John Toland (November 30, 1670 - March 11, 1722) was an Irish-born British philosopher, linguist, translator, political and religious polemicist, and diplomat, known as a deist and a pantheist. Raised as a Roman Catholic, he converted to Protestantism at 16 and studied theology at the University of Glasgow. He admired the works of Lucretius and Giordano Bruno, and in 1696 published Christianity not Mysterious, claiming that all revelation was human revelation and could not contradict reason, and that there were no facts or doctrines from the Bible which were not perfectly plain and reasonable. Both the British and the Irish Parliaments condemned the book to be burned, and Toland fled to England to escape arrest.
Toland combined materialism with religious reverence for the Universe, and respect for scientific inquiry. He is credited with being the first to use the term “pantheism” in 1705 in the title of his work Socinianism Truly Stated, by a pantheist. He was also the first person to be called a “freethinker” by Bishop Berkeley.
John Toland was born November 30, 1670 in Ardagh, Donegal on the Inishowen Peninsula, a predominantly Catholic and Irish-speaking region, in northwest Ulster. Very little is known about his true origins. It is likely that he was originally christened "Seán Eoghain Ui Thuathalláin," thus giving rise to the sobriquet "Janus Junius Toland." He was raised a Roman Catholic. After having converted to Protestantism around the age of sixteen, he obtained a scholarship to study theology at the University of Glasgow. From 1687 to 1690 he studied at Glasgow and Edinburgh universities. After receiving a Master of Arts degree, he continued to do research at the University of Leiden in Holland and later for several years at Oxford.
In 1696, he published anonymously Christianity Not Mysterious. The book caused a public uproar, and legal proceedings were initiated against him in Middlesex. He fled to Dublin, where he learned that the Irish Parliament had condemned his book and ordered him arrested. The book was burnt by the public hangman in Dublin, and Toland escaped prosecution by fleeing to England, where he spent most of the rest of his life.
His next work was a biography of John Milton (1698) which also caused a scandal because a passage in it was believed to question the authenticity of the New Testament. Anglia Libria, in support of the Act of Settlement, caught the attention of the court of Hanover, where he was received by the Electress Sophia. Toland spent several years in Europe as a diplomat attached to the courts of Hanover and Berlin, where he met Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, with whom he later corresponded. In Letters to Serena (1704), addressed to Sophia Charlotte, daughter of Electress Sophia, he argued that motion was an intrinsic quality of matter. After returning to England, Toland translated the work of the Renaissance pantheist Giordano Bruno, and edited Oceana, James Harrington’s utopian work. He also worked as a newspaper-man.
Toland felt that his ill health had been aggravated by incompetent physicians, and towards the end of his life he complained about the medical profession, "They learn their Art at the hazard of our lives, and make experiments by our deaths." Toland died in Putney on March 11, 1722.
Toland was the first person to be called a “freethinker” (by Bishop Berkeley), and wrote over a hundred books in various fields, but mostly dedicated to criticizing ecclesiastical institutions. A great deal of his intellectual activity was dedicated to writing political tracts in support of the Whig cause. Many scholars know Toland for his role as either the biographer or editor of notable republicans from the mid-seventeenth century, such as James Harrington, Algernon Sidney and John Milton. His works "Anglia Libera" and "State Anatomy" were prosaic expressions of an English republicanism which reconciled itself with constitutional monarchy.
Toland is generally considered one of the deists (a diverse group of English philosophers and theologians in the period between 1650 and 1750), but at the time when he wrote Christianity not Mysterious he was careful to distinguish himself from both skeptical atheists and orthodox theologians.
Toland opposed the subordination of reason to revelation. In 1696, he published his famous work, Christianity Not Mysterious or, A treatise Shewing That There Is Nothing in the Gospel Contrary to Reason, nor above It, and That No Christian Doctrine Can Be Properly Call'd a Mystery. After having formulated a stricter version of Locke's epistemological rationalism, Toland went on to show that there were no facts or doctrines from the Bible which were not perfectly plain, intelligible and reasonable, being neither contrary to reason nor incomprehensible to it. Reason was “not mysterious.” All revelation was human revelation; that which was not rendered understandable was to be rejected as jibberish. Divine revelation was not required in order to understand biblical doctrine. Toland concluded that revelation could not contradict reason, and that theological mysteries were to be attributed to the scriptural misinterpretations of priests.
whoever tells us something we did not know before must insure that his words are intelligible, and the matter possible. This holds good, let God or man be the revealer.
Toland first printed his book anonymously.
The book caused a sensation and provoked more than 50 replies and refutations. Both the Irish Parliament and English House of Commons condemned the work to be burned. When a second edition was printed under his name, orders were issued for his arrest.
After Christianity not Mysterious, Toland's "Letters to Serena" constituted his major contribution to philosophy. In the first three letters, he developed a historical account of the rise of superstition, arguing that human reason cannot ever fully liberate itself from prejudices. In the last two letters, he founded a metaphysical materialism grounded in a critique of monist substantialism. Later, Toland continued his critique of church government in his "Primitive Constitution of the Christian Church," a clandestine writing in circulation by 1705, and in Nazarenus which called attention to the right of the Ebionites to a place in the early church. The thrust of his argument was to push to the limits the applicability of canonical scripture as a condition for establishing institutionalized religion.
Later works of special importance include Tetradymus, which includes Clidophorus, a historical study of the distinction between esoteric and exoteric philosophies.
Toland influenced Baron d'Holbach's ideas about physical motion. In his Letters to Serena, Toland claimed that rest, or absence of motion, was not merely relative. Instead, rest was a special case of motion. When there was a conflict of forces, the body that was apparently at rest was influenced by as much activity and passivity as it would be if it were moving.
Toland was an admirer of the Roman materialist poet, Lucretius, and of the pantheist. Giordano Bruno, who had been martyred in 1600. In 1698, he bought Queen Elizabeth's bound copy of four dialogues by Bruno. His pantheistic ideas were first evident in 1695, when he supported his declaration that all things were full of God, by quoting Strabo's assertion that Moses identified God with the universe: "For according to him, God is this one thing alone that encompasses us all and encompasses land and sea - the thing which we call heaven, or universe, or the nature of all that exists" (Geography, xvi.2.25).
The term "pantheism" was coined by Toland to describe the philosophy of Spinoza. Toland is credited with the first use of the word “pantheist” in 1705, when he included it, without explanation, in the title of his work Socinianism Truly Stated, by a pantheist. In 1710, he wrote to Leibniz, referring to "the pantheistic opinion of those who believe in no other eternal being but the universe" (February 14, 1710).
Toland was involved in at least one society of pantheists; in 1717 he founded the Ancient Druid Order, an organization that continued uninterrupted until splitting into two groups in 1964. Both those groups, The Druid Order and the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, still exist today.
In 1720, he published Pantheisticon, sive formula celebrandae sodalitatis socraticae (Pantheisticon, or the Form of Celebrating the Socratic Society), developed the pantheistic ideas that had been implied in the Letters to Sophia, and proposed a structure and a liturgy for a pantheist secret society. The book was printed privately and handed out only to his trusted friends; it was written in Latin so that only educated people could read it. Toland believed that only enlightened, educated people could comprehend pantheism; uneducated people would always prefer fables and mythologies to the truth, and those who sought political or social advancement would adhere to the established churches.
Pantheisticon (1720) combined a strict materialism with religious reverence for the Universe, and respect for scientific inquiry. Toland asserted that the Universe is made only of matter, containing within itself its own principle of motion. He described the Universe as being infinite, without center or periphery, and containing an infinite number of stars and planets like our own. He suggested that all things were in a state of continual change, an "incessant revolution of all beings and forms," and that, given infinite time, all combinations would eventually recur. He considered the human mind and soul as properties of the brain, a material organ.
Toland proposed that in public, pantheists should conform to established religion. "The Pantheist will never clash openly with theology if he might suffer by doing so," he wrote in the Pantheisticon, "but equally he will not remain in silence, if he finds a chance to speak out without risking his life." Pantheists were to meet behind closed doors to share their ideas, in secret dining clubs for educated gentlemen. The president would lead the club in reciting their liturgy, and they would then eat moderately, enjoy jokes and games, and participate in serious discussion. In summer they would eat in the open air, in winter seated in the sun's rays or in front of an open fire. The liturgy combined a brief credo, praises for ancient philosophers, recitation of odes of Horace and quotations from Cato and Cicero. The book gave offense to religious authorities, both because its title implied the existence of secret pantheistic societies, and because the liturgy was written in imitation of the Church of England liturgy, using heathen authors
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