English Philosophy

SCIENCE in the Britain of 1789–1815 had little influence on philosophy. “Natural philosophy”—i.e., the physical sciences—could be reconciled with a liberal theology, and even the idea of evolution could be domesticated by interpreting the six “days” of Creation as elastic aeons of development. The upper classes, now that their flirtation with Voltaire and the Encyclopedists had been ended by the Revolution, had come to distrust ideas as an infectious disease of youth; they considered weekly worship a wise investment in social order and political stability, and they complained that Prime Minister Pitt found no time to go to church. There were some privately skeptical bishops, but they were known for their public piety. Nevertheless, the old conflict continued. In the same year 1794 two opposite voices proclaimed it: Thomas Paine in The Age of Reason, and William Paley in A View of the Evidences of Christianity. A glance at both of them will suggest the temper of the time.


“Tom” Paine, as two continents came to call him, was an Englishman, born to a Quaker family at Thetford, Norfolk, in 1737; but, on the advice of Benjamin Franklin, he emigrated to America in 1774, and took an active part in the American Revolution. General Washington credited Paine’s booklet Common Sense (January, 1776), with having “worked a powerful change in the minds of many men.”1 During the Revolutionary War, as an aide-de-camp to General Nathanael Greene, he issued a series of tracts—The Crisis—to keep up the spirit of the rebel army and citizenry; one of these began with a famous line—”These are the times that try men’s souls.” From 1787 to 1802 he lived chiefly in Europe, working for the French Revolution both in France and in England. We have seen him risking his head by voting for commuting the sentence of Louis XVI from death to exile. In December of that year 1793, apparently at the instigation of Robespierre,2 the Convention decreed the expulsion of all foreigners from its membership. There were only two: Anacharsis Cloots and Thomas Paine. Expecting arrest, Paine wrote hurriedly what is now Part I of The Age of Reason. He sent the manuscript to America with the following dedication.

To my Fellow-Citizens of the United States of America: I put the following work under your protection. It contains my opinions on religion. You will do me the justice to remember that I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that may be to mine. He who denies to another his right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.

The most formidable weapon against error of every kind is Reason, and I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall.

Your affectionate friend and fellow-citizen.

Paris, Jan. 27, 1794

At the outset Paine gave an unexpected reason why he had written the book: not to destroy religion, but to prevent the decay of its irrational forms from undermining social order, “lest in the general wreck of superstition, of false systems of government, and false theology, we lose sight of morality, of humanity, and of the theology that is true.” And he added, reassuringly: “I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.”3

Then he drew his Occam’s razor:

I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church. All national institutions of churches… appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.4

He admired Christ as “a virtuous and an amiable man,” and “the morality that he preached and practiced was of the most benevolent kind”; but the story of his being fathered by a god was just a variation of a myth common among the pagans.

Almost all the extraordinary men that lived under the heathen mythology were reputed to be the sons of… gods… The intercourse of gods with women was then a matter of familiar opinion. Their Jupiter, according to their accounts, had cohabited with hundreds. The story, therefore, had nothing in it either new, wonderful, or obscene; it was conformable to the opinions that then prevailed among the people called Gentiles,… and it was those people only that believed it. The Jews, who had kept strictly to the belief of one God and no more, and had always rejected the heathen mythology, never credited the story.5

So the Christian mythology was merely the pagan mythology in a new form.

The trinity of the gods that then followed was no other than a reduction of the former plurality, which was about twenty or thirty thousand; the statue of Mary succeeded that of Diane of Ephesus; the deification of heroes changed into the canonization of saints. The mythologists had gods for everything; the Christian mythologists had saints for everything; the Church had become as crowded with one as the pantheon had been with the other… The Christian theory is little else than the idolatry of the ancient Mythologists, accommodated to the purposes of power and revenue; and it yet remains to reason and philosophy to abolish the amphibious fraud.6

Paine then played his searchlight of reason upon the Book of Genesis, and, having no patience with parables, fell heavily upon Eve and the apple. Like Milton, he was fascinated by Satan, the first of all rebels. Here was an angel who, for trying to depose a monarch, had been plunged into hell, there to suffer time without end. Nevertheless he must have escaped those inextinguishable fires now and then, for he had found his way into the Garden of Eden, and could tempt most sinuously; he could promise knowledge to Eve and half the world to Christ. The Christian mythology, Paine marveled, did Satan wondrous honor; it assumed that he could compel the Almighty to send his son down to Judea and be crucified to recover for him at least a part of a planet obviously in love with Satan; and despite that crucifixion, the Devil still retained all non-Christian realms, and had millions of servitors in Christendom itself.

All this, said our doubting Thomas, was offered us most solemnly, on the word of the Almighty himself, through a series of amanuenses from Moses to Saint Paul. Paine rejected it as a tale fit for nurseries, and for adults too busy with bread and butter, sickness and mortality, to question the promissory notes sold to them by the theologians. To stronger souls he offered a God not fashioned like man, but conceived as the life of the universe.

It is only in the Creation that all of our ideas… of God can unite. The Creation speaketh an universal language;… and this word of God reveals to man all that is necessary for man to know of God.

Do we want to contemplate his power? We see it in the immensity of the Creation. Do we want to contemplate his wisdom? We see it in the unchangeable order by which the incomprehensible whole is governed. Do we want to contemplate his munificence? We see it in the abandon with which he fills the earth. Do we want to contemplate his mercy? We see it in his not withholding that abundance even from the unthankful. In fine, do we want to know what God is? Search not the book called the Scripture,… but the Scripture called the Creation.7

He was imprisoned from December 28, 1793, till the fall of Robespierre, July 27, 1794. On November 4 “the Convention, to repair as much as lay in their power the injustice I had sustained, invited me, publicly and unanimously, to return to the Convention,… and I accepted.”8 Amid the turmoil of the Thermidorean reaction he composed Part II of The Age of Reason; it was devoted to a laborious critique of the Bible, and added little to what more scholarly studies—many of them by clergymen—had already provided. Both in England and in America his protestations of belief in God were lost in his impassioned rejection of a Bible dear to the people and precious to the government, and he found himself without honor in both his native and his adoptive land. When, in 1802, he returned to New York (which had formerly rewarded his services to the American public by giving him a 300-acre estate at New Rochelle), he received a cool reception, only partly countered by Jefferson’s faithful friendship. His last seven years were darkened by addiction to drink. He died in New York in 1809. Ten years later William Cobbett had Paine’s bones removed to England. There his undiscourageable spirit, through his books, played a part in the long campaigns that produced the Reform Act of 1832.

Though Paine was a deist rather than an atheist, many believers in Christianity felt that his deism was only a polite cover for disbelief in a personal God. William Paley, rector of Bishop-Wearmouth, gave so able a defense of his faith in A View of the Evidences of Christianity (1794) that a reading of this book remained till 1900 a prerequisite for admission to Cambridge University. Still more famous was his Natural Theology (1802), which sought to prove the existence of a Supreme Intelligence by accumulating, from the sciences themselves, evidences of design in nature. If, he argued, a man who had never seen a watch came upon one and examined its mechanism, would he not take for granted that some intelligent being had designed it? But are there not in nature hundreds of operations indicating the arrangement of means to a desired effect?

At one end we see intelligent Power arranging planetary systems;… at the other,… providing an appropriate mechanism for the clasping and unclasping of the filaments of the feather of a humming bird…. Every organized natural body, in the provisions which it contains for its sustentation and propagation, testifies a care, on the part of the Creator, expressly directed to these purposes.9

Half of literate England began to discuss Paley’s books and watch; Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Hazlitt talked about them in a lively debate at Keswick. The Natural Theology had a long life; the great Darwin himself studied it carefully10 before formulating his rival theory that the adjustment of organs to desirable ends had come about through natural selection. A century after Paley, Henri Bergson eloquently rephrased the “argument from design” in L’Évolution créatrice (1906). The debate goes on.

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