Herbert of Cherbury

From New World Encyclopedia
Edward Herbert, portrait by Isaac Oliver (1560–1617)

Edward Herbert, Baron Herbert of Cherbury (March 3, 1583 - August 20, 1648) was a British courtier, soldier, diplomat, historian, poet, and religious philosopher, known as “the father of English Deism.” His famous work, De Veritate (On Truth), first published in 1624, in Paris, was intended to establish educated reason as a safe and reliable guide in the quest for truth. It asserted that in order for people to make decisions based on reason, they must have certain standards, basic truths or “common notions,” which all men can recognize as true once they are aware of them. Herbert identified five articles, or “common notions” of religion which he found to be present in the belief system of every religion. His work initiated a current of thought known as “deism,” which accepted the creatorship of God but rejected revelatory religion and the continued involvement of the divine in the created world. His ideas were further developed by Thomas Hobbes and David Hume in England, and Voltaire and Rousseau in France. Deism also influenced several prominent American thinkers including Ethan Allen, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and James Madison.


Herbert of Cherbury was the eldest son of Richard Herbert of Montgomery Castle (a member of a branch of the family of the Earls of Pembroke) and of Magdalen, daughter of Sir Richard Newport, and brother of the poet George Herbert. He was born March 3, 1583, at Eyton-on-Severn, near Wroxeter. After receiving private instruction at home, he matriculated at University College, Oxford, as a gentleman commoner, in May 1596. On February 28, 1599, he married his cousin Mary, daughter and heiress of Sir William Herbert (d. 1593). He returned to Oxford with his wife and mother, continued his studies, and learned modern languages as well as music, riding, and fencing. On the accession of King James I, he presented himself at court and was made a Knight of the Bath on July 24, 1603.

In 1608, he went to Paris, enjoying the friendship and hospitality of the elderly Constable de Montmorency and meeting King Henry IV. On his return, as he says himself, he was "in great esteem both in court and city, many of the greatest desiring my company." In 1610, he served as a volunteer in the Low Countries under the Prince of Orange, whose intimate friend he became, and distinguished himself at the capture of Juliers from the emperor. He offered to decide the war by engaging in single combat with a champion chosen from among the enemy, but his challenge was declined. During an interval in the fighting he paid a visit to Spinola, in the Spanish camp near Wezel, and to the elector palatine at Heidelberg, then traveled in Italy. At the request of the Duke of Savoy he led an expedition of 4,000 Huguenots from Languedoc into Piedmont to help the Savoyards against Spain, but, after nearly losing his life on the journey to Lyon, he was imprisoned upon his arrival there, and the enterprise came to nothing. He returned to the Netherlands and the Prince of Orange, arriving in England in 1617.

In 1619, Herbert was made ambassador to Paris, but was recalled in 1621, after quarreling with Charles de Luynes and challenging him to a duel. Herbert resumed his post in February 1622, after the death of de Luynes. He was very popular at the French court and showed considerable diplomatic ability. His chief missions were to accomplish the marriage between Charles I of England and Henrietta Maria, and to secure the assistance of Louis XIII of France for the elector palatine. He failed in the latter, and was dismissed in April 1624, returning home greatly in debt and receiving little reward for his services beyond the Irish peerage of Castle Island in 1624, and the English barony of Cherbury, or Chirbury, on May 7, 1629.

In 1632, he was appointed a member of the council of war. He attended the king at York in 1639, and in May 1642 was imprisoned by the parliament for insisting on the addition of the words "without cause" to the resolution that the king violated his oath by making war on parliament. He determined after this to take no further part in the struggle, retired to Montgomery Castle, and declined the king's summons. On September 5, 1644, he surrendered the castle to the parliamentary forces, returned to London, submitted, and was granted a pension of twenty pounds a week. In 1647, he paid a visit to Pierre Gassendi in Paris, and died in London the following summer. He was buried in the church of St Giles's in the Fields.

Thought and works

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Herbert of Cherbury is best known as the "father of Deism"

Edward Herbert is best known as the originator of deism. Herbert's first and most important work was the De veritate, prout distinguitur a revelatione, a verisimili, a possibili, et a falso (Paris, 1624; London, 1633; translated into French in 1639). It combined a theory of knowledge with a partial psychology, a methodology for the investigation of truth, and a scheme of natural religion. The book was verbose and often unclear, but it contained a philosophical reflection on the soul. He produced several additional religious treatises: De religione gentilium (completed 1645, published Amsterdam, 1663, translated into English by W Lewis, London, 1705); De causis errorum, an unfinished work on logical fallacies; Religio laic; and Ad sacerdotes de religione laici (1645).

Herbert also wrote two insignificant historical works; a defense of Buckingham's conduct of the ill-fated expedition of 1627, titled Expeditio Buckinghami ducis (published in a Latin translation in 1656, and in the original English by the Earl of Powis for the Philobiblon Society in 1860), and The Life and Raigne of King Henry VIII (1649). The latter is valuable because of its composition from original documents, but is obviously preoccupied with gaining the favor of the King by flattering him.

Edward Herbert’s poems, published in 1665 (reprinted and edited by John Churton Collins in 1881), reflected his admiration for Donne. A few of his lyrical verses showed power of reflection and true inspiration, and he effectively used the meter afterwards employed by Alfred Lord Tennyson in his In Memoriam. His Latin poems, three of which appeared together with the De causis errorum in 1645, were evidence of his scholarship. Additional works include a treatise on education called A Dialogue between a Tutor and a Pupil (1768, manuscript in the Bodleian Library); and a treatise on the king's supremacy in the Church (manuscript in the Record Office and at the Queen's College, Oxford). His well-known autobiography, first published by Horace Walpole in 1764, was an amusing narrative, but concentrated on his duels and amorous adventures to the exclusion of more creditable incidents in his career, such as his contributions to philosophy and history, his intimacy with Donne, Ben Jonson, John Selden and Thomas Carew, Isaac Casaubon, Gassendi and Grotius, or his embassy in France, about which he described only the splendor of his retinue and his social triumphs.

De veritate, prout distinguitur a revelatione, a verisimili, a possibili, et a falso

In De veritate, Herbert dismisses all past theories as useless, and professes his intention to constitute a new and true system. Truth, which he defines as a just conformation of the faculties with one another and with their objects, he distributes into four classes or stages:

  1. truth in the thing or the truth of the object
  2. truth of the appearance
  3. truth of the apprehension (conceptus)
  4. truth of the intellect

The faculties of the mind are as numerous as the differences of their objects, and are accordingly innumerable; but they may be arranged in four groups. The first, fundamental and most certain group is the Natural Instinct, to which belong the notitiae communes, which are innate, of divine origin, and indisputable. The second group, the next in certainty, is the sensus internus (under which Herbert includes discussions of love, hate, fear, conscience with its communis notitia, and free will); the third is the sensus externus; and the fourth is discursus, reasoning, the least certain, to which one has recourse when the other faculties fail. The reasoning faculties proceed by division, analysis, and questioning, and are slow and gradual in their movement; they are assisted by the other faculties, those of the “instinctus naluralis” being always the final test. Herbert's suggests ten categories of questions to be used in investigation: Whether (a thing is), what, of what sort, how much, in what relation, how, when, where, whence, wherefore. No faculty, if used correctly, can err "even in dreams"; badly exercised reasoning becomes the source of almost all our errors.

The discussion of the notitiae communes is the most characteristic part of the book. The exposition of them, though highly dogmatic, is in some ways strikingly similar to the thought of Immanuel Kant. "So far are these elements or sacred principles from being derived from experience or observation that without some of them, or at least some one of them, we can neither experience nor even observe." Unless we felt driven by them to explore the nature of things, "it would never occur to us to distinguish one thing from another."

Herbert does not prove the existence of the "common notions," deduce them, or even list them. But he says that each faculty has its "common notion;" they may be distinguished by six marks: Their priority, independence, universality, certainty, necessity (for the well-being of humanity), and immediacy. Law is based on certain "common notions;" so is religion. Though Herbert expressly defines the scope of his book as dealing with the intellect, not faith, he has illustrated the "common notions" of religion most fully; it is plain that he is chiefly interested in this part of his system. The "common notions" of religion are the famous five articles, which became the charter of the English debits.

There is little polemic against the received form of Christianity, but Herbert's attitude towards the Church's doctrine is distinctly negative, and he denies revelation except to the individual soul. In the De religione gentilium he gives what maybe called, in Hume's words, "a natural history of religion." By examining several other religions Herbert affirms, to his great delight, the universality of his five great articles, and that these are clearly recognizable under the rites, ceremonies and concepts of God peculiar to each belief. The same vein is maintained in the tracts De causis errorum, Religio laici, and Ad sacerdotes de religione laici.

In De veritate, Herbert produced the first purely metaphysical treatise written by an Englishman, and in the De religious gentilium, one of the earliest studies extant in comparative theology. Both his metaphysical speculations and his religious views were highly original and provoked considerable controversy.


The name “deism” comes from the Latin “deus” (god), and refers to a view of God which upholds the creatorship of God but rejects a continuing divine involvement with that creation. It should not be confused with “theism” (from the Greek word “theos,” god), which admits revelation as a foundation for belief and affirms continuing divine involvement in the world. Deism is used to refer to the views of certain English philosophers during the Age of Reason in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Deists understood God as an extension of generally accepted human ideas of justice, rationality and wisdom. While traditional Christianity was based on a divine revelation and was not accessible to those who lived before Christ, deism was available to all people at all times and places. Matthew Tindal (1657-1733), one of the prominent British deists, in his Christianity as Old as Creation (1730), asserted that Christianity was only the “republication of the religion of nature.”

Leland, in his Principal Deistic Writers (1757) classified not only Lord Herbert of Cherbury, but Thomas Hobbes and David Hume as deists. Voltaire inherited British deism, and he and Rousseau were regarded as French deists. In Britain, deism was only an object of refutation by traditional Christianity; under the strong Roman Catholicism of France it became heresy. Other European deists were Spinoza of the Netherlands and Lessing of Germany. In the United States, deism influenced Ethan Allen, who derided the Bible and criticized the church. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and some of the other originators of the United States Constitution, such as John Quincy Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and James Madison held deistic views. Deists played a major part in creating the system of separation between church and state, and the phrases on religious freedom phrases in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees


  • Herbert of Cherbury, Edward. Life of Lord Herbert of Cherbury, Written by Himself. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1976. ISBN 978-0192554116
  • Herbert, Edward W. The Poems, English and Latin, of Edward Lord Herbert of Cherbury. Ams Press Inc, 1987. ISBN 978-0404153069
  • Herbert, Lord de Cherbury, and John Churton Collins. The Poems of Lord Herbert of Cherbury. Folcroft Library, 1971. ASIN B001U9VZ22


  • Aubrey, John, and Oliver Lawson Dick. Aubrey's Brief Lives. David R. Godine, 1999. ISBN 978-1567920635
  • Byrne, Peter. Natural Religion and the Nature of Religion: The Legacy of Deism. Routledge Kegan & Paul, 1989. ISBN 978-0415041041
  • Hill, Eugene D. Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury. Twayne Pub, 1987. ISBN 978-0805769333
  • Sorley, W. R. Herbert of Cherbury, Lord Brooke, Jeremy Taylor, John Selden and Other Thinkers of the Period. AREPRINT SERVICE, 1920. ASIN B000H4DMUY
  • Stephens, William. An Account of the Growth of Deism in England. AMS Press, 1995. ISBN 978-1240810390

External links

All links retrieved July 15, 2024.

General philosophy sources


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