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TOLAND: THE FATHER OF MODERN PANTHEISM
A history of pantheism and panentheism by Paul Harrison.
Featured, Dec. 16, 1996.
Copyright & copy: Paul Harrison 1996
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"The sun is my father, the earth my mother,
the world is my country and all men are my family."
John Toland has a triple claim to fame in the annals of pantheism. It was he who coined the term pantheist. He was the first strictly materialist and scientific pantheist of modern times. And he was the first to conceive of a network of societies observing the pantheist religion.
It is important to note what Toland himself meant by pantheist: he meant the belief that the only divine being is the material Universe itself. Different definitions have been added later by extension and by error, and have crept into dictionaries where they now lead to confusion. But this is the original and fundamental meaning of the word pantheist. The closest embodiment today is Scientific Pantheism.
Toland had a chequered career. Born on November 30, 1670, near Derry in northern Ireland, he was raised as a Catholic but converted to Protestantism at the age of 16. He studied in Glasgow and Edinburgh (where he graduated a Master of Arts in 1690), and then in Leyden and Utrecht. After a spell in Oxford he came to London in 1695.
In the following year he published his first and most famous work Christianity not Mysterious - an outspoken attack on all the trappings of images, garments, altars, fasts, rites and priestly ranks that had been added to the simple doctrine of the gospels since Jesus' time. The first edition was prudently anonymous. After it achieved a succès de scandale Toland saw a chance of fame and put his name to it - an act which was to condemn him to the margins of British society for the rest of his days.
Toland's book was immediately excoriated in England, debated by outraged Members of Parliament and bishops, and condemned by the Grand Jury of Middlesex. Toland retired to Ireland, but the outcry there was even greater. In September 1697 the Irish House of Commons ordered the book to be burned by the public hangman and the author to be arrested and prosecuted by the Attorney General. As John Locke's friend William Molyneux wrote, "This poor man, by his imprudent conduct, has raised against himself so universal a commotion that it was dangerous to be known to have spoken with him even once."
Returning to England without family or fortune, he aspired to live by finding noble or even royal patrons. He wrote tracts defending the house of Hanover's right to the English crown, and courted the electress Sophie of Brunswick, who he hoped would inherit the English throne. In Brunswick and in Berlin, he gave lectures and engaged in debates with the German philosopher, Leibniz. When asked for a brief statement of his credo at these lectures, he answered: "The sun is my father, the earth my mother, the world is my country and all men are my family."
He wrote political pamphlets for the Tory Robert Harley, and when Harley fell from power, for the Whigs. In 1702 he declared himself a member of the Church of England. But his political trimming, and his past as a notorious heretic, meant that no-one fully trusted him. He never secured the stable patron he craved for, and so passed his life in venal or low paid hack-writing jobs on the fringes of political power.
There was a coherent thread to much of Toland's work, in pamphlets favouring free speech and civil liberties and an enlightened Christianity. But at times he would write tracts for payment that he did not believe in, and for most of his life he was obliged to hide his true religious beliefs. "To what sneaking equivocations, to what wretched shifts and subterfuges," he wrote with devastating honesty, "are men of excellent endowments forced to have recourse through human frailty, merely to escape disgrace or starving." (Sullivan p44) He regarded his own chief misfortune as having been "left at large to my own caprice and humours, without any certain patrons or settled business, and having neither estate nor relations to support me." (Sullivan p24)
By 1718 he was meanly lodged in a carpenter's house in Putney, where he spent the rest of his days in poverty and debt, deepened by investment losses in the South Sea Bubble in 1720. By now he was drinking heavily and had gallstones, which gave him "pains in my thighs, veins and stomach total loss of appetite, hourly retchings, and very highly coloured water." He died in 1721.
Because Toland has a policy of concealing his pantheism, it is not clear when he first adopted that philosophy, but he may have been that way inclined as early as his Oxford days in 1693-95. In the latter year he wrote that all things were full of God, and quoted with enthusiasm Strabo's assertion (Geography, xvi.2.25) 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."
Toland was deeply influenced by the Roman materialist poet, Lucretius. The second powerful influence was the pantheist Giordano Bruno, who had been martyred in 1600. In 1698 Toland purchased Queen Elizabeth's bound copy of four dialogues by Bruno. Thereafter Toland became an enthusiastic proponent of Bruno's ideas in Britain and Europe.
His own ideas were a meld of Lucretius and Bruno, unoriginal in detail, but original in combination. Unless we consider Lucretius himself a pantheist, Toland is the undoubted father of modern scientific pantheism, the first to combine a strict materialism with respect for the science of his day and a religious reverence of the Universe.
Toland first used the word pantheist in 1705, without explanation, in the title of his work Socinianism Truly Stated, by a pantheist. In 1710, in a letter to Leibniz, he provided some content to the word when he referred to "the pantheistic opinion of those who believe in no other eternal being but the universe." [14th Feb 1710]
But it was not till 1720 that Toland clearly identified himself as a pantheist. In that year, poor, in debt and obscurity, and having nothing further to lose, he published his Pantheisticon, setting out the philosophy and liturgy for a pantheist secret society. The publication too was secretive: the book was written in Latin so it would be accessible only to the highly educated. It was printed privately, and distributed by Toland to his trusted friends.
In an age of free speech and religious pluralism, it is easy to view this clandestine approach as cowardice. Yet we must remember that Toland was living in a time when physical persecution had only just ceased - in the last auto-da-fe in Britain, in 1697, medical student Thomas Aitkenhead was burned in Edinburgh for questioning the trinity. Social persecution was still rife, and Toland himself had jeopardized his career with his bold critique of conventional Christianity.
In this work Toland asserts that the Universe is made only of matter, which contains within itself its own principle of motion. The Universe is infinite, without centre or periphery, and with an infinite number of stars and planets like our own. All things are in a state of continual change, an "incessant revolution of all beings and forms," in which, given infinite time, all combinations would one day recur. The human mind and soul are properties of the brain, which is a material organ.
Toland said that pantheists should have a double philosophy - one for public use, one for private. In public they would conform to the established religion of their society. "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."
He had no plans to spread pantheism among the masses of his day. Uneducated people, he assumed, would always prefer fables and mythologies to the truth, while ambitious and corrupt power seekers of church and state would always pay lip service to established religion to gain advancement.
Pantheists would share and debate their beliefs behind closed doors, in secret dining clubs for educated gentlemen. Each club would have a president, who would lead the members in reciting their liturgy. They would eat moderately, engage in games and jokes, but mostly in serious debate. In summer they would eat in the open air, in winter in the sun's rays or in front of an open fire.
The liturgy that Toland offers for the societies is a quaint and wistful combination of brief credo, praises for ancient philosophers, recitation of odes of Horace and quotations from Cato and Cicero. The opening moves, almost comically, from cloak and dagger secrecy to high philosophy, starting with the ejection of the valets:
President: Make sure that vulgar laymen are far away.
Response: The doors are locked, we are in safety.
President: All things in the world are One, and One in All in all things.
Response: What is all in all things is God, and God is eternal, has not been created, and will never die.
Toland presents his Socratic Society as if there really existed a network of such secret pantheist clubs across Europe. Some researchers have accepted this claim at face value, or even suggested that Toland founded one of the first Masonic clubs. However, there is no trace of a British Socratic Society. Toland did attend a Dutch society called the Knights of Jubilation which seems to have had at least a few pantheistically inclined members, but they seem to have engaged mainly in Rabelaisian tomfoolery and carousing. One British Druid order - The Universal Bond - claims direct descent from a meeting of British Druids held by Toland at Primrose Hill in 1717. There is no documentary evidence for this claim, though Toland did research a history of the druids.
On balance it seems likely that Toland never set up a specifically pantheist society of the type he describes. Even in the Pantheisticon itself he hints at this: "People may ask, is there really a society like this, or is it only a fiction? That may be the case, and what matter if it is? Even if it is not true, at least you can't help agreeing that it is plausible."
Note: Toland's pantheistic and materialist works, the Pantheisticon and the Letters to Serena, have not been reprinted and are not generally available outside a few selected libraries.
Albert Lantoine, John Toland, Emile Nourry, Paris 1927 [this contains a French translation of the Pantheisticon.
Margaret Jacob, The Newtonians and the English Revolution, Harvester Press, Sussex, 1976.
Margaret Jacob, The Radical Enlightenment, Allen & Unwin, London 1981.
Robert E. Sullivan, John Toland and the Deist Controversy, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1982.
Toland's ideas in his own words.
All quotes in this section are from the Pantheisticon.
The universe is infinite, with infinite stars and inhabited worlds.
In an infinite space there can be no up or down, no centre or extremities.
There is an infinite number of other worlds similar to the earth we inhabit, circling around their suns (which we call the fixed stars).
The Universe (of which the world we know is only a very small part), is infinite in extent as well as in potential. By the continuity of all and by the contiguity of its parts it is one. In its totality it is immobile, having no space outside of itself, but in its parts it is mobile by infinite intervals.
The universe is a unity.
Every material thing is in all things.
All things come from all, and all is in all things.
The Universe is divine.
The power and energy of All, which has created all and which governs all, having always the best goal as it aim, is God, which you may if you wish call Spirit and Soul of the Universe. This is why the Socratic Associates have been called pantheists, because according to them this soul cannot be separated from the Universe itself.
Matter is made up of atoms.
The basic bodies, or the elements of the elements, are very simple, indivisible, incorruptible, and infinite in species and number.
Motion is inherent to matter.
There is not in nature a sole point at rest, but only occasionally in relation to other bodies, since even rest is only a resistance to motion.
Thought and soul is a property of matter
Thought is a special movement of the brain.
The brain is the first cause of the soul, of thoughts and of sensations.
Brain, being a highly composite material organ, can produce only material effects. Thus all ideas are corporal.
There is an ethereal fire
The ethereal fire (is) supreme because it surrounds everything, intimate because it penetrates everything. This fire is the only thing that can traverse nerves.
Death is merely a transformation of matter
Nothing dies totally, the death of one thing brings the birth of another, by a universally reciprocal exchange, and everything contributes necessarily to the preservation and welfare of the Whole by a continual change of forms and a marvelous variation which forms an eternal cycle.
The years that Nature accords to each one on earth should seem sufficient to him.
The person who is worried that he will not be alive in a thousand years is as foolish as he who would be worried that he was not born 1000 years ago.
Virtue alone is enough to live happily and brings its own reward.
The wise prefer pleasure to profit.
It is better to never command anyone, than to obey someone.
is the belief that the universe and nature are divine.
It fuses religion and science, and concern for humans with concern for nature.
It provides the most realistic concept of life after death,
and the most solid basis for environmental ethics.
It is a religion that requires no faith other than common sense,
no revelation other than open eyes and a mind open to evidence,
no guru other than your own self.
For an outline, see Basic principles of scientific pantheism. Top.
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