Anthony Collins and the Bad Boys of English Deism
The United States is the country that deism made, and if the nation’s founding fathers strike us as an improbable rag-tag collection of generals, writers, brewers, silversmiths, and planters, that is altogether appropriate for a revolution spawned from the ultimate misfit on the English intellectual scene. Early eighteenth-century deism had every disadvantage conceivable, from the massive weight of the official condemnation lined up against it to the absurd personal foibles of its champions, and yet, on the strength of the few thin pamphlets produced by this group of self-sabotaging underdogs, two governments were overthrown, and overly complacent scriptural apologists found themselves for the first time in a mad scramble to defend their most basic assumptions.
The early deists were men bound by an idea, and not much else. There was John Toland (1670-1722), a parentless vagabond not above offering his services as a spy in between scribbling radical pamphlets; Matthew Tindal (1657-1733), a pathologically punctual man who waited until his seventieth year to write the book that called into question God’s managerial skills; Thomas Chubb (1679-1747), amateur philosopher and professional candle maker; Thomas Woolston (1668-1733), the clergyman who spent the last four years of his life in jail for blasphemy; Charles Blount (1654-1693), who shot himself after not being allowed by the state to marry his dead wife’s sister; and the weightiest of them all, Anthony Collins (1676-1729), a well-off country squire and judge who was friend even to his enemies, and who lived a life of the utmost rectitude while writing the books that inspired Voltaire, Denis Diderot, and Reimarus to their deadly assaults on religion and free will.
How did people so different come to devote themselves to a cause so unilaterally hated? The answer, as with just about anything in English intellectual history, comes down to John Locke (1632-1704). Locke was, to put it in the modern parlance, so over European metaphysics. To him, as to many sober British minds of the era (and since), the speculations of René Descartes and his ilk appeared as unabashed examples of the Continental tendency to make things up. Thinkers like Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz were ingenious at constructing large metaphysical systems that operated just behind the visible world, moved by the whimsical fancy of their idealistic genius and a genuine need for there to be an immaterial soul behind the machine of human existence. Inspired, intoxicated even by their own visions of celestial order, they crafted certainties out of elaborate systems moored in the nothingness of abstraction, and Locke was not having it.
Locke’s idea of the tabula rasa was one of a series of sobering punches delivered to the anxious underbelly of Continental thought. The idea of pre-existing concepts placed in humanity by God so as to recognize his truth Locke demolished through a steady-on appeal to the facts of perception and the manifest materiality of thought. After Locke, building arguments for the deity on anything that smacked of innate ideas was to welcome ridicule. And Locke was hardly done. In 1695 he produced The Reasonableness of Christianity, a book more significant for what it invited than what it established. This book was an honest attempt to show how reason and Christianity could walk hand in hand which fell short of its goal, but which introduced the fundamental reasonableness of Christianity as a plausible subject of debate.
John Toland took up the call the very next year in his Christianity not Mysterious, which he attributed to the influence of Locke and which Locke couldn’t disavow fast enough. It was another in a long series of breaks that Toland resolutely did not catch. Though his book was similar to Locke’s of the previous year, Locke was heralded as a defender of the faith while Toland was hounded as an atheist and infidel, and lived as a drifting tumbleweed wafting between England and the Continent for the rest of his life in search of a steady job. In retrospect, the abuse was canny, for the religious establishment saw in Toland a potential for mischief far less muted than in Locke’s text. Toland was concerned with showing how the law prescribed by nature must coincide with the laws set forth by Christianity, and in effect tried to bend the latter to fit the former and, when they wouldn’t bend, pushed them subtly under the rug. He made Christianity answer to the judgment of nature, and even if his end verdict was that, all in all, fundamental Christianity (he expressed little patience with the contradictory declarations of priest and popes) passed the test, the mere posing of the question shook something deep in the structure of Christianity’s self-assuredness.
The question of Christianity’s correspondence with the basic principles of human morality was posed most effectively by Matthew Tindal just three years before his death. Christianity as Old as the Creation (1730) had the raw nerve to point out that, if Christianity is true, it doesn’t speak too well of God’s planning skills. After the opening of commerce with the East and the exploration of the New World, European society was slowly coming to the realization that centuries-long cultures existed and throve without any slightest notion of a man named Jesus and his self-professed status as the son of God. China in particular seemed a land if anything more civilized in its sense of public morality and ethics than the West, boasted a culture dating back seemingly before the beginning of the world, and did it all without the personal intervention of Jehovah. If a culture can be that good without any direction from Christian dogma, Tindal dared to ask, is any of that dogma necessary? Could Christianity possibly be an expression of the fundamental laws of reason and nature if a whole major civilization needed not a jot of it?
Even if China weren’t a model civilization, Tindal argued, what can we say of a God whose very important plan for salvation remained unheard to untold generations of families? He either didn’t care and was happy to toss them in the furnace with a “whatcha-gonna-do?” shrug of the shoulders, or he earnestly wanted his message to reach all humanity and was terrible at going about it. Not a good lookout either way, and the implication, as Tindal saw it was that merely nationalistic gods had to go. Jehovah, a cleverly spun tribal god gone multinational, needing stripping of everything that wasn’t part of the whole world’s conception of divinity. Morality and law likewise. What remained after this process of descaling the divine, as Tindal reckoned, was the universal imperative to happiness. You have been given a nature to seek certain things, so seek them, and know that the act of good living is comprised of those principles so basic to humanity that you don’t need them written on tablets. They are part of who you naturally are, what you naturally seek, and naturally avoid, and any verbiage and thou shalt and thou shalt not on top of that is fruitless excess.
Tindal’s master work came out in 1730 (there was a second volume, but the person to whom it was entrusted saved Christianity a further embarrassment by conveniently losing the manuscript). In between the times of Toland and Tindal strode the curious figure of Anthony Collins. What began as a polite investigation of reasonable theology in Toland became an out-and-out, single-bulb-hanging-from-a-wire-in-a-back-room interrogation of Christianity in Collins’s hands. He was a trusted friend of Locke’s during the great man’s last years, and never ceased to express his fundamental obedience to Lockean principles even as he pushed the application of reason and questioning further than Locke would ever have contemplated. He was as puzzling, inconsistent, and sloppy as he was good-hearted and intellectually fearless. He was not a genius, nor an originator, but he could see where evidence ultimately led, and had the courage to put his conclusions before a hostile public.
His first works were nothing special. He called for an expansion of free speech and thought in England, and argued that the idea of Christian truths being above reason was unsound. Unfortunately in these early works, he tended to be casually incorrect in his translations, and less than rigorous in his scholarship. A self-taught book nerd of the first order (his private library was among the finest in England), he never finished college and his knowledge of classical languages was shaky. His opponents seized the opportunity to discredit him by focusing on his sloppy misappropriations rather than on the dangerous content of his arguments, and he was thoroughly and utterly trounced in the marketplace of public ideas.
Understandably, Collins retired to country life thereafter, surrounding himself with his beloved books and taking upon himself the straightening of his district’s shady financial situation. Thoroughly upright and hard-working, as a treasurer and a justice he won a reputation for clean dealing that protected him in the years to come from the fury that descended upon poor Toland and Woolston. He’d need it, because after a decade-long break, he returned to writing, and this time he had his intellectual ducks in a row.
In 1724 his Discourse of the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion tore to shreds the notion that the prophecies of the Old Testament could be allegorically retrofitted to fit the needs of the New. He lampooned the eccentric attempts of Whitson to metaphorically interpret the ancient prophets to make Jesus their necessary topic, and howled in glee at Surenhusius’s Baroque reordering of Hebrew words and letters to fit Christian theology. Before Collins, prophecy and miracles stood as sure testaments to the truth of Christianity. After the drubbing Collins gave Whitson, prophecy could be so no more, and all the deists worked in concert to show the manifest uselessness of miracles as a method for conveying truth through the ages.
In the seventeenth century, English theology was sure of nothing so much as the solidity of scripture, but Collins asked questions about gradual loss of meaning and ulterior motive that would directly inspire Reimarus in his radical reinterpretation of the New Testament. The Discourse of Freethinking is important, but my favorite work by Collins is definitely the Philosophical Inquiry Concerning Human Liberty of 1715. In it, Collins makes the case for a strict determinism, and for the logical meaninglessness of free will. It was the book that made a determinist of Voltaire, and which would, through the translation by arch-atheist Jacques-Andre Naigeon, impact Diderot’s thinking as well. In it, he puts out his theory that what we take for independent choice is actually the operation of a relatively mechanical judgment system, which assigns various values to the choices before us and picks the best. Collins’s account is actually, in boldest outline, not that far from the system of decision making outlined by neuroscientist Read Montague.
More crucially, Collins takes on issues concerning the morality of determinism. “Will we continue to have an effective conscience if we have no free will? How will justice work? Will praise and censure mean anything to us?” His answers are, as James O’Higgins has pointed out, a mixture of Bayle and Hobbes, but more approachable than the latter and more not-in-French than the former. He makes the case that you can still find happiness while thinking yourself determined, and that the lack of free will doesn’t mean that people can be denied freedom from intellectual or political restraint.
England would come to forget Collins and deism generally. Running quietly aground in its native soil, the philosophy of free thought, religious skepticism, and political openness found a home in America and France, where Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, and Baron d’Holbach would find in it the seed of a new way of thought, and a new nation as well.
Meanwhile, in England, the arrival of Hume’s absolute skepticism, boldly and rigorously stated, made the tentative and scratchy forays of the deists seem a bit bush league, and history, which gets nervous if it has to memorize more than one philosopher every quarter century, decided that it was best to leap from Locke straight to David Hume. That makes for an easier textbook to write, but it undersells the complexity of the Enlightenment’s birth. Reason did not spring fully formed from the temple of science, but inched its way into the sun, its tenets advanced by a collection of brave oddballs who didn’t themselves realize the magnitude of the ideas they were putting forth. This was the punk youth of skepticism, the back alley philosophizing that preceded freethought’s first full bloom.
The book for this period always has been, always will be, Leslie Stephen’s 1881 History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century. Have we learned some things since? Yes. Has anybody used that new knowledge to craft a narrative with anything like the engaging prose and comprehensive familiarity that Stephen brought to the topic? I’mma say no. If you want more detail about Collins in particular, the only full-length treatment I know of is Anthony Collins: The Man and His Works (1970) by James O’Higgins. It contains intense detail about the life of Collins and the battles of words he engaged in, and also incidentally has no style whatsoever. It is a series of pages with information encoded in word form. The information is good, and you won’t get it anywhere else, but it’s a fight.