Anthony Collins (June 21, 1676 - December 13, 1729) was an English philosopher, theologian, politician, and a provocative proponent of Deism. A wealthy landowner who was active in local politics in Essex, England, he published a number of controversial books and pamphlets defending the cause of rational theology, which provoked heated responses from theologians and clergy. His Discourse of Free Thinking (1713) was satirized by Jonathan Swift. Collins’ writings were a compilation of the thought of English Freethinkers. He was strongly motivated by an aversion to religious persecution, and stood for the autonomy of reason, particularly with respect to religion, pointing out that conversion to Christianity itself required the use of rational thinking. He denied the canonicity of the New Testament on the ground that the canon could be fixed only by men who were inspired. Collins challenged the belief that the events of Christ’s life were fulfillment of prophecy in the Old Testament, and that Christianity was a revelation. He rejected the distinction between "above reason" and "contrary to reason," which was used for the defense of revelation, and demanded that revelation should conform to humanity's natural ideas of God. Collins was a determinist; he claimed that human action is caused by appearances of good and evil in much the same way as the actions of clocks are caused by springs and weights.
Collins was a friend of the philosopher John Locke. He loved books and owned a large private research library consisting of some 6,900 books, which he made available to all men of letters.
Collins was born on June 21, 1676, into a family of lawyers at Heston, near Hounslow in Middlesex, England. He was educated at Eton College and King's College, Cambridge, in 1693. Without graduating from Cambridge, Collins went to the Middle Temple in 1694, to study law; he did not like the law and was never called to the Bar. In 1698, he married the daughter of Sir Francis Child, a rich London merchant. She died in childbirth in 1703. At the time of his marriage he had received some property in Essex from his father, which when added to his wife’s dowry made him very wealthy. On a visit to Oates in Essex, in 1703, Collins met John Locke. He visited Locke five times over the next eighteen months and carried on a correspondence with him about various philosophical topics. In one of his letters to Collins, Locke remarked: "Believe it, my good friend, to love truth for truth's sake is the principal part of human perfection in this world, and the seed bed of all other virtues; and if I mistake not, you have as much of it as I have ever met with in anybody."
Collins was a lifelong bibliophile and owned a large private research library consisting of some 6,906 books on all subjects, but particularly favoring works on history, theology, and philosophy. In an article on Collins in Birch's Dictionary, Birch notes that his "large and curious [library] was open to all men of letters, to whom he readily communicated all the lights and assistance in his power, and even furnished his antagonists with books to confute himself, and directed them how to give their arguments all the force of which they were capable" (Birch, quoted in Berman, 1975). After his wife’s death, from 1703 until 1706, Collins spent the winters in London and the summers at his fine summer mansion in Buckinghamshire, where he was visited by Queen Anne and her court. During this period, Collins also met Samuel Bold and John Toland. In 1706, Collins began a pamphlet controversy, which lasted until 1708, with Samuel Clarke, a prominent British philosopher and member of Newton's inner circle, over the question of whether matter can think. In 1707, Collins anonymously published Essay Concerning the Use of Reason in Propositions, the evidence whereof depends on human testimony. Collins frequented the London coffee shops, where the deists and free-thinkers met, and apparently encountered Berkeley at such a gathering in 1713.
In 1710, Collins made his first trip to the European continent, buying books in Holland and meeting John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough, and Prince Eugene. Back in England, Collins met several times with Samuel Clarke and William Whiston at the house of Lady Calverly and Sir John Hubern for "frequent but friendly debates about the truth of the Bible and the Christian Religion" (Whiston, quoted in O'Higgins, 1970, p. 77). In 1713, he published his most controversial work, A Discourse Concerning Free-Thinking. He made a second trip to Holland and France and planned to go on to Italy, but his journey was cut short by the death of a close kinsman. In 1715, Collins moved into Mowdon Hall, in Essex, where he owned two thousand acres of land, and held the offices of justice of the peace and deputy-lieutenant.
In 1717, he published A Philosophical Enquiry Concerning Human Liberty, arguing for a compatibilist form of determinism and rejecting freedom of the will. Samuel Clarke reviewed the book, continuing the argument that had begun during the Collins-Clarke correspondence of 1706-08.
From 1717 on, Collins spent most of his time in Essex, where he became involved in local politics. He became a spokesman for the Whigs of rural England, and served as a justice, a commissioner for taxes, and then Treasurer of the County. He examined roads and bridges, and was involved in finding a place to house county records. As Treasurer, he was a model of integrity.
In December 1723, Collins' only son suddenly became ill and died, leaving Collins grief-stricken. Collins remarried in 1724, and the same year published his most successful book, A Discourse on the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion as well as An Historical and Critical Essay on the Thirty Nine Articles of the Church of England. In 1725, Collins' health began to deteriorate, but he still published The Scheme of Literal Prophecy Considered in 1726. He suffered from gall stones and finally died of his disease on December 13, 1729, at his house in Harley Street, London. His second wife, Elisabeth, and his two daughters survived him.
Collins’ writings are a compilation of the thought of previous English Freethinkers. In striking contrast to the violence of his opponents, he wrote with imperturbable courtesy; and, in spite of his unorthodoxy, he was not an atheist or even an agnostic. In his own words, "Ignorance is the foundation of atheism, and freethinking the cure of it" (Discourse of Freethinking, 105).
Besides his major works, Collins wrote A Letter to Mr. Dodwell, arguing that the soul may be material, and, secondly, that if the soul be immaterial it does not follow, as Clarke had contended, that it is immortal; Vindication of the Divine Attributes (1710); and Priestcraft in Perfection (1709), in which he asserts that the clause "the Church … Faith" in the twentieth of the Thirty-nine Articles was inserted by fraud.
Collins was strongly motivated by an aversion to religious persecution, and stood for the autonomy of reason, particularly with respect to religion. His first notable work was his Essay concerning the Use of Reason in Propositions the Evidence whereof depends on Human Testimony (1707), in which he rejected the distinction between "above reason" and "contrary to reason," the distinction used for the defense of "revelation," and demanded that revelation should conform to man's natural ideas of God. Like all his works, it was published anonymously, although the identity of the author was never long concealed.
Six years later appeared his chief work, A Discourse of Freethinking, Occasioned by the Rise and Growth of a Sect called Freethinkers (1713). Notwithstanding the ambiguity of its title, and the fact that it attacked the priests of all churches without moderation, it contended that Freethinking is a right which cannot and must not be limited, because it is the only means of attaining to a knowledge of truth, it essentially contributes to the well-being of society, and it is not only permitted but enjoined by the Bible. In fact, the first introduction of Christianity and the success of all missionary enterprise involve freethinking (in its etymological sense) on the part of those converted.
In England, this essay, though it expressed views generally accepted by every Protestant, was regarded and treated as a plea for Deism, and made a great sensation. It elicited a number of responses, including those from William Whiston, Bishop Hare, and Bishop Benjamin Hoadly. Richard Bentley, under the signature of "Phileleutherus Lipsiensis," attacked certain arguments carelessly expressed by Collins, chiefly criticizing trivial points of scholarship; the arguments in his own pamphlet contained similar flaws. Jonathan Swift, being satirically referred to in the book, made it the subject of a caricature.
In 1724, Collins published his Discourse of the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion, with An Apology for Free Debate and Liberty of Writing prefixed. Ostensibly it was written in opposition to Whiston's attempt to show that the books of the Old Testament originally contained prophecies of events in the New Testament story, which had been eliminated or corrupted by the Jews; and to prove that the fulfillment of prophecy by the events of Christ's life is all "secondary, secret, allegorical, and mystical," since the original and literal reference of each prophecy is always to some other fact. Since, according to Collins, the fulfillment of prophecy is the only valid proof of Christianity, he thus aimed a blow at Christianity as a revelation. He openly denied the canonicity of the New Testament, on the ground that the canon could be fixed only by men who were inspired.
Thirty-five answers were directed against this book, the most significant of which were those of Bishop Edward Chandler, Arthur Sykes and Samuel Clarke. To these, but with special reference to the work of Chandler, which maintained that a number of prophecies were literally fulfilled in Christ, Collins replied with Scheme of Literal Prophecy Considered (1727). An appendix contends, against Whiston, that the book of Daniel was forged in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes.
In philosophy, Collins takes a foremost place as a defender of Necessitarianism. His brief Inquiry Concerning Human Liberty (1715) is an excellent statement of the determinist standpoint. His assertion, that it is self-evident that nothing that has a beginning can be without a cause, is an assumption of the very point at issue. He was attacked in an elaborate treatise by Samuel Clarke, in whose system the freedom of the will is made essential to religion and morality. During Clarke's lifetime, fearing, perhaps, to be branded as an enemy of religion and morality, Collins made no reply, but in 1729, he published an answer, entitled Liberty and Necessity.
The chief topic of the 1706-8 pamphlet controversy between Collins and Samuel Clarke over whether "matter can think," was whether consciousness can inhere in a material system, a highly controversial issue inspired by Locke's notorious speculation about thinking matter. Locke had been led to take this position because of difficulties in explaining how an immaterial mind could relate to a material body. Collins claimed that Clarke's dualism was dangerous to religion and morality, because of the problem of explaining how the immaterial mind and the material body interact. One of Clarke's counter-charges was that Collins' materialism was dangerous to religion and morality, because it implied a determinism that was destructive of religion and morality. Collins claimed that human action is caused in much the same way as the actions of clocks. Both are necessary agents, though the causes that produce the action in each case are very different. "Both are necessarily determined in their Actions: The one by the Appearances of Good and Evil, the other by a Weight or Spring" ((Clarke, 1738, Vol. 3, p. 872). Collins also attacked free will, claiming that the same causes will always produce the same effects and that the free will explanation that there was always a possibility of choosing to do otherwise violated this basic principle of causal explanations.
During the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, many competing groups, such as the Latitudinarians, the Dissenters and the Deists, developed a rationalist treatment of theology, raising the question of the relative roles of reason and revelation. Locke held the position of Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, that reason has a role to play in religion, but that there are questions which philosophy cannot answer and revelation must decide. Revelation is above reason but not contrary to it, and reason is responsible for determining what counts as genuine revelation. The Deists held an even more radical view than the one that Locke advocates.
There are disagreements among scholars as to whether Collins was a deist. In his Boyle lectures of 1704, Samuel Clarke distinguished four grades of deists: Those who acknowledged a future life and other doctrines of natural religion; those who, while denying a future life, admitted the moral role of the deity; those who acknowledged providence in natural religion, but not in morality; and those who denied providence altogether. Collins emphasized the part that morality should play in religion and asserted the importance of natural religion, claimed to believe in a future life (if not natural immortality), and rejected revelation.
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