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Anti-Atheism in Early Modern England 15801720

Studies in the History of

Christian Traditions

General Editor

Robert J. Bast
Knoxville, Tennessee

In cooperation with

Paul C.H. Lim (Nashville, Tennessee)

Brad C. Pardue (Point Lookout, Missouri)
Eric Saak (Indianapolis)
Christine Shepardson (Knoxville, Tennessee)
Brian Tierney (Ithaca, New York)
Arjo Vanderjagt (Groningen)
John Van Engen (Notre Dame, Indiana)

Founding Editor

Heiko A. Oberman


The titles published in this series are listed at

Anti-Atheism in Early Modern
England 15801720
The Atheist Answered and His Error Confuted


Kenneth Sheppard


Cover illustration: The Atheist Answered and His Errour Confuted, London, 1675

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Sheppard, Kenneth.
Anti-atheism in early modern England 1580-1720 : the atheist answered and his error confuted / by
Kenneth Sheppard.
pages cm. -- (Studies in the history of Christian traditions, ISSN 1573-5664)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-90-04-26541-7 (hardback : acid-free paper) -- ISBN 978-90-04-28816-4 (e-book) 1. Apologetics--
England--History. 2. Atheism--England--History. 3. England--Church history. 4. Christianity and atheism.
I. Title.

BT1117.S54 2015


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List of Illustrationsviii


1 Anxieties About Atheism14

2 The Atheist Answered and His Error Confuted41

3 Atheist Epicurus90

4 Anti-Atheist Plato137

5 Atheism and Apostasy182

6 Atheism and Society201

7 Atheism and Happiness225

8 From Confutation to Criticism245



I would like to express my sincere thanks to two people for their support dur-
ing the research for and writing of this book. John Marshall has been a model
of scholarly rigour and supervisory patience. Candace has brought the joy of
companionship to an often solitary endeavour. Her many sacrifices made the
whole project possible and worthwhile.

List of Illustrations

1 Title page, R. Allestree, The Causes of the Decay of Christian Piety, London,
2 Title page, R. Allestree, The Causes of the Decay of Christian Piety, London, 1704.
From Gale. Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ecco). 2011 Gale, a part of
Cengage Learning, Inc. Reproduced by permission15
3 S. Gribelin (after Raphael), Paul Preaching at Athens, 1707. From the Victoria
and Albert Museum. Reproduced by permission42
4 J. Thornhill, Paul Preaching at Athens, c. 1720. Tate, London 2014. Reproduced
by permission43
5 Frontispiece, P. du Plessis Mornay, De la vrit de la religion Chretienne, 1590.
From the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Mnchen. Reproduced by
6 Frontispiece, R. Cudworth, The True Intellectual System of the Universe, London,
1678. From the British Library. Reproduced by permission46
7 Frontispiece, T. Wise, ed., A Confutation of the Reason and Philosophy of
Atheism, London, 1706. From the British Library. Reproduced by
8 Broadside, A brief Relation of an Atheisticall creature, London, 164960
9 Broadside, The Atheist Answered, and His Errour Confuted, London, 1675. From
the British Library. Used by permission89
10 J. Thornhill (after Raphael), Paul Preaching at Athens, c. 1720. Set of seven oil
paintings after Raphaels Tapestry Cartoon, ca. 172931. Columbia University of
the City of New York, Gift of Mrs. Francis Henry Lenygon, 195991
11 J. Thornhill, St Paul Preaching at Athens, 1720. Tate, London 2014. Reproduced
by permission138
12 Broadside, A Warning from God, London, 1684. From the British Library. Used by
13  Paul Preaching at Athens, engraved by G. Vandergucht, frontispiece to Dionysus
Longinus, On the Sublime, trans. William Smith, London, 1739. From Gale.
Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO). 2011 Gale, a part of Cengage
Learning, Inc. Reproduced by permission306

Deny a God!?1

Defending the truth of the Christian religion was not an original enterprise to
early modern Europeans. The apostle Pauls evangelistic activities, particularly
his encounter with Stoic and Epicurean philosophers in Athens recorded in
the New Testament book of Acts, historically represented Christianitys apolo-
getic origin. The form and content of this defence of Christianity had been
envisaged in different ways throughout the history of Christian Europe, but
perhaps the most influential was found in Augustines De doctrina christiana,
which turned the Pauline apologist into a Ciceronian rhetorician.2 As Augustine
described it:

the interpreter and teacher of the divine scriptures, the defender of the
true faith and vanquisher of error, must communicate what is good and
eradicate what is bad, and in this process of speaking must win over the
antagonistic, rouse the apathetic, and make clear to those who are not
conversant with the matter under discussion what they should expect.3

What was new for sixteenth-century Englishmen living in the wake of the
Reformation and the Renaissance, however, was the sense that the Christian
religion needed to be defended at length against the old enemy of unbelief. Yet
this enemy was now understood to be massively increasing and had taken on a
bedevilling new guise: atheism.4 From at least the middle of the sixteenth cen-
tury, apologists for the truth of the Christian religion detected and denounced
the presence of atheists in England, and who were often regarded as Con
tinentalimports from Italy (Machiavellianism) or France (libertinism). And
although it was usually difficult for early modern English apologists to admit
that genuine speculative atheists even existed, practical atheists appeared to

1 The Atheist Answered, and His Errour Confuted (London, 1675).

2 For the context of Augustines statement, see P. Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, rev.
ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), Chap. 23; R.P.H. Green, Introduction, in
Augustine, On Christian Teaching, trans. R.P.H. Green (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997);
H. Chadwick, Augustine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 37; A. Meredith, Christian
Philosophy in the Early Church (London: Continuum, 2012).
3 Augustine, 103 (IV.14).
4 See D. MacCulloch, Reformation: Europes House Divided 14901700 (London: Penguin, 2004),
7687, 67997; P. Marshall, The Reformation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 1345.

koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2015|doi 10.1163/9789004288164_002

2 Introduction

be everywhere: too many men and women sinfully lived as they pleased, ignor-
ing both God and religion. From about 1580 onward a steady stream of books
and broadsides, pamphlets and prints, tracts and tomes, cried out against the
spread of atheism in England. Between 1650 and 1720 a torrent of anti-atheist
works joined what was by then a distinct genre of Christian apologetics which
gave the title as well as the form to many of these texts: the confutation of
This book is primarily an exposition and analysis of the defence of the
Christian religion against alleged atheists through the technique of confuta-
tion between the Reformation and the Enlightenment in England. It focuses
on the period between 1580 and 1720 because of the number and the signifi-
cance of anti-atheist arguments expressed within religious texts in this period,
and because anti-atheist apologists consistently utilized a rhetorically distinc-
tive form of discourse derived from classical antiquity to do so: confutatio. This
is not to suggest that either anti-atheism or the form of confutation disap-
peared suddenly in 1720. Rather, this endpoint has been chosen because it rep-
resents the moment when this particular strand of early modern apologetics
was rejected by Bernard Mandeville in the first edition of his Free Thoughts on
Religion, the Church, and National Happiness, and because Mandevilles con-
troversial claim about the nonthreatening status of atheists in political society
succeeded a series of important earlier arguments challenging central aspects
of anti-atheism by Charles Blount, John Locke, Pierre Bayle, and the Third Earl
of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper. Most significantly, it will be seen that
Mandeville followed Shaftesburys explicit argument advocating for a new
form of anti-atheist Christian apology based on philosophically polite criti-
cism rather than theologically erudite confutation.
This study examines the discourse of anti-atheist confutation by studying
responses to the challenges which derived especially from the recovery of
ancient Greek and Roman texts during the European Renaissance, from the
religious divisions within European Christendom during the Reformation,
from the implications of the scientific revolution, and from shifting under-
standings of the relationship between church and state. The recirculation of
a work such as Lucretius Epicurean poem De rerum natura, for instance,
was deeply problematic for early modern anti-atheist apologists because it
offered a version of many of these challenges at once, including a naturalistic
account of cosmogenesis based on the doctrine of atoms, a non-providential
account of the activity of the gods, and a psychological description of religion
as the product of human ignorance and fear. The awareness of diverse cultural,
political, and religious practices and beliefs that accompanied the redistribu-
tion of ancient texts was amplified by the European encounter with the new
Introduction 3

world and the abundant travel literature produced in its wake, which meant
that religious apologists had to answer questions about the validity of the
universal consent of mankind in the belief in a deity. And, more troubling still,
powerful new philosophies constructed in this period by thinkers such as
Thomas Hobbes seemingly revived central aspects of ancient atheism, includ-
ing atomism, materialism, and determinism.
This analysis therefore traces the chronological trajectory of anti-atheist
discourse thematically, in terms of the major intellectual, religious, and politi-
cal challenges to which it responded. The effect of the recovery of a work such
as De rerum natura on Christian apologetics was most acutely felt once a
simultaneous shift towards materialist atomism occurred in natural philoso-
phy. In combination with the European-wide furor which surrounded the
mechanical-materialist philosophy of Ren Descartes starting in the 1640s,
Hobbes 1651 Leviathan provided what many anti-atheist authors regarded as
an actual atheist foil to confute. The challenge of materialism became thereaf-
ter one of the staple problems the confutation of atheism addressed in England.
The timing of this Lucretian-materialist challenge corresponded with the col-
lapse of social, political, and religious authority during the civil wars and the
subsequent proliferation of what contemporaries regarded as a bewildering
diversity of religious beliefs and practices. From at least the early seventeenth
century anti-atheist religious apologists felt increasingly compelled to address
the diversity of religious beliefs and practices. In the latter half of the century
they often did so by giving an account of the nature of religion in general, such
that the confutation of atheism necessarily rejected the Lucretian-Hobbesian
claim that religion was based on the fear of unknown natural causes, at the
same time as it attempted to address and explain the basis of the various forms
of belief and practice as existed in England and the wider world. Furthermore,
as Church of England clergymen saw their political, social, and religious
authority undermined, challenged, and criticized from the civil wars to the
Revolution of 1688 and beyond, those who confuted atheism continually reas-
serted the existence of a providential relationship between the Christian reli-
gion, its institutions, and the constitution of political society.
The anti-atheist response to the challenge of philosophical materialism and
a heightened sense of religious diversity between 1650 and 1720 accompanied
a notable theological shift, discussed in Chapters 3 and 7 of this book exten-
sively, from a pessimistic view of terrestrial human happiness to a hedonic
conception of earthly pleasure and its relationship to the future life. Between
1690 and 1720 in particular, the confutation of atheism in sermons delivered
by clergymen from their pulpits increasingly deployed an argument which
claimed that the belief in Gods existence was one which guaranteed greater
4 Introduction

terrestrial happiness, since that belief not only eased the temporal anxieties all
natural creatures felt on earth by assuring man of Gods providential care, but
it also simultaneously stipulated a schedule of earthly virtues eminently suit-
able to mans worldly pilgrimage. Furthermore, the proof of Gods existence
offered by these clergymen, whether it was regarded as demonstrable or prob-
able, was of a perfectionist-rationalist variety wherein a conception of Gods
necessarily perfect nature meant that his power could not override his wisdom
or his goodness. Both the inscrutable will of the Calvinists God and the incom-
prehensible God of mysticism were thereby rejected. In early modern England
the confutation of atheism was typically grounded on the capacity of mans
natural reason to grasp Gods essential attributes.
Alongside the shift from a pessimistic to an optimistic account of the rela-
tionship between Gods nature and fallen mans reason was a broad change
in the social location of the anxieties about atheism, reinforcing the sense in
which anti-atheist apologists were responding to the intellectual challenges
presented by a revived Epicurean materialism and religious diversity. Between
the Reformation and the Enlightenment in England the primary emphasis of
anti-atheist concern switched from vulgar to learned atheism.5 As this book
will show, Reformation fears of atheisms spread often focused on the preva-
lence of sin in the form of the supposed atheists desire to live as he pleased in
the present world without any regard for Gods judgment. This conception of
vulgar atheism what contemporaries often referred to as practical atheism
was a staple accusation in anti-atheist discourse into the Enlightenment and
beyond. However, from the middle of the seventeenth century confutations
of atheism increasingly addressed the supposed arguments of speculative or
learned atheism. This remained a Reformation fear in the sense that it tied
the apostle Pauls warning in his Epistle to the Colossians about vain philoso-
phy to a slippery slope which led to practical atheism. Francis Bacons essay
Of atheisme in the 1590s had already made this connection. However, from
the civil war onwards the number of confutations in print rose steadily,
and they increasingly addressed allegedly atheist arguments identified with
Epicurus, Lucretius, Hobbes, and Blount.
As the distinction between practical and speculative atheism suggests, from
the Reformation to the Enlightenment anti-atheist apologists used the words
atheism and atheist with varying levels of precision. Most generally, anti-
atheist writers regarded an atheist as someone who lived as if there was no
God or whose beliefs implied that there was no God. Atheism and atheist

5 I was prompted to state this observation explicitly by J.G.A. Pocock, whom I wish to acknowl-
edge here.
Introduction 5

were terms of abuse and accusation throughout this period, such that almost
any kind of deviant practices or beliefs could be stigmatized with these pejora-
tive labels. As Chapter 2 will show in much more detail, rhetorical theories in
the early modern period actively encouraged verbal combatants to use all the
weapons at their disposal, including ad hominem arguments and negative
association by implication. Matters were complicated by the fact that nothing
less than eternity was at stake. It is therefore quite difficult to get a sense of just
how many atheists existed, in our twenty-first-century sense of the term,
between 1580 and 1720. Until the rhetorical strategy of confutation was chal-
lenged by a philosophical orientation guided by the critical search after truth,
in combination with an argument for the possibility of a politically nonthreat-
ening form of virtuous atheism, a combination which Chapter 8 examines
in detail, the relationship between the fears manifested in anti-atheist dis-
course and the real existence of publicly professed speculative atheists would
be overwhelmingly determined by the traditional conventions of early modern

In a study of atheism in Renaissance England published eighty years ago,

George Buckley first indicated that early modern anti-atheism was a phenom-
enon worthy of examination in its own right.6 Since Buckleys initial sugges-
tion there have been a few brief analyses of anti-atheism. Don Cameron Allens
1964 investigation of scepticism, Doubts Boundless Sea, included a partial
assessment of the anti-atheist responses to scepticism in early modern Italy,
France, and England, while John Redwoods 1976 study, Reason, Ridicule and
Religion, explored some elements of the role anti-atheism played in the major
Enlightenment debates which challenged the traditional intellectual founda-
tions of the Christian religion in England.7 More recently, historians have
begun to study early modern anti-atheism in England on its own terms, and
not simply as a foil against which to understand expressions of irreligion,
unbelief, or atheism. In an important article on the conceptual possibility and
language of unbelief in early modern England published in the late 1970s,
G.E. Aylmer first surveyed the ways in which anti-atheist texts categorized

6 G. Buckley, Atheism in the English Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,

1932), 63.
7 D.C. Allen, Doubts Boundless Sea: Skepticism and Faith in the Renaissance (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1964); J.A. Redwood, Reason, Ridicule and Religion: The
Enlightenment in England, 16601750 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1976).
6 Introduction

different kinds of atheists and developed an initial catalogue of the anti-atheist

arguments used to combat atheism.8 Seeking to move beyond a characteriza-
tion of anti-atheism as little more than an indefinite prejudice, in the mid-
1980s Michael Hunter built on Aylmers essay by sketching an account of
anti-atheism in England between 1560 and 1640 which used the stock character
of the atheist within anti-atheist texts to demonstrate the depth and breadth
of the anxieties about religious division in the wake of the Reformation.9
In spite of these initial surveys and their pleas for more in-depth research, a
book-length study of anti-atheism has never been published. Instead, scholars
such as Richard Popkin, Mark Goldie, J.A.I. Champion, Sarah Ellenzweig,
Christopher Hill, and David Wootton have focused on early modern scepti-
cism, freethinking, irreligion, and unbelief.10 Without diminishing the impor-
tance of the history of unbelief, studying anti-atheism in this period is arguably
more significant in that it reflects the commitments of most early modern
Englishmen and women. As this book will show, anti-atheist assumptions,
arguments, and assertions were not only the preserve of religious elites com-
bating their intellectual rivals, but were also expressed in popular broadsides
and ballads. Both the common parishioner and the monarch heard countless
confutations of atheism in sermons delivered throughout the early modern
period. The confutation of atheism was also an expression of the clerical mind-
set which J.G.A. Pocock has identified as one of the ideological means by which
the religious elite in Restoration England reasserted its control over civil soci-
ety. Through their defence of God, the truth of the Christian religion, and
the explication of a practical, moral piety, Restoration anti-atheist apologists

8 G.E. Aylmer, Unbelief in Seventeenth-Century England, in Puritans and Revolutionaries:

Essays in Seventeenth-Century History Presented to Christopher Hill, eds., D. Pennington
and K. Thomas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), 2246.
9 M. Hunter, The Problem of Atheism in Early Modern England, Transactions of the Royal
Historical Society, Fifth Series, 35 (1985): 13557; cf. J.C. Davis, Fear, Myth and History: The
Ranters and the Historians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 116.
10 R. Popkin, The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1979); M. Goldie, Priestcraft and the Birth of Whiggism, in Political
Discourses in Early Modern Britain, eds., N. Phillipson and Q. Skinner (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1993), 20931; J.A.I. Champion, The Pillars of Priestcraft
Shaken: The Church of England and its Enemies, 16601730 (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1992); S. Ellenzweig, The Fringes of Belief: English Literature, Ancient
Heresy, and the Politics of Freethinking, 16601760 (Stanford: Stanford University Press,
2008); C. Hill, Irreligion in the Puritan Revolution, in Radical Religion in the English
Revolution, eds., J.F. McGregor and B. Reay (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 191211;
D. Wootton, Unbelief in Early Modern Europe, History Workshop, 20 (1985): 82100.
Introduction 7

emphasized a set of interpersonal rights and duties which upheld the tradi-
tional hierarchical structure of English society.11 When Mandeville attacked
the conventional religious understanding of morality and its connection to the
traditional conception of political society in his controversial The Fable of the
Bees, he provoked a chorus of anti-atheist replies from religious apologists.
This chorus consisted of the kinds of clergymen who would shape Pococks
English Enlightenment sans philosophes, and who reinforced what J.C.D. Clark
has called the confessional state.12 Although Mandevilles challenge to the
conceptual predominance of anti-atheism is clearly important, and will be
studied in detail in this book, it was in fact the clergymen who had set out to
confute atheism who were still more successful in mobilizing anti-atheism in
the early eighteenth century. Indeed, the sociopolitical predominance of anti-
atheist assumptions, arguments, and assertions first expressed in the early
modern period would not be undermined in England until the late nineteenth
By drawing attention to the prevalence of anti-atheism in early modern
England this book refocuses more recent scholarship on early modern irreli-
gion, unbelief, and atheism. Generally speaking, the historiography of unbelief
and atheism has been characterized by two kinds of narrative. The first is
an ironic story of unintended consequences. Studies in this mode have been
written by James Turner in the case of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century
America, by Alan Kors in the case of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century
France, and by Michael Buckley in the case of early modern Europe generally.14

11 J.G.A. Pocock, Clergy and Commerce: the Conservative Enlightenment in England, in LEt
dei lumi: studi storici sul Settecento europeo in onore di Franco Venturi, vol. 2 (Napoli: Jovene,
1985), 52562; idem, Conservative Enlightenment and Democratic Revolutions: The
American and French Cases in British Perspective, Government and Opposition, 24(1988):
81105; idem, Post-Puritan England and the Problem of Enlightenment, in Culture and
Politics from Puritanism to the Enlightenment, ed., P. Zagorin (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1988), 91111; cf. J.D. Burson, Towards a New Comparative History of
European Enlightenments: The Problem of Enlightenment Theology in France and the
Study of Eighteenth-Century Europe, Intellectual History Review, 18, 2 (2009): 17387.
12 J.C.D. Clark, English Society, 16601832: Religion, Ideology and Politics in the Ancien Regime,
2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 1938.
13 See D. Berman, A History of Atheism in Britain: From Hobbes to Russell (London: Routledge,
1988), 1102; W.L. Arnstein, The Bradlaugh Case: A Study in Late Victorian Opinion and
Politics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965).
14 J. Turner, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1985); A.C. Kors, Atheism in France, 16501729: The Orthodox
Sources of Disbelief (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990); M. Buckley, At the
8 Introduction

Each of these authors tells a story in which the arguments and understand-
ingsof orthodox Christians in defence of their religion were used by subse-
quent believers and unbelievers to unorthodox ends. According to these
historians, through a dialectical process in the fields of philosophy, theology,
and science, the arguments and understandings offered in defence of ortho-
dox theistic belief and practice eventually became the ground on which
unbelief and atheism were defended.15 To take one example, Buckley argues
that the early modern appropriation of Stoic natural theological arguments in
their defence of the Christian religion prepared the way for a joint repudiation
once the theistic conclusions of Stoic natural theology were seriously ques-
tioned. To their credit the histories of orthodoxys unintended atheistic conse-
quences capture the very real sense in which atheism and unbelief emerged
from within the worldview of early modern religious believers themselves.16
But by focusing on intellectual developments which arrived at a particular
given outcome, such as a recognizably modern form of speculative atheism,
the history of atheisms orthodox sources can obscure the ways in which reli-
gious apologetics did not simply contribute to the development of atheism,
however dialectically, but actually reinforced anti-atheist assumptions, argu-
ments, and assertions with a broad sociopolitical purchase that lasted for
The second narrative of the history of unbelief and atheism is an under-
ground story. Put briefly, historians who write in this mode read between the
lines of texts and beneath the surface meaning of archival material in order try
and reconstruct the expression and articulation of irreligion, unbelief, and
atheism, prior to the possibility of its public avowal without severe penalty.17
At its best this approach has been practiced by Carlo Ginzburg, David Berman,

Origins of Modern Atheism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987); idem, Denying and
Disclosing God: The Ambiguous Progress of Modern Atheism (New Haven: Yale University
Press, 2004).
15 For a defence of the historical-dialectical methodology, see Buckley, Origins, 125.
16 The joint emergence of modern atheism and modern theism serves as the guiding thread
to Gavin Hymans A Short History of Atheism (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010) as well as Patrick
Mastersons Atheism and Alienation: A Study of the Philosophical Sources of Contemporary
Atheism (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1971).
17 C.J. Sansoms highly entertaining historical fiction, the Shardlake series, portrays six-
teenth-century Englishmen and women wrestling with fundamental questions of reli-
gious belief, including atheism, in the midst of a series of murder mysteries in the 1530s.
See the first two volumes: Dissolution (New York: Macmillan, 2003), and Dark Fire
(NewYork: Macmillan, 2004).
Introduction 9

David Wootton, and others.18 Early modern texts on subjects such as the nature
of God, the immortality of the soul, the nature of the universe, or the relation-
ship between religion and political society, are closely examined for the
potential presence of unbelief or atheism based on an inquiry into textual
ambiguities, ironies, subversions, and inconsistencies. Archive material in
which more popular views are recorded, such as inquisitorial reports, are ana-
lyzed for what they might reveal about a potential undercurrent of irreligion,
unbelief, or atheism. Like all historical methodologies, this approach has its
hazards.19 The attribution of ambiguity or ironic subversion in a given text can
be a matter of intense scholarly dispute, much of which depends on the presup-
positions of the historian in question, presuppositions themselves embedded
in the historians view of her task as an historian and in her view of the period
in general. In this sense, historians of underground unbelief and atheism con-
front the hermeneutic circle most acutely.20 Moreover, where the irreligious,
unbelieving, and allegedly atheistic views being expressed in archive material
were recorded by individuals in positions of authority, the historian must face
the fact that such authorities often inscribed their views in highly patterned
forms of thought which can also skew the conclusions drawn from them.21

18 C. Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller,
trans. J. and A. Tedeschi (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980); Berman; D.
Wootton, Paolo Sarpi: Between Renaissance and Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1983); idem, Unbelief; idem, Lucien Febvre and the Problem of
Unbelief in the Early Modern Period, The Journal of Modern History, 60, 4 (1988): 695730;
idem, Pierre Bayle, Libertine? Oxford Studies in the History of Philosophy, ed. M.A. Stewart,
vol. 2. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 197226; idem, Introduction to C. Marlowe,
Doctor Faustus with the English Faust Book, ed. D. Wootton (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2005),
vixxiv; idem, Galileo: Watcher of the Skies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010);
M. Hunter and D. Wootton, eds., Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992). The classic account of the mentality of the early mod-
ern period with respect to unbelief, irreligion, and atheism, to which Wotton in particular
has responded, is L. Febvre, The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion
of Rabelais, trans. B. Gottlieb (Cambridge, ma: Harvard University Press, 1982).
19 Cf. P.O. Kristeller, The Myth of Renaissance Atheism and the French Tradition of Free
Thought, Journal of the History of Philosophy, 6, 3 (1968): 23343; A. Cromartie, The God
of Thomas Hobbes, The Historical Journal, 51, 4 (2008): 85779.
20 For one of the best discussions of the hermeneutic circle, in relation to the vexed question
of biblical interpretation, see P. Ricoeur, Preface to Bultmann, in The Conflict of
Interpretations: Essays in Hermeneutics, ed. D. Ihde, new ed. (Chicago: Northwestern
University Press, 2007), 381401.
21 Cf. N.Z. Davis, Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990); Ginzburg, xv, xviixviii, and especially xxiii.
10 Introduction

Despite these concerns, however, underground histories of atheism have very

importantly drawn attention to the kinds of material and the methodological
approaches to primary sources which have revised historians understanding
of the hegemony of orthodox religiosity in the early modern period. It is now
uncontroversial to claim that irreligion, unbelief, or atheism prior to 1700 was
not always dependent on Christian theism for its expression. But it should also
be noted that a rejection of anti-atheist assumptions, arguments, and asser-
tions did not necessarily imply a rejection of Christianity altogether. This does
not mean that there were no early modern forms of irreligion, unbelief, or
atheism, but rather that the determination of potentially subversive utterances
demands a broader sense of the relevant discursive structures in which such
utterances were deployed. Given its overwhelming predominance between
1580 and 1720, anti-atheist confutation is unquestionably one such highly rel-
evant discourse.

This book begins with an analysis of the Reformation anxieties in which athe-
ists represented an intolerable danger and ends with an examination of the
anti-atheist reply to Mandevilles claim that the truly intolerable danger was
not the existence of atheists, but the clergymens fiery apologetic rhetoric in
the public square.22 Building on the perceptive suggestions made by Michel de
Certeau, in which the early modern European concern with atheists is por-
trayed as a fear of an other parallel to the fear of witches, this book estab-
lishes a much wider evidentiary basis from which to draw conclusions about
early modern atheist anxieties than has hitherto been the case.23
The first two chapters of this book outline the new anxieties generated by
atheism in the early modern period and the predominant discursive response
to the newly perceived atheist threat: that of confutation. Chapter 1 surveys
theways in which atheists were attacked and atheism was characterized in the
wake of the Reformation and the Renaissance. It describes the prevalent fear
that religious division caused the spread of atheism and the worry that the
rediscovery and redistribution of ancient atheistic texts had watered the seeds

22 Cf. Berman, 176.

23 M. de Certeau, The Writing of History, trans. T. Conley (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1988), 1345, 1534; de Certeaus suggestion about the similarity of witches and
atheists as others has been recently explored in L. Dixon, William Perkins, Atheisme,
and the Crises of Englands Long Reformation, Journal of British Studies, 50, 4 (2011):
Introduction 11

by which ancient atheism was regenerated. Chapter 2 identifies the primary

response to atheism from the late sixteenth to the early eighteenth century as
utilizing the rhetorical technique of confutatio derived from Ciceronian theo-
ries of oratory. Confutation enabled early modern Christian apologists deploy-
ing all manner of textual media to collect as many traditionally derived
arguments as they could against atheism, while simultaneously encouraging
apologists to use all of the discursive weapons at their disposal to characterize
the atheist as an inversion of personal, social, and political order. Together,
these chapters demonstrate the pervasiveness of an identifiable set of religious
assumptions and classically derived patterns of argument which structured
the response to the perceived growth of atheism between the Reformation and
the Enlightenment in England.
Chapters 3 and 4 analyze the ways in which Epicurus and Plato were literally
and figuratively central to anti-atheist discourse in early modern England. The
threat of atheism perceived in Epicureanism expressed many of the challenges
traditional apologetics faced under one especially widespread label, while
Platonism was redeployed by an influential group of Christian apologists in
order to respond to the newly revived Epicurean threat. As Chapter 3 will show,
Epicurus and Epicureanism represented one of the most potent sources for
perceptions of atheism in the minds of early modern anti-atheist apologists
because the Epicurean view on the nature of God, matter, and morals seemed
to be diametrically opposed to the traditional truths of the Christian religion
about creation, providence, and eternal judgment. For most religious apolo-
gists in this period atheist Epicurus was the embodiment of an immoral sin-
ner who proudly lived as he pleased, in defiance of God and his commands.
However, Chapter 3 will show that more complicated views of Epicurus
emerged in the latter half of the seventeenth century. It will trace the ways in
which the anti-atheist apologist and physician Walter Charleton tried to show
how Epicurean doctrine could be compatible with the Christian religion. It will
show how natural scientists, such as Robert Boyle, and clerical apologists for
the new science, such as Joseph Glanvill, emphasized the ways in which their
atomism differed from Epicureanism and its negative moral connotations. And
it will be seen that several writers, including the diplomat William Temple,
attempted to vindicate Epicurus moral philosophy against longstanding preju-
dicial views. By 1700 the standard apologetic view of Epicurus as an atheist and
Epicureanism as a system of atheism remained widespread, but this outlook
was no longer the sole perspective for a Christian apologist to take.
Chapter 4 examines the anti-atheist responses of three Cambridge Platonists
published between 1650 and 1680 and shows how each of these highly learned
scholars used a Christian Platonist philosophy to answer the materialist atheist
12 Introduction

as embodied in the hedonist stereotype of Epicurus and perceived Epicureans

such as Thomas Hobbes. Henry More, John Smith, and Ralph Cudworth were
Cambridge academics who utilized a Platonist conception of the relationship
between virtue, character, and the apprehension of truth to argue that atheists
and Epicureans were vicious characters sullied in sensuality and therefore
incapable of using reason to arrive at the truth. By drawing on the most recent
natural philosophy, a practical conception of religious piety, and an elaborate
storehouse of Renaissance erudition, these three scholars were among the
most influential anti-atheists of the seventeenth-century, and were read by
themost important of their contemporaries, from Robert Boyle to John Locke.
Together Chapters 3 and 4 show how central the assumptions about atheism
were to nearly every aspect of early modern thought, from politics to popular
piety, and to the anxieties generated by changes in theology, moral philosophy,
natural science, and politics. The Cambridge Platonist response to atheism
captures the great lengths to which some of the periods sharpest minds went
in their attempt to adjust to these developments, very often to conventional
anti-atheist ends.
Chapter 5 explores the relationship between religious apostasy and atheism
in late seventeenth-century England through the recirculation of a story about
a sixteenth-century Italian figure by the name of Francis Spira. From the time
of Spiras death in 1548, the supposed result of religious apostasy, his story was
used by Protestants to warn against the dangers of religious vacillation. Such
wavering was powerfully associated with atheism in the 1680s, 1690s, and early
1700s through the appearance of English Spiras. These exemplary tales about
the dangers of apostasy portrayed their protagonist as a victim of his own vac-
illation, in some cases caused by the purported adoption of libertinism and the
attendant atheistic philosophy of Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza, and Blount.
Anxieties about religious disputes, fears about the spread of immorality, and
doubts generated by new philosophies with respect to the grounds of religious
faith were each linked to the perception that apostasy and atheism were on the
rise. Where Chapter 4 outlines the Cambridge Platonists highly intellectual-
ized response to the atheistic threat they perceived in Hobbes revived
Epicureanism, Chapter 5 traces the Francis Spira stories as a more popular
response to the apostate-atheistic threat. It will be seen that English Spira sto-
ries embodied familiar fears about the uncertainty of religious belief and
called for a reformation of manners as an effective response.
Chapters 6, 7, and 8 focus on the perception that atheists posed an immi-
nent threat to the existence of English political society, and on the means by
which the first authors to reject the assumptions and arguments which sup-
ported that perception arrived at their conclusions. Exploring the centrality of
Introduction 13

religion to early modern apologists vision of politics, Chapter 6 shows how

pervasive the argument based on the universal consent of mankind in the
belief in a deity was in early modern England and how apologists responded to
questions about the validity of universal consent based on potential excep-
tions in antiquity and the new world. Chapter 7 examines an important
change within anti-atheist discourse on the subject of personal and political
happiness wherein many clergymen began to emphasize an argument for
Gods existence against atheists based on a probabilistic quasi-Pascalian wager
and a hedonic calculation about mans terrestrial and eternal happiness.
Between 1690 and 1720 especially, many apologists adopted this anti-atheist
argument in sermons about mans true happiness because it spoke directly to
the atheist on what were assumed to be his own preferred terms: those of
terrestrial self-interest.
Chapter 8 traces a series of challenges to anti-atheist confutation issued
between 1680 and 1720 by Blount, Locke, Bayle, Shaftesbury, and Mandeville.
Blount, Locke, and Shaftesbury rejected central aspects of anti-atheist confuta-
tion, in form and content, from a perspective which championed a supposedly
unbiased philosophical pursuit of truth. Combined with Bayles profoundly
shocking assertion that an atheist could be virtuous, in direct contrast to early
modern anti-atheist assumptions, Shaftesbury was then the first to propose
that a polite form of criticism was the best means by which to defend the truth
of Gods existence and of theistic religion. After showing that traditional anti-
atheists such as the poet Richard Blackmore could take up aspects of
Shaftesburys project, Chapter 8 concludes with Mandevilles controversially
naturalistic analysis of human nature, his claim that atheists were politically
nonthreatening, and his suggestion that the anti-atheist Christian apologist
should be banned from the public square for the good of society.
Together Chapters 6, 7, and 8 show that anti-atheist assumptions derived
from confutation remained pervasive throughout the seventeenth century and
how anti-atheist clerics embraced new forms and patterns of anti-atheist apol-
ogetic argument when they were presented with atheist or libertine challenges.
One of the important ways in which anti-atheist apologists did so was by
adapting a hedonic perspective on the question of virtue and happiness in
order to respond to the criticisms of deists and freethinkers. Although confuta-
tion exerted a nearly hegemonic influence on the nature of early modern anti-
atheism, the two were not inseparably linked. As will be seen in the books
conclusion, eighteenth-century anti-atheism was in many respects consistent
with preceding conventions, but it was increasingly freed from the rhetorical
strictures of confutation. Christian apologists in the eighteenth century
increasingly shifted the ground of their defences from the rhetorical triumph
of the Christian religion to the philosophical triumph of truth.
chapter 1

Anxieties about Atheism

The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.

Psalms 14:1

St Augustine who could and would oppose himself as a wall for the house
of God against so many insolencies as are practised now adays in defi-
ance of it: but by none more freely than by those who are so farr from
alleaging any thing of a hand of true or false God in what passes in the
world, that they too too shamefully presume publickly to own those blas-
phemies, which in good King Davids time, some, who perchance had so
little witt and graces as to be of their opinion in their hearts, yet were wise
and civill as to keep their thoughts to themselves. Against such Poyson
this whole Tract of St Augustine is a most excellent Antidote.
Digitus Dei, or, God Appearing in his Wonderfull Works. For the Conviction of

In early modern England Christian apologists felt besieged on all sides by

threats to God and to true religion. One of the most potent and portentous of
these threats was atheism, repeatedly depicted in terms which suggested it was
overturning the ship of Christian society.2 As the Anglican clergyman Richard
Allestree tellingly described it in The Causes of the Decay of Christian Piety
(1667), the true religion of Christianity which had once triumphed over pagan
polytheism was now inverted by the progress of Atheism.3 As a symbol of
this decline and destruction Allestrees original text was emblazoned with a

1 Preface to Augustine, Digitus Dei, or, God Appearing in his Wonderfull Works. For the Conviction
of Nullifidians, [trans. Anon.] (London, 1676). This work is a translation of book 22, Chap. 8 of
De civitate dei.
2 Throughout this chapter and all following chapters atheism will be used in accordance with
its early modern meaning and will not appear in quotes to distinguish it from our narrower
contemporary use.
3 R. Allestree, The Causes of the Decay of Christian Piety (London, 1667), 30. All shortened refer-
ences will be to this edition. Extending the sense of anxiety by using Allestrees title, John
Spurr has said that decline of Christianity was so widespread an anxiety that it can be con-
fidently identified as one of the fundamental components of Restoration Anglicanism.
J. Spurr, The Restoration Church of England, 16461689 (New Haven: Yale University Press,
1991), 234.

koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2015|doi 10.1163/9789004288164_003

Anxieties About Atheism 15

title-page image of a ship engulfed in flames (Figure1), the same providential

embers which had swept through London the year before in the Great Fire of
1666, destroying old St Pauls Cathedral in the process (Figure 2). Anxieties
about atheism had reached a fevered pitch.

Figure1 Title page, R. Allestree, The Causes of the Decay of Christian Piety, London, 1667.

Figure2 Title page, R. Allestree, The Causes of the Decay of Christian Piety, London, 1704.
From Gale. Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO). 2011
Gale, a part of Cengage Learning, Inc. Reproduced by permission.
16 chapter 1

The first scattershot attacks on atheism in England had occurred in the wake of
the Reformation, over 100 years prior to Allestrees anxious warning. From an
initially small number of relatively disparate assaults on atheism, a genre of
religious discourse dedicated to the confutation of atheism was generated in
the form of more or less systematic works of Christian apologetics.4 This highly
flexible and capacious genre thrived between 1580 and 1720 when many dozens
of texts were written specifically to combat the perceived progress of athe-
ism.Accused atheists such as Christopher Marlowe, prosecuted for profaning
God, spreading unorthodox beliefs, and promoting unchristian behaviour, or
Thomas Hobbes, the materialist philosopher cited in Parliament as a cause
of Londons Great Fire, not to mention the seemingly numberless Christian
atheists, men who lived as if there were no God and deviated from the truth of
the Christian religion, were repeatedly maligned and incessantly attacked as
the apocalyptic sign by which the triumph of Christianity was being inverted
and undermined.5 Both Daniel Scargill, an alleged atheist disciple of Hobbes,
and Thomas Aikenhead, a Scotsman hanged for atheism in 1697, were instances
of flesh-and-blood atheists to their contemporaries.6 When the philosopher
John Locke anonymously made his case for religious toleration at the end of
the seventeenth century, he did so by making a notable exception: there was to

4 Cf. J.A. Redwood, Reason, Ridicule and Religion: The Age of Enlightenment in England 1660
1750 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1976); M. Hunter, The Problem of Atheism in Early
Modern England, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Fifth Series, 35 (1985): 13557.
5 See: The Baines Note, bl Harley ms.6848 ff.18586. Robert Greene had already accused
Marlowe of atheism in Epistle to Peremides the Blacksmith (London, 1588). For a similar set
of assumptions, associated with the theatre, see Cyril Tourneur, The Atheists Tragedie: Or, The
Honest Mans Revenge (London, 1612). On Marlowe and atheism see David Riggs, The World of
Christopher Marlowe (London: Faber and Faber, 2004). For Hobbes as cause of the Great Fire,
see Calendar of State Papers Domestic: Charles ii, 16667, vol. 175 (1864), 20 October 1666. For
a recent view of Hobbes relationship to atheism, see A. Cromratie, The God of Thomas
Hobbes, The Historical Journal, 51, 4 (2008), 85779.
6 See D. Scargill, The Recantation of Daniel Scargill (Cambridge, 1669); P.H. Kocher, Christopher
Marlowe: A Study of His Thought, Learning, and Character (Chapel Hill: The University of
North Carolina Press, 1946); D. Berman, A History of Atheism in Britain: From Hobbes to Russell
(London, 1988), 5761; S.L. Mintz, The Hunting of Leviathan: Seventeenth-century Reactions to
the Materialism and Moral Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1962), 502; M. Hunter, Aikenhead the Atheist: The Context and Consequences of
Articulate Irreligion in the Late Seventeenth Century, in Atheism from the Reformation to the
Enlightenment, eds., M. Hunter and D. Wooton (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), 22154;
M.F. Graham, The Blasphemies of Thomas Aikenhead: Boundaries of Belief on the Eve of the
Enlightenment (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008).
Anxieties About Atheism 17

be no toleration for atheists.7 According to Locke and virtually all of his con-
temporaries, including John Tillotson, Archbishop of Canterbury, an atheist
could not take an oath of allegiance to a domestic sovereign because that oath,
the foundation of political society, was guaranteed by a God whose existence
the atheist denied.8
In short, between the Reformation and the Enlightenment there was a sub-
stantial and growing set of anxieties about the spread of atheism in England as
in Europe more generally. In A Confutation of Atheisme, published in 1605, the
clergyman John Dove pleaded for more apologists to address the abundance of
Atheistes in his time.9 The French Catholic theologian Marin Mersenne
famously said that Paris in the 1620s was overrun with thousands of atheists.10
Writing in 1652 The Darkness of Atheism Expelled by the Light of Nature, the
physician and natural philosopher Walter Charleton lamented the late
producedswarms of Atheisticall monsters.11 A translation of the Huguenot
biblical scholar Louis Cappels anti-atheist confutation of 1643, La Pivot de la
Foy et Religion, published in 1660 as The Hinge of Faith and Religion, began by
noting that there were more Atheists and profane persons than ever were.12
In his 1664 dialogue, A Preservative Against Atheism and Error, William Saller
admitted that atheism and error had always existed, but declared never more
so than at this day.13 In La Lumire de la Raison Oppose aux Tnbres de
lImpiet: Contre Les Athes, originally published in 1664 and partially trans-
lated in 1674 as The Arraignment and Conviction of Atheism, the Huguenot

7 [J. Locke], A Letter Concerning Toleration (London, 1689), 48.

8 J. Tillotson, The Lawfulness, and Obligation of Oaths a Sermon Preachd at the Assises Held
at Kingston upon Thames, July 21, 1681 (London, 1681), 2. On Locke and Tillotson, see
Chaps. 3, 6, 7, 8.
9 J. Dove, A Confutation of Atheisme (London, 1605), Letter dedicatory.
10 Mersenne made the exaggerated claim about the number of atheists in Paris in
Quaestiones in Genesim (Paris, 1623), but see also, for a French work related to those dis-
cussed in this and the following chapter, M. Mersenne, LImpiet des Deistes, Athees, et
Libertins (Paris, 1624); cf. F. Garasse, La Doctrine Curieuse des Beaux Esprits de ce Temps
(Paris, 1626). For the French context see J.S. Spink, French Free-Thought from Gassendi
to Voltaire (London: Athlone Press, 1960); M. Buckley, At the Origins of Modern Atheism
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 5667.
11 W. Charleton, The Darkness of Atheism Dispelled by the Light of Nature: A Physico-
Theological Treatise (London, 1652), To the Reader.
12 L. Cappel, The Hinge of Faith and Religion; or, A Proof of the Deity against Atheists and
Profane Persons, by Reason, and the Testimony of Holy Scripture, trans. P. Marinel (London,
1660), 12.
13 W. Saller, A Preservation against Atheism and Error (London, 1664), To the reader.
18 chapter 1

philosopher David Derodon spoke of his regular contact with the atheists he
set out to confute.14 Henry Cares introduction to Jean-Bapiste Morins 1655
work, De vera cognitione Dei, translated in 1672 and republished in 1683 as The
Darkness of Atheism Expelled by the Light of Nature, observed How spreading
and Epidemical the Contagion of Atheism is grown of late.15 And the rising
tide of atheism was still growing in 1699 according to the anonymous Mystery
of Atheism: Atheism is so strangely encreasd among us of late Years, and grown
to that height, that like a torrent it overflows the Banks and Boundaries of
Laws, and hath almost carried away all Religion before it.16

(i) Reformation Anxiety about Atheism

From the outset of the Reformation, anxieties about atheism had manifested
themselves in three general ways: as anxiety about manifold sinful practices
which contradicted the truth of the Christian religion, as anxiety about errone-
ous beliefs which contradicted the truth of the Christian religion, and as anxi-
ety about the spread of both of these forms of atheism in European Christendom
as a consequence of religious division following the Reformation, a division
which was thought to have led to an inversion of personal, social, and political
order.17 To the men and women living through the religious crises of the six-
teenth and seventeenth centuries, atheism was much more than an intellec-
tual denial of Gods existence. It included any deviation from the practices of
the Christian religion which necessarily implied a denial of the true God, the
true religion, and the personal, social, and political order in which these truths
were inscribed. Practice and belief were inextricably linked, then, so that it was
virtually impossible for religious apologists of this period to sever the connec-
tion between right belief and right living.18 Between the Reformation and the
Enlightenment, atheism was regarded as not only an intellectual denial of
Gods existence and a corresponding life which manifested this unbelief in

14 D. Derodon, The Arraignment and Conviction of Atheism; Or, an Exact and Clear
Demonstration by Natural Arguments, That There is a God, trans. J. Bonhome (London,
1676), To the Christian Reader.
15 J.-B. Morin, The Darkness of Atheism Expelled by the Light of Nature, trans. H. Care (London,
1683), Preface.
16 AB, The Mystery of Atheism (London, 1699), Preface.
17 Cf. Redwood, Reason, 1627, 3648.
18 Spurr has focused on this aspect of the Restoration Church (2358), emphasizing the new
pitch of this clerical complaint, but, as he notes, it was more generally a post-Reformation
Anxieties About Atheism 19

practice through unrepentant sin, but it was also identified as any deviation
from right belief and right living in irreligion and heresy.
The frequent division of atheism into its practical and speculative compo-
nents mirrored the anxieties it generated. Most basically, in early modern
England practical atheism meant living as if God did not exist. To live as if God
did not exist meant living as one pleased, to proudly invert the Creator-creature
relationship, fundamental to traditional Christianity, without any regard for
the economy of divine justice in the afterlife. Given that public statements of
speculative atheism were likely to be met with severe punishment in the early
modern world, accusations of practical atheism such as that levelled against
Marlowe were typically the basis upon which speculative atheism was identi-
fied. The corresponding assumption for early modern religious apologists was
that speculative atheists would cover their atheism under a cloak of seeming
orthodoxy. In other words, an intelligent speculative atheist would have seen
that it was not in his interest to publicly espouse atheism because it would be
severely punished. The Christian atheist, as the Anglican clergyman Henry
Hammond put it in one of his sermons, is very orthodox in his opinion, [but]
very heretical in his practice.19
The anxiety generated by atheist hypocrisy in this period and fear of its
prevalence was given very powerful sanction through the use of Scripture. The
apostle Pauls letter to Titus (1:16) they know God, but in works deny him
was often connected to hypocritical practical atheism. In a commentary on
this text published in 1612, the Church of England clergyman Thomas Taylor
argued that atheists questioned the promise of Christs return, doubted heaven,
hell, and the immortality of the soul, but conformed in outward profession:
in reality they were beastly Epicures, who live unmooveably from their carnall
delights, and sensuall pleasures.20 This was a point made repeatedly through-
out the seventeenth century.21 Hypocritical atheists believed one thing
internally and said or did another publicly, so that the fool who denied God in
Psalm 14:1 was synonymous with the practical atheist. As Allestree put it in the
Decay of Christian Piety, the hypocrite was Davids Atheist.22 Because public

19 H. Hammond, Sermons (London, 1675), 248; T. Taylor, The Principles of Christian Practice
(London, 1635), 525; J. Lightfoot, The Works of the Reverend and Learned John Lightfoot
(London, 1684), 1102 (from a sermon preached in April, 1666).
20 T. Taylor, A Commentarie upon the Epistle of S. Paul Written to Titus (London, 1612), 37, 327.
21 A. Grosse, Sweet and Soule-Perswading Inducements Leading unto Christ (London, 1642),
4245; C. Love, The Natural Mans Case Stated (London, 1652), 257; M. Barker, Natural
Theology (London, 1674), 68; J. Scott, The Christian Life (London, 1686), 145.
22 Allestree, Decay of Christian Piety, 224; S. Clarke, Medulla Theologiae (London, 1659), 150;
A. Golding, Letter dedicatorie to P. du Plessis Mornay, A Worke Concerning the Trewness
20 chapter 1

conformity to Christian orthodoxy hid the sinful practices with which it was
identified, from ungodliness and unreasonableness to perjury and the sins
of Sodom, practical atheism was also associated with virtually every form of
allegedly deviant behaviour.23
If practical atheism was the life of sinful man, hypocritically professing
belief in God while living as if God did not exist, speculative atheism was an
intellectual rejection and denial of God or a deviation from true beliefs about
God. To early modern religious apologists speculative atheism was so absurd as
to be incomprehensible. They thought most men were more interested in liv-
ing in a state of rebellion to God, according to the pleasures of sense. Atheists,
it was assumed, were therefore prepared to accept the otherwise irrational
belief that God did not exist or to endorse a heterodox view of Gods nature,
but were not impelled to atheism by rational objections to God. The French
Protestant leader Philippe du Plessis Mornay (15491623), whose popular
Trait de la vrit de la religion chrtienne (1581) was translated as Of the
Trewnesse of the Christian Religion in 1587 and republished three times thereaf-
ter, had written that an atheist denied God by suppressing reason, drowning it
in beastly pleasures.24 This was one of the most common explanations of
speculative atheism throughout the seventeenth century. Only an unnatural
monster, it was said, rejected the reasoned arguments of natural theology.25
Speculative atheism was also held to involve the denial of any of Gods ortho-
dox attributes as the expression of unbelief in the God of true religion.26

of the Christian Religion, trans. A. Golding and P. Sidney (London, 1587), and Preface; M.
Fortherby, Atheomastix (London, 1622), put Psalm 14:1 on its title page, and made the con-
nection between the Psalm and hypocritical atheism at 107; similarly, see J. Taylor,
Eniautos: A Course of Sermons for all the Sundaies of the Year (London, 1653), 262; T. Ford,
Aytokatakritos or, the Sinner Condemned of Himself (London, 1668), 94, 1012.
23 See: G. Downame, Two Sermons (London,1608), 100; R. Steele, An Antidote against
Distractions (London, 1667), 656; T. Pierce, A Decad of Caveats to the People of England
(London, 1679), 250; R. Baxter, Description, Reason & Reward of the Believers Walking with
God (London, 1664), 160; J. Owen, An Humble Testimony unto the Goodness and Severity of
God (London, 1681), 37; P. Pett, The Obligation Resulting from the Oath of Supremacy
(London, 1687), 10; J. Flavel, Divine Conduct (London, 1678), 5; T. Watson, A Body of Practical
Divinity (London, 1692), 22.
24 du Plessis Mornay, Preface. For other uses of beast in relation to atheism see T. Shepard,
The Sincere Convert (London, 1640), 10, 112. Grosse makes a very similar point at 4234.
25 Barker, 34, 66; M. Hale, The Primitive Origination of Mankind (London, 1677), To the
reader; R. Broughton, The First Part of the Resolution of Religion (London, 1603), 60.
26 T. Gale, The Anatomie of Infidelity (London, 1672), 1435; F. Cheynell, The Divine Triunity
(London, 1650), Letter dedicatory.
Anxieties About Atheism 21

In this sense, unbelievers as diverse as Muslims, Jews, and polytheist pagans

were all atheists, as the subtitle of du Plessis Mornays apology indicated:
Contre les Athes, Epicuriens, Paiens, Juifs, Mahumedistes, & autres Infidels.
Alternate nomenclatures for atheism tended to confirm this binary conception
as both a total denial and a partial deviation from orthodoxy.27 A distinction
frequently made between open and closed atheism overlapped with the
speculative/public, practical/private division. And what was sometimes called
coloured atheism represented any kind of heterodox divergence.28
When Francis Bacon defined atheism in Of atheisme, one of the original
essays he published in the 1590s and revised in new editions of his work from
1614 onwards, he did so in accordance with a reading of Psalm 14:1 in which the
practical atheist desired to live free of God and consequently of all spiritual
and temporal authority. Only later did Bacons atheist then embrace the specu-
lative argument as a consequence.29 Defending his confutation of atheism,
Bishop of Salisbury Martin Fotherby defined atheism by both its practical and
speculative elements in his posthumously published Atheomastix of 1622.
There he castigated the atheist as an unreasonable disputer, a brute beast, and
the Psalmists hypocrite:

the prime end of this Worke, is, to confute all those, which either dispute
against Gods Essence and being, as the direct Atheist doth; or, against his
Providdence and governing, as the Epicure doth, who is an indirect
Atheist: and to prove both of these to be men, not only destitute of all
Piety and Religion, but also of common sense and reason. And further, to
shew unto those acute Naturalists, who hold it a servility to be led with
brutish-beleeving, and will therefore entertaine no more of Religion then
they find to be consonant unto Reason; that here they may find reason for
their Religion. All which severall kinds and degrees of Atheists, it is not

27 N. Ingelo, A Sermon Preached at St. Pauls Church in London, April 17 1659 (London, 1659),
44, 756. J. Preston, Life Eternal (London, 1631), 245.
28 W. Perkins, A Golden Chain (London, 1600), 10134; idem, A Godly and Learned Exposition
of Christs Sermon in the Mount (1608), 46; T. Adams, Englands Sicknes, Comparatively
Conferred with Israels (London, 1615), 78; W. Mason, A Handful of Essaies (1621), 145; W.
Slayter, The Compleat Christian (London, 1643), 250; J. Owen, Exercitations Concerning the
Name, Original, Nature, Use, and Continuance of a Day of Sacred Rest (London, 1671), 418; J.
Milton, Of True Religion (London, 1673), 16; H. Care, The History of Popery (London, 1682),
161. On Perkins and atheism, see L. Dixon, William Perkins, Atheisme, and the Crises of
Englands Long Reformation, Journal of British Studies, 50, 4 (2011): 790812.
29 F. Bacon, Essaies (London, 1598), Of atheisme, n. p.
22 chapter 1

more incongruous for me to confute, amongst believing Christians, then

it was for the Psalmist to confute the same, amongst believing Jewes.30

More direct definitions of atheism tended to complement the practical-

speculative divide. In an essay published in 1657 William Sprigg defined athe-
ism as not acknowledging a Deity.31 Edward Phillips 1658 dictionary The New
World of English Words defined atheism as ungodlinesse, a being of no
Religion.32 Joseph Alleines popular catechism of 1674 asked What is Atheism?
and answered: The having of no God.33 As defined by Elisha Coles An English
Dictionary of 1677, atheism was simply the Doctrine of an Atheist, who
believes there is no God.34 Each of these definitions invoked the sense in
which atheism was understood as a wilful refusal to acknowledge or believe
in God, most often portrayed as a direct consequence of ungodly behaviour.
In early modern England anxiety about atheism was typically expressed in
terms related to the relationship between reason, nature, and grace. Thus,
atheism was frequently portrayed as an act of rebellion against God and the
truth of the Christian religion derived from Adams original sin. By inverting
the relationship between the Creator and the created, wherein man put him-
self above God, Adams sin in Eden was characterized as the primordial mark
of atheistic pride. In one of his sermons John Donne made this exact point,
noting, Whilest you are without Christ, you are without God. It is an Atheisme,
with Saint Paul, to be no Christian.35 This state of nature, being apart from
God and his grace, was portrayed as a state of a-theism. Naturall men are
Atheists, wrote the eloquent Scottish philosopher and minister Hugh
Binning.36 In 1642 the clergyman Alexander Grosse described Adams alien-
ation from God in Eden in precisely these terms. The sin of natural man alien-
ated God, and as such men were counted Atheists in the esteem of God
because Every man that lives under the power of profanenesse is a very
stranger to God in his way and worke of grace and holinesse.37 In 1678 the
presbyterian minister John Flavell spoke of the natural Atheism in the hearts

30 M. Fotherby, Atheomastix (London, 1622), Preface to the reader.

31 W. Sprigg, Philosophicall Essayes (London, 1657), 64.
32 E. Phillips, The New World of English Words (London, 1658), n. p.
33 J. Alleine, A Most Familiar Explanation of the Assemblies Shorter Catechism (London, 1674),
72. Alleines catechism was also published in 1672, 1674, 1682, 1690, 1700, 1701.
34 E. Coles, An English Dictionary (London, 1677), n. p.
35 J. Donne, Fifty Sermons (London, 1649), 244.
36 H. Binning, The Common Principles of Christian Religion Clearly Proved (Glasgow, 1667), 79.
Binnings text was also published in 1659, 1660, 1663, 1671, 1672.
37 Grosse, 2923, 42334.
Anxieties About Atheism 23

of man as a seed nourished in the rejection of Gods providence.38 Others,

including John Hall of Richmond and the nonconformist minster Thomas
Manton, agreed. Hall argued that grace was required to save man from his
natural Atheism, while Manton suggested the Diffidence and Incredulity so
deeply rooted in mans nature were in fact the the Relicks of Atheism and
Unbelief.39 The clergyman William Gurnall admonished his readers to put on
the biblical armour of God, cultivating godliness in contrast to natural mans
Atheisme, irreligion, and profanenesse.40
Yet even these fairly clear declarations underscored a sense of ambivalence
about the relationship between atheism, nature, and grace. When the Bishop
of Ireland, Jeremy Taylor, suggested in 1653 that naturally a man cannot be an
atheist, he was making a complementary if seemingly contradictory point: a
dogmatic speculative atheist was impossible.41 For the many early modern
English apologists, postlapsarian man was indeed corrupted by sin, but mans
sinful nature did not completely erase the indelible marks of God and religion
or mans ability to reason. Rather, when apologists spoke of natural atheism,
they were drawing on the ambiguous sense in which it was natural for sinful
man to live as he pleased, to live as a practical atheist whose implicit denial
of God could never be fully vindicated through an equally natural rational
Not only was postlapsarian man in a state of sin, he was constantly alienat-
ing God and Gods grace by being tempted towards atheism in both belief and
practice. Something of this anxiety about alienation was expressed by the con-
troversialist Thomas Edwards in his 1646 diatribe against religious schism, the
Gangraena, which repeatedly linked atheism to the irreligion and heresy of
which it was a manifestation.42 More consistently, religious apologists of the
period tended to link the atheism of alienation with a violation of Gods law as
expressed in the Decalogue. William Slatyer, a midcentury Church of England
clergyman, described the violation of the first commandment as atheism, the
having no God, either caused by doubting or a prophane life.43 In 1645
the Archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher, wrote similarly, arguing that atheism

38 Flavel, 174.
39 J. Hall, of Government and Obedience (London, 1654), 165; T. Manton, A Fourth Volume
Containing One Hundred and Fifty Sermons on Several Texts of Scripture (London, 1693),
40 W. Gurnall, The Christian in Compleat Armour (London, 1655), 233. This was an extremely
popular text published dozens of times in the seventeenth century.
41 Taylor, Eniautos, 16970.
42 T. Edwards, Gangraena (London, 1646), 18, 114, 133, 146, 157, 163, 164, 170.
43 W. Slatyer, The Compleat Christian (London, 1643), 2489, 252, 253.
24 chapter 1

represented the first commandments inversion, failing to practice true reli-

gion by correctly understanding God in his Word, and in his Works.44 The
Calvinist puritan John Davenport argued that a violation of the first command-
ment was a species of atheism because it denied Gods all-sufficiency.45 The
reason God so urgently insisted on the observation of the Decalogue, another
minister claimed, was that any deviation was liable to lead one down the slip-
pery slope of an atheists progress: first to think little of God, and then by little
and little to inure men to prophanity, and habituate them to baffle and affront
the Name of God.46 Irreligion and Atheism, according to the biblical scholar
and apocalyptical writer Joseph Mede, was a failure to acknowledge and serve
God, one that foolishly ignored Gods justice and goodness. Mede maintained
that Gods justice in the punishment of sin was one of the strongest Motives to
make an Atheist confess there is a God.47 Indeed, as Thomas Manton argued
in one of his many sermons, suppressing the justice of Gods judgment
breedeth Atheism and hardness of Heart.48
Clearly a persistent cause for anxiety about atheism derived from the
division within Christendom caused by the Reformation and the Reformation
concern with irreligion, ungodliness, and sin.49 A very early use of the word
atheism, found in Miles Coverdales preface to his translation of Heinrich
Bullingers The Hope of the Faythful (1555), linked the ungodly Epicure to the
Italian Atheoi who like the Epicureans and Stoics to whom Paul preached
in Athens rejected the doctrine of resurrection.50 In the dedicatory letter to
an early translation of Jean Calvins De scandalis (1550), an apologetic work
written to strengthen the faithful in defence of the Gospel and published in
English as Concernyge Offences in 1567, Arthur Golding connected Epicurisme
and atheism as states of no Religion caused by the same selfish pride by
which Adam had set his own desires above those of God in Eden.51 Golding

44 J. Ussher, A Body of Divinitie (London, 1645), 2145.

45 J. Davenport, The Saints Anchor-hold, in All Storms and Tempests (London, 1661), 17475;
Ejected minister T. Adams The Main Principles of Christian Religion in a 107 Short Articles
or Aphorisms (London, 1675) makes a very similar point at 845.
46 J. Durham, A Practical Exposition of the x. Commandements (London, 1675), 41, 124.
47 J. Mede, The Works of the Pious and Profoundly-learned Joseph Mede (London, 1672), 148.
This text was published in slightly different forms in 1648, 1650 1664, 1677.
48 Manton, 283.
49 For further discussion of the anxiety about atheism generated by irreligion, ungodliness,
and sin, see Chap. 3.
50 H. Bullinger, The Hope of the Faythful, trans. M. Coverdale (London, 1555), Preface.
51 A. Golding, Epistle dedicatory to J. Calvin, A Little Booke of Iohn Caluines Concernynge
Offences, trans. A. Golding (London, 1567). On Calvins work in relation to atheism, see
Anxieties About Atheism 25

also translated Calvins commentary on the Psalms into English, where, in

Goldings own preface, he referred to Atheistes as the fool of Psalm 14:1.52
In keeping with the Calvinist literature that concerned itself with distinguish-
ing true religion from idolatry and superstition, du Plessis Mornay, whose
Trewnesse was translated by Philip Sidney and Arthur Golding, wrote that
Atheisme was an utter Godlesnes like that of Epicures who denied God in
order to feel free from sin.53
Many anti-atheist confutations followed similar causal paths. John Doves
Confutation identified five causes of atheism, including the dearth of Gospel
preaching, the temptation of the devil, and the lenience of magistrates.54 Louis
Cappel attributed the growth of atheism to the abundance of worldly sins and
the propagation of error.55 In The Unreasonableness of Atheism made Manifest,
Charles Wolseley identified six causes of atheism, from Erastianism and the
pernicious influence of Thomas Hobbes, to the prevalence of derision, perjury,
contempt of Scripture, and the revival of Democritus and Epicurus atomist
philosophy.56 In his Natural Theology of 1674 the Independent minister Mathew
Barker outlined 11 causes of atheism, from the quintessential atheist desire to
live as one pleased, to atheist arguments which included reasoning about
second causes, the unequal distribution of justice, and the diversity of human
opinion.57 When the Calvinist clergyman John Edwards published Some
Thoughts Concerning the Several Causes and Occasions of Atheism in 1695,
he identified them on long-established grounds: ignorance of religion, derision
of religion, religious division, sin, injustice, and, explicitly echoing Bacons
Of atheisme, periods of learned philosophy and prosperity.58

L. Febvre, The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais, trans.
B. Gottlieb (Cambridge, ma: Harvard University Press, 1982), 12731.
52 A. Golding, Epistle dedicatory to J. Calvin, Psalmes of David and Others, with M. John
Calvins Commentaries, trans. A. Golding (London, 1571).
53 du Plessis Mornay, Preface.
54 Dove, 714. Cf. Buckley, 306, which adheres too closely to Leonard Lessius as a com-
pletely representative example for defending Christianity. For Lessius argument in
English see Rawleigh His Ghost, trans. A.B. (London, 1631).
55 Cappel, Hinge, 24.
56 C. Wolseley, The Unreasonableness of Atheism Made Manifest, 3rd ed. (London, 1675), 147,
1925, 35. Two earlier editions of Wolseleys Unreasonableness were published in 1669.
57 Barker, 3742, 45, 4850, 523, 556.
58 J. Edwards, Some Thoughts Concerning the Several Causes and Occasions of Atheism,
Especially in the Present Age (London, 1695), 3, 78, 22, 28, 34, 38, 423, 48, 52, 59, 634; cf.
P. de La Touche Boesnier, A Preservative against Atheism in Infidelity, [trans. Anon.]
(London, 1706), Introduction.
26 chapter 1

Such Reformation anxieties about atheism reveal the fundamentally binary

conception of the nature of true religion and its opposites in the early modern
period and why atheism had such a wide application.59 Atheism was typically
described as any form of religious error and equivalent to all the unbelief man-
ifested in any significant deviations from orthodoxy, including idolatry, super-
stition, infidelity, and heresy. As such, atheism was often located along a
spectrum of misbeliefe, as in Thomas Jacksons A Treatise Containing the
Originall of Unbeliefe, Misbeliefe, or Misperswasions concerning the Veritie,
Unitie, and Attributes of the Deitie (1625). Along this continuum, atheism was
very often placed in opposition to superstition, a delineation consistent with a
well-known classical argument derived from Plutarchs Moralia. Plutarchs Of
Superstition, which was translated along with the rest of the Moralia several
times in the seventeenth century, placed atheism and superstition on the
opposite extremes from true belief. This particular description was itself high-
lighted by Plutarchs English translator, Philemon Holland, in his summary of
the essay in 1603.60 Complementary to this continuum was that of irreligion,
used by the Catholic controversialist Richard Broughton in the same year as
Hollands translation of Plutarch. Broughton defended God and the Christian
religion by arguing that the most urgent task facing Christian society was the
establishment and defence of true religion against infidels, heretics, Atheists,
Epicures and Nullifidyans.61 The Plutarchan continuum placed true belief as
an Aristotelian mean between superstition and atheism, while the irreligion
continuum placed true religion between infidels and heretics on the one side,
and atheists and Epicureans on the other. Thomas Jackson deployed both
vocabularies in his many volumes on the Apostles Creed.62 From the middle of
the seventeenth century onwards, descriptions of atheism continued to iden-
tify it as a deviation from true religion, as a form of irreligion and heresy, and

59 On the central importance of binary thinking in this period, see S. Clark, Thinking with
Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1999); P. Lake, Anti-popery: The Structure of a Prejudice, in Conflict in Early Stuart
England: Studies in Religion and Politics 160342, eds., R. Cust and A. Hughes (Harlowe:
Longman, 1989), 72106; idem, Anti-puritanism: The Structure of a Prejudice, in Religious
Politics in Post-Reformation England, eds., K. Fincham and P. Lake (Woodbridge: Boydell,
2006), 8097.
60 Plutarch, The Philosophie, Commonly called the Morals, trans. P. Holland (London, 1603),
258 for Philemons summarie. This edition was republished and corrected in 1657.
A new translation was published in 1686 and republished in 1691 and 1694.
61 Broughton, Epistle to the Reader.
62 Jackson, Originall of Unbeliefe, Section i, Chaps. 18. The Eternall Truths of Scriptures, and
Christian Beleefe (London, 1613), passim.
Anxieties About Atheism 27

employed analogous comparisons which contrasted atheism with enthusi-

asm or characterized atheism as an extreme form of doubt opposite to
true faith.63
Anxieties about atheism were expressions of the religious division gener-
ated by the Reformation and were recognized as such by early modern reli-
gious apologists themselves. As might be expected of an elite French Protestant
writing to Henri of Navarre, du Plessis Mornay began the Trewnesse by stating
that even those who acknowledged a God, the immortality of the soul, and
providence, might yet profess no religion because of the great diversity of
religions they saw around them.64 A short tract on ecclesiology by George
Cranmer, originally written to Richard Hooker in 1598 and republished during
the civil wars, attributed the sudden growth of the cursed crew of Atheists to
the disputes and disunity generated by the Reformation. In 1646 the puritan
minister William Dell expressed his concern over reformation and godliness
by linking the evident hypocrisy he saw around him to inward unbelief
and Atheism.65 From a Restoration perspective, the nonconformist Richard
Steel suggested that the civil wars had led people to adopt atheism by generat-
ing religious division.66 A sermon preached in 1679 by James Duport, Dean
of Peterborough, continued to insist that a pure reformed religion and a refor-
mation of manners were the only means of overcoming civil war divisions
and thereby stopping the progress of atheism.67 The Anglican clergyman
William Lloyd took a different approach, but to the same effect. He argued
that the cry of Popery had actually furthered the cause of religious schism
by generating political disobedience and political rebellion, the causes of
civil war and the death of Charles I, which subsequently led to Irreligion and
Given the binary contrast between the one true religion and religious error,
atheism was widely deployed in early modern England as an accusation of

63 See H. Hammond, Of Superstition (London, 1642), 57. On enthusiasm, see H. More, An

Antidote against Atheisme (London, 1652/3), Preface; Hall, of Government and Obedience,
328, 411; for faith-doubt see: A. Burgess, An Expository Comment, Doctrinal, Controversal,
and Practical upon the Whole First Chapter to the Second Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians
(London, 1661), 365, 6967.
64 du Plessis Mornay, Preface.
65 G. Cranmer, Concerning the New Church Discipline (London, 1642), 14, 156; W. Dell, Right
Reformation (London, 1646), 7, 24.
66 Steele, 656.
67 J. Duport, Three Sermons (London, 1676), 80.
68 W. Lloyd, A Sermon Preached before the King & Queen at White-Hall, March the Twelfth,
1689/90 (London, 1690), 25, 2930.
28 chapter 1

heterodoxy and deviation by Protestants against Catholics, Catholics against

Protestants, and Protestants against Protestants. The controversialist Henry
Care, for instance, could simultaneously translate the Catholic Jean-Baptiste
Morins rationalist defence of God and religion, and also attack Catholicism as
atheism, because obedience to the pope and belief in transubstantiation were
to him both forms of idolatry.69 In the same way, Church of England clergymen
could attack all forms of Protestant sectarianism and schism as atheism, and
the accusation could be returned in kind.70 It was an accusation not only
directed at adversarial beliefs, but also at adversarial practices which were
characteristically thought to endorse sin, to presage disorder, and to herald the
coming of Gods providential judgement a judgment which had come down
on London as a city of sin in the Great Fire of 1666.

(ii) Renaissance Anxiety about Atheism

But above all, the Hot-braind Atheist Crew,

That ever Greece, or Rome, or Britain knew,
Wave all their Laurels, and their Palms to You.
Spinoza Smiles, and cries The Work is done;
L-----T shall Finish; (Satans Darling Son:)
L-----T shall Finish, what Spinoza first Begun
Hobbes, Milton, Blount, Vanini with him join;
All equally Admire the Vast Design.
Then to the Trumpets, and the Clarions Sound;
The giddy Goblers whirls in Eddies round,
To L-----Ts Health: on Earth may L-----T dwell!

69 Care, Popery, 1616; section title: Popery is a kind of atheism, proved in many
70 For a concise example see the pamphlet exchange between T. Good, Firmianus and
Dubitantius (London, 1674) and E. Bourne, An Answer to Dr. Good (Lodon, 1675), as well as
the anonymous tract Certaine Quairies Offered to the Consideration of All (London, 1675).
Most anti-atheist works were directed at a rival confession, but for some specific instances
see: Smith, Gods Arrow, Chap. 5, against Catholics, 58100, Chap. 6, against schism, 1004;
T. Jackson, The Third Booke of Commentaries vpon the Apostles Creede Contayning the
Blasphemous Positions of Iesuites and Other Later Romanists, Concerning the Authoritie of
Their Church (London, 1614), Chap. 5, 27794; L. Anderton, The Reformed Protestant
Tending to Atheism (London, 1621); against heresy: Cheynell, Triunity; against Protestants:
T. Anderton, Soveraign Remedy against Atheism and Heresy; against Socinianism: Edwards,
Some Thoughts, passim.
Anxieties About Atheism 29

Late may we have his Presence here in Hell!

Till he the Glorious Work has done: They cry,
Till Christian Churches all in Ruins lye:
Abel Evans, The Apparition: A Poem (1710)

In a 1679 commentary on the biblical parable of the prodigal son entitled

The Penitent Pardoned, John Goodman connected the story of the lapsed
Christian to an atheists progress, where sin led a swaggering Hector to
become an easy Proselyte to the Hobbian Philosophy, and a licentious
Voluptuary to become an Epicurean Atheist.71 This path was one specifi-
callyavoided in John Bunyans The Pilgrims Progress (1678), when Christian
and Hopeful encountered Atheist on their way to Mount Zion. Atheist
laughed at their attempt to find the City of God and instead took up his resi-
dence in the World.72 Fears about the progress of atheism were in a very real
sense also fears about an atheists progress: the atheist eventually settled in
this world instead of continuing on his pilgrimage. By signalling Hectors
mortal pride in The Illiad, Thomas Hobbes philosophical materialism, and
Epicurus hedonism, John Goodman pinpointed three sources of anxiety about
atheism derived from the Renaissance. The Renaissance revival of classical
texts in the studia humanitatis included the recirculation of ancient material-
ist philosophy, most notably that of the Greek philosopher Epicurus and the
Roman poet Lucretius. The appropriation of this ancient materialism by
alleged atheists such as Niccol Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza,
John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, and Charles Blount, was an extremely impor-
tant additional cause for anxiety about atheism in early modern England. This
appropriation in turn led to the repeated rearticulation of the truth of the
Christian religion by religious apologists. While this rearticulation was quite
often traditional, mirroring the efforts of the Church Fathers such as Augustine,
who fought for the triumph of Christianity by confuting the pagans and phi-
losophers of his day, there was also a significant attempt on the part of some
religious apologists to adapt their arguments to the challenge which ancient
materialism posed on the grounds of moral and natural philosophy. When he
delivered his Boyle Lectures in 1697, lectures Robert Boyle hoped would be a
platform from which alleged atheists would meet the most sophisticated natu-
ral, moral and theological arguments, John Harris set his sights squarely on

71 J. Goodman, The Penitent Pardoned (London, 1679), Preface, 76.

72 J. Bunyan, The Pilgrims Progress (London, 1678), 1824. See also the very similar discussion
in J. Bunyan, The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (London, 1680), 15662.
30 chapter 1

these targets: Machiavel, Spinoza, Hobbs, Blount and all the late Atheisticall
As we have already seen above, and will see at much greater length in
Chapter 3, Epicurus was associated with atheism from the moment that word
entered the English vernacular during the Reformation. While the doctrines of
Epicurus philosophy were important to concerns in early modern England
about the spread of atheism, both practical and speculative, Epicurus was
most typically associated with the doctrine of hedonism. One of the most
prominent sources for ideas about Epicurus and Epicureanism in this period
was the negative portrait given by the Roman orator, statesman, and philoso-
pher, Cicero. When Cicero described Epicurus account of volupta in frequently
cited dialogues such as De finibus, De natura deorum, and De officiis, for
instance, early modern religious apologists took this Latin word for pleasure to
be the sinful pleasures of the flesh, voluptuousness. As a denomination of
abuse, Epicures were voluptuous hedonists who, contrary to the truth of the
Christian religion, pursued material, worldly goods to the exclusion of higher
goods, as if there was no God and no eternal reward and punishment like Ben
Jonsons character in The Alchemist, Epicure Mammon. An Epicure was thus
another common synonym for practical atheism. Aside from some important
exceptions which will be explored in Chapter 3, there was often little attempt
to understand Epicurus teaching on ethics sympathetically, let alone his natu-
ral philosophy. If Augustine had not deigned to dispute with Epicureans in De
civitate dei because Epicurean philosophy was so obviously a philosophical jus-
tification of the City of Man, early moderns were inclined to follow his lead.
Instead, Epicureanism was constantly characterized as an inverted ethical sys-
tem which justified the disorderly satisfaction of mans basic animal desires at
the expense of the goods of the mind and soul. Epicurean natural philosophy,
based, it was regularly said, on an insupportable doctrine of infinite and

73 J. Harris, The Atheistical Objections against the Being of a God, and His Attributes (London,
1698), 20. Boyle had himself hinted at these kinds of connections in R. Boyle, The Christian
Virtuoso (London, 1690), Preface: But though I am not so little acquainted with the pres-
ent Age, as to expect to plead for Religion with the Approbation of Atheists, or of
Libertines, yet I shall not think my Pains altogether mispent, if what I have written, either
Startle any Irreligious Reader so far, as to Engage him to consult abler Assertors of
Christianity and Virtue, than I pretend to be; or else prove so happy, as to Confirm and
Strengthen, by new Arguments and Motives, those that have heartily embraced the
Christian Faith and Morals, though perhaps not upon the firmest Grounds. See also
Redwood, Reason, 1038. On Boyles will and the establishment of the lectures in accor-
dance with his longstanding apologetic aims, see M. Hunter, Robert Boyle: Between God
and Science (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), Chap. 14.
Anxieties About Atheism 31

indestructible atoms whirling about chaotically in the void of space, was pri-
marily understood as an attempt to justify what Allestree called Davids athe-
ist, or living as one pleased.
Yet Epicurus works had been long since lost or destroyed. What was known
about Epicureanism derived from Roman sources like Cicero or Seneca and,
particularly in the wake of the Italian Renaissance, Greek sources like Diogenes
Laertius or Plutarch. The revival of Epicureanism as a threat synonymous
with atheism was largely a product of the rediscovery and rearticulation of
Epicureanism as found in De rerum natura, the lengthy philosophical poem by
Lucretius. De rerum natura provided an imaginative and systematic account
of the natural world on Epicurean principles namely, eternally existing,
infinitely numbered, infinitesimal atoms in the void of space. After his poem
was rediscovered and widely disseminated by Poggio Bracciolini in the early
fifteenth century, Lucretius tended to be seen as an atheist foil against which
early modern Christian apologists could set themselves.74 Upon Epicurus
atomic principles Lucretius attempted to offer the most compelling explana-
tion of the nature of the universe. The depiction of Lucretius passed down by
Church Fathers such as Jerome and Lactantius, however, was that of a hedonist
whose alleged insanity and suicide were the manifestation of the folly of deny-
ing God and living in defiance of God. It was a character sketch which remained
a staple of the Christian tradition for centuries. Most religious apologists
between the Reformation and the Enlightenment regarded Lucretiuss poem
as the clearest distillation of Epicureanism available and it was, in their estima-
tion, Lucretius aim to defend Epicurean natural philosophy and provide an
account of how the natural universe operated which dethroned the twin cults
of the state and of the gods for the purpose of indulging in a life of sensual
pleasure. Given that the eternal existence of matter and the chaotic concate-
nation of atoms in the void of space contradicted Gods creation, Gods provi-
dential concern in the affairs of men, and Gods justice in the afterlife, the
revivification of Lucretius generated a powerful opponent against whom early
modern religious apologists felt compelled to state and re-state the truth of the
Christian religion.75

74 As has been imaginatively recounted by S. Greenblatt, In The Swerve: How the World
became Modern (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011). For further context see C. Wilson,
Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 138.
75 See the notes on De rerum natura, in which Lucretius Epicurean Atheism (Notes upon
the First Book, 15) is refuted: Lucretius, Lucretius His Six Books of Epicurean Philosophy,
trans. T. Creech and J. Dryden (London, 1700).
32 chapter 1

In very many important ways Thomas Hobbes was seen by his contempo-
raries as the reincarnation of Epicurus and Lucretius, the ancient Atheists.76
For stating in Leviathan (1651) that happiness was based on pleasure and pain
and that religion was based on the fear generated by ignorance of second
causes, amongst a series of other arguments alarming to most of his contem-
poraries, Hobbes was thought to have embraced Epicureanism and the re-
articulation of Epicureanism in Lucretius poem. The clergyman William Lucy,
for instance, compared Hobbes work extensively with De rerum natura and
hunted out all the many parallels he could find in his Observations, Censures,
and Confutations published in several different books.77 According to Lucy,
Hobbes agreed with Epicurus and Lucretius that pleasure is the happinesse,
the chiefe good of man, and that this pleasure consisted of enjoying sensuall
Contentments. Lucy also thought that Hobbes followed Epicurus and
Lucretius in recommending pleasure because he writes against the fear of the
Gods and, pointing to Books i, v, and vi of De rerum natura, because it was
the greatest piece of happinesse, to abhorre Religion and contemne it. Thus
Hobbes shakes hands with Epicurus, restricting the enjoyment of pleasure to
this world alone.78 While scholars have shown that it would be a mistake to
think of Hobbes as an isolated thinker without orthodox Christian sympathiz-
ers, he was frequently linked with the revival of Epicurean and Lucretian posi-
tions which were synonymous with atheism and which were thought to be
responsible for the inversion of Christianitys triumph.79

76 W. Reeves, The Apologies of Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Minucius Felix, In Defence of the
Christian Religion, vol. 2 (London, 1708), 221: The Seekers are now rising again, and sitting
up the Arms of the ancient Atheists, and rallying all their scatterd Forces under new
Generals; and by the help of Spinoza, Hobbs, and some fresher Scepticks, Criticks, Rights-
men, Commentators and free Thinkers, seem to be in great hopes of retrieving the Day,
against God and all good Men.
77 W. Lucy, Examinations, Censures and Confutations of Divers Errours in the Two First
Chapters of Mr. Hobbes His Leviathan (London, 1657); idem, Observations, Censures and
Confutations of Divers Errors in the 12, 13 and 14 Chap. of Mr. Hobs His Leviathan (London,
1658); idem, Notorious Errours in Mr. Hobbes His Leviathan (London, 1663); idem, Second
Part of Observations, Censures and Confutations (London, 1673).
78 Lucy, Observations, Censures and Confutations, 2637.
79 Mintz; Q. Skinner, Visions of Politics, vol. iii: Hobbes and Civil Science (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2002); J. Parkin, Taming the Leviathan: The Reception of the
Political and Religious Ideas of Thomas Hobbes in England, 16401700 (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2007). Parkin prefers taming to hunting Leviathan
because this more accurately reflects, he argues, the ways in which Hobbes ideas were
actually approached i.e. appropriation and confutation (my words, not Parkins) were
not necessarily mutually exclusive. For more on the reception of Hobbes, see Chap. 4.
Anxieties About Atheism 33

If Hobbes was a portentously real example of an ancient Atheist revived at

midcentury, Baruch Spinoza joined Hobbess company after his Tractatus
Theologico-Politicus was published in 1670.80 For those contemporaries con-
cerned about Hobbes and Spinoza, such as the Cambridge divine Ralph
Cudworth, their supposedly atheist philosophies were nearly identical, par-
ticularly in terms of the consequences for the truth of the Christian religion.81
Both thinkers, it was said, were materialists who denied the existence of the
spiritual dimension; both held that matter was eternal, that God was material,
and that creation ex nihilo was nonsensical; both thinkers denied the spiritual
substance of the soul and held unorthodox views about divine judgment and
the afterlife; both thinkers unfavourably compared the truth of the Christian
religion with the infidel religions of Judaism and Islam, as well as the pagan
polytheism of the ancients and foreign societies in America, Africa, and Asia;
finally, both thinkers questioned the veracity of Scripture and the orthodox
Christian truths derived from it according to natural reason alone.82 In his
Boyle Lectures of 1704, under the marginal heading of Spinozas Opinion
confuted, Samuel Clarke identified Spinoza directly as the most celebrated
Patron of Atheism of our Time.83 One of the most worrying aspects of
his philosophical doctrine, on top of those he was thought to share with
Hobbes, was political. In the words of Thomas Tenison, later Archbishop of
Canterbury, the Atheist Spinoza had left one maxim as his legacy for political
peace: That the Object of Faith is not Truth but Obedience, and the quiet
of human Society.84 In an argument widely attributed to Machiavelli, early

80 J. Israel has now extensively traced reactions to Spinoza as the central feature of
the Enlightenment in both The Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of
Modernity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) and Enlightenment Contested:
Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
81 For an account of Cudworths moral philosophy in terms of contemporaries such as
Hobbes and Spinoza, see J.A. Passmore, Ralph Cudworth: An Interpretation (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1951); Mintz, Chap. 4.
82 On Cudworth, see Chap. 4. On Spinoza and Hobbes as having the same ideas about sub-
stance: J. Keill, An Examination of Dr. Burnets Theory of the Earth Together with Some
Remarks on Mr. Whistons New Theory of the Earth (London, 1698), 6.
83 S. Clarke, A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God; More Particularly in Answer
to Mr. Hobbes, Spinoza, and Their Followers (London, 1705), 50.
84 T. Tenison, The Difference Betwixt the Protestant and Socinian Methods (London, 1687), 58;
cf. M. Earbery, Deism Examind and Confuted in an Answer to a Book Intitled, Tractatus
Theologico Politicus (London, 1697); M. Craig, A Satyr against Atheistical Deism with the
Genuine Character of a Deist (Edinburgh, 1696).
34 chapter 1

modern apologists very often understood the atheist as someone who thought
religion was a political ruse by which mens fears could be manipulated.85 If
Hobbes stood as a powerful symbol of an ancient Atheist revived, this potency
was further reinforced by Machiavelli and Spinoza, who, in addition to being
Epicurean materialists, were also thought to have resuscitated the supposedly
Lucretian argument which subordinated religion to the needs of the state
a subordination which once again heralded the inversion of Christianitys
One of the most notorious figures of the Restoration, John Wilmot, Earl of
Rochester, more typically embodied for his contemporaries what it meant to
be an atheist. As a court wit and libertine in the entourage of Charles ii,
Rochester unashamedly pursued sensual pleasure as he succinctly put it in
The epilogue to Circe, tis still better to be pleased than not.86 A professed
disciple of Hobbes, Rochester was a worryingly real example of the complete
atheist: one who embraced atheist speculative principles (Hobbes) and lived
as a practical atheist (Epicurus/Lucretius) in light of those principles.87 On the
clergyman Gilbert Burnets telling in Some Passages of the Life and Death of
John, Earl of Rochester (1680), Rochesters life was a kind of rakes progress
analogous to the atheists progress Bunyans Christian had avoided. The
Libertine Overthrown; or, a Mirror for Atheists (1690), a summary of Burnet and
the funeral sermon for Rochester delivered by Robert Parsons similarly used
Rochesters life as a cautionary tale in the midst of what it regarded as the
growth of Impiety and Atheism. Rochester had apparently made it his
Business to argue against [] Religion, and placd his Bliss and Happiness, []
in carnal Pleasures and sensual delights. Rochesters pursuit of pleasure inevi-
tably led to extreme intemperance he told Burnet he had once been drunk
for five days straight! and the attempt to support and strengthen these ill
Principles both in himself and others. An atheist like Rochester, it was
assumed, could not possibly live at ease with himself unless he convinced oth-
ers to believe and live as he did. The attempt to strengthen these ill Principles
supposedly led Rochester to say that he never knew an entire Atheist who
fully beleivd there was no God: yet when he explaind this notion of this Being,
it amounted to no more than a vast power, that had none of those Attributes of
Goodness or Justice, we ascribe to the Deity. There were reports, The Libertine

85 On Machiavelli, see Chap. 2. On Spinozas argument that religious superstition was based
on fear, see Harris, Atheistical Objections, Lecture 3.
86 J. Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, Selected Works, ed. F. Ellis (London: Penguin, 2004), 71.
87 W. Chernaik, Sexual Freedom in Restoration Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1995), 24.
Anxieties About Atheism 35

Overthrown continued, that Rochester thought morality something to be

observed merely for the sake of convention, if at all. Most importantly, as
Burnet and Parsons aimed to show, this notorious libertine and presumed
atheist was led to a deathbed conversion in which he affirmed Burnets moral-
ism.88 Even the progress and supposed triumph of atheism had to meet the
ultimate testimony of death for these clergymen, which made audible the
ineradicable voice of conscience stamped by God on human nature.
As we will see at greater length in Chapter 8, the controversialist Charles
Blount was widely feared and attacked as an atheist alongside Hobbes, Spinoza,
and Rochester. Speculatively, Blounts alleged deism was understood as a spe-
cies of atheism in that, like Epicureanism, Gods particular providence was
denied. When the classicist Richard Bentley gave the first Boyle Lectures in
1692, he attacked deism as a species of atheism for this exact reason.89 But it
was Blounts insincere defence of Christianity, viewed as a kind of anti-apology
profanely mocking the triumph of sacred truth, which specifically raised the
ire of contemporary religious apologists. In Anima Mundi (1679) Blount sur-
veyed pagan theories of the soul and afterlife by juxtaposing lengthy discus-
sions of unorthodox views with simple statements of Christian orthodoxy.
In Great is Diana of the Ephesians (1680) and Two First Books of Philostratus
concerning the Life of Apollonius Tyaneus (1680) Blount used the cover of com-
parative history and translation to bury criticism of the traditional truths of
the Christian religion, attacking the rationality of the doctrine of the Eucharist
and the priestcraft of clergymen. In 1683 Blount published a work which bor-
rowed heavily from Hobbes and Spinoza, Miracles, No Violations of the Laws of
Nature, a title which belied what amounted to a denial of any empirical evi-
dence for miracles. Finally, in The Oracles of Reason (1693), a miscellany of
essays dedicated to Hobbes which investigated a wide range of subjects, Blount
(and others) expressed doubts about Scripture, about the possibility of revela-
tion, about the immateriality of the soul, and endorsed the doctrine of the
eternity of matter. This combination of arguments and attitudes earned Blount
many traditional responses defending the truth of the Christian religion, from
Thomas Brownes Miracles, Works Above and Contrary to Nature, or, An Answer
to a Late Translation out of Spinozas Tractatus theologico-politicus, Mr. Hobbss
Leviathan, &c. Published to Undermine the Truth and Authority of Miracles,
Scripture, and Religion (1683), to Josiah Kings Mr Blounts Oracles of Reason,
Examined and Answerdin which His many Heterodox Opinions are Refuted, the

88 [G. Burnet?] The Libertine Overthrown; or, a Mirror for Atheists (London, 1690), 2, 4, 5, 9.
89 The title of Bentleys first Boyle lecture/sermon: The Folly of Atheism, and (what is now
called) DEISM (London, 1692).
36 chapter 1

Holy Scriptures and Revealed Religion are Asserted, Against Deism & Atheism
(1698). The perceived progress of atheism in the early modern period fre-
quently met dozens of defenders of orthodoxy.
Hobbes, Spinoza, Rochester, and Blount were some of the most recogniz-
able figures who drove the anxiety about the revival of ancient Atheists to
new heights by revising ancient materialism and challenging the natural,
moral, and political truth of the Christian religion. There were two natural
philosophical responses to this atheist revival: the first was a restatement of a
traditional defence of Christianity, and the second was an appropriation of the
new scientific theories of atomism developed in the seventeenth century
within a modified theistic natural philosophy.90 Both of these responses could
be sophisticated, and both were seen by many contemporaries as convincingly
refuting atheist materialists like Hobbes. As we will see in Chapter 3, those who
appropriated atomism and adopted the empiricism of a new natural philoso-
phy, from Francis Bacon to Robert Boyle and the Boyle Lecturers, had to explain
how their atomism was to be distinguished from that of their rivals, the sup-
posedly materialist atheists. The defence of Gods creation, the immaterial and
immortal existence of the soul, and the workings of providence, were all chal-
lenged by the adoption of ancient atomism, and required a restatement by
natural philosophers who argued that atomism was compatible with the truth
of the Christian religion. Provided it was understood correctly as a thesis which
was dependent upon the orthodox nature of the Christian God God created
matter, God and the soul were immaterial and eternal, God necessarily upheld
the working of the natural universe, and God was actively interested in the
affairs of mankind they argued that atomism did not inherently imply athe-
ism.91 Notable members of the Royal Society such as Robert Boyle and Joseph
Glanvill attempted to demonstrate this compatibility by showing how atom-
ism in natural philosophy did not infringe upon the truth of the Christian reli-
gion, but strengthened it by enhancing the admiration and praise due to a
perfectly wise, powerful, and good God, revealed in the created order, opera-
tion, and ends of nature. A revision of atomism could therefore lead to a

90 Renaissance Paracelsianism was a potential third response, but will not be examined
here. The separation between scholasticism and atomism can be overdrawn. As Chap. 3
will show, apologists like Richard Baxter could employ both scholastic and modern phi-
losophy. On Evolving Aristotelianism see L.M. Principe, The Scientific Revolution (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2011), 902.
91 Boyle, Virtuoso, 9: if any of the Cultivaters of Real Philosophy pervert it to countenance
Atheism, tis certainly the fault of the Persons, not the Doctrine; which is to be judgd of
by its own natural Tendency, not by the ill Use that some bad Men may make of it; and
also 103.
Anxieties About Atheism 37

restatement of Christian orthodoxy, and in many ways the anxiety generated

by atheism in this period led to the development of a powerful natural theol-
ogy which remained influential for centuries.
There were similar attempts by early modern religious apologists to adapt
aspects of materialism in moral and political thought in order to defend the
truth of the Christian religion. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth
century, some religious apologists adopted a kind of Christian hedonism pre-
mised on Epicurean atoms and the principle of pleasure as the supreme end
and happiness of man. In order to do so they needed to show where their hedo-
nism was to be distinguished from that of the alleged atheists like Lucretius
and Hobbes, and how it could be compatible with a traditional conception of
the truth of the Christian religion. In A Discourse Upon the Nature of Eternitie
(1655), William Brent argued that Epicurus placed mans chief good in pleasure
because genuine pleasure was found in the golden meane of temperance, and
not in the exorbitant use of wine, of play, of gluttony, and women.92 The
Anglican divine and mathematician Isaac Barrow suggested, in a sermon on
duty delivered in 1671, that men and women performed good deeds because
it was pleasing. To Barrow this represented a more accurate picture of
Epicureanism which was not completely at odds with Christian orthodoxy.
A man may be vertuously voluptuous, Barrow insisted, and a laudable
Epicure by doing much good; for to receive good, even in the judgment of
Epicurus himself, (the great Patron of Pleasure) is no wise so pleasant as to do
it.93 Brent and Barrow were not alone in this adaptation, as Chapter 7 will
show at much greater length. Many early modern divines adopted a hedonist
psychology without deviating from religious orthodoxy.94
The challenge posed by naturalistic textual criticism, joining Renaissance
scholarship and philosophical materialism, was also met by early modern
Christian apologists. Hobbes and Spinozas supposedly atheistic attack on the
Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch was a criticism repeated by Blount and
part of a celebrated debate of biblical criticism between the Swiss Arminian
theologian Jean Le Clerc and the French Catholic theologian Richard Simon in
the 1680s. Apologists such as Ralph Cudworth read closely by Le Clerc saw
the naturalistic implication of Hobbes and Spinozas criticisms as the blind-
ness of atheists who were not willing to follow the logic of reasonable

92 W. Brent, A Discourse upon the Nature of Eternitie (London, 1655), 35.

93 I. Barrow, The Duty and Reward of Bounty to the Poor in a Sermon Preached at the Spittal
upon Wednesday in Easter week, Anno Dom. MDCLXXI (London, 1671), 1423.
94 See J. Marshall, John Locke: Resistance, Religion and Responsibility (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1994), 1224.
38 chapter 1

arguments made in the light of reason and the light of faith. If ancient atheist
atomism was a corruption of an even older theist atomism, as Cudworth
argued at length in his massive True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678),
any naturalist-materialist criticism of Scripture could likewise be reconciled
with the golden age of the Mosaic priscia theologia and the philosophia
perennis an eternal and immutable theology and true philosophy known and
taught by Moses which had been gradually corrupted by paganism and recov-
ered by the Church Fathers. Whatever doubts Hobbes and Spinoza might have
raised about the Mosaic authorship of Scripture, for Cudworth and most of his
contemporaries these doubts could not outweigh the fact that Moses teach-
ings had been confirmed by the testimony of miracles, a sign which prefigured
the similarly miraculous confirmation of the teachings of Jesus Christ. To call
the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch into question was to call into ques-
tion the authority of the New Testament and the Christian religion itself.
Cudworths confutation of atheist biblical criticism, echoed by the Boyle
Lecturers and many others, was an extension of a traditional Augustinian
interpretation of Scripture and of the logic of the natural theology which
Bacon had put in paradigmatic form nearly a century before in his essay Of
atheisme: atheists failed to reason about nature correctly by restricting their
reflections to material nature alone. Instead of viewing the history, events, and
composition of Scripture through the eyes of faith, it seemed as if atheists such
as Hobbes and Spinoza favoured their natural eyes exclusively, unreasonably
content, like Bunyans Atheist, to live in the City of Man.
In keeping with an exercise in Renaissance humanism in which the values
of antiquity were explored dialogically and their relationship to modern life
debated through comparison and contrast, Charles Blount had placed his bib-
lical criticism within an investigation of the ancient pagan past and its poly-
theistic religion. Early modern religious apologists like Richard Allestree,
steeped as they were in both the pagan and the patristic literatures, were alert
to these kinds of techniques and vigorously reaffirmed the Augustinian posi-
tion in which Christianity had triumphed over polytheism. But Allestree and
his contemporaries also had to wrestle with the fact that pagan polytheism had
been revived in the European encounter with diverse non-Christian societies
throughout the globe. Debates about the existence of a society of atheists and
about the religion of ancient pagan societies joined debates about the religion
of the societies encountered in America, Africa, and Asia. As we will see at
greater length in Chapter 6, there was a traditional argument about the exis-
tence of ancient Greek atheists such as Diagoras of Melos which was used by
religious apologists to undermine the possibility of the existence of a society of
atheists. If Diagoras was an atheist, it was sometimes said, he was only an
Anxieties About Atheism 39

atheist because he denied the polytheism of the ancient Greeks, not because
he denied the existence of God altogether he derided false gods and so was
not a meer Atheist.95 It was noted that Platos Socrates had been executed for
similar reasons, and that the early Christians had themselves been described
as atheists a charge which Justin Martyr had famously refuted for denying
the polytheism of the Roman empire.96 Many religious apologists conse-
quently argued that the newly encountered societies of America, Africa, and
Asia, were actually further proof of Gods existence in that they reaffirmed
Ciceros consensus gentium, the argument that all societies everywhere believed
in the existence of God, however mistaken their beliefs and practices might
be.97 Like the apostle Paul appealing to the polytheistic piety of the ancient
Greeks who dedicated a statue to an unknown God, early modern religious
apologists saw the piety of foreign societies as a confirmation of mans basic
religiosity. Even though the discovery of the new world and the antipodes
had drastically reduced the geographical territory over which the true religion
of Christianity had triumphed, early modern religious apologists often inter-
preted this new information about the worlds religious beliefs in traditional
binary terms: the corrupt religion of newly encountered infidel and pagan
societies was simply another manifestation of religious error already present
in Europe. Moreover, the scope of religious error was often interpreted apoca-
lyptically in this period, a period in which, to give but one example, the conver-
sion of the Jews was intensely sought after by large numbers in England and
Europe. Ultimately, early modern religious apologists thought that religious
error would be converted or judged no matter where it was found or how per-
vasive it became. Viewed with the eyes of faith, the annals of sacred history
always confirmed that the City of God would triumph in the end.
If personal salvation, social harmony, and political stability were all pre-
mised on the connection between orthodoxy and orthopraxy in early modern
England, any deviation from this order expressed an implied denial and inver-
sion of the interwoven fabric of the sacred and secular community. Between

95 The attribution regarding Diagoras was a tradition handed down from antiquity. See
Chap. 6. The quote comes from E. Leigh, A System or Body of Divinity (London, 1654), 131.
For a few typical examples of Diagoras as an ancient atheist see: G. Abbot, An Exposition
upon the Prophet Jonah (London, 1600), 55, 191; L. Andrewes, The Pattern of Catechistical
Doctrine (London, 1650), 224, 29; William Bates, The Soveraign and Final Happiness of
Man (London, 1680), 136; R. Burthogge, Tagathon, or, Divine Goodness Explicated and
Vindicated from the Exceptions of the Atheist (London, 1672), 47.
96 J. Martyr, The First Apology, in the Ante-Nicene Christian Library, eds., A. Roberts and
J. Donaldson. vol. 2 (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1867), Chap. 6.
97 See Chap. 2 on Cicero and Chap. 6 on universal consent.
40 chapter 1

the Reformation and the Enlightenment atheism was regarded as the epit-
ome and apocalyptic synecdoche of disorder, dissolution, and destruction.
Symbolically, the Great Fire of London was understood as a providential warn-
ing of Gods judgment on the progress of atheism in England, and as a sign of
the inversion of Christian society which atheism presaged. To contemporary
observers like Richard Allestree, it sometimes seemed as if the civitas terrena
was triumphing over the civitas Dei.
chapter 2

The Atheist Answered and His Error Confuted

Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encoun-

tered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? And some others
said, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached
unto them Jesus, and the resurrection.
The Acts of the Apostles, 17:18

When St Pauls Cathedral was rebuilt after its destruction in the Great Fire of
1666, the apostle Paul preaching at Athens was an apt scene to display inside
the newly constructed church. In a deliberate imitation of Raphaels magnifi-
cent tapestry of the same vista, a cartoon copy of which hung for many years in
the halls of English royalty, Sir James Thornhills painting, which won him the
commission for the Cathedrals cupola, showed Paul reasoning with Stoics and
Epicureans in an attempt to convert them to belief in the one true God and in
the resurrection.1 It was an incredibly powerful image. When the Huguenot
Simon Gribelin published a set of commercially popular engravings in England
in 1720 based on the Raphael cartoons (Figure3), not long after Thornhill sub-
mitted his painting (Figure4), the image became even more widely known and
eventually relatively cheap to own.2 As a material symbol of Anglican
Christianity triumphant, complete with a phoenix rising from the flames on
the south-end transept, the new St Pauls Cathedral was an English Areopagus,
a new platform from which the truth of the Christian religion could be once
again proclaimed to contemporary unbelievers.3 Where the apostle Paul had
proclaimed the truth of the Christian religion by arguing against pagan phi-
losophers, early modern English apologists did likewise by attacking any and
all forms of atheism, including those they associated with pagan philosophy.
This attack was called the confutation of atheism.

1 M. Evans and C. Brown with A. Nesselrath, eds., Raphael: Cartoons and Tapestries for the
Sistine Chapel (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2010), 58.
2 A. Meyer, Apostles in England: Sir James Thornhill and the Legacy of Raphaels Tapestry
Cartoons (New York: M. and I.D. Wallach Art Gallery Columbia University, 1996), 226. Meyer
also details the longevity of this image as a metaphor for preachers in the eighteenth century,
679. Figure4 is a painting Thornhill made for the competition c. 1710, and not that painted
in the church itself, ca. 1720.
3 For the phoenix and related details see J. Campell, Building St Pauls (London: Thames &
Hudson, 2007), 57.

koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2015|doi 10.1163/9789004288164_004

42 chapter 2

Figure3 S. Gribelin (after Raphael), Paul Preaching at Athens, 1707.

From the Victoria and Albert Museum. Reproduced by permission.

As a genre of early modern Christian apologetics, the confutation of atheism

employed a classical rhetorical form and utilized every type of early modern
textual format. It thereby reached a very wide audience, from philosophers to
politicians to ordinary parishioners. The confutation of atheism was delivered
in sermons by Protestant clergymen in their local parish, distributed as popu-
lar broadsides, published as part of pamphlet disputes, and constructed as an
elaborate argument by the learned in weighty philosophical treatises and
theological tomes. The purpose of this chapter is to examine the matter, form,
and patterned delivery of this important and hitherto unexplored religious
Materially speaking, the confutation of atheism was often a part of a textual
work with broad aims, such as the puritan preacher Henry Smiths frequently
reprinted 1593 work, Gods Arrow Against Atheists, and it often took up the
whole of a given text, such as John Doves A Confutation of Atheisme, published
in 1605 and again in 1640. As the table of contents makes clear, in Smiths popu-
lar text the confutation of atheism takes up Chapter 1 and was the first and
The Atheist Answered And His Error Confuted 43

Figure4 J. Thornhill, Paul Preaching at Athens, c. 1720.

Tate, London 2014. Reproduced by permission.

foremost part of a broader defence of the Christian religion that was then
extended in later chapters against all other kinds of erroneous religious belief:
pagan, Muslim, Catholic, and rival Protestant sects such as the anabaptist
Brownists. The basic apologetic thrust of Doves text was fundamentally the
same as Smiths even though it was more specifically dedicated to the defence
of Christianity against atheism. A Confutation of Atheisme begins with a defini-
tion of atheism, establishes its cause, and then offers a defence of God,
Scripture, and central Christian doctrines in the body of the text.
These two early published texts are indicative of the forms the confutation
of atheism took in print in early modern England. Much longer and more
44 chapter 2

sophisticated texts than Doves, such as Philippe du Plessis Mornays Of the

Trewnesse of the Christian Religion, took the same overall approach and had the
same basic aim: to confute the adversarys error and defend the true religion.
In addition to all of the rhetorical devices and arguments marshalled to drive
this point home in the text itself, the frontispiece (Figure5) to the French edi-
tion of du Plessis Mornays work was one of many which made the same point
visually.4 An angel of God, presumably Gabriel, delivers Gods Word to the
world. In so doing Gabriel simultaneously brings the cross of Christ, heralding
the triumph over the Devil and death, the ultimate source of the errors of athe-
ists, Jews, Muslims, and pagans indentified in the Trewnesses subtitle.5 As
Thomas Good put it in his confutation of 1674, Firmianus and Dubitantius, or,
Certain Dialogues concerning Atheism, Infidelity, Popery, and other Heresies, in
times of knowledg and Gospel light, the Prince of Darkness uses all his arts to
render men Scepticks in Religion, and of no Religion at all, Atheists, Infidels,
[and] Prophane.6
A similar point can be made about the frontispiece (Figure 6) to Ralph
Cudworths massive confutation text of 1678, The True Intellectual System of the
Universe: The First Part; Wherein, All the Reason and Philosophy of Atheism is
Confuted; And Its Impossibility Demonstrated. In this case three Greek atheists
(Strato, Anaximander, Epicurus) and three Greek theists (Pythagoras, Socrates,
Aristotle) are positioned across from one another, with the theists victoriously
wreathed in contrast to the wilting confusion of unbelieving philosophers who
ignored the truth of religion centrally placed between them. Closer in form to
Doves text, Cudworths confutation of atheism was intended to establish the
truth of the Christian religion against atheists by recovering and re-establish-
ing the laurels of victory for the eternal and immutable truths which even
some pagan philosophers supposedly recognized.
When Thomas Wise republished a revised, abridged edition of Cudworths
text as The Confutation of the Reason and Philosophy of Atheism in 1706, Plato
was added to the frontispieces group of theists (Figure7), while Democritus
was added to the group of atheists. Centrally placed between them, reason
now enlightened the surrounding landscape, revealing the timeless truths of
the Christian religion.

4 English editions published in: 1587, 1592, 1604, 1617. du Plessis Mornay was still being read,
cited, and translated a century later.
5 Contre les Athes, Epicuriens, Paiens, Juifs, Mahumedistes, & autres Infidels.
6 T. Good, Firmianus and Dubitantis, or, Certain Dialogues concerning Atheism, Infidelity, Popery,
and other Heresies (London, 1674), 25.
The Atheist Answered And His Error Confuted 45

Figure5 Frontispiece, P. du Plessis Mornay, De la vrit de la religion Chretienne, 1590.

From the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Mnchen. Reproduced by
46 chapter 2

Figure6 Frontispiece, R. Cudworth, The True Intellectual System of the Universe, London, 1678.
From the British Library. Reproduced by permission.
The Atheist Answered And His Error Confuted 47

Figure7 Frontispiece, T. Wise, ed., A Confutation of the Reason and Philosophy of Atheism,
London, 1706.
From the British Library. Reproduced by permission.

We have seen in Chapter 1 just how widespread early modern anxieties about
atheism were in England. Between Doves 1605 Confutation of Atheisme and the
revision of Cudworth published by Wise in 1706 as a Confutation of the Reason
and Philosophy of Atheism, texts of all sizes and shapes took up the fight against
48 chapter 2

the progress of atheism through a range of repeatedly patterned arguments.

Nothing less than the health of England and the salvation of Englands soul
was thought to be at stake. Whether in Henry Mores philosophical Antidote
Against Atheisme of 1652/3, which used Cartesian metaphysics, natural theol-
ogy, and the history of diabolical spirits to combat the pandemic of atheism in
the midst of turbulent civil wars and the revival of philosophical materialism,
or in William Sallers short tract of 1664, A Preservation Against Atheism and
Errour, which used the form of a catechism to briefly establish some
Fundamental Points in Religion after the Restoration, the confutation of athe-
ism was a ubiquitous presence in early modern England.7

(i) The Rhetoric of Anti-atheism: Confutatio

Between the late sixteenth and early eighteenth century dozens of confuta-
tions and hundreds of answers to atheism appeared in print, a large number of
which had been previously delivered as sermons.8 While rhetoric and its place
in early modern education for written or spoken discourse underwent some
important changes in this period, the generic status of the confutatio enabled
it to retain its place as a description of an argumentative attack on a rival posi-
tion for over a century. As a pseudo-Ciceronian humanist textbook put it:
Confutatio est contrariorum locorum dissolutio, Confutation is the destruction
of our adversaries argument.9 The Rhetorica ad Herennium was used in early
modern England alongside other classical works in the studia liberalis, often
paired with Ciceros De inventione and Quintilians Institutio Oratorio, that out-
lined the classical ars rhetorica.10 Within these works and other early modern
rhetorical manuals confutatio was a part of oratorical invention, as Aristotle

7 From Sallers title page: 1. The Essence, or Being, of God. 2. The Divine Authority of Holy
Scripture. 3. The Majesty, Worth, Use, and Perpetuity of the Moral Law. 4. Our Lord Jesus
Christ being the true Messiah.
8 This considerably expands upon the focus of J.A. Redwood, Reason, Ridicule and Religion:
The Age of Enlightenment in England 16601750 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1976), 26.
9 [pseudo-Cicero], Rhetorica ad Herennium, trans. H. Caplan (Cambridge, ma: Harvard
University Press, 1954), 1.3.4, 3.4.8, 3.10.18.
10 I would like to thank Quentin Skinner for his suggestions to me in conversation on this
point. See Q. Skinner, Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1996), 3234; idem, Moral Ambiguity and the Renaissance
Art of Eloquence, Visions of Politics, vol. 2: Renaissance Virtues (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2002), 26485.
The Atheist Answered And His Error Confuted 49

and Cicero had originally categorized it, and a component of proof.11 As John
Newton put it in his 1671 An Introduction to the Art of Rhetorick:

Confutation is a part or kind of Confirmation, in which we answer all

objections: it doth either preceed or follow confirmation, or may be here
and there used in all the parts of the Oration. And these objections may
be either all answered together, or those first, which are first made, and
then the latter; or those first which are most material, and the rest may
fall of themselves; or the weakest first, that they being avoided, the stron-
gest arguments may be somewhat weakned. And the manner of doing
this, is by shewing, that the Adversaries allegation is either false, impos-
sible, uncertain, or impertinent and the like: and because this part of an
Oration is full of heat, and sometimes of fury, it doth admit of Dialogisms
or conferences, Ironies, illusions, interrogations, execrations, and other
like vehement figures and affections.12

This understanding of confutation gave early modern apologists a lot of room in

which to construct their counter-arguments and their supportive apologetics.
The range and specificity of the confutation of atheism could therefore vary
immensely. Attacking atheists on any number of points, as part of a wider
defence of the Christian religion against pagans, Jews, and Muslims, was as valid
as attacking atheists upon the grounds of natural reason alone, without any ref-
erence to or defence of Scripture or specific Christian doctrines. The Silver-
Tongued Henry Smith, whose Gods Arrow Against Atheists proved so immensely
popular, was an example of the former, while William Towers confutation text of
1654, Atheismus Vapulans: or, A Treatise Against Atheism, Rationally Confuting the
Atheists of these Times, was an example of the latter.13 Counter-arguments against

11 For the elaboration of confutation see L. Cox, The Art or Crafte of Rhetoryke (London, 1534),
[41, 435, 54]; T. Wilson, The Arte of Rhetorique (London, 1553), [iv]; R. Rainold, A Book Called
the Foundacion of Rhetorike (London, 1653), [46]; Aristotle, A Briefe of the Art of Rhetorique,
trans. T. Hobbes (London, 1637, 1681), 179, 197; A Compendium of the Art of Logick and
Rhetorick in the English Tongue Containing all that Peter Ramus, Aristotle, and Others Have
Writ Thereon (London, 1651), 2656, 27980 (taken from Hobbess translation). For fuller
translations of Aristotle on this point, where what Hobbes called confutation is translated
as what is alleged against the Adversary, see Aristotle, Aristotles Rhetoric, trans. H.C.
(London, 1686, 1693), 198. For a discussion of the context of rhetoric in this period, see W.S.
Howell, Logic and Rhetoric in England, 15001700 (New York: Russell & Russell, 1961), Chap. 3.
12 J. Newton, An Introduction to the Art of Rhetorick (London, 1676), 923; Howell, 2712.
13 For Silver-Tongued Smith see G.W. Jenkins, Smith, Henry (c.15601591), Oxford Dictionary
of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). For the identification
50 chapter 2

atheism could attempt to defend the authority of Scripture, as Edward

Stillingfleet did at great length in his popular 1662 text Origines Sacrae; or, A
Rational Account of the Grounds of Christian Faith, as to the Truth and Divine
Authority of the Scriptures and the Matters Therein Contained; they could cata-
logue the whole range of philosophical atheist arguments and attempt to answer
them, as Ralph Cudworth attempted to do in his mammoth True Intellectual
System; or they could defend the existence of God from the works of nature
alone, as many of the Boyle lecturers did. When he delivered his lectures in 1692,
Richard Bentley explicitly identified all but one of them as confutations.14
Newtons definition of confutation indicates the diverse strategies which
arguments against atheism were expected to employ. As with many rhetorical
contests in this period, the confutation of atheism used any and all means nec-
essary in order to secure victory, particularly when the triumph and truth of
Christianity was at stake. Charging the atheist adversary with making false,
impossible, uncertain, or impertinent arguments, in Newtons words, was
therefore wholly justified and positively encouraged. So too was the heat and
fury with which atheists were attacked and undermined through a range of
discursive techniques that included Ironies, illusions, interrogations, execra-
tions, and other like vehement figures and affections. Whether in the form of
a Dialogue, a conference, or a treatise, the confutation of atheism was an
argumentative battle of paramount importance waged over and over again in
this period. Early modern religious apologists were convinced that their model
oration, Paul preaching at Areopagus, took a classical form and used the same
rhetorical strategies which they too employed.
While the atheist adversary of confutation discourse was most often
implicit, given that there was virtually no one clearly or publicly espousing
atheism in print as described by these apologists, it was not for that reason any
less real. Many writers in the seventeenth century claimed to have overheard,
spoken with, or detected implicit atheists whether in the form of common
profane persons, hypocritical atheists, or thinkers such as Hobbes, Spinoza,

of the work as a confutation, see H. Smith, Gods Arrow against Atheists (London, 1593), 1.
Smiths text was republished many times: 1593, 1604, 1607, 1609, 1611, 1614, 1617, 1622, 1628,
1631, 1632, 1637, 1656.
14 The second lecture: Matter and Motion cannot think: Or, a Confutation of Atheism from
the Faculties of the Soul; third, fourth and fifth lecture: A confutation of atheism from
the structure and origin of human bodies; sixth, seventh, and eighth lecture: A confuta-
tion of atheism from the origin and frame of the world. First preached in 1692, these were
collected and published in The Folly and Unreasonableness of Atheism (London, 1693).
While separate editions of each sermon had been published, a second collection of all the
sermons was published again in 1699.
The Atheist Answered And His Error Confuted 51

Rochester, and Blount. For a deeply religious society, the atheist was a living
embodiment of unrepentant sin, the ultimate source of which was the primor-
dial Adversary, the Devil. John Miltons neologism in Paradise Lost captures the
significance of this association in a perfect blend of the figural and the literal:
where sin and the Devil ruled what Milton at one point called The Atheist
crew PANDEMONIUM ensued.15 For Miltons contemporaries the progress
of atheism necessarily entailed sociopolitical disorder and diabolical chaos
and mandated the strongest possible counter-attack.
The presence of this atheist adversary within works of confutation was
often addressed through a related aspect of the ars rhetorica: the assessment of
character, a component part of the practice of persuasive and dissuasive rhe-
torical technique. Aristotle and Cicero had both taught that character was an
essential element of public persuasion, particularly in terms of praise and
blame. This advice was repeated in many early modern rhetorical texts.16 In
order to identify the atheist, the religious apologist had to be able to enumer-
ate the many marks by which his character could be recognized. These marks
or character traits are discussed at length below. Here it is important to note
that early modern educational ideals, in which mastery of classical poetry, his-
tory, moral and political philosophy was a central part, intended to provide the
means by which to identify character at the same time as it was itself a process
of character formation.17 In the Nichomachean Ethics Aristotle had identified
the good man with his possession of good character, itself the result of charac-
ter formation through educational practice: it is from the exercise of activities
on particular objects that states of character are produced.18 The practice of
confutation, in short, relied upon a common view of human nature and the
formation of personal character through education which was then leveraged
to argumentative advantage in adversarial dispute.
In order to construct a persuasive argument, classical and early modern
texts indicated that one had to be familiar not only with the character of ones
adversary, but that of his audience as well. Following this instruction,
confutation discourse typically aimed at both the atheist and the company the

15 J. Milton, Paradise Lost (London, 1667), vi.370.

16 Rhetorica ad Herennium on character: 1.8.13, 3.6.10-11, on praise and blame of personal char-
acter: 4.43.55, 4.50.63, 4.51.65; Aristotles Rhetoric, 1388b33-1392a8, discusses character in
terms of emotions, states, ages, and fortunes; also in Ciceros De inventione 1.25, Ciceros
Topica 19, 23. For similar uses of character see T. Blount, The Academy of Eloquence (London,
1654), 356; B. Lamy, The Art of Speaking, [trans. Anon.] (London, 1676), passim.
17 See Skinner, Reason and Rhetoric, Chap. 1; idem, Hobbes and the studia humanitatis,
Visions of Politics, iii, 3865.
18 Nichomachean Ethics, 1114a10.
52 chapter 2

atheist was thought to keep. Where the atheist was often described as possess-
ing a character which prevented him from considering the claims of confuta-
tion rationally, either because of pride or some other related vice, Christian
apologists aimed through their counter-arguments to edify their coreligionists
by warning those predisposed to listen to atheists, and helping to supply the
orthodox with a battery of arguments they may have lacked previously. One
function of confutation discourse, then, was an affirmation of the communal
religious bounds, reasserting the truth of the Christian religion in the face of a
diabolical and deviant threat to the order of Christian society.19
Confutation discourse also identified and deployed a range of stock texts in
counter-arguments against atheism, fulfilling another set of requirements out-
lined by early modern rhetorical manuals: citing authorities and using authori-
tative examples. Stock texts or authors from antiquity ran along some fairly
obvious and wide-ranging lines. Plato, Aristotle, and Plutarch among the
Greeks, and Cicero and Seneca among the Romans, were each thought to have
supplied arguments for God and religion and against the alleged atheism of
ancient adversaries such as Epicurus and Lucretius.20 Book X of Platos Laws
provided an argument against atheism by demonstrating the necessity of
belief in God for a given political society; the Timaeus had long been a source
for arguments in defence of Gods role in creation, and the Phaedo for the
immaterial souls immortality. Aristotles first mover and first cause argument
from the Metaphysics was used ubiquitously.21 Church Fathers such as
Augustine and Lactantius were frequently cited and even translated in this
period as aids in the defence of orthodox religion against heresy, infidelity,
paganism and atheism.22 While Thomas Aquinas and Raymond Sebond were
sometimes invoked, if not used directly, more common were citations of Juan
Luis Vives De veritatae fidei christianae and the extremely popular apologetic

19 Cf. D. Berman, A History of Atheism in Britain: From Hobbes to Russell (London: Routledge,
20 Platos Laws, Timaeus, Phaedo, Aristotles Metaphysics and Nichomachean Ethics,
Plutarchs Moralia, Ciceros De natura deorum, De finibus, and Tusculan Disputations were
among the most commonly cited works by these authors in relation to atheism.
21 R. Cudworth has a passage from Book X of the Laws on the frontispiece to The True
Intellectual System of the Universe (London, 1678) as well as at 14, 110, 130, 154, 218, 429, 754,
771; R. Bentley, The Unreasonableness and Folly of Atheism (London, 1693), Lecture 1, 31;
J. Harris, The Atheistical Objections against the Being of a God, and His Attributes (London,
1698), Lecture 3, p. 8.
22 Augustine, Digitus Dei: or God Appearing in his Wonderfull Works, for the Conviction of
Nullifidians, [trans. Anon.] (London, 1676). Also relevant was another Augustinian excerpt
published as The Profit of Believing, [trans. Anon.] (London, 1651).
The Atheist Answered And His Error Confuted 53

works of Hugo Grotius, De veritate religionis Christianae and Defensio fidei cath-
olicae de satisfactione Christi, republished in Latin and translated multiple
times in seventeenth-century England.23 Finally, early modern apologists
themselves recognized a measure of continuity in the genre of anti-atheist
confutation, occasionally providing their own lineage or referencing texts in a
common struggle in the defence of God and religion. Such a list could include
du Plessis Mornays Trewnesse, Martin Fotherbys Atheomastix (1622), Lancelot
Andrews A Pattern of Catechistical Doctrine (1630), Henry Mores Antidote
Against Atheisme, Edward Stillingfleets Origines Sacrae, Richard Baxters The
Reasons for the Christian Religion (1667), as well as many others.24 Using these
linkages and extrapolating from them, well over 60 texts which specifically
identified themselves as confutations of atheism were published between 1580
and 1720, a number which grows very significantly if we include the number of
times these works were reprinted or revised in new editions.
The work of confutation in England was overwhelmingly the task of early
modern Protestant clergymen and ministers. In addition to edifying the reli-
gious community to which they belonged, such ministers very often envisioned

23 Vives was first published posthumously in 1544; Grotius De veritate was first a Dutch
poem he wrote while in prison. It was quickly translated into Latin and published in
England in 1639, 1650, 1660, 1662, 1700 and translated into English in 1632, 1658, 1669, 1676,
1678, 1686, 1689, 1694, 1700; the Defensio was published in Latin in 1634, 1636, 1661 and
translated into English in 1692. For an account of De veritate, an extremely popular and
important work, its sources, structure, and reception, see J.-P. Heering, Hugo Grotius as
Apologist for the Christian Religion: A Study of His Work De Veritate Religionis Christianae,
1640, trans. J.C. Grayson (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2004).
24 For these authors together see T. Good, Firmianus and Dubitantius (London, 1674), 17.
Publication dates: du Plessis Mornays text was translated and published in English in
1587, 1592, 1604, and 1617; Andrewes text was published in 1630, 1641, 1650 and 1675; Mores
text was published on its own in two editions of 1652/3 and 1655 and with some of his
other works in 1662 and 1712; Stillingfleets text was published in 1662, 1663, 1666, 1675, and
1680; Baxter published in 1667 and later added More Reasons for the Christian Religion in
1672. For a small sample of references between these works: Martin Fotherby cited Vives
and du Plessis Mornay in his Atheomastix (London, 1622), Preface to the Reader; in The
Darkness of Atheism Expelled by the Light of Nature (London, 1652), To the Reader, Walter
Charleton cited Lactantius, Vives, Raymond Sebond, du Plessis Mornay, Grotius,
Descartes, Mersenne, and Gassendi; Mathew Barker cited Fotherby in his Natural
Theology (London, 1674), 38, as did Wolseley in The Unreasonableness of Atheism Made
Manifest, 3rd ed. (London, 1674), 19; at the end of the century J. Edwards cited H. More, J.
Smith, T. Tenison, R. Cudworth and I. Barrow: Edwards, Some Thoughts concerning the
Several Causes and Occasions of Atheism (London, 1695), incorrectly paginated as 123,
really 139.
54 chapter 2

themselves as the apostle Paul, disputing with Epicurean and Stoic philoso-
phers in Athens. Paul was not only an authoritative model at Areopagus, he
also provided the ur-text of early modern natural theology, Romans 1:20: the
invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being
understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead.
Augustine was considered a parallel figure for having defended God and the
truth of the Christian religion among the pagans and heretics of his day.25 As
William Towers put it in Atheismus Vapulans, to have confuted and converted
the atheist was to have Augustind and Paulind him into a Christian.26 With
Paul at Athens and Augustine at Alexandria, the early modern English apolo-
gist saw himself in the midst of a hostile, unbelieving society, proclaiming the
truth of the Christian religion anew.
Along with a rhetorical set of stock authors, texts, and figures went a stock
set of associations and arguments, images and identifications. In the case of du
Plessis Mornays Trewnesse and Fortherbys Atheomastix, for example, they
identified atheists as targets of their confutation amongst a group of other reli-
gious threats which included Muslims, Jews, and pagans. Nonetheless, even
within these works, and in countless other non-confutation texts, atheists and
atheism were most often identified as a specific threat separable from, but
related to, infidelity and heresy. Towers Atheismus Vapulans was published in
the same year as his Polytheismus Vapulans, or, There is But One God, suggesting
an apologetic pattern powerfully associated with Jean Calvins Institutes of the
Christian Religion.27 Calvin began his pivotal work with a defence of God based
on natural reason and defended the truth of the Christian religion through a
series of steps which included a defence of monotheism, a description of Gods
attributes, a defence of the God of natural theology as the God of the Bible, and
a defence of the Bible as Gods revelation. This fourfold method exercised an
important influence on many early modern confutations of atheism.28

25 For both Paul and Augustine see J. Dove, A Confutation of Atheism (London, 1604), Letter
dedicatorie, 1; C. Ellis, The Folly of Atheism, (London, 1692), 889; Bentley, Lecture 2, p. 3.
26 W. Towers, Atheismus Vapulans, or, A Treatise against Atheism, Rationally Confuting the
Atheists of these Times (London, 1654), 17980.
27 W. Towers, Polytheismus Vapulans, or, There is But One God (London, 1654). Both of Towers
texts were also sold together as one volume in 1654.
28 The Calvinist method was sometimes followed specifically, but more often generally. See
du Plessis Mornay, Dove, and Fotherby. Fotherby listed the four steps on his title page. The
Huguenot scholars Louis Cappel and David Derodon can still be placed in this tradition.
Derodons La Lumire de la Raison (Geneva, 1665) was a much larger and standard reli-
gious apology of both God and Scripture, of which only the part pertaining to God was
translated into English by J. Bonhome in 1679 as The Arraignment and Conviction of
The Atheist Answered And His Error Confuted 55

In early anti-atheist writings this Reformation approach was projected

onto atheism within the domain of irreligion: defending God and religion
against atheists was part of a defence against infidels and heretics, as the sub-
titles of many confutations indicate.29 These texts also make it clear that the
atheist, in being the primary target of the first step of apologetics, defending
the existence of God, was also implied, and often the only one mentioned,
when counter-arguments were constructed in defence of the Christian reli-
gion against infidelity and heresy.30 When the Jacobean Archbishop of
Canterbury George Abbot nervously raised the problem of the presence of
atheists and Catholics in England in a commentary on the book of Jonah,
observing that atheism waxeth strong, he did so by categorizing it as a form
of irreligion.31 Many other ministers did likewise. In 1604 the Calvinist clergy-
man William Perkins descried the abundant presence of both Catholic super-
stition as well as Atheists, Epicures, libertines, worldlings, newters, that are
of no religion. In 1615 the Calvinist clergyman Thomas Adams contrasted the
true Christians of England with the more numerous ungodly, among whom
were many atheists.32
As noted above, the defence of God and religion against atheism and
atheists was conceived in broad terms as the foundational rhetorical support
for Christian society. Confuting atheists, warning doubters, and upholding
the orthodox constituted for Martin Fotherby the Augustinian pillars by
which God and the truth of Christian religion were upheld.33 Arthur
Goldings preface to the translation of du Plessis Mornay in 1587 connected

Atheism: Or, an Exact and Clear Demonstration by Natural Arguments, That There is a God
(London, 1679). From the middle of the century the holistic enterprise began to be broken
up, though many authors continued to write on several of the steps in separate works,
such as W. Towers or C. Wolseley. Wolseley wrote a confutation of atheism and The
Reasonableness of Scripture Belief (London, 1672).
29 See du Plessis Mornay; R. Broughton, The First Part of the Resolution of Religion (London,
1603), is a Catholic confutation of Atheists and Epicures, Jewes, Mahumetans, Pagans;
Goods subtitle was Certain Dialogues concerning Atheism, Infidelity, Popery, and Other
Heresies and Schisms.
30 Smith, Gods Arrow, Table; L. Cappel, The Hinge of Faith and Religion, trans. P. Marinel
(London, 1660); W. Saller, A Preservation against Atheism and Error (London, 1664).
31 G. Abbot, An Exposition Upon the Prophet Jonah (London, 1600), 41.
32 W. Perkins, A Commentarie or Exposition, Upon the Five First Chapters of the Epistle to the
Galatians (London, 1604), 167; T. Adams, Englands Sickness (London, 1615), 56, 78. See
L. Dixon, William Perkins, Atheisme, and the Crises of Englands Long Reformation,
Journal of British Studies, 50, 4 (2011): 790812.
33 Fotherby, Preface.
56 chapter 2

the confutation of atheism and infidelity to the establishment of the infirm

or weak-willed, the reform of the sinful, and the comfort and joy of those
grounded and rooted in the trueth.34 In Thomas Wilcockss dedicatory let-
ter to another edition of the same work in 1604 he spoke not only of the
confutation of atheists and infidels, but also of the truth of godly religion
for all.35 In Of the Laws of Ecclesiasticall Politie (1593) Richard Hooker saw the
confrontation with Infidels or Atheists, who had called the truth of
Scripture and the Christian religion into question, as an opportunity to per-
suasively confirm true religion by the means of natural reason.36 The same
sentiments were expressed from the middle of the seventeenth century
onwards. In A Preservation Against Atheism and Error William Saller sug-
gested that the confutation of atheism upheld Christian society through the
destruction of irreligion and the maintenance of true religion, while other
works, including the translations of confutation texts by the Huguenot
scholars Louis Cappel and David Derodon published in 1660 and 1679 respec-
tively, confuted atheists, warned backsliders, and supported the faithful.37
Charles Wolseley intended The Unreasonableness of Atheism Made Manifest
to provide the means of intellectual religious warfare: no Man should ever
meet an Atheist unarmd, but wear a constant Weapon in his understanding
to Fight him.38 Taking up the rostrum in the guise of Paul and Augustine, the
confutation of atheism was thus one of the chief means by which early mod-
ern religious apologists sought to preserve the triumph and defend the truth
of Christianity.

34 A. Golding, Letter dedicatorie to P. du Plessis Mornay, A Worke concerning the Trewnesse

of the Christian Religion (London, 1587), republished in 1592.
35 T. Wilcocks, Letter dedicatorie to P. du Plessis Mornay, A Worke concerning the Truwnesse
of the Christian Religion (London, 1604), republished in 1617. Subsequent references to du
Plessis Mornay will be to the first edition of 1587.
36 R. Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiasticall Politie (London, 1593), 147. Originally published
incomplete in 1593, with the fifth chapter added in 1597, including a section entitled The
most extreme opposite to true Religion, is affected Atheisme (1597, Chap. 5, Section2,
p. 5). In a letter to Hooker included in the 1666 edition of Hookers works atheism is tied
to some negative consequences of Reformation and to sensuality (The Works of Mr
Richard Hooker [London, 1666], 34).
37 Fotherby, Preface; Saller, 5; Cappell, Hinge, Preface; Derodon, Epistle Dedicatory; see
also Henry Cares similar reasoning for translating J.-B. Morins De vera cognitione Dei in
Morin, To the reader.
38 Wolseley, Unreasonableness, 4.
The Atheist Answered And His Error Confuted 57

(ii) The Character of an Atheist

Alongside the description of character as part of the ars rhetorica, another

source of character assessment was that developed by Aristotles successor at
the Lyceum, Theophrastus, whose work was translated and published twice in
the seventeenth century.39 As we saw above, the confutation of atheism relied
upon a background understanding of the nature of personal character. This
notion was not only fundamentally important to understandings of education
in the period, but was also the means by which one could read off distinguish-
ing marks in order to determine what kind of person a given individual was.
When a character by the name of Daredevil appeared on stage in a play by
Thomas Otway called The Atheist (1678), he was called an Atheist unbelieving
dog by someone who identified the signs of his atheism: libertinism and dis-
belief in the afterlife.40 For religious writers and apologists in this period, as for
many playgoers, the atheist was a readily identifiable character. Joseph Hall, for
example, spoke of Charactery as a medium between public and private moral
philosophy whose purpose was to connect true lineaments of vertue and vice
in private to the sign of its public face, a description which at least one writer
made about atheism.41 In another work on character published multiple times
in the seventeenth century, the Bishop of Salisbury, John Earle, wrote that A
Sceptick in Religion was an Atheist who could not believe in any truth
because, as a sceptic, he could have no firm belief whatsoever.42 When Thomas

39 Theophrastus was available in the vernacular in several editions of his Characters:

Epictetus Manuall. Cebes Table. Theophrastus Characters, trans. J. Healey (London, 1616).
This is to say nothing of the claim that Plutarchs Parallel Lives and Moralia educated
Europe through his many considerations of the situated human character: see
R. Lamberton, Plutarch, The Classical Tradition, eds., Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most,
Salvatore Settis (Cambridge, ma, 2010), 748.
40 T. Otway, The Atheist (London, 1678), 18, 1921.
41 J. Hall, Character of Vertue and Vices (London, 1608), 72, 74. N. Tate versified the same text
at the end of the century, Character of Vertue and Vices (London, 1691). In a sermon enti-
tled The Character of Man (London, 1634) Hall addresses a mans character in relation to
God and his mercy. A character sketch entitled An Hypocrite, similar to Halls, was
included in a collection of works written mostly by T. Overbury in New and Choice
Characters (London, 1615), n.p. J. Dove cited Ovid and the Bible to suggest that atheists
and sinners were affected by their actions in their countenance and face, p. 23; the sec-
tion of T. Goods dialogue on atheism began from the mark of discontent in the face of
the doubter, Dubitantius, p. 1.
42 J. Earle, Micro-cosmographie (London, 1628), n.p. The work was expanded and repub-
lished several times: 1629, 1630, 1633, 1638, 1650, 1660, and 1664.
58 chapter 2

Good cited the argument of Lactantius, which distinguished mans religious

nature from that of a beast, he described the distinction as one of Character.43
In the same way that Gods existence had imprinted certain indeleble
Characters in man, an atheist was identified through specific marks or charac-
teristics, such as the description of an atheist as the fool of Psalm 14:1.44 The
Psalms had long been used to give voice to the character of Gods adversaries,
with atheists being the kind of enemy who attacked Gods providence and jus-
tice.45 In a sermon where he identified a man lacking Christs grace as an athe-
ist, John Donne contrasted the Christians distinctive Character with that of
atheists, Jews, and pagans.46
Early modern religious texts repeatedly drew the character of an atheist as
that of an unreasonable, unnatural, sinful pariah. In Thomas Fullers popular
The Holy State of 1642, for example, the atheists character was presented
within an immoral progress demonstrating how one religious error or sin led
to the worst. An atheist quarrels at the diversities of religions in the world,
loveth to maintain Paradoxes, and to shut his eyes against the beams of a
known truth, scoffs and makes sport at sacred things, proceeds to take
exception at Gods Wordto deny the Scripture it self and, finally, denies God
himselfwith an armoury of arguments to fight against his own conscience.47
The presbyterian minister Christopher Love identified the Characters of an
atheist as the practice of secret sin, the neglect of private religious duties like
prayer, the testing of Gods longsuffering, forgetting eternal judgment, ques-
tioning Gods providence, worldliness, unfaithfulness, indifference, and hypoc-
risy.48 In 1663 the physician Gideon Harvey portrayed the general character of
an atheist as that of a habitual, obstinate, and unrepentant sinner dedicated to
a total habit of evil. The atheist was beyond Gods mercy as a horrid monster
fit only for Gods judgment.49 In 1677 the presbyterian minister John Howe
described the Atheistical Temper and Genius as the means by which to dis-
cover the obvious characters of Atheism it self. For Howe, atheism was an
incomprehensible mixture of the unnatural and the unreasonable: an atheist

43 Good, 6.
44 T. Adams, The Devills Banket (London, 1614), 47; Barker, 38, 48; J. Taylor describes the char-
acter of an atheist as a fool, Eniautos, 262.
45 D. Dickson, A Brief Explication of the First Fifty Psalms (London, 1655), 534.
46 J. Donne, Fifty Sermons (London, 1649), 244, 250.
47 T. Fuller, The Holy State (London, 1642), 37982.
48 C. Love, The Natural Mans Case Stated (London, 1652), 24657; Robert Jenison described
the true character of an atheist as the neglect of prayer and worship, The Christians
Apparelling by Christ (London, 1625), 176.
49 G. Harvey, Archelogia Philosophia Nova (London, 1663), 7481.
The Atheist Answered And His Error Confuted 59

projected irrational arguments against God in order to live as he pleased, but in

being completely consumed with worldly pleasure, the atheist was also subject
to constant concern over worldly goods. Moreover, Howe could not accept any
reason for adopting atheism: it was a disease, a madness, a horrid misbe-
lief, a strange thing, marking the atheist as a Prodigy, a Monster amongst
While these texts give an impression of the descriptions of the characters of
an atheist, perhaps the most general, governing characteristic ascribed to athe-
ists in early modern England, as we saw in Chapter 1, was the manifestation of
original sin in pride, where Adam took his own counsel over Gods.51 As the
poet Phineas Fletcher put it, the unmeasurable pride in the heart of man led
to an open profession of Atheism, a manifestation of men preferring their
owne wits before Gods wisedome. Fletcher even thought this comparable to
the rule of that wretched Machiavell for taking mans counsel over Gods.52
An anonymous ballade broadside published in 1649, entitled A brief Relation of
an Atheisticall creature (Figure8), captured a more popular understanding of
atheism in rhyme:

Good Christians all give eare awhile,

And mark what I relate,
There lives a Man in Lambert Town,
Governd by lucklesse fate:
An Athist [sic] he in Judgement is,
Not fearing Heaven nor Hell,
But in presumption every day,
gainst God he doth rebell.53

In 1650 the controversialist Francis Cheynell put it in similarly blunt terms:

Our sin which we committed in Adam the first sin, it was a sin of cursed athe-
isme, divellish pride, unbelief, rebellion, apostacy.54 In his text on Christs par-
able of the prodigal son, John Goodman portrayed the judgment God exercised
upon mens pride as a confutation of atheism.55 Christopher Love argued that
the ground from whence atheism doth flow is pride of heart, present in the

50 J. Howe, The Living Temple (London, 1675), 20825.

51 See du Plessis Mornay, 210, 307, 317; Dove, 878.
52 P. Fletcher, The Way to Blessednes (London, 1632), 745, 2156.
53 A Brief Relation of an Atheisticall Creature (London, 1649).
54 F. Cheynell, The Divine Triunity (London, 1650), 3956.
55 J. Goodman, The Penitent Pardoned (London, 1679), 1523.
60 chapter 2

Figure8 Broadside, A brief Relation of an Atheisticall creature, London, 1649.

evident character of biblical examples such as Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar.56

A posthumous publication by the clergyman Thomas Barton in 1672 located
the source of atheism in the height of pride, the heate of passion and sen-
sual pleasures.57 Matthew Barker concluded from a marginal note on Psalms
10:4 that the proud man affected to be a God to himself: All his thoughts are,
there is no God.58 In his apologetic summary, A Discourse of the Knowledge of
God, published in 1688, Mathew Hale connected the atheism, the Pride, and
Folly of mans heart to a misplaced confidence in something other than God.59
Early modern religious writers were also quick to connect the atheists pride
with other distinctive characteristics, including a predilection for wit, scoffing,

56 Love, 2423. Identifications of Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar as atheists were often made
with other famous figures such as Alexander the Great, Julian the Apostate, or Arius. See
Dove, 3; Barker, 47; T. Beverley, A Discourse of the Judgments of God. Composed for the
Present Times, against Atheism and Prophaneness (London, 1668), 43.
57 T. Anderton, Soveraign Remedy against Atheism and Heresy (London, 1672), Preface. The
same verse was cited along with Psalms 14:1 in Person of Honour, The Atheist Unmasked
Or, A Confutation of such as Deny the Being of a Supream Deity, that Governs Heaven and
Earth (London, 1685).
58 Barker, 46.
59 M. Hale, A Discourse of the Knowledge of God (London, 1688), 343.
The Atheist Answered And His Error Confuted 61

and mockery.60 These characteristics were connected in apocalyptically pro-

phetic terms to 2 Peter 3:34, which the Authorized Version of 1611 translated
as: there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts. In
1613 Thomas Jackson applied the text to his own day filled, as he thought, with
mockers. Atheists and Libertines, Jackson averred, I know here are literally
meant.61 For some early modern Englishmen, such as Christopher Love, scoff-
ing and mockery implied a questioning of the Scriptures in the form of a
doubt about the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch or of Christs prophesied
return.62 Even Thomas Hobbes could cite 2 Peter and point to the prevalence
of scoffing in his own age as a sign of Atheisme.63 More straightforwardly,
Henry Hammond preached two sermons with 2 Peter 3:3 as a text whose
prophecy was fulfilled in his own day. Hammond connected the etymological
root of scoffing to any deviation from the Apostles Creed as an implication of
the Sin of Atheism.64 When Scripture was not cited explicitly, very often the
same message or related messages about an atheists character were implied.
John Dove thought an atheist doth scoffe at God and deride him as well as All
Religion, while Arthur Dents 1607 Plain-mans Pathway took the prevalence of
scoffing as a sign that the world was full of ranke Atheists.65 Wit, scoffing, and
scorn could also be taken as a sign of an atheists lack of concern for the truth,
or the atheists opinion that religion was a matter of imagination, or
invention.66 In 1664 John Tillotson defined Atheistical men as inconsiderate
and unreflective scoffers who jested at religion.67
When wit, scoffing, and derision were not simply characters of atheism, they
led to atheism and away from true religion.68 One partial translation of Augustines
De civitate dei published in 1676 described nullifidians, or unbelievers, as masters
of wit who misused reason and forged a path towards becoming downright
Atheists.69 Some early modern apologists thought scoffing and mockery were the
techniques an atheist used to dispute received Opinions, affecting a singularity

60 Cf. Redwood, Chap. 8.

61 T. Jackson, The Third Book of Commentaries Upon the Apostles Creed (London, 1614), 85.
62 Love, 2412.
63 T. Hobbes, The Questions concerning Liberty, Necessity and Chance (London, 1656), 2045.
64 H. Hammond, Sermons (London, 1675), 2456, 250.
65 Dove, 2; A. Dent, Plain-mans Pathway (London, 1607), 130; R. Greenham, The Workes of the
Reuerend and Faithfull Seruant af Jesus Christ M. Richard Greenham (London, 1612), 3645.
66 G. Cranmer, Concerning the New Church Discipline (London, 1645), 14, 156; A. Burgess, The
Scripture Directory (London, 1659), 99.
67 J. Tillotson, The Wisdom of Being Religious (London, 1664), 34.
68 Fuller, 379.
69 Augustine, Digitus Dei, 41.
62 chapter 2

of learning and understanding.70 Walter Charleton claimed that atheists

employed specious Arguments and insolent Discourses in Publick in order to
become wits.71 The high church clergyman Samuel Parker connected the scoffer
and the atheist in 1671 as aspiring wits of Reason who were themselves steeped
in Folly and Madness.72 In 1695 John Edwards maintained that scoffing and
mockery were the tools atheists used to live as they pleased.73
By identifying atheism with the sins of pride, mockery, and wit, early modern
religious apologists portrayed the atheist as an unnatural inversion, literally per-
verting nature, where an untrammelled will and bodily desire ruled over right
reason and religion. The more notorious characteristics of an atheist, such as
lust, licentiousness, and sensuality, were used from the moment atheism entered
vernacular discourse to describe this inversion and to condemn it. William
Perkins linked the swarmes of Atheists, Epicures, Libertines, worldlings, and
prophane persons with a licentious libertie.74 When Martin Fortherby identi-
fied the two ends of Atheism as the freedom from duty and fear, he did so by
arguing that the point of such false liberty was worldly ambition and sensual
desire.75 In a collection of his sermons published in 1669, Richard Allestree
insisted that unrestricted sensual lust was the most natural and certain way to
become an atheist.76 James Duport fearfully reported in 1676 that England was
plagued by a universal Libertinism, looseness, and licenciousness comprised
of an Atheistical loosness, licenciousness, and prophaneness, in point of
Morality, a Sceptical loosness, latitude, and indifferency in Religion, and
Anarchical loosness in politics.77 The atheists character was portrayed as
enslaved to sense, having forsaken true Christian liberty in the service of God.78
As a sermon by Thomas Manton put it, Atheisme lyeth in the heart, the Seat of
desires, for men want to indulge their lusts.79

70 J. Scott, The Christian Life (London, 1686), 145, 1223; T. Manton, A Fourth Volume
Containing One Hundred and Fifty Sermons on Several Texts of Scripture (London, 1693), 982.
71 Charleton, To the Reader.
72 S. Parker, A Discourse of Ecclesiastical Politie (London, 1670), xxxi.
73 Edwards, Some Thoughts, 567.
74 Perkins, Commentary on Galatians, 86; Jackson, Third Book, 84.
75 Fotherby, 1126.
76 R. Allestree, Eighteen Sermons (London, 1669), 401, 108, 3101.
77 J. Duport, Three Sermons (London, 1676), 21, 26; A. Horneck, The Great Law of Consideration
(London, 1677), passim.
78 Barker, 334, 389; Wolseley, Unreasonableness, 6, 101; Care, Notice to the Reader;
Cappel, Hinge, 2.
79 Manton, 675; R. Newnam, The Complain of English Subjects (London, 1699), 4665: Herein is
set forth, the Late prodigious Growth, of Atheism, Errors, and Vice: With a Call to Repentance.
The Atheist Answered And His Error Confuted 63

According to most religious writers of the time, the fact that an atheists
character was inverted meant that an atheist was also obstinately unreason-
able or irrational. George Abbot identified the atheist by his wayes of obsti-
nacy, while Martin Fotherby linked atheists who obstinately refused to
acknowledge God with the fool of Davids Psalm.80 In his Demonstration of
God in His Works (1597) the Catholic George More, followed by Fotherby and
others, repeated Lactantius description of men who denied God as irrational
beasts, a literal fulfillment of which was found in the biblical account of
Nebuchadnezzar.81 As beasts and monsters atheists were marked off as ani-
mals lacking reason, barely recognizable as human beings at all, pariahs
defined by their unrestrained will and creaturely desire.82 In a period where
reason was one of the characteristics by which man was separated from the
rest of the animal world, this mark was widely recognized.83
Early modern religious writers also drew a contrast between the manner of
the atheists life and the manner of his death, or depicted the atheists life as
plagued by fear and subject in death to terrible pain as a sign of Gods judg-
ment.84 In Gods Arrow Against Atheists, Henry Smith took the first approach,
arguing that by experience of all ages it hath been proved that Atheists them-
selves, that is, such as in their health and prosperitie for more libertie of sin-
ning, would strive against the being of a God, when they came to die or fall into
any great miserie, they of all other would shew themselves most fearefull of
this God.85 John Dove pointed to Lucian of Samosata, Julian the Apostate,
Arius, and others as specific examples of atheists who apparently suffered ter-
rible deaths for their errors.86 Thomas Fuller closed his account of the atheists
character by claiming that their deaths were commonly the most miserable,
adding the ancient Greek Diagoras of Melos to the list of examples.87 Martin

80 Abbot, 509; Fotherby, 1478; Horeneck, 257.

81 G. More, A Demonstration of God in His Workes (London, 1597), Chap. 2, 2633; Fotherby,
148; Beverley, 43.
82 Barker, 335; Good, 2; Horeneck, 2578; T. Ford, Aytokatakritos or, The Sinner Condemned
of Himself (London, 1668), 210; M. Hale, The Primitive Origination of Mankind (London,
1677), 70.
83 K. Thomas, Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 15001800 (London:
Penguin, 1983), 306.
84 The adage that there were no atheists in hell was frequently cited in this context. See
Fuller, 382. The Latin form of this adage was put on both title pages of the translation of
J.-B. Morin by Henry Care, see Morin, 1672, 1683.
85 Smith, Gods Arrow, 12; Broughton, 3.
86 Dove, 23.
87 Fuller, 382. For more on Diagoras see Chap. 6.
64 chapter 2

Fotherby argued that atheists were characterized by a servile fear, particularly

during sleep, thunder, and the approach of death, precisely the themes upon
which Lucretius focused in De rerum natura. They that will not fear God, in
the time of their life, Fotherby noted in contrast, are driven to fear the Devill,
at the time of their death, and to tremble at the thought of that eternall
punishment.88 Lancelot Andrewes concurred, citing the argument made by
Cephalus in Book II of Platos Republic which stated that men facing sickness,
danger, or death were far more likely to consider and believe in God.89 William
Towers thought the atheists fear of thunder, lightning, and death proved the
indelible character of God upon mans soul, an argument Matthew Barker later
affirmed by using Cicero to point out that Epicurus, who had disputed against
Gods eternal judgment, was of all people the most fearful of thunder and
death.90 In keeping with these anti-atheist conventions, Bishop Burnet and
Robert Parsons wrote of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, as a supreme example
of someone who, in the face of death, repented of his libertine atheism.91

(iii) Arguments against Atheism

The arguments which made up the works issued in the confutation of atheism
were very often drawn from a common stock or were elaborations of previ-
ously made arguments. Just as the forms of arguments against atheism were
classically derived, the arguments against atheism were themselves derivative
of a standard apologetic repertoire. This section provides an overall picture of
these patterns by examining some of the most commonly used arguments in
confutation discourse; later chapters will show how these arguments were
deployed and adapted in the course of the seventeenth century.
The broad patterns into which the arguments against atheism fit in early
modern England were the traditional ones inherited from Greco-Roman and
Christian antiquity, from Aquinas, Vives and Grotius, and from the fourfold
method powerfully associated with Calvins Institutes. Both du Plessis Mornay
and Fotherby, for example, followed Calvins form by establishing that God
existed, that there was only one God, given his necessary attributes, that God

88 Fotherby, 1256, 12930, 133; Taylor, Eniautos, 169; P. Herbert, Certain Conceptions (London,
1650), 67.
89 L. Andrewes, A Pattern of Catechistical Doctrine (London, 1630), 50, 523, for how atheists
are confuted by their strange deaths.
90 Towers, Atheismus, 106, 1105; Barker, 39.
91 See Chap. 1.
The Atheist Answered And His Error Confuted 65

was the God of Jews and Christians, and that Scripture was Gods revelation or
word. Each step in this early modern apologetic contained within it a set of argu-
ments responding to those made by the alleged atheist. Du Plessis Mornay and
Fortherby represent the more systematic end of this approach at the beginning
of this period, but other, less programmatic writers such as John Dove, followed
this method too.92 While holistic defences in keeping with Calvins method were
less frequently taken up as a whole within the confines of a single work, this fact
should not overshadow the sense in which there were nonetheless a set of broad
argumentative continuities across the seventeenth century. These included an
argument about the universal consent of mankind in acknowledging God and
religion against the existence of speculative atheists or a society of atheists93;
creation ex nihilo against the eternity of the universe; the finite chain of causes
and effects against an infinity of causes and effects; the existence of matter and
spirit against matter alone; the existence of body and soul against body alone;
Gods providence against disorder, chaos, and chance; Gods justice against the
seemingly unequal distribution of good and evil; and the truth of the Christian
religion against the claims that religion was a political trick or cheat.94
As we will see at greater length in Chapter 6, the most ubiquitous argument
made by religious apologists in this period was the argument from the univer-
sal consent of mankind, or the consensus gentium drawn from Cicero.95 Where
du Plessis Mornay began his work from the universal truth of God implanted in
all men, it would not be an exaggeration to describe the whole of Fotherbys
Atheomastix as an elaboration of universal consent.96 In Fotherbys case he

92 Dove directly cites Calvins Institutes on idolatry and consensus gentium at p. 24.
93 This argument will be treated at length in Chap. 6.
94 See the discussion of L. Lessius apology against atheists in M. Buckley, At the Origins of
Modern Atheism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 4255. While many of the
works considered here derived their arguments with Lessius from the Stoics, they were
not necessarily as consistent or comprehensive in doing so.
95 Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, trans. J.E. King., rev. ed. (Cambridge, ma: Harvard University
Press, 1945), 1.13, 15, 16; Cicero, De natura deorum, trans. H. Rackham (Cambridge, ma:
Harvard University Press, 1933), 1.16-7. More, Demonstration, 1920; Broughton, 2, 3 ; Dove,
24, 28; Fotherby, 12, 1621; Andrewes, 23, 26; H. More, An Antidote against Atheisme
(London, 1652/3), 312; Stillingfleet, Origines Sacrae, passim; M. Casaubon, Of Credulity
and Incredulity (London, 1668), 145; Beverley, 105; Wolesley, 65; Horeneck, 1201; Morin,
6970; Good, 56; W. Bates, Considerations of the Existence of God (London, 1677), 845;
Derodon, Arraignment, 1425; W. Talbot, The Unreasonableness and Mischief of Atheism
(London, 1694), 11; W. Dawes, An Anatomie of Atheism (London, 1695), 22; Smith, Two
Discourses, 512. See Chap. 6 for a more detailed discussion of universal consent.
96 du Plessis Mornay, 1; Fotherby, 21.
66 chapter 2

appealed both to history and to contemporary observation. Using a tactic as

old as the patristic writings he cited, George Abbot considered it highly signifi-
cant that even an adversary such as Lucretius granted the claim of universal
consent.97 Louis Cappel dedicated an entire chapter of his confutation to the
consensus gentium, describing it there as the unquestionable ancient and con-
temporary testimony of the existence of God.98 As the playwright and politi-
cian Robert Howard noted at the beginning of his History of Religion (1694),
there never was yet any Country, or Society of Men, but did own some
Distinctions could be made within confutation discourse as to what exactly
the universal consent of mankind was about. Charles Wolseley, for example,
described the consensus gentium as the instinct of a Deity in mans nature
and being, as well as the universal tradition of God having made the world and
appearing to mankind.100 In Considerations upon the Existence of God (1677)
the ejected minister and moderate dissenter William Bates described universal
consent as applying to an impression of God in all men through conscience.101
Clement Ellis repeated Wolseleys position in The Folly of Atheism Demonstrated
(1692), noting both the impression of God upon all men, and pointing to the
testimony of all ages and nations.102
Prior to the philosophical elaboration of internal introspection as a proof
for the existence of God made popular by Ren Descartes, early modern reli-
gious apologists argued that the impression of God was discerned in the uni-
versal distinction between good and evil, virtue and vice, or in the existence of
conscience. Henry Smith appealed to the impression of God in every mans
conscience, while John Dove suggested introspection revealed God in con-
science and understanding, in the naturall inclination to religion.103 Louis
Cappel expanded upon the universal distinction between virtue and vice rec-
ognized by all men and the existence of conscience, neither of which could be
explained away by the invention of man or custom.104 Charles Wolseley used

97 Abbot, 1034.
98 Cappel, Hinge, 117, 119, 1269.
99 R. Howard, The History of Religion (London, 1694), 12. This was an argument Howard
thought was obvious, clear, and required no arduous artificial Confutation to sustain,
citing Lactantius. However, see Champion, 13740, for a discussion of Howards anticleri-
calism and unorthodoxy.
100 Wolseley, Unreasonableness, 667, 71.
101 Bates, 867, 90.
102 Ellis, 65, 67, 6975, 7887.
103 Smith, Gods Arrow, 3; Dove, 22.
104 Cappel, Hinge, 28, 30, 323, and 923, but see the whole chapter, 909.
The Atheist Answered And His Error Confuted 67

the argument from conscience to state that God left an impression of himself
not only in the understanding of good and evil, but as an instinct which passed
continual Judgment upon a Mans self, in all a Man does, with reference to
God, and that primary and supreme concern of pleasing Him, and correspond-
ing to his Will. Nor could any atheist counter-argument based on mans fear or
on the suggestion that the idea of God was an invention passed down by tradi-
tion contradict this truth. As both Cappel and Wolseley insisted, there were
evident examples of men who were plagued by conscience like the bad
Roman emperor Caligula even when it contradicted their professed beliefs or
When the confutation of atheism in early modern England did not begin
from the universal consent of mankind, very often it began from arguments
based on the natural universe. One of the chief atheist arguments to be con-
futed in this period was the claim that the world was eternal, required no cre-
ation, and came to be in its present form by fate/necessity or fortune/chance.
If a religious writer did not simply cite a series of authorities from Romans 1:20,
Plato and Aristotle, or Church Fathers such as Justin Martyr and Augustine, in
order to instantiate the obvious necessity of a creator, they typically began
through some account of the necessity of a first cause and first mover.106 Du
Plessis Mornay took a two pronged approach common to many subsequent
confutations, establishing the necessity of a first cause by reasoning upon
cause and effect, and the necessity of a first mover by reasoning about time.107
This meant that, as John Dove put it, creation was a making of something from
nothing, creation ex nihilo, having no matter praecedent. If an atheist replied
that there was some eternally existing matter, this was an argument that God
was not the first cause but simply a first mover.108 Martin Fotherby separated
reflection upon causes into a causal and motive component, both of which,
when logically broken down into their parts, demanded God as first cause and
first mover: moving logically from secondary causes to a first cause, and from
secondary motions to a first mover.109 Cappels reply to the atheists objection
moved in the other direction. If matter existed eternally, not only should there
be an infinity of worlds, but this world should be filled up with human societ-
ies which had made far greater cultural, social, and philosophical progress. Of
course each of these conclusions was absurd and manifestly Repugnant to

105 Wolseley, Unreasonableness, 1005.

106 Smith, Gods Arrow, 3.
107 du Plessis Mornay, Chaps. 7 and 8.
108 More, Demonstration, 367; Dove, 201, 61, 645.
109 Fotherby, 2, 21222.
68 chapter 2

Reason, given that the historical account of mankind apparently ended about
five or six thousand years ago. Likewise, Cappel persisted, if we reason upon
matter, we cannot be convinced that something Corporeall, Finite, Materiall,
so gross, and so imperfect as this World could have existed from eternity.110 In
A Soveraign Remedy against Atheism and Heresy (1672) the Catholic Thomas
Anderton began his confutation of atheism from the metaphysical awareness
each man had of his own finitude, concluding that man could not have created
himself, that in order for there to be something at all there must have been
something else which had always existed, and that this something which had
always existed, in order to produce that which was, must have possessed all the
attributes of perfection.111 As was endlessly repeated in the seventeenth cen-
tury, it was far more unreasonable and improbable to follow Epicurus and
attribute to the world an eternal existence, when the perfection of eternity was
an attribute far more consistent with the being of God.112 It was, Wolseley con-
tended, the rudest nonsense to suggest that secondary things made them-
selves or that the world was eternal and without a cause; generation and
corruption demonstrated an uneven succession which meant material things
were not eternal, and were thus inconsistent with eternal perfection and
Almost no religious apologist in early modern England failed to connect cre-
ation ex nihilo to the argument based on the scale, order, harmony, and ends of
the natural universe the great chain of being. As John Maynard put it in Of
the Order and Beauty of Creation (1668), the natural world confuteth the
Atheism of all those, who deny, or doubt the truth of God and imagine that
the World was not created of God.114 Many of these works declared their inten-
tion to leave a priori reasoning behind, focusing on some aspect of the natural
universe, such as its chain of causes, the well ordered system of Nature, the
harmony and proportion of microcosm and macrocosm, which, they univer-
sally agreed, could not possibly be the product of blinde and fortuitous fate
or some chance conflux of Atoms.115 In works with narrower aims or works
which were not confutations as a whole, many writers were content to cite the

110 Cappel, Hinge, 11, 16, 17. W. Sallers tract repeats most of these traditional arguments, 6.
111 Anderton, Remedy, 23.
112 Barker, 1821; Howard, History, 25: An infinite series of causes and effects simply replaced
the attribute of Gods infinity into the natural domain, an assertion which staggers and
confounds Apprehension.
113 Wolseley, Unreasonableness, 4659.
114 J. Maynard, The Beauty and Order of the Creation (London, 1668), 910, 2122.
115 Towers, Atheismus, 178, 23; Saller, 6; W. Sprigg, Essayes (London, 1657), 65; Cappel, Hinge, 22.
The Atheist Answered And His Error Confuted 69

excellent beautie and building of this world, reminiscent of the Psalms or the
apostle Pauls epistles.116 When the argument about the frame and order of the
universe was spelled out, however, as it could be by both Protestants and
Catholics alike, the book of nature was read alongside the book of revelation.117
Du Plessis Mornay began his Trewnesse by ascending the scale of being in the
natural universe, from stones to man, while noting the order and harmony
which interconnected the microcosm of man to the macrocosm of the uni-
verse at large.118 Reading the book of nature, John Dove wrote, revealed the
name of God engraven there in hierographicall letters.119 Martin Fotherby
thought anyone who listened to the voyce of nature, whose harmonicall pro-
portion and musick pointed to the end for which nature was created, could
not fail to acknowledge God.120 Observing the frame, order, harmony, and ends
of the natural universe, claimed William Towers, destroyed any argument
based on the eternal existence of matter, atoms, and chance: not Any thing, is
Casual and Fortuitous, by meer Dull, and Ignorant, Frustraneous and End-less
Chance.121 As Charles Wolseley put it, the natural rectitude, and innate har-
mony of the World; and the due subordination of things one to anothercon-
centring in one common end could not have been the product of chance.
Chance, he continued, was simply a word which signified the ignorance of a
cause.122 In his Natural Theology Mathew Barker concluded that everything in
nature had an end, a proportion, and a relation fit for the preservation of the
whole.123 William Bates insisted that a survey of the natural universe and all its
Proportion, Dependence and Harmony demanded a perfect Mind that
designd it, and disposed the various parts in that exact order and could not
possibly be the result of an accidental aggregation of Bodies.124 The order and
continual motion of the universe, concluded Clement Ellis, necessitated the
existence of an unmade being which made all other things, for the natural
world could not make itself and was known to have temporal limits.125

116 Smith, Gods Arrow, 4. See also: Herbert, 4, 68.

117 More, Demonstration, 3749.
118 du Plessis Mornay, 38.
119 Dove, 1920.
120 Fotherby, 57, 31027, 32844; G. Goodman, The Creatures Praysing God (London, 1622),
121 Towers, Atheismus, 1742, quote at 42.
122 Wolseley, Unreasonableness, 79, 82.
123 Barker, 2131.
124 Bates, 56, 1933.
125 Ellis, 901, 94109, 1105.
70 chapter 2

In order to deny that God was the first cause, first mover, and overseer of the
natural universe, early modern religious apologists assumed that atheists
argued for the sole existence of matter, ruling out the existence of spirit. Two
features of body or matter were frequently noted by apologists. First, that body
was subject to generation and degeneration, defining it as finite and limited.
Second, even if it was admitted that matter was eternal, the attributes of mat-
ter prevented it from any and all active powers which could be responsible for
generation, life, or motion. As John Dove put it, no naturall bodye can move it
selfe, therefore it hath motion from some other.126 Dove used Augustine to
buttress the claim that God could not be a body because spirit was superior to
body: body was dependent and subject to chance and alteration, whereas God
was a perfect independent essence not subject to mutability.127 Henry More
and other midcentury writers would insist in the aftermath of debates gener-
ated by Descartes and the rise of mechanical philosophy that matter was inert,
passive, and corruptible, none of which could produce thought, life, or the
natural universe in its present form.128 When Richard Bentley entitled his sec-
ond Boyle lecture of 1692 Matter in motion cannot think, rejecting any sug-
gestion of that possibility recently made in John Lockes An Essay concerning
Humane Understanding, he was firmly in line with previous confutations of
Early modern religious apologists responded to the denial of spirit not only
because it questioned the necessity of Gods existence, but also because it
implied Gods materiality and the materiality and mortality of the human soul.
To argue, as the atheist was supposed to have done, that the soul was mortal,
undercut the doctrine of divine justice on the final Day of Judgment. Du Plessis
Mornay dedicated two chapters in his Trewnesse to proving the souls immor-
tality by distinguishing Platonically between the inward spiritual man and the
outward bodily man. Given that the inward man, the soul, was that which, like
God in the natural universe, caused bodily motion, it could not be of the same
substance as body, which was a mere carkesse. Body was limited, neutral, and
passive; whereas man, possessing reason and life, had a soul which gave him
that life and reason which, distinguished from the body, was incorruptible,
immortal, and wholly bent towards the tyme to come.130 Arguments made by

126 Dove, 21.

127 Ibid., 356; Broughton, 319.
128 More, Antidote, 437; Charleton, 2023.
129 Bentley, Lecture 2. Cf. Redwood, 10814.
130 du Plessis Mornay, 233, 247. Chapter 14 was extracted and published separately by J.
Bachiler as The Souls Owne Evidence (London, 1646).
The Atheist Answered And His Error Confuted 71

George More, which defended the existence and immortality of the soul as the
imago Dei, and by John Dove, that the infinite nature of mans understanding,
will, and desire, pointed teleologically to an infinite end in God, reaffirmed
points made by du Plessis Mornay before them.131 Dove also added that Gods
justice required the future reward and punishment of virtue and vice, a further
confirmation of mans telos in the tyme to come. The fact that reason was
employed to correct the errors of sense logically implied that reason was above
sense, argued Thomas Anderton in 1669, and indicated that there was some-
thing in man superior to and above body. The souls immortality may be deter-
mined, Anderton continued in a Cartesian vein, from its cleerest act: the
direction and desire for mans own happiness, an irrefutable first principle of
reason.132 Matthew Barker thought the souls capacities and desires extended
far beyond the limited finiteness of this world, possessing divine inclinations
and the Idea of Divinity. It would be pointless for this inclination and idea to
exist if it were not true, Barker insisted, particularly as the souls immortality
was necessary for the exercise of divine justice in a future state.133 In similar
terms William Bates pointed to the souls cognitive and moral faculties, cor-
recting the errors of sense and affirming distinctions of virtue and vice, as well
as its restless desire for eternal happiness and justice which could only be
satisfied through the immateriality and immortality of soul and God alike.134
The confutation of atheism in early modern England repeatedly echoed a
longstanding assertion regarding Gods providential ordering and oversight of
the natural and moral universe in order to reject the suggestion that the world
was governed by fate/necessity (Stoics) or chaos/chance (Epicureans). As the
title of the partial translation of Augustines De civitate dei made clear, Digitus
Dei sought to highlight Gods providence through the metaphor of Gods hand
upon the world. This providential finger of God was illustrated, according to
several confutation texts, through various natural and supernatural events, and
affirmed through biblical imagery such as the handwriting on the wall during
bad King Balthazars feast.135 Perhaps the simplest confutation of atheism was
one that characterized providence as Gods constant Preservation.136 Yet a
very wide range of approaches to the demonstration of providence were taken,
many of which were presented in du Plessis Mornays Trewnesse. First, to deny

131 More, Demonstration, 512; Dove, 725.

132 Anderton, Remedy, 810, 112.
133 Barker, 17083.
134 Bates, 225, 22874.
135 Augustine, Digitus Dei; Barker, 401; Beverley, 434; Bentley, Lecture 1, p. 2.
136 Saller, 6.
72 chapter 2

providence was equivalent to atheism, as both ancient Christians and pagans

agreed: an Atheist was he that denyed Gods providence, as he that denyed the
Godhead it self.137 If we agree that God made the world, du Plessis Mornay
contended, then God must govern it as well. One could not argue, as Epicurus
did, that God was both perfect and that he showed no concern for the govern-
ment of the universe; this was inconsistent with Gods perfection and glory.
Moreover, if the atheist argued that the distribution of good and evil on Earth
called into question Gods existence or his providence, most writers followed du
Plessis Mornay and replied that justice was served in a future state and that
virtue and vice were their own rewards.138 Besides which, as Henry Smith
reminded his audience, Gods temporal judgments were the clear evidence of
his providence, both in their blessing and their punishment.139 George More
regarded this point as the firmest proof, dedicating over half of the Demonstration
of the Existence of God to its elaboration.140 Where Gods judgments were clear
signs of his providence, so too was the providential ordering of nature. As John
Owen surmised in 1677, the very intelligibility of both nature and providential
judgment was a further indication of Gods existence no atheist could deny.141
Louis Cappel took a slightly different tack and focused on the demonstration of
Gods providence in society, where a diversity of men, manners, customs, and
forms of government were proof that there was an infinitely wise cause which
underwrote the foundation of political society by checking mans natural
Coveteousnesse.142 In A Discourse of the Judgments of God Against Atheism
and Prophaneness (1668), Thomas Beverley defended Gods providence using
extraordinary moments of judgment, such as Famines, Pestilences,
Earthquakes, Storms, and Deluges, as a confirmation of the threat posed by
atheism to the English nation only two years after the Great Fire of London.143
Beverley responded to a series of objections he thought atheists made against

137 Even T. Hobbes made the same point in Seven Philosophical Problems (London, 1682), 63;
Horneck, 2149; J. Kettlewell, The Measures of Christian Obedience (London, 1682), 11011;
N. Ingelo, A Sermon Preached at St. Pauls Church in London, April 17 1659 (London, 1659),
446; J. Hall, Of Government and Obedience (London, 1654), 408.
138 du Plessis Mornay, Chaps. 11 and 12, 171211. For similar points connected to atheism in a
non-confutation text, see Goodman, Penitent, 1523.
139 Smith, Gods Arrow, 5.
140 More, Demonstration, 67155.
141 J. Owen, The Reason of Faith (London, 1677), 140.
142 Cappel, Hinge, 41, 49, 523.
143 Beverley, 189. In a sermon preached before the House of Commons in 1642, E. Corbet
linked Atheisme and the sin and unrighteousness of his time as a questioning of Gods
providence: Gods Providence (London, 1642), 9, 27. S. Doolittle made a similar point, arguing
The Atheist Answered And His Error Confuted 73

providence: that judgments had natural causes, that calamities were the prod-
uct of chance, and that judgment fell unequally on the virtuous and vicious.
Beverley accepted the argument that judgments had natural causes, but their
effects as providential punishments were by no means diminished, he retorted,
nor could they possibly be the products of mere chance. Furthermore, Beverley
insisted, given the pervasiveness of human sin, no one and no society was free
from Gods legitimate judgment, particularly as God made edifying examples
for the benefit of the faithful and as a sign of his eternal justice.144
One of the most persistent and pervasive confutations of atheism in early
modern England concerned the atheists argument that religion was a political
cheat used by ambitious men to subdue the vulgar.145 Easily the most repeated
name in this context was that of Niccol Machiavelli. For many, Machiavelli
taught the magistrate to use or ignore religion in order to further his political
ends, no matter how unseemly the actions thereby necessitated might be.146

that Gods providential judgment confuted all those leavend with the Principles of
Atheism: A Sermon Occasioned by the late Earthquake (London, 1692), 134.
144 Beverley, 36, 5268, 989. See also J. Flavells preface to Divine Conduct, a work on provi-
dence directed against the Atheists of the times.
145 Taylor, Eniautos, 2489.
146 The Atheisticall Politician, or a brief Discourse concerning Ni. Machiavell (London, 1641), is
a short apology for Machiavelli which argues that those who descry him are often his
imitators in practice. For related works connecting Machiavelli to atheists and the politi-
cal cheat argument: G. Abbot , Jonah, 1012, 110; Adams, Devils Banket, 47: and there be
Machiavels, Polititians, Atheists, have trickes beyond the Devill; R. Bolton, Instructions
for a Right Comforting of Afflicted Consciences (London, 1631), 267; P. Fletcher, The Way to
Blessedness (London, 1632), 215: wee shall soone perceive this Atheisme in contempt of
Gods counsell and wisdome, to be spread over all sorts, as Statesmen who frame their
policies according to the rule of that wretched Machiavell; H. Burton, A Replie to a
Relation, of the Conference between William Laud and Mr Fisher the Jesuit (London, 1640),
124: Machivels and Atheistes thinke that all the Bible, and all preaching, and all religion,
is but matter of pollicy, to keepe men in awe. In a short section on Atheisme in his Works
the clergyman Richard Greenham connected the Arch-atheist Machiavel to the teach-
ing that Christian religion weakens the political magistrates hand, exactly opposite was
the case, he argued, at p. 212; J. Collop, Charity Commended (London, 1667), identified the
argument of an atheist as suggesting religion was a cheap trick and cheat, Preface; V.
Alsop, Melius Inquirendum (London, 1678), 1056: Atheists and damned Machiavellian
policy. Actual Machiavellians such as Henry Nevile were charged with atheism as well,
see B. Worden, English Republicanism, The Cambridge History of Political Thought 1450
1700, ed., J.H. Burns (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 471. Contemporaries
such as James Harrington had noted that Machiavellianism and atheism were synony-
mous, see The Common-wealth of Oceana (London, 1656), 171; idem, The vvayes and meanes
(London, 1660), 4.
74 chapter 2

In direct contrast, du Plessis Mornay defended the Mosaic authorship of the

Pentateuch against the argument that Jewish religion or law could have been
some kind of political cheat.147 John Dove colourfully described this suppos-
edly atheist argument as turning Moses into Machiavel: Their Divinitie is poli-
cye, their zeale is Atheisme, and their God is the devil.148 Charles Wolseley
confuted the argument that religion was a political cheat by asking how such
an illusion could have been conducted upon the whole world, when was it
conducted, and by whom? Wolseley maintained that such a cheat required the
whole world to have been deceived, a fact which would have been discovered
at some point. Moreover, as William Bates and Clement Ellis added, it was con-
trary to reason to believe that mans universal concern for God and religion was
simply a delusion.149 It was not so much that religion was a cheat, Mathew
Barker asserted, but that State-Policy itself was one of the great Causes of
Atheism. For when religion was turned into the means of an ambitious politi-
cians rise to power, heeding the advice of Machiavel, he could then quiet his
conscience, his Sense of a Deity, and embrace the cause of Atheism.150
While early modern confutation discourse contained many idiosyncratic
arguments against atheism, one argument that arose several times in this
period, highlighting once more the atheist as a symbol of inversion, to the
point where he acted against his own interests, was a kind of early modern
existential wager. According to John Dove it was the safest opinion for the
Atheists to holde that there is a God. For if so be [sic] that there were no God,
there could come no hurt unto them for thinking so.151 Thomas Beverley put it
in slightly different terms, arguing that the atheist could only raise probabilis-
tic doubts about Gods existence, never anything demonstrative or conclusive,
leaving the atheist open to the same problem sketched by Dove, Cappel, and
Ellis: the danger of hell.152 As we will see in Chapter 7, this confutation of athe-
ism became far more prominent in the latter half of the seventeenth century.

147 du Plessis Mornay, 4245.

148 Dove, 4.
149 Wolseley, Unreasonableness, 738; Bates, 10711 and Ellis, 767.
150 Barker, 55.
151 Dove, 34. Cappel, Hinge, 1267; L. Cappel, La Pivot de la Foy et Religion (Saumur, 1643), 2101:
Mais quand bien leur raison seroient esgalement fortes, (ce que non) tousiours ladvantage
seroit de nostre cost, premierement, pource quoutre les raison nous avons ce consente-
nient universel quils nont pas: secondement, pour ce que quand il na auroit point de Dieu,
il ny a point de danger, & peu ou point de perte, en croire & servir un, mais sil y a un Dieu,
les Athes, pour ne le pas croire & servir, sont en hazard davoir lEnfer pour leur partage.
152 Cappel, Hinge, 1267; Beverley, 378; Ellis, 9, 112. See Chap. 6 for more examples of this
wager in late seventeenth-century sermons.
The Atheist Answered And His Error Confuted 75

The first step of early modern apologetics against atheism involved estab-
lishing Gods existence; step two involved demonstrating that there was only
one God, typically through an explication of his attributes derived from the
arguments in step one. By moving from the first to the second step, however,
the target of confutation shifted to the slightly larger domain of atheists, poly-
theists, and heretics, and sometimes necessitated an account of complicated
Christian doctrines, including the Trinity and the Eucharist.153 Without sub-
jecting all the details of this early modern argument to scrutiny here, suffice it
to say that the apologist who argued that God was a first cause and first mover
usually concluded that such a being must be in all its attributes completely and
simply perfect, defining Gods infinite power, goodness, and wisdom. To this
end du Plessis Mornay used a common Platonic metaphor for God, the sun, to
demonstrate that only the perfect unity of God could produce the diverse har-
mony found in nature, man, and human society.154 George More, by contrast,
stuck to the Aristotelian argument that ascribed three principles to God: the
originall cause from which all things doo proceede, the roote of life out of
which all life doth spring, and the fountain of goodnes, from whence all good
doth arise & flow, then is he but one. If God was the perfectly omnipotent
being that was demanded in a first cause, first mover, and ultimate source of all
goodness, guiding the universe providentially, it was for writers such as George
More, Richard Broughton, Martin Fotherby, and many others, impossible that
such perfection be defined by anything other than its unity.155 This confutation
of atheism, polytheism, and heresy was of course one of the oldest and most
traditional of arguments derived from Greco-Roman and Christian antiquity.
While it would be misleading to suggest that Ralph Cudworths laborious argu-
ment in the True Intellectual System of the Universe was completely emblem-
atic in its argument against atheism, this monumental work, with its hundreds
of pages of philosophical and historical explication and exegesis on the Triune
divinity, reveals something of the complexity and the attendant anxiety which
surrounded the explanation of this central doctrine. Balancing a defence of
the one true Gods attributes with an account of the Christian Trinity in the
face of a supposed atheism which, it was assumed, challenged some aspect
of Gods orthodox nature, was a persistent early modern concern and one
that increased with the appearance of heterodoxies such as Socinianism,

153 Redwood, 15672. A midcentury example that fits the apologetic pattern under discussion
here and addresses the Trinity question can be found in T. Byrdall, A Glimpse of God: or, A
Treatise Proving, That There is a God (London, 1665).
154 du Plessis Mornay, 15, 1822.
155 More, Demonstration, 579, 63; Broughton, 218; Fotherby, 2, 24460.
76 chapter 2

Unitarianism, and seemingly hydra-like Protestant sects.156 When Thomas

Wise revised Cudworths text as A Confutation of Atheism in 1706, he hoped to
rebuff the atheist once more and shore up orthodoxy after another round of
vigorous theological debates about the Trinity in the 1690s and early 1700s.157
Steps one and two of early modern apologetics were not distinct enterprises
cut off from steps three and four, which established that the one true God was
the God of the Bible and that the Bible was Gods authoritative word. With the
latter two steps, which were often indistinguishable in many early modern
confutations, we enter into an even wider domain, so that the confutation of
atheism was also the confutation of polytheism, heresy, and rival monotheistic
religions. While nearly half of du Plessis Mornays Trewnesse was taken up with
a defence of the God of Jewish and Christian religion as the true God, and the
establishment of the Christian Scriptures as a revealed text confirmed by natu-
ral reason, most confutation texts cited some version of these arguments with
far less elaboration. Where du Plessis Mornay spent 300 pages on these latter
two points, John Dove spent only one chapter of 10 pages. Yet between them
these kinds of confutations, refuting atheist arguments which undermined
some aspect of Scriptures authority, could still list a set of common points.
John Dove cited a host of common defences of Scripture, all of which were
mentioned by du Plessis Mornay, which included the fulfilment of biblical
prophecy, the consent of different biblical writers, the style and manner of the
writing, the preservation of Scripture from profanation, the content of the
sacred history of Christ, the antiquity of the texts, and the confirmation of
pagan writers.158 William Towers was more confined in his confutation,
Atheismus Vapulans, but made many substantially similar points, defending
the Bibles method, manner, and matter. He argued that, from beginning to
end, the Bible spoke with one authority and one voice, refuting the possibility
that it could have been contrived by human means, particularly given the con-
tent of its doctrines, such as sin and salvation, heaven and hell, and the fulfil-
ment of prophecy.159 The title of Louis Cappels confutation, La Pivot de la Foy
et Religion, was drawn from his defence of the authority and testimony of
Scripture, comme estant la base, le pivot, & le fondement de la vraye Religion,

156 See S. Mortimer, Reason and Religion in the English Revolution: The Challenge of Socinianism
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); P. Him, Mystery Unveiled: The Crisis of the
Trinity in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
157 See T. Wise, Introduction, to A Confutation of the Reason and Philosophy of Atheism, 2
vols. (London, 1706).
158 Dove, 4252.
159 Towers, Atheismus, 15765.
The Atheist Answered And His Error Confuted 77

this being the very Basis, Hinge, and Foundation of true Religion.160 For
Cappel atheists had to face the fact of Scriptures quality and condition, and its
harmony, scope and end, none of which could have been created by human
design. Nor did it make any sense to Cappel that Christian doctrine and sacred
history could have been perpetrated as illusions given the fulfillment of proph-
ecy, the testimony of Christs miracles, and the providential spread of the
Gospel.161 Edward Stillingfleets highly erudite and frequently republished
Origines Sacrae fits squarely within this genre of writing, presenting all of these
traditional arguments and indeed many, many more with learned elabora-
tion and apologetic sophistication.162 William Sallers much shorter confuta-
tion tract, concerned primarily with Christian doctrine and practice, likewise
highlighted the scope and effect of Scripture, as well as the fulfillment of
prophecy. In the 1690s Clement Ellis defended Scripture against atheists by
appealing to authority and testimony as well, focusing on the historical exis-
tence of biblical authors, the felicity of Scripture for promoting happiness and
virtue, and the inconsistency between the teachings of Christ, the spread of
the Gospel, and the atheists argument that Christianity was all a delusion.163

(iv) Anti-atheist Confutation and the People

As we have repeatedly seen, the confutation of atheism was primarily the work
of early modern religious apologists who were very often educated Protestant
clergymen. As such, these clergymen delivered their confutations of atheism
within sermons in their local parishes, as well as in texts of greater length and
sophistication. Given the rhetorical flexibility of confutation, when clergymen
were explicating Scripture they very often produced a stock set of counter-
arguments against atheism in sermons dedicated more typically to edificatory
ends. The vast majority of Englishmen and women, then, would have heard
confutations of atheism in sermons, without necessarily knowing that what
they were hearing utilized a rhetorical technique aimed at undermining the
adversary of true belief and Christian practice.164 What determined the nature

160 Cappel, Pivot, 223; Cappel, Hinge, 134.

161 Cappel, Hinge, 135, 13562, 1646.
162 Stillingfleet, Origines Sacrae, passim.
163 Ellis, 3251.
164 Andreas Hyperius work on the rhetoric of sermons, which included Confutation, was
translated into English in 1577. See A. Hyperius, The Practis of Preaching, trans. J. Ludham
(London, 1577).
78 chapter 2

of this homiletic confutation would often depend on the context in which the
sermon was being given what was the Biblical text being discussed? what was
the timing of the sermon in the liturgical calendar? who was delivering the
sermon and to whom was the sermon being given?
A typical example of the kind sermon which popularized anti-atheist confu-
tation was delivered by the Calvinist Thomas Adams in a sermon published as
The Gallants Burden (1612), originally given during Lent at Pauls Cross on the
text of Isaiah 21:1112.165 Adams took this verse as a prophecy and employed a
metaphorical interpretation by which it applied to individual parishioners and
the English nation alike, calling them both to forsake evil and repent of their
sinful ways. As part of the traditional call to repentance during the Lenten sea-
son in preparation for Holy Week, Adams spoke symbolically of Englands
darkness, lamenting the abundance of atheists, Epicures, libertines, and
Prophane persons. The Atheistes in question were

such as have voluntarily, violently, extinguished to themselves, the Sun-

light of the Scripture, Moone-light of the Creature; nay, the sparkes and
cinders of Nature, that the more securely (as unseene and unchidden of
their owne heartes) they might prodigally act the workes of darknesse;
not Athenian-like, dedicating an Altar to an unknowne God, but annihi-
lating to themselves, and vili-pending to others, Altar, Religion, God; and
suffocating the breath of all Motions, Argumentes, manifest Convictions,
that heaven & earth have produced: for the reasons of Hell onely shall
one day evince it (Deum esse) that there is a God.

Epicures, by contrast, deny not a God, and a day of Judgement; but put it
farre off. They are concerned with the pleasures of this world, not the eternal
happiness of the next.166 Libertines reject judgement and live for themselves
by proudly asserting their own will. But the true danger to the church, accord-
ing to Adams, lay in the Common Profane persons who, for sin or want of
consideration, had in effect become atheists, Epicures, and libertines, yet
nonetheless professed Christian belief. Adams sermon was a call to personal
and national repentance, a call to return to the light out of the darkness of
speculative and practical atheism.

165 The burden of Dumah. He calles unto me out of Seir, Watchman, what was in the night?
Watchman what was in the night? The Watchman sayd: The morning commeth, and also
the night. If ye will aske, enquire: returne, and come.
166 T. Adams, The Gallants Burden (London, 1612), 16.
The Atheist Answered And His Error Confuted 79

When Richard Allestree delivered a sermon in 1662 celebrating the anniver-

sary of the Restoration of Charles II, he lamented the fact that since the
Interregnum the English apparently remained the same perverse untractable
people; when luxury is the retribution made for plenty, licence for liberty, and
Atheism for Religion, whilst miracles of mercy are acknowledgd only by prodi-
gies of ingrateful disobedience.167 All of this came to a head for Allestree in the
Great Fire of 1666. The Great Fire was the providential warning and judgment
of God on the progress of atheism, a progress which Allestree associated with
Hobbes Leviathan. In a sermon delivered in 1667 at Whitehall with Charles II
in the audience, Allestree connected the Fall in the Garden of Eden to the
unbelief of atheism and insisted that the apostle Paul saw the Fall and sin as
the origin of the unbelief of Christianity. The obstinate, besotted atheist
was so blind that he was mistaken about his true interests: tis plain that
Unbelief is no ones Interest but Satans. For it is not Mans. Not the Vertuous
mans certainly: Hes concernd as much as Happiness amounts to, to believe
there is a God, whose Cares and Providence watch over him.168

Neither is this Unbelief Mans real Interest, abstracting from these preju-
dices of Religion. For if it were Mans real Interest, then it were every
mans wisest course to pursue that Interest. But if every man did so, and
should persuade himself into Infidelity, and that Religion and a Deity
were but dreams or artifices, and so arrive so farr as to have no fear of God,
nor sense of Honestie or Vertue, the whole world must needs return into
the first confusions of its Chaos: Villany and Rapine would have right.
When those Mounds are thrown down, there is nothing that can hinder
but that every man may lawfully break in upon and invade every thing.
There is no fence to guard thy Coffers nor thy Bed, no nor thy very Breast:
rather indeed there can be nothing thine. This is, tis true, Leviathans
state of Nature; and tis so indeed with the Leviathans of Sea and Land,
the wilde Beasts of the Deep and of the Desert. But to prevent the neces-
sary and essential mischiefs of this state amongst us Men, He will have
Nature to have taught us to make Pacts and Oaths: but if theres no such
thing as Vertue or Religion, then there is no obligation to keep Pacts or
Oaths. And why should he observe them that can safely break them? Here
it is indeed that Doctrine ends; to this their Infidelity does tend. And

167 R. Allestree, A Sermon Preached at Hampton-court on the 29th of May, 1662 (London, 1662),
Dedicatory Letter.
168 R. Allestree, A Sermon Preached before the King at White Hall on Sunday Nov. 17, 1667
(London, 1667), 24, 6.
80 chapter 2

therefore tis no Interest of States or Princes. This the Atheist will confess;
Gods and Religions were invented for the mere necessities of Governours,
who could not be secure without those higher Obligations, and these

Atheism undermined the religious, moral, and political fabric of human soci-
ety. Hobbes war of all against all would come true only when men and women
forsook the truth of the Christian religion.
Sermons like Allestrees, delivered by well-educated clergymen in promi-
nent locations such as St Pauls Cathedral in London, or in front of distin-
guished audiences such as royalty, often took on more intellectually challenging
themes. Occasionally these platforms would be used to offer sophisticated
counter-arguments against atheism in the form of a homily, as John Tillotson
did at several moments in his long ecclesiastical career. In 1664 he preached a
sermon to the Lord Mayor of London and the Alderman in St Pauls entitled
The Wisdom of Being Religious which, expanded in print, was one of the most
concise and clear confutations of atheism published in seventeenth-century
England. It was also one of the most popular works of the century. It is worth
pausing to examine the contents of this sermon in some detail to get a sense of
how the confutation of atheism worked in more common practice.
From the outset Hobbes Leviathan was not far from Tillotsons mind170:

When men arrive to that degree of confidence, as to tell the world that the
Notion of a Spirit implies a contradiction, that Fear and Fancy are the
Parents of a Deity, and Ignorance and Melancholy the true Causes of
Devotion, and that Religion is nothing else but the fear of an invisible
power feigned by the mind, or imagined from Tales publickly allowed; when
it shall be counted brave to defie God, and every dabbler in Natural
Philosophy, or Mathematicks, or Politics, shall set up for an Atheist; sure
then it is high time to resist this growing evil.171

The text for Tillotsons sermons was Job 28:29, the book in which a Leviathan
appears: And unto man he said, Behold the fear of the Lord that is Wisdom,
and to depart from evil that is understanding. Tillotson explicated this verse as
a demonstration of the fact that no amount of searching into nature would
substitute for an understanding of the divine author of nature, particularly in

169 Ibid., 67.

170 On Hobbes as a target of anti-atheism, see Chaps. 6 and 8.
171 Tillotson, Wisdom, Dedicatory letter.
The Atheist Answered And His Error Confuted 81

light of the question of mans true happiness. The knowledge of God and the
duty man owed to God could be attained without entering into potentially
endless debates about the natural universe, and it was consequently sufficient
to make man happy. The Whole of Religion was the belief, knowledge,
remembrance, love, and fear of God:

Every man desires his own preservation and happiness, and therefore
hath a natural dread and horrour of every thing that can destroy his
being, and endanger his happiness; Now the greatest danger is from the
greatest power, and that is Omnipotency. God having hid in every mans
conscience a secret awe and dread of his infinite Power, and eternal jus-
tice. Now Fear, being so intimate to our natures, it is the strongest bond of
Laws, and the great security of our duty.172

In order to acknowledge the fear of God by following our interest and perform-
ing our duty, set out in nature and in revealed religion, Tillotson insisted that
his audience would necessarily have to avoid sin and look to the wisdom of
true religion.
To show the wisdom of being religious Tillotson entered into the three
Confirmations of his argument, confirmation being a constitutive part of the
rhetoric of confutation: 1. By a direct Proof of it. 2. By shewing on the contrary,
the folly and ignorance of irreligion and wickedness. 3. By vindicating Religion
from those common Imputations which seem to charge it with Ignorance or
Imprudence. Speculatively speaking, religion was the knowledge of things in
themselves most excellent, as well as those things most useful and necessary to
know. Just as God was known in himself and in the works of Creation and
Providence, the content and the practice of Christian duty was made manifest
through the supreme example of Jesus. Moreover, as self-preservation was the
first principle of religion, so care for our own interest was the wisdom of reli-
gion. To be happy, is not onely to be freed from the pains and diseases of the
body, but from anxiety and vexation of Spirit; not onely to enjoy the pleasures
of sence, but peace of Conscience and tranquillty of mind. To be happy, is not
onely to be so for a little while, but as long as may be, and if it be possible,
forever.173 Viewed with the eyes of faith, Tillotson argued, the truly wise man
understood that temporal happiness was only achievable in the light of eternal
happiness, that matter was subordinate to spirit, and that the mind should
direct the body.

172 Ibid., 45.

173 Ibid., 7, 8, 112.
82 chapter 2

In his sermon text Tillotson identified two sources for the unbelief of the
irreligious atheist: first, atheists do not believe in the principles and founda-
tions of religion, such as Gods existence, the immorality of the soul, and eter-
nal reward and punishment; second, if they do believe in some of these things,
they act contrary to that belief. In other words, Tillotson was confuting both
speculative and practical atheism. He attacked speculative atheism as absurd
for five reasons: it gives an improbable explanation of the existence of things;
it is unable to account for universal consent in the belief in God; it requires
more evidence for things than they are capable of giving; it pretends to a cer-
tainty no man is capable of; and it denies Gods necessary existence.174
Tillotsons first argument was based on the claim that the vast Frame of
Things must necessarily be the effect of an almighty cause. This was the rea-
sonable conclusion to which the atheist must give an alternative: Either he
must say, that the World was Eternal, and that things always were as they are,
without any first Cause of their Being, which is the way of the Aristotelian
Atheists; or else he must ascribe the Original of the World to Chance, and the
casual concourse of Matter, which is the way of the Epicurean Atheists.
Neither of these arguments was probable. Tilloston thought that Aristotles
argument for an infinite succession of things was impossible, and insisted that
the probability of an infinite succession was no higher than the probability of
Creation. The Epicurean way was even more absurd: there is nothing can be
more unreasonable then obstinately to impute that to Chance, which doth
plainly and apparently contain in it all the Arguments and Characters of a wise
design and contrivance.175
To the religious apologists argument from the universal consent of man-
kind, the atheist had made three replies according to Tillotson. First, that Fear
first made Gods. Both theists and atheists agreed that the fear of a Deity doth
universally possess the minds of Men. If this fear did not come from God, but
from man or something else, how could this have happened, Tillotson asked
incredulously? While the Aristotelian Atheist will simply say that man has
always feared a God, which solved nothing, the Epicurean Atheist will either
say it was a product of atoms, or that the freedom of the imagination, when
sparked by other fearsome creatures and events, led to the fear of an almighty
being, God. Tillotson actually had no reply to this argument: This is very suit-
able to Epicurus his Hypothesis of the Original of Men; but if any man think fit
to say thus, I cannot think it fit to confute him. Rather, Tillotson insisted that
if men feared God it was far more likely that this fear hath a foundation in

174 Ibid., 13, 17, 25, 279.

175 Ibid., 135.
The Atheist Answered And His Error Confuted 83

Nature. Even Epicurus was forced to admit that chance had produced what
appeared to be the product of the greatest wisdom.
Along with many of his fellow apologists, Tillotson considered the atheists
argument that religion was an invention passed down by tradition improbable
and unreasonable. We have seen that it was commonly asked how the origin of
this tradition could have ever been suppressed, and how the atheist accounted
for the fact that the records of ancient human society always indicated the
presence of religion. For this reason Tillotson and his contemporaries rejected
the counter-argument that religion was a Politick device, invented at first by
some great Prince, or Minister of State, to keep people in awe and order. In
response Tillotson argued that there was no proof of the conjecture that reli-
gion was invented. The atheist clearly admitted that the belief in God and reli-
gion supported the social and political order of the world, and that it was
therefore much more likely that cunning politicians manipulated the natural
fear of God than that they invented God and used this invention to then
manipulate men. To Tillotson and his contemporary apologists it was far more
probable and reasonable that God himself hath stamped this Image of him-
self upon the Mind of Man, and so woven it into the very frame of his Being,
thatit can never totally be defaced without the ruine of humane nature.176
From these natural arguments Tillotson shifted to questions of logic and
probability. First, he insisted that each domain of knowledge had its appropri-
ate criteria, methods, and conclusions. If mathematics was capable of demon-
stration, this did not necessarily mean that Gods existence was capable of
demonstration. God was not a mathematical variable and, being a spirit, he
was not an object of sense. If God was not subject to the same criteria as natu-
ral philosophy, however, Tillotson nonetheless insisted that we have as great
assurance that there is a God as the nature of the thing to be proved is capable
of, and as we could in reason expect to have, supposing that he were. If a Being
cloathed with all perfection existed a being infinitely good, wise, and pow-
erful the only conceivable way by which we could be assured of this fact was
by an internal impression of the Notion of a God upon our minds, or else by
such external and visible Effects as our Reason tells us must be attributed to
some Cause.177
By contrast, atheists were too dogmatic. For Tillotson they reasoned incor-
rectly about God and they claimed certainty where it was not possible: the
Atheist must pretend to know this certainly; for it were the greatest folly in the
world for a man to deny and despise God, if he be not certain that he is not.

176 Ibid., 1824.

177 Ibid., 267.
84 chapter 2

But this was a certainty based on a negative assertion no man could pretend to
know since it implied that he knew all things that are, or can be. Contrary to
the atheist, the existence of God as a perfect being implied no contradiction.

Not necessity of being, and self-existence, and eternity, and immensity or

unlimitedness; these the Atheist must grant possible and free from contra-
diction, because he ascribes them to the World, or at least to Matter; Not
Goodness, or Wisdom, or Power, or Truth, or Justice, because he ascribes
these to Men, nor consequently the utmost degrees of these that are pos-
sible; nor, lastly, doth immateriality or the Notion of a Spirit imply a con-
tradiction, because the Atheist must either grant that there is a Spirit in
Man, that is, something that is not Matter, (and consequently, that an
immaterial principle is not impossible) or else give a fair and satisfactory
account how meer Matter can think and understand, and how that which
moves by certain and necessary Laws.178

Atheists also denied that the idea of God implied necessary existence. In doing
so, Tillotson thought he had caught his atheist adversary in a contradiction, for
the atheist allegedly denied that a perfectly necessary being could exist at the
same as he denied Gods demonstrable necessity, which required the possibil-
ity of Gods existence.179
On top of being an absurd and improbable speculative opinion, atheism
was also practically imprudent because it ran contrary to every mans true
interests. If the God of Christianity did not exist, Tillotson thought, we would
wish for such a Gods existence since an infinitely wise, good, and powerful
God maintained the victory of good over evil and providentially directed the
steps of finite man. The only reason atheists could persuade themselves that
it was in their interests to live in defiance of God was the result of a bias
which arose from the wrongful ordering of temporal and eternal interests.

The Atheist doth, as it were, lay a Wager against the Religious man that
there is no God; but upon strange inequality and odds; for he ventures his
Eternal Interest: whereas the other ventures onely the loss of his Lusts,
(which it is much better for him to be without) or at the utmost, of some
temporal convenience; and all this while is inwardly more contented and
happy, and usually more healthful, and perhaps meets with more respect,

178 Ibid., 279.

179 Ibid., 2930.
The Atheist Answered And His Error Confuted 85

and faithfuller friends, and lives in a more secure and flourishing condi-
tion, and freer from the evils and punishments of this world, then the
Atheistical person does, (however, it is not much that he ventures;) And
after this life, if there be no God, is as well as he; but if there be a God, is
infinitely better, even as much as unspeakable and eternal happiness is
better then extream and endless misery.180

After reviewing his points Tillotson outlined what he called the Atheists

He believes, That there is no God, nor possibly can be, and consequently
that the wise as well as unwise of all ages have been mistaken, except him-
self and a few more. He believes, that either all the world have been
frighted with an apparition of their own Fancy, or that they have most
unnaturally conspired together to cozen themselves; Or that this Notion
of a God is a Trick of Policy, though the greatest Princes and Politicians do
not at this day know so much, nor have done time out of mind: He believes,
either, that the Heavens and the Earth and all things in them had no origi-
nal Cause of their Being, or else that they were made by Chance, and hap-
pened he knows not how to be as they are; and that in this last shuffling
of Matter, all things have by great good Fortune fallen out as happily, and
as regularly, as if the greatest Wisdom had contrived them; but yet he
believes that there was no Wisdom in the contrivance of them. He
Believes, That that which is possible is impossible, and that that is not,
which cannot but be. He believes, That meer Matter can Understand and
Will, and most dexterously perform all those fine and free operations
which the Ignorant attribute to Spirits, and consequently, that there are
no such things as immortal Spirits, or a Resurrection of the Body, or ever-
lasting Life. This is his Creed. And seriously it is a wonder that there should
be found any person pretending to Reason or Wit, that can say Amen to
such a heap of absurdities, which are so gross and palpable that they may
be felt, So that I think it will fall to the Atheists share to be the most credu-
lous person; that is, to believe things upon the sleightest Reasons.181

The unreasonableness of these arguments was evidently clear: only three or

four at most have denied a God in the whole of human history. While God may
not be capable of mathematical demonstration, or of the empirical proofs of

180 Ibid., 31.

181 Ibid., 389.
86 chapter 2

natural philosophy, Tillotson asserted that, when reflecting upon the idea of
God and upon the probability of God as the cause of existence, we obtained a
sufficient assurance that would beget a well grounded confidence and
should perswade a reasonable man.182
Tillotsons main objective in this sophisticated homiletic confutation was
traditionally moral to turn men away from sin and to persuade them to be
truly Religious. The thread which bound Christian society together for
Tillotson and most of his fellow clergymen was the belief and practice of true
religion. Citing Romans 1:20, Tillotson claimed that all men and women were
without excuse in that they possessed an understanding they could use to
come to a right conclusion about Gods existence and mans relationship to
God. Tillotson made it clear, however, that he was uninterested in simply
upbraiding sinners or calling them names. He intended, following Augustines
pedagogic advice, to convince and reclaim them. To convince and reclaim,
in this case, was to move beyond speculative arguments and to indicate how
the wisdom of being religious was also in mans greater interests both tempo-
rally and eternally. The practice of Christian virtue was the attainment of tem-
poral and eternal happiness personally, as well as the peace and prosperity of
nations like England. Here, as preachers, Adams, Allestree, and Tillotson were
in unison. The gallant, highlighted in Adams title and mentioned by Tillotson
in his sermon, may embrace the temporary pleasures of the world and pro-
fanely slight God, but upon the Day of Judgment such atheists would be
unhappily undeceived as fools.183
As Archbishop of Canterbury delivering a sermon about the goodness of
Gods providence in Whitehall to Queen Anne in 1692, Tillotson reiterated sev-
eral confutational commonplaces, including the traditional trope that in times
of peril or with the approach of death all men cried out to God for help.184 This

the great unreasonableness and folly of Atheism, which would banish the
belief of God and his Providence out of the World: Which as it is most
impious in respect of God, so is it most malicious to Men; because it
strikes at the very foundation of our happiness, and perfectly undermines
it. For if there were no God, man would evidently be the most unhappy of
all other Beings here below; because his unhappiness would be laid in the

182 Ibid., 3940.

183 Ibid., 423, 467, 512.
184 J. Tillotson, A Sermon Preachd before the Queen at White-Hall, March the XXth, 1691/2
(London, 1692), 19.
The Atheist Answered And His Error Confuted 87

very frame of his nature, in that which distinguishes him from all other
Beings below him, I mean in his Reason and Understanding: And he
would be so much more miserable than the Beasts, by how much he hath
a farther reach, and a larger prospect of future evils; a quicker apprehen-
sion, and a deeper and more lasting resentment of them.185

When Tillotsons sermons were collected and published in the 1690s and early
1700s, forming a systematic account and rational defence of the Christian reli-
gion, they included many sermons delivered as defences of Christian doctrine
against the spread of atheism. While Tillotson focused on the various theologi-
cal attributes of God, this focus was never very far removed from its practical
moral consequences:

If God sees our most secret Actions, this discovers and confutes the secret
Atheism of many. He that commits the most secret sin denies the
Omniscience of God. Thus David describes the Atheism of some in his
Days; he hath said in his heart, God hath forgot, he hideth his face, he will
never see it; the Lord shall not see, neither shall the God of Jacob regard it;
and is not this, in effect, to deny Gods Being? for it is to deny him to be
what he is. A Man may as well deny there is a Sun, as deny that it shines
and enlightens the World.186

As even the most sophisticated and popular of preachers makes clear, then, the
vast majority of early modern English parishioners would have encountered
the confutation of atheism not within an elaborate treatise dedicated solely to
that cause, but as a component part of a homiletic message delivered for reli-
gious reformation and moral edification.
In his sermon against atheism Tillotson had included an adumbration of
the Atheists Creed, a short form of stating the assumed beliefs of atheists that
was also used in catechisms and confutations texts such as Martin Fotherbys
Atheomastix and Charles Wolseleys The Unreasonableness of Atheism made
Manifest.187 Wolseley aimed to confute atheism without relying on the
Christian appropriation of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers such as
Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, preferring instead to offer plain Blows. While he
nonetheless adopted many traditional confutation strategies, by aiming to
deliver plain Blows against atheism he also included a more popular version

185 Ibid., 234.

186 J. Tillotson, Several Discourses Upon the Attributes of God, vol. 6 (London, 1699), 172.
187 Fotherby, 12930, identified this creed with Lucretius De rerum natura.
88 chapter 2

of his arguments as an appendix in what he called An Atheists Catechism.

Here the unreasonableness of atheism was quite literally made manifest for
Wolseleys contemporaries, the atheists answers being the inversion of those
typically expected from a (Protestant) Christian catechumen. From the ques-
tion Do you believe in God? to the atheists response, No: I believe there is
none, Wolesley led the reader to believe that atheists rejected God for a series
of succinct reasons: because they could not see him; because the world was
made by chance from an Epicurean collision of atoms in the void; because
reason itself was the product of atoms; because religion was a cheat foisted on
the world by cunning men; because religion was based on fear; because mans
true end was the happiness of pleasure; because morality was a meaningless
distinction brought in by those who invented religion; and because nothing
happens to man after he died, since he returned to atoms.188 In such catechiz-
ing forms, Everyman could readily grasp the basic tenets atheism allegedly
Even the most popular form of the confutation of atheism aimed at the
speculative principles which were thought to undermine the practical atheism
of the sinner. Broadsides such as The Atheist Answered, and His Errour Confuted
(1675, Figure9) were one-page texts written in rhyme for mnemonic and pre-
scriptive purposes. In this particular broadside the confutation of atheism was
principally a work of natural theology: This whole Creation with a sweet con-
seat, / Proclaim a Being thats Omnipotent. The blind Athiest was directed to
cast thine Eye upwards, to the natural universe and its order, Gods great
Book. Contrary to those atheists such as Epicurus and Lucretius who thought
that matter and space were all that existed, can that a being give? / Unto it
self? or make another Live? / Thats void of life it self? O fools and blind! For
their foolish blindness God marked these atheists out: and on their face / Doth
set a Brand, and stamps a foul disgrace / On every Athiest, who doth God deny;
/ To let us see how Heaven doth defy / That sin Athiesticall. Only an atheist
void of common Sence could believe that any living or non-living thing could
have produced themselves and ordered the natural universe such as it is.
Rather, God in order placd all things / Wherein they keep: and in that order
stand. The procreation of living things utterly convinceth the Atheist, for by
Nature it is impossible. Instead the practicall Atheist should take heed, for
even he will confess belief in God when on a Flame.
From profound philosophical treatises to prophetic sermons to popular
broadsides, the confutation of atheism was a repeatedly ingrained, ubiqui-
tously uttered, and extremely important set of powerfully patterned

188 Wolseley, Unreasonableness, 1957.

The Atheist Answered And His Error Confuted 89

Figure9 Broadside, The Atheist Answered, and His Errour Confuted, London, 1675.
From the British Library. Used by permission.

arguments and assumptions about atheists and atheism that reached an enor-
mously wide range of people in early modern England. As Chapter 8 will show,
only when these arguments and assumptions, and the form in which they were
delivered, were identified and challenged in the early Enlightenment could a
publicly avowed alternative view of atheists and atheism begin to emerge.
chapter 3

Atheist Epicurus

Enter Epicurus.
Tusculan Disputations, ii.xix.44

For, the confuting of the Heretikes, makes the opinion of thy Church
more eminent, and the Tenet which the sound doctrine maintaineth.1
Augustine, Confessions, vii.19 (1631)

As the supposed author of a series of an extremely influential set of mystical

Christian writings, Dionysius the Areopagite was thought to have been con-
verted to Christianity after hearing the apostle Paul preach against the
Epicureans and Stoics in Athens. Dionysius conversion was consequently an
important component of Sir James Thornhills recreation of Raphaels original
Paul Preaching at Athens (Figure10). As we saw in Chapter 2, this image was a
pervasive trope in the early modern confutation of atheism. In the seventeenth
century many apologists continued to argue against atheism by arguing
against Epicureans. When several important thinkers, such as the French
priestandphilosopher Pierre Gassendi, and the English physician and natural
philosopher Walter Charleton, began to argue that Epicureanism and
Christianity were in fact compatible in certain ways, they called into question
the traditional understanding of Christians and Epicureans as adversarial
rivals. Theequation of Epicurus as a practical atheist with Epicureanism as a
speculative system of atheism was part of a longstanding Christian tradition,
inherited from the writings of Greek, Roman, and Christian antiquity. This
Christian tradition consistently highlighted Epicurus apparent hedonism,
anti-providentialism, and atomism as the clearest signs of his atheism. To
many early modern Christian apologists, an Epicurean was to be confuted as
an atheist, not sympathetically engaged or endorsed. And this was especially
vital as Epicureanism was thought to be rapidly spreading. The republication
of Lucretius De rerum natura and the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes seemed
only the most noticeable confirmations of an Epicurean and atheist epidemic
in seventeenth century England.

1 The rejection of heretics brings into relief what your Church holds and what sound doctrine
it maintains: Augustine, Confessions, trans. H. Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1991), 129.

koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2015|doi 10.1163/9789004288164_005

Atheist Epicurus 91

Figure10 J. Thornhill (after Raphael), Paul Preaching at Athens, c. 1720. Set of seven oil paint-
ings after Raphaels Tapestry Cartoon, ca. 172931.
Columbia University of the City of New York, Gift of Mrs. Francis
Henry Lenygon, 1959.

This chapter explores the argumentative and rhetorical commonplaces of tra-

ditionally negative views of Epicurus and Epicureanism derived from the
Epicurean doctrines on atoms, pleasure, and providence, which will serve as
the background against which more complex and sympathetic views of
Epicurus and Epicureanism developed in seventeenth-century England.
Examining the publication of one very important, clear, and sympathetic
account of Epicureanism, this chapter outlines Gassendist Epicureanism
through the History of Philosophy (16551660) written by the classical scholar
and poet Thomas Stanley. Stanleys translation of Gassendi provided a straight-
forward account of Epicureanism free from the traditional stereotypes of anti-
atheist confutational discourse. This chapter then explores the Epicureanism
of Walter Charleton. As we will see, having initially composed an exemplary
work of anti-atheist confutation discourse as natural theology in The Darkness
of Atheism Dispelled by the Light of Nature (1652), Charleton turned from an
early enthusiasm for the new natural philosophy of Ren Descartes to an
increasingly Gassendist natural and moral philosophy which attempted to har-
monize Epicureanism and Christianity. Charleton is therefore an important
92 chapter 3

reference point against which to judge the contrasting views on Epicurus and
Epicureanism of most of his contemporaries, and nearly all of his fellow reli-
gious apologists.
Against the background of traditional views of Epicureanism and Gassendist
Epicureanism, this chapter then examines some of the complex responses of
natural philosophers, clergymen, scholars, and moralists, to the seventeenth
century revival of Epicureanism and the atheist threat it represented. One of
the most important motives for re-evaluating Epicureanism in this period was
the success and spread of the new natural philosophy originally advocated by
prominent figures such as Francis Bacon. This chapter considers the response
of an extremely important and influential natural philosopher, Robert Boyle,
who wrote extensively on the relationship between natural science and theol-
ogy. In so doing, Boyle published several important criticisms of Epicureanism:
as he supported corpuscularian atomism he distinguished it from Epicureanism
because of assumptions about atheism. This chapter links Boyles criticism of
Epicureanism to the apology for the new natural philosophy published by
Joseph Glanvill, who defended atomism as the basis of a better philosophical
support for Anglican orthodoxy against its scholastic, Platonic, and Paracelsian
rivals. We will also see that critics of the new natural philosophy such as Meric
Casaubon and Richard Baxter remained suspicious of the new natural philoso-
phy precisely because it was Epicurean, atomist, and therefore atheistic.
However, not all late seventeenth century responses to the revival of
Epicureanism in early modern England were hostile. This chapter will also
explore a series of early modern apologists for Epicurus who followed Gassendi
and Charleton in arguing that Christianity and Epicureanism were not neces-
sarily incompatible by pointing out that misunderstandings of Epicurus were
based largely on the prejudices of Stoicism, and that the Epicurean doctrine on
happiness was compatible with the Christian religion. Finally, this chapter
concludes by using the controversy which surrounded the work of John Locke
in the 1690s, particularly the accusations by prominent clergymen such as
Edward Stillingfleet and John Edwards that Lockes work was Epicurean and
therefore paved the way for atheism, as a way of characterizing the competing
understandings of Epicureanism and its relationship to the confutation of
atheism at the end of the seventeenth century.

(i) Atheist Epicurus

In early modern England the rhetorical practice of confutation was applied to

all the aspects of unbelief which implied atheism, and especially to vigorous
Atheist Epicurus 93

debates in which Epicurus or Epicureanism were involved. We have seen in

chapters 1 and 2 that one very important component of the traditional rhetori-
cal counter-attacks against atheism was the deployment of ancient authority
and argument, whether Christian or pagan. In seventeenth-century England,
Horace, Seneca, and Cicero amongst the pagans, and Augustine, Lactantius,
Eusebius, and many others amongst the Christians, were all used as authorita-
tive sources for views about and confutations of Epicureanism as atheism.2
Furthermore, early modern writers cited a series of commonplace examples,
two of which will be considered here, in order to connect atheism to the alleg-
edly unreasonable, sensual doctrines of Epicurus. As previously noted, these
were the doctrines of atheist Epicurus: someone who argued that mans sum-
mum bonum was happiness, but that happiness was inseparable from a life of
sensual pleasure; someone who argued that invisible, impenetrable, infinitesi-
mal, primordial particles which existed from eternity somehow formed the
ordered universe out of a void of chaos; and someone who thought God was a
tranquil being unconcerned and unrelated to anything in the natural universe,
and whose unconcern was evident from the fact that both the natural and the
moral universe were plagued with evil and injustice.
In addition to the examples drawn from Horace and Seneca, Cicero sup-
plied some of the most important classical arguments against Epicurean plea-
sure and anti-providentialism for seventeenth century Englishmen.3 Francis
Bacon cited Vellius the Epicurean, a figure in Ciceros De natura deorum, as a

2 For surveys of Epicureanism in England with broader concerns than atheism, see T. Mayo,
Epicurus in England 16501725 (Dallas: The Southwest Press, 1934), Chap. 2; R.H. Kargon,
Atomism in England from Hariot to Newton (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966); R. Barbour,
English Epicures and Stoics: Ancient Legacies in Early Stuart Culture (Amherst: University of
Massachusetts Press, 1998); H. Jones, The Epicurean Tradition (London: Routledge, 1989),
Chap. 8.
3 For Horace see: Horace, Epistles, 1.4.16 in Satires. Epistles. Art of Poetry, trans. H.R. Fairclough
(Cambridge, ma: Harvard University Press, 1926); Horace, Selected Parts of Horace [trans. R.
Fanshawe.] (London, 1652), 13; Horace, The Poems of Horace Consisting of Odes, Satyres, and
Epistles [trans. Anon.] (London, 1666), xx; Horace, The Odes, Satyrs, and Epistles of Horace
Done into English, trans. T. Creech (London, 1684), 45, 46; S. Gott, An Essay of the True
Happiness of Man (London, 1650), 1134; H. Hammond, The Works of the Reverend and
Learned Henry Hammond (London, 1684), 516; J. Edwards, A Demonstration of the Existence
and Providence of God (London, 1696), 901. On Seneca see: L. Andrewes, The Pattern of
Catechistical Doctrine (London, 1650), 14, 167; N. Culverwel, An Elegant and Learned
Discourse of the Light of Nature (London, 1652), 190, 197; E. Leigh, A Systeme or Body of Divinity
(London, 1654), 203; A. Ross, Arcana Microcosmi (London, 1652), 1812; E. Stillingfleet,
Origenes Sacrae (London, 1662), 4989, 500, 5301.
94 chapter 3

stubborn character, invoking the supposed dogmatism of an atheist.4 Martin

Fotherby concurred, writing that the Epicure Velleius contemptuously denied
God.5 If Cicero could be used to describe the Epicurean as a dogmatic atheist,
he could also be used to accuse Epicurus of placing the summum bonum, or
chief end of man, in voluptuousness.6 Writers such as Henry Hammond,
Meric Casaubon, and Samuel Parker all thought Cicero had rejected the
Epicurean doctrine of hedonism in favour of Stoic virtue.7 When evaluating
and rejecting the Epicurean hypothesis of the declination of atoms in the
void, the naturalist John Ray thought Ciceros De finibus and De natura deorum
provided a confutation to be read alongside both Edward Stillingfleets
Origines Sacrae and Ralph Cudworths True Intellectual System of the Universe.8
Earlier in the century Arthur Dent wrote that Cicero condemned Epicurus for
denying providence, while Petter Pett deployed Ciceros De natura deorum
against the belief in an Epicurean God whose Carelesness of humane affairs
revealed the strong presence of a tendency to Atheism.9 At the end of the
century Edward Harley cited Cicero on the social and political consequences
of Epicureanism: as Cicero observes, if the Fear of God, and Reverential Regard
to the actual Providence of God be denied, or weakened, thereby also the com-
mon Faith and Security of human Society, and the Ground and Foundation of
universal commutative and distributive Justice, is altogether subverted.10
Ciceros work was one of the most widely cited in early modern England. His
texts were used frequently and authoritatively in the confutation of atheism
and his arguments about Epicurus were available in a wide range of English
translations. In 1680 Roger LEstrange published his translation of Ciceros De

4 F. Bacon, Of the Proficience and Aduancement of Learning, Diuine and Humane (London,
1605), 26.
5 M. Fotherby, Atheomastix (London, 1622), 110.
6 J. Rainolds, An Excellent Oration, trans. I.L. (London, 1638), 19; see also: Ross, 184;
S. Parker, An Account of the Nature and Extent of the Divine Dominion & Goodnesse
(London, 1666), 84. Parker made a similar remark in A Demonstration of the Divine
Authority of the Law of Nature and of the Christian Religion (London, 1681), 123.
7 H. Hammond, Of Superstition (London, 1645), 56; M. Casaubon, A Treatise Concerning
Enthusiasme (London, 1655), 50; J. Norris, Practical Discourses upon Several Divine Subjects
(London, 1691), 123; H. Grotius, Politick Maxims and Observations (London, 1654), 254;
Parker, A Demonstration of the Divine Authority, 141.
8 J. Ray, The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation (London, 1691), 134, 17.
9 A. Dent, A Platforme, Made for the Proofe of Gods Prouidence (London, 1608), 8; P. Pett, The
Happy Future State of England (London, 1688), Preface to the reader, 132, 177.
10 E. Harley, A Scriptural and Rational Account of the Christian Religion (London, 1695), 92;
W. Sherlock, A Discourse Concerning Divine Providence (London, 1694), 8; J. Edwards, A Farther
Enquiry into Several Remarkable Texts of the Old and New Testament (London, 1692), 232.
Atheist Epicurus 95

officiis as Tullys offices, wherein Epicurus hedonism was condemned as a par-

tial truth.11 Epicurus was charged in De officiis with contradicting himself
under three gross Absurdities:

One is, that he contradicts himself; for but lately, having affirmd that he
could not imagine any good, but whereby the Senses are, as it were, tick-
led with Pleasure; he now supposeth that Freedom from Pain, is the
height of Pleasure. Can he utter more palpable Contradictions? A second
Absurdity is, that whereas in Nature there are three Conditions, one of
Joy, another of Pain, a third neither of Joy nor Pain; he taketh the first and
third for the same, and confounds Pleasure, with not being in Pain. A
third Absurdity, common to him, with some other; that whereas Vertue is
most desirable, and Philosophy was sought out for the acquiring of it; he
hath separated the chief good from Vertue.12

According to this condemnation, Epicurus ruins all Virtue, makes Happiness

consist in Pleasure, and endeavours to bring himself off, but in vain.13
The images and arguments appropriated from antiquity by early modern
Englishmen aimed to demonstrate that Epicurus and his philosophy had incor-
rectly rejected Gods providence and erroneously linked happiness to pleasure
instead of virtue. Such inherited criticisms were often extended by appealing
to ancient moralists such as Plutarch, and to Christian writers like Origen,
Augustine, and Eusebius.14 As one translation of Augustines Confessions
worded it in 1631, the voluptuous deceivablenesse and dangerous lickorish-
ness of Epicurisme derived from the ease with which natural physical desires

11 Cicero, Tullys Offices, trans. R. LEstrange (London, 1680), 207.

12 Cicero, The Five Days Debate at Ciceros House in Tusculum (London, 1683), 1845, 3212.
13 Cicero, Tullys Three Books of Offices [trans. Anon.] (London, 1699), x.
14 One commonly cited Plutarchan source against Epicureanism was De philosophia placitis, a
work no longer regarded as authentic Plutarch, but available in a 1603 edition of Plutarchs
moral philosophy, translated as The Doctrine of the Philosophers: Plutarch, The Philosophie,
Commonlie Called, the Morals, trans. P. Holland (London, 1603). For arguments about
Epicureanism based on Plutarch: Andrewes, 17; Culverwel, 187, 194; Hammond, Of
Superstition, 7; Stillingfleet, Origines Sacrae, 520, 5228; Parker, A Demonstration of the Divine
Authority, 93, 96, 160. Eusebius: Eusebius, The History of the Church [trans. Anon.] (London,
1683), 108: Celsus the Epicurean. Origen: J. Dove, A Confutation of Atheisme (London 1605),
32; J. Hamner, Archaioskopia (London, 1677), 223; Parker, A Demonstration of the Divine
Authority, 2801, 4078. Augustine: Augustine, City of God, trans. J.L. Vives (London, 1610), 198,
199 (causal necessity), 306 (Epicurean atoms), 394 (problem of evil), 465 (chance), 731 (provi-
dence), 779 (fear); idem, The Profit of Believing [trans. Anon.] (London, 1651), 33; Andrewes, 15.
96 chapter 3

turned into sinful, fleshly lust.15 The image of the apostle Paul debating
Epicureans and Stoics in Athens took on an added importance in this regard,
making it clear that Epicureanism was incompatible with Christianity and tan-
tamount to atheism.16 As Henry Hammond paraphrased it:

In the Apostles times, when Christianity was in the cradle, and wanted
years and strength to move, and shew it self in the world, there were but
very few that would acknowledge it, many sects of Philosophers, who
peremptorily resolved themselves against this profession, joynd issue
with the Apostles in assiduous disputation, as we may find in the 17. of the
Acts. Amongst those the Epicureans did plainly deny that there was any
God that governed the world, and laught at any proof that Moses and the
Prophets could afford for their conviction. And here a man might think
that [St Peters] prophecy [i.e. 2 Peter 3:3] was fulfilled in his own dayes,
and that he needed not to look beyond that present age for store of scoff-
ers. Yet so it is, that infidelity which he foresaw should in those last ages
reign confidently in the world, was represented to him in a larger size and
uglier shape, then that of the present Philosophers. The Epicurean unbelief
seemd nothing to him, being compared to this Christian Atheism, where
men under the vizard of religion and profession of piety, are in heart
arrant Heathens, and in their fairest carriages do indeed but scoff, and
delude, and abuse the very God they worship. Whence the note is, that
the profession of Christianity is mixed with an infinite deal of Atheism, and
that in some degree above the Heathenism of the perversest Philosophers.
There were in St. Peters time Epicureans, and all sects of scoffers at
Christianity, and yet the scoffers indeed, the highest degree of Atheism
was but yet a heaving; it would not rise and shew it self till the last daie.17

According to Hammond, his time was apocalyptically plagued by the larger

and uglier monster of Christian Atheism, hiding Epicurean practices under
the name of Christianity.18

15 Augustine, Saint Augustines Confessions, trans. W. Watts (London, 1631), 6634.

16 Rainolds, 523; Andrewes, 173; R. Boyle, The Excellency of Theology Compard with Natural
Philosophy (London, 1674), 24; Edwards, A Farther Enquiry, 238; R. Bentley, The Folly and
Unreasonableness of Atheism (London, 1693), Lecture 2, p. 3.
17 Hammond, Sermons, 2467; H. Hammond, A Paraphrase and Annotations upon All the
Books of the New Testament (London, 1659), 404.
18 See S. Clark, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1997), Chap. 21 on the belief in the last days.
Atheist Epicurus 97

In addition to Greek, Roman, and Christian authorities, two commonplace

examples reveal how Epicureanism was commonly rejected as contradictory
and irrational throughout the seventeenth century. The first was the example
of Phalaris, an ancient Greek tyrant from Sicily who was overthrown and
burned in a brass bull as punishment for his cruelty, an instrument of torture
Phalaris had himself constructed to torture others. The story was connected
with Epicurus in Ciceros Tusculan Disputations. As a translation of 1683 put it:
this will not serve Epicurus a rough and hardy man: If he shall be in Phalaris
brazen Bull, he will say, Oh! How sweet is this! How unconcernd am I at all
this!19 Simon DEwes, Anthony Burgess, and Samuel Parker were among many
writers who repeated the story, pointing out the contradiction between what
Epicurus would have said under such pains, and what his hedonic principles
allegedly required.20 Contrary to the claim that Epicurus would not have com-
plained of this physical evil, in other words, the principles of his hedonism
would have demanded that he try to escape. Second, the Epicurean doctrine of
sense-perception, which, crudely interpreted, dictated that the sun was as
large as it appeared to human vision, served as a ready example of Epicurean
nonsense. Edward Stillingfleet summarized a typical view: Epicurus thought
there could be no Certainty in Sense, unless it were made Infallible; and from
hence he ran into that gross Absurdity, that the Sun was really no bigger than
he seemed to be to our Senses.21 Epicurean teachings on tranquillity and
vision were depicted as being completely ridiculous.
When not directly invoking classical authority or citing inherited common-
places, most early modern Englishmen condemned Epicureanism as synony-
mous with immorality: unrestrained, immoderate, atheist hedonism. At
midcentury the Cambridge divine Nathanael Culverwel emblematically gave
Epicurus the title of the voluptuous Philosopher.22 Even more sensitive writ-

19 Cicero, The Five Days Debate, 104.

20 S. DEwes, The Primitive Practise for Preserving the Truth (London, 1645), 16; A. Burgess, An
Expository Comment, Doctrinal, Controversal, and Practical (London, 1661), 169; Parker, A
Demonstration of the Divine Authority, 120, 137.
21 E. Stillingfleet, A Discourse Concerning the Nature and Grounds of the Certainty of Faith
(London, 1688), 35, 53. See also: R. Midgley, A New Treatise of Natural Philosophy (London,
1687), 139; Ross, 183; Casaubon, A Treatise Concerning Enthusiasm, 55; R. Mackenzie,
Reason: An Essay (1690), 17; Bentley, Lecture 2, 34; Reason and Religion: In Some Useful
Reflections on the Most Eminent Hypothesis Concerning the First Principles, and Nature of
Things (London, 1694), 51; Edwards, A Demonstration of the Existence and Providence of
God, 24.
22 Culverwel, 185; Gott, 127; H. More, An Explanation of the Grand Mystery of Godliness
(London, 1660), 3, 4.
98 chapter 3

ers who could more accurately distinguish between what Epicurus himself
taught and what Epicureans practiced still thought that Epicurean teaching
led inevitably to hedonist practice. Henry Hammond, for example, indicated
that Epicurus had acquired his reputation by arguing that all happiness was
found in tranquility, and that tranquility was so hugely pleasurable that he
had been taken for a carnal voluptuous swine ever since.23 In 1675 Richard
Head thought that Epicurus was mistakenly charged with promoting volup-
tuousness, arguing that Epicurus would never have proposed Voluptuousness
to men, but to make them in love with Virtue; yet, because his design was
unhappy, and met not with desired success, he could not avoid calumny; and
the Zeal of his Adversaries confounded his Opinion with his Disciples Errour.24
But as Alexander Ross, William Bates, and Samuel Parker all argued, it was
more commonly thought that Epicurean doctrine was simply a hypocritical
cover for hedonist practice.25
The central reason that early modern religious apologists identified Epicurus
as the voluptuous Philosopher, and as a target in the confutation of atheism,
was what they took to be his definition of mans summum bonum or chief
end. In a chapter on Epicurus and Lucretius from his book attacking Thomas
Hobbes as Epicurus redivivus, Bishop William Lucy wrote that the job of a
moral philosopher is first to teach the end, which is mans Summum bonum,
his chiefe good; his felicity, happinesse, then to teach the meanes, which are
those vertues deduced out of the Law of nature, and to shew how they conduce
to the end.26 In keeping with Lucys description, most early modern English
apologists followed Ciceros account: Epicureans made bodily pleasure that
summum bonum, and all such as any way held corporall delight to be mans
chiefest good.27 As Richard Barkley wrote in The Felicite of Man, or, his
Summum Bonum (1631), Epicurus had failed to observe that the nature of man
was both animal and spiritual, of which the latter was unquestionably the

23 Hammond, Works, 479, 489.

24 R. Head, Proteus Redivivus (London, 1675), 120.
25 Ross, 180; W. Bates, Considerations of the Existence of God (London, 1676), 76; Parker, A
Demonstration of the Divine Authority, 122; Pett, 51.
26 W. Lucy, Observations, Censures, and Confutations of Notorious Errours in Mr. Hobbes
(London, 1663), 261.
27 Augustine, City of God, 497; Cicero, Tullys Offices, 207; Gregory of Nazianzus, A Most
Excellent and Pathetical Oration (London, 1662), 96; Leigh, 203, drew this conclusion from
Vives De veritatae fidei Christianae and Aquinas; R. Albott, Wits Theater of the Little World
(London, 1599), 136; Casaubon, A Treatise Concerning Ethusiasme, 50; R. Baxter, The
Reasons of the Christian Religion (London, 1667), 229; Bates, Considerations, Preface.
Atheist Epicurus 99

higher of the two.28 To construe mans chief happiness in terms of his animal
nature was to invert the Christian religion and live by what the Platonist phi-
losopher John Norris called an Epicures Proverb, repeating yet another early
modern commonplace: Ede, bibe, lude, post mortem nulla voluptas, Eat, drink,
and be merry, for tomorrow we die.29 According to William Gurnall, this was
an abuse of Gods grace and the very substance of Atheisme.30 More worrying
still for Samuel Gott during the interregnum, the Epicures Proverb threat-
ened the social and political bond between man and God by recommending
an anti-social, solitary life in pursuit of sensual pleasure.31
If Epicureanism was equivalent to atheism according to the authority of
Christian tradition and for endorsing voluptuous pleasure as a virtue which
produced happiness, it was equally atheistic in the eyes of its early modern
critics for propounding an unfathomable doctrine of eternal, primordial atoms
and their fortuitous declination in the void as an explanation of the origin of
the universe. While Francis Bacon advocated a version of atomism, he none-
theless insisted that Epicurean atomic declination was a doctrine betraying
Epicurus ignorance.32 In his commentary on Augustines De civitate dei, repub-
lished several times in seventeenth century England, Juan Luis Vives drew
explicit attention to the Epicurean doctrine of drawing life from dead matter.
The absurdity of Atomes, flying about at randome and knitting together by
chance was highlighted in his notes each time Augustine authoritatively
rejected it.33 At midcentury Alexander Ross, no friend to the new natural phi-
losophy, tallied up a total of 19 reasons for rejecting Epicurean atomism, most
of which were based on what he regarded as logical contradictions. How, Ross
queried, could atoms close the void of space between them and still be subject
to movement? How could there be both an infinite number of atoms and an
infinite number of worlds? Why was a statue a work of art but the universe a
work of chance? Why did the atoms in the void suddenly move? What was the
cause of declination? To accept these Epicurean doctrines, Ross surmised, was
the product of an atheist indulgence in swinish sense.34 Most early modern
religious apologists agreed with William Bates, who wondered how the doc-
trine of the fortuitous encountering of Atoms according to meer chance,

28 R. Barkley, The Felicitie of Man, or, His Summum Bonum (London, 1631), 101.
29 Norris, 180; Andrewes, 17; Gott, 2256.
30 W. Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour (London, 1664), 28990.
31 Gott, 112, 1135.
32 F. Bacon, The Wisedome of the Ancients, trans. G. Knight (London, 1619), 18; L. Lessius,
Ravvleigh His Ghost, trans. A.B. (London, 1631), 28.
33 Augustine, City of God, 306. See also n. 22 above.
34 Ross, 1023; R. Allestree, Eighteen Sermons (London, 1669), 208.
100 chapter 3

which produced the order of the natural world, could ever have been recon-
ciled to right reason.35 In 1675 the controversialist Robert Ferguson summa-
rized the problems with Epicurean atomism by invoking the new science of
Descartes at the end of a lengthy list of confutations:

For (1.) The Eternity of Atoms, is attended with the same Contradictions
that the Eternity of the World is. (2.) Motion is hereby supposed intrinse-
cal to Matter, which is not only False, but Impossible. It is the greatest
Absurdity that can be imposed upon Reason, to ascribe Motion to such a
stupid and unactive Principle as Matter, without the acknowledgment of
a First and Divine Motor. (3dly.) If all things be the Result of Matter; how
comes a Principle of Reason to be conveyd into us, by that which had it
not Inherent in it self? (4.) This Hypothesis supposeth that to have been
the effect of Chance, which carries in it the Characters of a wise
Contrivance (5.) If the Fabrick of the World be nothing but the result of
the casual Meeting and Concatenation of Atoms; How comes it to pass,
that by their daily Motion, and justling one another, they do not dance
themselves into more Worlds; at least into some one Animal or other. (6.)
Epicuruss Infinity of Atoms, carries a Repugnancy in it to his Inane Space;
and yet without this his whole Hypothesis, falls to the ground. (7.) Nor is
it possible to salve the Permanency of the World, and the Continuity of
Bodies, by the fortuitous Concatenations of Atoms, through their differ-
ent Configurations, and jaggd Angles, without the Superintendency of an
Omnipotent Goodness, who sustains both the whole Creation, and every
part of it. Especially, it is not conceivable, how such Bodies as are made
up either of Globular particles, or of those Minute-Corpuscles which
Des-Cartes stiles his First and Second Elements, should hold together
without the Influence of a higher Principle to keep them in their

Similarly, the physician Robert Midgley asked the obvious question to most
seventeenth-century writers: even if the World was produced by this fortu-
itous occurrence of Atoms, were these atoms eternal or were they created?37
As Samuel Parker put it, atoms collected together by chance could not have
been set in motion without a first Mover, nor could the declination of atoms

35 W. Bates, Considerations of the Existence of God, 52, 62; J.-B. Morin, The Darkness of
Atheisme Expelled by the Light of Nature, trans. H. Care (London, 1683), 49, 51.
36 R. Ferguson, The Interest of Reason in Religion (London, 1675), 4850.
37 Migdley, 102.
Atheist Epicurus 101

in the void form the requisite Beauty, Structure, and Order which ensud:
Chance has not strength enough.38
Early modern religious apologists linked the attack on Epicurean anti-
providentialism to both its natural and moral grounds because Epicurus was
understood to have argued that the natural and moral worlds were indepen-
dent of Gods generation or government. Francis Bacon rejected Epicurean
atomism in his essay Of atheisme, claiming that the great chain of second
causes proved both Providence and Deity.39 Considering Gods providence in
logical terms, Lancelot Andrewes thought there were four options: that God
had no intercourse with man; that Gods providence extended to things in gen-
eral; that Gods providence was both general and particular, but that God was
idle, as a spectator only; and finally, that Gods providence was general and
particular, rewarding good and punishing evil.40 For Andrewes only the fourth
option was rational, while the first was Epicurean. Henry Hammond con-
curred, writing that Epicurus rid God of the trouble of a providence or care of
humane affaires by arguing the natural world was governed by necessity.41
Challenging Epicureanism as atheism on rational grounds, many early mod-
ern religious apologists agreed with Nathanael Culverwel, who thought
Epicurus denied Gods providence so that he would not have to change his
life.42 John Goodrick preached a sermon in 1685 in which he made the same
point: Epicureans such as Hobbes adopted the fantastical Hypothesis of
Epicurus [or] the grave Notions of an imposing Leviathan (who hath sub-
jected the Supream Deity, and his Attributes, Vice and Vertue, to the overruling
Power of the Magistrate, and these sublunary things to a fatal necessity) in
order to live as they pleased.43 In this view, God was reduced to a mere specta-
tor, unwilling or incapable of acting in the affairs of men.44 As William Bates
put it, Epicureans totally denied his governing Providence, and made Him an
idle Spectator of things below. On the Epicureans account God was a tranquil

38 S. Parker, Six Philosophical Essays upon Several Subjects (London, 1700), 1089.
39 F. Bacon, Essaies (London, 1598), n. p.
40 Andrewes, 34, 173.
41 Hammond, Of Superstition, 6; idem, An Account of Mr. Cawdrys Triplex Diatribe Concerning
Superstition, Wil-worship, and Christmass Festivall (London, 1655), 567; S. Clarke, A
Mirrour or Looking-glasse (London, 1654), 183; P. Heylyn, Theologia Veterum (London,
1654), 58.
42 Culverwel, 194.
43 J. Goodrick, A Sermon Preached before the Honble Society of Lincolns-Inne, upon the 26th of
July, 1685 (London, 1685), 2, 134.
44 Leigh, 131, 2945, 300; I. Barrow, The Duty and Reward of Bounty to the Poor (London, 1671),
102 chapter 3

being too busy contemplating his own existence and attributes to be con-
cerned with the cares of men.45 But as the Cambridge divine Henry More put
it, the real existence of good and evil required a perfectly good, wise, and pow-
erful God who providentially created, sustained, and judged the world a
manifest Confutation of Atheists and Epicures.46 Echoing Mores sentiment,
Edward Leigh asked what could be more repugnant to reason than to say that
God is all-powerful but does not act providentially? That was the fancy of
Atheists and Epicures.47

(ii) Appropriating Epicurus

Throughout the seventeenth century Epicureanism and atheism were synony-

mous. One of the ways this traditional understanding came to be challenged
was through the recovery and presentation of alternative classical views of
Epicurus. When several early modern thinkers defended a version of
Epicureanism as conformable with the Christian religion, this presented tradi-
tional confutations of atheism with a challenge. Two such challenges derived
from the priest, natural philosopher, and scholar Pierre Gassendis Epicureanism:
Thomas Stanleys account of Epicurus in his History of Philosophy, and Walter
Charletons re-evaluation of Epicureanism. In the course of his life Charletons
traditional confutation of atheism gave way to a natural and moral philosophy
which was probably the fullest defence of Epicureanism from the perspective
of an English Christian apologist in the seventeenth century.
In seventeenth-century England there were a variety of sources for views
about Epicurus other than Cicero, Seneca, Lactantius, and Augustine. The Lives
and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by the ancient Greek biographer
Diogenes Laertius, which contained a lengthy, sympathetic account of
Epicurus, and the Epicurean poem by Lucretius, De rerum natura, were fre-
quently cited and readily available sources for positive views of Epicureanism.
Pierre Gassendi drew heavily upon extant sources and attempted to show the
ways in which Epicurus had been misunderstood by many of the ancient
thinkers who wrote about him.48 Thomas Stanley took Gassendis Latin work

45 W. Bates, The Harmony of the Divine Attributes (London, 1674), 341.

46 More, An Explanation, 42. A. Littleton, A Sermon before the Right Honourable the Lord
Mayor and the Right Worshipful the Aldermen of the City of London, Preached on Febr. 29,
1679/80 (London, 1680), 12. J. Howe, in The Living Temple cited H. More directly, 213.
47 Leigh, 131, 2945, 300.
48 See L.S. Joy, Gassendi the Atomist (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987);
A. LoLordo, Pierre Gassendi and the Birth of Early Modern Philosophy (New York:
Atheist Epicurus 103

on Epicurus and translated it into English for his contemporaries.49 Stanleys

immense History of Philosophy, published between 1655 and 1660, was written
on the model of Diogenes Laertius, but, as a brief biography affixed to several
eighteenth-century editions of Stanleys work noted, he wrote after the
Example of the Learned Gassendus.50 As depicted in Stanleys History,
Epicurus not only lived according to his moral doctrine, but the summary of
his doctrine conflicted with the malevolent accusations of Epicurus rivals,
including many of those prevalent in seventeenth-century anti-atheist
The entry for Epicurus in Stanleys History was broken down into three tra-
ditional sections: logic, physics, and ethics. The basis of the Epicurean happy
life, we learn, was the exercise of reason, meditation and discoursing, and a life
of tranquillity in mind and body. The general Epicurean canons were maxims
that guided the wise mans life in order to achieve this tranquility.51 These can-
ons were broken down into five categories: truth, sense, anticipation, passion,
and words. Of truth there were two kinds: those of existence and those of judg-
ment. Opinion and error derived from false judgment, which was itself the
result of lack of experience. The criteria of existence were in turn found under
the canons of sense, foremost of which was the self-evidence of sense, which
could never be deceived. The canons of passion clearly stated that all pleasure
was to be embraced and all pain avoided.52
Under the heading of physics, Stanleys History detailed several Epicurean
doctrines important to early modern religious apologists, including the asser-
tion that atoms were the primordial principle of matter, that atoms were
unmade, self-moving, and responsible for all that was found in the universe,
that the world was not eternal, and that God did not make this world since it
was produced by a concatenation of atoms in the void.53 Furthermore, we read
that Epicurus thought that the life of the gods was one of perfect undisturbed

Cambridge University Press, 2007); M.R. Goodrum, Atomism, Atheism, and the
Spontaneous Generation of Human Beings: The Debate over a Natural Origin of the First
Humans in Seventeenth-Century Britain, Journal of the History of Ideas, 63, 2 (2002):
49 Gassendis Philosophiae Epicuri Syntagma was also published in Latin in London in 1660.
The other major work translated was De vita et moribus Epicuri (Lyons, 1647).
50 An Account of the Life and Writings of Thomas Stanley, Esq., in T. Stanley, The History of
Philosophy (London, 1701).
51 T. Stanley, The History of Philosophy, The Third and Last Volume (London, 1660), 12930. All
shortened references are to this edition.
52 Ibid., 13141.
53 Ibid., 148, 149, 1646, 16871.
104 chapter 3

felicity and that they were therefore unconcerned with this world. Such a doc-
trine must be true, we are told, because of the uneven distribution of good and
evil in this world.54 It also becomes clear that there was no need to conceive of
the soul as incorporeal or immaterial; like the mind and ideas, Epicurus
thought the soul was a subtle, smooth substance.55 Atoms were in their nature
devoid of sense, according to this version of Epicurus, but they were capable of
producing sense through their conglomerations and the resultant attending
properties.56 Finally, the two primary affections or passions produced by sense,
derived from atomic conglomeration, were pleasure and pain.57 At this point
we can get a fairly clear sense of how early modern religious apologists would
have understood the truths proclaimed by the apostle Paul to have been in
stark contrast to the truths affirmed by the Epicureans at Areopagus. Yet eter-
nally existing atoms, a non-providential God, and the material nature of the
soul was not the whole of Epicurus apparently atheistic thought.
Given the Epicurean primacy of pleasure and pain as Stanleys History
described it, the first principle of ethics concerned the ends of life. The tacit
Consent of all Men confirmed that felicity was the end of mans life, and that
this felicity was the product of attaining necessary goods and suffering few
ills.58 Pleasure was therefore the essence of good and could not be separated
from it, but pleasure was to be pursued with wisdom and prudence.59 The wise
or prudent Epicurean therefore exercised his reason with a sober mind, reject-
ing opinion as false judgment. This fact revealed that man was in possession of
free will.60 Through the experience and practice of right reason, prudence
enabled the wise man to attain pleasure and avoid pain, correctly ordering the
passions and practicing the virtues of temperance and moderation. It was this
standard group of virtues prudence, temperance, moderation which pro-
duced the courage required during times of trial as well as the quiet of a happy
life in moments of calm.61 Stanleys Gassendist summation of Epicurus con-
cluded by arguing that natural right or justice the fourth virtue was in fact
a symbol of utility. Justice or right was the product of pleasurable desire derived
from utility and agreed upon by a concurrence of votes, as may keep men from

54 Ibid., 1734.
55 Ibid., 18990.
56 Ibid., 1912.
57 Ibid., 2013.
58 Ibid, 226, 2278.
59 Ibid., 22830.
60 Ibid., 2301, 2346.
61 Ibid., 2368, 2448, 2512, 2546.
Atheist Epicurus 105

hurting, or being hurt by one another, so that they might live securely.62 In this
sense, justice was also the product of the formation of society: the formation of
civil society enabled the wise man to pursue happiness and lead a quiet, tran-
quil life.63 At this point in Stanleys History the early modern religious apolo-
gist would have been confronted with the picture of a sober, moderate, and, on
his own terms at least, virtuous Epicurus. However, in light of all the errors of
Epicurean physics, and in light of what would have still seemed like an endorse-
ment of ethical hedonism and moral nominalism, Epicureanism as it was pre-
sented by Stanley does not seem to have convinced very many early modern
Englishmen that Epicurus was not an atheist.
Walter Charleton was one religious apologist who did revise his views of
Epicurus. As a physician who first expressed sympathy for Descartes, and who
came to his Gassendist Epicureanism independently of Stanley, Charleton was
one of the first English natural philosophers who tried to reconcile Christianity
and Epicureanism through natural theology. As we have seen, Charleton wrote
a work that fits squarely within the parameters of early modern anti-atheist
confutation discourse: The Darkness of Atheism Dispelled by the Light of Nature.
In constructing his attack on atheism in this work, Charleton paired an onto-
logical argument derived from Descartes with a modified Epicurean-Gassendist
atomism. Charletons next major publication, Physiologia Epicuro-Gassendo-
Charltoniana (1654), was a hybrid translation, paraphrase, and extension of
Epicurean natural philosophy based largely on Gassendis Animadversiones in
decimum librum Diogenes Laerti (1649). The Physiologia further modified
Charletons early enthusiasm for Descartes in favour of Gassendi. Yet Charleton
did not substantively alter his defence of God and religion as expressed in his
confutation of atheism, a text he confirmed and cited several times in the
Physiologia and in a subsequent work, The Immortality of the Human Soul
(1659).64 Charleton took a further step towards Gassendist Epicureanism when
he published a translation of Epicurean moral philosophy, like Gassendi,
derived from Diogenes Laertius, Plutarch, Seneca and Cicero, entitled
Epicuruss Morals in 1655. Epicurus Morals contained An Apologie for
Epicurus in which Charleton evaluated Epicurean moral philosophy in terms
of its compatibility with the truth of the Christian religion. Finally, in The
Natural History of the Passions (1674) Charleton outlined how Epicurean moral

62 Ibid., 263.
63 Ibid., 270.
64 W. Charleton, Physiologia Epicuro-Gassendo-Charltoniana: or A Fabrick of Science Natural,
upon the Hypothesis of Atoms (London, 1654), 123, 1256, 270, 4323; idem, The Immortality
of the Human Soul, Demonstrated by the Light of Nature (London, 1659), 155.
106 chapter 3

philosophy, combined with Scripture, provided the best means to govern the
passions in the present world.
The Darkness of Atheism was a work of early modern anti-atheist confuta-
tion discourse based on the conclusions of natural theology. Anxiously fearing
the swarms of Atheistical monsters in which he and virtually all contempo-
raries claimed to find themselves, Charleton aimed to confute the atheist and
defend God and religion in the face of the atheistic physical, moral, and politi-
cal disorder of the interregnum. While Charleton had no problem constructing
a moral aetiology for atheism consistent with the patterns of confutation dis-
course, The Darkness of Atheism was the work of a philosopher interested in
outlining an intire Fabrick of Physicall Science upon the clear and demon-
strable principles of the new natural philosophy. Given the fact that nature was
the presumed Citadel of Atheisme, Charleton decided to defend God on the
atheists own ground, by the Light of Nature.65
Before explicating Descartes proof of God, Charleton observed that the
innate dictates of reason had prevented the prodigy of an Absolute Atheist
from appearing until his own time. Properly conceived, the first mover or God
was like a Watch from which all motion is derived and which constantly
animates the great machine of the World. While Plato and Aristotle articu-
lated an analogous idea to the Christian God, Charleton found that a confus-
ingsort of implicate Atheisme had spread out from ancient writers such as
Lucian and Lucretius. These implicate atheists had denied Gods providence
while seemingly acknowledging his existence. Like most other anti-atheist
apologists, Charleton insisted that God was a first mover and first cause of
creation who would and could not cease from providential action consistent
with creation.
In order to clarify and demonstrate this point Charleton turned to Descartes.
The presence of innate ideas, which reflection demonstrated to have no depen-
dence upon mans will, provided Charleton with a basis from which to con-
struct the edifice of natural theology. I am, because I doubt, was an
indisputable maxim declared unto me, by the light of Nature. The indubita-
ble certainty of the solipsistic self was then carried over to the idea of God.
Reflection upon the idea of God, an idea whose perfection could not be depen-
dent upon imperfect man or physical nature, and the necessity of a first mover
and a first cause, demanded the existence of an all-powerful being.66

65 W. Charleton, The Darkness of Atheisme Dispelled by the Light of Nature: A Physico-

Theological Treatise (London, 1652), To the Reader.
66 Ibid., 45, 7, 10.
Atheist Epicurus 107

By the name God, I understand a certain substance, infinite, indepen-

dent, omnipotent, omniscient, from which as well my own, as all other
dependent natures were derived; by whose incomprehensible Wisdome,
Power, and Goodness, the universe was created, according to the admi-
rable Idea formed in his own eternall intellect; and is constantly conserved
in the same perfect order, and exquisite harmony, which in the beginning
he was pleased to institute.67

This idea of God was premised on reflection:

all the nerves of the Argument may be twisted together into this short
(though never-to-be-broken) Cord; that I cannot but acknowledge it an
absolute impossibility that I should exist, being of such a nature as I am,
(i.e.) having the Idea of God imprinted upon my mind, unless God also
did really exist: that very God, I mean, whose Idea is in me, (i.e.) an infinite
essence actually possessing all perfections, which though I cannot com-
prehend, yet in some degree I can, with humility and veneration, specu-
late, through the perspective of profound and abstracted Cogitation.68

Charleton then turned to Gods necessary attributes and their relation to the
natural universe, bringing him into immediate contact with Epicurus, whose
monstrous design [was] to expunge those Characters of Piety and reverence
towards the Deityimpressed upon the minds of men.69 Charleton summa-
rized the Epicurean atomic generation of the natural universe in conventional
terms: that effects proceeded from causes with no ultimate foundation, that
there was an infinite Chaos of Atoms, of various figures and magnitudes, in an
infinite space, floating hither and thither, and that this motion eventually
conspired, acquiesced, and fixed in this regular position and situation, which
constitutes the Forme of the Universe.70 However, Charleton immediately
pointed out that no falsehood lacked a grain of truth, for in this heap of dross
lies raked up so much pure and rich metal. First, the dross:

(1) that the Chaos of Atoms was non-principiate, or as antient as Eternity:

(2) that they were not created ex nihilo, ab aliqua beata simul ac immor-
tali Causa, by God: (3) that they were not becalmd, separated, ranged,

67 Ibid., 13.
68 Ibid., 21.
69 Ibid., 39, 40.
70 Ibid., 412.
108 chapter 3

and disposed into the proper stations, in that serene order and figure,
which they are now of inevitable necessity bound to observe, in every
single concretion, or individual Entity, by the artifice of any other Cause,
but the blind Ordination, or improvident disposure of Fortune.

Charleton then argued that there was no justifiable ground for rejecting atom-
ism as the

Material Principle of the Universe, provided that we allow, that God cre-
ated that first Matter out of Nothing; that his Wisdome modelled and cast
them into that excellent composure or figure, which the visible World
now holds; and that ever since, by reason of the impulsion of their native
Tendency, or primitive impression, they strictly conform to the laws of
his beneplaenniss.

With the advantages of these restrictions, the Atoms of Epicurus have more of
probability, and hold rational through most of those operations, which occur
to the curiosity of the Philosopher.71 Charleton also considered the Epicurean
doctrine of self-motion, stating that he saw no problem with supposing that
God, who was perfectly powerful and wise, could have created the universe
such that it was constituted and ordered by atomic motion.72 Modified
Epicurean atomism, Charleton argued, enabled the natural philosopher to
explain natural phenomena in the most rational manner without necessarily
requiring the adoption of principles contrary to the conclusions of reason in
other arenas of thought, namely, the origin of matter in motion and creation
In The Darkness of Atheism Charleton made his objections to Epicurean
natural philosophy clear. Even if we granted the atomic hypothesis of an eter-
nal infinity of atoms in infinite space, Charleton thought that the problem
Epicurus faced remained: how did the atoms convene and combine together,
how did they obey such constant operations without the counsell, disposi-
tion, and revinction of any other cause, but their own rude and giddy propen-
sity to motion? Epicureans who suggested chance and fortune as solutions
were simply blind to the order and structure reason rightfully discerned in the
cosmos.73 Charleton therefore charged Epicurus and Epicureans generally
with a direct assault upon providence and the souls immortality:

71 Ibid., 434.
72 Ibid., 467.
73 Ibid., 54, 623, 657.
Atheist Epicurus 109

For, first, their own writings bare record, that they made it the grand
scope of their studies to promote Atheisme, by plotting how to under-
mine the received belief of an omnipotent eternal Being, to murder
the immortality of the Soul (the basis of all religion) and deride the
Compensation of good and evil actions after death. And Secondly,
the grounds upon which they erected this detestable negation of univer-
sal Providence, may sufficiently satisfie a heedfull enquirer; that not any
intense honour or veneration of the most perfect and happy nature,
transported their minds to this height of delusion: but rather a consumed
infidelity of the infinity of his Wisdome and Power.74

Lucretius had extended the logic of these Epicurean arguments further by sug-
gesting that belief in a providential God was impious because a perfectly tran-
quil being would not be concerned with the tumultuous affairs of the natural
world. Lucretius had also raised the problem of evil. Such were the nerves of
the Atheists Remonstrance against Universal Providence.75
Charleton replied to the Atheists Remonstrance by defending God, with
Descartes, through the characteristics of his perfect freedom, his all-powerful
and unconstrained will. First and foremost creation was a sovereign expression
of Gods good pleasure. Nature was itself good and included the goodness of
creatures capable of praising God when they recognized Gods general and
particular providence through the use of their faculties of reason and speech.76
Charleton was also careful to reject the argument that God created the world
and then set it independently in motion.77 Rather, Gods total efficacy over the
dependent natural universe was revealed in the power he retained to correct
the laws of nature when their operations ran astray. He had created the world
through an act of his will and endowed it with attributes implying an even
greater power of alteration. Even the most stubborn and prejudicate Atheist,
Charleton surmised without offering much evidence, will acknowledge that
God has intervened contrary to the general laws of nature when he deemed it
necessary or expedient.78 Gods providential intervention in the universe was
both a natural and a divine fact.
According to Charleton, Epicurus and Lucretius had attempted to erase out
of the mind of man all the impressions of Religion, by the induction of a belief,

74 Ibid., 95, 967.

75 Ibid., 989, 101.
76 Ibid., 86, 1078, 110.
77 Ibid., 112, 1134.
78 Ibid., 152.
110 chapter 3

that God doth not observe the good and evil actions of men, in this life, and by
consequence shall not compensate them with Felicity, or misery, after death.
This anti-providential aim was another way of stating the problem of evil as it
had been translated in Stanleys History: Either God is willing to amove those
evils from good men, but cannot; or can, and will not; or neither can, nor will;
or both will and can.79 Charleton responded to this challenge by defending
divine Prudence in the government of natural phenomena. Although man
was not equal to the task of understanding Gods ways this did not mean that
Epicurus and Lucretius were right to suggest that natural phenomena were
meer accidents, and have no ends at all.
Charletons conception of God entailed a supernatural power whose end
was his own glory and mans benefit. This applied to the moral as well as the
natural world and constituted the second aspect of his reply to the Epicurean
formulation of the problem of evil. For Charleton, man was created in Gods
image in possessing a free will. Even in spite of original sin and Adams fall,
atheism and sensuality could never fully extinguish the natural religion planted
so deeply and firmely in mans soul.80 We know mans will is free because he
can make rational evaluative judgments about good and evil: For no man can
make an election of the Better, and know whats really Good, unless at the
same time he know also whats really Evill, and how to reject and avoid the
Worse. And without the moral choice which accompanied any adversity,
Charleton insisted, man would be incapable of either virtue or happiness.
Rejecting the Epicurean atheists advice to pursue happiness in the gardens of
Sensuality, Charleton deployed an alternate floral metaphor perhaps derived
from Senecas De beata vita: the Rose of happiness grows on the prickly stem
of Virtue. Virtue so conceived was the just discharge of our duties to God and
Man, in all things, to the utmost of our abilities, the only means of acquiring
that Philosophers stone, Content, and the only Summum Bonum in nature.81
However, Charleton recognized that mans free will and Gods all-powerful
providence seemed to contradict one another. Placed like the apostle Paul at
Areopagus between the absolute Fatality of the Stoick, and the meer Fortune
of the Epicurean, Charleton deployed an Augustinian modal argument: Gods
foreknowledge was a peculiar mode of his wisdom, which was not identical
with knowing the future acts of man. There was a difference between Gods
foreknowledge and his preordaining, in other words. To Charleton, the lan-
guage of praise and blame would be useless if the concept of responsibility was

79 Ibid., 151; cf. Stanley, History of Philosophy, 174.

80 Charleton, Darkness of Atheisme, 158, 161, 166, 168, 173, 180.
81 Ibid., 184, 186, 18991, 1945.
Atheist Epicurus 111

rendered meaningless through absolute necessity.82 On this reading free will

was an Absolute power of electing what objects we please, Good or Evil,
whereon to fix our Affections. The essence of mans liberty was the Indifferency
of the Intellect which guided the will and whose path was illuminated by the
intellects power of judgment. Here Charleton was following and citing
Aristotle, arguing that the practical judgment which followed the consider-
ation of two propositions was the action itself. Thus, every judgment of the
intellect was immediately and necessarily conjoined with an aversion or appe-
tite of the will respective to the good sought or evil avoided. The imago Dei in
man, free will, entailed the moral deliberation of practical judgment. In other
words, Epicurus problem of evil would only disappear when the conditions for
moral deliberation disappeared.
Charleton then turned to Epicurus Romance of the Declination of
Atoms in the Soul in order to demonstrate how he retained an account of
free will in keeping with an atomist physical theory. Defending Epicurus
against what he took to be Democritus Adamantine necessity, Charleton
appealed to the notion of probability by arguing that the equal attraction of
two objects in the constitutionally flexible mind, made up of Epicurus
declinatory atoms, unbound by necessity, were both natural and volun-
tary. The movement of atoms which constituted choice in the action of the
souls free will may have been necessary in retrospect, he admitted, but
prior to their movement they were free and unforced.83 In brief, the mind
was indifferent to the objects presented to it through the motion of the
atoms; man was therefore capable, in spite of natural necessity, to exercise
free judgment.84
Charleton used this argument to reconcile the recurrent Christian tension
between freedom and necessity. Fate was not a blind and unpremediate
Necessity; but a provident and well ordered Concatentation of Causes
constituted by Fiat of the Eternal Wisdom:

if we admit Fate to be a Law, by the Divine Will imposed upon Natural

Causes, according to the tenor whereof all things are done, that are
done; and Fortune to be an Event resulting from a concurse of Natural
Causes, beside, above, or contrary to the expectation, conjecture, and
forecast of man, though precisely preordained by the Providence of God
and connexed to the series of Causes, or Chain of Fate: we cannot but

82 Ibid., 243, 2448, 24950, 2502. For Charletons summary, see 2545.
83 Ibid., 315, 317.
84 Ibid., 320.
112 chapter 3

soon perceive their Convention, Concentration, and Identity in the

point of Providence Divine.85

Such a synthesis of fate, fortune, and divine providence could be understood

both theologically and philosophically. In order to do so Charleton used a dis-
tinction between absolute and hypothetical necessity: where absolute
necessity destroyed liberty, hypothetical necessity did not. Peters denial of
Christ as recorded in the Gospels, for instance, was hypothetically necessary,
not absolutely necessary; it detracted nothing from Peters liberty. There was
no antecedent cause forcing Peter to deny Christ, so that God could foresee
Peters denial without being the cause of its absolute necessity. Charletons
philosophical conclusion was that Gods foreknowledge of future contingent
events was not the cause of their coming-to-be; rather, an events coming-to-be
was the cause of Gods foreknowledge.86
In sum, the Darkness of Atheism identified the dross that needed to be
removed from Epicureanism in order for it to be distinguished from the athe-
ism which was attacked in early modern anti-atheist confutation discourse.
First, the atomic hypothesis was acceptable when aligned with creation ex
nihilo. Second, the Epicurean conception of God was inconsistent with both
Descartes ontological argument and the argument from natural theology.
Therefore Charleton restated Gods necessary attributes as synonymous with
both general and particular providence. Third, the Epicurean problem of evil
was not a real problem given that the exercise of mans free will was the foun-
dation of virtue and happiness. Without free will man would be incapable of
judgment and would not be the thinking and speaking being capable of enjoy-
ing and praising God.
Yet Charletons confutation in The Darkness of Atheism was not his final
position on atomism or Epicureanism. In the Physiologia of 1654 Charletons
enthusiasm for Descartes was replaced by Gassendi. In contrast to The Darkness
of Atheism, the Physiologia is a work of natural science in which Charleton
explicitly identified himself as searching after truth through natural experi-
ment and observation. Writing during revolutionary changes in the under-
standing of the physical world, in the midst of the civil wars, Charleton insisted
that no natural philosophy deserved to be upheld for any other reason than
that it explained natural phenomena the best. Even when he came to prefer
Epicurus over Aristotle on natural questions such as the existence of a vacuum,
however, Charleton still thought that Epicurus could hold erroneous views on

85 Ibid., 329, 330.

86 Ibid., 3356, 3389.
Atheist Epicurus 113

physics.87 Extracting the dross from Epicureanism was a much more elabo-
rate task in the Physiologia than in The Darkness of Atheism, but this fact did
not mean that Charleton had changed how he would defend the existence of
God against atheists. We have already seen that the self-motion of atoms was
not something Charleton ruled out as a doctrine incompatible with Christian
natural theology. The Physiologia once again considered the perpetual
Inquietude of Atoms:

This faeculent Doctrine of Epicurus, we had occasion to examine and

refine all the dross either of Absurdity, or Atheism, in our Chapter con-
cerning the Creation of the World ex nihilo, in our Book against Atheism.
However, we may not dismiss our Reader without this short
Animadversion. The Positions to be exploded are (1) That Atoms were
Eternally existent in the infinite space, (2) that their Motive Faculty was
eternally inhaerent in them, and not derived by impression from any
External Principle, (3) that their congenial Gravity affects no Centre, (4)
that their Declinatory motion from a perpendicular, is connatural to
them with that of perpendicular descent, from Gravity. Those which we
may with good advantage substitute in their stead, are (1) That Atoms
were produced ex nihilo, or created by God, as the sufficient Materials of
the World, in that part of Eternity, which seemed opportune to his infi-
nite Wisdom; (2) that, at their Creation, God invigorated or impraegnated
them with an Internal Energy, or Faculty Motive, which may be conceived
the First Cause of all Natural Actions, or Motions, (for they are indistin-
guishable) performed in the World; (3) that their gravity cannot subsist
without a Centre; (4) that their internal Motive Virtue necessitates their
perpetual Commotion among themselves, from the moment of its infu-
sion, to the expiration of Natures lease. For, by virtue of these Correctives,
the poisonous part of Epicurus opinion, may be converted into one of the
most potent Antidotes against our Ignorance: the Quantity of Atoms suf-
ficing to the Materiation of all Concretions; and their various Figures and
Motions to the Origination of all their Qualities and Affects, as our imme-
diately subsequent Discourse doth professedly assert.88

There is no clear reason to suspect that Charleton would revise his confutation
of atheism in light of this restatement.

87 Charleton, Physiologia, 12.

88 Ibid., 1256.
114 chapter 3

Charleton did revise his views of Epicurean ethics and its allegedly atheistic
implications, however. The Apologie for Epicurus which prefaced Epicurus
Morals defended Epicurus Temperance, Sobriety, Continence, Fortitude and
all other Virtues against the traditional view of Epicurus in early modern anti-
atheist confutational discourse.89 And Charleton recognized that his defence
ran contrary to what the common people (being mis-informd by such learned
men as either did not rightly understand, or would not rightly represent his
opinions) generally conceive him to be. Even so, Charleton identified three
doctrines which would remain unacceptable to all Christians.

(1) That the Souls of men are mortal, and so uncapable of all, either hap-
piness or misery after death. (2) That Man is not obliged to honour, revere,
and worship God, in respect of his beneficence, or out of the hope of any
Good or Fear of any evil at his hands, but meerly in respect of the tran-
scendent Excellencies of his Nature, Immortality, and Beatitude. (3) That
Self-homicide is an Act of Heroick Fortitude in case of intolerable or
inevitable Calamity.

Charleton began his apology by observing that Epicurus lived in pagan antiq-
uity before the light of Christianity was revealed to the known world. Epicurus
was therefore simply a naturalist and could be excused for the errors of some
his doctrines. The mortality of the soul was a repugnant doctrine to virtue,
religion, and Christianity, Charleton admitted, yet it remained a very difficult
doctrine to refute and it had challenged the greatest minds from Plato to
Descartes. As he put it, to believe the Soul of Man to be immortal, upon
Principles supernatural, is much more easie, then to demonstrate the same by
Reasons purely Natural. Epicurus was not to be condemned for following the
light of nature when Christians were guided by the north star of Scripture.
To Charleton, all the ancient Greeks fell under this criticism.
The second charge was perhaps more serious. Both the natural and moral
philosophy of Epicurus rejected a God who in any way acted in relation to the
material universe. Without referring to his earlier defences of Gods provi-
dence, Charleton again appealed to Epicurus context: Epicurus lived in an age
of pagan idolatry and religious superstition. He was to be praised for coming
so neer to the knowledge of the true God, then condemned for coming no
nearer, and admird for having so clear and genuine an apprehension of some
of the Divine Attributes, then reproached for not comprehending them all.

89 All citations in this section are from this un-paginated Apologie that precedes the main
text: W. Charleton, Epicurus Morals (London, 1656).
Atheist Epicurus 115

Where so many profound thinkers had grappled with the notion of the soul,
should it be any less surprising or difficult to arrive at a true conception of
God? Indeed Charleton thought that Epicurus should have been lauded for his
attempt to rid the ancient Greeks of their impious notions of God, rather than
condemned for his errors. Epicurus was far removed from down-right
Atheisme, as somehave represented him to the World. Moreover, Charleton
thought that it was hypocritical to praise Cicero and condemn Epicurus, since
Cicero sometimes painted an equally objectionable portrait of God. Therefore,
stigmatizing Epicurus with the name of Atheist, Impious wretch, Secretary of
Hell, Enemy to all Religion, &c was misguided, however wrong Epicurus was
about the third difficult subject, suicide.
At a minimum the Apologie for Epicurus established the moral dross
which Charleton thought must be removed from Epicureanism in order to be
compatible with the truth of the Christian religion. In The Natural History of
the Passions he explicitly linked his positive account of moral philosophy to his
Epicurean Collections concerning the divine art of acquiring constant
Tranquillity of Mind, by Wisedom or the right use of Reason i.e. Epicurus
Morals. In the Natural History of the Passions Charleton claimed to be following
in the footsteps of Descartes, Gassendi, and Hobbes, each of whom were cited
to demonstrate how the passions might be governed according to right reason
in order to attain happiness. While the first part of the Natural History of the
Passions established the priority of the rational over the sensitive soul by once
again appealing to the perfect attributes of an immaterial thinking thing over
extended substance, Charleton confessed that he could not demonstrate how
immaterial spirit and material body interacted. Not only did he reject Descartes
suggestion of the pineal gland as the location of this interaction, most likely
because of the work of Thomas Willis, a prominent seventeenth-century natu-
ral philosopher also cited in the text, but Charleton even referred to his own
account of soul-body interaction as succumbing at certain points to non-
sense.90 Without pretending to demonstrate the connection, Charleton
instead referred the mystery of natural phenomena to the north star of
Given the dualism between matter and spirit, and given the superiority of
the rational over the sensitive soul, Charleton proceeded by reiterating his
account of how the rational soul exercised judgment over the indifferent will,
elaborating upon his initial account in The Darkness of Atheism. God placed
the will in direct relation to the passions because man was not omniscient. The
passions dispose and incite the soul to desire those things which nature

90 Ibid., 67.
116 chapter 3

declared to be good and profitable. Thus, nature acted as a virtuous tutor in

place of Edens perfect knowledge.91 To Charleton, mans finite intellect
directed the indifferent will according to the disposition of the passions. The
central question, then, was how to avoid evil and error given the relationship
of the understanding to the will. Here Charleton appealed to the virtue of pru-
dence because it provided the means for finite man to govern his affections
through the indifferent will. In this scheme the passions exercised an influence
on action only as they touched the desires and thereby directed man to certain
ends or objects through the attendant pleasure or pain. Man exercised moral
prudence in order to discern those ends that were truly good from those that
were evil. Error arose from the fact that man did not distinguish properly
between those things which derived from ones self and those which derived
externally from ones self. For to doe good things that depend upon ourselves,
is to pursue Virtue. Against the vain desires of goods external to our selves,
Charleton claimed, there were two remedies: true Generosity and tranquill
dependence upon Providence Divine.92 True generosity was a Stoic-
Cartesian disposition gained by reflecting upon mans god-like power over the
indifferent will, the power to judge and to choose good or evil.93 Self-esteem,
quite literally, provided the best natural means to avoid evil and error through
True generosity. The happiness of tranquility derived from self-esteem, from
a disposition derived from the power to choose good, was clearly an internal,
not an external, good. And where did Charleton think the prudential teaching
for the governance of the internal passions most conveniently found? The
Ethicks of Epicurus, as he had summarized them, are (after Holy writ) the
best Dispensatory I have hitherto read, of Natural Medicines for all the distem-
pers incident to the mind of Man.94
Stanley and Charleton provided two powerful sources for a re-evaluation of
Epicurean natural and moral philosophy in English in the second half of the
seventeenth century. Their works were widely published and accompanied the
appearance of several translations of Lucretius De rerum natura, from John
Evelyns in 1656 (Book i only) to Thomas Creechs in 1682 (and 1683, 1689, 1700),
as well as the translation of Diogenes Laertius in 1696. However, both Evelyn
and Creech provided quite conventional apologies for their translations.95 By

91 Ibid., 16970.
92 Ibid., quote at 175, 1725, 1867. There is a mixture between Stoic and Epicurean ideals
here, not unlike Gassendis own strategy.
93 Ibid., 93.
94 Ibid., 1878.
95 See J. Evelyn, An Essay upon the First Book of Titus Lucretius (London, 1656),
Animadversions, 97185; Lucretius, T. Carus Lucretius, the Epicurean Philosopher. His Six
Atheist Epicurus 117

constructing a Gassendist Epicurean natural and moral philosophy, Charleton

no longer regarded Epicurus or Epicureanism as a straightforward synonym for
atheism. On all the major points of interest to early modern religious apolo-
gists atoms, providence, and pleasure Charleton found a way to make
Epicureanism compatible with the truth of the Christian religion. It was a
compatibility few of his contemporaries would endorse. However, Charletons
work exercised an important influence on other natural philosophers who
reflected on atomism, Epicureanism, and atheism, including Robert Boyle and
Joseph Glanvill.

(iii) Evaluating Epicurus

The prestige of the new Baconian natural philosophy and the inductive, obser-
vational, experimental method on which it was based, was founded on a ver-
sion of ancient atomism. This new natural philosophy led several important
figures, including Charleton, to re-evaluate their understanding of atomism
and the natural and moral philosophy of Epicurus with which it was often
associated. For most contemporaries interested in the new science, however,
an evaluation of Epicureanism did not lead to Charletons Gassendist
Epicureanism but to more refined arguments against Epicurus. In Of Credulity
and Incredulity (1668) the scholar Meric Casaubon wondered at the conceited
omnipotency of Atomes advocated by the new Philosophy or revived
Epicurism by the likes of Gassendi.96 Even those who approached the ques-
tion of atoms from a vantage point much closer to Charletons, and who might
be expected to offer a more sympathetic understanding of Epicurus, such as
Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, came to fairly traditional conclu-
sions.97 In Of Epicurus his Principles of Philosophy Cavendish rejected the
Epicurean doctrine of atomic chance, rebuffed the Epicurean account of per-
ception, scorned the Epicurean account of Gods indifferent tranquillity, and
denied the Epicurean account of man. For Cavendish, the universe was quite
simply the product of the All-powerful Decree and Command of God. Given
her own controversial admission that matter was eternal, Cavendish made it
clear that she explicitly rejected the argument that God was equivalent with

Books of De Rerum Natura Done into English, trans. T. Creech (Oxford, 1682), Notes with
separate pagination, 146. For the context of these works, see Mayo, 3276; Jones, 2036.
96 M. Casaubon, Of Credulity and Incredulity (London, 1667), 10.
97 See L.T. Sarasohn, The Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish: Reason and Fancy dur-
ing the Scientific Revolution (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).
118 chapter 3

nature, that God and the soul were composed of a finer sort of matter, and that
God could not be disturbed by nature. For her, God was omnipotent, incorpo-
real, and supernatural. Epicurus system of natural philosophy made every
atom and every vacuum into something like little gods, since they stood apart
from any relation of dependence. If it had no dependence upon God, Cavendish
wrote, nature would not be a servant, but God her self.98
Even as a very significant group of seventeenth-century natural philoso-
phers, including Robert Boyle, adopted a revised version of atomism, they
carefully distinguished themselves from Epicureanism.99 In Certain
Physiological Essays (1669) Boyle admitted that he Explicat[ed] things chiefly
according to the Atomical Principles, but he claimed to have adopted atom-
ism in order to convince those addicted to the Epicurean Philosophy. Boyle
began in familiar territory: Epicureans supposed the world to be produced by
the casual concourse of Atoms, ascribing to every particular Atom an innate,
and unlooseable mobility, as well as a kind of innate motion.100 In other words,
like Robert Hooke and many other natural philosophers, Boyle shared the
same concerns about Epicurean atheism as Casaubon and Cavendish.101 The
worrying implication was that Epicureans and Stoics like Mr. Hobbs used
theCasual Concourse of Atoms to argue that men had sprung up out of the
ground like mushrooms, a common refrain levelled against Epicurus and

98 M. Cavendish, Observations upon the Opinion of Some Ancient Philosophers,

Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (London, 1666), 247, 2930, 32.
99 For Boyle in relation to Epicureanism see J.J. MacIntosh, Robert Boyle on Epicurean
Atheism and Atomism, in Atoms, Pnuema and Tranquility: Epicurean and Stoic
Themes in European Thought, ed., M.J. Osler (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1991), 198219; idem, ed., Boyle on Atheism (Toronto: University of Toronto Press,
2005); C. Wilson, Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2008), 5170. For Boyles context see S. Shapin, The Social History of Truth
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), Chap. 4; idem, The Scientific Revolution
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 14255; S. Shapin and S. Schaffer,
Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1985). For Boyles discovery of erudition in opposition to
atheism, see M. Hunter, Robert Boyle: between God and Science (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 2009), Chap. 5.
100 R. Boyle, Certain Physiological Essays and Other Tracts (London, 1669), new pagination,
34, 78; cf. R. Boyle, The Origine of Formes and Qualities (Oxford, 1666), passim.
101 R. Hooke, Micrographia (London, 1665), 177: So infinitely wise and provident do we find
all the Dispensations in Nature, that certainly Epicurus, and his followers, must very little
have considerd them, who ascribd those things to the production of chance, that wil, to
a more attentive considerer, appear the products of the highest Wisdom and Providence.
Atheist Epicurus 119

Lucretius.102 In order to avoid any unwanted association with atheists such as

Hobbes, Boyle drew an important distinction between mechanical corpuscu-
larianism and Epicurean atomism:

But when I speak of the Corpuscular or Mechanical Philosophy, I am far

from meaning with the Epicureans, that Atoms, meeting together by
chance in an infinite Vacuum, are able of themselves to produce the
World, and all its Phaenomena; nor with some Modern Philosophers,
that, supposing God to have put into the whole Mass of Matter such an
invariable quantity of Motion, he needed do no more to make the World,
the material parts being able by their own unguided Motions, to cast
themselves into such a System (as we call by that name); But I plead onely
for such a Philosophy, as reaches but to things purely Corporeal, and dis-
tinguishing between the first original of things, and the subsequent
course of Nature, teaches, concerning the former, not onely that God
gave Motion to Matter, but that in the beginning He so guided the various
Motions of the parts of it, as to contrive them into the World he designd
they should compose, (furnishd with the Seminal Principles and
Structures or Models of Living Creatures,) and establishd those Rules of
Motion, and that order amongst things Corporeal, which we are wont to
call the Laws of Nature.103

This account raised the question of how God and the created material universe
interact, a question Boyle had earlier addressed in Some Considerations
Touching the Usefulnesse of Experimental Naturall Philosophy (1663). Epicurus
and other ancient atomists explained the origin of the universe without
acknowledging any Divine Author of it.104 For Boyle the Epicurean doctrines
were therefore dogmas about first originals: that matter was eternal; that
matter was from eternity divided into small parts called atoms; that the num-
ber of atoms was infinite; that atoms had an infinite vacuum in which to move;
that atoms were endowed with an infinite variety of figures; that from eternity
atoms were their own movers; and that a sufficient number of atoms and their
motion downwards being granted, there would be a fortuitous concourse in
their declension resulting in the natural universe as it presently existed. Boyles
approach to the natural universe was, by contrast, probabilistic; he rejected the

102 Boyle, Excellency of Theology, 23.

103 Ibid., new pagination, 34.
104 R. Boyle, Some Considerations Touching the Usefulnesse of Experimental Naturall
Philosophy (London, 1663), 65.
120 chapter 3

dogmatism of Epicureanism for the same set of reasons he was led into the
dispute with Hobbes about the conclusions of the air-pump experiments.105
What, Boyle asked, seems more unlikely, that so many admirable Creatures
that constitute this one exquisite and stupendous Fabrick of the World should
be made by the casual confluence of falling Atoms, justling or knocking one
another in the immense vacuity, or the creation of the world as described in
the first chapters of Genesis?106 Atomists and other naturalists may presume
to know the true and genuine Causes of the Things they attempt to explicate,
yet very often the utmost they can attain to in their Explications, is, That the
explicated Phaenomena May be producd after such a Manner as they deliver,
but not that they really Are so.107 However much Epicureans insisted on dem-
onstrating the congruity of their reasoning with the operation of the universe,
it remained true, Boyle claimed, that the harmony of the universe was in no
sense necessary, and was by implication improbable, if the world was created
by chance or by a God who simply set it in motion and then stood aloof.
Moreover, atomists, Epicureans, and natural philosophers were not in agree-
ment about the nature of reasonable belief. Some mechanical philosophers
who followed the Epicurean hypothesis, like Hobbes, claimed to be unable to
form a notion of an incorporeal substance or of soul-body interaction, whereas
other philosophers could clearly conceive of spirit and soul but did not under-
stand how onely material can think, or that there can possibly be any
Vacuum.108 Probabilistic, corpuscularian natural philosophy based on empiri-
cal experiment was better able to account for natural phenomena from a more
appropriately moderate position. It was also in harmony with the truth of the
Christian religion.109
For Boyle, as for most early modern religious apologists, atoms in the void
could not be responsible for their own existence, their own motion, or the
order into which they had been organized and maintained. This demanded a
God who created and providentially oversaw the operation of the natural uni-
verse. In Some Considerations Boyle acknowledged that Epicurus and Lucretius
were subtile Philosophers in explicating the devers Mysteries of Nature, but

105 Shapin and Schaeffer, passim.

106 Boyle, Some Considerations, 768.
107 Ibid., 823.
108 Ibid., 85. See E.B. Davis and M. Hunter, The Making of Robert Boyles Free Enquiry into the
Vulgarly Receivd Notion of Nature (1686), in The Boyle Papers: Understanding the
Manuscripts of Robert Boyle (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), 21972.
109 Boyles Christian Virtuoso was in many ways an elaboration of this claim. More broadly,
see E. Davis, Robert Boyles Religious Life, Attitudes, and Vocation, Science and Christian
Belief, 19 (2007): 11738.
Atheist Epicurus 121

he insisted that they were nonetheless guilty of impious Errors. Boyle was
convinced that the universe required an Intelligent Cause.110 In The Excellency
of Theology Compard with Natural Philosophy (1674) Boyle flipped Epicurus
notion of providence on its head. Where Epicurus thought inquiry into nature
would free the mind from the Belief of a Provident Deity, and the Souls immor-
tality, Boyle thought this same inquiry, as he construed it, would advance a
range of virtues more wholesome than those Epicurus championed. Contrary
to Epicurus and Lucretius, contemplation of God through providence would
give men cause for Hope and Joy, not fear.111 In Of the High Veneration Mans
Intellect Owes to God (1685) Boyle acknowledged that it may seem as if God is
indifferent to what happens on earth given the course of events like earth-
quakes in the natural world. But Epicurus and like-minded philosophers had
not reasoned thoroughly enough:

we, that upon good grounds believe that God really does, what these
Philosophers thought impossible to be done, by any Agents whatsoever,
are much wanting in our duty if we do not admire an Al-pervading
Wisedom, that reaches to the utmost extent of the Universe, and actually
performing what Philosophers professd they could not so much as con-
ceive, highly merits that those difficulties which they thought insupera-
ble, and so, a sufficient excuse for their unbelief, should be a powerfull
motive to our veneration, of that transcendent Wisedom, that without
any trouble surmounts them.112

Echoing Francis Bacons aphorism in Of atheisme, Boyle argued that

Epicurean philosophers, like the atheists of confutation discourse, were too
dogmatic about the natural universe and failed to reason thoroughly when
they reflected on the natural universe and its relationship to God.
Boyles contemporary Joseph Glanvill, a clergyman and apologist for the new
natural philosophy, saw himself in Boyles Baconian terms.113 Glanvill rejected
Aristotelianism for the more excellent Hypotheses of Democritus and Epicurus
about atoms, but he did so by rejecting Epicurus anti-providentialism.114
Like Boyle, Glanvill distinguished between the atomist hypothesis and the con-

110 Boyle, Some Considerations, 445.

111 Boyle, Excellency of Theology, 945.
112 [R. Boyle,] Of the High Veneration Mans Intellect Owes to God, Peculiarly for His Wisedom
and Power by a Fellow of the Royal Society (London, 1685), 445.
113 See J.I. Cope, Joseph Glanvill, Anglican Apologist (St Louis: Committee on Publications,
Washington University, 1956).
114 J. Glanvill, The Vanity of Dogmatizing (London, 1661), 146.
122 chapter 3

clusions Epicureans drew from it. Epicurus, Lucretius, and their disciples could
not have been in earnest, Glanvill claimed, when they resolvd this composi-
tion [of the world] into a fortuitous range of Atoms. To make the world a prod-
uct of chance was absurd and unreasonable. It would be like ascribing the
operation of a watch to an undesignd effect, instead of the design of a watch-
maker.115 In defending the work of natural philosophy Glanvill appealed to the
Baconian argument that true philosophy was pious, not atheistic. Natural phi-
losophy is one of the best Weapons in the World to defend Religion against
atheism, noting that his own work is a confutation of this spightful, and ridicu-
lous charge. True philosophy recognized the need for an almighty creative
power to generate matter, put it in motion, and to order both by omniscient
Wisdom. Thus there is no reason to accuse Philosophy of a fault, which
Philosophy sufficiently shames, and disproves. It was a mistake to lump all nat-
ural philosophy in with some of the modern men who have revived the
Philosophy of Epicurus, which they think to be in its whole extent Atheistical,
and irreligious.116 But the late Restorers of the Corpuscularian Hypothesis
hate, and despise the vile Doctrine of a fortuitous concourse of atoms in the

But yet they thus far think the Atomical Philosophy reasonable, viz. as it
teacheth, That the operations of Nature are performed by subtile streams
of minute bodies, and not by I know not what imaginary qualities, and
forms: They think, That the various motions, and figures of the parts of
matter, are enough for all the Phaenomena, and all varieties, which with
relation to our senses we call such, and such qualities. But then they sup-
pose, and teach, That God created matter, and is the supreme Orderer of
its motions, by which all those diversities are made: And hereby Piety,
and the Faith of Providence is secured.117

Naming Mr. Hobbs as an exception, Glanvill argued that corpuscularians had

upheld Christian orthodoxy. He also criticized the puritan divine Richard
Baxter for disparaging mechanical philosophy by arguing that this natural phi-
losophy acknowledges Gods efficiency, and Government of all things. To deny
Aristotelian qualities and forms and embrace corpusculariansim as Descartes
and Gassendi had done, Glanvill stated, was not the same as meer Epicurean
and Hobbian Somatists. By lumping Descartes and Gassendi in with

115 Ibid., 423.

116 J. Glanvill, Philosoiphia Pia (London, 1671), 1057.
117 Ibid., 1078.
Atheist Epicurus 123

Epicureans like Hobbes, Glanvill accused Baxter of associating them with

those of an abhorred Character unfairly.118
What was it that Baxter objected to? The Reasons of the Christian Religion
(1667) vigorously defended the souls immortality against Somatists or
Epicureans such as Hobbes and Gassendi. In doing so, Baxter made the nega-
tive remarks about corpuscularianism and atomism to which Glanvill referred.
To Baxter, the new natural philosophers had made many mistakes prejudicial
to the truth of Christianity, particularly as they related to the immortality of
the human soul, a central concern of early modern anti-atheist confutation
discourse. By distancing the defence of the Christian religion from what he
took to be the implications of the new natural philosophy, Baxter nonetheless
aimed to confute the atheist by natural evidence and the natural light of
human reason.119 In total he considered twenty different objections to
Epicureanism which he thought had been revived by Mr Hobs and
Gassendus. Baxters characteristically eclectic response focused almost
entirely on Gassendi. In the process Baxter referred his readers to the work of
other early modern apologists for confutations of Hobbes, including Glanvill
himself, Seth Ward, Thomas Wallis, and John Brahmall. What was it about
Baxters defence that aroused Glanvills criticism? And what does it tell us
about the defence of Christianity in early modern England and the equation of
Epicureanism with atheism?
For Baxter, God was the incorporeal, intellectual, free agent who created
matter and caused its motion, and this was consistent with some of what
Epicurus had taught. But to make matter and motion the cause of its own con-
tinued existence was to say that nature was itself God i.e. the same charge
levelled by Casaubon, Cavendish, Boyle, Glanvill, and virtually every other
early modern religious apologist who wrote about atheism. Nor did the
Epicurean Gods tranquil inactivity seem congruent with Gods attributes even
as described by Epicureans. Instead the order, operation, harmony, and end of
all matter in motion suggested the continuance of [Gods] efficiency by cer-
tain Laws and Guidances.120 A key component of Baxters argument against
Epicurean materialism was the scholastic notion of power or volition, quite
similar to that put forward by Descartes and Charleton. In Baxters words,
Gassendi and like-minded Epicureans had ignored mans ability to cause sud-
den and voluntary motion.121 Furthermore, if everything was matter in motion,

118 Ibid., 10911.

119 R. Baxter, The Reasons of the Christian Religion (London, 1667), 491.
120 Ibid., 500, 503.
121 Ibid., 507.
124 chapter 3

the power to choose did not exist. If the will was simply the servant of the
necessary motion of atoms, then there is one and the same account to be
given of all actions, good and bad, There is then no virtue or vice, no place for
Laws and moral Government.122
On the important question of the souls immortality Baxter insisted that he
was not interested in incroaching upon the philosophers liberty to speculate
upon natural phenomena when their speculations were kept within the realm
of probability.123 But he did think that false philosophy was the chief way in
which the devil was assaulting Christianity in his day. The implication was that
this was the atomist materialism Glanvill was defending. Instead, Baxter made
the traditional confutation appeal to antiquity, citing extremely large excerpts
from Ciceros Tusculan Disputations and Augustines Confessions against the
Atheist. According to Baxter, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics were all in agree-
ment that man has an ultimate end above himself, in contrast to the false
philosophy of those like Gassendi who have undertaken the defence of the
Epicurean heresie, that Pleasure is formally both mans felicity, and his ulti-
mate end. Thus the Epicurean doctrine which maketh Pleasure our highest
end was enslaved to the appetites and lusts and destructive of virtue alto-
gether. By contrast, Baxter insisted with Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, virtue
should be pursued in and for it self as the supreme end of our happiness
vertue in it self is the Image of God.124
Baxters Reasons for the Christian Religion was a reiteration of a traditional
defence of the Christian religion that was uninterested in Boyles and Glanvills
new natural philosophy, even as all three shared many of the arguments cen-
tral to early modern confutations of atheism. Baxters puritan moral concerns
were indicative of the general anxiety generated by Epicurean atomism and
anti-providentialism. A characteristic statement of this moral anxiety was
expressed powerfully by the high church Anglican Samuel Parker, who had
written two defences of the Christian religion against atheism.125 Although
Baxter and Parker came from very different Protestant perspectives, they
shared a widespread view that equated Epicureanism with unrestrained
hedonism. In An Account of the Nature and Extent of the Divine Dominion of
Goodnesse (1666) Parker sought to reveal Epicurean natural and moral phi-
losophy for the sham he thought it was, a cover encouraging men to intem-

122 Ibid., 513, 5201.

123 Ibid., 5878.
124 Ibid., 595, 598, 599600.
125 S. Parker, Tentamina Physico-Theologica de Deo (London, 1665); idem, Disputationes de
Deo (London, 1673).
Atheist Epicurus 125

perately indulge to their transient delights, because they are more sensual. By
rejecting Gods providence and the souls immortality Epicurus had also
rejected all moral Goodness. Parker acknowledged that Epicurus had set as
high an estimate upon Vertue, but by placing mans supream Happiness in
Bruitish Pleasures he had revealed himself to be a hypocrite.126 Epicurus may
have paid lip service to moderation, in other words, but his doctrines contra-
dicted one another, as Cicero had pointed out. The revival of an Epicureanism
synonymous with atheism, no matter how compatible it was with natural phi-
losophy, was a cause for continuing concern for a wide gamut of early modern
clergymen on the lookout for the cause of atheisms growth. To Baxter and
Parker both, then, Epicureanism was a rival philosophy rightly rejected by
Paul in Athens, not a new source of support for the truth of the Christian
When and if the presentation of Gassendist Epicureanism by Thomas
Stanley and Walter Charleton was evaluated by early modern writers concerned
with atomism, providence, and pleasure, they very often rejected the whole or
a substantial part of this package of beliefs and the practices they assumed this
entailed. Boyle and Glanvill distinguished their atomism from Epicurean atom-
ism by deploying traditional arguments about Epicurean natural philosophy
frequently levelled in anti-atheist confutation discourse. Theirs was over-
whelmingly the majority view, shared across a wide spectrum of religious belief,
from Baxter to Parker, from Bacon to Boyle, and from Cavendish to Casaubon.
However, some important changes with respect of Epicurean moral philosophy
began to change in the closing decades of the seventeenth century.

(iv) Saint Epicurus?

We have seen that Meric Casaubon levelled several serious objections to the
new natural philosophy due to its similarity to Epicureanism. Part of the rea-
son for his vehemence, at least as he expressed it in Of Credulity and Incredulity,
was a result of the commonplace perception that atheism was rapidly spread-
ing. Like many others, Casaubon drew a providential connection between the
Great Fire of London in 1666 and what he saw as Gods judgment of Englands
sin. Instead of making men Christians, Casaubon thought Epicureans had
thwarted the Great Fires providential edification and turned Englishmen into
real Atheists. More disturbing still, even though Epicurus had always been

126 Parker, An Account of the Nature, 812.

126 chapter 3

regarded as an atheist, he had now became the Saint of many Christians.127

But Epicurus had erroneously taught that all human felicity derived from
bodily pleasure, that the world came to be in its present state not by any
Providence, but by a casual jumbling of atoms, that what men call right and
wrong, justice and injustice, vertue and vice, were but fancies, and empty
sounds, and had merely paid lip service to the idea of God.128 Simply put,
Casaubon rejected the attempt to turn Epicurus into a Saint. The fact that
Diogenes Laertius wrote long after Epicurus was alive and was himself an
Epicurean made him unreliable and biased, and writers like Gassendi were far
too trusting of Diogenes Laertius, particularly when better witnesses were
found, Casaubon insisted, in Cicero, Seneca, and Gregory Nazianzen.129
Casaubon even accused Gassendi of ransacking classical writers in order to
disingenuously produce a more favourable view.130 Gassendi was thus a wolf in
sheeps clothing who espoused the kind of Christian atheism of which
Hobbes also stood accused:

had [Gassendi] advised with Hell it self, he could not have lighted upon a
more destructive way, to all religion and piety; to all goodness and vertue,
than this, of Epicurus his filial fear, or love of God. For what inference will
carnal men, (in such an age, as this, especially) will, or can make of it, but
this? that they may believe, as Epicurus believed; no God, I will not say
(though it be true enough) but, no providence, no conscience, no differ-
ence of good or evil, (in nature) of what is just, or what is not: I might add,
and live as Epicurus lived; but I will only say, believe as Epicurus believed;
and yet flatter and comfort themselves, that they are religious, nor more
religious than many, nay most Christians.131

Turning Epicurus into a saint this Unchristian project of magnifying

Epicurus only served to undermine the truth of the Christian religion and
mans happiness.132
In spite of views like Casaubons, several writers in Restoration England took
up Gassendis project. This appropriation was actually based on the same
humanist practice by which Casaubon and others had condemned Epicurus

127 Casaubon, Credulity, 201.

128 Ibid., 2023.
129 Ibid., 2069, 2178.
130 Ibid., 20913.
131 Ibid., 224.
132 Ibid., 225, 294. Casaubon was not alone in making these criticisms. See also Ross, 179;
Parker, A Demonstration of the Divine Authority, 88113.
Atheist Epicurus 127

and the attempt by Gassendi to vindicate Epicureanism.133 For Antoine Le

Grand (16291699), a Franciscan theologian and Cartesian philosopher who
taught and wrote in England, William Temple (16281699), author and diplo-
mat, and Charles de Marguetel de Saint-Denis de Saint-vremond (16131703),
French soldier, writer, and libertine wit who spent most of his later life in
England, reading Diogenes Laertius, Cicero, Seneca, and Plutarch could be
used to describe Epicurus as a victim of Stoic prejudice and conformable
with Christian morals, as an English translation of Gassendi put it in 1699.134
Against the traditional understanding of Epicureanism as atheism, these three
writers attempted to distinguish Epicurean moral philosophy from atheism in
Restoration and post-Revolutionary England.
In order to effect this renovation of Epicureanism each of these texts offered
an account of how Epicurus had unfairly acquired his reputation. In LEpicure
Spirituel, first published in French in 1669 and translated into English in 1676 as
The Divine Epicurus, Antoine Le Grand revised his Stoic moral philosophy as
presented in Les Sages des Stoiques (1662) in favour of Epicureanism. Le Grand
argued that the Stoics were wrong to condemn Epicurus, even though they did
so out of their love of virtue, and presented his book as a means of making
amends between Stoics and Epicureans. While Le Grand acknowledged the
difference between Stoics and Epicureans on the question of virtue, with the
Stoics regarding virtue as an honest good and the Epicureans as Delectable,
they ended up for him at more or less the same place.135 Epicurus had acquired
a tarnished reputation because his enemies either misunderstood him or mali-
cious misrepresented his aims. Le Grand insisted that anyone who will take
the pains accurately to consider and weigh [Epicurus] Writings and narrowly
search into his thoughts, may observe that he had no other intention, when he
spake so to the advantage of Pleasure, then to make his wise man happy, to

133 R. Popkin describes the revival of ancient scepticism in similar terms. See The History of
Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), Chap. 3.
134 P. Gassendi, Three Discourse of Happiness, Virtue, and Liberty, trans. by F. Bernier (London,
1699), 121. For a brief discussion of these writers, see Wilson, Epicureanism, Chap. 10. On
Le Grand see T. Mautner, From Virtue to Morality: Antoine Le Grand (16291699) and the
New Moral Philosophy, Jahrbuch-fuer-Recht-und-Ethik, 8 (2000): 209232. On Temple see
E. Miller, Epicurean Gardens in William Temple and John Wilmot, Dalhousie Review
(2006): 32944. On the translation of Saint-vremond on Epicurus, which Saint-
vremond did not actually write himself, but which he never repudiated during his life-
time, thereby giving it a kind of endorsement in England, see Mayo, 7796; and G. Mori,
A Short Reply, Journal of the History of Ideas, 65, 2 (2004): 3434. The work will be referred
to as Saint-vremonds throughout this chapter, keeping this important proviso in mind.
135 A. Le Grand, The Divine Epicurus, trans. E. Cooke (London 1676), 78.
128 chapter 3

loose his body from griefs and troubles, to fill up his mind with delight, and to
render them both equally satisfied. And as Le Grand pointed out, this was
precisely the end to which Stoics also aimed.136
Saint-vremond reached much the same conclusion as Le Grand. The
Essay upon the Doctrine of Epicurus, published in the Miscellany Essays of
1694, begins by noting that Epicurus was widely regarded as a dangerous and
unworthy philosopher, though his professed enemies, the Stoics, had directed
their criticisms at his philosophy and not his reputation. Saint-vremond
argues that we should follow the Stoic practice of examining Epicurus teach-
ings before we denounced Epicureans as hypocrites who professed one thing
and did another.137 Far too often men had condemned Epicurus because of
the irregular Life of some Libertines who as they abused the Name of this
Philosopher, so they have ruined the Reputation of his Sect. These unworthy
men adopted Epicurus as their cover for their immoral living and they made
no difficulty to pronounce the Doctrine of this Philosopher to be pernicious,
and to compare his Disciples to the uncleanest Animals in nature. Epicuri de
grege porci.138 According to Saint-vremond, we should imitate the Stoics
who have produced very authentick Testimonies both of the Probity of his
Person, and the Purity of his Doctrine. Anyone who read these testimonies
would conclude that his Pleasure was as severe as the Virtue of the Stoicks,
and that a Man who had a mind to be as debauched as Epicurus, must also for
his Comfort be as sober as Zeno.139
In his essay Upon the Gardens of Epicurus, William Temple summarized
Epicurean moral thought in a way that directly challenged many of the early
modern commonplaces which linked Epicureanism and atheism. First pub-
lished in the Miscellania of 1690, Temple contrasted the diversity of views
regarding natural philosophy with the seeming unity in moral philosophy. The
different Schemes of Nature that have been drawn of old or of late by Plato,
Aristotle, Epicurus, Des-Cartes, Hobs, or any other that I know of, seem to
agree but in one thing, which is, The want of Demonstration or Satisfaction, to
any thinking and unpossessed Man, and seem more or less probable one than
another, according to the Wit and Eloquence of the Authors and Advocates
that raise or defend them. By contrast moral philosophers seemed to agree

136 Ibid., 3, 5.
137 C. de Saint-vremond, Essay upon the Doctrine of Epicurus, Miscellany Essays, trans.
Mr Brown (London, 1694), 2113.
138 Ibid., 213, 2145.
139 Ibid., 2167. On 218 Saint-vremond directs his reader to Diogenes Laertius to find his
true Character.
Atheist Epicurus 129

that mans ultimate end is happiness. Any disagreement in moral philosophy

was therefore semantic:

The Contention grew warmest between the Stoicks and Epicureans, the
other Sects in this point siding in a manner with one or the other of these,
in their Conceptions or Expressions. The Stoicks would have it to consist
in Vertue, and the Epicureans in Pleasure; yet the most reasonable of the
Stoicks made the pleasure of Vertue to be the greatest Happiness; and
thebest of the Epicureans made the greatest Pleasure to consist in Vertue;
and the difference between these two seems not easily discovered: All
agreed, the greatest Temper, if not the total subduing of Passion, and
exercise of Reason, to be the state of the greatest Felicity: To live without
Desires or Fears, or those Perturbations of Mind and Thought, which
Passions raise: To place true Riches in wanting little, rather than in pos-
sessing much; and true Pleasure in Temperance, rather than in satisfying
the Senses: To live with indifference to the common Enjoyments and
Accidents of Life, and with Constancy upon the greatest Blows of Fate or
of Chance; Not to disturb our Minds with sad Reflections upon what is
past, nor with anxious Cares or raving Hopes about what is to come; nei-
ther to disquiet Life with the Fears of Death, nor Death with the Desires
of Life; but in both and in all things else, to follow Nature, seem to be the
Precepts most agreed among them.140

What the Stoics called apathy, the Sceptics Indisturbance, and common men
Peace of Conscience, seemed fundamentally similar to Epicurean Tranquility
of Mind. How could Epicurus have gotten such a bad reputation, Temple won-
dered? He blamed the envy of the Stoics, the mistakes of some of Epicurus
disciples, and the misdirected piety of the early Christians. Like Charleton
before him, Temple wondered why Lucretius was regarded as more impious
than other ancient Greeks or Romans? And with Saint-vremond, Temple
appealed to Diogenes Laertius for a defence of Epicurus character, adding a
list of Epicureans from Caesar to Horace as counter-examples to the claim that
Epicureans were not capable of virtuous lives.141
To Le Grand, Epicurus taught that pleasure was natural to man and that it
was simultaneously his chief good. These goods were those to which we are
naturally most inclined because they were accompanied by the attendant

140 William Temple, upon the Gardens of Epicurus, Miscellanea (London, 1690), 856.
141 Ibid., 8890.
130 chapter 3

pleasures of beauty or advantage.142 Le Grand therefore denied the Stoic dis-

tinction between volupta, honestum, and utile as drawn by Cicero and Seneca
and subsequently employed by many early modern religious apologists to con-
fute Epicurus. With Saint-vremond and Temple, Le Grand claimed that the
Stoics unfairly regarded Epicurus as a monster for putting pleasure before vir-
tue. If they had attended to Epicurus philosophy more closely they would find
themselves in no disagreement at all with him, they seek that in effect which
they blame in Appearance, and are no otherwise enemies to him, but in their
way of expression. Echoing Gassendi, Le Grand minimized the difference
between Stoic and Epicurean moral philosophy: it was simply a matter of
semantics. For the Epicureans virtue deserved all the praise that the Stoics
heaped upon it, but they differed from the Stoics in rejecting the argument
that virtue was Mans felicity, since she only connects him to it, and never
makes her self desirable, but for the love of that pleasure which she promises.
Pleasure was natural to the virtues, and even the most severe virtue sought
her out. Following Gassendi once more, Le Grand observed that Diogenes the
Cynic, Zenos teacher, was completely happy in the tub he wore around Athens
for shelter, achieving a profound and undisturbed Tranquility a tranquillity
Gassendi had mischievously compared to the pleasures enjoyed by Alexander
the Great.143 Yet as the example of Diogenes the Cynic was supposed to make
clear, Le Grand insisted that virtue was accompanied by natural, innocent
pleasures, and not by the immoderate pleasures of sense which disturbed the
wise mans tranquility.144
Saint-vremond drew a similarly close comparison between Stoic and
Epicurean moral philosophy. Both of the ancient philosophical sects began
from nature and drew their moral philosophy according to right Reason. If
God was the author of nature, then it was not pleasure which should be con-
demned, but those who abuse the Gifts of Heaven.145 The moral disposition of
both Stoics and Epicureans was basically the same: If you enquire of Epicurus
what it is to live voluptuously, he will answer that it is to disengage our selves
from too vigorous a pursuit of Riches, to resist and suppress evil Desires, to
contemn Honours, to make our selves Masters of Fortune; and in a Word,
to enjoy an absolute and uninterrupted Peace and repose of mind.146 But
Saint-vremond was careful to point out, with Gassendi, that the pleasure

142 Le Grand, Divine Epicurus, 6.

143 Gassendi, Three Discourses, 1078.
144 Le Grand, Divine Epicurus, 224, 28.
145 Saint-vremond, Epicurus, 21820.
146 Ibid., 2245.
Atheist Epicurus 131

allied to virtue was not the base sensual pleasure of the immoderate, impru-
dent man. The Epicurean virtues were the cardinal virtues of prudence, tem-
perance, fortitude, and justice, shared by all the major Hellenist schools of
thought. If pleasure could not be severed from virtue, bodily pleasure without
virtue was certainly vice.147 Where the Stoics were wrong, according to Saint-
vremond, was not in their aim of tranquility, but in thinking that the wise
man could be happy without pleasure.148 Rather, all the Philosophers in the
World are agreed, that the ultimate end a Man ought to propose to himself
here, is a quiet and agreeable Life; several of them have been mistaken in plac-
ing this Life in Virtue, and not in Pleasure.149
According to Le Grand, Temple, and Saint-vremond, then, Epicurus was
unduly charged by Christians and Stoics with being a hypocrite, and errone-
ously described as a hedonist if a hedonist was an unrestrained libertine no
one who pursued sensual pleasure immoderately, as a libertine did, could enjoy
the tranquility of the wise man. If Gassendi had argued that there was no incom-
patibility between Epicurean hedonism, whereby the summum bonum was
volupta ineradicably tied to virtus, these three authors either argued precisely
the same thing, or left such an argument to be implied. For Le Grand, God, who
prescribes an end in all his Actions, and who often makes known his designs by
those circumstances that are attended upon them, has given us this assurance,
that Pleasure to a Man is natural, since he created him in a place of Delicacies,
and afforded him a Paradice for his first Habitation. Temple said much the
same thing.150 Le Grand was careful to point out that Epicureanism was in har-
mony with Gods law: the sins of immoderate sensual excess Libertinage and
Sensuality were certainly no more permissible on Epicurean grounds, given
the virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice, than they were on
Christian grounds.151 The bulk of Le Grands Divine Epicurus was an explication
of these Epicurean virtues similar to that of Gassendi and Charleton. In the end,
Le Grand put a Christian gloss on Epicurean-Stoic fortitude, which both
Charleton and Gassendi endorsed, suggesting that trials and tribulations
endured by Christians were only unbearable for unrepentant sinners.152

147 Ibid., 266, 277.

148 Ibid., 233.
149 Ibid., 2545.
150 Le Grand, Divine Epicurus, 123; Temple, Epicurus, 945.
151 Le Grand, Divine Epicurus, 14.
152 Ibid., 713, 114.
132 chapter 3

By the end of the seventeenth century, then, there were three general positions
on Epicureanism and its relation to atheism in England. First, the traditional
association found in conventional anti-atheist confutation discourse:
Epicureanism was synonymous with atheism for natural, moral, and theologi-
cal reasons. Second, the partial adaptation of Epicureanism as found in the
new natural philosophy: atomism was the foundation for the new science, but
the Epicurean and Lucretian elaboration of this atomism in both natural and
moral philosophy was firmly rejected. Third, the appropriation of Epicurean
moral philosophy: that Epicurean hedonism was constituted by traditional vir-
tues (prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice) which had long since been
viewed as compatible with Christianity.
The prominence with which each of these three general views was main-
tained by the end of the seventeenth century can be seen in the conflict which
surrounded the work of John Locke. Locke was accused by both John Edwards
and Edward Stillingfleet of opening the door to atheism and of espousing doc-
trines similar to or implicitly the same as Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza.
The reason Edwards and Stillingfleet said this were complicated, and will be
explored at greater length in chapters 7 and 8, but an important aspect of their
accusations related to contemporary understandings of Epicureanism within
early modern anti-atheist confutation discourse.153 Prior to his attack on
Locke, John Edwards had written A Farther Enquiry Into Several Remarkable
Texts of the Old and New Testament (1692). One chapter in this work explored
the apostle Pauls epistle to the Colossians and the warning against philoso-
phy and vain deceit. Edwards evaluated the whole of Greco-Roman philoso-
phy as a human invention which had produced nothing but division and error,
echoing the Augustinian example in which the Roman scholar Varro ranked
the total number of ancient philosophical sects in the hundreds. Edwards cen-
sured four Epicurean doctrines in particular: that chance and fortune created
the natural universe as it then existed; that everything in the natural universe
was ruled by chance; that happiness entailed pursuing terrestrial pleasure in
this world; and that there was no future life or future judgment because the
soul was not immortal. In short, Edwards rearticulated an understanding of
Epicureanism as equivalent to atheism. He also dismissed the doctrine of cre-
ation from eternal atoms in the void of space as absurd, fit only for such a
Christian Philosopher as he of Malmsbury (Hobbes).
In response Edwards aimed to reveal how absurd Epicurean philosophy was
in contrast to the harmonious wisdom of Christianity, just as Paul had

153 Cf. V. Nuovo, Christianity, Antiquity, and Enlightenment: Interpretations of Locke

(New York: Springer, 2011), Chap. 9.
Atheist Epicurus 133

confronted Epicureans and Stoics with Christian truth at Areopagus. Edwards

even acknowledged that some writers had characterized Epicurus as a sober
man, others as A Glutton and Drunkard. According to Diogenes Laertius,
Edwards admitted, it is evident that this Philosopher placed not Happiness in
bodily Pleasure, i.e. not in that only, for his avowed Opinion was, that Happiness
consisted both in Mind and Body, in the Peace and Tranquillity of the former,
and in the Ease and Health of the latter. He held, that the Pleasure which arises
from both these is the beginning and end of a Happy Life. Edwards added that
these pleasures were not the luxurious pleasures of earthly delight, but the
pleasures which consists in an absence of bodily Pain and Perturbation of
Mind. Moreover, Edwards confessed that Epicurus doctrine of virtue, in which
virtue abstracted from bodily pleasure was never separated from pleasure in
toto, revealed him to be a Good Man, considering as he was but a Heathen. Yet
Epicurus disciples did not stick to his doctrines, which was why he had such a
bad reputation. Whereas Epicurus had shunned mere sensual pleasures, his
disciples did not, and they restricted happiness to bodily pleasures whereas he
did not:154

Therefore when the Resurrection was preached to the Epicureans by

St. Paul, which implies a future Life, they were startled at it, and looked
upon it as a new and strange Doctrine, Acts 17. 19. All is concluded, said
they, in this World, and therefore they made much of themselves whilst
they were here, and lived as they listed, not looking at all for any
Punishments or Rewards hereafter. But this is so diametrically opposite
to the natural Notions and Dictates of rectified Minds, which are not
debauched with Prejudice and Sensuality, and so fully baffled by the
Principles of the Christian Religion, that it will be but lost Labour to offer
at the Confutation of it.155

Edwards took a fairly standard view of Epicureanism. By contrasting the truths

of the Christian religion articulated by Paul with these four Epicurean doc-
trines, Edwards anticipated one of his later responses to Locke. Attacking
Locke as a Socinian atheist who restricted the articles of faith to the principles
of natural philosophy in his Reasonableness of Christianity, Edwards was essen-
tially accusing Locke of abandoning the Pauline model of confutation, forfeit-
ing the natural Notions and the Principles of the Christian religion in favour

154 J. Edwards, A Farther Enquiry, 229-30, 232-3, 235-6. (London, 1692), 22930, 2323, 2356.
155 Ibid., 2378.
134 chapter 3

of the Epicureans mere sensual knowledge.156 Indeed, Edwards regarded his

attack on Locke in Some thoughts Concerning the Several Causes and Occasions
of Atheism (1695) as the first part of his confutation, complemented by a work
of natural theology: A Demonstration of the Existence and Providence of God,
From the Contemplation of the Visible Structure of the Greater and Lesser World
According to Locke in the Essay concerning Humane Understanding, there
was nothing repugnant to reason in the suggestion that God might superadd
the powers of thought to matter.158 But as the reactions to the Essay suggest,
this claim was still highly controversial, for it seemed to run dangerously close
to the Epicurean materialism that many of Lockes contemporaries attributed
to Hobbes and Spinoza. Using the image of Paul on Areopagus as an example,
Richard Bentley made this point in his second Boyle lecture of 1692, Matter
and Motion cannot Think: Or, A Confutation of Atheism from the Faculties of
the Soul.159 Bentley stated his aims as follows:

1. First I will give a true Notion and Idea of Matter; whereby it will again
appear that it has no inherent Faculty of Sense and Perception. 2. I will
prove, that no particular sort of Matter, as the Brain and Animal Spirits,
hath any power of Sense and Percetion. 3. I will shew, that Motion in gen-
eral super-added to Matter cannot produce any Sense and Perception. 4.
I will demonstrate, that no particular sort of Motion, as of the Animal
Spirits through Muscles and Nerves, can beget Sense and Perception. 5. I
will evince, that no Action and Passion of the Animal Spirits, one Particle
upon another, can create any Sense and Perception. 6. I will answer the
Atheists Argument of matter of Fact and Experience in brute Beasts;
which, say they, are allowed to be meer Matter, and yet have some degree
of Sense and Perception.160

Bentley duly cited Epicurus and Lucretius, linking them with Hobbes
Leviathan, as the philosophers who originally put forward the atheist doctrine
that the will and thought could arise from mere matter.

156 See J. Edwards, The Socinian Creed (London, 1697), 1223.

157 Edwards, Some Thoughts, Preface.
158 For Lockes superadd comment, see Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. P.H.
Nidditch (Oxford, 1975), 543. Locke extended this section of the Essay in later editions and
engaged with Stillingfleet on this question in great detail in Mr Lockes Reply to the Right
Reverend Lord Bishop, in Answer to His Second Letter (London, 1698), 14952, 3979, 404.
159 Bentley, Lecture 2, p. 3.
160 Ibid., 16.
Atheist Epicurus 135

As a highly erudite scholar attentive to the revival of Epicureanism, Edward

Stillingfleet was also concerned by Lockes suggestion that God might super-
add non-material properties to matter, particularly when this suggestion was
combined with Lockes argument that philosophical certainty was based solely
on clear and distinct ideas. For Stillingfleet one of the most concerning conse-
quences of this suggestion related to the problem of substance, a central issue
upon which he and Locke disputed at great length.161 Stillingfleet thought that
Lockes new way of philosophizing undercut the mysteries of faith by employ-
ing a terminology and a logic which was advantageous to Socinians, sceptics,
and freethinkers as well as atheists. Stillingfleet accused Locke of employing a
method which restricted the scope of rational certainty to the point where the
mysteries of faith, such as the Trinity and the Incarnation, were rendered unrea-
sonable and uncertain. If the notion of substance could not be understood with
certainty, Stillingfleet thought, then the personhood upon which the doctrine
of the Trinity was based was called into question. Such an argument could only
be advantageous to the enemies of traditional Christianity. In his second reply
to Stillingfleet Locke took exception to this whole train of thought.

If I should imitate your Lordships way of Writing, I should not omit to

bring in Epicurus here, and take notice that this was his way, Deum verbis
ponere, re tollere. And then add, that I am certain you do not think he
promoted the great ends of Religion and Morality. For tis with such
Candid and Kind insinuations as these, that you bring in both Hobbes,
and Spinosa, into your Discourse here about Gods being able, if he please,
to give to some parcels of Matter ordered as he thinks fit, a Faculty of
thinking. Neither of those Authors having as appears by any Passages you
bring out of them said any thing to this Question, nor having, as it seems,
any other business here, but by their Names skilfully to give that Character
to my Book, with which you would recommend it to the World.162

161 The debate was a lengthy one, beginning with Stillingfleets, A Discourse in Vindication of
the Doctrine of the Trinity (London, 1697). Lockes two letters to Stillingfleet in reply are: A
Letter to the Right Reverend Edward Ld Bishop of Worcester, Concerning Some Passages
Relating to Mr. Lockes Essay of Humane Understanding: In a Late Discourse of His Lordships,
in Vindication of the Trinity (London, 1697), and Mr. Lockes Reply to the Right Reverend the
Lord Bishop of Worcesters Answer to His Second Letter (London, 1698); and Stillingfleets
replies are: The Bishop of Worcesters Answer to Mr. Lockes Letter (London, 1697), and, The
Bishop of Worcesters Answer to Mr. Lockes Second Letter (London, 1698). For the relation
of the superadd suggestion to the question of substance, see Stillingfleet, The Bishop of
Worcesters Answer, 202.
162 Locke, Second Reply, 414.
136 chapter 3

Locke accused Stillingfleet of attacking him ad hominem, attempting to con-

fute one saying in my Book, by other Passages in it, and unfairly associating
him with arguments he had not put forward and notorious persons he had not
mentioned or endorsed.163 But as this chapter has attempted to show,
Stillingleet was thoroughly in keeping with many of his contemporaries views
and with anti-atheist confutation discourse generally when he thought he
detected in Lockes arguments a slippery slope leading to Epicurean atheism as
supposedly revived by Hobbes and Spinoza. The appearance of John Tolands
Christianity not Mysterious in 1696, which used Lockean language to unortho-
dox ends and looked dangerously similar to Hobbism and Spinozism, cer-
tainly did not help matters. However much Locke may have been right in his
reply to Stillingfleet, Lockes point was one which seemed profoundly at odds
with the way early modern religious apologists understood the truth of the
Christian religion, perhaps especially to a sophisticated thinker like Stillingfleet.
Locke clearly recognized Stillingfleets argument as a confutation. Yet as the
dispute over Lockes philosophy demonstrates, the traditional mode of confu-
tation was being challenged by the end of the seventeenth century. While
Epicurus remained closely associated with atheism well into the eighteenth
century, from at least 1650 divergent views about Epicureanism emerged in
England that stretched the ways in which the traditional associations between
Epicurus, Epicureanism, and atheism were made. By 1700 there were impor-
tant aspects of Epicurean natural and moral philosophy that were no longer
directly or easily equated with atheism. If Epicurus was not exactly viewed as
Casaubons saint, he was no longer universally identified as an atheist.
Furthermore, as we shall see at length in Chapter 7, many clergymen who
argued against atheism between 1690 and 1720 developed a new apologetic
strategy based on a more hedonic account of personal happiness they thought
no Epicurean could refuse.

163 Ibid., 415.

chapter 4

Anti-Atheist Plato

For a group of very influential seventeenth-century Cambridge-trained clergy-

men, Plato the theist provided the ancient foil to Epicurus the atheist. The
Cambridge Platonists1 tended to view the apostle Paul himself as a kind of
Platonist. They also viewed the Platonists and Neoplatonists of antiquity as
pagan philosophers who in many important ways anticipated and echoed
Paul. Nor were these Cambridge divines alone in their combination of Platonic
and Christian wisdom. Sir James Thornhills original drawings of Paul on
Areopagus (figure11), created in the competition over the commission for the
cupola of St Pauls Cathedral, drew upon Raphaels depiction of Plato in his
School of Athens, imaging Paul as a second Plato.2
Three of the most influential Cambridge Platonists, Henry More (16141687),
John Smith (16181652), and Ralph Cudworth (16171688) drew heavily on classi-
cal Platonic and Neoplatonic arguments and their vision of Christian antiquity
in order to articulate a powerful and widely influential set of confutations of
atheism between 1650 and 1680. Although the Cambridge Platonists have been
studied frequently, their central opposition to atheism has been neglected.3 In
the broadest terms they each constructed a Platonist defence of God and the

1 The terminology is still imprecise regarding this loosely affiliated group, which often includes:
Henry More, Ralph Cudworth, Benjamin Whichcote, Peter Sterry, John Smith, Nathaniel
Culverwell, John Worthington, all fellows of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, at some point.
While the designation of Platonist is apt in that they all held Plato and Plotinus in high
regard, it should be noted that their thought drew heavily upon many aspects of ancient
philosophy, including Aristotelianism and Stoicism.
2 See T. Gibbon, Rhetoric (London, 1767); Longinus, On the Sublime, trans. W. Smith (London,
1739). Both engravings, by Charles Grignion and Gerard Vandergucht respectively, were based
on Thornhill.
3 Typically they have been studied for their rational theology. See, classically, J. Tulloch,
Rational Theology and Christian Philosophy in England in the Seventeenth Century, vol. 2: The
Cambridge Platonists (London: William Blackwood, 1872); J.A. Passmore, Ralph Cudworth: An
Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951); R.L. Collie, Light and Enlightenment:
A Study of the Cambridge Platonists and Dutch Arminians (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1957); A. Lichtenstein, Henry More: The Rational Theology of a Cambridge Platonist
(Cambridge, ma: Harvard University Press, 1962); C.A. Patrides, ed., The Cambridge Platonists
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969); E. Cassirer, The Platonic Renaissance in
England, trans. J.P. Pettegrove (New York: Gordian Press, 1970).

koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2015|doi 10.1163/9789004288164_006

138 chapter 4

Figure11 J. Thornhill, St Paul Preaching at Athens, 1720.

Tate, London 2014. Reproduced by permission.
Anti-atheist Plato 139

Christian religion from reason, nature, and revelation. Their confutation was
directed against the threat of materialist atheism which they associated with
Epicurus and Lucretius, and with their modern revivers such as Hobbes and
Spinoza. As we will see, Henry More articulated many of the arguments of con-
futational literature in combination with a Platonist, a priori, metaphysical
defence of God influenced by Ren Descartes, an a posteriori defence of God
from natural theology which drew upon recent developments in natural philoso-
phy, and a historical-critical defence of the spiritual realm which used stories
and testimony about diabolical activity such as witchcraft. John Smith wrote
against atheism by drawing upon an explicitly Platonist understanding of virtue
and of virtues relationship to the development of Christian character. For Smith,
the centrally important ethical issue in terms of combating atheism was the
attainment of a good character and the practice of Christian virtue in direct con-
trast to atheist doctrines advocated by alleged Epicureans. Finally, Ralph
Cudworth attacked every version of classical atheism he could name from a
Platonist perspective, and in the process he also confuted what he saw as their
revival by contemporary figures such as Hobbes and Spinoza. For these three
Cambridge divines, then, Paul and Plato together pointed the way to a heavenly
wisdom which undergirded the City of God, in stark contrast to the vicious and
unreasonable atheism which focused exclusively on the City of Man.

(i) A Platonists Antidote to Atheism: Henry More

Henry Mores 1652/3 Antidote Against Atheisme was constructed as a confutation

organized around three basic arguments, each of which inflected important
aspects of seventeenth-century confutation discourse with significant elements
of Platonism. Book i of the Antidote embraced Descartes ontological proof for
the existence of God, but did so in terms of a more Platonic apprehension of
truth. Book ii of the Antidote moved from an a priori to an a posteriori argument
that proved Gods ordering of the natural universe by traversing the ladder of
being and explicating the Spirit of Nature, a Platonic intermediary that oper-
ated as a kind of immaterial nature between God and matter. While book iii of
the Antidote catalogued a series of stories that testified to the existence of the
spiritual realm by relying on what More believed to be credible testimony.
The Antidote Against Atheisme was popular enough to be republished five
times in 60 years, 1652/3, 1655, 1662, 1679, and 1712.4 During the ten years

4 For general studies of More see: R. Crocker, Henry More, 16141687: A Biography of the
Cambridge Platonist (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2003); A.R. Hall, Henry More: Magic, Religion and
140 chapter 4

between its first and third editions the Antidote underwent some significant
changes. It was initially published during the civil wars and shortly after
Thomas Hobbes Leviathan appeared in print in 1651. The Antidotes original
preface attacked the interregnum concerns of atheism and religious enthusi-
asm as equally dangerous threats to orthodoxy, and they were linked together
as errors of material sensuality.5 The Antidote was corrected and extended in
the third edition of 1662 by increasing the number of arguments drawn from
the order and harmony of nature, many of which were derived from the new
natural philosophy, and by expanding the number of spiritual histories.6 These
extensions and emendations included several new sections in Book ii discuss-
ing Mores own conclusions from the recent air-pump experiments of Robert
Boyle, an expansion which entrenched the challenge More issued to supposed
atheists like Hobbes and to the allegedly pernicious effects of a strict adher-
ence to a determinist mechanical materialism.7
In order to confute a mechanical materialist such as Hobbes, Mores first
move in the Antidote was to demonstrate the fundamental importance of cor-
rectly understanding human nature. In particular, More was concerned to defend

Experiment (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990); S. Hutton, ed., Henry More (16141687) Tercentenary
Studies (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1990); G.A.J. Rogers, J.M. Vienne, Y.C. Zarka, eds., The Cambridge
Platonists in Philosophical Context: Politics, Metaphysics and Religion (Dordrecht: Kluwer,
1997). For the immediate biographical context of the Antidotes publication and its relation-
ship to Lady Anne Conway, see S. Hutton, Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher (Cambridge:
Cambridge University, 2004), 7393. Printing of the Antidote actually took place in December
of 1652 and January 1653 so that some copies have 1652 as their publication date, and others
1653. See Crocker, Henry More, 236, n7.
5 H. More, An Antidote Against Atheisme: or, An Appeal to the Natural Faculties of the Minde of
Man, whether there Be Not a God (London, 1652/3), Preface. With the publication of the third
edition in 1662, the preface dropped any substantive mention of enthusiasm because More
had addressed it in a separate work within his Collected Philosophical Writings.
6 In the Philosophical Writings of 1662 the Antidote is followed by the Brief discourse of
Enthusiasm, originally published in 1659.
7 H. More, Of the Immortality of the Soul, in Collection of Several Philosophical Writings, vol. 2
(London, 1662), 5. For contemporary reactions to Hobbes and Hobbes religious views used
here, see: M. Goldie, The Reception of Hobbes, in The Cambridge History of Political Thought:
14501700, eds., J.H. Burns and M. Goldie (Cambridge, 1991), 589615; S.I. Mintz, The Hunting
of Leviathan: Seventeenth-century Reactions to the Materialism and Moral Philosophy of
Thomas Hobbes (Oxford, 1965); Q. Skinner, The Context of Hobbes Theory of Political
Obligation, in Visions of Politics: vol. iii, Hobbes and Civil Science (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2002), 26486; R. Tuck, Hobbes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996);
M.Heyd, Be Sober and Reasonable: The Critique of Enthusiasm in the Seventeenth and Early
Eighteenth Centuries (New York: Brill, 1995).
Anti-atheist Plato 141

the proper use of the human faculties. The atheist erred in using his faculties
because he had been perverted by the kinds of sin repeatedly identified in
early modern confutation discourse: pride, wit, and libertinism. More attempted
to humble the atheists pride by addressing the atheist on his own naturalist
terms. In order to do so he diagnosed the sense in which atheism was a disease
of the Soul.8 An atheist was the embodiment of natural disorder, from which
nothing but error could ensue, since his faculties were clouded by sin. These
distempers were all the more concerning because of the greater liberty men
exercised in matters of opinion, especially the freer perusal of matters of
Religion since the Reformation, which only enabled an even more widespread
perversion of the faculties. In being an external imitation of religion, religious
error such as superstition paved the way to atheism and to its sensual compan-
ion, libertinism. Both brutish sensuality and untamed desire, in turn, sup-
pressed the true fear and love of God, the wringings of Conscience, and the
fear of being accountable before that great Tribunall. Furthermore, psychoso-
matic maladies such as melancholy poisoned natural conscience and pre-
vented the full assent of a free and unprejudiced mind.9
Mores prescription for atheisms cure in the Antidote was a series of clarify-
ing arguments in a Cartesian-Platonist vein which aimed to prove the exis-
tence of the idea of God in the mind of man. To this end, he began with the
evidence of personal conscience and universal consent. It would be ludicrous,
More wrote echoing many of his contemporaries, for all of mankind to worship
a being of which he had no idea, and pointless if religious passion was
ultimately false; as Aristotle rightly noted, nature did nothing in vain. Even
erroneous conceptions of the idea of God, like the idolatry of pagan worship,
attested to universal consent. Furthermore, the Natural remorse of Conscience
revealed an innate imprint of the idea of God in mans Rationall Faculties.
Human nature was endowed with certain cognitive faculties that, when
reflected upon, led man to reason that God existed and that there must be a
true religion. Christianity was the true religion precisely because it accorded
with the proper use of reason and the natural human faculties.10

8 H. More, An Antidote Against Atheisme: An Appeal to the Natural Faculties of the Mind of
Man, whether there Be Not a God, in cspw, i, 141. All subsequent references are to this
9 More, Antidote, 910. A similar point had been made by R. Burton in The Anatomy of
Melancholy, vol. 3 (Oxford, 1621), 379. See A. Gowland, The problem of Early Modern
Melancholy, Past and Present 191 (2006): 77120; J. Schmidt, Melancholy and the Care of
the Soul: Religion, Moral Philosophy and Madness in Early Modern England (London:
Ashgate, 2007).
10 More, Antidote, 27, 301; idem, Preface General, in cspw, i, iv, vi.
142 chapter 4

In the Antidote atheism therefore signified a moral and an intellectual fail-

ure attributed to a faulty, sinful character. To understand the scope of this fail-
ure we need to follow Mores argument from its classical premises. In his ethical
system, worked out in Latin in the Enchiridion Ethicum of 1668 and translated
into English in 1690 as An Account of Virtue, More connected moral failure with
physical failure, and both with error, in a view which paralleled his confutation
of atheism. The Account defined ethics as the art of living well or happily. And
in order to be happy, one must know and practice virtue. In order for man to
know and practice virtue he must understand his nature correctly. Thus
Happiness is that pleasure which the mind takes in from a Sense of Virtue,
and a Conscience of Well-doing; and of conforming in all things to the Rules of
both. More warned against equating happiness with the merely sensual plea-
sure of Epicureans and atheists: happiness was an affinity, a fitness, and a
Platonic restitution of a being to its essential nature.11 Where human beings
were concerned, this fitness, excellence, or virtue was characterized by the rule
of right reason. For More, human beings were born with a rational, immortal
soul, and in order to act in accordance with reason, and thus with nature, men
and women must understand the immortal soul correctly.12 As he put it:
Happiness is not barely to be placed in the Intellect; but her proper Seat must
be called the Boniform Faculty of the Soul: namely, a Faculty of that divine
Composition, and supernatural Texture, as enables us to distinguish not only
what is simply and absolutely the best, but to relish it, and to have pleasure in
that alone.13 More identified what is simply and absolutely the best with an
essential good. Following Plato and Plotinus, these vital goods were to be
judged by the inward life of reason, the sense implanted by the Boniform
Faculty. Christian right reason therefore ruled over the passions and desires in
accordance with an intellectual, beatific pleasure, for to act at the behest of
anything other than reason automatically produced error, including the error
of atheism.14
In neither the Antidote nor the Account did More attempt to defend the
epistemological veracity of the rational faculties. Instead, he concentrated on
explicating the truths reached when the natural human faculties were used
correctly. The first and most important conclusion of the natural faculties,

11 H. More, An Account of Virtue (London, 1690), 4, 5. Cf. J. Scheewind, The Invention of

Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1998), 2025.
12 More referred the reader here to his work Of the Immortality of the Soul.
13 More, Account, 6.
14 Ibid., 122; More says so explicitly within a Platonist discussion of justice as true piety.
Anti-atheist Plato 143

unsurprisingly, was the demonstration of the existence of God. According to

the Antidote, Gods existence was as clearly demonstrable as any Theorum in
Mathematickswinning as firm and as universall Assent.15 Following Descartes,
More argued that the idea of God was like a geometrical demonstration. They
were both eternal Characters of the Minde of Man or, alternatively, indelible
Ideas in the Soul of Man discoverable through an easie and clear Method. In
the Account of Virtue More defined one of the chief virtues, prudence, as with-
holding assent until clear and distinct ideas were present in the mind.16 Only
then could the correct deliberation be made and the consequent action deter-
mined. Disordered persons such as atheists were imprudent because they for-
sook the free use of the natural Faculties.17 Instead of reasoning about nature
by correctly using the faculties in accordance with right reason, atheists impru-
dently and viciously used their disordered faculties to endorse error. Only the
true suppositions of right reason, More insisted, could properly combat the
Gigantick batteries raised against the belief of the existence of God.18
In the preface to A Collection of Several Philosophical Writings of 1662 More
wrote that the best method for the proper use of the rational faculties con-
sisted of an interweaving of Platonisme and Cartesianisme.19 Consequently,
he advised a pursuit of truth through a Platonic ascent up the ladder of being,
culminating in Divine Sagacity.20 In the Antidote specifically, More con-
structed a traditional a priori ontological argument derived simultaneously
from Plato, Plotinus, and the recent arguments of Descartes. A similar ascent
was sketched in the Account of Virtue for the practical purposes of Christian
virtue. It is important to note here that Descartes Meditations was originally
written after the style of religious devotional literature, but employed for cog-
nitive rather than spiritual purposes. The Meditations aimed to prove rather
than to contemplate the existence of God. Descartes had adopted the devo-
tional style because it required one to turn away from what appeared true

15 More, Antidote, Epistle Dedicatory, 13.

16 More, Account, 210.
17 More, Preface, 13, 134. The insistence on the proper use of the natural faculties is con-
stantly reiterated. In the space of 2 pages in Book i, Chapter 9, More repeats the same
point 3 times.
18 More, Antidote, Preface.
19 The notion of weaving was itself a Platonic theme. Cf. Platos Statesman, 283b, 308d-e; for
an account of ethical interweaving see T. Penner, Socrates and the Early Dialogues, in
The Cambridge Companion to Plato, ed. R. Kraut (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1991), 143.
20 More, Preface General, in cspw, i, iv, vi, ix.
144 chapter 4

according the senses, and instead to reason correctly by clearing the mind.21 It
therefore made a great deal of sense from Mores perspective to adopt Descartes
introspective, meditational, Platonist approach.22 In the Antidote More con-
stantly reiterated the importance of the proper use of the faculties, clearing
the mind of all manner of prejudices in order to discern truth.
The ascent up the Platonic ladder of truth produced what More called con-
victive arguments that demanded full assent. While such arguments did not
constitute insurmountable proofs, they did have what More regarded as
theoverwhelming support of probability.23 An example of such a convictive

21 G. Hatfield, Descartes and the Meditations (New York: Routledge, 2003), 412. More,
Preface General, in cspw, i, ix, 3: More followed Descartes First Argument Only, i.e. the
Third Meditation, not the Fifth Meditation.
22 Mores notion of a convictive argument was part of what Charles Taylor has called the
inward turn of the Cambridge Platonists, characterized by the adoption of modes of
philosophical devotion that sought to approach God through spiritual meditation:
Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited (Cambridge, ma: Harvard University
Press, 2003), 16. This inward alternative took shape fairly early in Mores intellectual
career, when he published his Platonist poetry Pychodia Platonica (1642) and Philoso
phical Poems (1647) and introduced the new philosophy of Descartes to Christs College,
Cambridge (J. Gascoigne, Cambridge in the Age of Enlightenment [Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1994], 2739, 52.) More was enthusiastic about the Cartesian method
because it demonstrated to him the limits of materialist natural philosophy (Hall, 149). In
his correspondence with Descartes (16489), More expressed concern about the implica-
tions of materialism for the world of spirit, but would only later realize this danger when
thinkers like Spinoza appropriated the Cartesian method for atheism. But Descartes pro-
vided the initial philosophical impetus for demonstrating Gods existence, and the
domain of spirit in general, which More continued to make use of from the Antidotes first
publication in 1652 to the last decade of his life, including the Conjectura Cabbalistica
(1653), Of the Immortality of the Soul (1659), his attack on Spinoza and Spinozism in the
Confutatio, and his elaboration of metaphysics and ethics in the Enchiridion ethicum
(1667) and the Enchiridion metaphysicum (1671). See Henry Mores Refutation of Spinoza,
ed. A. Jacob (New York: Olms, 1991) for a translation of the text of the Confutatio and com-
mentary. See also, Collie; J. Cottingham, Force, Motion and Causality: Mores Critique of
Descartes, in Cambridge Platonists in Philosophical Context, 15968; S. Hutton, Reason
and Revelation in the Cambridge Platonists, and their reception of Spinoza, in Spinoza in
der Frhzeit seiner Religisen Wirkung, eds., K. Grder et al. (Heidelburg: Schneider, 1984),
23 For More, divine order was overwhelmingly more probable than chance, and was meant
to lend further credence to the convictive nature of his argument. The distinction
between three kinds of demonstration mathematical, physical, moral was one com-
monly made in response to atheist opponents. Cf. B. Shapiro, Probability and Certainty in
Seventeenth-century England: A Study of the Relationships between Natural Science, Religion,
Anti-atheist Plato 145

argument was Gods creation of the universe. If a firm and unshaken assent
could be achieved in this regard, an atheist could not possibly weaken this con-
viction with a counter-argument.24 To sceptically suspend assent here would
be a forced and perverse violation of the naturall faculties. The first step in
this convictive argument was to note that the atheist actually confirmed the
presence of the idea of God by referring to that idea in his refutation, a com-
mon anti-atheist confutation tactic. In doubting the existence of something it
was necessary to have some settled Notion of the thing he doubts or denies.
This shared Idea, which More called connatural, was present in the mind in
the same way as the idea of a perfect Euclidian triangle. The ideal triangle did
not exist in nature, but man possessed the idea of the perfect triangle in spite
of its material non-existence. More thought that a similar relationship existed
between the observed universe and the perfect idea of God. This idea was both
naturall and essentiall and cannot be washt out. The presence of the con-
natural idea of God also entailed an apprehension of its unique attributes,
which included:

Self-subsistency, Immateriality, Infinity as well of Duration as Essence,

Immensity of Goodness, Omnisciency, Imnipotency, and Necessity of
Existence. Let this therefore be the Description of a Being absolutely
Perfect, That it is a Spirit, Eternall, Infinite in Essence and Goodness,
Omniscient, Omnipotent, and of it self necessarily existent.25

No reasonable scruples could be raised against Gods necessary existence unless

the reader was prepared to wink against our own naturall light. Conversely,
the suggestion that matter necessarily existed repulsed More because it implied
that if any thing can exist independently of God, all things may.26 As we have
seen, many anti-atheist confutations argued that atheists simply took the attri-
butes traditionally ascribed to God and applied them to nature.
In order for the attributes of God to be useful to Mores explanation of
nature and spirit, he addressed several possible atheist objections. One such
objection, supported very recently by Hobbes, denied the rationality of the

History, Law, and Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 84; I. Hacking,
The Emergence of Probability : A Philosophical Study of Early Ideas about Probability,
Induction and Statistical Inference, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
24 More, Antidote, 102.
25 Ibid., 13, 14.
26 More, Antidote, 22, 336; Hall, Henry More, 167.
146 chapter 4

concept of incorporeal substance. This obviously called the orthodox notions

of spirit, soul, and God into question.27 More responded by noting what he
considered to be the parallel conceptual difficulties in demonstrating the exis-
tence of corporeal substances. The conceptual understanding of spirit was, in
his view, actually less problematic than that of matter. For More there were two
options: extended matter consists of either indivisible points, or of particles
divisible in infinitum. If matter consists of points, then it seemed to follow
that the tallest Cedar is not so high as the lowest Mushrome; if matter con-
sisted of infinitely divisible parts, then the grain of a Mustard-seed would be
as well infinitely extended, as the whole Matter of the Universe. These two
views were supposed to show that matter itself could not be rationally concep-
tualized by extension alone. Something was only adequately conceptualized
by naming its essential properties, and in this regard the nature of a Spirit is as
conceivable, and easy to be defind as the nature of anything else. Spirit pos-
sessed such properties as Self-penetration, Self-Motion, Self-contraction and
Dilatation, and Indivisibility as well as the power of Penetrating, Moving and
Altering the Matter. This contrasted perfectly with body, whose parts cannot
penetrate one another, is not Self-moveable, nor can contract nor dilate it self,
is divisible and separable one part from another.28 Thus matter and spirit were
equally intelligible and simply occupied the opposite ends of a conceptual
spectrum. In Mores view only someone as obstinately stubborn as Hobbes
would find this difficult to accept.
But how could the mind know the properties of matter and spirit in the first
place? To answer this question More turned to the soul. Was it endowed with
innate ideas or was it an Abrasa Tabula, a Table-book in which nothing is
writ? Both the example of the triangle and the idea of God would seem to rule
in favour of innate ideas, or what More called, in Platonist language, actuall
Knowledge or quick recollection. The Mind of Man being joggd and awak-
ened by the impulses of outward Objects, is stirred up into a more full and
clear conception of what was but imperfectly hinted to her from externall
occasions.29 In other words, the mind was furnished with a range of essential,
eternal, immutable truths not dependent on sense.
Confuting the mechanical materialist on these terms was an important
aspect of Mores argument. In Leviathan Hobbes had argued that matters

27 T. Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck (Cambridge, 1996), 778; Mintz, 6379. Cf. J. Henry,
A Cambridge Platonists Materialism: Henry More on the Concept of Soul, Journal of the
Warburg and Courtald Institutes, 49 (1986): 17295.
28 More, Antidote, 147; see also Mores replies to further objections in the Appendix, 162.
29 Ibid., 189, 17.
Anti-atheist Plato 147

motion was perfectly accountable in terms of cause and effect that only
required some distant first cause. Searching for a spiritual or incorporeal
cause of matters motion was both pointless and contradictory if the mind of
man was incapable of understanding what an incorporeal substance was in
the first place.30 More countered what he took to be the argument of a materi-
alist like Hobbes, who claimed that matter could exist independently of God,
and that the soul was nothing other than Modification of the Body, and not a
Substance distinct, precisely because it implied that the body was the source
of its own motion. More asked: to what in the body will you attribute
Spontaneous Motion? Notably, he rejected animal spirits and Descartes sug-
gestion of the pineal gland.31
More believed that he had cornered the Hobbesian materialist because
causal infinite regression raised more questions than it answered. In a short
Appendix attached to the second edition of the Antidote in 1655, More pre-
sented his Platonist solution to the problem of mind-matter dualism in what
he called the Spirit of Nature or Hylopathy:

A power in a Spirit of offering so near to a corporeal emanation from the

Center of life, that it will so perfectly fill the receptivity of Matter into
which it has penetrated, that it is very difficult or impossible for any other
Spirit to possess the same; and therefore of becoming hereby so firmly
and closely united to a Body, as both to actuate and to be acted upon, to
affect and be affected thereby.

This spirits material efficacy was like the power of creating Matter which is
necessarily included in the Idea of God.32 We have already seen that spirit and
matter were parts of Mores conceptual continuum. He also conceived a kind
of Extension in the nature of a Spirit.33 Both body and spirit were spatially
extended, but where body was inert, solid, and divisible, spirit was active, pen-
etrable, and indivisible. Thus Mores Spirit of Nature was responsible for the
motion of the universe in the same way that the human soul was responsible

30 Hobbes, Leviathan, 77.

31 More, Antidote, 33. This was a reference to Descartes suggestion that the connection
between body and spirit takes place in what we call the pineal gland. R. Descartes, The
Passions of the Soule in Three Books, [trans. Anon.] (London, 1650). More also followed this
work at several points in his Account of Virtue, particularly Book ii.
32 More, Appendix, in cspw, i, 153. Cf. L. M. Principe, The Scientific Revolution (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2011), 312.
33 More, Preface General, in cspw, i, xii.
148 chapter 4

for the motion of the human body.34 Furthermore, this hylopathic principle
guided general providence and thereby removed the necessitarianism from
the axioms and Laws posited by strict mechanists such as Hobbes. In contrast
to mechanical determinism the Spirit of Nature upheld only the general laws
of nature through which it maintained Superintendancy.35 Nature retained
its order, in other words, including the operation of gravity and the vital con-
gruity that enabled soul-body interaction, through the hylopathic principle.36
More explained the power of the Spirit of Nature by appealing to the case of
the magnet which acted through sympathy. The power of sympathy and antip-
athy was for More, as for many of his contemporaries, an active principle
between entities which shared a likeness that enabled an explanation of what
was otherwise inexplicable on the materialists terms.37 Of the Immortality of
the Soul contained Mores account of how the Spirit of Nature represented a
way out of the materialists causal regression ad infinitum. It was:

A substance incorporeal, but without Sense and Animadversion, pervad-

ing the whole Matter of the Universe, and exercising a plastical power
therein according to the sundry predispositions and occasions in the
parts it works upon, raising such Phaenomena in the World, by directing
the parts of the Matter and their Motion, as cannot be resolved into meer
Mechanical powers.38

All the phenomena of the natural world which lacked an explanation on

mechanical materialist terms were therefore conceptually explicable under
this plastical power.
The Antidote constructed a bridge between the realm of spirit and matter by
connecting the naturalists physical world to the philosophers Platonist ontol-
ogy. If spirit was extended incorporeal substance, as More claimed, it remained
a part of the naturalists world. But like many other aspects of human knowl-
edge, it was not dependent upon sense-perception. The Spirit of Nature was
a major component of Mores response to the Epicurean-Hobbesian challenge,
and thus to the confutation of atheism as he perceived it. More insisted that
the Epicurean must admit that the fundamental basis of knowledge rested on

34 More, Antidote, 36.

35 Hall, 115.
36 More, Preface General, in cspw, i, xvi, xv; idem, Antidote, 43.
37 P. Harrison, The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1998), 53, 89, 253; Principe, 301.
38 More, Immortality of the Soul, 193.
Anti-atheist Plato 149

immaterial ideas and not on materialist sense. To deny access to the rational
faculties would be equivalent to denying all the other senses except that of
sight while trying to explain the phenomena of air, wind, and thunder. To More
it was clear that everyone recognized that man employed the use of reason to
correct the senses. When we look at the sun or the moon we do not, with
Epicurus, think that they are actually the size that they appear to us. Instead
we make use of the stronger faculty of reason over the weaker faculty of
sense to form a correct judgment.39 Thus, even the mere naturalist could see
that human nature was equipped with non-sense-based faculties for connect-
ing the spiritual and material.
The same appeal to the full range of human faculties underwrote Mores
argument against atheism based on the supernatural and the miraculous. Here
Mores arguments from natural theology shared many features with his fellow
religious apologists, including Robert Boyle. But his arguments were made
from the perspective of a philosophical theologian, not an experimental natu-
ral philosopher. Unlike the cautious Boyle, More boldly embraced a Platonist-
Cartesian approach in order to overtly connect the spiritual and the material,
the macrocosmic and the microcosmic, the human and the divine. In his own
estimation Mores explication of ordinary and extraordinary effects of nature
immeasurably heightened the improbability of the atheists claim that the
natural world was a product of Epicurean chaos or chance. While Boyle and
other natural philosophers of the period understood their experimental activi-
ties as an apologia for Anglican orthodoxy in a probabilistic fashion, showcas-
ing the wonders of divine providence in nature, More made explicit links
between the natural and the supernatural through a Platonism that appeared
increasingly unjustified to many practitioners of experimental natural philos-
ophy in late seventeenth-century England.40

39 More, Antidote, 245, 28, 301.

40 See R.A. Greene, Henry More and Robert Boyle on the Spirit of Nature, Journal of the
History of Ideas 23 (1962), 45174; J.J. MacIntosh, Boyle on Epicurean Atheism and
Atomism, in Atoms, Pnuema, and Tranquility: Epicurean and Stoic Themes in European
Thought, ed., M.J. Osler (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 207; Gascoigne,
523; M. Hunter, The Debate over Science, in Science and the Shape of Orthodoxy: Intel
lectual Change in Late Seventeenth-Century Britain (Woodbridge, 1995), 1019; idem,
Science and Heterodoxy: An Early Modern Problem Reconsidered, in Shape of Ortho
doxy, 22544; A. Funkenstein, Theology and the Scientific Imagination from the Middle
Ages to the Seventeenth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986); Hacking,
7384; M.C. Jacob, Scientific Culture and the Making of the Industrial West (Oxford, 1997),
5172; Shapiro, 1573, 1117.
150 chapter 4

More attempted to link these overarching natural and supernatural rela-

tionships by embarking on an observational voyage in Book ii of the Antidote
in order to explore the full range of natural phenomenon and thereby confute
the atheists absurd argument from chance. From Book Is a priori Platonist
ontology, Book ii shifted to an a posteriori natural theology. More expanded his
confutation of self-moving matter by arguing against the Epicurean doctrine
that chaotic atomism produced the variety of appearance in Nature. Some
other principle must exist to make these varieties to appear because matter
was inert and stupid of it self: it must be moved from some other. This
other must be God or at least a Spiritual Substance actuating the Matter
such as the Spirit of Nature. Together these imply a Principle of Wisdome
and Counsel in the Author of them. Using the faculties correctly the naturalist
was compelled to declare that the whole Creation in general and every part
thereof [is] so ordered as if the most exquisite Reason and Knowledge had
contrived it.41
The natural theology of Book ii was consistent with the direction of early
modern confutation discourse and More drew heavily upon the most recent
scientific theories, however much he distorted them in so doing, in order to
strengthen his antidote to the epidemic of atheism. The celestial observations
of Galileo, the experimental investigations of Boyle, and the microcosmic
world opened up by the microscope and illustrated by Robert Hooke, all pro-
vided More and his contemporaries, including his friend Joseph Glanvill, with
the ammunition for rejecting what More called the heterogeneal Chaos of
confusion underlying the atheist Epicurean account of matter. Quite simply
and traditionally, the book of nature supplemented the textual authority of the
book of God.42 In Mores case the order and harmony of nature based on the
probable and demonstrable arguments of natural science confirmed the Plato
nic order and harmony of the universe and his Neoplatonist intermediary
between matter and spirit, the Spirit of Nature. The Mind of God, not chaos,
impressed order on the motion of atoms. Indeed, More insisted that this was
the only reason the universe was intelligible at all. Divine artifice manifested
itself to mans rational faculties through the contemplation of nature.43
A central feature of the traditional Christian view of cosmic order was prov-
idence. Epicurean chaos could not explain the structure and operation of
macrocosmic or microcosmic nature that displayed a special fitness for mans
existence and happiness. The very axis of the Earth and the trajectory of its

41 More, Antidote, 368, 85.

42 Cf. S. Shapin, The Scientific Revolution (Chicago, 1996), 6580, 13542.
43 More, Antidote, 39.
Anti-atheist Plato 151

motions, to cite but two examples from Mores very long list, demonstrated this
point conclusively.44 To take a more famous example, More asked his readers
to consider that noble and ingenious Gentlemans Experiments of his Aire-
pump. Adding Robert Boyles experiments to later editions of the Antidote,
More emphasized the ways in which both the concept of gravity and the vac-
uum demonstrated Gods providential governance of the material universe via
spirit.45 Gravity not only attested to the marvelous power of Unity and
Indiscerpibility in the Spirit of Nature, but also to the ordering and guiding of
the Motion of Matter in the Universe to what is for the best.46 Even though
Hobbes and Boyle would famously dispute about the conclusions of the air-
pump experiment, More thought it was evident that the result of the experi-
ment was itself a confutation of Atheists and Epicureans.47 The large-scale
fitness of the universe matched a design that pervaded the natural tableaux,
from man at the apex all the way down to animals, plants and inanimate mat-
ter. More spent considerable time in the Antidote examining the features of
plant and animal life that John Ray and other naturalists would later put into
classic form, since not only were plants and animals useful in various ways, and
complex in their makeup, but they displayed signatures in the outward
Shape and Fabrick of their Bodies, the clear marks of a divine mind that
should be convincing to any Atheist.48
Like many of his contemporaries, More saw the observational conclusions
of the new natural philosophy as further support for the truth of the Christian
religion and the demonstration of the existence of God. We have already
seen that confutations of atheism often repeated the statement of the apos-
tle Paul in the epistle to the Romans, where invisible things of him from the
creation of the world were evidenced in the things that are made. More
adopted this natural theological outlook quite early, and although it was sub-
sumed in a Platonist vision, his attitude, in so far as it was directed against
atheism, was widely shared at the time. In addition to the evident signs of the
animal and plant world which revealed Gods existence in their makeup,
More thought providence had also endowed nature with all sorts of Materials

44 Ibid., 412.
45 Mores conclusions upset Boyle enough to begin a pamphlet exchange on the subject.
More drew conclusions that Boyle did not think warranted. See: Crocker, 15766.
46 More, Antidote, 43.
47 See the now classic account in S. Schaeffer and S. Shapin, Leviathan and the Air-Pump:
Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985);
More, Antidote, 46, 47.
48 See C.E. Raven, John Ray: Naturalist, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, 1950); Harrison, 14; More,
Antidote, 2, 45, 567, 701.
152 chapter 4

fit for Man to exercise his skill on. The exercise of such skill employed mans
reason artificially, enabling him to contemplate the use and beauty of the
created world.49 Most importantly, man was himself the unique creature
within the universe, a particularly apt specimen in which to find the external
evidence of Gods providential creation. More even went so far as to apply
what must be one of the most amusing a posteriori arguments ever uttered,
the godly design of the human posterior: the hindmost parts of our body
which we sit upon [is] most fleshy, as providing for our Ease, and making us
a natural Cushion!50
Writing an apology for the Christian religion against atheism in England in
the 1650s, clergymen such as More perceived no greater threat, no set of argu-
ments more necessary to engage, than those of Hobbes. It was partly in
response to Hobbes that More had constructed his Antidote in the first place,
differing as they did in their conceptions of what it meant to argue as natural-
ists. For Hobbes, such reasoning dealt only in matter, and ruled out the realm
of spirit as a representative example of circular reasoning and insignificant
speech; for More, such reasoning not only reaffirmed the spiritual realm, it
demonstrated its necessary existence. The Leviathan explicitly promulgated
several important doctrines that More sought to contest in the Antidote,
including mechanical materialism and naturalist biblical criticism. Hobbes
famously opened Leviathan by asserting that life was but a motion of limbs,
arguing that all sense and activity in the brain was generated by the impression
of the motion of externall things upon our sense organs.51 In order to avoid
an infinite regress of causes, Hobbes argued in Chapter 12, Of Religion, there
must be (as even the heathen philosophers confessed) one First Mover; that is,
a First, and an Eternall cause of all things; which is that which men mean by
the name of God. But this first cause could not be understood in terms of
spirit. Hobbes argued that spirit defined as incorporeal substance was a con-
tradiction in terms and that a God so defined could not be a cause of the
motion of matter.52 Hobbes made similar remarks to Descartes in reply to
the Meditations: to say that God is independent is simply to say that God
belongs to the class of things such that I cannot imagine their origin. Similarly,
to say that God is infinite is the same as saying that he belongs to a class of
things such that we do not conceive of them as having bounds. It follows that
any idea of God is ruled out. For what sort of idea is it which has no origin and

49 Ibid., 48, 51, 58, 603.

50 More, Antidote, 49, 801.
51 Hobbes, Leviathan, 9, 14.
52 Ibid., 778.
Anti-atheist Plato 153

no limits?53 For Hobbes, God was only conceivable through natural reason as
a first cause and could not be a spirit or incorporeal substance.
In books iii and iv of Leviathan Hobbes applied similar reasoning to the
truths of the Christian religion and the sacred text upon which they were
based. In book iv, Of the Kingdome of Darknesse, he listed four general
sources of error regarding the doctrine of spirit as part of his diatribe against
priestcraft.54 Error, Hobbes declared, was introduced by putting the light out
of Scriptures; by the fanciful Daemonology of Heathen Poets that were noth-
ing but the phantasms of the Braine and lacked any reall nature of their
own; by mixing with the Scripture divers reliques of the Religion, and much
of the vain and erroneous Philosophy of the Greeks, especially that of Aristotle;
and by admitting false, or uncertain Traditions, and fained, or uncertain
History.55 Furthermore, Hobbes rejected the doctrine that mans salvation
depended on the existence of an incorporeal soul separate from mans body.
Instead he appealed to Gods power to resurrect the body and its material soul
at the Day of Judgment. No text of Scripture, nor any naturally existing thing,
can prove a necessity of a place for the Soule without the Body.56 In other
words, Hobbes denied the realm of spirit to be part of legitimate Christian doc-
trine, and instead argued that it was a derivation of pagan philosophy, history,
and mythology. Taken together, Hobbes philosophical and historical criticisms
directly challenged Mores position on human psychology, natural phenom-
ena, and spirit. The elaborations of books ii and iii of the Antidote Against
Atheisme in the decade after its initial publication can be read as entrenching
Mores arguments in response to Hobbes and the growing threat of atheist
materialism he represented to early modern religious apologists generally.57
In order to respond fully to Hobbes materialist challenge, and more gener-
ally to that of the obstinate & refractory atheist, Book iii of the Antidote pro-
vided what More regarded as a critical narrative of the history of spirit. In
doing so it avoided the realm of sacred history, including Biblical and patristic
miracles, which Hobbes and others had objected to because of their supposed
obscurity, in favour of credible examples based on contemporary testimony.

53 Third Set of Objections with Replies, in Rene Descartes, The Philosophical Writings of
Descartes, eds. J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff and D. Murdoch, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1984), 131.
54 J.A.I. Champion, The Pillars of Priestcraft Shaken: The Church of England and its Enemies,
16601730 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 1415.
55 Hobbes, Leviathan, 418.
56 Ibid., 425.
57 A. Cowley, The True Effigies of the Monster of Malmesbury, or, Thomas Hobbes in his Proper
Colours (London, 1680); J. Dowel, The Leviathan Heretical (Oxon, 1683).
154 chapter 4

These stories cannot be resolved into any Natural causes, or be phansied to

come by Chance, but are so Miraculous, that they do imply the presence of
some free subtile understanding Essence distinct from the brute Matter
and ordinary power of Nature.58 These spiritual histories also fortifie and
strengthen the faith of others and help repress excessive doubt by putting an
end tocontemptuous unbelief.59 As was repeated so often in anti-atheist dis-
course, to call the possibility of credible spiritual activity into question was
tantamount to rejecting the continuous history of miracles in plain defiance of
natural reason.
As Stuart Clark has shown, in the seventeenth century there was nothing
inconsistent or incompatible in the synthesis of science and demonology.60 In
Mores case, such a synthesis was crucial because it demonstrated how spirit
manifested itself in nature, whether through gravity or through demon posses-
sion. No barrier existed between the exploration of Gods ordinary concur-
rence with the natural world, and detailing the extraordinary and miraculous
through the history of spirit.61 In other words, there were ways to proceed as
a mere naturalist in the seventeenth century in order to buttress the credibil-
ity of spiritual histories. The content of such histories, demonstrating the his-
torical and philosophical reality of spirit and its presence in nature, relied not
only on a stock set of conceptions about miracles, prophecy, charms, and the
like, but also about witchcraft, possession, apparitions, demonology, and other
occult activities.62 Most of Book iii of the Antidote consists of reports that span
the range of early modern demonological phenomena. One of Mores testimo-
nies to the reality of spirit outlined the characteristics and operation of witch-
craft, for instance, including possession, fortune telling, and nocturnal

58 More, Antidote, 857.

59 Ibid., 142.
60 A. Coudert, Henry More and witchcraft, in Tercentenary Studies, 116; S. Schaeffer, Godly
Men and Mechanical Philosophers: Souls and Spirits in Restoration Philosophy, Science
in Context, 1 (1978): 5585; R.S. Westfall, The Construction of Modern Science: Mechanism
and Mechanics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971); M. Hunter, Science and Society
in Restoration England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).
61 More, Antidote, 88.
62 J. Sharpe, Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in England, 15501750 (London: Penguin,
1997); S. Clark, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995); R. Millen, The Manifestation of Occult Qualities
in the Scientific Revolution, in Religion, Science and Worldview, eds., M.J. Osler and
P.J.Farber (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 185216. On magic and science,
see C. Webster, Paracelsus to Newton: Magic and the Making of Modern Science (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1983).
Anti-atheist Plato 155

conventicles. With these examples More hoped to provide his reader with a
spiritual catalogue attesting to the apparent poverty of natural materialist
explanation. Apparitions, possessions, and witchcraft were presented as inex-
plicable events to the materialist atheist like Hobbes who had simply shut his
eyes to the empirical proof for the existence of spirit.63 Inquiry into these
records of history not only demonstrated the activity of the spiritual world,
but also acted as a kind of science of the spirit in a period in which demonol-
ogy worked as well as any other branch of physics.64 Lacking the ability to
conduct repeatable experiments, which was only just beginning to emerge as a
criterion of a scientific method, More referred instead to historical testimony.
Appealing critically to these stories meant establishing the truth based on an
empirical set of examples under the banner of confirming the miraculous.
Such miraculous activity was not regarded by More or most of his contempo-
raries as the evasion of causal explanation, but rather as a legitimate causal
account.65 In short, many of Mores readers would have read Book iii as a per-
fectly acceptable confutation of an alleged Epicurean materialist like Hobbes.66
This is not to say that what More or his fellow Cambridge divines wrote
went uncontested. Several members of the Royal Society regarded Mores work
as at best incomprehensible, and at worst a prop to heresy or atheism. In his
Free and Impartial Censure of the Platonick Philosophie (1666), a young Samuel
Parker explicitly attacked Platonic works like Mores for their obfuscation and
lack of scientific rigor. Parker sought to undermine and discredit the Fanatick
Fancy of Christian Platonism from the perspective of what he called Sober
and Practicable experimental philosophy, refusing to accept an interpreta-
tion of Scripture or nature based on murky appeals to the Mystical and
Allegorical.67 Other Royal Society members such as John Ray, in The Wisdom
of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation (1691), were more appreciative.
Ray developed Mores argument from design extensively, but he rejected the
metaphysical prioritizing of theology over philosophy, shunning the Platonist
interpretation of nature.68 Ray drew directly from Mores work, but he did so in
a way that was far more similar to the cautious approach of Boyle. Nonetheless,

63 More, Antidote, 89, 11921, 1336, 137; Shapiro, 212.

64 Clark, 160.
65 Sharpe, 2478; Clark, 160; Harrison, 1446.
66 See also J.A. Redwood, Reason, Ridicule and Religion: The Age of Enlightenment in England
16601750 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1976), 13454.
67 S. Parker, A Free and Impartial Account of the Platonick Philosophie (Oxford, 1666), Letter
Dedicatory, 2, 105.
68 J. Ray, The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation (London, 1691), 85
156 chapter 4

when More confuted atheism through the known and unalterable Ideas of the
Mind and the Phaenomena of Nature and Records of History, it was a pat-
tern of argument that appealed to many of his contemporaries and, especially
in the case of his Cambridge colleagues, was frequently repeated.69

(ii) A Platonists Ascent against Atheism: John Smith

John Smiths work was dedicated to explicating the intellectual groundwork of

spiritual practice in a similar way to Mores Antidote Against Atheisme and
Account of Virtue combined. In his confutation of atheism, Smith navigated
between the intellectual and the practical through the medium of personal
character. John Worthington, Smiths Cambridge colleague, put Smiths writ-
ings before the Restoration reading public precisely because of their promo-
tion of virtuous Christian practice. In keeping with an important trend in
Anglican theology which moved away from an exclusive focus on the puritan
themes of sin and grace and towards a practical moral theology, Smiths moral
discourses united a concern for virtuous piety with Platonic apprehension of
divine truth which sustained piety through personal character. Published in
1660 and 1673, Smiths Select Discourses joined Mores work in confuting athe-
ism by describing the formation and operation of personal character as the
means by which truth was correctly apprehended.
Worthington arranged Smiths work so that it began with a description of
the relationship between personal character and truth, demonstrating their
interrelatedness prior to any quasi-Cartesian worries about truths correct
apprehension. For Smith, this interrelationship enabled a good person to fol-
low the Delphic inscription, imitating the exemplar of Socrates by reflecting
on ones soul. Such reflection not only revealed the nature of the soul and its
relationship to the body, but also the archetypes from which all knowledge
derived, including God. In the course of this Delphic quest the twin errors of
atheism were identified by Smith as the defects of a depraved and disordered
character. This had been Epicurus mistake, Smith argued in Plutarchan fash-
ion, and in Christians it represented the sin of prioritizing bodily sense over
the spiritual ascent towards divine truth.
The Select Discourses contains 12 parts, beginning with a Platonic theory of
knowledge that moves into a Plutarchan critique of superstition and atheism,
followed by an investigation of the nature of the soul, the nature and existence
of God, and a series of closing essays on prophecy, righteousness, and true

69 More, Antidote, 142.

Anti-atheist Plato 157

religion. These were concerns that many of the Cambridge Platonists shared.
The manuscript of Smiths work circulated widely among Worthingtons
Cambridge colleagues, including Ralph Cudworth, who helped by translating
the Greek and Hebrew quotes. Worthington even offered high praise for Henry
Mores work on the soul, atheism, and godliness, which he called a companion
to the Select Discourses.70
We saw in Chapter 2 that the confutation of atheism very often relied on
more than speculative arguments alone, particularly as atheism was thought,
in its practical form, to be a matter of sinful behaviour. In his preface to the
Select Discoursres Worthington insisted on a harmony between Smiths charac-
ter and his work that revealed an exemplary connection between the truth of
Smiths arguments and the substance of his practice. Smith was portrayed as
an admirable example of the confutation of atheism to his contemporaries,
practically and speculatively. Worthington stressed that Smith was an obedi-
ent, pious, and magnanimous person who rejected acrimonious disputes on
the finer points of religion in favour of loftier themes, setting him apart from
the theological rage of many of his contemporaries and the religious divisions
said to cause atheism. Moreover, Worthington thought that the first essays in
the Select Discourses on knowledge, atheism, and the soul, should be regarded as
introductions to the later material on God, prophecy, and practical Christianity.
This textual layout conformed to Worthingtons characterization of Smith him-
self and his criticisms of Pharisaical religion, the religion of external forms, in
favour of the true religion of the inward godly life. Worthington thereby posi-
tioned Smith and his work as an intervention against all manner of perceived
false belief, from superstition to atheism. According to Worthington, Smith
rejected the mere outward observance of Christianity as the sign of empty god-
liness, promoting instead the simplicity and goodness of the primitive
Christians as men of moral action.71
The Select Discourses was an intercession into a series of pressing early mod-
ern debates, including the confutation of atheism. Since the near universal
perception was that atheism and irreligion were on the rise, Smiths work sin-
gled out both Epicurus and Lucretius for censure. Yet, as Worthington observed,
Smith did not live to see

Sadducism and Epicurism so boldly owned and industriously propa-

gated, as they have been of late, by some who being heartily desirous That
there were no God, no Providence, nor Reward nor Punishment after this

70 J. Smith, Select Discourses (London, 1676), Letter to the Reader.

71 Ibid., cf. Schneewind, 199202.
158 chapter 4

life, take upon them to deride the Notion of Spirit or Incorporeal Substance,
the Existence of Separate Souls, and the Life to come: and by infusing into
mens Minds Opinions contrary to these Fundamental Principles of
Religion, they have done that which manifestly tends to the overthrow
of all Religion, the destruction of Morality and Vertuous living, the
debauching of Mankind, the consuming and eating out of any good
Principle left in the Conscience which doth testifie for God and Goodness,
and against Sin and Wickedness, and to the defacing and expunging of
the Law written in mens hearts.72

The task at hand was urgent. Worthington implied that Epicurus and Epicure
anism had advanced irreligion and immorality while he simultaneously acknowl-
edged that there were Christian apologists for Epicurus. But these men necessarily
fell short of the noble love of goodness that animated true religion and animated
John Smith himself. Whatever a Christian apologist for Epicurus such as Walter
Charleton might think, for both Worthington and Smith Epicureans were limited
by their adherence to the external attributes of material sense, the external form
of good behaviour, and the external husk of true religion.73
In early modern anti-atheist confutation discourse we have seen that it was
common to place atheism on a continuum of belief, typically in contrast to
superstition or enthusiasm as Plutarch had done. Smith used the frequently
cited example of the hypocritical false religion of the Pharisee as a contrast to
the true religion of the heart found in Christ. It was not the most Dogmatical
who possessed divine knowledge, Smith asserted, but those who were the
most Practical. This argument itself had both a practical and intellectual
component. The intellectual component consisted of a Platonist claim that
genuine knowledge was reminiscence. Objects of knowledge were known
through just resemblance and analogie.74 In order to obtain a just resem-
blance to the good, Smith thought that a man needed to first possess practical
goodness. In turn, practical goodness achieved its highest expression in
Christian piety, particularly when raised to the heights of a Plotinus75 or an
Augustine76 whereby the soul resembled the Good itself. The zenith of this

72 Smith, Letter to the Reader.

73 Ibid. Such a view was later echoed by A.A. Cooper, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury. See Chap. 7.
74 Smith, 12.
75 Smith here cites the Enneads. Plotinus remains a strong presence throughout the text.
76 Of course Augustine himself echoes Plotinus in many of his texts. See Henry Chadwicks
textual notes in Augustine, Confessions, trans. H. Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1991), passim.
Anti-atheist Plato 159

practical-intellectual ascent was the Beatific Vision, connected by Smith to

the practice of Christian virtue as articulated by Christ in the Sermon on the
Mount. Borrowing an image from Platos Republic and Timaeus, Smith described
the eyes sun-like qualities as analogous to the Christian participation in the
divine nature, itself present in the soul through the cultivation of inner spiri-
tual practices. Here was the path up from Platos deep pit.77 The Augustinian,
Neoplatonic emergence from Platos cave was of course a familiar metaphor,
and one which had been suitably baptized by several Church Fathers. In Smiths
hands the emergence from the cave of error and illusion, of superstition,
enthusiasm, dogmatism, and atheism, was transposed to the Christian renun-
ciation of sin. Vice choked the powers of judgment and understanding, stupe-
fying the sense of the Soul.78 As both Plotinus and Henry More had warned,
men too familiar with the flesh inevitably corrupted their faculties due to
filthy lusts, generating a false conception of God.79
Despite this Neoplatonic rendering, the Select Discourses did not provide a
completely intellectualist solution to the problem of sin and vice. Smith did
not think Christ expounded a philosophical system. Rather, Christ was the per-
fect moral and spiritual exemplar and archetype. To approach the intellect
without first ordering the heart was to approach things out of order. Given that
most ordinary people would not be persuaded of truth through intellectual
investigation, Smith thought it was all the more fitting, more providential even,
that Christ trained disciples of the heart, not of the mind. Having made this
point, Smith acknowledged the potentially troubling question about exactly
what practices were required in order to cultivate a virtuous character. If we
become good through practice, how were we to know beforehand which prac-
tices were necessary to become good?80 Smiths solution, like Henry Mores,
was located in the soul. No matter what the depth of mans apostasie, the
principles of true knowledge were so radically implanted in the soul of man-
kind that they were not easily suppressed or extinguished. The Common

77 Smith, 24.
78 Ibid., 5.
79 Ibid., 67.
80 Ibid., 913. This problem remains a central concern of virtue ethics today most famously
associated with A. MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (2nd ed., Notre Dame:
University of Notre Dame Press, 1987); idem, Whose Justice, Which Rationality? (Notre
Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988). MacIntyre has also described the early
modern period as a central location of the move away from an Aristotelian-Thomist con-
ception of virtue. See A. MacIntyre, Rival Aristotles: Aristotle against some Renaissance
Aristotelians, Ethics and Politics: Selected Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2006), 321.
160 chapter 4

Notions of God and Vertue are imprest upon the Souls of men in a clear and
irrepressible fashion. There was no sceptical, Cartesian problem of certainty
here. For Smith, it was simply a matter of will. The means of knowledge did not
pose a barrier, but the will to know that which had been suppressed. The only
sense of certainty we needed to be concerned with, according to Smith, was
the sense of assurance that accompanied the beatific vision.81
Smith took the anti-atheist confutation argument that related the appre-
hension of truth to the virtuous Christian character and adapted it by taking
the supreme example of Christs ethical injunctions as the moral practices
consistent with a Neoplatonic vision. Smith then classified different personal
characters with respect to their ability to ascend the Platonic ladder of truth.
Epicureans were omitted altogether because they had smothered reason in
the deepest Lethe of Sensuality, Lethe being at once one of the five rivers in
Hades responsible for oblivion and concealment, as well as the personification
of forgetting.82 The first stock character Smith described was complex and
multifarious: he twisted sense and reason together by following mere opinion
and imagination, fancying the shadows in Platos cave. By contrast, the charac-
ter which looked through the soul rather than the body reflected upon reason
and determined that the soul was made to rule the body. This character embod-
ied the steady principles of virtue and goodness and possessed more clear and
distinct opinions. His doctrine of political and moral virtue was based on an
inward sense of virtue and goodness, but Smith thought that this character
could nonetheless fall victim to the vices of pride and arrogance by settling for
the happiness of a Logical life without true participation of the Divine life.
Finally, Smiths true metaphysical and contemplative character ascends to the
highest life of universal love and holy affection by abstracting himself from
himself and approaching a Plotinian union with the divine. This ideal was not
a real possibility, according to Smith, but constituted a kind of appeal for those
courageous enough to attempt it. From such heights the contemplative person
could have nothing but pity for those poor brutish Epicureans that have noth-
ing but the meer husks of fleshly pleasure to feed themselves with.83
Smith used this Platonic conception of the character of the contemplative
person, who embodied good spiritual practices and apprehended divine truth,
to defend God and the central elements of true religion against atheists. This
contemplative character was able to clearly determine that God existed, that
God rewarded those who sought him, and that the soul was immortal. Smiths

81 Smith, 16.
82 Ibid., 17.
83 Ibid., 1920, 21.
Anti-atheist Plato 161

contemplative character thus carried with him the Delphic motto to know
thyself as a programme of reflection that began with the soul and revealed the
principles of true religion. These principles were not necessarily those often
referred to as the principles of natural religion, but they functioned as such
when combined with the revelatory voice of Scripture. For Smith, the insepa-
rable connection between natural and revealed religion discovered through
self-reflective practice enabled Christians to attain the beatific vision and
simultaneously snuff out the error of atheism through a divine spiritual ascent
culminating in a coterminous knowledge of the soul and of God.84
The existence of the immortal, immaterial soul was never really a question
of hardened empirical proof for Smith. Like anti-atheist confutation dis-
course generally, he took it for granted that mankind was in possession of a
common innate notion of the soul as evidenced by the universal consent of
mankind. Again, like many confutations of atheism, Smith noted that even
Epicurus Atheistical Philosophy conceded as much. Yet the contrast with
Epicurus needed to be made clear. The soul of man was not a fortuitous
Concourse of Atomes.85 For Smith, Epicurus subtle bodies were still mate-
rial bodies, and as such they remained, like all corporeal matter, inert and
passive. Lucretius attempt to avoid this difficulty through semantic acrobat-
ics did not solve the question: matter remained barren soil.86 The crucial
point for Smith was the relation of sense to judgment. If one followed
Epicurus and Lucretius, who argued that knowledge derived from sense,
Smith, like many other anti-atheist apologists, claimed that there would be
no means or criteria for deliberation or discrimination between the various
effects of sense as a consequence. More importantly, Epicurean materialism
provided no means by which the understanding could detect illusion or error.
It was the power of deduction from sense, or what Smith called judgment,
that was of a Higher nature. Smith recited the commonplace about Epicurus
mistake with respect to sense perception and the actual size of the sun.
Echoing Plato, Aristotle, and Proclus, Smith argued that it was not that the
senses were wrong, but the judgment which mistook the senses perception
as straightforwardly true. It was only insofar as one could retract and with-
draw from the body that judgment could nakedly discern Truth by bringing
the perceptions of sense together, comparing and contrasting them with the
aid of memory and Prevision.87

84 Ibid., 612.
85 Ibid., 612, 64.
86 Ibid., 667, 71.
87 Ibid., 723, 734, 75, 77.
162 chapter 4

Smith also insisted that Epicurean atoms shuffling and cutting about could
not produce judgment, nor could they solve the problem of identity upon
which the ability to judge depended. Rather, the mechanical materialist self
fell under the rules of generation and degeneration, continually roving and
sliding into oblivion. As Aristotle had previously shown, the soul had a power
unique to itself demonstrated by the unconscious nature of some bodily
actions that, Smith asserted, confirmed a kind of sympathy between body
and soul. When combined with the souls power of deliberation or judgment
this conclusively proved that the soul was higher than the body.88 But Smith
shied away from claiming that the soul was the cause of bodily action in favour
of a Platonic conception of cooperation with a higher soul, or what he called
co-work with the First Cause of all. This cooperation and power of delibera-
tion was also the foundation of liberty. Smith drew a strong contrast here with
Lucretius De rerum natura, which argued that liberty arose from the declina-
tion of atoms in the void. Nothing could be subject to deliberation or will if all
things be the meer result either of a Fortuitous or Fatal motion of Bodies,
which can have no power or dominion over themselves. For Smith and the
vast majority of his contemporaries, the language of praise and blame was
empty and meaningless in such a system. Citing Cicero, Smith argued that the
essence of freedom was the power of deliberation over action. Where matter in
the void of space was all that existed, all obligatory restraint ceased; there
could be no responsibility where necessity reigned.89
Mirroring Mores Platonist argument, Smith claimed that the fact that the
soul was not material meant that it was also better known. Confirming his
claim with respect to the virtuous character, Smith asserted that we know a
thousand times more distinctly what our Souls are than our bodies, through
reflection on reason, freedom, and perception. Such reflection revealed, as
Proclus surmised from Platos Timaeus, that we possessed within us a naked
Intuition of Eternal Truth which is alwaies the same, including the Archetypall
Ideas of Justice, Wisedome, Goodness, Truth, Eternity, Omnipotency.90 The
notions we have of the mind, i.e. something within us that thinks, apprehends,
and discourses, are so clear and distinct from all those notions which we can
fasten upon a Body, that only undue sympathy with the body could cause any-
one to doubt the souls archetypes. Undue sympathy with the body, of which
the ancient Neoplatonists had repeatedly warned, cut off the clear and distinct
knowledge of the souls immortality and the beatific vision of Christ by the

88 Ibid., 789, 813.

89 Ibid., 845, 96, 87.
90 Ibid., 93, 92.
Anti-atheist Plato 163

inward intellectual eye.91 This, of course, was the chief archetypal idea, the
Impression of some Eternall Nature and Perfect Being stampd upon his own
Soul. Indeed, God was much more clearly and lively picturd upon the Souls
of Men, then upon any part of the Sensible World.92
Smiths Neoplatonic defence of the immaterial, eternal soul and its connec-
tion to the practice of true religion was based on the good character of his ideal
contemplative man. As in much anti-atheist confutation discourse, a good
character was regarded as necessary precondition for the apprehension of
truth. Smith continued his own account by drawing a series of conclusions
about the nature of God from his Platonic reflection on the soul, including
Gods omniscience, omnipotence, beneficence, omnipresence, and liberty. The
very reason the soul was known better than the body, he said, was because it
was dependent on a being of which man could not be the source. In contrast
to matter, which was sluggish and unwieldy, the faculty of understanding,
the pure mind or intellect, participated with the divine being and was con-
nected to its life, energy, and activity. Therefore the perfect divine being must
have commensurate qualities such as perfect beauty and love, content in the
self-enjoyment of its own unchanging perfections.93 In other words, there was
an internal and immutable set of truths consistent with Gods nature which he
enforced. According to Smiths Neoplatonist vision, man should not be satis-
fied with the jejune and insipid morsels of the mutable material world, for
neither the volumptuous Epicurean nor the most stolid Stoic could fully sat-
isfy the cravings of his Soul with Corporeal pleasure or achieve a Self-
sufficiency and Tranquility. Reason stirred up hungers that were like restless
motions, sending man searching after the true good and eternal happiness
which could only be satisfied in God.94
Several of Smiths conclusions based on the good character of the contem-
plative man were, though spoken in the idiom of a Platonist, fully in keeping
with the common arguments of anti-atheist confutation discourse. First, Smith
held that God did not create the universe out of selfish interest. As we have just
seen, God was self-sufficient and lacked nothing. Instead, as Proclus had stated,
it was his good pleasure to communicate of his own fullness. Second, God
was the Foundation and Basis of all being; nothing finite could exist indepen-
dently of God. God preserved all things in nature, continually ordering and

91 Ibid., 97. Smith also notes that the connection between mind and body had been recently
discovered by a Late Sagacious Philosopher, i.e. Descartes, 1101.
92 Ibid., 118, 119, 121.
93 Ibid., 1213, 1245, 128.
94 Ibid., 12930, 1313.
164 chapter 4

disposing all things in the best way, and providing so as may be best for them.
Third, mans true happiness consisted in the assimilation, conformity, and
sympathy of the human soul to God. Because God was the chief good, mans
true happiness and summum bonum could only be achieved by aiming towards
true goodness. Smith thus equated the law of Plato with the law of Christ.95
Fourth, reflection on the soul revealed that the proper scope and design of
justice was to preserve righteousness and promote true goodness; justice was
not merely concerned with mans punishment, but with his moral reformation
and perfection. Finally, Entercourse between God and man in society was
governed by a law which established the bond of society; by denying God athe-
ists denied the law of nature which was an analogical Paraphrase or Comment
upon the Nature of God.96 With respect to God, man, and society, then, Smiths
Platonist contemplative character came to conventional anti-atheist conclusions.
As Chapter 3 showed, the name most frequently associated with an incor-
rect understanding of God was Epicurus. In keeping with the anti-atheist com-
monplace which characterized the atheist as a hypocrite, Smith thought
Epicurism was at best a mask based on fear. Epicureanisms mask was all
the more devious because it undermined belief in God while claiming to
uphold public norms.97 In order to free mens minds from the fears of religion,
based on mans ignorance of natural causes, Lucretius provided an alternate
cosmogenesis in De rerum natura. In contrast with the majority of the philoso-
phies of antiquity which for Smith included Pythagoreans, Platonists,
Aristotelians, and Stoics Epicurus and Lucretius had resolved all difficulties
with their theory of an Infinity of Insensible Atomes moving to and fro in an
Empty Space together with that Space in which it is, sufficient to beget all
those Phaenomena which we see in nature. Smiths question derived from
Ciceros De finibus: how could order emerge in the cosmos if atoms be only
movd by Chance & Accident? how did atoms move in a vacuum? once set in
motion, by what power did atoms stop their motion? how could we make sense
of the swerve? With the vast majority of his contemporaries, Smiths reading of
Cicero led him to believe that Epicurean atomism was quite literally a mass of
confusion that could never be productive of anything, let alone the harmoni-
ous, ordered variety of nature.98 Epicurean atheism was thus a confusing and
irrational opinion that owed its provenance to sensuall and materiall
Speculation and whose motive lay in the desire to live free of eternal justice.

95 Ibid., 137, 140, 1434, 1456.

96 Ibid., 148, 149, 151.
97 The Cambridge Platonists were, for the most part, deaf to Socratic irony.
98 Smith, 47, 489.
Anti-atheist Plato 165

And despite their claims to the contrary, Smith thought that Epicureans did
not lead quiet and peaceful lives, but followed their senses in the misplaced
belief that body was all that was real. Once more echoing Cicero, Smith thought
that Epicureans were unable to offer a convincing account of happiness, flatly
rejecting the suggestion that happiness was a state of tranquillity. Rather, happi-
ness stemmed from true belief and the assurance of a future hope which pro-
duced its own kind of tranquillity as an inward serenity. Indeed, a world
without God and without providence would be subject to nothing but a rude
and blind Fortune and all those abuses which the savage Lusts and Passions
of the world would put upon us.99
Smith subjected atheists and atheism to some of the standard epithets of
the period, but the full force of the Select Discourse brings to bear a more robust
philosophical theology that progressively eliminated the possibility of atheism
through a Platonists ascent to truth. And while Smiths account leaned heavily
in an intellectualist direction, the main purpose of publishing his work was
practical, resonating with much Restoration Anglicanism. For Platonists such
as More and Smith it was only in the practices of a virtuous character that the
good and the true could be found. And although their account of virtue was
Platonist, both men were in broad agreement with the standards of anti-atheist
confutation discourse in the early modern period. There can be little wonder,
then, why John Worthington regarded Smiths Select Discourses as a compan-
ion to Mores popular work. Both More and Smith agreed on the importance of
virtuous character to the apprehension of truth, and this virtuous character
was that of a Christian Platonist. But where More spent his time divided
between the apprehension of truth and the manifestation of that truth in the
created universe, Smith confuted atheism through a personal cultivation and
maintenance of character which aimed at the beatific vision.

(iii) A Platonists Erudition against Atheism: Ralph Cudworth

Ralph Cudworths confutation of atheism shared the Platonist bent of his fel-
low Cambridge divines. His work was dedicated to explicating in detail the
ancient Platonic theism upon which anti-atheist writers such as Henry More
and John Smith relied. In publishing his erudite account, in which all forms of
atheism were corrupted deviations from an ancient universal theism, Cudworths
900-page confutation intended to put a stop to atheisms revivification by such
writers as Hobbes and Spinoza. Cudworth believed in the existence of an

99 Ibid., 4952, 54, 56.

166 chapter 4

eternal and immutable truth known as the prisca theologia and the philosophia
perennis which had existed since the creation of the world. This eternal and
immutable truth was known by Adam before the Fall and had been divinely
articulated by Moses. Moses had then taught this truth to the Egyptians, who
in turn taught it to Pythagoras, who in turn taught it Plato, and it was eventu-
ally recovered by the Church Fathers and the Neoplatonists of late antiquity. It
was Cudworths aim to give a scholarly account of the existence of this eternal
and immutable truth and thereby to confute the spread of atheism by reveal-
ing it to be nothing but a corruption of the true intellectual system of the
Many of the assumptions and aims of Cudworths massive text were in com-
plete agreement with anti-atheist confutation discourse. The True Intellectual
System addressed itself to the growth of atheism in an Age of so much
Debauchery, Scepticism, and Infidelity.100 While Cudworth thought that he
had little chance of converting the Downright and Professed Atheists, like
many of his contemporaries he did hope, in Augustinian fashion, to supply a
Confirmation of Weak, Staggering, and Scepticall Theists. Every age had seen
some or other sick of the Atheistick Disease, Cudworth remarked, invoking
Book x of Platos Laws as historical evidence, but his own Philosophicall age
was especially prone to doubt and hesitation. Like More and Smith, Cudworth
had a specific set of doctrines and teachers of doctrine in mind. These included
Democritus and Epicurus, so much cried up of late, as well as Modern
Atheistick Writers such as Hobbes, Spinoza, and even Descartes.101 Cudworths
main concern was with what he took to be the consequences of materialist
atheism, particularly as he sketched his intended reply:

I intended onely a Discourse concerning Liberty and Necessity, or to

speak out more plainly, Against the Fatall Necessity of all Actions and

100 R. Cudworth, The True Intellectual System of the Universe: The First Part; Wherein, All the
Reason and Philosophy Of Atheism is Confuted; And Its Impossibility Demonstrated
(London, 1678), Letter Dedicatory. For accounts that focus on Cudworth and atheism see
Redwood, 509; Berman, 1621, 614; J.G.A. Pocock, Thomas Hobbes: Atheist or
Enthusiast? His Place in a Restoration Debate, History of Political Thought, xi, 4, (1990):
73749. On Cudworths response to Hobbes, see Parkin, 32234 and Mintz, 96102. On
Cudworths moral philosophy see Schneewind, 20514; M.H. Carre, Ralph Cudworth,
The Philosophical Quarterly 3, 13 (1953): 34251; and Passmore. For an overview of
Cudworths thought, see L.T. Ealy, Reading the Signatures of the Divine Author: Provi
dence, Nature and History in Ralph Cudworths Anglican Apologetic, Ph.D Thesis, Johns
Hopkins University, 1997.
101 Cudworth, True Intellectual System, 890.
Anti-atheist Plato 167

Events; which upon whatsoever Grounds or Principles maintaind, will

(as We Conceive) Serve The Design of Atheism, and Undermine Christianity,
and all Religion; as taking away all Guilt and Blame, Punishments and
Rewards, and plainly rendring a Day of Judgment, Ridiculous: And it is
Evident that some have pursued it of late, in order to that End. But after-
wards We considerd, That this which is indeed a Controversy, concerning
The True Intellectual System of the Universe, does, in the full Extent
thereof, take in Other things.102

Cudworths vision of the problem of liberty and necessity incited within him
an almost insatiable drive to address every possible atheist argument. That
drive also led him to a partial result. Instead of the complete philosophical
theology that he had intended, Cudworths confutatio came up short. As the
Third Earl of Shaftesbury later pointed out, this kind of work seemed to lead to
as many questions as it did answers, for in the process of confuting atheism it
exposed the very atheist arguments that should have been shielded from untu-
tored eyes.
The True Intellectual System was the first of what was intended to be a three-
part project. The first book, the only one actually published in Cudworths life-
time, was given the general title of Against Atheism. As planned, books two
and three were entitled For Natural Justice and Morality, Founded in the
Deity and For Liberty from Necessity, and a Distributive Justice of Rewards
and Punishments in the World. Against Atheism was to be a ground-clearing
exercise that identified and clarified the nature of ancient atheism and its
modern revivifications. Parts two and three were conceived as positive accounts
properly addressing the question that animated Cudworth in the first place:
the foundation, operation, and ends of moral liberty and responsibility.103 To
succinctly summarize Cudworths project from the incomplete template he
left us, to be against atheism was to be for natural justice and liberty.
In order fully to confute the atheist and those who held erroneous views
about God and liberty, Cudworth looked to antiquity. There he found the source
of every philosophical error and the confutation of those errors. To be against
atheism it was necessary to be an erudite expert on the philosophy of antiq-
uity: Cudworth understood the emergence of atheism as the corruption of an

102 Ibid., 167, Preface.

103 For an exploration of Cudworths moral philosophy from the perspective of his later work,
see Schneewind, 20510; S. Hutton, Introduction to R. Cudworth, A Treatise Concerning
Eternal and Immutable Morality, ed., S. Hutton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
168 chapter 4

eternal and immutable truth. In order to confute atheism it made perfect sense
to employ the arguments of those philosophers who had adhered most closely
to this ancient truth. Therefore, Cudworths response to a revivified Epicurus,
amongst a series of other ancient atheisms discussed below, was to reinvigorate
Plato and Aristotle, the Church Fathers, particularly Origen and Augustine, and
the Neoplatonists Plotinus and Porphyry. Even in his incomplete text Cudworth
was able to establish the basic premises of his philosophical theology, summed
up conveniently as follows: first, the existence of an Omnipotent Understanding
Being Presiding over all; second, that this God possessed a character consti-
tuted by an Essentiall Goodness and Justice rendering him incapable of vio-
lating moral good and evil by meer Will; and third, that Necessity is not
Intrinsecall to the Nature of every thing. Put otherwise, Cudworth argued that
mankind possessed a liberty or power of action that entailed accountability to
God, who in turn distributed divine justice according to his goodness and
power and not according to an inscrutable will. These three tenets represent
the pillars of the True Intellectual System of the Universe.104
In order to establish these tenets, Cudworth joined the early modern confu-
tation of atheism by focusing his attention on atoms and on the various kinds
of atheism derived from erroneous philosophical systems which relied upon
atomism. The first chapter of the True Intellectual System is an Account of the
Atomick Physiology, as made the Foundation of the Democritick Fate.105
Cudworth specifically singled out the Democritick assertions that the idea of
God was incomprehensible, that the principle that nothing can come from
nothing validated the eternal existence of matter in motion, that nothing could
be incorporeal or incorruptible, and, finally, that providence did not exist.
Democritus and Epicurus were absolute atheists for Cudworth because they
rejected the existence of an incorporeal God as necessary for the operation
and understanding of the universe. Democritus had inaugurated materialist
fate without God by erroneously arguing that atomist physiology was a com-
plete philosophy. On this reading, senseless matter was all that existed, moving
by necessity as the originator and principle of all things. It was for this reason
that Cudworth referred to Hobbes as a Democritick atheist. According to the
True Intellectual System, Democritus made no attempt to save free will, whereas
Epicurus, judging from Lucretius De rerum natura, tried to maintain free will
through an initial declension of atomic motion.
In keeping with his Platonist vision of an eternal and immutable truth, then,
Cudworth regarded materialist atomism as a Democritean innovation. Democritus

104 Cudworth, True Intellectual System, Preface. Cf. Redwood, Chap. 2.

105 Cudworth, True Intellectual System, Preface.
Anti-atheist Plato 169

took an already existing atomist physics which had been joined to a theistic
philosophy and corrupted it by removing its essential features. Take the prin-
ciple of ex nihilo, nihil fit, Nothing out of Nothing. Cudworth thought that
Democritus had simply asserted that this proposition supported the idea of
the eternal existence of matter, when it had originally been a proposition that
supported the necessity of an incorporeal God who, as an uncreated being, cre-
ated matter. Democritus and Epicurus therefore abused this Theorem by hav-
ing it rule out the existence of a divine being.106
There were five reasons according to Cudworth why Democritean and
Epicurean atomism was a corruption of preceding theist atomism, each of
which echoed the general anti-atheist argument that exclusive atomist materi-
alism transferred divine attributes to the natural world. First, the true atomist
physics allowed nothing to matter but Magnitude with Divisibility, Figure,
Site, Motion and Rest, together with the Results of their several Combinations.
This meant that life could not be a property of corporeal substance or any
conjunctions of body. Second, body had no other action belonging to it but
that of local motion, and local motion could not spring from itself since its
motion was the effect of some external agent upon it. Therefore, something
else other than body must exist in the world. Third, corporeal phenomena
could not be explained by mechanism alone; the faculty of understanding was
something other than a mode of matter. Fourth, sense itself was not a corpo-
real substance that existed outside of mans cognitive faculties, but inhered in
something other than external corporeal objects. Therefore, it must owe its
being and activity to something other than matter or its combination. Fifth,
sense did not convey the truth of external things; something existed that was
superior to sense which judged it and detected truth and error an incorporeal
Self-active Vigour of the Mind.107
In order to confute atomist atheism fully, Cudworth supplemented these
five specific arguments against Democritean-Epicurean atomism with a more
general account of how atomist physics was initially theist. For the Platonist
Cudworth, incorporealism first made itself felt by bearing it self up against the
Prejudices of Sense through the power of its inward vigour. Ancient philoso-
phers had reflected upon the ideas present in the mind and found that they
had a clear and distinct Conception of Two Things: passive matter and active
power, corporeal and incorporeal substance, body and spirit. Nor were these
ideas confounded together as they would be by Strato and his modern reviver
Spinoza. Rather, Plato had demonstrated that matter could not be eternal and

106 Ibid., 2930.

107 Ibid., 478.
170 chapter 4

that there must be some other eternal substance that was not corporeal as a
consequence.108 By reaffirming the immortality of the soul and an incorporeal,
distinct deity, Cudworth recreated what he thought was the Platonist balance
of an atomist physics and a Pneumatology which had been corrupted by
Democritick atheism.109
We have seen that it was standard practice for early modern religious apolo-
gists to identify the argumentative sources of atheism. In Chapter 1 Cudworth
had fulfilled this requirement (Democritick atheism). He continued to follow
standard confutation practice in Chapter 2 by outlining the principles of atom-
ist atheism in order to reveal their supposed weakness and absurdity. To put it
most simply, the origin of Atheized and Adulterated Atomology was the join-
ing of the true part of atomism, that body is composed of atoms, with the false
supposition that there was nothing in the universe other than body.110
Cudworth claimed that exclusive materialist atomism was at base a disingenu-
ous philosophy since Epicurus had subscribed outwardly to the established
deities but had inwardly denied their existence, or, in what amounted to the
same thing, he had denied that the gods had any connection with the material
universe. Epicurus Atheized Atomology was thus a hypocritical account
designed to save public face. Echoing John Smith, Cudworth thought that the
two principles of Epicurean cosmogenesis made this fact plain in claiming that
the world arose by chance from a fortuitous concourse of atoms.111 In Cud
worths synopsis Lucretius added to these two principles by claiming that man
had no idea of God, that there could be no creation ex nihilo, and that incorpo-
real substance did not exist. As a consequence, Epicurean atheists asserted
that the idea of God and incorporeal substance owed their existence to a politi-
cal cheat designed to keep men in subservient fear. How else, the atheists sup-
posedly maintained, were we to explain the natural and moral evil in the
world? Where was the evidence of Gods providence?
Cudworth intimated that this entire catalogue of ancient atheist arguments
had been recently revived by Hobbes and Spinoza. After citing Hobbes in loose
paraphrase and without direct acknowledgement, Cudworth wrote:

The meaning of which, and other like passages of the same Writer, seem
to be this; That the Attributes of God (by which his Nature is supposed to

108 Ibid., 189. The same argument was found, according to Cudworth, in Platos allegory of
the cave.
109 Ibid., 202, 512.
110 Ibid., 59.
111 Ibid., 601.
Anti-atheist Plato 171

be expressed) having no Philosophick Truth or Reality in them, had their

only Original from a certain Rustick Astonishment of Mind, proceeding
from excess of Fear, raising up the Phantasm of a Deity, as a Bug-bear for
an Object to it self, and affrighting men into all manner of Confounded
Non-sense, and Absurdity of Expressions concerning it, such as have no
signification, nor any Conception of the Mind answering to them. This is
the First Argument, used especially by our modern Democriticks, against
a Deity, That because they can have no Phantastick Idea of it, nor fully
comprehend all that is included in the Notion thereof, that therefore it is
but an Incomprehensible Nothing.112

In another lengthy passage Cudworth observed that Hobbes had simultane-

ously undercut the basis for the existence of the Christian God by suggesting
that the idea of God was based on human fancy agitated by undue fear and
ignorance.113 Meanwhile Spinoza had boldly denied the existence of a first
mover as a distinct and separate substance altogether. In Cudworths words,
Spinoza claimed that there was only an Eternal Moved Mover; or that one
thing was moved by another from Eternity, without any first Mover.114
Cudworth also detected the revivification of the Epicurean argument from evil
and restated it as it was found in Stanleys entry for Epicurus in the History of
Philosophy.115 Lastly, Cudworth asserted that modern Democritick atheists
such as Hobbes thought that religion should be subordinated to politics.
Modern atheists argued that the body politic or commonwealth was consti-
tuted by parts naturally Dissociated from one another, by reason of that
Principle of private Self-love, and that fear alone Fear of the Leviathan
was capable of bringing men together in their natural state.116
As we shall see at greater length in Chapter 6, one of the arguments often
made in early modern confutation discourse was that there had been no moral
atheists in history and that a society of atheists could not exist. Cudworths
strategy was slightly different from this tactic, but related. In order to under-
mine the alleged arguments of modern atheist writers like Hobbes and Spinoza,
Cudworth sought to place the ancient atheists in a wider context in which they
would be properly seen as a tiny and therefore insignificant minority. In the

112 Ibid., 634.

113 Ibid., 68.
114 Ibid., 76.
115 Ibid., 789; cf. T. Stanley, The History of Philosophy, The Third and Last Volume (London,
1660), 174.
116 Cudworth, True Intellectual System, 967.
172 chapter 4

third chapter of the True Intellectual System Cudworth set out to classify all the
major philosophies of antiquity and the origins of their doctrines. One of the
central points of chapters 3 and 4 was to demonstrate the existence of a prisca
theologia and a philosophia perennis from which all other theologies and phi-
losophies had departed. Atheism was a corruption of true theism which Cud
worth then classified under different names for the different ways in which
that corruption had taken shape. These included Anaximander, Democritus,
Strato, and plastic atheists such as Seneca. Anaximander based his atheism
on qualities and forms, whereas Democritus based his on atoms and figures.117
Strato was the founder of hylozoick atheism for arguing that atoms were self-
active and had the essential property of life.118 The difference between the
hylozoic and the plastic atheist, according to Cudworth, was in their accounts
of liberty and necessity: the hylozoist aimed to preserve chance, whereas the
plastic atheist maintained methodical fate.119 It was clearly a significant
point for Cudworth that these various atheist systems did not agree with one
another. If the atheist argued that sectarianism undermined the truth of reli-
gion, Cudworth could reply in kind. Additionally, if Cudworths aim in writing
the True Intellectual System was to preserve a true conception of human lib-
erty, he detailed the different ways in which the different atheisms came down
in this respect. Anaximander and Democritus required a fortuitous concatena-
tion of dead and stupid matter, while Strato and plastic atheists required a
necessary connection of vital, intelligent matter. For Cudworth, both divisions
fall victim to the extremes of attributing everything to either power or will.
One simple, straightforward way of confuting atheism, then, was to demon-
strate that life, liberty, and understanding could not be properties of or arise
from mere matter.120
In order to confute the ancient atheist under any one of these different
names, Cudworth appealed to a Neoplatonic notion to mediate between the
material and spiritual realms which he called the Plastic Life of Nature. Like
Mores Spirit of Nature, Cudworths Plastic Nature was a divine principle
that navigated between the errors of mechanical materialism and divine vol-
untarism. There were three options Cudworth derived from the various atheist
systems as he saw it: that God did not exist, that God was an Idle Spectator,

117 Ibid., 130.

118 There were both theist and atheist variants of hylozoism. Atheist hylozoism denied the
existence of anything but self-active matter, whereas theist hylozoism ascribed the activ-
ity of mater to some other life-giving or life-sustaining cause.
119 Cudworth, True Intellectual System, 132.
120 Ibid., 145. Cf. Cudworth, Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality.
Anti-atheist Plato 173

or that God miraculously intervened in nature at all times. Obviously none of

these options were satisfactory to him, yet both atheists and religious enthusi-
asts had asserted one or the other of these views. What both groups had for-
gotten was Plastick Nature, a Subordinate Instrument of Divine Providence,
in the Orderly Disposal of Matter. Like the theist atomism that came before
Democritus, Plastic Nature was a doctrine that was supposedly acknowledged
in pagan and Christian antiquity which recognized a principle acting Inwardly
and Immediately upon the Matter. It was the vital principle which animated
the operations of brute nature, but lacked the knowledge of the ends toward
which nature was directed. It was predicated on an effective principle that
acted fatally, magically, and sympathetically, between the plastic power
lodged in the soul of all living beings and the more general Plastic Nature
that was a soul to the universe in general. For Cudworth, what ancient and
modern atheists such as Spinoza had done was to corrupt the notion of Plastic
Nature by making it the highest principle rather than the intermediary, sup-
posing that this vital principle could produce the higher principles of reason
and understanding by identifying it with wisdom and making it a material
In the first two chapters of the True Intellectual System Cudworth detailed
the origin of Democritean atheism and its central arguments, followed by
chapters 3 and 4 which categorized ancient atomism according to the respec-
tive ways in which they deviated from theistic atomism. Chapter 4 was specifi-
cally dedicated to another confutation category: comparative religion. In
Cudworths case this became a gargantuan task of detailing the pagan theology
of antiquity along a scale of negative deviations from the prisca theolgia, dwell-
ing for the most part on Egyptian, Pythagorean, and Platonist theology.
Following suitably Platonist Church Fathers such as Justin Martyr, Clement of
Alexandria, and Origen, Cudworth argued that the true design of Christianity
was to abolish the corruptions of pagan polytheism and idolatry. Because the
state of Christianity once again resembled the situation of the primitive
church, in Cudworths view, the remainder of this confutation was largely dedi-
cated to an explication of the eternal and immutable truths which true theists
had always shared.
Like many early modern religious apologists, Cudworth began by attempt-
ing to reveal the implications of the universality of the idea of God: how was it

121 Cudworth, True Intellectual System, 1056, 1501, 155, 161. Not only was chapter 3 left unfin-
ished, to judge by its table of contents, but so too was the excursus on Plastick Nature,
which listed 29 sections but only reached 26. On Cudworths response to Spinoza, see
Hutton, Reason and Revelation.
174 chapter 4

that atheists and theists both had this idea? what was the nature of this idea
and what did it imply for the consideration of time and matter? what were the
attributes of God given this essential nature of this universally held idea? First
and foremost, the idea of God was universally acknowledged in antiquity by
pagans and Christians alike. Only Bennumed and Sottish atheists sup-
pressed this idea since they had to subvert true philosophy and true religion to
do so. The true and proper idea of God consisted in A Being Absolutely Perfect
from which all of his other attributes derived: necessary existence, omni-
science, omnipotence, and perfect goodness. This idea of God was directly
opposed to the Calvinists Arbitrary Deity, that hath nothing either of Benignity
or Morality in its Nature to Measure and Regulate its Will. Cudworths God was
infinitely good, infinitely wise, and infinitely powerful a conception appar-
ently shared by Christians, Platonists, and Pythagoreans.122 This idea of God
was shared by most of the ancient schools of philosophy and, perhaps buried
beneath their rites and customs, within many of the ancient religions. The
wiser of the polytheistic pagans had apparently shrouded their discussion of
the one supreme God in the language of the many, as found in Hermes
Trismegestus, the Sibylline oracles, Orpheus, and Egyptian theology. While
stressing the unity of God in various ancient theologies, Cudworth was like-
wise insistent on the doctrine of the Trinity and on its anticipations in the
Pythagorean Triad and the ancient Jewish Cabala.123 These anticipations of
Christian theology constituted a Vindication of the Truth of Christianity
against Atheists which, according to Cudworths plan, was supposed to be fol-
lowed by an account of pagan idolatry and a comparative analysis of the wor-
ship of Christians, Jews and Muslims but this part of the text was left
The fifth and final chapter of the True Intellectual System was perhaps the
most ambitious attempt of any early modern confutation of atheism to raise
and refute every possible philosophical atheist argument. Much of it tirelessly
repeated earlier arguments in different form. While Hobbes and Spinoza did

122 Ibid., 193, 200, 202, 204, 206, 207.

123 Ibid., 5912.
124 Ibid., 632. And: But we are very Sensible, that we have been surprized in the Length of
this Chapter, which is already swelled into a Disproportionate Bigness; by means whereof
we cannot comprehend within the compass of this Volume, all that belongs to the
Remaining Contents, together with such a Full and Copious Confutation of the Atheistick
Grounds, as was intended. Wherefore we shall here Divide the Chapter, and reserve those
Remaining Contents together, with a further Confutation of Atheism, for another Volume,
which God affording Life, Health, and Leisure, we intend shall follow. See titles for sec-
tions2890 in the table of contents.
Anti-atheist Plato 175

not necessarily subscribe to all of the tenets Cudworth detailed in this chapter,
there can be no mistaking their presence throughout, even when Cudworth
invoked commonplace early modern assumptions not necessarily part of
either Hobbes or Spinozas actual philosophy. And while all the confutations
listed by Cudworth were meant to be rhetorically and argumentatively effec-
tive, it should be noted that he did not equate his intellectual arguments with
the source of Christian truth: For the Scripture-Faith, is not a meer Believing
of Historicall Things, and upon Inartificiall Arguments, or Testimonies onely;
but a Certain Higher and Diviner Power in the Soul, that peculiarly Corres
pondeth with the Deity.125 Like both More and Smith, Cudworths vision of
Christian belief depended on a Platonist apprehension and inner experience
of divine truth centred on a virtuous personal character.
The general objections that make up the five sections across which the
detailed arguments and confutations of Chapter 5 are spread were not unique
to Cudworth, but the attention he devoted to them was certainly singular. In
brief, these arguments run as follows: atheists thought that knowledge was
based on sense alone; atheists like Hobbes and Spinoza thought the idea of
God and his attributes were incomprehensible; atheists thought that if God
existed he acted arbitrarily; atheists like Lucretius and Hobbes explained the
idea of God according to ignorance, fear, curiosity, and the imposture of
Cudworth confuted the atheists arguments by starting with the claim that
we do not possess an idea of God, that the idea we did possess was of a com-
pound and contradictory nature, and that when considered in general it was
best regarded as an inconceivable nothing. The last two features of this argu-
ment were new and Cudworth explicitly linked them to Modern Atheistick
Writers. He cited a passage from Hobbes Leviathan stating that sense was the
basis of perception and knowledge which ruled out the orthodox idea of
God.126 As a result, Cudworth cast Hobbes in the role of Protagoras-Democritus
from the Theaetetus: man was the measure of all things and sense was the ori-
gin of knowledge.127 But this, Cudworth insisted, was to mistake the sensible
qualities of things for their essential nature. As both More, Smith, and many

125 Ibid., Preface.

126 Cudworth, True Intellectual System, 634. In the original edition no citation was made
explicit here, but later editions drew attention to the fact that the reference was Hobbes.
See the next note.
127 Ibid., 636. It was Mosheims supposition that the writer referred to was Bacon, see R.
Cudworth, The True Intellectual System of the Universe To which are added the Notes and
Dissertations of J.L, Mosheim, trans. J. Harrison, vol. 2 (London, 1845), 511 n. 3.
176 chapter 4

other confutations of atheism had argued, only the faculty of judgment, itself
incorporeal and part of the higher nature of the soul, was capable of discern-
ment with respect to sense. The very fact that we possessed the idea of God, an
idea which could not be derived from sense in any way, suggested not only that
man possessed knowledge of non-sensible things, but also that there was a
faculty higher in man which participated in incorporeal knowledge. Thus athe-
ists could not deny the consciousness of the idea of God within the soul.128
The second part of the first atheist argument Cudworth confuted was that
the idea of God was incomprehensible, an argument Cudworth again associ-
ated with Hobbes Leviathan. If God was incomprehensible he was also incon-
ceivable, and what was inconceivable could not exist. Furthermore, if the idea
of God was perfect, the third part of the first atheist argument submitted that
infinity must be part of his nature, but infinity was allegedly incomprehensi-
ble. Here Cudworth summarized what he took to be Hobbes meaning for sug-
gesting that man had no idea of the infinite and thus no knowledge or
conception of it.129 Cudworth took Spinoza to task in a similar vein. Both
Hobbes and Spinoza contradicted the consensus of antiquity and all reason-
able men who acknowledged the existence of the infinite. Without something
immaterial and infinite in duration, Cudworth insisted, there could not be any-
thing in existence at all for if there was ever nothing at a particular moment
in time, there never could have been a something after that nothing. Hobbes
had also complained that man lacked an idea of a being infinitely powerful. To
Cudworth none of Gods attributes, from his incorporeality to his infiniteness
to his eternity to his perfection, were in any way contradictory, unreasonable,
or inconceivable. If an idea was not contradictory, it was logically possible; and
if the idea of God was possible, given his attributes, God must necessarily exist.
What Descartes said about God was not altogether different from Hobbes,
according to Cudworth, because Descartes God was an all-powerful deus
absconditus who was unnaturally feared, just like Leviathan and the Calvinists
God. Citing one of the many anti-atheist commonplaces of his time, Cudworth
thought it was atheists such as Hobbes and Spinoza, like Epicurus before them,
that were truly the ones possessed with an undue, restless fear. True religious
fear, Cudworth countered, was based in faith, hope, and love, the manifesta-
tion of Gods essential goodness.130
In order to defend the doctrine of Gods miraculous creation, Cudworth fol-
lowed many confutations of atheism by attempting to establish the proper

128 Cudworth, True Intellectual System, 632.

129 Ibid., 641.
130 Ibid., 6635, 667, 6601.
Anti-atheist Plato 177

conception of the ex nihilo argument. Contrary to what atheists argued, the ex

nihilo maxim was favourable to the idea of Gods creation and positively hos-
tile to atheisms materialism. Even if we granted the atheists contention that
motion was indigenous to matter, Cudworth insisted, a contention Epicurus
had accepted in trying to save free will, dead matter could still not beget life,
sense, or understanding.131 Cudworth then proceeded to lump his next six
atheist arguments together because they shared two basic aims: disproving
incorporeality and proving the corporeality of the deity. These two claims were
confuted as follows. First, by denying that whatsoever is, is extended, and by
denying that whatsoever is extended, is body, ancient incorporealists like
Plato, Porphyry, and Plotinus asserted that the soul was something un-
extended, in-distant, devoid of quantity, magnitude, and parts, indivisible, and
without place or motion.132 Cudworth made use of this coterie of ancient
incorporealists to run through a series of objections to incorporealism.133
Within these objections Cudworth ruled out the Epicurean, Hobbesian, and
Spinozist assertion that the soul, and thus God, was merely a subtle body. If
thought was un-extended, as Plotinus had demonstrated and various Church
Fathers such as Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Origen had affirmed, it could not be
material. Thinking, therefore, must be the activity of an incorporeal substance
and seated in the soul.134
Like many of his fellow religious apologists, Cudworth attacked the atheists
argument that matter in motion was all that was necessary to explain observed
phenomenon. A body at rest could never move itself, nor once moved could it
continually move without further motive force. To argue for infinite motion, as
for an infinite series of causes, was a reductio ad absurdum. For Cudworth it
was conclusively the case that there must be something other than body which
was active and capable of moving body.135 This became clearer through a
reflection upon thinking itself in the seat of the soul. Cudworth described
understanding and life as active powers, powers which could not possibly arise
from meer Passive Bulk or any Composition of Dead and Senseless Matter.
While thinking may be occasioned by external objects, he admitted, this was
not true of all knowledge whatsoever. In a frequently repeated confutation,
Cudworth argued that if all knowledge and understanding derived from sense,
there would be no such thing as error, no erring passion, no false sense, and no

131 Ibid., 7589, 7623.

132 Ibid., 7713.
133 Ibid., 77685. For Plotinus in particular, 82231.
134 Ibid., 78592.
135 Ibid., 8435.
178 chapter 4

truth or falsehood, because there would be no faculty of judgment.136 Here

Cudworth singled Hobbes out as a strict nominalist who thought that there
were no such things as universals, axioms, propositions, or syllogisms. But,
Cudworth continued, Book x of Platos Laws had already addressed the basis of
Hobbes reasoning. Instead of carrying through to the true account of the natu-
ral world, Hobbes had, like the atheists in Platos Laws, stopped with the mate-
rial entities of fire, earth, water and air, and erroneously generated soul and
mind from them.137
In confuting the errors of atheism on the subjects of matter and motion
Cudworth was, like many of his fellow religious apologists, deeply concerned
to uphold a traditional notion of Gods providence against the atheist.
Cudworth began his defence by first identifying the anti-providential argu-
ments of Epicurus and Lucretius: that the frame of the world did not lead one
to the idea of God as a perfectly powerful being; that the evident evil in the
world did not lead one to the idea of God as a perfect moral being; and the
evident prosperity of the wicked did not lead one to expect a God who inter-
vened in the affairs of men. In response Cudworth pointed out that it was
unreasonable to demand that God should intervene at any moment in the cre-
ated universe. If nothing else, Cudworth cited the traditional classical argu-
ment that the unclear state of human affairs enabled the cultivation of religious
faith and Christian virtue. Furthermore, any supposed judgment of Gods work
must take a synoptic view. Undue attention to a part of creation was only
bound to obscure the overall picture. Given that Gods ways were not mans
ways, Cudworth argued that we ought not to restrict the full work of God to the
narrowness of human conception. Nor could we make a proper judgment
without examining the whole of time. Conventionally, Cudworths God was
concerned to uphold and maintain the eternal economy of justice, working all
things together for good, watching over the sparrow and stars alike.138
Defending Gods providence was both a natural and moral task, and
Cudworth attempted to address the full scope of the moral and political chal-
lenge posed by anti-providential atheists, just like many of his fellow religious
apologists. One of the most important arguments of supposed atheists like
Hobbes and Spinoza was that religion should be subordinated to the interests
of civil sovereignty. Earlier in Chapter 5 Cudworth had started to address this
claim, with Hobbes, Spinoza, and perhaps Machiavelli in mind. There it was
argued that the idea of God could not be the product of some universal

136 Ibid., 8513. Another striking resemblance to the arguments found in Platos Theaetetus.
137 Ibid., 854, 85961.
138 Ibid., 88990.
Anti-atheist Plato 179

political conspiracy because such a claim was unreasonable and absurd. In

keeping with the standard anti-atheist confutation argument, Cudworth
insisted that a religion based on a cheat could not spread over the whole of
mankind; nor could it account for the providential triumph of the Christian
religion. If the Christian religion was a cheat, Cudoworth asked, to whose polit-
ical advantage was its rise favourable given its ethical and political tenets?139
Against the likes of Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Spinoza, Cudworth insisted
that the natural obligation of personal conscience was the foundation upon
which civil right and authority were grounded. Contrary to what he under-
stood as the atheists conception of conscience as the dictate of private inter-
est, Cudworth characterized conscience as the inner voice of natural obligation,
a voice which could never justify rebellion, in spite of what he took to be
Hobbes claimed to the contrary.140 Without this natural, moral, and political
obligation, covenants were nothing but empty words. If obligation derived
solely from utility, as Epicurus and Hobbes had suggested, obligation would
end where utility did. Thus, civil sovereignty would be a fiction akin to the
atheists religion. For Cudworth, the idea of civil sovereignty as a useful fiction
inverted the proper relationship between divine and positive law: Leviathans
nominalism trumped the eternal and immutable law of God.141 Cudworth
detected several errors in this argument, beginning with the suggestion that
civil sovereignty was itself based only on fear. This argument implied that there
were no motives other than fear constitutive of moral obligation, that Leviathan
ruled through the insurmountable power of his will because his power was
simply the greatest to be feared. Cudworth insisted that civil sovereignty
needed to be considered from both an ethical and political point of view. To
subordinate the ethical to the political, or even to consider the one without the
other, was to fall immediately into error by addressing only one aspect of
human nature.
Hobbes had therefore villanized human nature according to Cudworth by
depicting the state of nature as a state of war engendered by mans appetites
and private interest, without any consideration of natural obligation or right.
Cudworth found Hobbes saying, in both De Cive and Leviathan, that justice was
a purely human artifice and certainly not natural. Hobbesian justice was nomi-
nal, instituted by mens words in the transfer of right from their own person to
that of another. Once again, Cudworth thought Hobbes had made a false start
by arguing that mens words could have any effect whatsoever on the nature of

139 Ibid., 6913.

140 Ibid., 8989.
141 Ibid., 697700.
180 chapter 4

law. Law was not made by mens words or by their will, nor should such positive
law be equated with a covenant or pact. For Cudworth, pacts were simply the
convention of mens words, and could not have the power, force, or authority to
make anyone obey. Cudworth therefore accused Hobbes of running in a logical
circle: he derived the Obligation of Civil Laws from Covenants; of Covenants
from Laws of Nature; and of Laws of Nature again, from Civil Laws.142
Hobbes had completely undermined the basis of moral and political obliga-
tion and, just as importantly, he had undercut any connection between obedi-
ence to the sovereign and the sovereigns pursuit of the common good. What
was rationally necessary for obedience, Cudworth maintained by contrast, was
the natural justice founded in the authority of God. As with most early modern
confutations of atheism, Cudworth thought that the justice of the civil sover-
eign participated in the just authority of God because human beings and God
were part of a shared moral community. Sovereignty was therefore not a crea-
ture of the peoples will, but had the Stamp of Divinity upon it. The City of
God and the City of Man were interwoven. Without God, Cudworth declared,
men could never have come together to form a polity. Like atoms in the void,
individual men were incapable of a fortuitous concatenation resulting in civil
order. It was better to consider the whole world as one city that encompassed
both God and rational man, Cudworth insisted. God reigned over this city not
in the style of an all-powerful Leviathan, but as a perfectly good God through
eternal and immutable natural justice. Leviathans authority was therefore spu-
rious despite its pretension to absolute power, for where there was no true right
or authority there was no obligation to obey. Commands did not create obliga-
tion, Cudworth maintained, they presupposed it. Obligation did not arise from
the will of man or the will of God in this respect both atheists and Calvinists
were in the wrong. If Gods primary characteristic was his power, threatening
only reward and punishment, no man would be good or just for its own sake.
This confused justice and utility as goods. For Cudworth, the wisdom of Gods
justice ruled over the power of Gods will, not the other way around. The same
relationship necessarily applied to civil sovereignty: political authority lacked a
true foundation if it was based on mere force and not on natural right.143
Cudworths conclusion, in which he took stock of what he had defended and
what he had confuted, could be taken from any of the Cambridge Platonists
works, and indeed from many of the works of early modern confutation dis-
course: the Original and Head of all things, is no Blind and Inconscious Nature,
but a Perfect Understanding Being, Self-Existent; Who hath Made all that was

142 Ibid., 8901, 8935.

143 Ibid., 8958.
Anti-atheist Plato 181

fit to be Made, and after the Best manner, and Exerciseth a Just Providence
over all.144 Publishing their works after the Restoration of both the Stuart
monarchy and the Church of England, Henry More, John Smith, and Ralph
Cudworth all treated atheism as a rebellious practical sin and an irrational
intellectual error best confuted by the eternal and immutable truth of Christian
Platonism. It was a truth rooted in cosmological, political, and personal order,
the forgetting of which was symbolized as atheism lethe replacing aletheia.

144 Ibid., 899.

chapter 5

Atheism and Apostasy

Francesco Spiera was a sixteenth-century apostate from Padua whose bio-

graphical story was widely circulated in Reformation Europe. In England
Spiera was anglicized as Spira and commonly employed in texts as a powerful
trope for apostasy, crises of conscience, religious despair, and suicide. Previous
studies have focused on these factors for good reason.1 Equally important,
however, are the ways in which accounts of Spira and analogous Spira stories
intertwined with representations of atheists and the confutation of atheism
examined in previous chapters. As Spiras story was retold in various formats
over the course of the seventeenth century it continued to express deep anxi-
eties about the early modern Christian order by linking apostates and atheists
as symbols of religious, moral, and political dissolution.2

(i) Spiras Apostasy Revived

The history of Spiras story of religious apostasy began in 1548 when he publicly
disavowed Catholicism. Several contemporary authors alleged that Spira heard
an inner voice which urged him to give up Catholicism in favour of the
reformed religion. On a Protestant reading this led to a conflict between a true
inner voice and the worldly voices of Catholic priests, peers, and family mem-
bers, the result of which was a crisis of conscience leading to Spiras eventual
suicide.3 Quickly thereafter Spira became the subject of multiple publications
translated and transmitted throughout Europe. An English translation of an

1 See: A. McCollough, Mixed Motions: Protestant Struggles and the Proper Place of Feeling,
15501660, Ph.D Dissertation, University of Michigan (2007), 5296; M. MacDonald, The
Fearfull Estate of Francis Spira: Narrative, Identity, and Emotion in Early Modern England,
The Journal of British Studies, 31, 1 (1992): 3261; M. MacDonald and T.R. Murphy, Sleepless
Souls: Suicide in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 3940, 68;
M.A. Overall, The Exploitation of Francesco Spiera, The Sixteenth Century Journal, 26,
3(1995): 61937; idem, Recantation and Retribution: Remembering Francis Spira, 15481638,
in Retribution, Repentance, and Reconciliation, eds., K. Cooper and J. Gregory (Woodbridge:
Boydell, 2004), 15968.
2 M. de Certeau, The Writing of History, trans. T. Conley (New York: Columbia University Press,
1988), 127, 1345, 1534.
3 For a more detailed discussion of Spieras ordeal see Overall, Exploitation, passim.

koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2015|doi 10.1163/9789004288164_007

Atheism And Apostasy 183

early Latin account entitled A Notable and Marveilous Epistle by Matthew

Gribaldi was circulating by 1550; John Foxe included Spira in his Acts and
Monuments; Thomas Beard repeated Spiras story in his popular Theatre of
Gods Judgement (1597); and Nathaniel Bacon provided a summary narrative
derived from a variety of sources in A Relation of the Fearfull Estate of Francis
Spira (1638).4 In religious writings throughout seventeenth-century England
Spira served as an archetype of apostasy and crisis of conscience.5 Bacons
account, by far the most popular, was published dozens of times from the sev-
enteenth through to the nineteenth century and accompanied the dramatic
upsurge of anti-atheist confutation texts published from 1650 to 1700.6
The representations of atheists and arguments against atheism constructed
by early modern religious apologists were directly connected to Francis Spira
and Spira stories in the 1690s, when Bacons Fearfull Estate of Francis Spira was
republished several times alongside the The Second Spira (1692), The English
Spira (1693), Spiras Despair Revived (1694), Spira Respirans (1695), and A True
Second Spira (1697).7 First and foremost, Spira stories were exemplary. For

4 See: MacDonald, Spira, 334.

5 See: T. Morton, Two Treatises Concerning Regeneration (London, 1597), 30; W. Perkins,
AGolden Chain (London, 1600), 473, 612, 647; W. Perkins, The Combat betweene Christ and the
Divell Displayed (London, 1606), 50; R. Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (London, 1621),
780; R. Abbot, Young-Mans Warning-Peece (London, 1639), 72; W. Gouge, A Recovery from
Apostacy (London, 1639), 40; W. Fenner, The Souls Looking-Glasse (London, 1643), 122, 132;
S. DEwes, The Primitive Practice for Preserving the Truth (London, 1645), 9; J. Burroughs,
ATreatise of the Evil of Evils (London, 1654), 387, 397, 400, 418, 422, 424; S. Clarke, A Mirror or
Looking-Glasse for Both Saints and Sinners (London, 1654), 175, 178; E. Leigh, A Body of Divinity
(London, 1654), 344, 569; M. Lawrence, The Use and Practice of Faith (London, 1657), 251;
C. Love, The Dejected Souls Cure (London, 1657), 14; R. Steele, A Plain Discourse upon
Uprightness (London, 1672), 120; R. Gilpin, Demonologia Sacra (London, 1677), 378; J. Tillotson,
Sermons Preached upon Several Occasions (London, 1678), 180.
6 Bacons work was republished in the following years according to my survey of the British
Library, Cambridge University Library, The Huntington Library, William A. Clark Memorial
Library, Burke Library, Union Theological Seminary, Folger Shakespeare Library, and the
English Short Title Catalogue: 1638, 1640, 1649, 1653, 1657, 1662, 1668, 1672, 1675, 1678, 1681, 1682,
1683, 1688, 1693, 1695, 1700. As Macdonald has noted in Fearfull Estate, even this list may not
be fully representative.
7 The full titles of these works are indicative: [R. Sault], The Second Spira: Being a Fearful
Example of an Atheist Who Had Apostatized from the Christian Religion, and Dyed in Despair
at Westminster, Decemb. 8. 1692. With an Account of his Sickness, Convictions, Discourses with
Friends and Ministers; and of his dreadful Expressions and Blasphemies when he left the world.
As also a Letter from an Atheist of his Acquaintance, with his Answer to it. Published for an
Example to others, and recommended to all young Persons, to settle them in their Religion
184 chapter 5

these Protestant writers Spiras witness deserved to be preserved alongside

other Protestant testimonies like Foxes Acts and Monuments in order to com-
bat supposed Catholic slander. More directly, Bacon hoped that Spiras exam-
ple would instil godly fear, reverence, and serve as an example against
backsliding analogous to the biblical story of Lots wife.8 Where Lots wife
was punished with death for disobeying a divine command an example that
was widely used in medieval and early modern cautionary tales9 Spira was
subject to religious despair for disobeying the divine inner voice.
The anonymous authors of The English Spira constructed a warning based
on a person by the name of John Childs crisis of conscience. It was a type of
warning Robert Bolton had popularized in his Instructions for a Right
Comforting Afflicted Consciences in 1631.10 As the broadside A Warning from
God to all Apostates (1684, Figure12), made visually clear, Spira and Child were
exemplary apostates whose death resulted from the suppression of personal
Where Bacon was content to encourage the faithful by highlighting the role
of the divine inner voice, Childs story in The English Spira pointed to religious
persecution as the cause of his despair and ultimately his suicide.11 In Spiras
Despair Revived Thomas James used several separate biographical stories to
warn against Spiras despair becoming widespread in England and, impor-
tantly, to confute Atheists and Scoffers.12 In the words of Spira Respirans,
Spiras life was a Testimony for God, against the Atheism of the World and the

(London, 1692); [R. Sault], The English Spira: Being a Fearful Example of an Apostate
(London, 1693); T. James, Spiras Despair Revived. Being a Narration of the Horror and
Despair of Some late Sinners under the Apprehensions of Death and Judgment. Wherein are
such Unquestionable Examples producd, and such Matters laid down, and proved, as may
stop the Mouths of the Atheistical Scoffers and Mockers (London, 1694, 1704); Spira
Respirans: Or, the Way to the Kingdom of Heave by the Gates of Hell; In an Extraordinary
Example (London, 1695); T. Sewell, A True Second Spira: Or, A Soul Plungd in his Case, and
yet Recovered. Being Comfort for Backsliders; Or, Salvation for Sinners in the Heigth of
Despair: Being a True and Impartial Account of some Backslidings of Mr Haniel Halford, of
Thropston in Northampton-shire, and how mercy was shown to him freely at last, a few
Hours before he departed this Life (London, 1697).
8 N. Bacon, A Relation of the Fearfull Estate of Francis Spira (London, 1678), Epistle to the
Reader. As early as 1553 John Bradford had made reference to Lots wife and Spira as exem-
plary types against backsliding, J. Bradford, Writings, ed. A. Townsend, vol. 2 (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 184853), 80. See also: Overall, Francis Spira, 164.
9 A. Walsham, Providence in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 97.
10 Bolton, 12, 18, 81.
11 English Spira, ii.
12 James, 46.
Atheism And Apostasy 185

Figure12 Broadside, A Warning from God, London, 1684.

From the British Library. Used by permission.

Carnality of the greatest part of those who profess Religion.13 Thomas Sewell
used one Haniel Halford as an example in The True Second Spira to demon-
strate the central Protestant doctrine of faith by grace and to warn against

13 Spira Respirans, 4.
186 chapter 5

backsliding. Apostasy, according to Sewell, was a state of unbelief that sepa-

rated man from God and the sweet consolations of faith.14
Spira stories were exemplary insofar as they demonstrated how Spiras plight
was related to his faulty character and sin. Bacon, for instance, began the Fearfull
Estate with a character assessment. Prior to his conversions Spira was apparently
a man of good standing, personally and publicly, though he was not immune
from using his position for worldly gain. This proclivity contributed to Spiras
later spiritual dilemma: on the one hand, he had an inner voice urging him to be
faithful to the reformed faith, and on the other, he had public authorities urging
him to consider his station, his family, and his soul. Spira was thereafter tossed in
the restless waves of doubt, caught between his worldly duties and the inner
voice of conscience. According to Bacon, Spiras subsequent vacillation between
the allurements of this present world and the true inner voice cast him into a
paralyzing Wilderness of doubt leading eventually to his death.15 Spira Respi
rans, written as a fictional account by Spira himself, generalized this point, indi-
cating that original sin was the underlying cause of his apostasy.16
In The English Spira the first of several short accounts of Childs story tells us
about his faulty character. Child apparently possessed a very haughty Spirit,
was peremptory in asserting his Opinions, and displayed Pride and
Hypocrisie in exerting himself above his station and accomplishments. A sec-
ond narrative focused on Childs spiritual troubles and suicide in 1684, while a
third account drew attention to the fact that Child had printed an attack on
nonconformists in 1683 entitled A Second Argument. Child later bitterly
exclaimed against himself, [saying] that he wrote it in malice, and by the insti-
gation of the Devil, from very ill principles of Pride, Vain-glory, and Hypocrisie.
Moreover, Child had apparently been a devout dissenter and subsequently
became a Backslider from God, under pretence of Change of his Opinion
because of a slavish fear of suffering for his faith.17 Haniel Halford was por-
trayed by Sewell in the same way. When Halford saw what was happening to
fellow dissenters he pursued the Concernments of this Life but could not
quiet his Conscience. This amounted to Unbelief for questioning Gods prov-
idence, creating in Halford a hardness of Heart and an Interest in this World
that caused him to give up hope for Mercy from the Hand of God.18 For James,

14 Sewell, To the Reader.

15 Bacon, 9, 10, 12, 17.
16 Spira Respirans, 5.
17 English Spira, i, 9, 11, 27, 28.
18 Sewell, 5. In a Notice to the reader this denial of providence and unbelief was equated
with atheism: They, who are as unwilling to acknowledge God in these Dealings with the
Atheism And Apostasy 187

the revival of Spiras despair was caused, quite simply, by the guilt of Sin, and
the apprehension of the wrath of the Eternal God.19
In these Spira stories a fault of character manifested itself in both spiritual
and physical terms. Bacon reported that Spiras physical and spiritual interlocu-
tors came to different prognoses, while Spiras friends blamed his melancholick
constitution for impairing his judgment and implanting a kind of madness in
him. The physicians determined that Spiras condition was not originally caused
by a physical distemper of the humours, but that it subsequently became
humoural as a result of some grief or passion of his mind. This burden, they
surmised, then became psychosomatic and impaired Spiras faculties. On
Bacons telling Spira himself regarded his affliction as spiritual, saying Christ
must be the Physitian and the Gospel the Souls Antidote. These various spiri-
tual and physical consultations led to a hybrid prescription: physical rest, healthy
eating, and spiritual exercise. However, this treatment seemed incapable of
addressing the divide between Spira, his correct understanding of Christian
doctrine, and the inability to apply this doctrine to himself. The exemplary sta-
tus of Spira and his later incarnations derived from this reprobate unbelief, a
visible testimony of the perils of sin. Bacon, for example, recounted Spiras blas-
phemous outbursts: now I neither believe that [doctrine of Protestant grace],
nor the Doctrine of the Roman Church: I believe nothing, I have no faith, no
trust, no hope. Rebuffing all attempts at reconciliation Spira stated and re-
stated that he had fallen into the hands of the living God, committed the
unpardonable sin by denying Christ, and that he possessed a wounded and
captive soul incapable of mustering the will to accept Gods mercy.20
John Child thought he had committed the unpardonable sin for his attack
on nonconformists in the Second Argument. As with Bacons Spira, several
interlocutors attempted to dissuade Child from this belief. However, The
English Spira reported that Child showed all the signs of one whom God hath
left forsaken and hardened. He was also able to acknowledge his longing for
salvation, but denied that it could be extended to him. Instead of the assurance
of salvation, Child was under the power of unbelief and distrust, having
sinned worse than Judas.21 In Spiras Despair Revived James recorded several
conferences with Spira-like figures who were able to converse with Spira cor-
rectly about doctrine while remaining subject to unbelieving despair. As with

Immortal Spirit, as the Atheist is to acknowledge God in the Works of Creation and
Providence, shift off all such things to the utmost, they can.
19 James, Preface.
20 Bacon, 212, 223, 24, 29, 434. See also Spira Respirans, 25, 27, 31.
21 English Spira, 112, 16, 189, 203, 32, 3940.
188 chapter 5

both Spira and Child, Halford was subject to horror and feared that GOD had
forsaken him, a terrible Apprehension that he would perish outside of Gods
grace. Halford too believed he was cut off from all hopes of mercy because he
had committed the unpardonable sin. As an interlocutor in the text, Sewell
told Halford that his pride and lack of repentance amounted to denying the
efficacy of Gods mercy and the atonement of Christ. Halford replied by insist-
ing that he accepted these doctrines, but that he was nonetheless a Reprobate,
a Cast-a-way, one whom God hath rejected.22
The English Spira was supposed to be a warning to those who presume to
sin against the clear Light, Knowledge, and Dictates of their own Conscience.23
To this end it outlined, before telling the story of John Child, the office of per-
sonal conscience. It started by claiming that where ancient philosophers spoke
of a universal and immutable Law engraven on the Mind of Man, modern
Christians spoke of conscience. The consensus gentium testified to the truth of
natural law and this in turn necessitated a set of conventional duties for the
created in relation to the Creator. Worship was an act of duty and entailed a
typically Christian system of morality: God was to be feared and reverenced,
parents were to be honoured, neighbours respected in person and property,
and the golden rule observed. This law had in antiquity been known to the
generality of Mankind by its effects, and by natural anticipations and common
notions of Good and Evil imprinted in Human Nature.24 For The English Spira,
the operations and aims of conscience were recognized by all men and sup-
ported civil society in all times and places.
Yet conscience could be mis-guided. And in this assertion The English
Spira placed itself in the context of seventeenth-century casuistry, where error
was caused by the incorrect application of premises or conclusions.25 In order
to overcome error, The English Spira maintained, a proper understanding of
how conscience functioned was required. Conscience

remains a fixt and permanent Faculty in the rational Soul, a connate

Habit in the Practical Understanding, in such manner as that when the
Mind and Memory are awakened and stirred up rightly to discern and
apply that Rule to Actions past, it will be made evident, that it is above

22 Sewell, 5, 7, 112, 15.

23 English Spira, iii.
24 Ibid., 2.
25 See K. Thomas, Cases of Conscience in Seventeenth-century England, in Public Duty and
Private Conscience in Seventeenth Century England: Essays Presented to G.E. Aylmer, eds., J.
Morrill, P. Slack and D.R. Woolf (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 301.
Atheism And Apostasy 189

the power of any man to give himself or any other an absolute dispensa-
tion from this adequate Rule and Law of Conscience, which God hath
erected in our Hearts, and his Tribunal.26

In this scheme conscience was a faculty of the soul and a habit of practical
understanding. The mind judged potential actions based on the prudent appli-
cation of practical understanding to new situations as measured against this
internal dispensation. Aristotelian phronesis and Ciceronian natural law were
marshalled to support Protestant theology. Where Aristotle had concluded that
the life of virtue was its own reward, The English Spira endorsed a Christianized
Stoicism whereby conscience was a constitutive component of the virtuous life.
If, as in Aristotle and Cicero, happiness was a consequence of practical wisdom,
sound practical judgment was in turn the product of good conscience. When
conscience became wicked, The English Spira insisted, it no longer functioned
properly but operated like an Ulcer in the Body. A hot burning Conscience
totally disturbed both practical reasoning and action. Furthermore, Scripture
confirmed what Aristotle had correctly divined by Natural Light concerning
the Office and Effects of conscience. [E]ndued both with a natural and an
enlightened Mind and Conscience, Christians were doubly advantaged: they
had both natural and divine law, the one engraved on the text of every mans
heart, the other inscribed in the text of revelation. Christians free to consult
their conscience were thereby enabled to make [a] more clear and distinct
Judgment of the Principles and End as well of Divine as Moral Actions; as they
tend to the Service and Glory of God, the Good of their Neighbours, and their
own Peace and Happiness. Consequently, Christians enjoyed more peace, joy,
and happiness than those that can be apprehended by a meer natural light.27
Finally, The English Spira claimed that a good conscience in every individual
functioned as the binding thread of civil society that, combined with the prac-
tice of Christs ethical injunction to love one another, resulted not only in
Christian unity, but also maintained a divine and corporate union productive of
peace, happiness and joy in this world and the world to come.
The authors of The English Spira believed that the ancient Greeks and
Romans had recognized Gods existence, attempted to honour and worship
him, and regarded this reverence as the foundation of civil society. The authors
then connected this argument to their own Christian context by urging the
cultivation of conscience through spiritual exercise and discipline, the goal of
which was the proper ordering of reason, passion, and desire. If the love of

26 English Spira, 2.
27 Ibid., 36.
190 chapter 5

pleasure or the world preceded the love of God, as it was portrayed in each of
the Spira texts examined here, the voice of conscience would be muted. Too
many Christians, they thought, sinfully pursued this worldly love in order to
free themselves from the terrors of conscience and of their final judgment.28
Moreover, the authors of The English Spira perceived threats to the proper cul-
tivation and operation of conscience in both natural and spiritual terms.
Disordered persons such as atheists and apostates were therefore all the more
likely to impair the functioning of conscience. This understanding of the rela-
tionship between character, conscience, and Christian doctrine was similarly
construed in many anti-atheist confutations, such as those written by the
Cambridge Platonists examined in Chapter 4. As the title indicated, Henry
Mores Antidote Against Atheisme emphasized the importance of both spiritual
and physical health as components of Christian character, where virtuous
character ensured the unprejudiced operation of the faculties of conscience
and the rational apprehension of God.29 The disease and disorder of apostasy
and atheism thus had a common aetiology.
Yet the apostate was a more tangible and perhaps more potent example
than the imagined atheist. Take the description of John Childs Spira-like
despair as manifested in his sullen disposition, his physical shaking, his terri-
ble sense of Gods wrath, and his self-description as a reprobate and provoca-
tion to God. Childs ordeal was a scene supposed to be deeply troubling and
edifying to those who witnessed it:

if any Atheist in the world, who had formerly known this man, and had
conversed with him in these his Agonies, he would have seen sufficient
evidence to have convinced him that there is a Power besides, and so
much above Nature, as can with a touch shake and disorder, and turn into
confusion the strongest constitution of body, by ministring and fastning
terrible things upon the Soul.30

While the atheist and the apostate both embodied the dissolution of Christian
order, the apostate was perhaps a more tangible, straightforward, literally spec-
tacular example.

28 Ibid., 7.
29 In the Epistle Dedicatory to his Antidote More praises the philosopher Lady Anne
Conway as precisely the kind of person who combined Christian virtue and character. For
the relationship between Conway and More, see S. Hutton, Anne Conway: A Woman Philo
sopher (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
30 English Spira, 101.
Atheism And Apostasy 191

(ii) Spira and the Confutation of Atheism

The writings of Richard Sault bring the anxieties generated by Spira, apostasy,
and atheism directly together. Sault published The Second Spira: Being a fearful
Example of An Atheist who Had Apostatized from the Christian Religion, and
dyed in Despair at Westminster in 1692, and A Conference Betwixt an Atheist
andhis Friend in 1693.31 The Second Spira, published six times in 1692 alone,
reported the discovery of an English Spira who apostatized from Christianity
for a set of atheist reasons and died in a state of apostate religious despair. As
with the example of Child, Sault hoped his Spira story would startle some that
are Atheistically Inclind; and perhaps reclaim others, who by seeing this, may
conclude it their Interest. Sault also aimed to enable those subject to doubt or
despair to become settled in their religion, particularly useful, he thought, to
young persons who had not yet had the unhappy Acquaintance of our
Modern Atheists or their Principles.32 Saults Spira story had the same rhetori-
cally Christian aims as anti-atheist confutation.
The Second Spira began with a Character of young Spira in the form of a
familiar story, that of a pilgrims regress: after a typical Christian educational
upbringing, Spira went to the city of sin, London, to study law with his friends
and quickly adopted their supposedly libertine atheist creed. But Spira was not
content to laugh at religion like most wits and scoffers. His friends provided him
with the irreligious arguments he demanded, which included: that Mahomet
had more adherents than Christ; that Muslims and the savage Indians of America
had as many martyrs as Christians had; that religion was the product of habit,
custom and education; and that the formidable Notions of Conscience, Heaven,
Hell, Futurity and the Immortality of the Soul were the political inventions of
priests and cunning magistrates. These were precisely the patterned arguments
many anti-atheist apologists attributed to atheists. The newfound liberty gener-
ated by these arguments saw Spira and his friends engage in Debauchery and
Injustice. In turn, the licentious life of Vanity Fair soon reaped its carnal reward
when Spira fell sick and succumbed to the Apprehensions of Death.33

31 J. Dunton, the publisher, concluded that Sault himself was the author and the subject of
the Second Spira through an examination of his papers and letters. See H.F. Baker, Sault,
Richard (d. 1702), rev. A. McConnell, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2004). An edition including both Bacons Fearfull Estate and
Saults Second Spira was published in Edinburgh in 1693. For a brief comment on Spira,
see J.A. Redwood, Reason, Ridicule and Religion: The Age of Enlightenment in England
16601750 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1976), 101.
32 [Sault,] Second Spira, 1.
33 Ibid., 5, 7.
192 chapter 5

Aside from this brief character sketch, the bulk of The Second Spira por-
trayed Spiras physical and spiritual despair and detailed the nature and
source of his errors in keeping with the form of other Spira texts. It was, for
example, an awakened Conscience that led Spira to condemn himself as an
apostate wretch and reprobate because he had, like Peter, denied Christ. This
acknowledgment plunged young Spira into the despair Sault intervened to
remedy. Spira said that he had offended the Holy Spirit and blasphemed God
by denying providence. And, having fallen into the hands of the living God,
Spira also claimed that Gods judgment was proper, that his own Spirit of
Impertinence and Reprobation was beyond doubt, and that none but the
Atheist, the Reprobate, and all such as do the Work of the Devil are my
At one point in the text the narrator of The Second Spira said that he wisht
within my self that one or two of the loosest Atheists in the Age had been
there. Instead, Sault fulfilled his own wish within the text by reporting a dia-
logue with one of Spiras atheist friends. Saults first concern in this argument
was to demonstrate that the Soul is not Matter, a fact Descartes has provd in
his Method, by shewing that the Soul is independent of Matter. Secondly, Sault
insisted, Matter itself cannot think, neither in the Whole nor its Parts, [as] is
evident enough from Mr. Lock of HUMAN UNDERSTANDING.35 Whatever
else might be said about the properties of matter, Sault observed, the souls
immortality was an innate idea of human nature. Spira himself supported
Saults argument by confirming the immortality of the soul and divine punish-
ment in the face of the Lot of Atheists and Denyers of Christ. A letter from
one of Spiras former London friends attempted to buttress his atheist convic-
tions during the course of Saults visitation. The letter began with the Epicurean
assertion that the foundation of all reasoning was in pain and pleasure and
that Death itself is nothing. But Spira rejected this letter and his friend in
telling fashion: Oh unhappy Time, when first I imbibd these Atheistical
Principles! When first I exchanged the Christian Faith for the Creed of Spinoza
and the Leviathan! When first I relinquishd all reveald Religion for the natural
one, and the last for none at all.36 Sault had Spira dictate a letter in response
detailing That Despair and Hell is the common lot of Atheists, and telling his
friend that he had embraced the atheist arguments of Epicureans for the same
reason Spira himself once did: they allowed him to live as he pleased. Spira

34 Ibid., 22, 40, 412, 434, 50.

35 That Sault gets Lockes argument wrong is puzzling, but does not affect the direction of
his argument.
36 [Sault,] Second Spira, 10, 123, 156, 29, 30.
Atheism And Apostasy 193

also insisted that the Christian religion was true, that heaven and hell were
real, and that true happiness was found in God. Concluding, Spira exhorted
his friends to take heed of the warning of his own life as a testimony of Gods
wrath.37 In The Second Spira a lively case of the crisis of conscience added a
dramatically exemplary element to the confutation of atheism.
Sault expanded his engagement with atheism in the Conference Betwixt a
Modern Atheist, and his Friend by focusing on the arguments that he thought
made up the atheist creed of Spinoza and Hobbes. We have seen in Chapter 2
that the notion of an atheists creed was not uncommon in anti-atheist dis-
course and was used as a kind of catechistic mnemonic device. Combined with
the textual references to Richard Bentleys confutation of atheism in his Boyle
Lectures and to the explicitly Lockean discussion of thinking matter, Sault
placed his text firmly within the terrain of early modern anti-atheist confuta-
tion. For Sault, as for most early modern religious apologists, atheists and deists
denied God, providence, and the separate existence, immortality, and judg-
ment of the soul. Sault also believed that atheists such as Hobbes and Spinoza
had convinced others John Wilmot? Charles Blount? of their philosophical
tenets and subsequently reaped their pernicious rewards.38
Saults Conference is a dialogue between Eugenes and Erastus which
addresses Gods existence and the existence of a thinking principle in human
nature through the introspective approach made famous by Ren Descartes.39
Eugenes begins the dialogue by demanding that Erastus prove the existence of
God and the soul on mathematical principles, and Erastus responds by saying
that he will proceed only on truths which demand assent. This meant follow-
ing Descartes in applying doubt universally and arriving at the consequent cer-
tainty of the res cogitans through the famous cogito argument.40 Despite
reservations about its material status, the interlocutors agree on the founda-
tional axiom that man is a thinking being. They also agree that man possesses

37 Ibid., 32, 356, 367, 38.

38 Cf. H. Prideaux, Letters of Humphrey Prideaux to John Norris (London, 1875), 116, which
attributed to one Cardonnel an act of suicide as the result of being poisoned by Hobs
with blasphemy and atheism in 1681. See S.I. Mintz, The Hunting of Leviathan:
Seventeenth-century Reactions to the Materialism and Moral Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962), 147; [R. Sault,] A Conference Betwixt an
Modern Atheist, and His Friend. By the Methodizer of the Second Spira (London, 1693), The
39 Sault would later translate the work of one of Descartes most famous disciples: Nicholas
Malebranches Recherche de la vrit as Search after Truth, 2 vols. (London, 1694, 1695).
This was published by John Dutton, the publisher of the Second Spira and the Conference.
40 Ibid., 5.
194 chapter 5

ideas of perfection which demonstrate that there is a perfection which I have

not, or that something else is more perfect than I. These ideas of perfection in
the mind give rise to a logical dilemma: either I received these degrees of
Knowledge, Power, &c. Or I have them of my self.41 Erastus presents this argu-
ment to Eugenes in order to draw a contrast between mans idea of omnipo-
tence and his lack of its possession. In order to arrive at the idea of perfection,
Erastus claims, we cannot have come to it on our own and must therefore have
received it from another being. Since man is an imperfect being and is there-
fore incapable of producing an idea of perfection himself, so the Cartesian
logic goes, the idea of perfection must proceed from a perfect being other than
man. The law of non-contradiction required that the idea of perfection origi-
nate in a being itself perfect. The same axiomatic argument is then used in the
dialogue for the idea of man as a thinking being, for mans existence, and for
creation: Epicurus mere matter in motion, in other words, could not produce
thought or life.42
Eugenes presents a challenge to Erastus argument by suggesting, without
mentioning Locke, that matter may produce thought, thereby undercutting
Cartesian certainty. But Erastus chain of reasoning marches on in the same
traditional vein: nothing can produce nothing, and something imperfect can-
not produce something more perfect, therefore matter cannot produce any-
thing above or more complex than matter. This is Erastus first Cartesian point.
The second is an attack on Epicurean cosmogenesis which suggests that
amongst the infinite variety of the turnings, windings, and justlings of differ-
ent Particles together, there might have been just such a lucky hit as the
Formation of Man.43 Somewhat surprisingly, Erastus grants Eugenes this pos-
sibility.44 But that such a jostling could produce man did not mean that it is
in the power of Motion to give what we call Life, Thinking, &c. The power of
life, Erastus claims, must be the product of some Superior Power, evident
when we consider the first man. Adam and his progeny did not demonstrate a
chance concatenation of atoms in the void, as Epicureans thought, but rather
the settled Order and Chain of Causes in Nature.45 Erastus also suggests that
this argument is supported by the ongoing research conducted by natural

41 Ibid., 9.
42 Ibid., 101.
43 Ibid., 134.
44 Such a view had been aired already by Matthew Hale, for instance, who allowed that
Epicurean atoms might have produced man while rejecting chance. See M. Hale, The
Primitive Origination of Mankind (London, 1688), 247.
45 [Sault,] Conference, 16.
Atheism And Apostasy 195

hilosophers whose experiments and observations continued to reveal order

in nature, not chaos.46
With this conclusion Erastus outlines the general state of his Cartesian

I have (a) some degrees of Power, Knowledge, &c. Which I received

(b) from something without, which also has (c) Power, Knowledge,
&c.either (d) perfectly, or derivatively (e) from something which is also
(f) perfectly or imperfectly (g) Knowing, Powerful, &c. If the first, I have
what I plead for immediately; if the last, I have also what I want, (h) tho
at a greater distance; therefore there is such a first Being, who is perfectly
Knowing, Powerful, &c. and who enjoys all other degrees of Perfection,
whereof we have Ideas. And this I call God.47

This is an a priori demonstration of Gods existence. Mathematical and geo-

metrical demonstrations had and required no proof because these demonstra-
tions reveal the principles under which they operate. In the same way that
geometrical demonstrations require no further proof, a priori demonstrations
of Gods existence require no further proof either. Since man knows that he
cannot rely upon his senses and that he can rely upon reason, grounded in the
certain existence of a thinking subject, Gods existence is not, by extension,
subject to doubt. At this point in the dialogue Eugenes submits to Erastus
chain of reasoning, allowing Erastus to continue by demonstrating the appar-
ent necessity of Gods other orthodox attributes in keeping with the procedure
of early modern apologetics.48
In the second dialogue the interlocutors discuss the nature of the body
and its relationship to thought and the soul, repeating the conclusion that
thought is the Effect of a Thinking Power. However, Erastus concludes I
that think (or my Soul) is not thought, but something precedent to it. Given
the fact that the Modification of Matter is not Matter it self, unless Accidents
are Substances, and Substances Accidents, the something precedent to
thought and distinct from body is the soul. From this logic Erastes argues,
with the apparent support of Mr Lock and the Essay, that No Modification
is essentially active but every Soul is essentially Active, therefore no Soul is a
Modification. Thinking is not modification either. As Descartes pointed out
prior to Locke, Erastes insists, thinking must be of the Essence of the Soul

46 Ibid., 18.
47 Ibid., 245.
48 Ibid., 22, 256, 279.
196 chapter 5

in order for it to be active in Compounding, Dividing, Concluding, Rejecting,

Choosing, Doubting, &c.49
Having demonstrated that the soul is not a material thing nor a modifica-
tion of matter, the third dialogue discusses the souls separate existence from
the body. If the soul is an Immaterial thinking Substance, it must exist in time
and place in some particular manner.50 In being immaterial it is indivisible,
and in being indivisible its Individuality is certain. The human soul is there-
fore an immaterial substance with a particularity that survives separation from
the body. The soul is essentially active as an immaterial thinking substance and
therefore must, so the fourth dialogue reveals, be sensible of happiness
and misery in a state separate from the body. This completes the Cartesian
rejection of the Epicurean doctrine that the foundation of reasoning is the
sensation of pleasure and pain derived from matter. Erastus concludes that the
soul exists beyond the body and is the subject of good and evil, in the world of
matter and of spirit, and continues that subjectivity beyond its connection
tomatter. Given future reward and punishment, the interlocutors then discuss
the nature of good and evil and determine, not unlike the authors of The
English Spira and The Second Spira, that happiness derives from practical
choices made in proportion to rational expectations.51
In short, Saults Conference belongs firmly to the pattern and argumentation
of early modern anti-atheist confutation discourse, albeit in a highly Cartesian
fashion. The first dialogue proved a priori that the idea of God was not in the
mind of man, since the idea of perfection could not be the product of an
imperfect being; the second dialogue demonstrated the being of God, the
nature of God, and his existence a posteriori in the works of nature; the third
dialogue demonstrated the souls existence, nature, and separate existence
from the body; and the final dialogue focused on the practical side of the souls
immortality by delineating the doctrine of eternal rewards and punishments.
Together the Second Spira and the Conference turn the story of Spiras apostasy
into a confutation of the atheist creed of Epicurus, Hobbes and Spinoza.
The Judgment of God upon Atheism and Infidelity, In a Brief account of the
Irreligious Life, and Miserable Death of Mr. George Edwards (1704) provides a
final illustration of the identification of apostasy with atheism in the late
seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In the opening to his account of
the life and death of George Edwards, an Anglican minister by the name
ofJohn Smith indicts Charles Blount and several other Persons of Atheistical

49 Ibid., 301, 37, 40, 42.

50 Ibid., 43.
51 Ibid., 49, 502.
Atheism And Apostasy 197

Principles who had made it their business to vilify Scripture, and run down
Religion. In order to combat this unbelief, Smith averred, we ought to lay hold
of all Opportunities of convincing ATHEISTS, or at least, of arming Christian
People against their Impious Principles.52 Edwards life was, like Spiras, a vis-
ible testimony of Gods judgment against apostasy and atheism. In keeping
with the rhetorical norms of anti-atheist confutation and the other Spira sto-
ries examined above, Smith focused at several points in his narrative on
Edwards character. Edwards had apparently entertaind some Prejudices
against Religion, which made him loose and careless on that Account: he sel-
dom went to church, he gave little credit to Scripture, he believed in no future
state, he looked upon religion as the device of men, and he said All Things
came by Nature. This was not far from the Epicurean atheist creed as it was
thought to have been revived by Hobbes, Spinoza, and now Blount. After a
conference between Edwards and Smith where they debated Edwards objec-
tions to God and the Christian religion, we are told that Edwards adopted a
licentious or libertine way of living. When Edwards later repented and
acknowledged God and the Christian religion, he condemned himself as a rep-
robate beyond Gods grace just like Spira. From this point of acknowledg-
ment onward, however, Edwards continued to vacillate between licentious
living and periods of calm, eventually taking his own life in despair again,
just like Spira. Notably, Smith concluded that Edwards suicide was the dread-
ful and miserable End of his Atheism and Infidelity, his Irreligion and Impiety.
Practical atheists like Edwards were one of the main Causes, and the principal
Support of Speculative Atheism.53 The true lesson and ultimate consequence
of Blounts atheism was read into Edwards life, as it had been in Saults version
of the Spira story.
Smith devoted considerable space to Edwards atheist objections. In a first
conference within the narrative Smith tried to reason with Edwards by argu-
ing that creation required a creator, effect required a cause, that the natural
world could not have come from itself, that there was evident wisdom and
contrivance in natural phenomena which were impossible to attribute to an
Epicurean blind Principle, and that mere matter in motion could not account

52 J. Smith, The Judgment of God upon Atheism and Infidelity, In a Brief Account of the
Irreligious Life, and Miserable Death of Mr. George Edwards (London, 1704), 34, 5.
53 Ibid., 8, 379, 423. On page 47 Smith warned against those who tried to support religion
facetiously and spread atheism by denying the immateriality of the soul, pointing to the
Grand Essay (London, 1704), which, he wrote, should have had its subtitle as its true title:
A Vindication of the Reason and Religion of Mr. Hobbs, Spinoza and W.C. On the Grand
Essay, see Redwood, 13942.
198 chapter 5

for mans ability to think.54 At the conclusion of this conference Smith lent
Edwards the work of Dr Scot, presumably a volume of John Scotts popular
work of practical piety, The Christian Life (1681), and Charles Leslies more
speculatively inflected Short and Easie method with Deists (1698).55 After read-
ing these books Edwards admitted, in a second conference with Smith, that
they contained many fine arguments. But Edwards maintained his unbelief,
citing the possibility that Scripture might be an imposture, that the diversity
of religious opinions called into question the truth of religion, and that the
hypocritical practice of so many Christians contradicted the sincerity of their
belief. Smith acknowledged, for his part, that most men were led by their pas-
sions rather than true principles. But, he asked, should we get rid of the law
simply because people break it? For Smith, Christian hypocrisy was no
Argument against the Truth of God or the Christian religion. After reading
John Wilkins Of the Principles and Duties of Natural Religion (1675) and
Matthew Hales Primitive Origination of Mankind (1677), Edwards confessed
that belief in the being of God, the immortality of the soul, and the divine
authority of Scripture were all more rational than unbelief. Yet still he could
not believe.56 As this point makes clear, the narratives of the English Spira
was often an exemplary tale wherein the gift of grace had been forfeited by
practical atheism in the form of apostasy.
The most elaborate account of Edwards atheistic and apostate views were
presented within the narrative as a series of letters written to Smith entitled
Of the Being, or not Being of GOD, Of the Eternity of the World, and Of the
Origination, or Eternity of Man. Put briefly, Edwards objected to the argument
from the universal consent of mankind in the belief in a deity because God had
also been denied in all times and places, as the Cannibals of America and the
ancient Greek atheists Diagoras and Theodorus apparently confirmed; that
belief in God and in creation ex nihilo were the result of education, not convic-
tion; that most men were hypocritical and merely pretended to religion; that
religion was the result of policy, fear, and interest; that the conflicting diversity
of religious belief indicated it was not true; that matter had existed from eter-
nity, as Aristotle had taught; that the universe was generated in its present

54 Smith, 910.
55 David Berman discusses how Leslies work also played a role in converting another of
Blounts disciples, Charles Gildon, back to the truth of the Christian religion, who then
himself wrote confutations of Blount and Spinoza. Berman, A History of Atheism in
Britain: From Hobbes to Russell (London, 1988), 958. See Gildons, The Deists Manual
(London, 1705) on Hobbes, Spinoza and Blount.
56 Smith, 114.
Atheism And Apostasy 199

form from Epicurus Coaltion of Atoms; and that there were multiple prob-
lems with the Genesis story, including Adamic monogenesis.57
Edwards objections, in other words, were spread across the fourfold range
of anti-atheist confutation discourse, and Smith, unsurprisingly, replied in
kind. Smith reaffirmed Ciceros consensus gentium by arguing that no society
of atheists had ever existed and that the atheists of antiquity were either very
few in number or were counted as atheists simply for denying Greek polythe-
ism, as Socrates had done. Smith stated that he had never met with an honest,
sober, or just man who denied God, and asked for an example of a virtuous
atheist whose Testimony deserves to be considerd. While men learned reli-
gion from education, Smith admitted, such education was simply an elabora-
tion of an essential truth all men assented to. Nor could religion have been a
device of politicians, since there was no testimony of a time when it was not
believed. Fear and interest could not have propagated religion, Smith insisted,
because fear was the proper result of religion, not its basis. Reiterating a point
he had made earlier, Smith stated that the hypocrisy of mankind proved only
that men may act contrary to their knowledge and, through free will, break the
law. Smith deflected Edwards challenge based on the fact of religious diversity
by claiming that all Protestants agreed on the essentials of religion, namely,
that Scripture was the rule of faith and worship. Nor could the universe be
eternal, Smith contended, because a succession of causes and effects required
an absolute beginning; Epicurus accidental meeting together of Atoms was
pure Folly and Nonesense. For Smith, as for nearly all early modern apolo-
gists, it was far more probable that a being of infinite power, wisdom, and
goodness created the universe, than that it was created by chance. Finally,
Smith gave a series of answers to Edwards objections regarding Genesis, reply-
ing to the problem of physical diversity by arguing that Adam and Eve could be
humanitys common parents because the Earth in its infancy was far more fer-
tile than in its present state.58 To every supposedly atheistic and apostate
objection, then, the early modern cleric had a conventional reply.
These Spira stories and their connection to anti-atheist confutation dis-
course reveal the extent to which apostasy and atheism were the expression of
very powerful anxieties throughout early modern England. Apostasy and athe-
ism continued to manifest a heightened sense of unease generated by the
Reformation dissolution of Christian unity, as well as the Renaissance recircu-
lation of disconcerting non-Christian arguments. Apostates and atheists were
therefore described and attacked on the same terms. According to the religious

57 Ibid., 1820.
58 Ibid., 2331.
200 chapter 5

apologists of the time, both apostates and atheists were characterized by the
primordial sin of pride; and as a consequence, both apostates and atheists dis-
ordered the proper relationship between reason, passion, and desire. Simply
put, the character flaws personified in atheists and apostates signified an
inversion of the early modern ideal of personal, social, and political order. This
helps to explain the ferocity with which the atheist creeds of Hobbes, Spinoza
and Blount were confuted from the time of the civil wars onward. It also
explains why texts by Richard Parsons and Gilbert Burnet, such as The Libertine
Overthrown; or, A Mirror for Atheists (1690), which recounted the life and sup-
posed death-bed conversion of the libertine Earl of Rochester, were so impor-
tant, so popular, and so telling.59 In the hands of Parsons and Burnet, Rochesters
exemplary tale mirrored the anti-atheist, apologetic intentions of the Spira
stories. The confutations of atheism directed towards Hobbes, Spinoza,
Rochester, and Blount were amplified and popularized through the revivifica-
tion of Spiras story in England between 1680 and 1720. Spiras story became yet
another way for early modern religious apologists to reassert the triumph of
the Christian religion practically and speculatively at the precise moment
when the traditional basis of that triumph was being vigorously contested by
early Enlightenment thinkers.

Kenneth Sheppard, Atheism, Apostasy, and the Afterlives of Francis Spira in Early Modern
England, The Seventeenth Century 27, 4 (2012): 41034. The Seventeenth Century reprinted by
permission of Taylor & Francis Ltd.

59 [G. Burnet?] The Libertine Overthrown; or, a Mirror for Atheists (London, 1690); cf.
G. Burnet, Some Passages of the Life and Death of the Right Honourable John, Earl of
Rochester (London, 1680); R. Parsons, A Sermon Preached at the Funeral of the Rt Honorable
John Earl of Rochester (London, 1680).
chapter 6

Atheism and Society

For He, said Velleius speaking of Epicurus, first discernd that Gods there
were, because Nature her self had impressed a Notion of them in the Minds of
all men. For what People, or Countrey ever was there, that had no previous to
all instruction, a certain Anteperception of a Deity.1 Here, in an early modern
translation, was Ciceros Epicurean mouthpiece offering a confirmatio of para-
mount importance to the early modern anti-atheist confutatio. As a counter-
argument against atheism taken from the mouth of a philosophic rival and
enemy, an Epicurean, it was incessantly echoed and amplified by early modern
anti-atheists. But why, exactly, was the Stoic argument from the universal con-
sent of mankind in the belief in a deity so important to the defenders of the
truth of the Christian religion?
In early modern England religious apologists frequently claimed that the
presence of atheists in society threatened to unravel the interwoven bonds of
personal, social, and political order. As this chapter will show, atheists were
thought to presage a sociopolitical world turned upside-down, a world which
would necessarily descend into chaos, disorder, and ultimately tyranny. Corres
pondingly, the early modern apologetic vision of politics was theological to the
extent that political order depended upon right practice and right belief. For
instance, Richard Baxter gave voice to a common claim that if God was not
feared as the all-powerful governor of the world who upheld natural and civil
law, no man need to fear or avoid any thing forbidden by the Laws of Man. In
other words, without God every individual became an anarchical law unto
themselves. In The Reasons for the Christian Religion Baxter tied the infidelity
of atheism to the destruction caused by the Great Fire of London the year
before. Upon the Atheists grounds, Baxter warned, How easie is it for cun-
ning malice to burn a Town [margin: As London now is], to kill a King, to
poison wife or children, and to defraud a neighbour, and never be discovered?2
Having indicated the depth and breadth of the conviction that atheism was
politically, socially, and religiously subversive, this chapter will then show how
important the Stoic argument from the universal consent of mankind in the
practice and profession of religion was to early modern English anti-atheist
confutations and how early modern travel literature was frequently cited as

1 Cicero, Ciceros Three Books Touching the Nature of the Gods, [trans. Anon.] (London, 1682), 25.
2 R. Baxter, The Reasons for the Christian Religion (London, 1667), 50.

koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2015|doi 10.1163/9789004288164_008

202 chapter 6

evidence against the existence of atheists in either the ancient past or the con-
temporary early modern world. European encounters with foreign societies as a
result of imperial expansion and globalized commerce, described in the periods
abundant travel literature, were used as crucial pieces of evidence by religious
apologists against the very existence of atheists. It will be seen that early modern
religious writers also spilled an enormous amount of ink on the question of
whether or not the three most frequently cited atheists of Greek antiquity
Diagoras of Melos, Protagoras, and Theodorus of Cyrene were in fact atheists,
and on showing how their existence could be explained according to long-
established patterns of religious argumentation. As conventionally formulated by
clergymen such as Edward Stillingfleet, arguments from the evidence of global
travel and from the apparent non-existence of ancient atheists provided two key
rhetorical manoeuvres within anti-atheist confutation. Together, these arguments
constituted a powerful challenge to the conceptual possibility of the existence of
atheists in this period by marshalling what was considered to be the strongest
possible natural evidence of the necessity of religion to political society.

(i) Anti-atheism and Political Order

In keeping with the Christian classical tradition as expressed in Augustines De

civitate dei, from Phillipe du Plessis Mornays A Work Containing the Trewnesse
of the Christian Religion onward, very many early modern religious apologists
viewed history and politics in a providential vein and consequently attacked
atheism as a fundamentally anti-social and anti-political set of beliefs and
practices.3 In the Atheomastix Martin Fotherby portrayed the rise and fall of
great cities and societies according to the conventional terms of the content of
their beliefs and the substance of their moral practices. This providential
vision of the connection between the City of God and the City of Man was a
classical trope infused with biblical overtones. Where the biblical book of
Daniel recorded the famous prophecy about the four earthly empires, in which
Rome was thought to be the last, Fotherby echoed a widely shared sentiment
in viewing the history of other empires and cities, such as that of Carthage and
Troy, in similar terms. Both biblical and pagan writings confirmed Gods provi-
dential preordination of political society as a fixt and certain truth: the rising
and falling of Cities, Kingdomes, and Common wealths, are the decrees and
appointments of Gods onely Providence.4

3 See the epigraph to Chap. 1, taken from Augustines De civitate dei, and Chap. 2.
4 M. Fotherby, Atheomastix (London, 1622), 265.
Atheism And Society 203

A widely shared view, the religiously providential vision of politics was

expressed by John Hall in Of Government and Obedience (1654) as a conclusion
of natural reason in which he had shown

the necessary tye and dependance of political good and peace on religion
and its precepts; and how it is, not onely injurious to God, but wrong to
our selves, to deprive him of superintendant dominion and administra-
tion, either in the government of our persons, or estates. And indeed to
deny Gods care and superintendency over moral agents and actions as
well as natural ones, is an opinion bordering not only on Atheism, but on
absurdity also; when as men shall be hereby thought not so valuable in
the eye of Divine care and providence as beasts; nay as stocks and stones.5

Hall went on to argue that the practice of religion must not only be public, but
all deviations from the one true public religion should be proscribed. As the
public practice of religion prevented atheism, so the practice of one form of
public worship prevented the growth of polytheism. Furthermore, Hall claimed
that it was a truth of both reason and revelation that atheists were hedonists
whose disobedience and vice was destructive of political society. Without
Gods existence, the belief in true religion, and the acknowledgement of con-
science, nothing would prevent each man from presumptuously setting him-
self up as judge and seeking only his own interest:

For Religion must be acknowledged the onely thing that can steadily
keep loyalty and all other vertues in perfection. For the terrors of shame
and the Law may, through secrecy, power, and corruption of manners be
many times wholly defeated of their force of restraint: but, to him that
believs the eye of an all-seeing God is perpetually over him, as no severity
can be found sufficient to scare him from goodness, so no encourage-
ment can arise valuable to entice him to evil.6

The same extremely widespread image was invoked in 1660 by Thomas Hall in
The Beauty of Magistracy in an Exposition of the 82 Psalm. Citing religious error
as the cause of the dissolution of government, Hall even went so far as to sug-
gest that the magistrate who wielded authority may put to death Atheists as

5 J. Hall, Of Government and Obedience (London, 1654), 211. On the patriarchal context of John
Hall of Richmond, as he styled himself, see G. Schochet, The Authority of the Family and
Political Attitudes in 17th-Century England (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988), 1636.
6 Hall, Of Government, 348, 411.
204 chapter 6

a threat to political and religious order.7 As George Lawson put it in 1659 in

Theo-politica, atheism was a rebellious sin that rejected God as universall
Lord, Law-giver, who takes notice of all mens hearts, acts, doings, to reward, or
punish them accordingly. To Lawson, atheism was a punishable crime against
God and sovereign alike, as well as the embodiment of social disorder: it cuts
in sunder the ligaments or bonds of humane society, fearfully perverts judge-
ment, and supplants the validity of oaths by undermining divine judgment.8
Views such as these were a combination of a traditional Christian under-
standing of the religious foundation of political society and a newly forceful
expression of anxiety about civil and religious wars in the midst of the civil
wars. They were echoed in confutations of atheism such as Walter Charletons
The Darkness of Atheism Dispelled by the Light of Nature, which argued that
Religion (the vitall Spirits of all Commonweals, and the Sanction of all Human
Laws) and the sacred Authority of the Church (the onely Brasen Wall of
defence against those Legions of Errors, and Illusions, which the common
Adversary of mankind, by his subtle working upon the Deceptibility of our frail
Nature, hath advanced) are both so shatterd and undermined by our Fatall
Civill Warre.9 Charleton elaborated further by putting an argument for the
immortality of the soul in the mouth of Athanasius, the orthodox spokesper-
son in his natural philosophical dialogue on that most important topic:

for, as certain as God is, so certain is it, that He is just: and since it doth
evidently consist with the method of Gods justice, that it should be well
with Good men, and ill with evil men; and we do not observe Good and
Evil to be accordingly distributed in this life, but rather the contrary;
Good men generally being even overwhelmed with afflictions, and
wicked men as generally swimming in pleasures: It follows, that there
must be another life, wherein Virtue is to receive its reward, and Vice its
punishment. And, if it were otherwise, the gates of Piety would be shut
up, and those of Impiety opened; all Religion be subverted, all honesty
destroyed, and all Human Society dissolved.10

7 T. Hall, The Beauty of Magistracy in an Exposition of the 82 Psalm (London, 1660), 36, 81.
8 G. Lawson, Theo-Politica, or, A Body of Divinity Containing the Rules of the Special
Government of God (London, 1659), 153, 175, 180. Lawson invoked Iraneus and Tertullian
generally (as the full title of his book makes clear), and he appealed to Augustine for his
early modern inflection of apostolic and creedal Christianity.
9 W. Charleton, The Darkness of Atheism Dispelled by the Light of Nature (London, 1652),
Tothe Reader.
10 W. Charleton, The Immortality of the Human Soul, Demonstrated by the Light of Nature
(London, 1659), 145.
Atheism And Society 205

Just as God was necessary to the establishment of political society as the ulti-
mate source of the authority and obligation of oaths, so the immortality of the
soul and its judgment by God in the afterlife was necessary for the execution of
natural and divine justice and the preservation of civil society. As we saw in
Chapter 4, Henry More, John Smith, and Ralph Cudworth thought that anyone
who denied the immateriality or immortality of the soul, such as Hobbes and
Spinoza, were atheists who promoted the tyranny of Leviathan because there
was no other way to maintain temporal obedience.
The religious foundation of political society was a commitment consistently
rearticulated in Restoration England, where the civil wars and their social and
political consequences loomed large in the minds of religious apologists. In a
sermon preached in 1661, Richard Allestree linked mans social nature, evident
in his capability of speech, to the moral obligation of natural law upheld by
God, and without which human society would dissolve.11 In a sermon delivered
a month after the Great Fire of London, Allestree drew out the political conse-
quences of atheism with an invocation of Hobbes Leviathan, which he depicted
as undermining all such divine and temporal obligation. There would be

no fear of God, nor sense of Honestie or Vertue, the whole world must
needs return into the first confusions of its Chaos: Villany and Rapine
would have right. When those Mounds are thrown down, there is nothing
that can hinder but that every man may lawfully break in upon and
invade every thing. indeed there can be nothing thine. This is, tis true,
Leviathans state of Nature; and, tis so indeed with the Leviathans of Sea
and Land, the wilde Beasts of the Deep and of the Desert. But to prevent
the necessary and essential mischiefs of this state amongst us Men, He
will have Nature to have taught us to make Pacts and Oaths: but if theres
no such thing as Vertue or Religion, then there is no obligation to keep
Pacts or Oaths. So necessary sure, that they who weaken these bonds of
Religion, quite dissolve those of Allegiance, all whose Sinews are made of
Sacred Ties, which if you untwist, the other Cords are burst as easily as
threads of Cobweb. Nay these Doctrines lay Principles that justifie
Rebellion and King-killing. For if theres no such thing as Vertue or Religion,
then those are no Crimes. And it is no wonder Treason hath been lovd,
when Blasphemy hath been so.12

11 R. Allestree, Eighteen Sermons (London, 1669), 28.

12 R. Allestree, A Sermon Preached before the King at White Hall on Sunday Nov. 17 1666
(London, 1667), 68.
206 chapter 6

Similarly for the puritan Richard Baxter, political disturbances and fears were
not caused by religious doctrine, as Lucretius had argued, but by carnal inter-
est. Although religion seemed to be part of the cause, it is the Atheists and
ungodly that are commonly the chief contenders because they deny future
rewards and punishments, the motive, the poise of all wise and regular actions,
and of Love and Peace, of right Government and obedience, and of justice,
mercy, and all that is lovely in the world.13
The dissenter Charles Wolseley took a step further than many of his fellow
apologists when he asked the reader of the The Unreasonableness of Atheism
made Manifest to imagine a whole Country of Atheists, that believed nothing
above nor beyond this world. In conventional fashion, Wolseley argued that
the distinction between good and evil must consequently vanish because that
distinction required a relation to something above us. Without a divine power
above, each man would regard himself as a sovereign ruling principle and
would seek only to please himself, to do whatsoever his own inclination dic-
tates to him. In order for reward and punishment to actually mean anything,
Wolseley insisted, there must be a supreme standard of good and evil from
which justice derives. But if the atheist was right, he would be then under no
Law but himself. Echoing the common apologetic trope uttered by Allestree,
Wolseley claimed that in a society of atheists no one would respect private
property because no one could be secure in that possession from anothers
power. Only the acknowledgment of God, and the exercise of Conscience, give
Men a ground of security one in another, for there could never possibly be
any Government settled amongst Atheists. Pace Hobbes, Wolseley thought
that no one would forfeit his right to a supreme power unless they thought that
that power would be just rather than self-interested. Because of his supposed
devotion to self-interest, the atheist was precisely the kind of person who
could not be trusted in society an atheist was the greatest Traitor because
no obligation prevented him from being disingenuous and false.14
Up to and well beyond the early eighteenth century anti-atheist arguments
continually amplified the negative picture Wolseley drew of an atheist society.
If supposed atheists thought religion was a fiction imposed by cunning politi-
cians based on mans fears, it was unfathomable to William Bates how such an
error could have ever obtained universal consent or, as an error, provided the
foundation for the manifest good that was political society. Rather, as he put it
in 1676 in Considerations of the Existence of God, it was evident that all Civil

13 Baxter, 5801, 582.

14 C. Wolseley, The Unreasonableness of Atheism Made Manifest, 3rd ed. (London, 1675), 149,
1512, 1546, 160, 1623.
Atheism And Society 207

Powers suppose the notion of a God to be an inseparable property of humane

Nature, and thereby make their Authority sacred in the esteem of the People,
as derived from the Universal Monarch.15 To Clement Ellis in The Folly of
Atheism, if men were persuaded, That there is no God, no rewarder of good, no
punisher of the wicked; and that there is nothing either to be hoped for, or
feared, but in this life only, society would quickly descend into disorder and
confusion, and all manner of mischief and misery. Only the practice of true
religion would make men happy and restore good order in the world.16
John Locke embraced a vision of politics which shared several of these anti-
atheist assumptions. As controversial as its argument for religious toleration
was, Lockes exception of no toleration for atheists in A Letter concerning
Toleration was conventional:

Those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the Being of a God. Promises,
Covenants, and Oaths, which are the Bonds of Humane Society, can have
no hold upon an Atheist. The taking away of God, tho but even in thought,
dissolves all. Besides also, those that by their Atheism undermine and
destroy all Religion, can have no pretence of Religion whereupon to chal-
lenge the Privilege of a Toleration.17

Lockes intolerance of atheists rested on the moral anxieties he shared with

anti-atheist religious apologists in which the bonds of human society were
cemented by a fiduciary duty ultimately guaranteed by a belief in God. Without
the divine source of authority and obligation for ones oaths, political society
lacked a moral foundation. As John Dunn has shown, the concept of trust
embedded within oaths and promises was at the centre of Lockes political
To early modern anti-atheist apologists an atheist was politically character-
ized as a rebel, a traitor, and a selfish hedonist; an atheist could not honestly

15 W. Bates, Considerations of the Existence of God (London, 1676), 107, 1089.

16 C. Ellis, The Folly of Atheism (London, 1692), 23, 25.
17 J. Locke, A Letter concerning Toleration (London, 1689), 42. It was also expressed earlier by
Locke in his 1667 An Essay concerning Toleration, see J. Locke, Political Writings, ed. D.
Wootton (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993), 188. Wootton, however, interprets Lockes anti-
atheism according to Lockes discussion of the law of opinion rather than traditional
anti-atheism. See Wootton, Introduction, 109.
18 J. Dunn, Locke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), Chap. 2; idem, The Political Thought
of John Locke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 183; see also J. Tullys
Introduction in J. Locke, A Letter concerning Toleration, ed. J. Tully (Indianapolis:
Hackett, 1983), 8.
208 chapter 6

enter into any social relationships because there was no basis for interpersonal
obligation; an atheist was an anti-social and anti-political other. Although
never directly mentioned by anti-atheists themselves, the early modern apolo-
gists moral and political understanding of the atheist embodied the moral and
political challenge Thrasymachus issued to Socrates in Platos Republic: is jus-
tice not merely the advantage of the stronger?19 Instead of Platos reincarna-
tion myth of Er, early modern religious apologists argued that without the fear
and love of God, the proper expression of moral and political obligation based
on Gods existence and perfect attributes, and the existence of an immortal
and immaterial soul which would face ultimate and eternal judgment, political
society would dissolve and succumb to the power of a strongman. In its most
clear and simple expression, religious apologists thought atheism simultane-
ously presaged the twin evils of anarchy and tyranny.
While the sociopolitical anxiety caused by the presence of alleged atheists
was on the rise for Christian apologists throughout this period, and particu-
larly after the collapse of political and religious authority at midcentury, this
anxiety was very often met by a reinforced argument from the universal con-
sent of mankind in religious practice and belief. Anti-atheist apologists rein-
vigorated the conclusions they drew from universal consent by appealing to a
growing body of travel literature which simultaneously bolstered the claim
that the alleged atheists of antiquity were not legitimate exceptions. The flex-
ible character of confutation enabled anti-atheist apologists to confront their
anxieties on familiar argumentative terms.

(ii) Anti-atheism and Universal Consent

The universal consent of mankind in the expression of religious belief demon-

strated that man was a naturally religious animal, homo religiosus. We have
seen that this was a conclusion early modern Christian apologists consistently
voiced. As a religious animal man could not be true to nature without engaging
in religious practice of some kind; moreover, political society and religion were
providentially interwoven. Typologies of religion in this period reflected this

19 Those familiar with M. de Montaignes Essais may have recalled his citation of this argu-
ment. See: Apologie for Raymond de Sebonde in Essays of Michael Seigneur de Montaigne,
vol. 2, trans. C. Cotton (London, 1686), 391. For direct citations of Thrasymachus argu-
ment, see T. Smyth, De Republica Anglorum (London, 1585), 2; E. Waterhouse, Fortescutus
illustratus, or, A commentary on that nervous treatise, De laudibus legum Angliae, written by
Sir John Fortescue (London, 1663), 62.
Atheism And Society 209

understanding. Religions were sometimes categorized along a spectrum

according to their object of worship: monotheism, polytheism, and pantheism/
animism. Various societies, from the ancient to the contemporary world, were
then placed in one or another of these categories. Crucially, no apologists
acknowledged the existence of a society of atheists.
The notion that man was fundamentally homo religiosus, established on the
evidence of universal consent, derived from the classical tradition mostly com-
monly associated with Cicero and the later Stoics. Early modern apologists fre-
quently echoed Cicero and amplified the Stoic strategy by employing universal
consent in an apologetic argument common to the patristic example they
aimed to imitate. Du Plessis Mornay, for instance, established what he took to be
the argument for Gods existence from universal consent by canvassing a broad
swath of historical human testimony, from ancient poets such as Homer and
Orpheus, to philosophers such as Pythagoras and Plotinus, to the ancient societ-
ies of Egypt and Rome.20 In Gods Arrow Against Atheists, Henry Smith was one
among many citing Ciceros dictum, that there was never any Nation so savage,
or people so barbarous, but alwaies confessed there was a God, as a testimony
of universal consent derived from both heathen and Judeo-Christian sources.21
In the First Part of the Resolution of Religion, Richard Broughton dedicated an
entire chapter to universal consent, citing the universal idolatry spread amongst
mankind as the cause of Gods judgment in the Deluge. He even dealt with
apparent exceptions by briefly linking the recently discovered peoples of
Brasilea to the irreligion of sensual and impious Epicureans, insisting that

there was neuer almoste any truth so euident, but by one Cittie, Towne,
Countrie, companye of People or other, it hath beene denied: onlie this
veritie of Religion, and obligation of worshippe to God, hath been so
manifest, that in so manie thousands of yeares, in no one age, yeare, or
day, in so many vaste and populous Nations, no litle Kingdome, Prouince,
Citie, Towne, Village, or priuate person, but in such sense as I haue
declared, & to their owne confusion, called it into question.22

In A Confutation of Atheisme, John Dove expressed a similarly Ciceronian senti-

ment, offering an argument for Gods existence based on the general consent,

20 P. du Plessis Mornay, A Work concerning the Trewnesse of Christian Religion: Against

Atheists, Epicures, Paynims, Jewes, Mahumetists, and Other Infidels, trans. P. Sidney and A.
Golding (London, 1587), Chap. 3.
21 H. Smith, Gods Arrow against Atheists (London, 1593), 1.
22 R. Broughton, The First Part of the Resolution of Religion (London, 1603), 81, 845.
210 chapter 6

not onelye of the learned men of the worlde, but also of the worlde it selfe.23
In the words of William Towers confutation, Atheismus Vapulans, there never
was a Professd Society, and Combination of Atheists.24 Following Cicero and
Seneca in the Arraignment and Conviction of Atheism, David Derodon argued
that no man can bring any solid Reason against the universal consent in the
belief in God or against the fact that it is spread all the World over; that it
hath been received in all Ages, that it hath constantly maintained it self
amidst all the Revolutions of Humane Sensuality; that it hath been found in
the remotest Islands, and in those Lands which are separated from us by such
a most unconceibale vastness of Seas; that they have been discovered but in
later Ages.25 To very many early modern apologists for the Christian religion
in seventeenth-century England, then, Ciceros dictum held good: omnium
consensus vox naturae est.
Yet, as these early modern writers were well aware, Cicero and the ancients
had been ignorant of the full extent of the wider world. Apologists for Chris
tianity in early modern Europe had to consider their claims in light of the bur-
geoning travel literature which emerged with circumnavigation, imperial
expansion, and global commerce. Travel writing was an important genre in its
own right, and it provided an important source for debating the means and
ends of European political imperium, economic exchange, and missionary
activity, to say nothing of the intellectual interest that divergent cultural prac-
tices presented to the learned and the curious. Of course, a significant part of
this interest was related to Ciceros dictum since the new world societies
offered to anti-atheists an opportunity for confirming the authority of an
ancient argument. In his immensely popular Purchas His Pilgrimage of 1613, for
example, Samuel Purchas prefaced his travel report by arguing that his account
supported universal consent: That law of Nature hauing written in the prac-
tise of all men (as we here in the particulars doe shew) the profession of some
Furthermore, early modern travel literature was itself modelled on the ars
rhetorica in which the Ciceronian techniques of public oratory were frequently
displayed. In keeping with deliberative oratory, David Armitage has shown that

23 J. Dove, A Confutation of Atheisme (London, 1605), 27, 28.

24 W. Towers, Atheismus Vapulans (London, 1654), 66.
25 D. Derodon, The Arraignment and Conviction of Atheisme, trans. J. Bonhomme (London,
1679), 143. See also A Person of Honour, The Atheist Unmasked, Or, A Confutation of Such
as Deny the Being of a Supream Deity, that Governs Heaven and Earth (London, 1685), 9.
26 S. Purchas, Purchas His Pilgrimage (London, 1614), Letter dedicatory; see 27, 40, 88, 372,
376, 751, for Purchas comments against atheism.
Atheism And Society 211

early modern writers either encouraged or discouraged imperial expansion,

global exploration, and commercial endeavour along rhetorical lines derived
from Cicero and Aristotle. The same set of discursive tools and techniques
inherited from the same authors were used in anti-atheist confutation. If one
of the main rhetorical aims of travel literature was to make the familiar strange
and the absent world present in discourse, as Armitage has argued, it should
come as no surprise that early modern anti-atheist religious apologists seized
upon the religiosity of newly encountered societies which they read about in
travel literature as precisely the kind of rhetorical material that they could use
to support the argument from universal consent.27
One of the most extended defences of universal consent which used early
modern travel literature in the confutation of atheism was Fotherbys
Atheomastix. With du Plessis Mornay, Fotherby acknowledged the fact that he
needed to confute the atheist from nature, without appealing to divine author-
ity, because atheists did not recognize any other kind of authority. Given such
a restriction, Fotherby took the natural testimony derived from universal con-
sent as a powerful a posteriori argument. Imitating the patristic authors he very
frequently cited, Fotherby used heathen authors to make his case, referring to
Book x of Platos Laws, Senecas De beneficis, and Ciceros De natura deorum
and Tusculan Diputations as support for his claim that Gods existence was a
naturall and inbred conclusion, which is generally ingrafted into the hearts of
all men.28 Both historical (Historiographers) and contemporary testimony
(Travellers) were then used by Fotherby to buttress his claim. This included
ancient writers such as Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus, and Strabo, as well as
modern geographies, atlases, and travel books such as Sebastian Munsters
Cosmographie (1598), Abraham Ortelius Theatrum Orbis (1570), Purchas
Pilgrimage, and Edward Grimestons translation of Pierre DAvity as The Estates
of Empires of the world (1615). In all their works, Fotherby reported, neither
Munster nor Ortellius hath noted any Nation, to be without all Religion; none
to be profest in Atheisme. Purchas and Grimestons evidence moved Fotherby
from a negative to a positive affirmation across the early modern religious

For all people inhabiting upon the face of the whole Earth, are either
Christians, who worship the holy Trinitie; or Mohametanes and Jewes, who

27 D. Armitage, Literature and Empire, The Oxford History of the British Empire, vol. i: The
Origins of Empire, ed., N. Canny (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 99122, especially
28 Fotherby, 16.
212 chapter 6

worship God the Creator; or pure Gentiles, who worship the Starres, and
other Creatures; or Idolators, who worship Images. Into these foure sects
the whole world is quartered, and all these to be found, in euery quarter
of it: though Christians doe hold the predominance, in Europe; Maho
metans, in Asia; Gentils, in Africa; and Idolaters, in America. So that all of
them be worshippers: and all of them have their Gods.

Travellers to the East and West Indies found societies which lacked govern-
ment, law, order, and even clothing, but none which lacked religion. This con-
clusion was now based on contemporary human testimony. To Fotherby, such
universal testimony confirmed that Pietie is the bond of all humaine societie,
and Religion the foundation of every Citie, both gathering men, and holding
them unanimously together.29
Early modern religious apologists confuting atheism did not typically deviate
far from the example set out by du Plessis Mornay and Fotherby, reliant as
they were on the same classical and patristic arguments and strategies. In
The Darkness of Atheism Charleton cited several of the same travel works as
Fotherby Ortelius, Grimeston, Purchas, Munster and added several more,
including Willem Piso and Georg Marcgraves Historia Naturalis Brasiliae (1648)
and Richard Hackluyts The Principal Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques and
Discoueries of the English Nation (15891600): we read all these, and we shall
find them unanimously positive in this point, That there is no Nation but hath its
Religion. This confirmation of modern and ancient history led Charleton to con-
clude that no man ever entred upon the theatre of the World, but he acted some
one Religious part, bringing along with him an irresistible propension to revere
and adore that Nature, which he conceived superior to his own, and all others.30
Echoing du Plessis Mornay and Fotherby, Louis Cappel treated the argu-
ment from universal consent at some length in his anti-atheist confutation
text, The Hinge of Faith and Religion, by contrasting the divine testimony of
Scripture with the natural testimony of men. Once again, Cappel cited the
agreement of ancient poets, philosophers, lawgivers, along with newly encoun-
tered societies. No society existed which hath not professed some Religion or,
at the very least, professed interaction of some kind with the divine, such as
the savage and brutish Nations of the Toupinambous, Margajas, Caribes,
Cannibales, Patagons, and the like as well as those Nations, which are neere

29 Fotherby, 215, 27, 314, 37. For the importance of such testimony as eye-witness or
autopsy, see A. Pagden, European Encounters with the New World: From Renaissance to
Romanticism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 5188.
30 Charleton, Darkness of Atheism, 1723.
Atheism And Society 213

to our Arctick Pole, in Europe, Asia, and the New world, as it appears by the
Relations of them, which at this day are common and vulgar.31 Echoing many
of the points made by Cappel in his own anti-atheist confutation, Charles
Wolseley repeated what was by then a commonplace: We have discovered
parts of the world, where men have lived without clothes, and without most
humane circumstances that attent mankind; but never without some God.32
Edward Stillingfleet summarized these sentiments succinctly in 1662 in his
popular rationalist defence of the Christian Scriptures, Origines Sacrae:

For any whole Nation, which have consented in the denyal of a Deity, we
have no evidence at all; some suspicions it is true there were at first con-
cerning some very barbarous people in America, but it is since evident
though they are grosly mistaken as to the nature of God, yet they worship
something in stead of him, such as the Toupinambors, Caribes, Patagons,
Tapuiae and others; of the last of which Vossius from one Christophorus
Arcissewski a Polonian Gentleman who was among them, hath given a
large account of their Religion, and the manner of their worshipping of
their gods, both good and bad.33

Ralph Cudworth used Jose de Acostas The Natural and Morall Histories of the
East and West Indies, translated into English in 1605 by Grimestone, to make
the same point.34 Even those [societies] who by their distance are without the
least commerce, and are contrary in a thousand fashions and customs that
depend on the liberty of Men that is mutable, observed William Bates, all
consent in the acknowledgement of a God.35
From the moment in which early modern religious apologists addressed
themselves to the problem of atheism, then, they did so by reciting an authori-
tative and adaptable classical argument. It was also an argument which was
supposed to be based on the kind of reasoning an atheist would accept: natural
human testimony. What early modern apologists added to this classical argu-
ment were the textual reports, harmonized with their own rhetorical aims, of
global encounters with new societies. In the hands of religious apologists

31 L. Cappel, The Hinge of Faith and Religion; or, A Poof of the Deity against Atheists and
Profane Persons, trans. P. Marinel (London, 1660), 1178.
32 Cappel, 1202; Wolseley, 657, 68.
33 E. Stillingfleet, Origines Sacrae (London, 1662), 3945; see Book iii, Chap. 1 for Stillingfleets
extended argument from universal consent.
34 R. Cudworth, The True Intellectual System of the Universe (London, 1678), 4589.
35 Bates, Considerations, 789.
214 chapter 6

reports about foreign societies supplied a crucial confirmatio, a rhetorical con-

firmation which was a central component of confutatio. Once again, Stillingfleet
provides an important summary of why universal consent was so important as
well as an expression of the anxiety to which atheists gave rise:

But, if we should grant the Atheist more then he can prove, that the num-
ber of such who denyed a Deity hath been great in all ages of the world; is
it probable they should speak the sense of nature, whose opinion if it
were embraced, would dissolve all tyes and obligations whatsoever,
would let the world loose to the highest licentiousness without check or
control, and would in time overturn all civil Societies? For as Tully
[Cicero] hath largely shewn [in De natura deorum and De legibus], Take
away the being and providence of God out of the world, and there follows
nothing but perturbation and confusion in it; not only all sanctity, piety
and devotion is destroyed, but all faith, vertue, and humane Societies too;
which are impossible to be upheld without Religion, as not only he, but
Plato, Aristotle, and Plutarch have fully demonstrated.36

To Stillingfleet and the vast majority of his contemporaries a society of atheists

was impossible because society required a set of virtues atheists by definition
could not possess and religious beliefs atheists necessarily denied.
From midcentury onwards many religious apologists identified the work
ofThomas Hobbes and his disciples, such as Charles Blount, with the kinds of
anti-social and anti-political arguments that atheists allegedly espoused.37 In
the first of his Boyle lectures, published collectively as The Folly and Unrea
sonableness of Atheism in 1693, Richard Bentley issued an argument from uni-
versal consent which included the testimony of the new world in the face of
what he took to be Hobbes atheist system of politics. As the

Natives of Newfoundland and New France in Americaare said to live

without any sense of Religion, so they are known to be destitute of its
advantages and blessings; without any Law or form of Community; without
any Literature or Sciences or Arts; no Towns, no fixed Habitations, no
Agriculture, no Navigation. And tis entirely owing to the power of Religion,
that the whole World is not at this time as barbarous as they. And yet I
ought not to have called these miserable Wretches a Nation of Atheists.38

36 Stillingfleet, Origines Sacrae, 394.

37 See Chap. 7.
38 R. Bentley, The Folly and Unreasonableness of Atheism (London, 1693), Lecture 1, 36.
Atheism And Society 215

Bentley quickly backtracked from this statement because he did not wish to
reject the argument from universal consent, but rather to demonstrate the
connection between correct belief, providence, and political society. To
Bentley, Protestant England was providentially protected and prosperous
because of its religious establishment. Toleration of heterodox beliefs would
sever Gods providential concern as the new world examples were supposed to
demonstrate. Where the newly encountered societies were merely ignorant of
organized religion, and thus of a more developed political society, Bentley
insisted that if England tolerated what it knew to be religious error it would
necessarily approve impiety and thereby invite social disorder and political
decline. This, in turn, would give leave to the spreading Contagion of atheism.
Bentley cited an exemplary solution: Several Cities of Greece that had made
experiment of them the ancient atheists Diagoras, Protagoras, and Theodorus
in Publick Concerns, drove them out, as Incendiaries and Pests of Common
weals, by severe Edicts and Proclamations. Atheism is by no means tolerable in
the most private condition.39 If an atheist ever gained access to power it would
result in the kind of tyranny that Bentley and many of his contemporaries
thought Hobbes had advocated:

Nay if Atheism were once, as I may say, the National Religion: it would
make its own Followers the most miserable of men; it would be the
Kingdom of Satan divided against it self; and the Land would be soon
brought to desolation. Josephus, that knew them, hath informd us, that
the Sadduces, those Epicureans among the Jews, were not only rough and
cruel to men of a different Sect from their own; but perfidious and inhu-
mane one towards another. This is the genuine spirit and the natural
product of Atheism. No man, that adheres to that narrow and selfish
Principle, can ever be Just or Generous or Gratefull; unless he be some-
time overcome by Good-nature and a happy Constitution. No Atheist, as
such, can be a true Friend, an affectionate Relation, or a loyal Subject. The
appearance and shew of mutual Amity among them, is wholly owing to
the smallness of their number, and to the obligations of a Faction.Tis like
the Friendship of Pickpockets and Highwaymen, that are said to observe
strict Justice among themselves, and never to defraud a Comrade of his
share of the Booty. But if we could imagine a whole Nation to be Cut-
purses and Robbers; would there then be kept that square-dealing and
equity in such a monstrous den of Thieves? And if Atheism should be sup-
posed to become universal in this Nation (which seems to be designd

39 Ibid., 37.
216 chapter 6

and endeavourd, though we know the gates of Hell shall not be able to
prevail) farewell all Ties of Friendship and Principles of Honour; all Love
for our Country and Loyalty to our Prince; nay, farewell all Government
and Society it self, all Professions and Arts, and Conveniencies of Life, all
that is laudable or valuable in the World.40

Whatever alleged atheists such as Hobbes might contend, to early modern reli-
gious apologists global European encounters with new societies powerfully con-
firmed that homo politicus was necessarily homo religiosus. In seventeenth-century
England, particularly in the aftermath of the civil wars, any deviation from this
vision of politics signalled imminent social disorder and political decline.

(iii) Anti-atheism and Ancient Atheists

If travel literature based on European global imperial and commercial endeav-

ours was frequently used by early modern anti-atheists in their rhetorical con-
tests to reaffirm a traditional religious foundation for political society, the
question of the existence of atheists in antiquity was just as important as a
potential source of exceptions to the universal consent of mankind in the pro-
fession and practice of religious belief. Richard Bentley combined both exam-
ples in his attack on Hobbes. The vehemence and consistency with which early
modern apologists rejected the possibility of the existence of a speculative
atheist provides another scale by which to gauge the anxiety generated by
atheists and the conceptual difficulty of imagining an atheist as anything other
than a pervasive threat in this period. In addition to Epicurus and Lucretius,
whose commitment to speculative atheism was often called into question, the
three most important examples of alleged atheists frequently cited in early
modern England were Diagoras (c. 5th century bc), Protagoras (c.490c.420
bc), and Theodorus (c.340c.250 bc). These three ancient Greeks were typi-
cally addressed in early modern anti-atheist arguments as atheists who
deserved to be expelled from the polis, as atheists whose significance as excep-
tions to universal consent was nugatory, or as philosophers wrongly accused of
atheism because they rejected the gods of polytheistic Greece. Each strategy
confirmed the validity of universal consent and consequently the religious
foundation of political society.
The three ancient Greeks accused of being atheists were associated with a
range of actions or statements for which they stood out as examples to early

40 Ibid., 389.
Atheism And Society 217

modern apologists. Diagoras was a poet and sophist described in antiquity as

an atheist for various impious remarks he made about the Greek gods. In the
Lives of Eminent Philosophers, the ancient biographer Diogenes Laertius
recorded a story in which Diagoras was said to have questioned providence.
Observing the votive offerings for the survivors of a shipwreck in a temple,
Diagoras impiously remarked that There would have been far more, if those
who were not saved had set up offerings.41 The ancient historian Diodorus
Siculus reported that Diagoras was banished from Athens for precisely this
kind of impious unbelief.42 In Considerations of the Existence of God William
Bates provided an oft-repeated version of another example of Diagoras impi-
ety derived from ancient testimony:

Diagoras saw a Servant of his stealing from him, and upon his denial of
the theft, brought him before the Statue of Jupiter thundring, and con-
strained him to adjure Jupiter for the honour of his Deity, and of Justice
and Fidelity, to strike him dead at his feet with Thunder, if he were guilty
of the fact, and after three times repeating the dreadful Oath, he went
away untouchd without harm. Upon the sight of this Diagoras cryed
out [and] concluded that God was nothing but a Statue; and from that
time was hardned in irreclamable Atheism.43

Additionally, Diagoras was understood to have been a disciple of the ancient

Greek atomist Democritus, an association famously used in Aristophanes The
Clouds to tar Socrates with atheism.44
The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher and sophist Protagoras was also ban-
ished from Athens as a result of his impious incredulity. The summary of
Protagoras vita in Diogenes Laertius was commonly repeated in early modern

41 D. Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, vol. 2., trans. R.D. Hicks (Cambridge, ma:
Harvard University Press, 1931), vi.59, p. 61.
42 D. Siculus, The Historical Library of Diodorus, trans. G. Booth (London, 1700), 302.
43 Bates, Considerations, 2089; here Bates uses Juvenals 13th satire to express Diagoras
incredulity. For similar references see: L. Andrewes, The Patterne of Catechisticall Doctrine
(London, 1630), 389; Stillingfleet, Origines Sacrae, 520; J. Mede, The Works (London, 1672),
148; T. Good, Firmianus and Dubitantius (London, 1674), 22; Cudworth, 7980; W. Bates,
The Soveraign and Final Happiness of Man with the Effectual Means to Obtain it (London,
1680), 1367; T. Manton, A Second Volume of Sermons (London, 1684), 34.
44 Aristophanes, The Clouds, in Four Texts on Socrates, trans. T.G. West and G.S. West
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), line 830, p. 149; T. Stanleys History of Philosophy
(London, 1656), 49, records that Socrates was charged with Atheisme for his impious
218 chapter 6

England along with the opening lines to one of Protagoras lost works, On the
Gods: Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or
not or of what sort they may be, because of the obscurity of the subject, and
the brevity of human life.45 Like Diagoras, Protagoras was also understood to
have been a disciple of Democritus. Similarly, Diogenes Laertius recorded that
Theodorus did away with all opinions respecting the gods, having written a
substantial work also entitled On the Gods which was apparently the source for
many of Epicurus later arguments. Theodorus too was banished from the polis
for his impiety.46
The full import of the classical tradition regarding Diagoras, Protagoras, and
Theodorus for early modern anti-atheists was found in Ciceros works. In De
natura deorum Cicero observed that most thinkers have affirmed that the
gods exist and this is the most probable view and the one to which we are all
led by natures guidance; but Protagoras declared himself uncertain, and
Diagoras of Melos and Theodorus of Cyrene held that there are no gods at
all.47 Within the dialogue itself Cicero had Cotta reject the consensus gentium
argument for Gods existence based precisely on the evidence of these three
ancient Greek atheists. To Cotta, the consensus gentium was both inconclusive
and untrue. In the first place, how do you know what foreign races believe?
did not Diagoras, called the Atheist, and later Theodorus openly deny the
divine existence?48 Cotta also invoked Diagoras as having articulated the
argument against providence by stating the problem of evil.49
Where Cicero recorded the initial objection to universal consent based on
the existence of Diagoras, Protagoras, and Theodorus, its relevance to Christian
political society was typically viewed through the lens of patristic arguments.
These included those of Athenagoras of Athens (c.133c.190), Clement of
Alexandria (c.150c.215), Marcus Minucius Felix (c.150c.270), Lactantius, and
John Chrysostum (c.347407). In A Plea for the Christians, Athenagoras
recounted the story in which Diagoras impiously revealed the contents of the
sacred rites of the Eleusian mysteries because he was an atheist.50 In the

45 Laertius, Lives, ix.51-2, p. 465.

46 For a fuller account of classical atheism and its subsequent impact on European history,
see Atheism in The Classical Tradition, eds., A. Grafton, G.W. Most, and S. Settis
(Cambridge, ma: Harvard University Press, 2010), 967.
47 Cicero, De natura deorum, trans. H. Rackham (Cambridge, ma: Harvard University Press,
1933), i.i.2.
48 De natura deorum, i.xxiii.62, and again Cotta at i.xlii.117.
49 De natura deorum, iii.xxxvii.
50 Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, in Ante-Nicene Christian Library, eds., A. Roberts
and J. Donaldson, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1867), 179.
Atheism And Society 219

Exhortation to the Heathen, Clement argued that the three ancient Greeks did
not deserve to be called atheists at all, but were instead sober men who cor-
rectly judged the error of Greek superstition. Clement also repeated the
classical story in which Diagoras created a wooden statue in the shape of
Hercules, and impiously tossed the statue into the flames of a nearby fire so
that Hercules could complete his thirteenth labour.51 In the Octavius of Marcus
Minucius Felix an influential work translated multiple times in seventeenth-
century England all three ancient Greeks were lumped together as atheists
whose attempt to overthrow universal consent was the highest form of reli-
gious and political un-wisdom:

Since therefore it is agreed by all Nations, that there are Gods, though their
Nature and Original be unknown, why should we suffer those bold and
impudent men, who being puffed up with I dont know what impious wis-
dom, endeavour to weaken and destroy a belief which is no less useful and
comfortable, that it is ancient and venerable? And though Theodorus the
Cyrenian, or he that was before him (viz. Diagoras Melius) to whom
Antiquity gave the Sirname of Atheist, have strove to overthrow this
Opinion, that they might extinguish all manner of Religion and Reverence
of the Gods, and dissolve the strongest bond of Humane Society; yet shall
their counterfeit Wisdom, never pass for Philosophy in the esteem and
approbation of Wise and thinking Men. If the Athenians banishd from their
Country one Protagoras, because he raisd disputes about the Gods (though
he did it rather in a Philosophical and inquisitive, than profane way) and
causd his Writings to be publickly burnt; shall we suffer menof an unlaw-
ful, infamous and desperate faction, without fear of punishment.52

Lactantius linked Diagoras, Protagoras, and Theodorus together as atheists for

denying providence, while John Chrysostom described all three ancient Greeks
as atheists banished for their impiety.53
In patristic literature, Diagoras, Protagoras, and Theodorus were atheists
whose exception proved the rule, impious men who rejected providence, or

51 Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Heathen, in The Writings of Clement of

Alexandria, vol. 1, trans. W. Wilson (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1867), 334.
52 M.M. Felix, His Octavius; Or, A Vindication of Christianity Against Paganism, trans.
P.Lorrain (London, 1682), 1820.
53 Lactantius, On the Anger of God, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, eds., A. Roberts, J. Donaldson,
vol. 22, (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1872), 134, 20; J. Chrysostom, The Homilies of S. John
Chrysostom (Oxford: 1845), 456.
220 chapter 6

philosophers who merely rejected Greek polytheism. Early modern religious

apologists followed these established patterns in order to dismiss the atheists
significance as exceptions to universal consent. In his 1597 A Demonstration of
God in His Works, George More lumped Diagoras in with Epicurus and Lucretius
as an who in plaine termes denied, that there was any God at all.54 The
association of Diagoras, Protagoras, and Theodorus with Epicurus and Lucretius
was common, even if it was not always spelled out. In A Confutation of Atheisme
Dove reported that the first men to say Non est Deus, there is no God were
Diagoras, Epicurus, and Lucretius.55 John Wingfield worried about the prosely-
tizing practices of secret Diagorized atheists in his 1634 Atheisme Close and
Open Anatomized.56 Edward Stillingfleet described the three ancient Greeks as
atheists from whom Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius set to work to see if
they could solve the Phaenomena of nature without a Deity.57 William Cave
contrasted the rational belief in the true God of Christians who denied the gods
of the Greeks and Romans with actual atheists such as Diagoras in his 1675
Primitive Christianity.58 John Edwards used Diagoras, Theodorus, and Protagoras
as foils in several of his works in the 1690s, including A Preservative Against
Socinianism, to tie religious heterodoxy to atheism.59 The admission that
Diagoras, Protagoras, and Theodorus were the first to profess atheism did not
undermine the argument from universal consent for any of these anti-atheist
writers, however. Each apologist offered a series of qualifications in order to
explain that the atheism of Diagoras, Protagoras, and Theodorus was a conse-
quence of their irrationality, their sensuality, or their unnatural error.
Thus, early modern religious writers either provided some kind of caveat or
emphasised the fact that Diagoras, Protagoras, and Theodorus were the only

54 G. More, A Demonstration of God in his Works (London, 1597), 20.

55 Dove, 2; A. Ross, Medicus Medicatus (London, 1645), 334; J. Smith, Christian Religions
Appeal from the Groundless Prejudices of the Sceptic to the Bar of Common Reason
(London, 1675), 63: here Diagoras and Theodorus are contrasted with Pythagoras, Plato,
and Socrates.
56 J. Wingfield, Atheism Open and Closed Anatomized (London, 1634), To the reader.
57 Stillingfleet, Origines Sacrae, 10, 364.
58 W. Cave, Primitive Christianity (London, 1675), 136.
59 J. Edwards, A Preservative against Socinianism: Shewing the Direct and Plain Opposition
between it, and the Religion Revealed by God in the Holy Scriptures, 2nd ed. (London, 1693),
412. Although in Some Thoughts concerning the Several Causes and Occasions of Atheism,
Especially in the Present Age. With some Brief Reflections on Socinianism: And on a Late
Book Entituled The Reasonableness of Christianity as deliverd in the Scriptures (London,
1695), Edwards cited Cudworth and seemed to prevaricate on the actual atheism of the
three ancient Greeks on pages 1246.
Atheism And Society 221

atheists on record and as such did not count as significant exceptions to the
universal consent in the belief in God. In a chapter entitled The Atheist in The
Holy State, Thomas Fuller declared speculative atheists such as Diagoras,
Protagoras, and Theodorus, rare and therefore trivial.60 In one of the earliest
translations of Lucretius De rerum natura, published in 1656, John Evelyn made
the conventional assertion about what he called the opinion, that there should
be no Gods: History is not capable to make a rational man believe that ever
any were so barbarous. Evelyn derived this observation from Cicero, linking
Diagoras, Protagoras, and Theodorus to the foolish-hearted in the Psalm, [who]
affirmed openly that there was no God, to discard that superstition which he
affirmed had possessed the mindes of men.61 Other religious writers, such as
Isaac Barrow, thought that complete atheists were exceptions that literally
proved the rule.62 As John Tillotson put it in The Wisdom of Being Religious:

If by Religion be meant the belief of the Principles of Religion, that there

is a God, and a Providence, that our Souls are Immortal, and that there
are Rewards to be expected after this life; these are so far from being sin-
gular Opinions, that they are the general Opinion of Mankind, even of
the most Barbarous Nations, as Tully [Cicero], Seneca, and others testifie;
insomuch that the Histories of ancient times do not furnish us with the
names of above three or four at most who denied a God; and Lucretius
acknowledgeth, that Epicurus was the first who did oppose the great
Foundations of Religion, the Providence of God, and the Immortality of
the Soul.63

Charles Wolseley passed off the existence of such atheists as an aberration

which proved nothing by arguing that atheists were no more an exception to
universal consent than idiots were exceptions to mans natural rationality.64
Clement Ellis similarly insisted that the existence of a few atheists proved
nothing more than that some men embraced unbelief in order to fulfil their
own desires and ignore their own conscience.65

60 T. Fuller, The Holy State (London, 1642), 379.

61 J. Evelyn, An Essay on the First Book of T. Lucretius Carus De rerum natura (London, 1656),
62 I. Barrow, Sermons Preached upon Several Occasions (London, 1679), 8990, 102; see also
Good, Firmianus and Dubitantis, 67; J. Owen, Animadversions on a Treatise intituled Fiat
lux (London, 1662), 139.
63 J. Tillotson, The Wisdom of Being Religious (London, 1664), 39.
64 Wolseley, 667, 71.
65 Ellis, 65, 67, 6975, 7887.
222 chapter 6

Another way for early modern religious apologists to diminish the signifi-
cance of Diagoras, Protagoras, and Theodorus as exceptions to universal con-
sent was to deny that they were atheists at all and claim instead that they were
called atheists by their adversaries for rejecting the gods of Grecian antiquity.
When discussing mans naturally implanted sense of Gods existence in the
opening chapters of The Institution of the Christian Religion, Jean Calvin spe-
cifically noted the ancient Greek atheists as possible exceptions, observing
that Diagoras profanely mocked religion rather than denied Gods existence.66
In his defence of the Christian religion du Plessis Mornay observed that
Diagoras, Theodorus, and a very fewe others had existed, but that they rather
scorned the Idoles and false gods of their times, then denyed the true God.67
In the Resolution of Religion Richard Broughton claimed that if atheists existed
they should be exiled for a monster in Nature. Broughtons examples were
none other than Diagoras and Protagoras.68 In a 1622 essay entitled Of
Atheisme, William Mason admitted that Diagoras foolishly said that God did
not exist, but then insisted that most ancient atheists, including Socrates,
rather iested at the falsehood & number of their owne Idols, then denied the
being of one true God.69 Martin Fotherby claimed that Diagoras merely derided
the Athenian gods, while Epicurus denied not Gods essence; hee denied
onely his providence. Instead, Fotherby placed Diagoras with Socrates in
being incorrectly charged with atheism and impiety.
Along with many of his contemporaries, Fotherby thought there was no true
speculative atheist because atheism was typically the sinful product of sodaine
passions and temptations: he is not Atheist all the calmer time of his living.70
In his Theologia veterum, Peter Heylyn named Diagoras, Protagoras, and
Theodorus as the most famous atheists before Ciceros time and recorded the
judgment of Lactantius and Marcus Minucius Felix. Through this Heylyn
explored the suggestion that the three ancient Greeks were not true atheists,
but had been described as such by Athenians for their impiety, scoffing and
deriding Greek religion.71 Edward Leigh generalized:

66 J. Calvin, The Institution of the Christian Religion, trans. T. Norton (London, 1561), n. p.,
Book 1, Chap. 2; In his Latin commentary on the epistles of Paul Calvin made this point
even clearer. See J. Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and the
Ephesians, trans. W. Pringle (Edinburgh, 1841), 215.
67 du Plessis Mornay, 11.
68 Broughton, 78.
69 W. Mason, A Handful of Essaies (London, 1621), 145; Cudworth, 1112.
70 Fotherby, 56, 69, 101, 1047, 111; 69 is incorrectly paginated as 99, but this pagination con-
tinues from this point in the text onwards in the text I consulted.
71 P. Heylyn, Theologian Veterum, or, The Summe of Christian Theologie (London, 1654), 178.
Atheism And Society 223

If we speak of Atheists strictly and properly, meaning such as have simply

denied all Deity, and denied it constantly, Tullies [Cicero] sentence is
most true, that there was never any such Creature in the world, as simply
and constantly to deny God. The name of an Atheist in this sense, is
nomen ociosum; a name without a being. If we speak of Atheists in a
larger sense, for such as have openly (though not constantly) denied the
Divinity, of such professed Atheists, there have not been past two or
three. If we speak of Atheists in the largest sense, meaning such as denied
Gods providence, justice, goodness, though they have done it but weakly,
rather upon some suddain passion, then any settled resolution, their
number hath scarcely amounted to a score, I mean of such open Atheists,
as have made any publike profession of their Atheism, though but even in
these secondary points.72

In Of the Principles and Duties of Natural Religion, John Wilkins employed sev-
eral of these strategies at once: first, so-called atheists had been tarred with
that name because they did endeavour to confute the fopperies of the Heathen
worship; second, some men may have been corrupted in body and mind to the
point of being unnatural, monstrous aberrations; third, echoing Fotherby and
Leigh, no one who professed atheism could possess a full and abiding convic-
tion upon his mind, against the Existence of God.73 Matthew Barker similarly
argued in his Natural Theology that the celebrated atheists of antiquity,
Protagoras, Diagoras, Theodorus, & c. who denyed, or disputed all Deity,
could not maintain their atheism to the end: In mens serious and retired
thoughts, especially if they be under some smart affliction, the Belief and
Sence of a Deity returns upon them.74
Edward Stillingfleet had claimed that Epicurus and Lucretius derived the
desire to explain nature without reference to the gods from Diagoras,
Protagoras, and Theodorus. The fact that Epicurus and Lucretius had provided
actual arguments for their alleged atheism meant that Stillingfleet saw Hobbes
and Spinoza as atheists for appearing to parallel many of those ancient argu-
ments.75 When attacked as a revived atheist of antiquity in this way, Hobbes
was frequently joined by his supposed predecessors and subsequent disciples,
which included Italians such as Niccol Machiavelli, Giordano Bruno, and

72 E. Leigh, A System or Body of Divinity (London, 1654), 130.

73 J. Wilkins, Of the Principles and Duties of Natural Religion (London, 1675), 45, 46, 49.
74 M. Barker, Natural Theology (London, 1674), 367.
75 See Stillingfleets attack on deism, in which he explicitly aimed at Hobbes and Spinoza: E.
Stillingfleet, A Letter to a Deist (London, 1677).
224 chapter 6

Lucillo Vanini, as well as Charles Blount, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, and
Spinoza. By the 1690s and early 1700s this amalgam of alleged atheists consti-
tuted a diabolical coterie.76 In his Boyle lectures, published in 1698 as The
Atheistical Objections, Against the Being of a GOD, John Harris conventionally
insisted on the argument from universal consent, along with a battery of other
arguments, identifying the atheists of antiquity and their modern revivifica-
tions as either exceptions that proved the rule, impious scoffers, or unreason-
able and unnatural monsters who threatened to undermine all moral, political,
and religious obligation. He regarded Diagoras, Protagoras, Theodorus, Machia
velli, Bruno, Vanini, Hobbes, Spinoza, Blount, and Pierre Bayle as an atheist cabal
whose existence had to be accounted for and whose arguments needed to be
confuted.77 One of the new ways in which Harris contemporaries took up that
task was to emphasize that an atheist was a fool for giving up religion because
unbelief forfeited the pleasures of true happiness.

76 See J. Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 16501740
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), Chap. 33; idem, Enlightenment Contested:
Philosophy, Modernity and the Emancipation of Man 16701752 (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2006), Chap. 14.
77 J. Harris, The Atheistical Objections against the Being of God (London, 1698), Sermon 1,
pp.189, 20, Sermon 2, pp. 45, Sermon 3, pp. 712, Sermon 7, pp. 289.
chapter 7

Atheism and Happiness

At the beginning of the seventeenth century most traditional anti-atheist argu-

ments understood happiness in terms of mans telos, summum bonum, or chief
end the worship and enjoyment of God. This chapter will show that an impor-
tant change occurred within confutation discourse regarding the attainment of
mans personal and political happiness. In the latter decades of the seventeenth
century many prominent anti-atheist homilies shifted the emphasis of their
apologies towards an existential calculation about personal happiness premised
on a quasi-Pascalian wager on God. This shift was illustrative of a broader change
in which a significant group of Anglican clergymen advanced a more hedonic
psychology for broadly theological purposes, responding to the challenge posed
by alleged Epicurean atheists, deists, freethinkers, and libertines such as Thomas
Hobbes and Charles Blount. Hobbes, Blount, and their supposed disciples were
widely understood to have advanced a terrestrial hedonism that was ultimately
destructive of political society. By appealing to a probabilistic calculation about
both celestial and terrestrial happiness, rather than a classically oriented virtue
ethics, the churchmen of the 1690s and early 1700s examined below attempted to
sidestep so-called libertine criticisms of anti-atheist demonstration. Arguments
based on the notion of universal consent continued to be an important anti-
atheist argument c. 1700, but the threat of anti-social and anti-political atheism
was increasingly neutralized by a strategy which was thought to be based on the
very terms in which alleged atheists themselves reasoned: calculations of terres-
trial happiness. It was no accident, then, that the orthodox apologetic response
to the challenge of deism and freethought in the eighteenth century similarly
centred on an argument about happiness.1
The traditional defence of theistic religion in early modern England did not
restrict itself to a demonstration of the religious foundation of political society
based on the argument from universal consent alone. Just as frequently, early
modern religious apologists summarized the connection between true reli-
gion, virtue, and happiness within a broadly Platonic-Aristotelian vision of
mans telos, summum bonum or chief end in God. In these accounts the
practice of personal, social, and religious virtues were intertwined such that

1 See P. Millers discussion of William Laws reply to Anthony Collins in Freethinking and
Freedom of Thought in Eighteenth-Century Britain, The Historical Journal, 36, 3 (1993):

koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2015|doi 10.1163/9789004288164_009

226 chapter 7

the proper observance of religious worship and social duty consummated their
proper ends: personal, social, and eternal happiness. However, from the mid-
dle of the seventeenth century this particular conception of virtue ethics was
increasingly supplemented by or replaced with a religiously grounded hedonic
psychology of motivation. Instead of elaborating a traditional anti-atheist con-
futation argument based on the natural testimony of universal consent or
upon natural theology more broadly, several clergymen delivered sermons in
the 1690s and early 1700s which used a quasi-Pascalian wager about mans eter-
nal destiny in order to appeal to the atheists presumed self-interest and pur-
suit of terrestrial happiness.
Two important aspects of this shift are relevant here. The first, speaking
broadly, was the aforementioned movement within early modern religious
thinking away from an ethical theory which centred on the practice of classical
virtue towards a more hedonic ethical theory. The second was the challenge
issued by supposed atheists, deists, freethinkers, and libertines such as Hobbes,
Blount, and John Toland, who were thought to have taken up an overtly hedo-
nist Epicurean ethical argument.2
Latitudinarian divines and their fellow travellers from the middle of the sev-
enteenth century onward, including the Cambridge Platonists, Thomas
Tenison, John Tillotson, John Wilkins, Isaac Barrow, and Edward Stillingfleet,
were willing to grant that pleasure and pain were sources of moral motivation
in terrestrial life but only from within a framework which subordinated the
rank of temporary pleasures to the primary virtuous practices which embod-
ied a recognition of the love of God as the summum bonum. Framing virtue in
this way, these clergymen also tended to shift the emphasis of the truth of the
Christian religion towards moral practice and away from doctrinal, ceremo-
nial, or ecclesiological dogmatism. This was most obviously the case with
respect to the Cambridge Platonists reaction to the perceived civil war extre
mes of Calvinist enthusiasm and materialist atheism.3 But it was also true of
like-minded thinkers such as Isaac Barrow, who cited and praised Epicurus for
connecting virtue to pleasure in a discussion of the performance of charitable

2 See J. Spurr, The Restoration Church of England, 16461689 (New Haven: Yale University Press,
1991), 24969.
3 See B. Shapiro, Probability and Certainty in Seveneteenth-century England: A Study of the
Relationship between Science, Religion, History, Law, and Literature (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1983), 823. G.R. Cragg, From Puritanism to the Age of Reason: A Study of
Changes in Religious Thought within the Church of England 1660 to 1700 (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1950), 3842, 578. For a caution on the use of latitudinarian with refer-
ence to these figures in terms of religion and science, see J. Spurr, Latitudinarianism and the
Restoration Church, The Historical Journal, 31, 1 (1988): 6182.
Atheism And Happiness 227

and social duties.4 Barrow even went so far as to say that the Precepts of Religion
are no other, then such as Physicians would prescribe for the health of our Bodies,
as Politicians would avow needfull for the peace of the State, as Epicurean
Philosophers do recommend for the tranquillity of our Mind, and pleasure of our
lives; such as common reason dictateth, and daily trial sheweth conducible to
our welfare in all respects.5 A sympathetic reading of Epicurean tranquility
wherein terrestrial virtue was constituted by certain kinds of worldly pleasures
comported with the latitudinarian strain of Restoration Anglicanism that aligned
a godliness aimed at maximizing happiness in this world and the next with
conventional practices of personal, social, and religious duty.6
Restoration latitudinarians were therefore trying to navigate a course
between the Charybdis of religious error and the Scylla of materialist atheism.7
Henry Mores Antidote against Atheisme was initially concerned with precisely
these twin evils.8 Mores tract came hard on the heels of Hobbes Leviathan and
sought to deflect the claims of materialist naturalism by showing that materi-
alism was in fact an unreasonable and unnatural doctrine; in his True Intellec
tual System Ralph Cudworth even depicted Hobbes as a monstrous hybrid of
religious and philosophical error, a materialist enthusiast.9 Yet Hobbes own
attack on religious enthusiasm and superstition in Leviathan entailed a corro-
sive critique which traced the origin of superstition to unpleasing priests
who manipulated mans ignorance and credulity in order to advance their own
clerical powers and temporal interests.10 By the 1690s this kind of anticlerical-
ism was being powerfully expressed in the frequently aired charge of
priestcraft and drew a widespread set of responses.11 Priestcraft was under-

4 I. Barrow, The Duty and Reward of Bounty to the Poor (London, 1671), 1423; idem, Of the
Love of God and our Neighbour, in Several Sermons, vol. 3 (London, 1680), 185, 277.
5 I. Barrow, Sermons Preached upon Several Occasions (London, 1679), 82. For Barrow on virtue
see I. Barrow, Of Contentment, Patience and Resignation to the Will of God (London, 1685), 423.
6 Shapiro, 105.
7 See F.C. Beiser, The Sovereignty of Reason: The Defense of Rationality in the Early English
Enlightenment (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), Chaps. 4 and 5.
8 See Chap. 4.
9 See J.G.A. Pocock, Thomas Hobbes: Atheist or Enthusiast? His Place in a Restoration
Debate, History of Political Thought, xi, 4 (1990): 73749.
10 T. Hobbes, Leviathan (London, 1651), 60. In a pamphlet and a broadside after Hobbes
death, this phrase was cited. See The Last Sayings, or, Dyinng Lecacy of Mr. Thomas Hobbs
of Malmesbury (London, 1679); Memorable Sayings of Mr. Hobbes in His Books and at the
Table (London, 1680).
11 J.A. Redwood, Reason, Ridicule and Religion: The Age of Enlightenment in England
16601750 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1976), 1534; P. Harrison, Religion and Religions
228 chapter 7

stood as an accusation that clerics jealously guarded their temporal powers by

manipulating religious superstition in ways that suppressed the natural desires
and pleasures of ordinary lay men and women. In their own estimation, the
anti-atheist homilies examined below confuted the supposed atheist, who was
thought to have issued the charge of priestcraft in order to live as he pleased,
on the atheists own naturalist terms, by showing him that belief in the more
probable existence of God simultaneously entailed the greatest possible tem-
poral happiness.
In late sixteenth-century apologies such as du Plessis Mornays Trewnesse,
the good life was tied to a Protestant-Platonic apprehension and practice of
virtue. If God was the sovereign end of all creation, and if he created the cos-
mos for his own enjoyment and glory, then mans proper end was directed
towards God. Accordingly, if we finde either mans chiefe amingpoynt, or his
souereyne welfare; we finde them both: for they be both but one selfesame
thing. Following Plato and Aristotle, du Plessis Mornay thought it was evident
by nature that man should aim towards God for his own felicitie, benefite and
welfare. In order to determine mans amingpoynt, we must determine what
was peculiarly given to man as to no other created being, a particularity in
the nature of mans soul as the highest part of his being. The Truewnesse then
ran through a series of standard false candidates: riches, ambition, honour,
power, beauty, health, pleasure, and virtue itself. Virtue was a good, to be sure,
but it was nothing if its aim was not elevated to its true end in God. Like all his
other arguments, du Plessis Mornay thought that such a claim possessed the
authority of reason as well as the authority of the wisest men in history. Plato,
Neoplatonists, and those sympathetic to Plato such as Cicero (Plato in Latin),
all confirmed the Huguenot noblemans position against Epicureans, Stoics,
Peripatetics, and Academics (sceptics). The wisdom of the philosophers and of
natural reason made it clear to him that mans end was true Religion. In order
for man to be happy in society he must practice and believe the true religion,
in which he would be linked unto God and thereby, through Charitie, linked
Man unto Man.12 As we saw in Chapter 4, this Renaissance Platonist view of

in the English Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 7785;

J.A.I.Champion, The Pillars of Priestcraft Shaken: the Church of England and its Enemies
16601720 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); M. Goldie, Priestcraft and the
Birth of Whiggism, in Political Discourses in Early Modern Britain, eds., N. Phillipson and
Q. Skinner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); J. Marshall, John Locke:
Resistance, Religion and Responsibility (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994),
4056; idem, Some intellectual consequences of the English Revolution, The European
Legacy 5, 4 (2000): 51920.
12 du Plessis Mornay, 33747, quotes at 348, 349, and 364.
Atheism And Happiness 229

the connection between God, virtue, happiness, and political society was re-
expressed powerfully in the work of the Cambridge Platonists.
Very many other early modern religious apologists offered similarly Platonic-
Aristotelian based accounts. For Richard Broughton the necessity of religion
was evident from the fact that no corporall or corruptible thinge of this life is
able to satisfie and giue rest to the greedy vnderstanding, or vnpleaseable
appetite of our resonable & incorruptible parte. He also argued that all men
had understood happiness with Aristotle, as a blessed estate devoided of all
evill which man sought. Given the assumption of the immaterial existence of
mans soul, which Broughton thought was evident from the fact that the ratio-
nal activities of reflection and judgment could not be the activities of a mate-
rial substance, a conclusion repeated throughout confutation discourse, the
soul must also be immortal. Such immaterial faculties as the soul evidently
possessed meant that they were not subject to the same temporal finitude as
material creation. The immortality of the soul was, in turn, regarded as a dem-
onstration of the necessity of religion and obedience to God because it entailed
eternal divine judgment: Take this away, and not only the nature of euery par-
ticuler man is destroied, but all Communities, Kingdomes, Commonwealths,
Societies, Townes, Cities, Families and ciuill estates, which euer practised reue
rence and cannot consist without Religion, are ouerthrowne.13
In a more elaborate way Martin Fotherby made the same point in
Atheomastix by combining the arguments of du Plessis Mornay and Broughton
together. Beginning from the assumption that God made all things for his
ownenjoyment, Fotherby tied the physical ends of nature to mans ethical end
in God. Fotherby then divided his argument into an account of virtue as the
means to mans end in God, the affections as mans incentive to virtue, happi-
ness as mans reward for virtue, and God as mans true and final happiness. To
Fotherby, the ancients not only agreed that happiness was the product of
virtue, but they also thought that nature was insufficient to achieve this happi-
ness. This patristic proof, derived from the wisest men of pagan antiquity, also
demonstrated the necessity of Gods grace. God had given a natural sweetness
to allure us unto vertue, which combined with grace led to habitual good
practice. Fotherby concluded that God was the giver of all good things through
nature and through grace, and as the principle of goodness God was himself
the supreme good. The practice of Vertue and Godlinesse enjoined man to
God and made man a partaker of Gods most blessed and beatuificall vision;
which is the highest summitie of all true felicity.14

13 Broughton, 45, 578.

14 Fotherby, 284, 289.
230 chapter 7

Many Restoration anti-atheist apologies for the Christian religion came to

very similar conclusions. In The Hinge of Faith and Religion Louis Cappel
claimed that the universally acknowledged difference between virtue and vice
not only revealed the necessary existence of God, but also that mans happi-
ness was a consequence of the practice of virtue which demonstrated that
mans true end was God. Good and evil were naturally existing things which
Aristotle had discovered and organized. Given that virtue was natural, and that
man was by nature a rational animal, Cappel then stressed the fact that reason
should dominate the will and affections as the means by which to practice
virtue. In contrast to Epicurus and Lucretius, Gods perfect nature and provi-
dential concern meant that he should want his creation to worship him and to
be happy in so doing. Since it was clear for Cappel that man was created by a
superior being to whom worship was due, mans felicity depended upon the
practice of virtue, his natural excellence, which unquestionably pointed
towards his end in God. The atheist, by contrast, denied this true end and was
therefore incapable of practicing virtue or of being truly happy. The selfish,
sensual, and unrestrained pursuits of atheists led directly to the overthrowing
of all humane society, and to the subversion of all estates, bodies, & common-
alities in the whole world; & so to the confusion and ruine of all humane kind,
and to the most horrible Chaos, that ever was feigned or imagined.15
Similarly for Richard Baxter, the Nature and certainty of Religion was the
foundation upon which all mens happiness is most concerned in.16 Baxter
started from Gods own happiness, knowing and enjoying himself, and from
Gods necessary attributes as an all-powerful creator, a providential sustainer
of the universe, and a beneficent being supremely concerned with the happi-
ness of his creatures. As the supreme governor of the world, God established
his justice by meting out rewards and punishments upon his creatures capable
of freely choosing good or evil. Baxter thus regarded the moral responsibility
attendant upon free will as the foundation of temporal, worldly government.
Men either choose a fleshly, worldly pleasure, or they choose the pleasing
and enjoying of God in Holiness and Love, which is Mans ultimate end.
Contrasted with the delight and the hope of a future life with God, the Atheists
of the world think, that there was no God, or that he exercised no moral
Government over men.17 But if this were true, Baxter concluded, men would
be worse than animals, for their reason thus deceived and deluded them.
Atheists, Baxter insisted, are more unhappy:

15 Cappel, 323, 1823.

16 Baxter, 1.
17 Ibid., 120, 121, 1245, 126.
Atheism And Happiness 231

For they have no more happiness than the beasts to comfort them, while
they look for none hereafter: and they have in all the way the foresight of
their end: they fore-know their great probability of sickness, and painful
tormenting diseases: they fore-know the certainty of their death: they
know how all their sport and pleasure will end, and leave them in dolour,
and how their corps must be rotting and turn to dust: they fore-see abun-
dance of crosses in their way: they are troubled with cares for the time to
come. A beast hath none of this fore-knowledge, and none of the fore-
thoughts of pain or dying, but only fearfully flieth from a present danger.
Moreover the poor Atheist, having no certainty of the truth of his own
opinion, (that there is no other life) is oft haunted with fears of it, and
especially when approaching death doth awake both his reason and his
fears: he then thinks, O what if there should be another world, where I
must live in misery for my sin! In despight of him, some such fears will
haunt him. Judge then whether the use of reason be not to make man a
more deluded and tormented creature than the bruits, if so be there were
no life after this?18

In his Natural Theology Matthew Barker described God as an all-powerful cre-

ator from whom all of mans rights and duties derived. Man could not therefore
live his life according to his own interests, nor could he make himself happy in
living for his own ends, for God was the efficient and end of mans being. Two
things necessary for happiness according to Barker: to be delivered from injuri-
ous evils destructive to life, and to possess the positive goods suitable and sat-
isfactory to mans nature as a rational creature. Man could not achieve either of
these things for himself; rather, Mans safest and happiest consistence is in
God, he being Mans Creator, and the Fountain of his Being.19 William Bates
pointed to the restless desire of the Soul to an intellectual and eternal Felicity
not attainable here as a strong Argument for the existence and happiness of
a future state. To Bates, the desire for happiness and the existence of an imma-
terial immortal soul were necessitated by the fact that terrestrial reward and
punishment was rarely equal to the demands of natural justice. Bates else-
where pointed out that the Gospels superior moral injunctions over all the
competing views was further evidence that mans summum bonum and happi-
ness coincided in God.20

18 Ibid., 1423.
19 Barker, 191, 193, 204.
20 Bates, Considerations, 198, 202, 2402, 2446; idem, The Divinity of the Christian Religion
(London, 1677), Chap. 3, especially at p. 84: Upon the most important inquiry, and exact
232 chapter 7

Even in the traditional construction of the relationship between God, virtue,

and happiness, drawn throughout the seventeenth century in England, there
consisted an element of the argument that would become much more central to
later apologists approach to arguing with atheists.21 Richard Baxter thought
mans capacity for foreknowledge was a capacity which, in the corrupted charac-
ter of an Epicurean atheist, would succumb to existential anxiety. John Tillotson,
Matthew Barker, William Bates and many others turned this anxiety about the
future into an argument for the superiority of the Christian scheme of virtues
and duties. On this reading, only a Christian who possessed the correct beliefs
about God and practiced the virtues which that belief entailed could possess the
terrestrial tranquility that man sought as a rational creature. This particular argu-
ment became central to a series of anti-atheist homilies in the 1690s and 1700s.
One of the central animating features of John Lockes later life was a con-
cern to link up the hedonist psychology he articulated in the Essay concerning
Humane Understanding with his fundamentally Ciceronian and Christian view
of moral duty. Without ever accomplishing this link to his own satisfaction,
Locke nonetheless maintained several of the basic features of the early mod-
ern connection between the existence of God, the moral and religious virtues,
and happiness. He too acknowledged that all men desired happiness and
added that all men were restless in that desire while on earth; he too argued
that virtuous moral action was never fully rewarded in this life, only in the life
to come; he too thought that men could use their natural reason rightly in
order to arrive at the content of good and bad moral actions independently
confirmed by divine revelation in Scripture. Locke even insisted that it was
only in the light of an eternity in which Gods justice was meted out that any-
one could properly judge of terrestrial pleasure. With this view Locke was as
concerned as any anti-atheist apologist to prove that God existed and to
establish the arguments to convince atheists to be religious.22
Locke had accepted the basic features of a hedonic psychology in the 1670s
while working on what would become the Essay, and he would hold these
views for the rest of his life. In the Letter concerning Toleration the connection
between happiness, mans immortal soul, and God was quite conventional:
mans happiness followed from the performance of his personal and religious
duties, construed in terms of Gods commands and eternal judgment.23 In the

search, Reason will conclude, either there is no blessed end for which Man was designd
by his Maker, or the Gospel only has reveald it, and the effectual means to obtain it.
21 Redwood, 90, makes a similar point, though without much evidence.
22 Marshall, Locke, 64.
23 Locke, Toleration, 41.
Atheism And Happiness 233

Essay, however, Locke addressed Thrasymachus and the atheists challenge


But yet, if a Christian, who has the view of Happiness and Misery in
another Life, be asked why a Man must keep his Word, he will give this as
a Reason: Because God, who has the Power of eternal Life and Death,
requires it of us. But if an Hobbist be asked why; he will answer: Because
the Publick requires it, and the Leviathan will punish you, if you do not.
And if one of the old Heathen Philosophers had been asked, he would
have answered: Because it was dishonest, below the Dignity of a Man,
and opposite to Vertue, the highest Perfection of humane Nature.

Locke answered the Hobbist and the Stoic by elaborating the first argument
stated above:

I grant the existence of God, is so many ways manifest, and the Obedience
we owe him, so congruous to the Light of Reason, that a great part of
Mankind give Testimony to the Law of Nature: But yet I think it must be
allowed, That several Moral Rules, may receive, from Mankind, a very
general Approbation, without either knowing, or admitting the true
ground of Morality; which can only be the Law of a God, who sees Men in
the dark, and has Power enough to punish the proudest Offender. For
God, having, by an inseparable connection, joined Vertue and publick
Happiness together; and made the Practice thereof, necessary to the
preservation of Society, and visibly beneficial to all, with whom the vertu-
ous Man has to do; it is no wonder, that every one should, not only allow,
but recommend, and magnifie those Rules to others, from whose obser-
vance of them, he is sure to reap Advantage to himself.24

Assuming the connection between God, happiness, and virtue, Locke then
turned Christs formulation of the golden rule into a fundamental principle of
morality. Reason discovered this fundamental principle, and the vast majority
of men in society had embraced it as a natural law, even if only upon trust and
in the dark. Locke was convinced that most men based their lives upon such
a trust in a particular foundation of moral law, to the point that sceptics and
atheists were in fact very rare. If men had the leisure and ability to reason
thoroughly, Locke maintained, they would in general affirm the moral law of

24 J. Locke, An Essay concerning Humane Understanding, ed. P.H. Nidditch (Oxford:

Clarendon Press, 1975), 68, 69; (i.iii.5, i.iii.6). See also Locke, Essay, 54950; (iv.iii.18).
234 chapter 7

nature as expressed in Ciceros De officiis and the New Testament. In other

words, Locke thought obeying Gods commandments as delivered in Scripture
and confirmed by natural reason in the law of nature was the most probable
way to attain happiness on earth given that God providentially connected vir-
tue and happiness together. If virtue was not fully rewarded in this life, it would
be in the next; in the mean time, Locke insisted, the practice of virtue will be
the most personally and politically beneficial.
We have seen that it was a shared assumption of early modern religious
apologetics that an atheist was not happy because an atheist could not be vir-
tuous without being directed towards God as mans summum bonum. Between
1690 and 1720 many sermons developed this theme in a new way by connecting
the folly of atheism derived from Psalm 14:1 with the alleged unhappiness of
atheists. Although this period has been studied by historians with regards to
the heterodox attacks levelled against clergymen, the church, and the Christian
religion, less attention has been given to the nature of the replies to these
attacks. Consequently, the question of how these replies fit within the mold of
traditional anti-atheism and what changes such replies might reveal about the
history of early modern Christian apologetics has not been raised. Relating the
sermons against atheism in this period to a shift within early modern religious
conceptions of the ends of life reveals that Anglican clerics were not only
aware of the challenges issued against them by alleged deists, atheists, free-
thinkers, and libertines, but that they were also keen to adopt an argumenta-
tive strategy they thought would be most effective against the supposedly
atheist threat.25
Anti-atheist sermons between 1690 and 1720 took their cue not so much
from a strict teleological conception of virtue, but from an existential calcula-
tion about the probability of Gods existence. The fact of Gods more probable
existence over the improbability of his non-existence, an assumption com-
mon to all the sermons examined here, overlapped with the claim that Gods
existence quelled mans temporal existential anxiety, itself an expression of
an awareness of mans sinfulness. Accepting the greater probability of Gods
existence was simultaneously regarded as the best foundation for the cultiva-
tion of the kinds of virtues suited to a terrestrial life full of natural and spiri-
tual adversities, virtues such as longsuffering and patience. This style of
argument was not isolated. Barbara Shapiro has pointed out that very many
religious arguments made according to the emerging natural theology of
empiricist Anglican clerics such as John Wilkins were increasingly based on

25 See K. Thomas, The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfillment in Early Modern England (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2009), Chaps. 1 and 7 especially.
Atheism And Happiness 235

similar conceptions of probability.26 To the clergymen who delivered anti-

atheist sermons in the 1690s and early 1700s, the determinations of natural
reason bolstered the probability of theism as well as its existential utility. Very
much in keeping with John Tillotsons popular sermon-turned-confutation
analyzed at length in Chapter 2, The Wisdom of Being Religious, these church-
men thought that the practical and speculative atheist deserved to be labelled
a fool for ignoring such eminently clear, rational, and indeed self-interested
Where Locke failed to demonstrate the relationship between God, human
happiness, and moral duty to his own satisfaction, each of the clergymen
examined here assumed such a demonstration was possible, as executed in
anti-atheist confutation discourse, and proceeded to show that such a connec-
tion was evident, even in the absence of any apologetic demonstration. Where
Locke had positioned his hedonic psychology alongside his own arguments for
Gods existence, he had done so in part to respond to the challenges posed by
alleged deists, freethinkers, and libertines who accused revealed religion of
denying mans natural temporal pleasures. The clergymen examined below
instead positioned their quasi-Pascalian wager arguments alongside an
assumption that traditional anti-atheist confutation discourse was indeed
demonstrative, but nonetheless proceeded as if those apologetic arguments
were unconvincing to the supposed atheist, deist, freethinker, and libertine.
Where Lockes philosophy was in some sense an attempt to circumvent the
irreligious intellectual challenges raised by freethinkers and the practical chal-
lenges raised by immoral libertines, the anti-atheist sermons of the 1690s and
early 1700s summarized a traditional defence of the Christian religion while
placing an increasingly greater emphasis upon the alleged foolishness of the
atheist for an irrational miscalculation about happiness.27
Preaching to Queen Mary at Whitehall in 1690/1 Bishop Thomas Tenison
used Psalm 14:1 to attack the rationality of atheism on the personal and politi-
cal level and issued Pascals wager argument in commonsensical form. First
and foremost, Tenison conventionally thought an atheist denied God and the
natural principles that sustained belief in God and was therefore subject to
gross intellectual error, since the inward sense by which God was known and
the principles of religion could not be perpetually repressed. Like Davids fool,
the atheist concluded that the world existed without a cause, that the order of
the universe emerged by chance from a primordial chaos, and ignored the
rational proofs of Christs divinity as foretold in Scripture an argument

26 Shapiro, 828, 1178.

27 For Pascals influence on Locke, see Dunn, John Locke, 231.
236 chapter 7

central to Pascals Penses.28 Tenison then used the atheists assumed lack of
judgment to argue that the atheist was all the more blind for incorrectly per-
ceiving his own temporal and eternal interests:

For one great pretended End of Atheism and Unbelief, is a deliverance

from fear [margin: Lucretius], the making of the mind easie in all a
mans thoughts, and words, and actions, by freeing it from that terror
which is struck into it by the apprehension of a God, as an Observer, a
Judg, and an Avenger; as one that will call them to a severe account for
whatsoever they have done in the flesh, whether it be good or evil.

Such existential fears and anxieties could not be prevented or calmed except
by application to God, Tenison insisted. Atheists therefore ran an infinite
hazard for no reason. Belief in God and Christian obedience not only cost the
atheist nothing in terms of his or her temporal happiness, but also secured
terrestrial and eternal happiness together, regardless of whether or not the
atheist accepted the anti-atheists proofs of Gods existence. Furthermore,
atheists undermined the happiness of others by undermining the social and
political order.29 The only reason an atheist did not commit a crime, Tenison
averred, was solely from fear of the Law, or of those they depend on, or publick
Infamy, or expence, or disease, or from impotence, or want of opportunity.30
Atheists were not obedient because of any moral obligation, in other words,
but because of a misguided, selfish temporal calculation:

It behoveth all Civil Governours to animadvert upon Atheism, as that

which supplants the Foundation of all Humane Society. This Psalm is
supposed to have been penned upon occasion of the Conspiracy of
Absolom, and the general Wickedness of that Generation which gave
occasion to it, and to the spreading of Atheism. It was an Age so corrupt,
that David seems to compare it to the State of the Old World before the
Flood, at which time the Earth was filled with Violence, and all Flesh had
corrupted its Ways.31

Naming those who scoff at Religion as Priest-Craft, an association which raised

the spectres of Hobbes and Blount, Tenison worried about the consequences of

28 T. Tenison, A Sermon concerning the Folly of Atheism (London, 1691), 28.

29 Ibid., 910, 11, 15, 22.
30 Ibid., 25.
31 Ibid., 323.
Atheism And Happiness 237

the existence of atheists who denied their conscience and thereby undermined
all the ties which bound civil society together.32 If the atheist ignored his or her
true interest and risked the infinite hazard by basing his or her happiness on a
temporal hedonic calculation alone, as Tenison thought Hobbes had argued, the
atheists untrustworthiness and selfishness would undermine all human com-
merce and covenants. Without God there was no means to validate oaths, to
secure promises, or to uphold compacts.33
Clement Ellis 1692 anti-atheist confutation, The Folly of Atheism, was not a
sermon, but it constructed an argument similar to Tenisons in response to the
perceived threat of atheism, including the practical atheism of alleged liber-
tines and the speculative atheism of supposed deists and freethinkers. To Ellis,
the folly of Psalm 14:1 combined the practical atheism of the atheist who
wished to live as he pleased, the speculative atheism of denying the conclu-
sions of natural theology, and the irrational atheism of ignoring all the good
practical consequences of belief in God and true religion. Ellis actually opened
The Folly of Atheism with a quasi-Pascalian wager argument before moving on
to a more traditional defence of the Christian religion based on the rational
evidence of Scripture and natural theology:

And this [atheists] Folly will undeniably appear very great, to every one
that takes notice but of Three things, which are all very visible: [1.] He is
Confident, where he cannot have any, even the least ground of Assurance.
2. He is Confident, where his Confidence can do no good, but will do
much hurt. 3. He is Confident, where all the reason in the world is against
his Confidence.34

Here the folly of atheism was pretending to be sure of that which was not sus-
ceptible of demonstrable proof, the negative proposition that God does not
exist. Therefore the atheist based his or her confidence upon a non-provable
and improbable conjecture. Whereas belief in God produced no negative

It would do much good, because tis plain, that this belief (which nothing
else coud do) keeps the world in good order, and makes men sociable,

32 See T. Tenison, The Creed of Mr. Hobbes Examined (London, 1670), 167, for a similar argu-
ment about the atheists hazard in self-interested pursuit of temporal power and
33 Tenison, Folly of Athiesm, 334.
34 C. Ellis, The Folly of Atheism (London, 1692), 8.
238 chapter 7

g overnable, and serviceable to one another. This belief of a God, is that

which keeps us from destroying our selves by Lasciviousness, Intempe
rance, and Luxury; and from devouring and ruining one another by mal-
ice, envy, pride, covetousness, and oppression. So that the world owes its
happiness to this belief.35

If the atheist was right, what good would his opinion do him or the society of
which he was a part? Instead, Ellis implied that the atheist, like Francis Spira,
would be anxiously troubled with the thought that his voluptuous life would
soon come to an end, that his licentious pleasures would cause sickness, pain,
or premature death, and that he will despair of his present and future life.
Moreover, the social consequences of atheism were conventionally clear:
There would be nothing in a short time visible, but disorder and confusion,
and all manner of mischief and misery, were men once persuaded, That there
is no God, no rewarder of the good, no punisher of the wicked; and that there
is nothing either to be hoped for, or feared, but in this life only.36
Attacking atheism as unreasonable because it was improbable was also
William Talbots strategy in his 1694 sermon on Psalm 14:1, delivered to Queen
Mary at Whitehall. The sermon began by arguing that atheists irrationally
believed that there was no infinitely wise, powerful, just, good being who first
made the world, and it summarized a range of other supposedly atheistic
views, including the eternity of matter, the Epicurean concatenation of atoms
in the void, and the existence of a God unconcerned with creation. Although
he concluded that these were the beliefs of fools, Talbot noted that some of
these erroneously and irrational beliefs had regained prevalence in his own
day, and he cited Charles Blounts Oracles of Reason as an example. By referring
his readers to traditional anti-atheist confutation for the conventional demon-
stration of God, providence, and the truth of Christianity against writers such
as Blount, Talbot chose instead to focus on the practical folly of libertines and
freethinkers by asserting that such atheists lived under a delusional certainty.37
Talbot thought that the frame and origin of the world, the structure, harmony,
order, and beauty of the universe, overwhelmingly favoured the probability of
theism, especially given the fulfilment of prophecy and miracles in Scripture,
the terrified testimony of atheists near death, and the universal consent of
mankind in the belief in God. Talbot then insisted that when such consider-
ations were balanced in light of an existential reflection upon ones potential

35 Ibid., 9, 11, 12.

36 Ibid., 223.
37 W. Talbot, The Unreasonableness and Mischief of Atheism (London, 1694), 34, 6, 7.
Atheism And Happiness 239

happiness or misery in an eternal future state beyond death, the wager clearly
favoured theistic belief. Where the gain was infinite, Talbot preached in
another echo of Pascal, the loss was nothing.38
Talbot also considered atheisms social and political consequences. Again
taking anti-atheist confutation discourse for granted as having proved Gods
existence, the existence of a future state, and eternal judgment in light of the
performance of moral duties, Talbot entered into a series of comparisons
between the moderate, virtuous man, and the immoderate, vicious man. He
concluded that those vertuous Practices, which the Belief of a God and future
State, will engage a Man in, are so very advantageous in this Life, that he that
throws off that Belief, does at the same time part with not only all hopes of
Happiness hereafter, but also with the great and only certain Instrument and
Procurer of Happiness in present.39 According to Talbot, a convinced atheist
will act without any restraint, paying no heed to order, law, duty, or honour
because atheists have no fear of eternal punishment. Atheists disrupted every
social bond, personal, familial, and political, through their selfishness and
untrustworthiness since without God there was no source of obligation other
than self-interest. If such disorder was to be prevented government and sover-
eigns must use their power to suppress atheism and atheistic discourse, for at
its root was the danger of rebellion: Theres no Conspiracy so dangerous to
Sovereign Princes as a Combination of Atheists, to spread abroad their desper-
ate Opinions, and make Proselytes in their Kingdoms.40
Like Tenison, Ellis, and Talbot, Charles Lidgolds anti-atheist sermon, deliv-
ered in 1698 on the Occasion of His Majestys Proclamation against Atheism,
and Profaneness, &c., exhorted his parishioners and England generally to
moral reformation as the means by which to stop the spread of atheism.41
Earlier in 1698 Parliament had been considering An Act for the more effectual
suppressing of Atheism, Blasphemy, and Profaneness, when, in immediate
compliance to the Request of the Commons, King William published A Procla
mation, for Preventing and Punishing Immorality and Prophaneness. While the
Proclamation did not mention atheism specifically, it did clearly condemn

38 Ibid., 11, 134, 16.

39 Ibid., 23.
40 Ibid., 29.
41 Gilbert Burnet sounded similar themes when he preached a sermon praising William of
Orange for saving England from the two extremes of Catholicism (idolatry) and athe-
ism in 1688. See G. Burnet, A Sermon Preached before the House of Commons, on the 31st of
January, 1688 Being the Thanksgiving-day for the Deliverance of this Kingdom from Popery
and Arbitrary power, by His Highness the Prince of Oranges means (London, 1689), 25.
240 chapter 7

behaviour equated with practical atheism and it reiterated a ubiquitously aired

exhortation made in the 1690s, the need for a reformation of manners.42
Commemorating this proclamation, Lidgold used his sermon to single out
alleged atheists, deists, and freethinkers as one of the targets to which he was
responding.43 Such men

call all Religion only, Priest-craft, a Trade whereby We get our Living: That
regard the Holy Scriptures but as a well lard Romance, and the great
Articles of Christianity as nothing else but so many Fables: That look
upon our Preaching to be mere Cant, our Doctrine of Heaven and Hell, of
a Resurrection and a Judgment to come to be only a Trick to debar them
the pleasure of Indulging their natural Appetites, and a bare Design to
put a check upon their sensual desires and inclinations, which are very
impatient of any controul: That even those, I say, that entertain such
invincible Prejudices against Our Admonitions and Reproofs, may yet be
wrought on by You, whom they are not so ready to suspect of any By
designs upon them, to enter into parly with themselves, and consider and
see what it is they are doing. And that you may be the better animated to
curb the growth of these pernicious Impieties, that tend to the utter Ruin
and Subversion of all Religion among us, thereby to prevent, what you
can, the dreadful consequence hereof, even the Destruction and Over-
throw of your Native Countrey.44

By 1698 accusations of priestcraft were understood by most anti-atheist apolo-

gists in terms of the alleged atheists claim that religion was a political cheat.
Thus Lidgold defended religion and the Bible against arguments made by
alleged freethinkers who suggested that clergymen erroneously denied mans
natural Appetites by placing an unnecessary check upon their sensual
desires and inclinations. It was clear to Lidgold where to place the blame for
the prevalence of this specious atheist argument:

let me observe to you another Cause of the Looseness and Immorality of

the Age: Namely, the Principles of some late Philosophers, greedily imbibd
by several, who thought it an Accomplishment to have so much smattering

42 By the King, a Proclamation, for Preventing and Punishing Immorality and Prophaneness
(London, 1698).
43 Cf. W. Fenwick, A Sermon Preachd upon Occasion of the Kings Proclamation, for Preventing
and Punishing Immorality and Prophaneness (London, 1701).
44 C. Lidgold, A Sermon Preachd in the Cathedral-Church at Ely (London, 1699), 4.
Atheism And Happiness 241

that way, that they might be able to chatter in Philosophical Terms; and
the falling in of these Principles with the Gratification of their Lusts gave
them still the greater Relish.

To Lidgold the learned men who abused philosophy and issued charges of
priestcraft did so as the means by which to justify their immoral practical
In 1701 Thomas Knaggs wrote that anyone who ignored the evidence of nat-
ural theology was equivalent to the fool of Psalm 14:1. Knaggs had preached his
sermon on Psalm 14:9, Fools make a mock at Sin, connecting the foolish athe-
ist with the equally foolish profane mocker. Surveying the ends, order, and
beauty of the natural universe from macrocosm to microcosm, and the funda-
mental dualism of matter and spirit, Knaggs insisted that such an observation
forced the most Atheistical and Irreligious Man to confess there is a God.46
The mocking atheist must therefore consider the consequences of his actions
and the fact that one day he will be called to an eternal account. Closing his
sermon with an admonition, Knaggs appealed to the image of Socrates and
Socratic self-examination as an analogy for how the atheist should reflect upon
the natural universe and upon his own nature and come to the conclusion that
Gods existence and divine attributes necessitated an eternally just judgment.47
Although Lidgold and Knaggs did not make the direct move to a quasi-Pascalian
wager argument in their sermons, they were both animated in their counter-
attacks on learned atheism by the hedonist implications of practical atheism
which they understood to be the motivation to profane mockery and accusa-
tions of priestcraft.
In 1710 John Oliver published A Sermon against Atheism which took Psalm
14:1 as its central text, attributing the rise of atheism to an increased prevalence
of personal character corrupted by sin. Oliver then attempted to demonstrate
the atheists folly in individual and social terms, in keeping with Tenison, Ellis,
and Talbot, by pointing to the sense of anxiety and dependence which man
necessarily felt as a result of his finitude in terrestrial life: none of us are suf-
ficient of ourselves for all the Purposes of Life, we have neither Wisdom enough
to contrive, nor Power enough to fix and secure our own Happiness, our
Fortunes are not safe in our own Custody, and in short, we can make sure of
Nothing. This existential fragility was conveyed through an anticipation of

45 Ibid., 1920.
46 T. Knaggs, A Sermon against Atheism (London, 1701), 4 (macrocosm), 614 (microcosm),
147, 18.
47 Ibid., 213, 26, 27, 28, 301.
242 chapter 7

future Evils which we all know and feel by Experience. Without an all-
powerful, good, and providential God to watch over finite man, earthly life was
nothing but a wretched, forlorn Condition.48 By contrast, it was in mans ter-
restrial interest that there should be a God directing his steps and providen-
tially watching over him.
In yet another quasi-Pascalian point, Oliver thought the atheist was a fool
for jeopardizing his eternal existence on something as uncertain as his opin-
ion. The only doubt that could be raised about Gods existence, based on eter-
nal atoms and the emergence of order from disorder, was that God might not
exist. There was no certainty in this doubt because the notion of God implied
no logical contradiction. In order to solve the dilemma, Oliver began from the
premise that Gods existence was merely in dispute rather than rejected com-
pletely: let us see who runs the greatest Hazard upon these Terms. Oliver then
claimed that anyone who practiced the Christian virtues and duties dictated
by God, such as humility and frugality, were very happy and prosperous. When
this Man comes to die, if he chance to be mistaken, his Case is no more than
that of the Atheist, his Error dies with him. On the other hand, the atheist who
gave in to every appetite and inclination and who had his fill of temporal

his Life is encumbred with a Thousand ill Circumstances, a disorderd

Spirit, a crazy Body, scandalous Name, and broken Fortune being the
usual Fruits of Extravagancy and Debauchery: And when he comes to die,
if he chance to be mistaken, and should, contrary to his Expectations,
meet an angry God, and revengeful Devils, his Condition is the most
deplorably wretched and unfortunate.

Oliver thought such atheists had formed a cabal and attacked both natural and
revealed religion, an anti-atheist trope directed towards supposed deists, free-
thinkers, and libertines. The proper response, once again, was a reformation of
manners.49 With all the other clergymen considered in this chapter, Oliver
argued that public peace, political prosperity, and providential protection all
depended on stopping the progress of immoral atheism.
After Tillotson, Tenison, Talbot, and Oliver, the homiletic practice supple-
mented most fully by anti-atheist confutation was the work of Thomas Wise.
Wise was not only an editor of Ralph Cudworths True Intellectual System,
which he republished, revised, and abridged in 1706, he was also a translator of

48 J. Oliver, A Sermon against Atheism (London, 1710), 34, 67.

49 Ibid., 18, 1920, 23.
Atheism And Happiness 243

a popular Italian work of apologetics by the Marchese di Pianezza, La Christiana

esser la sola religion verace, published originally in 1664. Wise edited and trans-
lated this work in 1703 as The Truth of the Christian Religion because he thought
it was one of the few stylistic rivals to the immensely popular De veritate reli-
gionis Christianae (1627) by Hugo Grotius.50 As a more polished work than
Cudworths erudite tome, perhaps Wise hoped to provide both a rhetorically
persuasive and a critically thorough confutation of atheism. Whatever the case
may be, Wises own approach in The Folly of Atheism, Irreligion, and
Disloyalty, a sermon delivered in 1715 on Psalm 14:1 and published in the
Fourteen Discourses of 1718, brings the various anti-atheist themes of this and
the previous chapter together.51 Beginning his sermon with the Voice of
Nature, the Consent of Nations, and the harmonious Frame of the Universe,
Wise rejected the examples of Diagoras and the infamous Vanini as excep-
tions to universal consent because no man could be convinced rationally that
there was no God. As with Fotherby nearly a century before him, Wise thought
that practical atheism, in which the will and passions overthrow reason, was
the only possible form of atheism. Echoing Tenison, Wise argued that the
Psalms proper context was the rebellion of Absalom against David, and that
Absalom was a practical atheist and a fool for temporarily forgetting Gods
providence. As Wise pointed out, the Hebrew word for fool was etymologically
related to the word for that which was dead, i.e., someone who had fallen from
his natural Character, which is Reason with Religion.52 Only a fool who had
forsaken reason, in other words, could look to nature and think that the uni-
verse was the product of or governed by chance. Rearticulating the arguments
of previous sermons on the folly of atheism, Wise claimed that the atheist
mistakenly believed in an argument which was incapable of proof the asser-
tion that God did not exist. Since the existence of God implied no logical con-
tradiction, there could be no rational proof of speculative atheism.53
With all the other sermons against atheism examined above, Wise thought
an atheist rejected the evidence of natural theology and temporal happiness by
foregoing the existential comfort which belief in God provided. Without God as
the proper end of moral and religious activity, Wise opined, an atheist never
cultivated the Stoic and Christian virtues of resolution and steadfastness. Instead

50 T. Wise, A Preliminary Discourse Containing an Account of the Author, &c., in

C.E.F.Giacinto da Simiana, marchese di Pianezza, The Truth of the Christian Religion, trans.
T.Wise (London, 1703), at p. 26 for Pianezza as more lively and agreeable than Grotius.
51 Cf. R. Bulstrode, Miscellaneous Essays (London, 1715), 30019.
52 T. Wise, Fourteen Discourses (London, 1718), 12, 3, 56, 13.
53 Ibid., 89, 112.
244 chapter 7

an atheist was subject to the whims of an unrestrained will, anxiously living out
his days in the knowledge of his guilt, without any genuine satisfaction and
unable to face temporal difficulty. Wise concluded that

it is the part of a wise Man to incline to that side, where there is the least
Hazard and the greatest evidence; and therefore tho it were not certain
that there is a God and future State, yet Prudence would put him upon
leading this short Life in such a manner, as that hereafter he may be oth-
erwise prepared at least to live even after Death.54

In sum, the greatest evidence and the least Hazard should incline a rational
inquirer to belief in God on the basis of probability, especially since the athe-
ists ultimate happiness depended on it.
By 1720, then, several anti-atheist religious apologists had shifted the locus
of their confutation of atheism from the certainty of Gods demonstrable exis-
tence accompanied by a classically inflected teleological view of virtue and
human flourishing in favour of a probabilistic and existential set of arguments
which appealed to a hedonic calculation about mans temporal happiness.
AsChapter 3 made clear, a complementary revision of Epicureanism had taken
place by 1700. Grounding an orthodox religious vision of political society was
still a central concern for most religious apologists in the early eighteenth
century, but the means of maintaining that vision had changed. Although it
would be a mistake to downplay the continued role of anti-atheist arguments
from authority and natural theology in eighteenth-century religious apologet-
ics, including the longstanding argument from universal consent detailed in
Chapter 6, arguing against atheists based on a deliberation about true terres-
trial happiness became an increasingly predominant concern for Enlighten
ment defences of the Christian religion.

54 Ibid., 15, 23.

chapter 8

From Confutation to Criticism

In 1723 Bernard Mandeville used the Great Fire of London as an example in an

argument diametrically opposed to traditional religious interpretations of that
momentous event put forward by clergymen such as Richard Allestree, Richard
Baxter, and Edward Stillingfleet:

The Fire of London was a great Calamity, but if the Carpenters, Bricklayers,
Smiths and all, not only that are employd in Building but likewise those
that made and deal in the same Manufactures and other Merchandizes
that were Burnt, and other Trades again that got by them what they were
in fully Employ, were to Vote against those who lost by the First; the
Rejoycings would equal if not exceed the Complaints.1

For Mandeville, it was upon the private vices of men, wishing to profit from a
calamity such as the Great Fire, that a thriving society was built, provided that
it was dextrously managed by skillful politicians. Drawing this shockingly non-
providential conclusion from one of Englands greatest natural disasters,
Mandeville also rejected the confutational commonplace that atheists were a
threat to political society. It was a controversial argument which challenged
centuries of assumptions about atheists and the gamut of threats that atheists
were thought to pose.
This chapter examines the understanding of atheists and the argumentative
attacks upon atheism and anti-atheism from 1680 to 1720 in the work of Charles
Blount, John Locke, Pierre Bayle, Anthony Ashley Cooper, Richard Blackmore,
and Mandeville. In doing so it traces the challenges such thinkers issued to the
form and the content of early modern anti-atheist confutation. However, Mande
villes claim that atheists were socially and politically nonthreatening and his

1 B. Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees (London, 1723), 415. Mandevilles is a view we still find
natural today: When disaster strikes, there will always be those who seen an opportunity for
making money: A. Tinniswood, By Permission of Heaven: The True Story of the Great Fire of
London (New York: Riverhead, 2004), 68. Stillingfleet preached a conventional sermon on the
fast day appointed for the Great Fire on October 10, 1666: A Sermon Preached before the
Honourable House of Commons, At St. Margarets Westminster October 10 1666 (London, 1666).
Sermons about the fire were still being preached in Mandevilles day. See B. Ibbot, A
Dissolution of this World by Fire: A Sermon Preachdon Monday, September 3 1711. The Day of
Humiliation for the dreadful Fire, in the Year 1666 (London, 1711).

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246 chapter 8

exclusion of religious apologists from the public square should not be construed
as the triumph of an early Enlightenment understanding of atheism.2 Such a
judgment would be centuries premature. David Hume had to defend his scepti-
cal philosophy against the charge that it presaged a slippery slope to atheistic
social chaos in the 1770s, Percy Shelley was expelled from the University of
Oxford for The Necessity of Atheism (1811), and the atheist Charles Bradlaugh
fought a prolonged battle in order to take his seat as an mp in the 1880s.
By focusing on the ways in which anti-atheist confutatio was subsumed
under a broader rhetoric of Augustan ars critica, this chapter begins by detail-
ing Blounts caustic criticisms of revealed religion which challenged early
modern religious apologists. Although Locke rejected any suggestion that
atheists should be tolerated in political society, he concurrently advanced sev-
eral arguments that undermined the content of traditional anti-atheist apolo-
getics and the rhetorical excess he thought such works too often displayed.
Pierre Bayle was the first to advance the claim that a virtuous atheist could
exist and that a society of atheists was indeed a real possibility. We will see that
he did so by employing the rhetoric and arguments of anti-atheist confutation
against itself in a manner similar to Blount. This chapter will also show that it
was the third Earl of Shaftesbury, intimately familiar with Bayles argument,
who first advocated a more or less systematic rejection of confutation as a
mode for answering atheists in favour of a polite criticism that could accept
the existence of virtuous atheists but nonetheless maintained anti-atheist
assumptions and levelled several conventional anti-atheist arguments for
broadly political purposes. Eighteenth-century apologists such as Richard
Blackmore mirrored Shaftesburys ideals in the sense that Blackmore embraced
a polite form of addressing atheists while nonetheless advocating quite tradi-
tional anti-atheist arguments, taking Bayle as his primary target in doing so.
Having rejected the logic of anti-atheist confutation of which Locke com-
plained, Blackmore could not imagine how political society could function
without the religious, political, and moral obligation of both natural and
revealed religion. Finally, this chapter will examine Mandevilles naturalistic
explanation of how society was founded, operated, and prospered, in which he
eschewed the traditional connection between religious belief and political
society. Given this perspective, Mandeville not only defended the existence of
atheists in political society on Baylean terms, he went further by identifying

2 J. Champions warning to scholars against adopting the language of warfare and victory that
was used by freethinkers and deists themselves, and thus seeming to condone one side or the
other in this dispute, is apposite here: The Pillars of Priestcraft Shaken: The Church of England
and Its Enemies 16601720 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 232.
From Confutation To Criticism 247

anti-atheist confutation as an unnecessarily disruptive presence in the public

square which destabilized political society.
Thus, between 1680 and 1720 key elements of anti-atheist confutation were
directly challenged by several early Enlightenment thinkers. Blount examined
the content of the Christian religion in a subversively even-handed compari-
son with other religions, and he interpreted all revealed religion according to
natural reason as conceptualized in the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes and
Baruch Spinoza. Locke rejected two mainstays of the anti-atheist arguments
for the proof of Gods existence based on the universal consent of mankind or
innate ideas. Bayle directly challenged the assumptions of anti-atheist confu-
tation by claiming that atheists could not be detected merely by the supposed
implication of their arguments or behaviour since human behaviour was not
explained by religious confession, but by the vagaries of temporal and terres-
trial inclinations. Bayle, Locke, and Shaftesbury each rejected the claim that
atheists were aberrations of nature. Shaftesbury targeted anti-atheist confuta-
tion as a dry, erudite, monological rhetorical strategy which should be replaced
by a polite, critical, dialogical conception of the ars critica. Blackmore rejected
the innate argument for the existence of God and he repudiated the logic
which implied atheists were by definition immoral while nonetheless crafting
an anti-atheist poetic rejoinder to Lucretius De rerum natura and attacking
Bayle with critical poise. And, finally, Mandeville rejected any suggestion that
atheists were threatening to political society and instead identified the rheto-
ric of religious apologetics as a genuine danger to political prosperity.

(i) Charles Blounts Anti-apologetics

As we saw in Chapter 7, from at least 1680 onwards a major concern of religious

apologists was the increasingly ubiquitous accusation of priestcraft. Mark
Goldie and Justin Champion have shown that many of the writers who issued
the charge of priestcraft against clergymen in this period, including Blount,
John Toland, and Anthony Collins, did so not simply as a frontal assault on the
idea of God and revealed religion, but rather as a broader attack on the institu-
tional foundation of the Christian church and its sociopolitical supremacy.3
Given the importance of the church and its ecclesiology to the politics of

3 Champion, Priestcraft, 6, 78, 9; M. Goldie, Priestcraft and the Birth of Whiggism, in Political
Discourses in Early Modern Britain, eds., N. Phillipson and Q. Skinner (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1993), 20931; S. Ellenzweig, The Fringes of Belief: English Literature, Ancient
Heresy, and the Politics of Freethinking, 16601760 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008).
248 chapter 8

post-Restoration English society, as J.C.D. Clark has persuasively shown, it

would be hard to overstate the sense in which the charge of priestcraft ampli-
fied extant early modern anxieties about the spread of atheism. If atheists
embodied a threat to the religious foundation of political society generally, the
attack on the Anglican ecclesiological expression of that religious foundation
turned the atheist threat into something very real indeed.4 Jon Parkin has sug-
gested that Blount, Toland, and Collins did in fact derive inspiration from
Hobbesian and Spinozistic anticlericalism and that freethinkers in the 1690s
adapted Hobbes and Spinozas critical thought in order to reject accusations
of atheism and irreligion as priestly propaganda.5 J.A. Redwood anticipated
this conclusion when he characterized the attack on priestcraft as an attack on
the worldview of early modern religious apologetics itself.6 On their own
terms, it would seem, the anti-atheists certainly had reason to be worried.
Between 1679 and 1683 Charles Blount issued a series of works that not only
summarized the anticlerical and polemical thought of Hobbes and Spinoza, but
also made highly contentious comparisons and claims about the truth of the
Christian religion in a style directly at odds with early modern apologetics.
Blount identified his approach with many of the arguments of the intellectual
figures associated with atheism in contemporary anti-atheist confutation dis-
course, and he did so in ways that directly challenged that discourses assump-
tions, arguments, and strategies: he followed Michel de Montaigne in
characterizing the diverse forms of human behaviour according to a pessimis-
tic, hedonic, Hobbesian view of human nature; he used a critical apparatus
derived from Hobbes and Spinoza to reject arguments based on the authority of
antiquity, Scripture, and miracles; he attacked unpleasing priests as hypocrites
concerned with terrestrial power who used specious rhetoric to attack as atheist
anyone who challenged their authority; and he specifically rejected the argu-
ments of the apologists who proclaimed the triumph of the Christian religion.
In turn, early modern apologists recognized the form and content of Blounts
argument as an atheists attack. Expressing a widely shared view in A Preser
vative Against Deism (1698), Nathanael Taylor thought Blount and deists like

4 J.C.D. Clark, English Society, 16601832: Religion, Ideology and Politics in the Ancien Regime, 2nd
ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); cf. J.G.A. Pocock, Within the Margins:
The Definitions of Orthodoxy, in The Margins of Orthodoxy: Heterodox Writing and Cultural
Response, 16601750, ed., Roger Lund (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 3352.
5 J. Parkin, Taming the Leviathan: The Reception of the Political and Religious Ideas of Thomas
Hobbes in England 16401700 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 407.
6 J.A. Redwood, Reason, Ridicule and Religion: The Age of Enlightenment in England 16601750
(London: Thames and Hudson, 1976), 1534.
From Confutation To Criticism 249

him sought to blow up the foundations of our Faith under the guise of attack-
ing revealed religion alone.7 This reading accords with David Bermans thesis
that Blount adopted a subversive anti-theist strategy in his writings.8 The tenor
and topoi of Blounts work alerted his antagonists to what might be called his
anti-apology. By adopting a critical orientation in the search after truth
what he called a free and impartial comparison of the doctrine, miracles, and
historical evidence of revealed religion Blount challenged the means, mode,
and material of traditional early modern apologetics. By issuing this anti-apology
in the context of rising anxieties about atheism after the Restoration and the
Revolution of 1688, Blount became much more than the standard apologists
hypothetical rhetorical foil.
One of the ways Blount challenged anti-atheist confutation was by making
his questionable intellectual allegiances clearly known. He cited authors that
early modern anti-atheists writers recognized as atheists or perceived as reviv-
ers of atheist arguments. Niccol Machiavelli, Giordano Bruno, Montaigne,
Lucillo Vanini, Hobbes, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, and Spinoza were each
sympathetically cited in order to make controversial points often directly at
odds with the standards of early modern Christian apologetics.9 Consider

7 N. Taylor, A Preservative Against Deism. Shewing The great advantage of Revelation above Reason,
in the Two Great Points, Pardon of Sin, and a Future State of Happiness. With an Appendix in
Answer to a Letter of A.W. Against Revealed Religion, in the Oracles of Reason (London, 1698), ii.
For a similar set of arguments, targeting deists and atheists, see J. King, MrBlounts Oracles of
Reason, Examined and Answered. In which his many Heterodox Opinions are Refuted, the Holy
Scriptures and Revealed Religion are Asserted, Against Deism & Atheism (Exon, 1698); T. Smith,
Two Compendious Discourses: The One Concerning the Power of God: The Other about the
Certainty and Evidence of a Future State. Published in Opposition to the Growing Atheism and
Deism of the Age (London, 1699). F. Gastrell linked deism to atheism for similar reasons in his
Boyle lectures of 1697, a work of conventional anti-atheist apologetics: F. Gastrell, The Certainty
and Necessity of Religion in General: Or, The First Grounds & Principles of Humane Duty Establishd
(London, 1697), 17480, 24955; Gastrell addressed the deist rejection of revealed religion in The
Certainty of the Christian Revelation, and the Necessity of Believing it, Established. In Opposition
to all the Cavils and Insinuations of such as pretend to allow Natural Religion, and reject the Gospel
(London, 1699); cf. P. de La Touche Boesnier, APreservative against Atheism and Infidelity, [trans.
Anon.] (London, 1706), where part 1 confuted the atheist, and part 2 the deist.
8 D. Berman, Disclaimers as Offence Mechanisms in Charles Blount and John Toland, in
Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment, eds., M. Hunter and D. Wootton (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1992), 25572. Champion reminds us that anticlericalism does not
necessarily imply irreligion: Champion, Priestcraft, 178.
9 Such a list accords well with that of other anti-Christians as discussed by D. Wootton, Lucien
Febvre and the Problem of Unbelief in the Early Modern Period, The Journal of Modern
History, 60, 4 (1988): 708. Blount also cited: Pomponazzi, Cardano, Charron.
250 chapter 8

Blounts view of human nature and his explanation of behaviour. Machiavil,

Montaign, and all Writers of Satyr, Blount wrote in his 1680 translation and
commentary, The Two First Books of Philostratus, upon the Life of Apollonius
Tyaneus, give a true Description of what Men really do; shew that Man-kind in
general, ever was, is, and will be the same, viz. Base, Treacherous, and False,
studying nothing but their own Interest and Safety, to which they will attain by
any means whatsoever.10 Blount expressed this Hobbesian egoistic realism in
direct opposition to the apologetic argument that true religious confession and
practice determined human behaviour. He also cited Leviathans claims about
clerical authority, miracles, the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, and the
interpretation of Scripture. Each of these Hobbesian points contested the pri-
mary sources of early modern apologetic authority. On the specific question of
the interpretation of dreams and their divine import, for instance, Blount
endorsed the entirely naturalistic explanation offered by Vanini, Montaigne,
and Hobbes.11
Blounts sceptically comparative approach to the truth of religion chal-
lenged the central aim of all early modern Christian apologetics: to defend the
superiority of the truth of the Christian religion over false religion. While the
early modern sceptical traditional has been characterized by Richard Popkin
as one which was not necessarily at odds with religious orthodoxy, in the hands
of Blount this scepticism was directed in a rather more pointed way towards
the kinds of arguments used by apologists of the time.12 Blount described his
approach to moral, political, and religious questions as one which Montaig
nizes disputes, detailing the diversity of opinion on any given question and
leaving the truth of the matter in a state of suspense. This controversial method
was not inherently unorthodox. But Blount extended this approach to conten-
tious observations, including the claim that all religious and philosophical
sects have had their martyrs, not just Christianity. Most tellingly, even if saints
had died for Christian truth, Blount replied that atheists such as Vaninus died
madly to oppose that truth.13 Indeed, in his 1679 historical reflection on the
nature and immortality of the soul, Anima Mundi, Blount used Francis Bacons
authority as a source for a contrarian assertion: the wars of religion made it
clear that ostensibly religious men were capable of the grossest hypocrisy and

10 C. Blount, The Two First Books of Philostratus, Upon the Life of Appollonius Tyaneus
(London, 1680), Preface, 152.
11 Ibid., 279, 32.
12 R. Popkin, The History of Skepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1979).
13 Blount, Philostratus, 478, 41.
From Confutation To Criticism 251

atheism, evidenced in their quest for worldly power. If atheists could be mar-
tyrs for atheism, and Christians could act like atheists, Blount drew up the
troubling conclusion: how little we can judge of Religion by outward
appearance.14 The conventional apologetic connection between religious
confession and virtue was repeatedly rejected by Blount in his work.15 When he
cited a lengthy section of the Satyr against Mankind by the libertine poet, the
Earl of Rochester, in the context of a Hobbesian interpretation of the apostle
Pauls warning against the Vanity of Philosophy, wherein Paul was interpreted
as favouring a kind of Socratic ignorance, we get a sense of the atheist anxiety
which Blounts associations and arguments generated. In his quotation Roches
ters poem ends: Our sphere of action is lifes happiness, / And he who thinks
beyond thinks like an ass.16 Blount therby turned the chief apostle and apolo-
gist for Christianity into a Socratic sceptical inquirer concerned primarily, if
not solely, with the terrestrial sphere of action.17 If the apostle Paul was
indeed a model to which early modern religious apologists consistently looked,
it would be hard to find a more pertinent challenge to their defence of Christian
truth than Blounts redescription.
Blount was clearly aware, as Redwood astutely noted, that he would be
attacked as an atheist by anti-atheist apologists for the associations, argu-
ments, and style he deployed.18 He not only challenged the grounds of tradi-
tional apologetics, but also the sources of clerical authority. We can be more
specific than Redwood by identifying the anti-atheist attack Blount antici-
pated as the apologetic counter-argument of confutation. In the preface to the
reader of Anima Mundi, for instance, Blount predicted that his text would be
damned as an Atheistical, Heretical Pamphlet by someone who aimed only to
glorifie his own Zeal, under the pretence of becoming a Champion for Truth:

14 C. Blount, Anima Mundi, or, an Historical Narration of the Opinions of the Ancients Concer
ning Mans Soul after this Life According to Unenlightned Nature (London, 1679), 90, 91.
15 Ibid., 667, 723, 8990; idem, Philostratus, 56.
16 Blount, Philostratus, 2278. Blount did not include the lines which mention Edward
Stillingfleet by name, but Rochesters Satyr was itself motivated by a dislike of rationalist
Christian apologetics. See M. Thormhlen, Rochester: The Poems in Context (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1993), 1645.
17 David Berman interprets this passage under the banner of theological lying in
Disclaimers, 256. While I have left the exact nature of Blounts personal beliefs open, it
seems to me that my argument complements Bermans by suggesting that Blounts exam-
ples and this Pauline example in particular were chosen in light of contemporary
religious apologetics. Cf. Ellenzweig, Chap. 1.
18 J.A. Redwood, Charles Blount (165493), Deism, and English Free Thought, Journal for
the History of Ideas, 35, 3 (1974): 491.
252 chapter 8

But such a Person understands not wherein the Nature of Atheism con-
sists, how conversant soever he may otherwise be in the Practice of it. It
were Atheism to say, there is no God; and so it were (though less directly)
to deny his Providence, or restrain it to some particulars, and exclude it in
reference to others. Such are Atheists, who maintain such Opinions as
these: and so are those Hereticks, who erre in Fundamentals, and con-
tinue obstinately in such errours. But the ignorant Vulgar people (whose
Superstition is grounded upon the assimulating God with themselves)
are apt to think that every one they Hate, are God Almightys Enemies;
and that whosoever differs from them in Opinion, (though in never so
trivial a matter) are Atheists, or Hereticks at least.19

Blount pinpointed his clerical opponents. They were the traditional apologists
and anti-atheists who used confutation as an umbrella under which they
attacked all deviations from their own dogmatic orthodoxy as atheism.
Similarly with Philostratus, where Blount noted the Alarm his book had
raised as well as the accusation that he aimed to unmask all practical Atheists.
Blount apparently intended to append a translation of Eusebius of Caesareas
Confutation of the similarities between the miracles of Apollonius and
Christ by way of Antidote; although no Rational Men, I think there needed
none. Yet Blount slyly pointed out that an exemplary anti-atheist, Henry
More, had included a dialogue between Christ and Apollonius in his Mystery
of Godliness and was free from any charge of atheism. But there was no doubt
that More had defended Christ against Apollonius as a fraudulent pagan
imposter; Blount left that comparison open by omitting the Eusebian confuta-
tion entirely.20 Thus, Blount not only recognized the religious apologists
mode of anti-atheist attack, he used it in both Anima Mundi and Philostratus
as a subversive deflection of his own work. Anima Mundi began, after all, with
a comparison of Christianity with pagan religion, using the patristic technique
of making a counter-argument from the beliefs of ones adversary; but instead
of the triumph of Christianity, the truth of the Christian religion was left in
doubtful suspense.21
More specifically, Blount identified the early modern religious apologists
of his own day with the apostolic lineage such apologists constructed for

19 Blount, Anima Mundi, Preface to the Reader.

20 Blount, Philostratus, Preface.
21 Blount, Anima Mundi, 12, 7, 8. See also Blounts summary of Tomasso Campanellas argu-
ments in Atheismus Triumphatus, where the atheists arguments are listed without any
refutation since they are apparently of no force, Philostratus, 32.
From Confutation To Criticism 253

themselves and then directly challenged its import. Whereas the New Testa
ment apostles sufferd for the truth of what they saw with their own eyes, the
heathens and pagans of antiquity affirmed the verity of things they knew
not, only had receivd by a Traditional hear-say from others, whose vain
Opinion of their great knowledge filld them with pride, as being the only men
which knew the secrets of Heaven.22 Blount did not hesitate to identify these
pagan characteristics with early modern Christian apologists or to assert that
the Church Fathers were themselves proud and victims of their own rhetoric.
When Tertullian exclaimed against the fabulous Greek gods who behaved all
too humanly, Blount made this objection seem scandalous for implying the
same thing with respect to the Incarnation. Instead of a free and impartial
comparison of the doctrine, miracles, and evidence of revealed religion, most
men, including the Church Fathers, were apt to flatter their own Party, calling
that Religion in themselves which in others they term Irreligion or Supers
tition.23 By contrast, Blount indicated the means by which a comparative
examination of the truth of religion should be conducted: it required the rejec-
tion of the authority of antiquity, martyrdom, miracles, and moral austerity, as
well as priestly claims based on revelation, oracles, prophecies, dreams, tradi-
tions, and tales.24 This left little or nothing to the strategies of traditional anti-
atheist confutation.
Blount also thought that religious apologists rhetoric led them to magnify
differences and focus on non-essentials due to the jealously with which they
held their own priestly power. He claimed that clergymen attacked a layperson
who failed to observe religious ceremonies and rituals as an Atheist even if
that layperson upheld and practiced the moral content of the Christian reli-
gion. In the mean while they who so accuse him, lending their outward man
to the Church, and their inward to the Devil, covet, lye, back-bite, censure,
envy, detract, and violate the most sacred Oaths, Vows, and Contracts made
before God and man. In the preface to the Oracles of Reason (1693) this contra-
diction between practice and profession, which Blount repeatedly insisted was
more prevalent amongst priests than laymen, was used to suggest that priestly
hypocrisy gives a more effectual Blow at Religion, than all the Attempts of
professed Atheists.25 In other words, priestcraft was a source of atheism, not
free and impartial inquiry. Blount actually condemned rhetoric in general for
its tendency to distort the truth: Rhetorick is nothing else but an Artificial

22 Blount, Anima Mundi, 412.

23 Blount, Philostratus, 56.
24 Ibid., 20, 31.
25 C. Blount, Oracles of Reason (London, 1693), Preface.
254 chapter 8

help, calld by some the Mystery of Flattery, by others downright Lying, whereby
they endeavour what they cannot gain by Truth, to effect by the flourishing
varnishes of fine Language; it presents all things by a false light, when (like
the magnifying Glass) it makes small things appear great. Even the word athe-
ist had become perverted in the mouths of religious apologists: The word
Atheist is now used, as heretofore the word Barbarous was; all persons differing
in Opinions, Customs or Manners, being then termd Barbarians, as now
Atheists.26 Religious apologists and superstitious priests had turned atheism
into meaningless rhetorical slur.
Blount advocated a non-apologetic method for approaching the question of
religious truth which he used to anti-confutation ends, based on a comparative
examination of the doctrine, miracles, and evidence of revealed religion. He
apparently grounded this free inquiry on Herbert of Cherburys five catholic

i. That there is One onely Supreme God. ii. That He chiefly is to be

Worshipped. iii. That Vertue, Goodness, and Piety, accompanied with
Faith in, and Love to God, are the best ways of Worshipping Him. iv. That
we should repent of our Sins from the bottom of our Hearts, and turn to
the Right Way. v. And lastly, That there is a Reward and Punishment after
this Life.27

Blount explicated these truths in Religio Laici (1683), he claimed, in order to

rationally establish belief in the religious doctrines taught by the Authority of
the Church.28 But he then subversively identified rational belief with his own
loose translation of Justin Martyrs Dialogue with Trypho, which stated: That
all those who lived according to the Rule of Reason, were Christians, notwith-
standing that they might have been accounted as Atheists: such as, among the
Greeks, were Socrates, Heraclitus, and the like; and among the Barbarians,
Abraham and Azarias: For all those who lived, or do now live, according to the
Rule of Reason, are Christians, and in an assured quiet condition.29 When

26 Blount, Philostratus, 11, 81. Blount is echoing Michel de Montaignes Of Cannibals by

referencing the relativity of the meaning of barbarism: M. de Montaigne, The Complete
Essays of Montaigne, trans. D.M. Frame (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958), 1509.
27 [C. Blount,] Religio Laici (London, 1683), 4950.
28 Ibid., 88.
29 Ibid., 945. According to my reading of Justin Martyr, a similar sentiment may have been
expressed in his work, but there appears to be no direct equivalent of Blounts citation.
Blounts was not an uncommon practice: Cudworth did the same when referring to
Hobbes, for instance.
From Confutation To Criticism 255

Blount applied this Rule of Reason to the doctrine, miracles, and evidence of
the revealed Christian religion defended by apologists, it certainly did not lead
to their account of the triumph of the Christian religion. If Blounts own posi-
tion was even partially encapsulated in his summation of Hobbes and Spinoza
on nature and Scriptural interpretation, Miracles, No Violation of the Laws of
Nature (1683), it would be hard to find a hermeneutic practice at greater odds
with Justin Martyrs. Take Blounts contextual approach to the question of mir-
acles in Scripture:

to understand from the Narrations of them, how they really happend; tis
necessary to know the Opinions of those who first reported them, and
who transmitted them down to after-Ages by their Writings; and to distin-
guish the Narrations from that which their Authors Senses might repre-
sent to their surprizd Imaginations: otherwise we shall confound their
Opinions and Judgements with the Miracle it self, as it really came to
pass; nay more, we shall confound also things which have really happend,
with things purely imaginary, and which were only Prophetick

Severely departing from the practice of patristic apologetics, Blount inter-

preted Scripture by reference to its context and in accordance with the philo-
sophical naturalism of Hobbes and Spinoza.31 In short, Blount was using the
form and sources of authority common to early modern apologetics in order to
challenge its standard conclusions.
Similarly, the Oracles of Reason attacked two representatives of early mod-
ern anti-atheist apologists according to the hermeneutic Rule of Reason.
Charles Wolseley was attacked for trying to vindicate the necessity of both
revealed and natural religion, and Richard Bentley was attacked for trying to
confute atheism based on the testimony of the historical record and the dual-
ism of matter and spirit. The Oracles argued that reward and punishment in
the afterlife, upon which moral and political obligation was based, was a tenet

30 [C. Blount,] Miracles, No Violations of the Laws of Nature (London, 1683), 223.
31 See ibid., 6: (1.) That nothing in the World happens or comes to pass contrary to Nature,
but that Nature keeps an eternal, fixt, and immutable Order: (2.) That from Miracles we
cannot come to understand and certainly know either the Essence, or Existence, or
Providence of God; but that all these may far better be collected from the fixt and immu-
table Order of Nature: (3.) That the holy Scripture it self, by the Decrees and Volitions, and
consequently the Providence of God, understands nothing else but the very same Order
of Nature, which necessarily follows from his eternal Laws: (4.) That most men have erred
in the manner of interpreting the Miracles recorded in the holy Scriptures.
256 chapter 8

consistent with natural religion, and that Wolseleys appeal to the necessity of
revelation for the doctrine of original sin and atonement added nothing where
the Fall was construed as a deviation from reason.32 All that was required was
a return to the Rule of Reason as articulated in Miracles and Religio Laici, not
the dogmas of original sin or atonement. Blounts friend and editor of the
Oracles, Charles Gildon, rejected Bentleys anti-atheist argument derived from
human chronology. Where Bentley and most of his contemporaries took the
beginning of written human records as a demonstration of Creation in the
relatively recent past, Gildon cited the lengthier chronologies of China and
India and rejected the logic which suggested that the lack of records necessar-
ily implied the non-existence of human beings in the more remote past. Gildon
somewhat facetiously suggested that he had undermined Bentleys entire con-
futation of atheism/deism with this argument, for in the very next section of
the Oracles Gildon briefly denied Bentleys Cartesian distinction between mat-
ter and spirit with a briefly articulated argument in favour of Spinozistic
monism.33 Regardless of argumentative efficacy, however, it was clear that
Blount and Gildon rejected the dogmatic content of the traditional early mod-
ern apologia as expressed in Wolseley and Bentley.
Advocating religious toleration based on the example of ancient Rome,
where only religious doctrines which challenged the civil basis of political
society were proscribed, Blount suggested that it was clerical intolerance
which had led to the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,
based on the persecution promoted by priests who were jealous of their
power.34 Using Hugo Grotius famous treatise on international law to make his
point, Blount asserted that it was unreasonable to punish any man for not
assenting to the things of the Gospel, since they cannot possibly be discoverd
by the light of Nature, but must be made known by Revelation. Instead of
persecution, religious apologists should imitate the apostles from whom they
claimed to derive their authority, for the Apostles themselves, although they
were infallibly assured of their Doctrine, and could also make their Hearers
assured of it by Miracles, yet never desired that the Refractory should be
compelld to embrace it.35
Once again, Blounts vision of the apostle Paul in Athens was at odds with
that of contemporary apologists. Even if we take Blounts apostolic invoca-
tions at face value, at best his Paul was arguing for the stripped-down truth of

32 Blount, Oracles, 2028.

33 Ibid., 1823, 1878.
34 See Redwood, Reason, 7983.
35 Blount, Philostratus, 201. See also Oracles of Reason, 8896.
From Confutation To Criticism 257

natural religion without any rhetorical flourish, and most certainly not the
triumph of revealed Christianity; at worst Blount did not mean what he said
and rendered Pauls actions in Athens irrelevant to the question of truth. Both
of these versions of Paul offended clergymen such as Francis Gastrell, whose
Boyle lectures of 1697, The Certainty and Necessity of Religion in General, and
their continuation in 1698, The Certainty of the Christian Revelation, responded
directly and forcefully to deists and atheists such as Blount. Thus, Blounts
recasting of Paul in Athens was among the most important initial challenges
to early modern anti-atheist confutation. Moreover, the nature of Blounts
challenge, questioning the means, mode, and material of early modern apolo-
getics, represents the unorthodox side of the shift in this period whereby a
philosophical orientation towards the search after truth was increasingly
the location from which the Christian religion would be attacked and def
ended.36 Gastrell even claimed in his apologies that he met alleged deists and
atheists such as Hobbes, Spinoza, and Blount on their own preferred terms:
natural reason.37

(ii) John Locke: Seeking Truth, and Not Triumph

John Lockes political, philosophical, and religious writings contain conven-

tional anti-atheist elements, powerful challenges to several core anti-atheist
assumptions, and repeated warnings about confutations rhetorical excesses.
Each of these three aspects will be explored successively in this section. Like
Blount, Locke depicted his own philosophical orientation as one concerned
primarily with the search after truth, as he put it in the Essay concerning
Humane Understanding, not with the best means of defending the traditional
triumph of the Christian religion. However, Lockes political and moral vision
was still theological in the sense that he premised religious toleration on the
belief in Gods existence and that political society was still declared to have its
foundation in religion. But by attacking the innate notion of the idea of God
and the universal consent of mankind in the belief in God, Locke undermined
two arguments central to early modern anti-atheist confutation in the name of
truth. Simultaneously, Locke articulated a form of dogmatic minimalism with
respect to the central doctrine of the Christian religion which was at least

36 See J.G.A. Pocock, Post-Puritan England and the Problem of Enlightenment, in Culture
and Politics from Puritanism to the Enlightenment, ed. P. Zagorin (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1988), 91111.
37 Gastrell, Certainty of the Christian Revelation, Preface.
258 chapter 8

partially intended as a response to the challenges raised about the content of

revelation by contemporary thinkers such as Blount. And finally, Locke explic-
itly rejected the anti-atheists indiscriminate identification of unorthodoxy
and atheism by unsubstantiated implication, negative association, and unchar-
itable ad hominem attack. Although he never explicitly identified confutation
as a mode which should be eliminated from the rhetorical repertoire, by attem
pting to reshape the form of philosophical argumentation in a more construc-
tively civil manner, to reconfigure the content of argumentation to a limited
set of more rationally demonstrable claims, and to reduce Christian soteriol-
ogy to the one proposition required to become a Christian, Locke made a series
of extremely important steps away from traditional early modern anti-atheist
apologetics. Where Blounts method involved a direct challenge to both Chris
tian apologists and the Christian religion, Lockes arguments were more spe-
cifically directed at what he regarded as the unchristian spirit, the faulty
rhetorical strategy, and the weak arguments of early modern anti-atheist apol-
ogists, not the central place of the Christian religion in English society itself.
Nevertheless, Locke was attacked for each of his political, philosophical,
and religious arguments in the 1690s because traditional apologists under-
stood his position as one which undermined the religious foundation of politi-
cal society, the proofs of Gods existence, and orthodox content of Christian
doctrine in a similar manner to controversialists such as Blount and Toland.
Even though he had declared atheists intolerable, by arguing for religious tol-
eration in the Letter concerning Toleration Locke had to answer attacks from
traditional religious apologists who suggested that his approach opened the
door to the spread of immoral atheism. In spite of the fact that he subscribed
to a conception of God with a fairly traditional set of divine attributes, Lockes
explicit rejection of the innate idea of God and the universal consent of man-
kind in the possession of that idea in the Essay required him to defend his
position against the charge that his denial of these arguments entailed or
implied atheism. This was an accusation levelled by powerful and influential
clergymen such as Edward Stillingfleet against Lockes one publicly acknowl-
edged work. Locke also attempted to distill the fundamental salvific dogma of
Christianity into the belief in Jesus Christ as the prophesied messiah of the Old
Testament in his anonymously published The Reasonableness of Christianity.
He was again attacked as an atheist who opened the door to atheism for deny-
ing the traditional Christian doctrine of the Trinity by a conventional practitio-
ner of early modern apologetics, John Edwards. In response to such attacks
Locke identified several aspects of the form and content of traditional reli-
gious apologetics which harmfully diverted debate away from the truth. What
ever he may have intended in this regard, such moves brought the names of
From Confutation To Criticism 259

Hobbes, Spinoza, and Blount to the mind of influential contemporaries such as

Having stated Lockes apologetic predicament in outline, we can now exam-
ine each of Lockes arguments about atheism and anti-atheism in his original
work and his subsequent defence of those works. Lockes political intolerance
towards atheists who deny the Being of a God was premised on the tradi-
tional notion that atheists could not be trusted to keep their Promises, Cove
nants, and Oaths, which are the Bonds of Humane Society.39 Furthermore, as
the Letter indicated in a more general fashion, atheists destroyed religion and
thus attacked something fundamental to political society. As James Tully has
pointed out, Locke was in agreement with the vast majority of his contempo-
raries in this respect. Without the belief in an omniscient, omnipotent, benev-
olent God who rewards and punishes terrestrial behaviour with an eternal
judgment, Locke thought that atheists lacked the self-interested motive to
execute their duties and thus subverted the foundation of political obliga-
tion.40 Yet proscribing atheists from political toleration did not prevent Lockes
rivals from attacking him for opening the door to atheism by claiming that
religious toleration would lead to all forms of vice and unbelief, a common and
longstanding argument for religious persecution in early modern Europe.41 As
we saw in Chapter 6, men such as Richard Bentley linked religious toleration
with the spread of atheism, irreligion, and political disorder. In the Third Letter
on Toleration Locke responded to these kinds of accusations, voiced by men
such as Jonas Proast, who had written two replies to Lockes anonymous Letter,
by demanding natural historical evidence for the claim that toleration will
inevitably lead to the spread of irreligion, Epicureanism, and atheism:

when you shew us the Countries where fair trial hath been made of both,
that we may compare them together, we shall better be able to judg. But

38 Stillingfleet had published A Letter to a Deist in 1677 which was at least partially a response
to Spinozas Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. Building upon his argument there in his preface
to A Discourse in Vindication of the Doctrine of the Trinity (London, 1697), xlixlv, Stillingfleet
linked deists and atheists together in terms which intimated both freethought and accusa-
tions of priestcraft of a kind parallel to Blount, Spinoza and Hobbes. As will be seen below,
Stillingfleet would eventually charge Locke with leaning in a similar direction even in the
39 [J. Locke,] A Letter concerning Toleration (London, 1689), 42.
40 J. Tully, Introduction, to J. Locke, A Letter concerning Toleration (Indianapolis: Hackett,
1983), 8.
41 J. Marshall, John Locke, Toleration and Early Enlightenment Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2006), Chap. 14.
260 chapter 8

were this to be justified out of History, yet would it not be any Argument
against Toleration; unless your History can furnish you with a new sort of
Religion founded in Atheism. However, you do well to charge the spread-
ing of Atheism upon Toleration in Matters of Religion, as an Argument
against those who deny Atheism (which takes away all Religion) to have
any Right to Toleration at all. But perhaps (as is usual for those who think
all the World should see with their Eyes, and receive their Systems for
unquestionable Verities) Zeal for your own way makes you call all Atheism,
that agrees not with it.42

Locke rejected both the historical and the logical claim. To him there was no
empirical evidence that religious toleration would lead to immorality or to
atheism. This was a truth of philosophical inquiry which no amount of apolo-
getic assertion to the contrary could invalidate. Although Locke agreed with
most of his contemporaries in the belief that the public magistrate should
punish certain uncivil immoral behaviour for the preservation of public
order, such power did not extend to religious beliefs which were not inher-
ently connected to such immorality.43 Here Locke also rejected the form of
argument which identified a contrary claim in an argumentative dispute as
an implication of atheism. This mode of reasoning and counter-argumenta-
tion diverted enquiry away from the truth, and turned dialogue into fruitless
Locke combined this historical and logical rebuttal with two other responses
to standard anti-tolerationist arguments premised on the claim that toleration
would lead to the spread atheism. First, he claimed that the argument for the
use of force by magistrates in the promotion of true religion was an argument
made by all religious sects alike:

If the Magistrate use Force to bring Men to the true Religion, he must
judg which is the true Religion; and he can judg no other to be it but that
which he believes to be the true Religion, which is his own Religion. But
for the Magistrate to use Force to bring Men to his own Religion, has so
much Danger in it to Mens Souls, that by your own confession, none but
an Atheist will say that Magistrates may use Force to bring Men to their
own Religion.44

42 [J. Locke,] A Third Letter for Toleration (London, 1692), 2367.

43 J. Marshall, John Locke: Resistance, Religion, and Responsibility (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1994), 379, 381.
44 [Locke,] Third Letter, 21.
From Confutation To Criticism 261

Most men would agree, Locke maintained, that the majority of the magistrates
in the world did not subscribe to the true religion not one of ten, take what
side you will so that the use of force was likely to do far more harm than
good. If magistrates spread false religion and error on such a scale by the use of
force, what need was there to worry about religious toleration causing the
growth of atheism?45 Second, those who argued that the use of force was legiti-
mate because true religion could be demonstrated a staple argument of
much anti-atheist confutation discourse were inattentive to the means by
which certainty was attained and the different levels of rational assent. To
Locke, those who thought Christianity could be demonstrated with certainty
actually opened themselves up to the probing questions of sceptics and free-
thinkers such as Blount. As Locke argued in the Essay, if belief in the truth of
the Christian religion relied on the weight of one argument, such as universal
consent, or on the strength of a misconstrued philosophical certainty, such as
an anti-atheist confutation demonstration, then the refutation of such claims
would itself be the cause of the spread of unbelief.46 By contrast, he insisted
that true religion needed no recourse to force, only the liberty to be truly
taught. Here Locke appealed to the example of the apostles in the book of
Acts who convinced their audience to embrace the Gospel by the persuasive
force of their arguments and evidence.47 Beyond the political proscription of
atheists, Locke rejected a widely shared apologetic argument that religious tol-
eration would necessarily lead to immorality and atheism on the grounds that
the content of this claim was false it lacked historical evidence and that the
logic with which it was used the implication of atheism made nonsense of
meaningful debate and philosophical inquiry. Lockes defence of religious tol-
eration against the anti-atheist attacks attempted to align his own search after
truth with the religion truly taught by the apostles.
Locke made a very similar defence of his arguments in the Essay. He was well
aware that his rejection of the innate idea of God and universal consent in the
belief in God were controversial and directly challenged the assumptions of
early modern anti-atheist confutation. But the existence of atheists was for him
a natural historical fact: the Ancientsleft branded upon the Records of History
the existence of certain Atheists. Moreover, global exploration had discovered
whole Nationsin Brasil, and the Caribee Islandsamongst whom there was to

45 Ibid., 222.
46 Ibid., 2378. For the Essay, see below. See B. Shapiro, Probability and Certainty in Seventeenth-
Century England: A Study of the Relationships between Natural Science, Religion, History, Law,
and Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 2830.
47 [Locke,] Third Letter, 270.
262 chapter 8

be found no Notion of a God. Such conclusions put Locke even further at odds
with his contemporaries, whose interpretation of travel literature tended to con-
firm universal consent, as we saw in Chapter 6. Daniel Carey has pointed out that
Lockes conclusion about supposedly atheist societies was not only out of keep-
ing with his contemporaries, but that it was not even the most straightforward
reading of early modern travel literature itself.48 John Milner, for one, questioned
Lockes reading of travel literature in An Account of Mr Lockes Religion (1700) on
these exact grounds.49 Yet Locke did not revise the Essay in light of Milners
rebuttal. He instead highlighted the Complaints of Atheism frequently made
from the Pulpits, like those of Richard Bentleys Boyle lectures delivered shortly
after the Essay was first published and which Locke evidently read.50 Complaints
like Bentleys were not without Reason, Locke conceded, but contemporaries
would be much more familiar with atheists did not the fear of the Magistrates
Sword, or their Neighbours Censure, tie up Peoples Tongues; which, were the
Apprehensions of Punishment, or Shame taken away, would as openly proclaim
their Atheism, as their Lives do.51 Lockes rejection of the universal consent in
the belief in God based on natural historical evidence did not mean that his own
anti-atheist views were any less pronounced or out of keeping with contempo-
rary fears.52 Even when he included the possibility of the existence of entirely
atheist societies in later editions of the Essay based on reports about Siam
(Thailand) and China, he left the anti-atheist thrust of his arguments in place.53
If anything, Locke claimed to take the fear of atheists more seriously than his
anti-atheist adversaries by admitting the truth that atheists actually existed,
enabling him to address their existence with suitable arguments for Gods exis-
tence and a rational assessment of the credibility of Christian revelation. Both
the Essay and the Reasonableness were motivated by these kinds of concerns.
To Locke in the Essay, the existence of atheists should not be troublesome or
difficult to explain, for the lack of an innate idea of God was not an argument

48 D. Carey, Locke, Shaftesbury and Hutcheson: Contesting Diversity in the Enlightenment and
Beyond (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 845.
49 J. Milner, An Account of Mr Lockes Religion (London, 1700), 19.
50 Locke refers to Bentleys Boyle lectures in the Third Letter, 283, where he playfully praises
the author and seems to indicate his own distaste for the approach and substance of such
a work. It should be recalled that Bentleys second confutation sermon directly opposed
the suggestion that matter in motion could think, a proposition Locke himself controver-
sially aired in the Essay in the chapter on Gods existence.
51 J. Locke, An Essay concerning Humane Understanding, ed. P.H. Nidditch (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1975), 878 (i.iv.7).
52 Marshall, Locke, 25, 50, 64, 137, 365.
53 Marshall, Toleration, 7056.
From Confutation To Criticism 263

against Gods existence any more than the fact that whole societies were igno-
rant of the existence of magnets was proof against the magnets existence. Nor
did he think that the innate idea of God or universal consent provided incontest-
able arguments. Mens Tempers, and Application of their Thoughts rendered
them susceptible to finding different arguments more persuasive for the same
truth. Locke therefore declared the method of defending God and the Christian
religion by the argument from universal consent and an innate idea of God not
only false, but an ill way of establishing this Truth, and silencing Atheists. It lay
the whole stress of so important a Point, as this, upon that sole Foundation and

forbid[s] us to hearken to those proofs, as being weak, or fallacious, which

our own Existence, and the sensible parts of the Universe, offer so clearly,
and cogently to our Thoughts, that I deem it impossible for a considering
Man to withstand them. For I judge it as certain and clear a Truth, as can
any where be delivered, That [Romans 1:20] the invisible Things of God,
are clearly seen from the Creation of the World, being understood by the
Things that are made, even his Eternal Power, and God-head. Though our
own Being furnishes us, as I have shewn, with an evident, and incontest-
able proof of a Deity. And I believe no Body can avoid the Cogency of it,
who will but as carefully attend to it, as to any other Demonstration of so
many parts.54

The fact that whole societies lacked a notion of God did not mean that atheists
would prevail in spreading atheism, but rather, Locke argued, that those who
did have a proper notion of God had that notion by a right use of their Reason,
whereupon they had thought maturely of the Causes of things, and traced
them to their Original.55 In the Essay Locke offered the conclusion of his own
search after truth as a rational reflection in defence of Gods existence in
Chapter 10, Book iv.56
But Locke still had to defend his argument about universal consent against
one of the towering religious apologists of his day, Edward Stillingfleet.57 In his

54 Locke, Essay, 622 (iv.x.7).

55 Ibid., 878 (i.iv.8).
56 See V. Nuovo, Christianity, Antiquity, and Enlightenment: Interpretations of Locke (New
York: Springer, 2011), Chap. 9, on Lockes proof of God and his resistance to the atheistic
aspects of Epicurean materialism.
57 Carey has suggested that Stillingfleets reading of travel literature regarding universal con-
sent was a legitimate one for the time, and that Lockes argument was less clear-cut than
he made out. Carey, 845.
264 chapter 8

reply to Stillingfleets criticisms Locke asserted that what Stillingfleet meant by

universal consent and thus all early modern anti-atheist confutations based
upon it was really nothing more than the vastly greater majority of Mankind.
To say that there had been no atheists and no society of atheists was a rhetori-
cal overstatement derived from the comparison of a few atheists with the
majority of believers. Locke also rejected the argument made by Stillingfleet
and traditional anti-atheist confutations that atheists who denied God were
automatically monsters disbarred from reason who did not count as genuine
atheists at all. Once again, such an argument defied the truth of both history
and logic:

if no Body does deny a God, what need of Arguments to convince

Atheists? I would crave leave to ask your Lordship [Stillingfleet], were
there ever in the World any Atheists or no? If there were not, what need
is there of raising a Question about the being of a God, when no Body
Questions it? What need of provisional Arguments against a Fault, from
which Mankind are so wholly free; and which by an universal consent,
they may be presumed to be secure from? If you say (as I doubt not but
you will) that there have been Atheists in the World, then your Lordships
universal consent reduces it self to only a great majority, and then make
that majority as great as you will, what I have said in the place quoted by
your Lordship, leaves it in full force, and I have not said one Word, that
does in the least invalidate his Argument for a God.58

Locke aimed to demonstrate that atheists had existed, and thus that there
was no innate idea of God in human nature, not, as Stillingfleet maliciously
implied, to use early modern travel literature to invalidate Stillingfleets
proof of God. Inverting the arguments about ancient and contemporary
reports of atheists examined in Chapter 6, Locke insisted that ancient his-
tory and contemporary travel literature provided the clearest Evidence of
By rejecting innate ideas and universal consent Locke had to defend an
alternate conception of how God, morality, religion, and political society were
interconnected. We have seen in Chapter 7 that Locke believed that good and
bad moral actions could be determined by the light of reason, and that God

58 J. Locke, Mr Lockes Reply to the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Worcesters Answer to his
Second Letter (London, 1699), 4478.
59 Locke, Answer to his Second Letter, 4501.
From Confutation To Criticism 265

had joined virtue and happiness together for personal and political benefit.60
To further establish this connection Locke attempted to clarify the relationship
between reason and revelation by characterizing the certainty of the morality
of natural religion as distinct and in certain respects superior to that derived
from the maxims delivered by Christian revelation in Scripture. Natural moral-
ity and revealed morality were two expressions of the divine will, but they each
possessed a different level of intelligibility. Whereas the true meaning of
Scripture had been endlessly contested, the Precepts of Natural Religion are
plain, and very intelligible to all Mankind, and seldom to be controverted.61
All the great Ends of Morality and Religion, Locke continued, were secured
without reference to the revealed will of God as obscured in the language of
Scripture, and even without any philosophical Proofs such as the souls
immateriality.62 Simply put, the Voice of Reason was clearer than the Voice
of [Gods] Spirit.63 Moreover, it was the voice of natural reason which reflected
on the claims of those who had heard Gods spirit, or those who had recorded
Gods divine action in Scripture. For Locke, the truth of the Gospel was there-
fore a question of natural historical veracity and of the level of trust the New
Testament warranted. Expressing a wish for more uncorrupted ancient
records, Locke was satisfied that Scripture contained all the convincing evi-
dence needed for faith. However, the level of assent Locke granted to this his-
torical evidence was no higher than the probability appropriate to sources of
history generally, a level of assent much further down the scale of certainty
than universal consent.64 Rejecting what he regarded as the weak apologetic
arguments for the innate idea of God and the universal consent of mankind in
the belief in a deity did not diminish what Locke repeatedly referred to as the
clear evidence for Gods existence or the trustworthiness of such evidence as
existed for the revealed truths of Scripture.
When Locke anonymously applied the Voice of Reason to Scripture in The
Reasonableness of Christianity as a defence of the fundamental truth of the
Christian religion, he did so in keeping with the division he expressed in

60 Critics such as Thomas Burnet and others wanted Locke to give an account of his ethical
theory, which he never did. See Marshall, Locke, 4024; Schneewind attempts to fill in the
pieces for Locke in Invention, 14159.
61 Locke, Essay, 48990 (iii.ix.23).
62 This was Lockes straightforward position before being challenged by Stillingfleet. See
J.Locke, An Essay concerning Humane Understanding (London, 1690), 270. For the revised
text of this section post-Stillingfleet see Locke, Essay, 53943 (iv.iii.6).
63 Locke, Essay, 598 (iv.vii.11).
64 Ibid., 663 (iv.xvi.9).
266 chapter 8

theEssay.65 For this he was attacked by the apologist John Edwards as having
thereby justified virtually every manner of heresy, from Socinianism to athe-
ism.66 One of the points Locke wished to clear up in his dispute with Edwards,
referring to Edwards Thoughts concerning the Causes of Atheism (1695) and
Socinianism Unmasked (1696), was the central claim that nothing was required
of Christians other than the belief that Jesus was the Messiah. Locke insisted
that this minimalism was not meant to reduce all the articles of Christianity to
one, but rather that this was the one necessary article of true belief to make
someone a Christian. Edwards took this minimalism to imply atheism on
Lockes part because, among other things, the article of belief that Jesus was
the Messiah made no reference to the Trinity or to the substitutionary view of
the atonement. In reply Locke targeted Edwards ineffective and indiscrimi-
nate logic:

And though by his Apostles our Saviour taught a great many other Truths,
for the explaining this Fundamental Article of the Law of Faith, that Jesus
is the Messiah; some whereof have a nearer, and some a more remote con-
nexion with it, and so cannot be denyd by any Christian, who sees that
connexion, or knows they are so taught: yet an explicit belief of any one of
them is no more necessarily required to make a Man a Christian, than an
explicit belief of all those Truths which have a connexion with the being
of a God, or are reveald by him, is necessarily required to make a Man not
to be an Atheist: Though none of them can be denied by any one, who
sees that connexion, or acknowledges that revelation, without his being
an Atheist. All these Truths taught us from God, either by Reason, or
Revelation, are of great use, to enlighten our Minds, confirm our Faith, stir
up our Affections, &c. And the more we see of them, the more we shall
see, admire, and magnifie the Wisdom, Goodness, Mercy, and Love of God
in the Work of our Redemption. This will oblige us to search, and study
the Scripture, wherein it is containd and laid open to us.67

As with the Letter concerning Toleration and the Essay, Locke identified the
anti-atheist mode of attack which construed any denial of the claims of

65 Marshall, Locke, Chap. 9.

66 Cf. S. Brown, Locke as Secret Spinozist: The Perspective of William Carroll, in Disguised
and Overt Spinozism Around 1700, eds., W. van Bunge and W.N.A. Klever (Leiden: E.J. Brill,
1996), 21334; T. Lennon, The Battle of the Gods and Giants: The Legacies of Descartes and
Gassendi, 16551715 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), especially Chap. 8.
67 [J. Locke,] A Second Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity (London, 1697), 745.
From Confutation To Criticism 267

dogmatic religion as atheism as precisely the kind of apologetic confutation

which missed its mark.
At issue for Locke, once more, was the division between the voices of reason
and revelation in the search after truth. Locke argued that natural reason led
man to believe in one God with certain necessary attributes, providentially
concerned with the natural world. Christians possessed religious faith because
they trusted in the testimony of Scripture, which was itself established upon a
truth of natural reason in the fulfillment of the prophecy that Jesus was the
foretold Messiah of the Hebrew Scriptures:

As Men we have God for our King, and are under the Law of Reason: As
Christians, we have Iesus the Messiah for our King, and are under the Law
revealed by him in the Gospel. And though every Christian, both as a
Deist and a Christian, be obliged to study both the Law of Nature and the
Revealed Law, that in them he may know the Will of God, and of Jesus
Christ whom he hath sent, yet in neither of these Laws is there to be
found a Select Set of Fundamentals, distinct from the rest which are to
make him, a Deist or a Christian. But he that believes one Eternal invisible
God, his Lord and King, ceases thereby to be an Atheist; and he that
believes Iesus to be the Messiah his King, ordaind by God thereby
becomes a Christian, is delivered from the Power of Darkness, and is
Translated into the Kingdom of the Son of God, is actually within the
Covenant of Grace, and has that Faith; which shall be imputed to him for
Righteousness, and if he continues in his Allegiance to this his King, shall
receive the reward, Eternal Life.68

This was a division Locke shared with Pascal. In the Penses Pascal also looked
to prophecy as a domain in which reason could find a natural source of trust,
and he too characterized the division within religion between the God of the
philosophers and the God of faith. Both Pascal and Locke admitted that there
was no demonstrable connection between the God of philosophy and the God
of Scripture. Locke attempted to clarify the problem by pointing out that
understanding the God of revelation was encumbered in the interminable
obscurity of religious discourse and disputes about its meaning. As Locke had
put it in the Essay, the interpretation of revelation was endless and contradic-
tory, whereas the true moral dictates of natural law were generally agreed
upon. The hermeneutical principle of interpreting the Bibles obscure passages
by its clear ones was itself determined by the rational clarity of the moral

68 Ibid., 778.
268 chapter 8

natural law, which partly explains why Lockes view of the New Testament can
appear to be little more than a baptized Ciceronian moralism.69 Locke regarded
revelation as a testimony of God and the proper object of faith, but it seems
that his subordination of the claims of revelation to the claims of reason raised
the ire of contemporary apologists.70
Throughout his work Locke responded to the anti-atheist accusations by
rejecting its assumptions as evidentially unwarranted, by defying the imputa-
tion of atheism as an implied and unsubstantiated assertion, and by con-
demning his rivals mode of attack as rhetorically indiscriminate. None of
these apologetic discursive strategies were conducive to the search after
truth, let alone the triumph of Christianity. Locke employed this combina-
tion of arguments against his traditional anti-atheist rivals in tandem with a
series of criticisms about confutation generally. In A Third Letter for Toleration
Locke described his orientation as one dedicated to Seeking Truth, and not
Triumph.71 This statement was meant to stand in opposition to what Locke
colourfully referred to as the Sticklers for Orthodoxy. Sticklers such as Stil
lingfleet and Edwards were apparently more concerned with the triumph of a
particular version of dogmatic Christianity than they were with Seeking
Truth.72 For Locke and those in his early Enlightenment intellectual milieu,
by contrast, the pursuit of truth through empirical philosophical inquiry
should be guided by the Ciceronian virtue of civility and the Christian duty of
Although he did not reject confutation as such, Locke did reject indiscrimi-
nate ad hominem attacks, malicious associations, and the rhetorical inclina-
tion to overreach common to early modern practices of confutation. In the
Two Treatises of Civil Government, for example, Locke understood that his radi-
cal political Hypothesis might itself become subject to a work of Confutation.
Anticipating such a response, Locke wrote that he would not accept such a
confutation if it consisted of cavilling here and there, substituted Railing for

69 On the central place of Cicero in Lockes thought, see Marshall, Locke, 299315.
70 [Locke,] Second Vindication, 197.
71 [Locke,] Third Letter, 300.
72 [Locke,] Second Vindication, 381.
73 Marshall, Toleration, Chap. 20. As Marshall, Toleration, 6527, has shown, this complaint
about lack of charity and excessive disputatiousness was a central feature of Lockes tol-
erationist thought and that of early Enlightenment tolerationist thought generally. For a
similar point, see David Woottons argument about Lockes Philanthropy, or The Christian
Philosophers in his Introduction to John Locke, Political Writings, 58. Cf. Nuovo, Chap.
1, which elaborates an account of Lockes pursuit of truth in terms of Robert Boyles ideal
of a Christian Virtuoso.
From Confutation To Criticism 269

Arguments, or failed to address the substantive issues of his text.74 If Locke

regarded himself as a model confutation writer, insofar as he subjected Robert
Filmers Patriarcha (1680) to such treatment, it was a confutation which, in his
own eyes at least, avoided sullying Filmers character and addressed the sub-
stantial questions in dispute.75 The Essay expressed a similar outlook. Locke
famously described himself in the opening of the Essay as a mere under-
labourer to natural philosophers such as Robert Boyle, excavating the founda-
tion of knowledge in plain, natural-historical style. Even though he claimed to
impartially search after Truth, Locke recognized that his text may come in for
censure.76 Acknowledging from the outset that his denial of innate ideas may
seem to undermine the proof of spiritual beings, including God, Locke reso-
lutely maintained that the taking away false Foundations is not to the preju-
dice, but advantage of Truth.77 Clergymen such as Stillingfleet were
unconvinced by this claim and worried that the Essay left no room for a ratio-
nal justification of the doctrine of the Trinity, asserting that it was of a piece
with the atheistic philosophy of Epicurus, Hobbes, and Spinoza. As we noted
in Chapter 3, Locke objected to this accusation by (disingenuously) denying
that he was familiar with such authors and pointing out that Stillingfleet
attempted to confute him by using a negative association without giving suf-
ficient attention to substantial questions at issue between them.78
Replying to John Edwards, Locke made a very similar point.79 In closing out
his vindication of the Reasonableness Locke rejected the accusation that he
owed anything to Hobbes Leviathan, insisting that his doctrine was derived
only from the Writers of the Four Gospels, and the Acts; and [that he] did not
know that those words he quoted of the Leviathan, were there, or any thing like
them.80 Locke thus explicitly criticized the anti-atheist confutation based on

74 [J. Locke], Two Treatises of Government (London, 1690), Preface.

75 Cf. J. Dunn, The Political Thought of John Locke: An Historical Account of the Argument
of the Two Treatises of Government (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969),
Chap. 6.
76 Locke, Essay, 65 (i.ii.28).
77 Ibid., 10 (Epistle to the Reader).
78 J. Locke, A Letter to the Right Reverend Edward Ld Bishop of Worcester, Concerning some
Passages Relating to Mr. Lockes Essay of humane Understanding: in a late Discourse of his
Lordships, in Vindication of the Trinity (London, 1697), 84. For Lockes rebuttal concerning
Hobbes and Spinoza see, Locke, Answer to his Second Letter, 4223.
79 [Locke,] Second Vindication, Preface.
80 Ibid., 4712, 473. Of course Hobbes had himself defended his views as being more faithful
to the language of Scripture than his adversaries imported scholastic abstractions. Given
the references to Hobbists and Leviathan in the Two Treatises and the Essay, it seems
270 chapter 8

personal character that this negative accusation of Hobbism was meant to

imply. Declaring himself to be unbiased in his aim to defend and propagate
the truth, Locke argued that the truth should be the only legitimate basis upon
which anyone should engage in controversy and that Christian charity should
prevent men from engaging in fruitless confutation.81 Consequently, Edwards
had failed to address the substance of Lockes work by merely railing against it
with ill-meant Conjectures, and groundless Censures, all in the hopes that it
might be taken for confutation.82
In sum, Locke thought that anti-atheist apologists such as Stillingfleet and
Edwards too literally and too generally embraced the task of confutatio. They
indiscriminately seized and asserted every possible counter-argument, no
matter its rational cogency or its evidentiary basis, and they rhetorically
deployed every available negative association and assumption, no matter how
malevolent or vicious, all in the vain attempt to win an argumentative contest.
Instead, from an early Enlightenment perspective, Locke thought that the
truth of the Christian religion could be defended by the civil, charitable, and
natural philosophical search after truth. In contrast to the more traditional
early modern model, Lockes depiction of Paul in Athens was not vainly assert-
ing the triumph of the Christian religion, but rationally persuading the
Epicurean and Stoics of its truth.

(iii) Pierre Bayle and the Virtuous Atheist

The philosopher of Rotterdam, Pierre Bayle, was the first author in early mod-
ern Europe to publicly argue that atheists could be virtuous.83 He did so in his

likely that that Locke had more than a passing familiarity with Hobbes work. See: Locke,
Two Treatises, 178, 316; Locke, Essay, 68 (i.iii.5). These references are careful to betray
only a familiarity with Hobbes reputation, not necessarily with the arguments of
81 [Locke,] Second Vindication, 47980. Of course, Locke was not above accepting certain
assumptions where it suited his purpose, as in the Essay, where Hobbes was maligned.
82 [Locke,] Second Vindication, 220.
83 The exact nature of Bayles religious position is still hotly debated. He has been seen as a
good Calvinist (E. Labrousse, Bayle, trans. D. Potts [Oxford, 1983]), sceptical fideist
(Lennon), a hyper-sceptical pyrhonnian (Popkin, History of Skepticism, and idem,
Introduction to Bayle, Historical and Critical Dictionary, trans. R. Popkin [Indianapolis:
Hackett, 1991]), and as an atheist (J. Israel, The Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the
Making of Modernity 16501750 [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001], 33142; idem,
Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man 16701752
From Confutation To Criticism 271

Penses divers sur la comte du 1680, first published as the Lettre sur la comte in
1682, expanded in 1683 as the Penses, and extended in 1704 with a Continuation.
The bulk of the Penses was translated into English in 1708 as Miscellaneous
Reflections, Occasiond by the comet Which appeared in December, 1680. As a phi-
losopher and historian highly attuned to the intellectual currents of his day
through his voracious reading and journalistic endeavours, Bayle was unques-
tionably aware that his argument for the existence of virtuous atheists contra-
dicted the view of the vast majority of early modern apologists, including the
apologetic works with which he was familiar by Hugo Grotius, Ralph Cudworth,
and the Marchese di Pianezza.84 However, in the Penses Bayle did not simply
make a counter-argument to the claim that atheists were by definition vicious
and threats to political society. He denied that atheists were any more inclined to
vice than Christians or idolaters, but he did so in the context of a series of coun-
ter-arguments and confutations that specifically undermined the traditional
means by which the signs of Gods providence were read in nature.85 Bayle thus
called into question several important anti-atheist tropes while wielding confu-
tation as a rhetorical strategy against its traditional religious protagonists.
As we have seen repeatedly in preceding chapters, many early modern reli-
gious apologists used the authority of the classical tradition as an imprimatur
for their own statements in defence of the Christian religion. The Penses
began by rejecting the appeal to any such authority. The central question for
Bayle in any investigation, as for Blount and Locke, was not authority, but the
truth derived from an impartial inquiry using only the Principles of
Philosophy.86 Approaching the question of the comet and its allegedly divine

[Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006], 7185, 14554; G. Mori, Pierre Bayle, the Rights of
Conscience, the Remedy of Toleration, Ratio Juris 10, 1 [1997]: 4560; D. Wootton, Pierre
Bayle, Libertine? Oxford Studies in the History of Philosophy, ed., M.A. Stewart, vol. 2
[Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997], 197226). T. Lennon has discussed this plurality of
approaches in Reading Bayle (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999).
84 Israel identifies Bayles attack on authority, tradition, and universal consent as directed
towards Catholic fideists such as Bossuet and Huet who were arguing against Spinoza. See
Radical Enlightenment, 334. Such arguments were also a substantial part of the anti-athe-
ist rhetorical repertoire.
85 For Bayles specific confutations, see P. Bayle, Miscellaneous Reflections, Occasiond by the
comet Which Appeared in December, 1680, vol. i (London, 1708), 11, 23, 52; Miscellaneous
Reflections, vol. 2, 453, 481. Confutation was also used in Bayles argument about religious
persecution. See: P. Bayle, A Philosophical Commentary on These Words of the Gospel, Luke
xiv.23 (London, 1708), Pt. ii, section xi and Pt. iv, sections ii, iii, and xxv.
86 Bayle, Miscellaneous Reflections, i, 13. Bayle later rejected the authority of philosophers
too, 936.
272 chapter 8

influence on human society as a portent, Bayle explicitly denied the authority

of what poets, historians, and philosophers had said about this causal relation-
ship as either contradictory to one another or not to the point. Furthermore,
drawing a moral conclusion from a natural event was basically a category mis-
take about what kind of effect followed from a particular cause. In the Penses
Bayle simultaneously rejected the authority of tradition and of universal con-
sent. The fact of universal consent did not necessarily mean that the content
of such consent was true. Bayle thought universal consent might be plausibly
based on one mans original imaginative fancy, itself an error of reasoning,
universally believed because of mankinds general disinclination to reason
upon cause and effect thoroughly. Heliocentrism, after all, had challenged the
cosmology which previous universal consent had seemingly guaranteed. Thus,
for Bayle, the authority of poets, historians, philosophers, tradition, and uni-
versal consent was no greater than the reasons given in these sources for the
justification of the beliefs in question. It was all too easy for men to be deceived,
particularly when we consider the frame of the human Mind, and observe
one general Rule in its conduct, of judging upon all things from the first
Impressions of Sense and Passion, without entring into Researches, more
exact.87 Bayle confuted authority, tradition, and universal consent as argu-
ments supporting the content of claims about Gods action and the means by
which it could be detected.88
Bayle extended his criticism of traditional confutation by attempting to
show that even if we accepted the religious assumptions embedded in the
sources of authority such as the Church Fathers, tradition, or universal
consent, this was of no help to the arguments they were typically held to
support and advance, including anti-atheist arguments. Consider Bayles
basic definition of the Christian religion as translated in the Miscellaneous

The great design of the Apostles preaching was to make known the only
true God, and his son Jesus Christ God-man, who dyd and rose again for
our Justification; to inflame Men with the Love of God and his Holiness,
to abolish the Worship of Idols, and destroy the Dominion of Sin. This
was all the Publication of the Gospel aimd at: For it appears not that God,
by calling Men out of Darkness into his marvelous Light, to use the Scripture
expression, designd to make em better Philosophers than before, to

87 Ibid., 48.
88 For Bayle and the issue of universal consent in his later controversies with the Huguenot
rationalist community, see Israel, Enlightenment Contested, 6785.
From Confutation To Criticism 273

explain the Works of Nature, or fortify em against Prejudice and Popular

Error, so as to be impeccable in this respect; Experience shews the

When God called man out of his sinful darkness, in other words, it was to
acknowledge the justification of Christ, to conquer sin, and to worship God
aright in holiness. Such a definition highlighted the problem of reading a natu-
ral event like a comets appearance as a sign of Gods particular providence. If
the truth of the Christian religion left man in possession of erroneous beliefs
about how nature worked and other popular errors, as Bayles definition inti-
mated, how could a sign such as a comet be expected to correct such errors
given that it was precisely such a work of nature? If God sent a comet as a
warning to Christians in Europe which also caused men who were atheists or
idolaters elsewhere on Earth to embrace or confirm idolatry, this would be at
cross-purposes with the fundamental aim of the Christian religion. Tell me no
more, Bayle exclaimed, that God workd Miracles to extinguish Atheism,
unless you add, he extinguishd Atheism to plant his true Knowledge and
Worship in its room. Conversely, in all probability the Devil finds his account
more in Idolatry than Atheism because Atheists pay him no Homage directly
or indirectly, and even deny his Existence; whereas he has such an interest in
the Adorations rendred to false Gods. Citing Pianezza as someone who had
also made this argument, Bayle used the reasoning of religious apologists
themselves against the reading of a comet as divine portent. Contrary to the
claims of clergymen such as Richard Baxter and Richard Allestree, Bayle spe-
cifically rejected the argument that natural events like the Great Fire of London
were signs of Gods judgment, least of all judgments of atheism. Even on the
terms of the religious apologists own arguments Bayle thought this claim
made no sense.90
If natural events like the Great Fire of London were not signs of Gods provi-
dence, what explanation did Bayle offer to religious apologists in its stead? The
Penses argued that atheism did not necessarily lead to a corruption of morals
because the corruption of morals amongst mankind was universal. As evi-
dence Bayle suggested a thought experiment. If an extraterrestrial alien came
to earth and was informed of the tenets of Christianity, he would be surprised
at how Christian profession contrasted with Christian practice. According to
Bayle it was clear that a man may believe in God, eternal judgment, and
Christian duty, but that this belief was a general orientation which almost

89 Bayle, Miscellaneous Reflections, i, 1678.

90 Ibid., 220, 233, 235, 236, 25961.
274 chapter 8

inevitably succumbed to the particular moment wherein private judgment

submitted to passion, bias, force of habit, and taste. If man was a rational ani-
mal, he hardly ever acted according to his principles. In spite of an evident
diversity in forms of religious worship and political government, Bayle insisted
that the same Passions reign eternally in all countrys, and in all Ages: ambi-
tion, avarice, envy, lust, and revenge.91

Were it otherwise, how ist possible, that Christians so clearly instructed

from Revelation, supported by so many Miracles, that they must
renounce their Sins in order to be eternally happy, and to prevent eter-
nal Misery; who have so many excellent Preachers paid for making the
liveliest and most pathetick Exhortations on this Head, so many zeal-
ous and skilful Directors of Conscience, so many Manuals of Devotion,
shoud yet live as they do, in the most enormous ways of Sin and

Bayle summarized this question in the form of a positive tenet: man is not
determind in his Actions by general Notices, or Views of his Understanding,
but by the present reigning Passion of his Heart. If conscience was truly the
determining cause of mens action, coud Christians live such wretched Lives?
According to the Penses, then, Christians, idolaters, and atheists were all moti-
vated by the same fundamental principles: the present inclination of their pas-
sions. Bayle therefore rejected the argument of anti-atheist Christian apologists
which claimed that the fear of God changed mans behaviour because this
claim plainly contradicts Experience. He once again used a religious author-
ity apologists would accept (Augustine) in order to confirm the universal incli-
nation and motivation of mans action in temporary passion. And he observed
that if Augustine could admit that a pagan could perform his or her moral duty
while possessing an erroneous conception of God, then there was no reason
why an atheist could not do the same92:

But still theyl say, this is a Paradox indeed; A Vertous Atheist! Why its a
Monster surpassing the utmost strain of Nature. I answer, an Atheist who
lives soberly, is not more strange, than a Christian hurryd to all manner
of Excess. If we see Monsters of the last kind, why shoud we think the
others impossible?93

91 Ibid., 2712, 274.

92 Ibid., 275, 279, 293, 295.
93 Bayle, Miscellaneous Reflections, ii, 353.
From Confutation To Criticism 275

Contrary to early modern apologetic assumptions, Bayle argued that a society

of atheists would function in the same way that a society of idolaters and hypo-
critical Christians did:

As the Ignorance of a first Being, the Creator and Preserver of the World,
woud not bereave the Members of this Society of a sense of Glory and
Contempt, Reward and Punishment, or of all the Passions which reign in
the rest of Men, nor wholly extinguish the Light of Reason; one shoud
find Persons among em of Integrity in common dealing, some who
relievd the Poor, opposd Violence, were faithful to their Friends, despisd
Injurys, renouncd sensual Pleasures, did no wrong.94

The principle of an atheists action would simply be based on the same terres-
trial sense of honour which governed the political behaviour of worldly
Christians and idolaters alike.
Bayle concluded his discussion of atheists with three real atheists who sub-
stantiated his claims in direct opposition to anti-atheist apologetic assump-
tions. Epicurus, Spinoza, and Vanini had been wrongly accused of being
immoral and vicious as a result of their atheism due to the assumption that
man acts from his professed principles. Conversely, Bayle argued that atheists
were just as capable as Christians and idolaters of reasoning correctly about
morality. Both Epicurus and ancient pagan philosophers such as Cicero, he
insisted, knew what man ought to do based on the principles of natural reason.
In De officiis Cicero had argued for the performance of virtuous moral action
for its own sake without any reference to God: This convinces me, that Reason,
without the Knowledg of God, may sometimes distinguish things intrinsically
honest; the practice of which is right and praise-worthy, not only on account of
its Profitableness, but Conformity to right Reason. There was no reason why
an atheist, whose powers of reasoning and understanding were upheld by God,
as for any man, so that he could comprehend the Truth of the first Principles
of Morality and Metaphysicks, might not come to similar conclusions.95 In
keeping with his definition of the Christian religion, Bayle thus implied that
God would maintain even an atheists natural reason in the hope that through
its use an atheist could eventually come to acknowledge the truth of Gods
existence. This too ran against the grain of early modern anti-atheist apologet-
ics, which tended to construe itself as an argument according to natural rea-
son, but upon the assumption that atheists had sinfully corrupted reasons

94 Ibid., 338, 349.

95 Ibid., 3678.
276 chapter 8

powers. Bayles account of Spinoza played on these assumptions. As the rank-

est Atheist that eer livd, Spinoza was

so bewitchd to certain Principles of Philosophy, that to meditate on em

with greater success, he betook himself to a profound Retreat, renounc-
ing all the Pleasures and Vanitys of the World, and intirely occupyd in his
abstruse Reasoning. When he found himself near his end, he sent for his
Landlady, and begd her to let no Clergyman come near him in that

On Bayles telling, Spinoza did not want his deathbed scene to become the fod-
der of religious apologists. And this was proof enough that Atheists have an
Idea of whats Honest, which has more power over em than the Profitable or
Pleasant. If further proof was needed, Bayle cited Vanini, whom he thought
stood so firm on a point of honour that he laid down his Life for Atheism.96
With Blount, Bayle insisted that atheism had its resolute martyrs too.
Although Bayle did not spell out the nature of his antipathy to traditional
anti-atheist assumptions and arguments in the Penses, he repudiated much of
its content, including the weight of authority, tradition, and universal consent.
He then used the content of standard religious apologetics to draw out a series
of contradictions in the logic involved, so that neither Great Fire of London in
1666 nor the comet of 1680 could reasonably be said to be signs of Gods judg-
ment, least of all judgments on atheism. Combined with an observation that
made use of widely shared Christian assumptions, that human behaviour was
best explained by temporary, carnal, and corrupt motives, Bayle saw no reason
to deny the fact that atheists existed. To Bayle, atheists were clearly capable of
reasoning about morality correctly, forming a society, and dying a dignified
and resolute death without succumbing to the terrors of confessing to Gods

(iv) Shaftesbury: From confutatio to ars critica

If Blount, Locke, and Bayle each advanced a series of arguments that chal-
lenged the rhetorical and logical excess of early modern anti-atheist con
futation while simultaneously undermining many arguments of traditional
apologetics, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury turned these challenges into a posi-
tive programme. While Shaftesbury nonetheless maintained a series of fairly

96 Ibid., 3756, 379.

From Confutation To Criticism 277

conventional anti-atheist positions, he did so from a perspective which granted

the existence of moral atheists a view probably derived from a reading of
Bayles Penses97 and he rejected the style of anti-atheist confutation as a
rhetorical mode for religious apologetics.
In keeping with what Lawrence Klein has identified as a much broader proj-
ect of generating a polite, gentlemanly political culture capable of replacing
the Court and the Church as institutional sources of political and moral author-
ity after 1688, Shaftesbury advocated a religious apologetics that was polite and
critical rather than erudite and confutational.98
In the Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711), Shaftesbury
defended a miscellaneous style of literary and philosophical criticism, not
unlike Bayles, as both a means and an end to the development of a virtuous
personal character. It was simultaneously the case that this form of criticism
and the character of the critic would be Shaftesburys answer to atheism. In
Shaftesburys estimation, the critic could not be a critic if he was not first a
polite gentleman of moral sense in possession of a good character capable of
judging the good, the bad, and the ugly, ultimately derived from a proper con-
ception of and moral affection for God. If Shaftesburys man of character was a
theist who avoided the pitfalls of religious enthusiasm and dry rationalism, as
a man of character he was nonetheless able to acknowledge, with Bayle, that
an atheist was morally no worse than a superstitious or enthusiastic Christian.
Moreover, as the man of character was a critic, capable of deriving the neces-
sary moral affection for the good and for God from nature and from a critical-
historical evaluation of the claims to divine revelation, he was also capable of
determining that, in terms of political society, the apprehension of virtue and
beauty was threatened by superstition and enthusiasm more than it was by
atheism. The polite art of criticism and the kind of gentlemanly character
needed for its execution was to be Shaftesburys recommended way of defend-
ing the truth of the Christian religion. In rhetorical terms, the refined vision of
Horaces Ars poetica should replace the unwarranted extension of confutatio
over the whole of rhetoric. Thus, the Characteristicks definitively shifted the
responsibility of answering atheists from erudite scholars waging rhetorical
warfare to polite gentleman engaging in free, open, critical conversation.99

97 For Shaftesburys reading of Bayles Penses, see L.E. Klein, Shaftesbury and the Culture of
Politeness: Moral Discourse and Cultural Politics in Early Eighteenth-Century England
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 52, n. 11.
98 Cf. Redwood, Reason, 836.
99 For a fuller sense of the social and geographical location of Shaftesburys critics, see Klein,
278 chapter 8

How did Shaftesbury construct the polite critic as an alternative to the tra-
ditional religious apologist? In A Letter concerning Enthusiasm Shaftesbury
aligned the formation of good personal character with true religion. Good
humour was there defined as a disposition of character in which Gods nature
could be rightly apprehended, in contrast to the enthusiastic temper of reli-
gious zealots and atheists. Only ill thoughts, the result of an immoderate or
deformed temper, could lead to erroneous conceptions of the deity. Like the
judgment passed down by Plutarch on superstition and atheism, both forms of
error were caused by ill Humour. If undue fear of Gods power was the cause
of superstition, atheism was fundamentally a doubt about Gods goodness
derived from a faulty character.100 In this respect Shaftesbury was in keeping
with a broad swath of early modern anti-atheism. The Letter did not con-
demn all enthusiasm, however, since the philosophical rapture ensuing from
the true comprehension and affection for God could appear as a kind of enthu-
siasm. This was further complicated by the fact that separating genuine divine
revelation from false religious enthusiasm was exceedingly difficult. The only
way to determine the matter correctly was to antecedently judg our own Spirit;
whether it be of Reason, and sound Sense; whether it be fit to judg at all, by
being sedate, cool, and impartial; free of every byassing Passion, every giddy
Vapour, or melancholy Fume.101
In Shaftesburys estimation the act of judgment which the person of good
character made necessarily required the calm, impartial, and free use of reason
based on a form of Socratic self-dialogue, soliloquy. Those who suggested that
reason could be used in a base calculation of mans eternal interest, wagering
on the probability of Gods existence and judgment in the afterlife, or those
religious apologists who forsook reason altogether as completely corrupt, were
equally mistaken. Appealing to rational self-interest was instrumentalizing
God. Without naming anyone specifically, Shaftesbury explicitly rejected the
logic of the sermons on the folly of atheism made during his lifetime, discussed
in Chapter 7:

Tis the most beggarly Refuge imaginable, which is so mightily cryd up,
and stands as a great Maxim with many able Men; That they shoud
strive to have Faith, and believe to the utmost: because if, after all, there
be nothing in the matter, there will be no harm in being thus deceivd; but
if there be any thing, it will be fatal for them not to have believd to the

100 A.A. Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury, Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times,
vol. i (London, 1711), 22, 23, 35.
101 Ibid., 54.
From Confutation To Criticism 279

full. But they are so far mistaken, that whilst they have this Thought, tis
certain they can never believe either to their Satisfaction and Happiness
in this World, or with any advantage of Recommendation to another. For
besides that our Reason, which knows the Cheat, will never rest thorowly
satsifyd on such a Bottom, but turn us often a-drift, and toss us in a Sea of
Doubt and Perplexity; we cannot but actually grow worse in our Religion,
and entertain a worse Opinion of a Supreme DEITY, whilst our Belief is
founded on so injurious a Thought of him.102

Shaftesbury approached the question from the opposite angle. Only a correct
apprehension of divine good, derived from a proper view of the beauty of the
whole natural universe and the mind which ruled over it, could truly inspire a
love of virtue and goodness for its own sake, both in the present terrestrial world
and the world to come. If Shaftesbury rejected the logic of religious apologists
who tried to make a rationally self-interested wager on God, he was no less criti-
cal of Epicurus for saying that the gods existed but were in no way related to
mans temporal happiness in being totally aloof from worldly affairs.103
In order to walk the moderate Plutarchan line of good character between
atheism and superstition Shaftesbury advocated the cultivation of good breed-
ing and the development of the moral sense. Shaftesburys conception of liter-
ary, historical, and philosophical criticism, the very modes of discourse he
argued should replace confutation, was an extension of this argument. As he
put it in Sensus Communis: An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour, if
there was no threat to true religion in the free exercise of ones reason, which
Shaftesbury thought inevitably led to a conception of a supremely beneficent
God, there was no threat in the exercise of wit and humour. Contrary to the
assumptions embedded in the practices of early modern anti-atheist confuta-
tion, the free expression of wit and inquiry were ideally governed in polite con-
versation without any presumed insult to ones adversary, either in argument
or character.104 Shaftesbury joined Blounts dedication to free and impartial
inquiry with Lockes communal ideal of the philosophical pursuit of t