understand how his doctrines differ fundamentally from those of English writers with whom he is usually linked’. Daniel believes that by a series of misinterpretations, Toland retrieved the ‘fundamentally Ramist insight that the infinite and unavoidable space of discourse is the rhetorical context in terms of which all beliefs are evaluated for meaning’ In other words, all knowledge is derivative of imperfect language such that we can only know, in Toland’s term, the ‘nominal essences’ of things. Thus we find a particularly post-structuralist solution to the problem of understanding Toland’s work. Indeed, Daniel is suggesting that Toland was himself an early version of a post-structuralist in that he was really arguing about the pervasiveness of discourse. Readers will remark upon the irony that Daniel uses a late-twentieth century form of the esoteric, academic language about which Toland so bitterly complained. But if patient, they will be rewarded with a relatively novel way of comprehending Toland’s major work.
Finally, Philip McGuinness contributed three separate essays on Toland’s influence and the reaction to it. McGuinness’s work contains numerous helpful insights, in particular, his application of Roy Foster’s memorable concept, ‘Mick on the make’, as a way of understanding Toland. Using this model, Toland’s behavior and his vast, often contradictory literary output begin to make sense. As a former Catholic from Ireland living in a jingoistically Protestant kingdom and an impetuous, indiscreet, republican Whig in a society that had restored its monarchy, Toland was doubly suspect. Always dependent upon patrons for a living and he would take money and credibility wherever he could get it. This helps to explain his peripatetic career, the ambiguity of much of his writing, his return to Ireland where he hoped to secure a preferment, his request from the Irish Franciscans in Prague for a certificate proving his ‘good, noble and ancient’ ancestry, his vehement support for exclusive Protestant rulership in Ireland, his ambassadorial journeys to Germany and letters the Electress Sophia of Hanover, his declared hatred of France, and much else besides.
Where McGuinness falls short is in proving Toland’s vast influence. This cannot simply be asserted as McGuinness repeatedly does, such as when he says: ‘Francis Hutcheson was influenced by Toland’ (p.239)—and nothing more. But how do we know? How were his ideas transferred and how were they understood in their new context? Nor is methodology McGuinness’s only weakness. In his attempts to make Toland a central figure in the Irish, British and European Englightenments he often strays far from his subject and is prone to using inappropriate analogies, such as this example where he does both: ‘If Holland was a small oasis of freedom surrounded by tyranny, perhaps we can see The Hague as a late seventeenth-century version of Casablanca, with [the English Quaker Benjamin] Furly’s house doing a more than passable impersonation of Rick’s’. (p.234).
Rather than attempting to uncover Toland’s supposedly vast but relatively unsung influence, a more fruitful line of inquiry would be to ask why he has been so underappreciated by his own and later generations. We have already seen why this might be so in Ireland, but in Britain where the Whigs were the dominant political party of the eighteenth century it is less apparent. McGuinness, a physicist by training, finds an answer in the scientific dispute between Toland and Newton. For Toland the pantheist, motion was inherent in matter, whereas Newtonian matter was ‘sluggish, inactive, brute and stupid’. (p.316) Newton’s twenty-third query, written in draft form, stated that ‘all matter duly formed is attended with signes of life’; but he could not publish it without being aligned with Toland and the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, who had been burnt by the Inquisition for his heretical beliefs. Similarly, Newton and the conservative Anglican establishment to which he was tied. They needed a great clock maker, a celestial order, a hierarchy—a king. An ever changing cosmos negated the certainty of temporal institutions, or as Toland said: ‘All things are in perpetual Flux, nothing permanent or in every Regard the same for one Moment. But none of them is so visibly subject to such Variations, as Kingdoms, States, and all sorts of Governments’. (p.320) Toland was a leveller whether he professed to be or not. Newton apparently agreed with Toland’s observations regarding matter (How could inter-planetary ether not produce drag?), but as McGuinness laments, he sat on the evidence and controlled the growth of scientific inquiry for generations. The primacy of his published view and its inter-dependence with the stability of early modern political structures, seems to have kept Toland out of the history books.
Like its subject, this edition of Christianity not Mysterious attempts to be many things at once. As such, it loses some of the force of a more focused effort. But like Toland as well, there is much of value here for the reader and it should help to rekindle interest in its well-deserving author. The annotations and the Latin and Greek translations of the text are thorough and immensely helpful for the professional and amateur alike. The inclusion of changes made in the second edition allow readers to see Toland’s mind at work as his ideas develop and as he was reacting to his critics. The endnotes of the essays contain all the major published sources regarding Toland, and McGuinness’s copious notes will be especially useful for those who are just becoming familiar with early modern Irish history. There is a comprehensive bibliography of Toland’s works and an explanation of some of his many pseudonyms, perhaps the most telling of which is the one he gave himself as the author of Pantheisticon (1720), ‘Janus Junius Eoganesius’. Toland claimed this was his baptismal name, but in keeping with much of Toland’s life work it seems to have been an elaborate code. Janus was the two-faced Roman God and Junius may refer to Junius Brutus, the reputed founder of the Roman Republic. Eoganesius probably refers to Inishowen (Inis Eoghain), his place of birth. On his death-bed in 1722, he signed the word ‘Cosmopoli’ next to his elaborate pseudonym. In the end then, John Toland wanted to be known as a two-faced republican from Inishowen who was a citizen of the world. Without denying this view, we can say with confidence that he was Irish and English, British and European, in that the influences upon him, the issues he wrote about, and the influence he had upon others, were both national, archipelagic and international in scope. But in a world that demands clear national allegiances and delineations, John Toland remains something of a mystery. Let this edition of Christianity not Mysterious contribute much to his permanent unravelling.

Charles Ludington


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