What “Irish Enlightenment”? The Case of John Toland
“What Irish Enlightenment?” is the first question for one setting out to discuss Ireland’s participation in the pan-European philosophical, political, economic, social, and literary movement that created the modern world. About England, Scotland, France, and Germany there can be no doubt. But the matter of Ireland’s role often seems vexed.
A giant of the Enlightenment, the Scot David Hume, in his History of England (1754-1762) writes about the Ulster Uprising and describes an attack by the Irish on an English settlement, writing that “…an universal massacre commenced of the English, now defenceless and passively resigned to their inhuman foes.” [emphasis added]
Well, if you are not “human” we can forget about any Enlightenment. Elsewhere, Hume went out of his way to say that he was sure the common people of Switzerland were “more honest” than the Irish. (Where is the famous Humean skepticism?)
John Toland, whose career lends credence to the concept of an “Early Enlightenment” (and a “Middle” and “Late” Enlightenment) got this dismissive treatment from another certified Irish Enlightenment man, Edmund Burke: "Who, born within the last 40 years, has read one word of Collins, and Toland…and that whole race who called themselves Freethinkers?"
The Enlightenment, rightly, I think, generally equates with the European Enlightenment--provided you recognize its direct derivatives in Turkey and Japan. It is conventionally dated 1715-1815. Not surprisingly, that derives from the dates of major political events in France (the death of Louis XIV to the Napoleonic Wars). But there is a strong case for the more expansive concept of an Early, Middle, and Late Enlightenment, dated 1685-1815. Offered in evidence might be this short list of pillars of the Irish Enlightenment: Jonathan Swift 1667-1745, John Toland 1670-1722, George Berkeley 1685-1753, Edmund Burke 1729-1797, and Maria Edgeworth 1768-1849.
Works specifically on the Irish Enlightenment are scarce, but now we have The Irish Enlightenment by Michael Brown (Harvard University Press, 2016), chair of Irish, Scottish and Enlightenment History at the University of Aberdeen. His thesis is that Ireland did experience the Enlightenment, but it was “different”—an Irish Enlightenment. “Thus, to comprehend the Irish Enlightenment it is necessary to examine the debates within each of the major confessions of the island…how Enlightenment methodologies were appropriated and utilised by Presbyterians, Anglicans, and Catholics…”
He continues: “The shift in foundational assumption—that the human being and not God was the starting point for meaningful philosophical reflection—raised questions about the source of religious learning and the character and condition of humanity.”
Toland often is categorized as an “English” Enlightenment thinker. He was born Ireland, however. He converted from Catholicism to Protestantism at age 16 and that opened a path to the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, the University of Leiden in Holland, and then two years at Oxford University, where he acquired a reputation for great learning and “little religion.”
At Oxford, he began his first and most influential book, Christianity not Mysterious (1696). Divine revelations in the Bible? No mystery. All the supposed dogmas of faith can be understood by the properly trained mind as proceeding from natural principles. He made the argument only after formulating an epistemology deriving from John Locke’s epistemological rationalism but viewed as even stricter.
It was a perilous age for such thinking. A grand jury in London prosecuted the case against his book. As he was a subject of the Kingdom of Ireland, members of that Parliament proposed he be burned at the stake in Dublin as expressing views contrary to the established Church of Ireland. Since he was not available in Ireland, three copies of his book were burned by the public hangman in Dublin.
It is not surprising, then, that Toland, after Oxford, resided in London for most of his life, with occasional trips to the European continent Most probably, that resulted in his routinely being classified as an English Enlightenment thinker.
Yet, there is weighty evidence that Toland is best thought of as an Irish intellectual. The work for which Ireland sentenced him to the stake directly addressed what became the theme of the Irish Enlightenment: how to reconcile violent sectarian conflict among Protestant sects, on the one hand, and between Protestants and Catholics on the other.
Toland went on to write some 100 books, wide-ranging but chiefly attacks on ecclesiastic institutions. His criticism of the authority of the Catholic Church hierarchy, and his appeal to “natural reason” as against revelation, locates him at the foundations of the European Enlightenment. Contrary to a popular stereotype, Toland’s views as he aged became not more conservative but more radical. His early opposition to the church hierarchy broadened to opposition to the hierarchy of the state. Bishops and kings? Both bad. Neither had a God-given sanction. Indeed, it was liberty that defined what it means to be human. The purpose of political institutions was to guarantee freedom, not merely to keep order. Reason and tolerance were the mainstays of the good society.
In Toland’s most influential work on philosophy, the 1704 Letters to Serena, he first used the term “pantheism” in connection with his views. He delved into the process by which the mind arrives at truth and why in so many people that process goes astray. That involved him with the nature and power of superstition and what he saw as our inability to free ourselves from all prejudice. He then turned to formulating a metaphysics of materialism. Later, he returned to his lifelong criticism of church government.
Much more could be written about Toland (remember those 100 books). Even as he formulated his philosophy, he spent his days promoting Whig politics with pamphlets, books, biographies of English republicans that he wrote or edited (Algernon Sidney and John Milton, among others). His was an English republicanism and he is identified with the eighteenth-century Commonwealthmen, called the Old or Real Whigs, who advocated natural rights, limited government, religious toleration, reform of mercantilist regulations, and much else. His perhaps closest associate was the Earl of Shaftsbury, scion of a pioneering Whig Party family and among the most influential of eighteenth-century writers on ethics.
Increasingly “radical” (i.e., rooted in his principles) toward the end of his life, Toland extended his view of complete equality of citizens to the English Jewish community in his 1714 Reasons for Naturalising the Jews. He thus became the first advocate of full citizenship and equal rights for the Jewish people, returning to religious tolerance, a dominating theme of the Irish Enlightenment.
It is disheartening to report that John Toland lived his life in extreme poverty and died thus, at 51, a writer to the end, penning his own epitaph, which says, in part: "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."