It has often been said that Plutarch educated Europe. To understand why, Shakespeare’s name need only be mentioned. For Plutarch’s textual corpus was one upon which the bard could easily draw. Shakespeare obviously mined the Parallel Lives for his own artistic purposes. But its many considerations of the situated human character, and the different lived responses to various kinds of social, political, and moral challenges, provided him with ample dramatic fodder. The rediscovery of Plutarch’s work and its translation into the major vernacular languages of Europe appeared at a moment when a range of notable figures were looking intensely to the ancient world for normative ideas and practices. Plutarch’s influence, from the famous essayist Michel de Montaigne onward, was the result of his own classically oriented moral project. It frequently served early modern European writers, including such luminaries as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with a rich exemplary storehouse. In the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), when the philosopher Immanuel Kant described how virtue was to be taught, he appealed specifically to the kind of exemplary biographies which Plutarch had written. A comparison of the actions of men of different moral characters in varied situations should be undertaken, he wrote, in order to show how duty was the moral law felt as respect. The latter sentiment being generated by what Kant called the “supersensible” consciousness of freedom. In the Critique of Judgement (1790), Kant described any deviation from true religion in Plutarchan terms: superstition derived from an excessive fear of an inscrutable God, which had itself arisen from the abandonment of the “vigorous resolution” to resist vice and evil.
Plutarch’s status as an educator for the early modern European world was central to a much more specific though understudied phenomenon: atheism. In England in particular, between 1580 and 1720, hundreds of texts were dedicated to something called the “confutation of atheism.” This included characteristic works such as John Dove’s A Confutation of Atheism, published in 1605, as well as many more texts given over to religious, philosophical, theological, and scientific themes, such as Robert Boyle’s A Christian Virtuoso, published in 1690. Briefly put, the “confutation of atheism” was a rhetorically patterned form of apologetic Christian discourse. It drew upon classical theories of adversarial oratory to shape its form, and it mined a tradition of longstanding Christian arguments in order to fill its content. This content consisted of as many counter-arguments to atheism as could be found in the books of nature and revelation. Plutarch’s place in the context of early modern anti-atheism deserves to be highlighted for the simple but crucial reason that he provided an important source for a contrasting set of moral and political assumptions about the nature of superstition, religion, and atheism. As the example of Kant indicates, and as this essay will show in detail, Plutarch’s contention that religious superstition was more impious and more socially and political subversive than atheism played an important role in an early Enlightenment critique of the relationship between religious and political authority. In consequence this critique created the space for what was until then regarded as a contradiction in terms: a virtuous atheist.
Plutarch lived in first-century Greece between 45 and 120, not far from Apollo’s famous oracle at Delphi. As a philosopher, biographer, and statesman, his primary aim was to be a moral educator. This was a task for which he achieved lasting fame within his own lifetime, through his voluminous writings. In the European intellectual tradition these writings consist of two large subsets, the Parallel Lives of famous Greeks and Romans (source to several of Shakespeare’s plays), and the Moralia, a diverse assortment of over 100 different textual works of varying length. Although Plutarch was one of the pagan Platonists who was readily taken up by Christian moralists, including Church Fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, early modern European understandings of Plutarch were reliant upon the Renaissance recovery of his work, made possible by the Byzantine monks who had maintained his manuscripts. Once this recovery was widely disseminated in the sixteenth century, one commentator has suggested that it would not be an exaggeration to say that “early modern Europe discovered Greece and Rome through Plutarch’s eyes.” Vernacular translations of the Parallel Lives and the Moralia were first produced in the sixteenth century. These include Jacques Amyot’s French edition finished in 1572, Thomas North’s English translation (i.e. “Shakespeare’s Plutarch”) of Amyot’s French version of the Lives in1579, and Philemon Holland’s translation of the Moralia in 1603.
Plutarch’s writings on superstition, religion, and atheism were intimately connected to his view of the relationship between human nature, happiness, and virtue. Ian Kidd writes that “Plutarch concentrates wholly on the practical and natural ethical task of controlling and balancing passions for the attainment of virtue.” Although made with reference to one particular text in the Moralia, it could be sensibly argued that this observation holds good for Plutarch’s ethical writings as a whole. Consider “On Moral Virtue.” In this text Plutarch summarizes the arguments of pre-Socratic thinkers by saying that they agree in “supposing virtue to be a certain disposition of the governing portion of the soul and a faculty engendered by reason, or rather to be itself reason which is in accord with virtue and is firm and unshaken.” Where they were mistaken, and where Plato corrected them, so this line of thinking continues, was in failing to draw a distinction between the rational and irrational parts of the soul, and the subdivision of the irrational part into its appetitive and spirited components. Plutarch depicts man’s soul in Hellenistic terms, according to three features: it has certain capacities, it has a range of passions, and it maintains an acquired state. Capacity is the starting point of action, passion stirs the movement, and the acquired state provides the settled force and condition of capacity bred by habit. Plutarchan virtue is thus an ordered balance of these elements directed by reason: “The impulsion of passion springs from moral virtue; but it needs reason to keep it within moderate bounds and to prevent its exceeding or falling short of its proper season.” Moral virtue is an embodied, settled disposition, guided by rational practical judgment. Characteristically, it eliminates “the defects and the excesses of the passions.” Plutarch regards moral virtue as an excellence which needs to be habitually ingrained by reason in alliance with practiced repetition. Therefore he placed biographical illustrations throughout his moral work as aides in moral habituation. Leaving aside the obvious case of the Parallel Lives, in which this moral pedagogy abounds, the Moralia is filled not only with appropriate quotations from classical sources illustrating Plutarch’s imitative invocations, but also with countless exemplars to be admired and imitated or blamed and avoided.
Plutarch’s concern with moral formation was tied closely to his view of religion. The practice of embodied beliefs which constitutes Plutarchan religion is best understood, with virtue, as a kind of Aristotelian mean. In such a scheme atheism is characterized as an extreme adopted in response to its polar opposite, the credulity of superstition. In the essay “How to Distinguish a Flatterer from a Friend,” we find Plutarch saying that some people “make atheism their defence against superstition and unscrupulousness their defence against stillness, and so their inexperience of anything straight and upright distorts their character, as if it were a piece of wood, so that instead of being warped one way it is warped the opposite way.” The crooked timber of humanity is the product of vicious excess. In the same way, as Philemon Holland put it in his 1603 translation of the essay “Of Brotherly Love,” to fail in one’s familial duty is a sign of atheism and impiety. As Kidd observes, one of Plutarch’s pedagogical aims in these and similar statements was “to reconcile philosophy and religion, or rather to render them complementary forces for good in our lives.”
Several texts in the Moralia outline Plutarch’s position with respect to cultic religion and illuminate its connection to a Platonic understanding of the body-soul relationship. The central problem of “Oracles in Decline” addresses the question of how an oracle works and then assesses the notion of God’s intervention in the cosmos, whether through general providence or through some type of direct interaction. In this dialogue Plutarch’s brother Lamprias articulates a view presented at several places in Plutarch’s writings: God, if he exists, lacks no virtue, no affection, and no wisdom. Lamprias maintains this is in accordance with the cosmos as it exists and with the notion of providence. A perfect, good, and wise God will reward the virtuous and punish the vicious—and this is evident through God’s activity, wherein he communicates with mankind through oracles. As “Oracles in Decline” continues its interlocutors consider how God’s activity might manifest itself, how the divine speaks through oracles, and whether or not those pronouncements are intelligible. In response to these questions Lamprias invokes Plato, who “made god the first principle of what is due to reason, while not depriving matter of the necessary causes of becoming.” Matter might cause sight and sound, Lamprias says, but this does not mean that Plato refuted the notion that vision and hearing are capacities endowed in the human mind by rational providence. And so he suggests a mean with respect to prophecy and oracles. Where poets derived everything from a first cause, and natural philosophers ascribed everything to change, prophets and oracles may be possessed by daimones or intermediaries of God.
“Socrates’ Daimonion,” another of Plutarch’s works, focuses more directly on the relationship between the human soul and daimones. In this dialogue daimones are considered both as semi-divine beings and as nous, the highest or most rational element present in human nature. The interlocutors note that appeals to the divine can err for reasons of ignorance and credulity, resulting in superstition, as well as from manipulation by cunning politicians. Yet there is also a serious discussion about how the soul and body interact, a problem which serves as a useful analogy for prophecy and oracles. One character in this dialogue, Simmias, puts it in the following way:
“And if it is difficult, or impossible, to comprehend the mechanisms of motion, tension, and excitation that thus enable the soul by merely thinking to draw the mass after it by its impulses, although the mere entertainment of an idea moves the body so effortlessly, then we need not be unbelievers either in regard to the notion that a mind may be guided by a superior mind, and a soul by a more divine soul that contacts it from without by whatever kind of contact thought may have with thought, like light with reflected light.”
In this Platonic scheme the soul can be rationally ordered in relation to its attachment to the body. Just as a soul sunk too deeply into the body is prone to the excesses which characterize vice, a soul sunk too deeply into the body is deaf to the divine. However, since the soul is not completely immersed in the body, the virtuous person is the one whose reason, as the highest element of the soul, commands the body, and as such is not enslaved to it. The freedom of the ordered rational soul is a freedom which can and does attune itself to the divine—and here the exemplar is Plato’s Socrates. Socrates and his daimon provide a justification for the cultic practices of Delphi at the same time as they exemplify how virtue and religious observance are intimately tied together.
A helpful way to grasp Plutarch’s thought with respect to religion, and certainly a central component of the early modern European reception of Plutarch, is through his opposition to another ancient school of philosophy, Epicureanism. On the subjects of sense and pleasure, human happiness, providence, and God, Plutarch took himself to be articulating a position which was Platonic and consequently stood in opposition to Epicurus and his disciples. Both Plutarch and early modern Europeans typically associated Epicureanism with hedonist materialism, anti-providentialism, and atheism. Thus Plutarch was often used in later times as an authoritative source for arguments against both Epicurus and atheism. In an essay entitled “That Epicurus Makes a Pleasant Life Impossible,” Plutarch rejects the materialist, hedonist account of sense perception and the corresponding characterization of human nature such that virtue and pleasure are inseparable. Again, Plutarch considered himself a Platonist for whom virtue was a settled disposition in which the passions and appetites were ordered by reason, the highest part of the soul. To claim that sensual pleasure was a guide to virtue, which Plutarch and most early moderns understood as the Epicurean position, was to fundamentally misconstrue the ends of human nature and the attainment of true happiness. As we have already seen, for Plutarch, a priest of the Delphic oracle, God’s interaction with humankind presupposed providence. And this presupposition accorded with a broadly Aristotelian account of the virtues. Plutarch’s refutation of Epicureanism therefore entailed a defence of God and providence, such that belief in God and his providence is constituted by the kinds of practices in which virtue is embodied. Notice, however, that Plutarch does not supply a theodicy or proof of God’s existence. Given the interconnection of his Aristotelian account of virtue and its corresponding Platonic conception of human nature, Plutarch’s concerns were dominated by practical moral implications, rather than any distinctly religious concerns. The most significant upshot of his rejection of Epicureanism is a vindication of his own moral outlook and its accordance with human nature. As he wrote in another anti-Epicurean work, “to live the good life is to live a life of participation in society, of loyalty to friends, of temperance and honest dealing. But none of this is left to us by those [Epicureans] who keep shouting that the good is to be found in the belly.”
Introducing his translation of the essay “Of Superstition” in 1603, Philemon Holland’s summary makes sure to observe that Plutarch finds superstition worse than atheism. This would seem to jar with Plutarch’s anti-Epicureanism. But by endorsing Plutarch’s claim that “true religion” was the mean between superstition and atheism, Holland also made sure to alert readers to the fact that Plutarch regarded atheism as an egregious error as well. “Of Superstition,” the translation of Deisdaimonia, which means excessive fear of the divine, begins by noting that superstition and atheism are both religious errors determined by flaws of personal character. Excessive, vicious men possess “stubborne and obstinate natures,” rendering them capable of becoming impious atheists. Or they possess a “gentle and tender” spirit, rendering them vulnerable to superstition. Whereas the atheist does not respond to the divine at all, Plutarch writes, the superstitious excessively fear God and find their passions turbulently disturbed as a result of that fear. As phrased in Holland’s translation:
“the impious Atheist having no motion at all as touching the Deitie and Divine power, and the superstitious person mooved and affected thereto after a perverse sort, and otherwise than he should, are both out of the right way. For ignorance as it doth ingenerate in the one an unbelief of that soveraign Nature which is the cause of all goodness; so it imprinteth in the other a misbeliefe of the Deitie, as being the cause of evill: so that as it should seeme, Impietie or Atheisme is as false judgment and opinion of the God-head; and superstition a passion proceeding from an erronious perswasion.”
Unchecked fear is a morbid emotion which debases human nature to the point where both reason and action are incapacitated. This is the flip side of Plutarch’s view of virtue, in which the passions and appetites are ordered, balanced, and harmonious. The superstitious are thereby led into all kinds of ignoble actions which they think will appease God, but in fearing God excessively they conceive of him as a tyrannical enemy and forgo moderate, rational, practical action. By contrast, the atheist simply remains deaf to the divine music.
Plutarch makes the practical consequences of these two errors clear. Whereas the atheist will only look to his own faults or blame fate, perhaps despairing of providence in difficult times, he will actively attempt to better a bad situation or, at the very least, resign himself to his fate; the superstitious person, however, blames God for his evils and seeks, in absurd rituals and practices, to appease God, or views God’s judgements as fatal and irresolutely refuses to make the best of bad situations. In Holland’s early modern wording:
“the fashion of the superstitious is otherwise, for let there never so small an accident or mishap befal unto him, he sits him downe sorrowing, and thereto he multiplieth and addeth other great and greevous afflictions, such as hardly be remooved; he imagineth sundry frights, feares, suspicions, and troublesome terrors, giving himselfe to all kinde of wailing, groaning, and dolefull lamentation; for he accuseth not any man, fortune, occasion, or his owne selfe; but he blameth God as the cause of all, giving out in plaine termes, that from thence it is that there falleth and runneth over him such a celestiall influence of all calamitie and misery, contesting in this wise, that an unhappie or unluckie man he is not, but one hated of the gods, woorthily punished and afflicted, yea and suffring all deservedly by that divine power and providence.”
As a final corollary Plutarch argues that atheism did not arise from an Epicurean reflection on natural phenomenon, resulting in the denial of providence, but rather from
“the ridiculous works and deeds of superstition, their passions worthy to be mocked and laughed at, their words, their motions and gestures, their charmes, forgeries, enchantments and magicall illusions, their runnings up and downe, their beating of drums & tabours, their impure purifications, their filthy castimonies and beastly sanctifications, their barbarous and unlawfull corrections and chastisements, their inhumane and shamefull indignities practized even in temples; these things (I say) gave occasion first unto some for to say, that better it were there had bene no gods at all, than to admit such for gods who received and approoved these abuses, yea and tooke pleasure therein, or that they should be so outragious, proud, and injurious, so base and pinching, so easie to fall into choler upon a small cause, and so heard to be pleased againe.”
Otherwise put, atheism arose from trying to escape excessive and unnatural beliefs and practices—something Holland’s Protestant readers were sure to agree with—but, in consequence, it immoderately skipped over the virtuous mean of true religion.
By the time Philemon Holland translated Plutarch’s Moralia into English, at the turn of the seventeenth century, anxieties about atheism were dramatically on the rise. The terms atheist and atheism had emerged in the vernacular languages of Europe in the wake of the Renaissance and the Reformation, signifying all forms of deviance: social, political, sexual, and religious. For instance, in the prefatory material to one of his many translations of Jean Calvin’s work, Arthur Golding described atheists as the fool of Psalm 14:1, whose supposedly immoral actions belied unbelief at heart. Others regarded atheists as advocating cunning arguments derived from that most wicked of early modern Europeans, “Machiavel.” This understanding of atheism characterized it as at once an unnatural vice and a sin that manifested itself in practice and belief. It was precisely this set of connections that generated in response the “confutation of atheism.” This network of assumptions about atheists and the threat they posed to religion and political society would remain prevalent well into the nineteenth century and beyond.
Starting in the 1590s, Francis Bacon’s popular Essays were among the first writings to rearticulate a Plutarchan view of superstition, religion, and atheism in England. The earliest version of his essay “Of atheism” begins with Psalm 14:1, a verse which states that the fool says in his heart “There is no God.” In Bacon’s view, as in the view of most of his contemporaries, suppressing the indelible impression of God in man’s created nature, atheists want to live as they please and therefore actively try to suppress their knowledge of God. But in order to do so atheists must forgo philosophy. For “a little naturall philosophie … doth dispose the opinion to Atheisme: But on the other side much naturall philosophie, and wading deepe into it, will bring about mens mindes to religion.” In revised editions of the Essays published from 1612 onward Bacon made a series of new observations about religion, superstition, and atheism. For instance, he makes note of the patristic claim that God did not work miracles to convince atheists because his ordinary providential works suffice. This emphasis on general providence in secondary causes becomes, in the revised essay, a prelude to the statement just quoted about depth in natural philosophy and its relation to atheism. Man’s mind may at times rest in second causes, Bacon admits, but when it considers the great chain of such causes it must evidently see the necessity of providence and God’s existence. Even the ancient materialist school most usually associated with atheism, the atomists Democritus and Epicurus, convinces natural philosophers of this fact, Bacon asserts. It is infinitely more likely that an intelligent, powerful, benevolent being created, ordered, and maintains the universe, than that “an Army, of Infinite small Portions, or Seedes unplanted, should have produced this Order, and Beauty, without a Divine Marshall.” With a touch of self-defence, Bacon wryly observes that some intellectuals have been labelled atheists for rejecting superstition. Regardless, he now offers four causes of atheism: religious division, immoral priests, profane scoffing, and the coincidence of learned times, peace, and prosperity. This revised version of Bacon’s essay closes by citing Cicero, confirming a view Plutarch shared. It states that atheism saps man’s nobility by reducing him to a mere beast. The implication being that atheists undermined the means by which great societies like Rome thrived—a lesson in statecraft Bacon was offering to his contemporaries.
Bacon’s essay “Of Heresies” echoes Plutarch much more directly. It states that “true religion [is] seated in the meane betwixt Superstition, with superstitious heresies on the one side, & Atheisme, with prophane heresies on the other.” Superstition is the rejection of the light of scripture by giving credit to tradition and doubtful writings, to new revelations, and to untrue interpretations of scripture. Atheism, by contrast, “rebelleth and mutineth against the power of God, giving no faith to his worde, which revealeth his will, upon a discredit and unbelief of his power, to whom all things are possible.” Superstition is an unreasonable rejection of the sufficiency of God’s work, and atheism is an unreasonable repudiation of God’s power. In “Of Superstition” Bacon continues in a Plutarchan vein, writing that it is better to have no opinion of God at all than one unworthy of him: “Atheisme leaves a Man to Sense; to Philosophy; to Naturall Piety; to Lawes; to Reputation; All which may be Guides to an outward Morall vertue, though Religion were not; But Superstition dismounts all these, and erecteth an absolute Monarchy, in the Mindes of Men.” Atheism does not disturb the political realm, Bacon insists, because atheists look no further than themselves; superstition, however, inserts confusion into political affairs. In this essay the causes of superstition are, first, sensual rites, ceremonies, outward hypocritical holiness, and undue reverence of traditions, all of which are the stratagems of priests; second, allowing conceits and novelties to be inserted in religious affairs; third, taking aim at divine things with human means; and fourth, “barbarous times” conjoined with calamities and disasters. Reiterating a Plutarchan moral concern, Bacon closes by claiming that superstition deforms and causes deviations in human nature. The best remedy for both superstition and atheism, Bacon would write in The New Organon (1620), is natural philosophy—where scripture manifests the will of God, nature manifests God’s power.
Bacon tied atheism to sin and pride, much like the majority of his contemporaries. Yet his solution to the problem of atheism and superstition is not quite Plutarch’s: it is not simply a moral appeal to the personal character which embodies classical virtue. Rather, the most important causes of the errors of superstition and atheism for Bacon are social and intellectual. For him atheism was an error corrected by speculative reflection on the first cause (i.e. God) of secondary causes (i.e. nature) which no truly competent philosopher (i.e. scientist) would deny. Where Plutarch worried about the social consequences of both Epicurean isolation from political society and the base danger of superstitious frenzy, Bacon drew upon Plutarch to make a different point, attributing superstition primarily to a Reformation social category targeted for its apparent abuse: priests.
One of the most provocative authors on the nature of superstition, religion, and atheism in the period after Bacon was his one-time assistant, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Published in Latin in 1642 and 1647, and translated into English in 1651, De Cive presents a hybrid Plutarchan-Epicurean explanation of the origin of belief in God and the difference between superstition and atheism. There Hobbes argues that man’s consciousness of his own weakness and his fear of natural events induces him to believe that God is the invisible maker of all things, and from whom he needs protection. This is an argument quite similar to that found in Lucretius’ Epicurean poem De rerum natura, a point Hobbes’ contemporaries frequently, if rather hysterically, pointed out.
“Now the fear of invisible things, when it is sever’d from right reason is superstition. It was therefore almost impossible for men without the speciall assistance of God to avoyd both Rocks of Atheisme and Superstition: for this proceeds from fear without right reason, that, from an opinion of right reason, without feare.”
Hobbes revised this view in Leviathan (1651), where the difference between true religion and superstition is based on the authority of the sovereign, not the excess of fear. Provokingly, he accounts for the origin of religion in four ways:
“Opinion of Ghosts, Ignorance of second causes, Devotion towards what men fear, and Taking of things Casuall for Prognostiques, consisteth the Naturall seed of Religion; which by reason of the different Fancies, Judgements, and Passions of severall men, hath grown up into ceremonies so different, that those which are used by one man, are for the most part ridiculous to another.”
If Hobbes’ explanation of the origin of religion is pointed, so too is his claim that “all the changes of Religion in the world” can be attributed “to one and the same cause; and that is, unpleasing Priests.” Hobbes collapses Bacon’s Plutarchan explanation of the causes of superstition and atheism into a Lucretian account of religion generally. This is then combined with a more profound anti-clericalism (“unpleasing Priests”). If Hobbes thinks the natural seed of religion is opinion, ignorance, and fear, then the social seed of religion, in so far as it is the source of sociopolitical disturbance, is priests. Both Bacon and Hobbes identify priests with pride and thus argue that the priestly order’s interest in temporal advancement and authority were causes of religious error, particularly superstition. They explain the origin of priestly pride in naturalist terms and sharply criticize supposedly superstitious practices which upheld clerical authority, doing so in no small part because such authority threatened the stability of the ship of state.
Between 1679 and 1683 the English whig Charles Blount published a series of works that not only summarized the anti-clerical thought of Hobbes and the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, he also made highly contentious claims about the truth of the Christian religion in a style directly at odds with early modern anti-atheist apologetics. The Erastian thrust of Blount’s criticisms was subsequently shared by a string of prominent whig political writers who, publishing their works between 1680 and 1730, challenged the authority of the Church of England along similar grounds. Blount, John Toland, Anthony Ashley Cooper, Anthony Collins, Bernard Mandeville, and Matthew Tindal produced a series of trenchant criticisms of Anglican sociopolitical authority, very often based on a commitment to revised commonwealth or republican principles. In doing so each of these writers drew on Plutarch to make their case and in consequence developed a new understanding of the proper relationship between atheism, religion, and political authority.
In his 1680 work Great is Diana, a text on the topic of religious idolatry, Blount follows Hobbes and Bacon by citing Plutarch’s contention that atheism is the product of obstinate hearts while “softer Natures” are “more inclined to Superstition.” Similarly, in The First Two Books of Philostratus, a translation of an ancient work about a pagan miracle-worker, also published in 1680, Blount comments subversively on the body of the text in extensive notes. There he defines superstition in Hobbesian terms as the belief in stories not approved by the church. Throughout his work Blount frequently suggests that natural philosophy is a corrective to superstition and that superstition is an unnatural, erroneous imposition on humanity directly attributable to the self-interested strategy of priests. Indeed he echoes Bacon’s appeal to natural philosophy as an antidote to what he calls the “servitude of Superstition.” Blount then repeats in very direct form Hobbes’ observations on the socially self-interested position of priests. He writes that idolatry and superstition proceed from the revelations devised and forged by priests, such as oracles, prophecies, dreams, fables, and invented miracles. In a 1683 work entitled Miracles, No Violation of the Law of Nature, the text of which is basically a series of quotations and annotations upon what Hobbes and Spinoza had written on the subject, Blount put forward a view which clearly equated the supernatural with the imposition of priests on vulgar minds. Because men are ruled by fear and hope, he writes in a Lucretian vein, they are prone to imagine an extraordinary and divine power in all unusual or incomprehensible events. The Two Books of Philostratus elaborates upon Hobbes’ claim that ghosts, ignorance, fear, and imagination constitute the seeds of all religion. Safely focusing on pagan nations, Blount argues that the first founders of religion were also the first founders of political society. Such founders took care to imprint upon the minds of the vulgar the idea that their religious precepts were divine in origin, equating the gods’ displeasure with breaking the law and prescribing ceremonies and rituals to appease the gods during war, harvest, and epidemics.
In addition to an anti-clerical identification of the supernatural with superstition, Blount also implies that atheists are more capable of reason and virtue than the superstitious. In Great is Diana he writes that atheists retain their philosophical judgment, as Bacon had argued, but the superstitious are subject to immoderate passion, as Plutarch claimed. “A Superstitious man serveth God out of fear, whereas the truly Religious serves him out of love. Superstition suffereth neither God nor man to live at rest, as evidently appears by these Heathen Sacrifices.” Again, in keeping with the definition of a miracle as a violation of nature which would undermine God’s perfection, Blount cites Plutarch and Bacon to confirm his view that atheists are less impious than the superstitiously religious. For an atheist does not detract from what would be God’s nature; a superstitious believer, on the other hand, implies that a good, perfect God would be appeased by what Plutarch, Bacon, and Hobbes each refer to as the outrageous, unnatural, and debasing rituals of superstition. Indeed, Blount goes so far as to suggest, in a theme common to the writers examined here, that Jesus Christ’s apostles identified the essence of religion not with priestly ceremony but with the moral righteousness required by God.
Elaborating upon Hobbes’ and Blount’s anti-clericalism, the radical Irish whig John Toland insisted that superstition is the work of self-interested priests who established their religious order by teaching nonsensical and secret doctrines. In his infamous work, Christianity Not Mysterious, first published in 1696, Toland applied the empiricist epistemology of John Locke’s Essay concerning Human Understanding (1689) to the theological claims and sociopolitical supremacy of the Anglican church. He did so exclusively upon the grounds of natural reason, as he makes mischievously clear in his preface, in order that the atheist would have no reason to object, and because Anglican apologists frequently claim that religion is reasonable. Whereas traditional apologists confuting atheism were committed to a demonstration of the truth and triumph of the Christian religion, Toland claims that he is committed to the search after truth, plain and simple—controversially implying that he is more like St Paul debating the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers at Athens than his rival apologists, who of course saw St Paul as their scriptural exemplar.
In Christianity Not Mysterious Toland presses home a view of reason such that any mysteries within religion are ruled out as what Hobbes had called “insignificant speech.” Toland echoes Hobbes and Blount by more forcefully arguing that the clergy imposed on the laity in order to advance their own interest by inventing mysteries in scripture, over which they alone were the authoritative interpreters. As Justin Champion has persuasively shown, this Erastian criticism was central to Toland’s republican political project and can be found consistently throughout his published work. Against priestly mystification Toland insists that the common-sense view of the meaning of scripture ought to be preferred, particularly over the hermeneutical techniques of the church fathers and clerics who employed analogy, metaphor, and allegory to linguistically shroud their self-interest in nonsense. Hence Toland provides a genealogy in which natural religion is corrupted by the rise of mysterious practices and beliefs to the imposition of priests. Examining the meaning of the word mystery in various texts of scripture, he concludes that it nowhere signifies anything incomprehensible. For if the gospel is proclaimed universally to all mankind, he asks, how can it be contained within mysteries which are incomprehensible to most men? Reminiscent of Blount’s similar claim, Toland even interprets Jesus’ mission as a proclamation of truth in which he swept away the superstitious cobwebs present in the religion of the Jews. Sometime after the second century, Toland surmises, priests sought to place Christianity on the same footing as pagan religions. They did so in order to obtain more converts, introducing pagan terms, rituals, and mysteries. It was this introduction, Toland contends, which established the clergy as “a separate and politick Body.”
Toland drove these points home repeatedly, including in his 1704 work entitled Letters to Serena. This text attributes the origin of prejudice to the superstitious beliefs inculcated from birth by priests through the force of custom and habit. Euhemeristically, Toland then argues that the origin of the immortality of the soul lies in the funerary practices of ancient Egyptians. Rites intended to honour the dead were naturally transformed into the idea that these men lived forever. Given that this notion flattered man’s self-interest, it was perfectly natural for them to adopt this belief. Similarly, Toland claims that superstition began with the worship of the dead, where illustrious men were deified over time and associated with astrological signs which required the mediation of priests to interpret. The rest of his account is given over to explaining the elaboration of idolatry and superstition from the mystification of priests, seeking through their supposed intimacy with heavenly beings “to get Revenues settled on themselves.” His anti-clerical conclusion is that Christian priests simply embellished pagan idolatry in order to “Increase … their own Glory, Power, and Profit.”
Like Toland, with whom he was on intimate terms, Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, shared the ambition of subjecting the Anglican church’s authority to the good of political society. Lawrence Klein has convincingly argued that Shaftesbury was engaged in a broad project: generating a polite culture in England capable of replacing both the Court and the Church as institutional sources of political authority. Shaftesbury therefore contrasts the relationship between politics and religion in antiquity with the modern world in such a way as to favour the former. In his “Letter concerning Enthusiasm,” first published in 1708 and republished in 1711 as part of his popular Characteristics, Shaftesbury observes that religious superstition and enthusiasm are the cause of great public disturbances in modern times. In order to counteract these excesses, Shaftesbury focuses on a Plutarchan account of personal character, proposing that the free exercise of wit, taste, and politeness by men of good character will balance the bad character of religious enthusiasts. The best “Security against Superstition: [is] To remember, that there is nothing in GOD but what is Godlike; and that He is either not at all, or truly and perfectly Good.” To love the public and promote universal good, Shaftesbury insists, is surely the most rational conclusion derived from a reflection upon the necessarily beneficent divine attributes. This is a conclusion of Socratic introspection which simultaneously moderates our nature and protects against the kind of bad personal character which succumbs to superstition or enthusiasm. Shaftesbury explicitly presents Plutarch as an exemplar of this good character:
“How different an Air and Aspect the good and virtuous were presum’d to carry with them to the Temple, let PLUTARCH singly, instead of many others, witness, in his excellent Treatise of Superstition; and in another against the Epicurean Atheism, where it will plainly enough appear what share GOOD HUMOUR had in that which the politer Antients esteem’d as Piety, and true Religion.”
Where Shaftesbury argues that a Socratic freedom of enquiry is integral to the cultivation of a virtuous personal character, Anthony Collins, another whig and intimate of Shaftesbury and Toland, even more directly describes freedom of thought as a virtue whose contrasting vice is religious superstition. In A Discourse of Freethinking, published in 1713, Collins echoes Shaftesbury in declaring that it is by freethinking alone that men can know that God is perfectly just, wise, and powerful, and that he made and governs the world; but Collins stipulates, rather like Spinoza, Blount, and Toland, that such a God could not possibly require anything of men whose evidence they could not comprehend. Thus God, possessing all perfection, cannot require anything arbitrarily of man for his own sake. Collins then summarizes Plutarch on superstition and atheism, reiterating the fact that an atheist would never imagine it pious for a capricious God to exist, and that only the superstitious, whose absurd beliefs and practices manifest in their immoderation, could believe that God did not reward virtue. For Collins this also means that nothing inessential in the worship of God could be deemed necessary, such as that presided over by priests, whose contradictory views further proves the necessity of freethinking. At the end of the text Collins even appends a freethinkers hall of fame in which Plutarch is given pride of place. The Discourse includes an extremely long excerpt from Plutarch’s essay “Of Superstition,” specifically that section in which the atheist and the superstitious characters are compared. Notably, Francis Bacon is also included in this canon of freethinkers. Collins thinks Bacon explained the “Secret of Superstition” with his reformation of natural philosophy, and “saw clearly into the Mischief of Superstition, when he prefer’d Atheism to it in his Essay upon that Subject.”
In Christianity as Old as the Creation; or the Gospel a Republication of the Religion of Nature (1730), Matthew Tindal, a staunch Erastian, builds on the arguments of Toland, Shaftesbury, and Collins by insisting that natural and revealed religion have the same end and therefore the same precepts. These precepts are simply to honour God and to promote the good of mankind. The best way to strike the Plutarchan mean of “true religion” between superstition and atheism, according to Tindal, is for man to adhere to what the “Light of Nature teaches him” about divine goodness. Such a person will honour God by seeking the good of others according to the rational and evident principles of nature. Tindal cites both Plutarch and Shaftesbury and repeats what is now a deist truism: that superstition is worse than atheism because it reflects a false and negative opinion of God’s nature. Quoting extensively from Plutarch’s “Of Superstition,” Tindal insists that unnatural and excessive religious beliefs made men the dupes of priests. Referencing both Plutarch and Shaftesbury, Tindal argues that superstitious men are more likely to devalue virtue because they envision God as an arbitrary being who demands the performance of unnatural ceremonies. When men abandon the “Nature and Reason of Things” in this way they are thereby prepared to act in the most cruel and unnatural ways. Tindal suggests that we should therefore jettison the “absurd Doctrines” upheld by priests, and the “ridiculous Ceremonies” to which such priests owe their existence. Instead, he insists that the end of all religious education should be natural morality; and that anything contrary to the honour of God, understood as the good of man, should be accounted superstition.
In the course of evaluating the highly controversial philosophy of Spinoza in his Letters to Serena, John Toland cites a very specific, deeply contentious claim forwarded by the French thinker Pierre Bayle. In his Pensées divers sur la comète, Bayle had written that atheists were not necessarily vicious. As Toland puts it: “Monsieur Bayle … has manifestly prov’d that even Atheism does not necessarily lead a Man to be wicked.” Discussing the allegedly atheist philosophy of Spinoza, this quote derives from a section of the Letters to Serena in which Toland argues that men should be judged solely for their actions, not their beliefs.
Precisely Bayle’s and Toland’s arguments were amplified most powerfully in early modern Britain by Bernard Mandeville, in his Free Thoughts on Religion, the Church, and National Happiness (1720). As E. J. Hundert has shown, like Blount, Toland, Shaftesbury, and Collins, Mandeville was engaged in an Erastian political project whereby the sociopolitical authority of the Anglican church was to be regulated for the public good. Moreover, with Shaftesbury and Collins, Mandeville defends freedom of thought against the accusation that it implies either impiety or atheism. He also insists that no one should be called an atheist who does not publicly admit to being one; for as Bayle claimed, we cannot judge a man’s beliefs by his actions. Moving slightly beyond Bayle, Mandeville suggests that atheists have in fact existed and that they were basically harmless to civil society. Each of these points stood in very marked contrast to the apologetic confutations of atheism in early modern Britain and the assumptions which underpinned them. Mandeville continues:
“To make this not appear a Paradox, we are but to reflect on what it is Men are govern’d by in the Conduct of their Lives, and we shall find, that very few act from the Principles they profess, whilst all the rest are sway’d by their Passions and Inclinations; and therefore it ought not to appear more strange to us, that an Atheist should be a quiet moral Man, than that a Christian should lead a very wicked Life.”
In combination with the claim that all governments have been concerned with the administration of justice, protecting property, and maintaining public peace, Mandeville argues that the essence of religion is to regulate man’s heart, to admonish him to treat his fellow man with charity, peace, and patience. Sin thus becomes an affront to God and not necessarily something which the magistrate should regulate here on earth. Mandeville therefore concludes that the disturbance of public peace for religious reasons is illegitimate and that steps ought to be taken to prevent such disturbance. Like both Toland and Tindal, Mandeville subscribed to the republican tenet that men’s minds should be judged by God, while men’s actions should be regulated for the public good of political society. And so he makes it abundantly clear that clergymen, who owe their social position to superstition, should be prevented from disturbing the public peace.
In the extended 1729 edition of his Fable of the Bees, which (in)famously argues that private vices contribute to public benefits, Mandeville has the interlocutors of a dialogue debate not only Spinoza’s philosophy, but Plutarch’s contention that atheism and superstition are both immoderate deviations from true religion. In the course of their discussion it becomes clear that there are two alternative visions. One is the anti-atheist view of the Christian apologists in which God, providence, and eternal judgment provide the legitimacy of political society by guaranteeing oaths and promises; the other is Bayle’s view in which private belief and public virtue are disconnected. As one interlocutor says: “I don’t think, that Virtue has any more Relation to Credulity, than it has to Want of Faith.” He continues:
“if Men were sway’d in their Actions by the Principles they side with, and the Opinion they profess themselves to be of, all Atheists would be Devils, and superstitious Men Saints: But this is not true; there are Atheists of good Morals, and great Villains superstitious: Nay, I don’t believe, there is any Wickedness that the worst Atheist can commit, but superstitious Men may be guilty of it; Impiety no excepted.”
Plutarch’s claim that superstition was more vicious than atheism was redeployed by a range of early Enlightenment writers. Committed whigs from Blount to Mandeville, who saw themselves as political and philosophical allies, often drawing upon Bacon, Hobbes, and Spinoza, conducted a contentious campaign of re-description. They took a widely accepted classical authority, Plutarch, and used him to confirm the relatively uncontroversial view that atheists could apprehend the truths of natural reason and natural philosophy; however, they simultaneously used Plutarch’s description of superstition as an unnatural and immoderate vice derived from a bad personal character to associate that vice with the tactics by which self-interested priests shrouded true religion in revealed mysteries. By combining this re-description with a sociopolitical theory that severed the assumed connection between private religious belief and public moral action, and which circumscribed the power of priests in the political domain along broadly Erastian lines, it became possible for Bernard Mandeville to characterize atheists as “wrong,” but nonetheless moral and politically nonthreatening. Such were the means by which the virtuous atheist was invented.
Mandeville’s position was intensely controversial and remained so for more than a century. Yet within ten years of this defence of the possibility of a virtuous atheist a philosophical account of human nature which made no authoritative appeal to God or “true religion” was published in Britain. The philosopher David Hume would extend the method of A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40) in The Natural History of Religion (1757), characterizing all religion as a vicious deformation of human nature which could be understood and explained naturally. It is an approach to the study of religion which, rightly or wrongly, continues to resonate strongly today. Although Kant would issue some of the most interesting, lasting, and important criticisms of Hume’s thought, these two philosophers were in basic agreement about this much: “Emancipation from superstition is called enlightenment.”
- See: R. H. Barrow, Plutarch and His Times, Chatto and Windus, 1967, p. 176; D. A. Russell, Plutarch, Bristol Classical Press, 2008 , p. xiii.
- I. Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, in Practical Philosophy, trans. and ed. M. J. Gregor, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 263. Kant also maintained a version of Plutarch’s distinction between superstition and religion in relation to the question of fear: see I. Kant, The Critique of Judgment, trans. J. C. Meredith, rvsd. N. Walker, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 93.
- Kant, Critique of Judgement, pp. 94, 103.
- For more on this see: K. Sheppard, Anti-Atheism in Early Modern England 1580-1720: The Atheist Answered and His Error Confuted, Brill, 2015.
- R. Lamberton, “Plutarch,” The Classical Tradition, eds. A. Grafton, G. W. Most, S. Settis, Harvard University Press, 2010, p. 748.
- I. Kidd, “Introduction” to “On Being Aware of Moral Progress,” in Plutarch, Essays, trans. R. Waterfield, ed. I. Kidd, Penguin, 1992, p. 118.
- See also Russell, Plutarch, pp. 69, 75.
- Plutarch, “On Moral Virtue,” in Plutarch’s Moralia, vol. VI, trans. W. C. Welmbold, Harvard University Press, 1939, p. 23.
- Plutarch, “On Moral Virtue,” p. 39. Compare with: Plutarch, “On Moral Virtue,” p. 43: “so virtue, being an activity and faculty concerned with the irrational, does away with the remissions and overstrainings of the impulse and its excesses and defects altogether, and reduces each passion to moderation and faultlessness.”
- For two examples of Plutarch’s practical therapeutic pedagogy see: “Talkativeness” and “Curiosity” in Plutarch, Selected Essays and Dialogues, trans. D. Russell, Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 193-205, 206-25. Plutarch is also full of praise for Lycurgus and his pedagogical regime in Sparta. See: Plutarch, “Lycurgus,” in Plutarch, Greek Lives, trans. R. Waterfield, Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 3-41. For Plutarch’s view of virtue and women see: Plutarch, “Virtues in Women,” in Plutarch, Selected Essays and Dialogues, pp. 306-36.
- See: Plutarch, “On Being Aware of Moral Progress,” in Plutarch, Essays, especially pp. 131-32.
- Plutarch, “How to Distinguish a Flatterer from a Friend,” in Plutarch, Essays, p. 95.
- Plutarch, “Of Brotherly Love,” in Plutarch, Plutarch’s Morals, trans. P. Holland, London, 1603, p. 176. Compare with the Loeb edition, which translates this passage in terms of piety. See “Of Brotherly Love,” in Plutarch’s Moralia, vol. VI, p. 257.
- Kidd, “Introduction,” in Plutarch, Essays, p. 13.
- Plutarch, “Oracles in Decline,” in Plutarch, Selected Essays and Dialogues, p. 52.
- Plutarch, “Oracles in Decline,” pp. 54-55.
- Plutarch, “Socrates’ Daimonion,” in Plutarch, Selected Essays and Dialogues, p. 105.
- Plutarch, “Socrates’ Daimonion,” pp. 108-9. Whether or not this is a correct reading of Plato is another matter.
- See, for example, John Smith, Select Discourses, London, 1660, pp. 26, 28, 31, 36, 42-43.
- Plutarch, “That Epicurus Actually Makes a Pleasant Life Impossible,” in Plutarch, Plutarch’s Moralia, trans. B. Einarson and P. H. de Lacy, Harvard University Press, 1967, pp. 53-55, 115, 117, 121.
- Plutarch, “Epicurus,” p. 111.
- Plutarch, “In Reply to Colotes,” in Plutarch, Plutarch’s Moralia, p. 195.
- Plutarch, “Of Superstition,” in Plutarch, Plutarch’s Morals, p. 259.
- Plutarch, “Of Superstition,” p. 260.
- Plutarch, “Of Superstition,” p. 262.
- Plutarch, “Of Superstition,” pp. 263-64.
- Plutarch, “Of Superstition,” pp. 267-68.
- A. Golding, “Epistle dedicatory” to J. Calvin, Psalmes of David and others. With M. John Calvins Commentaries, trans. A. Golding, London, 1571.
- See, for instance, T. Adams, The Devills Banket, London, 1614, p. 47: “and there be Machiavels, Polititians, Atheists, have trickes beyond the Devill.”
- For Bacon’s vindication of natural philosophy against the charge that it led to atheism see: S. Gaukroger, Francis Bacon and the Transformation of Natural Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 74-100, especially at pp. 85, 91.
- F. Bacon, Essaies, London, 1598, “Of atheisme.” (No pagination.)
- F. Bacon, Essays, London, 1625, p. 90.
- Bacon, Essays, p. 91.
- Bacon, Essays, pp. 93-94.
- Bacon, Essaies, “Of heresies.” (No pagination.)
- Bacon, Essays, pp. 96-97.
- F. Bacon, The New Organon, ed. L. Jardine, trans. M. Silverthorne, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 75.
- Compare with A. Cromartie, “The God of Thomas Hobbes,” The Historical Journal, 51, 2008, pp. 857-879.
- T. Hobbes, Philosophicall Rudiments concerning Government and Civill Society, London, 1651, pp. 262-63.
- T. Hobbes, Leviathan, London, 1651, pp. 26, 51.
- Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 54.
- Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 60.
- See J. Redwood, “Charles Blount (1654-93), Deism, and English Free Thought,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 35, 1974, pp. 490-498.
- For the wider context and reception of deist accounts of religion, see: P. Harrison, ‘Religion’ and the religions in the English Enlightenment, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 73-85. On commonwealth principles see: C. Robbins, The Eighteenth-century Commonwealthman, LibertyFund, 2004 ; J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment, Princeton University Press, 2003 ; and J. G. A. Pocock, Virtue, Commerce and History, Cambridge University Press, 1985.
- C. Blount, Great is Diana, London, 1680, p. 15.
- C. Blount, The First Two Books of Philostratus, London, 1680, p. 13.
- C. Blount, Anima Mundi, London, 1683, p. 80.
- Blount, Philostratus, pp. 31-32.
- [C. Blount,] Miracles, no Violation of the Laws of Nature, London, 1683, pp. 3-4.
- Blount, Philostratus, pp. 32-33.
- Blount, Great is Diana, “Preface to the Reader.”
- Blount, Great is Diana, p. 15.
- Blount, Great is Diana, p. 29.
- Blount, Anima Mundi, “To the Reader.”
- J. Toland, Christianity not Mysterious, London, 1696, pp. vii-viii.
- Toland, Christianity not Mysterious, pp. xix, 172.
- Toland, Christianity not Mysterious, p. 26.
- J. Champion, Republican learning: John Toland and the crisis of Christian culture, 1696-1722, Manchester University Press, 2003.
- Toland, Christianity not Mysterious, pp. 67-68, 69, 72.
- Toland, Christianity not Mysterious, pp. 151-52.
- Toland, Christianity not Mysterious, p. 166; see also p. 169.
- J. Toland, Letters to Serena, London, 1704, pp. 7, 15.
- Toland, Letters to Serena, pp. 45, 53-55, 78.
- Toland, Letters to Serena, p. 104.
- Toland, Letters to Serena, p. 123.
- L. Klein, Shaftesbury and the Culture of Politeness: Moral Discourse and Cultural Politics in Early Eighteenth-Century England, Cambridge University Press, 1994. Compare with J. Redwood, Reason, Ridicule and Religion: The Age of Enlightenment in England 1660-1750, Thames and Hudson, 1976, pp. 83-86.
- Anthony Ashley Cooper, Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, London, 1711, vol. I, pp. 22-23.
- Cooper, Characteristicks, vol. I, pp. 33, 35.
- Cooper, Characteristicks, vol. I, pp. 41, 55.
- Cooper, Characteristicks, vol. III, 127-29.
- A. Collins, A Discourse of Freethinking, London, 1713, pp. 38-39.
- Collins, pp. 47-100.
- Collins, p. 131.
- Collins, p. 170.
- M. Tindal, Christianity as Old as the Creation, London, 1733, p. 63.
- Tindal, p. 65.
- Tindal, pp. 85, 88.
- Tindal, pp. 110, 132.
- Tindal, pp. 151.
- Tindal, pp. 146.
- Toland, Serena, pp. 133-34.
- Toland, Serena, p. 135.
- E. J. Hundert, “Introduction” to Fable of the Bees and Other Writings, Hackett, 1997, pp. x-xix. See also: E. J. Hundert, The Enlightenment’s Fable: Bernard Mandeville and the Discovery of Society, Cambridge University Press, 1994.
- B. Mandeville, Free Thoughts on Religion, the Church, and National Happiness, London, 1720, p. 4.
- Mandeville, Free Thoughts, pp. 44, 113-14, 149-51.
- B. Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees, London, 1729, vol. II, pp. 375-76.
- Mandeville, Fable, vol. II, p. 377.
- Here I use the word “invention” with its rhetorical use in mind, inventio, meaning to discover an argument.
- Kant, Critique of Judgement, p. 124.