Most of them were willing to meet their assailants on the grounds of reason, scholarship, and history; this in itself betrayed the spirit of the age.
Charles Leslie led the defense with A Short and Easy Method with the Deists (1697), intended originally as a reply to Blount. The evidences for the Biblical narratives, he argued, were of the same nature, and as convincing, as for the careers of Alexander and Caesar; the miracles were attested by testimony as plentiful and reliable as that which is accepted as adequate in English courts; priests could never have persuaded peoples of such miracles as the parting of the Red Sea unless many eyewitnesses had corroborated them. Leslie rounded out his argument by portraying Judaism as a primitive covenant superseded by the coming of Christ, Mohammedanism as an ungrateful imitation of Christianity by an ambitious impostor, and paganism as a mass of fables too childish for rational belief. Only the Christian religion met all the tests of evidence and reason.
Samuel Clarke, who knew enough mathematics and physics to defend Newton against Leibniz, undertook to prove the Christian creed by demonstrations as rigorous as geometry. In his Boyle lectures of 1704 he forged a chain of twelve propositions which in his judgment established the existence, omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience, and benevolence of God. The chain of contingent or dependent beings and causes, he supposed, compels us to assume a necessary and independent being who is the first cause of all causes. God must have intelligence, for there is intelligence in created beings, and the creator must be more perfect than the creature; God must be free, for otherwise His intelligence would be a senseless slavery. This, of course, added nothing to ancient or medieval philosophy; but in the second series of his Boyle lectures Clarke proposed to prove “the truth and certainty of the Christian revelation.” Moral principles, he thought, are as absolute as the laws of nature; man’s depraved nature, however, can be led to obey these moral rules only through the inculcation of religious beliefs; hence it was necessary that God give us the Bible, and the doctrines of heaven and hell. History, with its usual humor, adds that Clarke was dismissed by Queen Anne as her chaplain because he was suspected of doubting the Trinity. In the next reign, according to the impish Voltaire, he was prevented from becoming archbishop of Canterbury because a bishop informed Princess Caroline that Clarke was the most learned man in England, but had one defect—he was not a Christian. 91
The still more learned Bentley had already demonstrated “the Folly and Unreasonableness of Atheism” in the Boyle lectures of 1692–93. Twenty years later he was aroused by Collins’ book to issue some Remarks on a Late Discourse of Freethinking. This chiefly consisted of exposing errors in Collins’ scholarship; the argument seemed overwhelming, and the senate of Cambridge University gave Bentley a unanimous vote of thanks. Jonathan Swift, who was then serving the deist Bolingbroke, thought that Collins, for having revealed a secret that all gentlemen kept to themselves, deserved additional chastisement; this he administered in a tract called Mr. Collins’ Discourse of Freethinking, Put into Plain English . . . for the Use of the Poor. He burlesqued Collins’ arguments by humorous exaggerations; he added that since most men are fools, it would be disastrous to leave them free to think; “the bulk of mankind is as well qualified for flying as for thinking” 92—which is now a more hopeful statement than Swift intended it to be. He agreed with Hobbes that dictatorship, even in spiritualibus, is the sole alternative to anarchy. We have seen that the Irish Anglicans thought the gloomy Dean would make an excellent prelate if he believed in God.
The Cambridge Platonists defended Christianity with less wit and more sincerity. They went back to Plato and Plotinus to find a bridge between reason and God, and they illustrated their faith not so much by arguments as by the integrity and devotion of their lives. They had so strong a sense of divinity surrounding them that this seemed to them the most immediate testimony of reason. Hence their first leader, Benjamin Whichcote, claimed that “reason is the voice of God.” 93
Henry More, the outstanding member of this once famous group, went beyond the philosophies of Europe to an almost Hindu sense of the vanity, the literal emptiness, of sense knowledge, its incapacity to satisfy the longing of the solitary soul for some companionship and significance in the universe. The cosmic mechanism of Descartes gave him no comfort; he found more to his needs in the Neoplatonists, the Jewish mystics, and Jakob Böhme. He wondered “whether the knowledge of things was really that supreme felicity of man, or something greater and more divine was; or, supposing it to be so, whether it was to be acquired by such an eagerness or intentness in the reading of authors, or contemplating of things; or by the purging of the mind from all sorts of vices whatsoever.” 94 He resolved to cleanse himself of all self-seeking, all worldliness, all intellectual curiosity. “When this inordinate desire after the knowledge of things was thus allayed in me, and I aspired after nothing but this sole purity and simplicity of mind, there shone in upon me daily a greater assurance than ever I could have expected, even of those things which before I had the greatest desire to know.” 95 Gradually, he tells us, he so purified himself in body and soul that his flesh, in the spring season, gave forth a sweet odor, and his urine had the fragrance of violets. 96
So cleansed, he seemed to feel the reality of spirit in himself as the most convincing experience possible to man; and from this conviction he passed readily to the belief that the world was peopled by other spirits, of ascending grades, from the lowest to God Himself. All motion in matter, he thought, is the operation of some species of spirit. Instead of the material plenum of Hobbes, More proposed a spiritual universe in which matter was merely the tool and vehicle of spirit. This animating anima occasionally expanded beyond its habitation; how else explain magnetism, electricity, and gravity? More went on to accept the reality of devils, witches, and ghosts. He was an amiable and unselfish soul, refusing the worldly preferments offered him, and remaining on friendly terms with materialist Hobbes. Hobbes said that if he ever found his own opinions untenable, he “would embrace the philosophy of Dr. More.” 97
Ralph Cudworth, the most learned of the Cambridge Platonists, undertook to prove Hobbes’s opinions untenable. The True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678) challenged Hobbes to explain why, in addition to the various sensory and muscular motions to which he had reduced the operations of the mind, there is also, in many cases, an awareness of these motions; how can a materialist philosophy find room and function for consciousness? If all is matter in motion, why should not the nervous system, through sensation and response, as in reflexes, attend to everything, and not be bothered with a superfluous consciousness? How can we deny reality—even primacy—to a consciousness without which no reality whatever could be known? Knowledge is no passive receptacle of sensations, it is the active transformation of sensations into ideas. 98 Here, in Cudworth, we have, long in advance, the answer of Berkeley and Kant to Hobbes and Hume.
Joseph Glanvill, chaplain to Charles II, was not geographically one of the Cambridge Platonists, but he strongly agreed with them. In The Vanity of Dogmatizing (1661) he turned the guilt of dogmatism upon science and philosophy, arguing that they had built up grandiose systems of doctrine upon insecure foundations. So the notion of cause (which Glanvill supposed indispensable to science) is an unwarrantable assumption; we know sequences, relations, and occasions, but we have no idea of what it is in one thing that produces an effect in itself or another (another premonition of Hume). Consider, says Glanvill, how ignorant we are of the most basic things—the nature and origin of the soul, and its relation to the body. “How should a thought be united to . . . a lump of clay? The freezing of the words in the air in northern climes is as inconceivable as this strange union. . . . And to hang weights on the wings-of the wind seems far more intelligible.” 99 Anticipating Bergson, Glanvill charges the intellect with being a constitutional materialist—so used to dealing with matter that it loses capacity to think of other realities except by a “return to material phantasms,” or images. 100 How fallible our senses are! They make it appear that the earth is at rest in space, whereas the latest pundits assure us that it is dizzy with a variety of simultaneous motions. And even supposing that our senses have not deceived us, how often do we reason wrongly from correct premises! Our feelings time and again mislead us; “we easily believe what we wish.” And our mental environment often dominates our reasoning.
Opinions have their climes and national diversities. . . . They that never peeped beyond the common belief in which their easy understandings were at first indoctrinated, are indubitably assured of the Truth and comparative excellency of their receptions. . . . The larger souls, that have traveled the divers climates of opinion [here is born a famous phrase] are more cautious in their resolves, and more sparing to determine. 101
Despite these warnings to science, Glanvill was a zealous member of the Royal Society, defended it against charges of irreligion, applauded its achievements, and looked forward to a world of marvels to come from scientific research:
I doubt not but posterity will find many things, that are now but rumors, verified into practical realities. It may be, some ages hence, a voyage to the Southern unknown tracts, yea possibly to the moon, will not be more strange than one to America. To them that come after us it may be as ordinary to buy a pair of wings to fly into remotest regions, as now a pair of boots to ride a journey. And to confer at the distance of the Indies by sympathetic conveyances may be as usual to future times, as to us in a literary correspondence. The restoration of gray hairs to juvenility, and renewing the exhausted marrow, may at length be effected without a miracle; and the turning of the now comparatively desert world into a paradise may not improbably be expected from late agriculture. 102
We must add that Glanvill, like Cudworth and Henry More, believed in witches. They argued that if there is a spiritual as well as a material world, there must be spirits as well as bodies in the universe; and judging from the parlous state of things some of these spirits must be devilish. If pious people communicate with God or saints or angels, why should not wicked people communicate with Satan and his demons? The Devil’s last stratagem, said Glanvill, is to spread the belief that he does not exist. “Those that dare not bluntly say, There is no God, content themselves (for a fair step and introduction) to deny that there are spirits and witches.” 103 Satan had to be rescued for God’s sake.