The Stoic Origins of the European Idea of the Person and the Idea of Natural Law
The idea that the individual human
person had moral significance derived from the Greeks generally. But the idea that each human being had equal moral claims
irrespective of race class or gender, originated with the stoics.
A division emerged within stoicism.* A conservative strand, based upon certain aspects of Zeno’s teaching, emphasising birth, attracted upper class Romans.* A reformist strand looked back to Chryssipus with his emphasis upon the capacity of all to acquire virtue. The conservative strand conceded that nobody was prevented by birth or nationality from living in accordance with Nature, but it held that only a few would have the strength of will to be able to do so. But if this were the case and the mass of human beings are guided by their passions, it was not difficult for patrician Romans to go the extra step and identify the virtuous with the patrician class whose task it was to rule ‘the swinish multitude’.
The conservative strand did not prevail and as Orlando Patterson has written, ‘only a selective reading of Stoicism could deny its extremely liberal thrust’.* Nevertheless it is of the first importance to remember that stoic ethics was directed to defining and achieving a virtuous life - a life in harmony with nature - not the equality of social justice. It was the equality of human beings in relation to Nature and not in relation to society, which was asserted.
Stoic equality was thus the equal capacity of all to live according to nature. From this three approaches to human social conditions were open. First, it might be supposed that social equality or something approximating it flows derivatively from human spiritual equality. Secondly, it could be said that spiritual equality implies that a human being’s inferior social condition or status - like hardship or misfortune - are irrelevant to ‘living in harmony with Nature’. These were to be endured with stoic fortitude. A third possibility was that spiritual equality means that society should not impose a discriminatory status or condition which contradicts natural human equality. For society to do this would be to allow a non-natural interference with Nature by human law, custom or convention. Human beings are by nature free. Slavery was such a human social convention, allowing those captured in war to be deprived of their natural freedom.
Stoicism was not concerned with political equality, or for the most part, with distributive justice, mentioned above as the first possibility. The only exception - or possible exception - to this, were the social reforms of the Graachi.
[The origin of the Graachis’ reforms is not known. But it was at least unusual for social reforms such as theirs to have emanated from the Roman aristocracy. Stoic philosophy had been introduced into Rome only a short time before, it being only a decade since the arrival in Rome of Panaetius. According to Plutarach, the Graachi were taught by a stoic thinker, Blossius of Cumae. As a relative of Scipio Amelianus, Tiberius Graachi was in close contact with the new stoic influence. Also, what may be described as the reformist strand of stoicism was in the ascendant immediately before the Graachi’s fall (134-124B.C.). The link between stoicism and the Graachi reforms, whilst not definite, is more than speculative.
Nevertheless this is the only possible instance of stoic equality being directed towards social justice.*]
Of the three approaches mentioned above, it was the second and third which, whilst varying in influence from time to time, dominated stoic thought in the Roman world. It was the third approach, (spiritual equality in the sense that society should not impose a discriminatory status or condition) which formed the basis of natural law.
Stoicism - natural law and slavery in the ancient world*
“The notion of … natural law may, broadly speaking, take up two divergent attitudes towards ‘nature’ as a conception. On the one hand, nature may be looked upon as an ideal expressing the fundamental aspiration of Man if his full potentialities are attained. On the other hand, nature may be regarded as simply the way man behaves by reason of his psycho-physical make up. In the former view nature operates normatively as an ideal standard against which the non-natural or purely conventional may be measured. The latter is more essentially factual, being based on a study of Man as he actually is…”*
The ius naturale emanating from the Divine Reason as the stoics conceived it did not refer to actual law of the natural world. It was rather the ideal or perfect law comprising those rules of conduct that flowed from the nature of Man as a rational being irrespective of social status, racial origin or circumstance.* * This ideal law of nature to which positive law must defer went back beyond the stoics, perhaps to Sophocles’ Antigone.
Aristotle had advanced an idea of the law of nature in the previous century but it was very different from that of the stoics. The difference points out the essence of stoicism. Aristotle’s law of nature was not based upon equality. “Aristotle found in the society of his time men who were not capable of political reflection and who, as he thought, did their best work under superintendence. He therefore called them natural slaves… he thinks of nature as fixed and immutable and therefore sanctions the institution of slavery…”* Aristotle distinguished the law of nature from positive law and convention. “Just is of two kinds, natural and conventional, that which is every where has the same force”* and the other kind which is purely local law or custom. Aristotle looked at what factually existed rather than to any normative ideal. Thus, in contrasting a free person with a slave, he says, “a being who is endowed with a mind capable of reflection and forethought is by nature the superior and governor, whereas he whose excellence is corporeal is formed to be a slave …”.* And although, nature ‘implied rational design’* one important natural attribute for human beings is that “there is a natural impetus to associate with each other (in society)”.* From this he deduced certain human social necessities - the provision of food, arms for the protection of society and so on. But as the provision of these necessities would be incompatible with noble living and the attainment of virtue, which is the ultimate object of society, they must be provided by non-citizens or slaves.* Aristotle’s law of nature has been examined in some detail not only to contrast it with that of the stoics but because of the return of Aristotelian influence in the eleventh century.*
We have described how stoicism entered the Roman world. It brought with it stoic natural law. Natural law greatly influenced Roman law. To describe these influences it is necessary to traverse, however briefly, certain aspects of Roman law.*
As Rome expanded it was inevitable Roman Courts should become concerned with disputes involving foreigners. Litigation between foreigners among themselves were left, at least in the first instance, to foreign law in accordance with the principle of personality. But disputes between foreigners and Roman citizens, which became increasingly frequent with commercial development, presented difficulties. The ius civile could not be applied because it was reserved by Roman Law exclusively for citizens.
A praetor peregrinus was specially appointed to deal with cases involving foreigners. As we have said the praetor could not apply the ius civile but in any event the ius civile was singularly ill-fitted to deal with these disputes. It had evolved at an earlier period of Roman social development. Its rules were cumbrous and formalistic. Neither Roman nor foreign litigant would have wanted the ius civile to determine their rights and obligations in a commercial dispute.
In time, the praetor peregrinus developed a special body of rules for the determination of those disputes. He drew first upon the ius civile but modified and liberalised it. The praetor did this very largely by looking at those rules of law which were common to the laws of all nations and to general equity. Eventually, this body of rules came to be described as the ius gentium.*
But where was the authority for the praetor to do this? It must be remembered that the praetor was at all times administering the law. He was not at large in the judicial process for which he was responsible. And it was Roman law he was administering. He did not - nor would he ever have had authority to do so - administer some supra-national legal system. It was natural law which provided the rationale for him to administer human law in this way.
Natural law came to Rome in the second century B.C. along with other Greek ideas impinging upon Roman law and at a time when the jurisdiction of the praetor peregrinus was beginning to expand. The jurisconsults, the group of Roman legal advisers whom litigants, oratores and praetors consulted for legal advice, were attracted to natural law. Whilst impatient with its abstract idealism they saw the practical value in natural law providing a rational justification for the praetor peregrinus’s expanding jurisdiction so as to embody the beneficial principles derived from ‘the law of nations’ without violating the integrity of the Roman legal system.*
As Professor Pollock explained, ‘the Greek doctrine of the law of nature furnished exactly the ideal foundation which was wanted, and … proceeded to identify ius gentium with ius naturale for the purposes of legal science’.* *
The identification of the ius naturale with the ius gentium did not supplant the idea of natural law as an ideal law. As Sir Henry Maine said, the conception of natural law as an ideal ‘lay (in) keeping before the mental vision a type of perfect law, and from its inspiring the hope of an approximation to it’.*
In the post-classical period, beginning with the death of Diocletian, the jurists assumed an ever increasing role in systemetising Roman law. They began to hover between identifying natural law with the ius gentium, on the one hand, and in distinguishing it from the ius gentium in so far as the ius gentium fell short of ideal justice, on the other.
Thus Gaius, in the second century, said, “but what natural reason dictates to all men and is most equally observed among them is called the law of nations, as that law which is practised by all mankind”.* On the other hand, Paulus, in the third century, said ‘we call law that is always equitable and good, as natural law’* and Ulpian adopted another and even wider, although heterodox, position.
In one sense the difference did not matter. Thus natural law was used to vindicate the supremacy of intention over the letter of contracts and the recognition of ties of kindred. It did not matter whether one said that this was so because it was equitable or because it derived from a generalisation abstracted from the various national laws of contract.
But in one respect the difference did matter. Slavery was incontrovertibly in conformity with the law of nations. Slavery continued throughout the Roman Empire long after conquest ceased in about 14 A.D.* Individual stoics such as Dio Chrystomum, a Greek adviser to Trajan (96-117 A.D.) and Epictetus, who had himself been a slave, denounced slavery. Seneca, in his remarkable ‘Letter on the subject of Slavery’ wrote, ‘They’re slaves people say. No they’re human beings’. And later, ‘How about reflecting that the person you call slave traces his origin back to the same stock as yourself, has the good sky above him, breathes as you do, lives as you do, dies as you do?’* But stoicism, as a body of thought, never called for the abolition of slavery or proposed a political program for its removal. And it cannot seriously be claimed that, any more than Christianity, it was responsible for the eventual decline of slavery in the ancient world.* Comments by individual stoics were isolated expressions of opinion. The institution itself was hardly questioned. It was assumed to be an inescapable part of the social structure, ‘a fact of life, a terrifying part of the human condition like warfare and piracy and death’.* Slavery then was institutionalised in the Roman world and formed part of the law of nations. But was it consistent with natural law?
The issue was clear. If natural law were merely coincident with the law of nations, slavery must be in conformity with natural law. If that was so, stoicism would very likely have failed to bequeath, even as an historical memory, the principle of spiritual equality. This did not eventuate. The jurists, without exception acknowledged slavery to be contrary to the law of nature. Ulpian, for example, said that, ‘slavery was a manifest departure from the ius naturale but was sanctioned by the ius gentium’.*
None of the jurists would have disagreed with that statement. At no time in the centuries that followed nor in the Code of Justinian was it ever suggested that slavery accorded with natural law either because it formed part of the ius gentium or otherwise. And this was so notwithstanding the conflicting generalised statements on the subject which the jurists had made.
On the 15th December 530 Justinian initiated the codification of Roman law with the appointment of a Commission under Tribonian. As Gibbon described it, ‘in his reign, and by his care, the civil jurisprudence was digested in the immortal works of the Code, the Pandects and the Institutes’.* These three works comprised the Corpus Iuris.
The Institutes specified that ‘in the law of persons the first division is into free men and slaves… Slavery is an institution of the law of nations, against nature, subjecting one man to the dominion of another’ ‘for instance wars arose, and then followed captivity and slavery, which are contrary to the law of nature, for by the law of nature all men from the beginning were born free’. And, speaking of manumission, ‘all this is originated in the law of nations; for by natural law all men were born free - slavery and, by consequence manumission, being unknown. But afterwards, slavery came in by the law of nations, it was followed by the boon of manumission’.
This is of great importance. The Corpus Iuris was the definitive culmination of Roman law. It laid down in the clearest and most emphatic terms that slavery was contrary to the law of nature. And this was so even though slavery had for centuries been part of the ancient world.
It would not have been difficult, had there been a willingness to sacrifice the natural law ideal, to have adopted the position that where all nations acknowledged a practice through their laws, that that must accord with reason. What better proof could have been found. On such a view slavery would have accorded with natural law. Not until, under Aristotelian influence many centuries later, was this ever suggested.
A. P. D’Entréves, in his work on ‘Natural Law’ complains that ‘nowhere… do we find in the Corpus Iuris an assertion of the superiority of natural to positive law, in the sense that, in case of conflict the one should overrule the other’.*
This complaint is mistaken. It would be comprehensible, if extreme, to claim stoicism should have initiated a political revolution to overthrow slavery. It would then become necessary to examine whether only by such a course could the principle of equality have been established and bequeathed to history. But what is not logically tenable is to maintain that those operating within the system of Roman law could consistently have required natural law to be given superiority. That would have contradicted the whole course of Roman legal science. It would have been no more possible for a praetor to have assented to a formula based upon the invalidity of slavery than for a modern judge to declare a law, duly enacted by Parliament, to be void as contrary in his opinion to natural justice. All that stoicism could do consistently with the system was to proclaim that slavery was contrary to the law of nature and initiate and support mitigation of the severity of the laws relating to slavery.
Beginning, towards the end of the Republic, the Roman law of slavery was modified to render the institution more humane.* The Lex Cornelia [81 B.C.] made it murder for a person other than the master to kill a slave; Claudius [41-54 AD] conferred freedom on slaves abandoned by their master on account of infirmity and old age and prohibited slaves being delivered up into the arena without a magistrate’s authority; Hadrian [117-138 AD] forbade masters from killing their own slaves without a magistrate’s authority; Antonious Pius [138-161 AD] provided that masters who ill-used their slaves should be forced to sell them; Constantine [306-337 AD] laid down that families should be kept together when sold, and Justinian [527-565 AD] restricted masters to reasonable punishment in the correction administered to offending slaves. Apart from specific decrees, the ability of slaves to win their freedom was gradually extended and liberalised. Thus slaves were permitted by custom to retain property which they had saved, called the peculium, and quite often slaves used their peculium to purchase their freedom. The requirements of manumission - the process by which masters freed their slaves, were also modified and softened over time. At first requirements were highly formal but the praetor intervened to allow a freed slave his or her liberty even when the formalities were not observed although, in such a case, the freed slave would not be allowed to retain property. Over time the formalities of manumission were relaxed until in the reign of Justinian a declaration of intention alone by the master became sufficient. Also, during Justinian’s reign and those of his immediate predecessors, restrictions upon the number of slaves that might be manumitted were relaxed. All these humane measures conformed with the system of Roman law. But they left the institution of slavery intact.
Nevertheless, the clear and emphatic statement in the Corpus Iuris that slavery was contrary to the law of nature was of critical importance historically. In doing so it upheld the distinction between natural law and the law of nations*
Bertrand Russell has comprehensively and with substantial accuracy summed up the stoic contribution which we have endeavoured to describe:-
“The doctrine of natural right, as it appears in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is a revival of a Stoic doctrine, though with important modifications. It was the Stoics who distinguished jus naturale from jus gentium. Natural law was derived from first principles of the kind held to underlie all general knowledge. By nature, the Stoics held, all human beings are equal. Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations, favours a polity in which there is the same law for all, a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech and a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed. This was an ideal which could not be consistently realised in the Roman Empire but it influenced legislation particularly in improving the status of women and slaves. Christianity took over this part of Stoic teaching along with much of the rest. And when at last, in the seventeenth century, the opportunity came to combat despotism effectually, the Stoic doctrines of natural law and natural equality in their Christian dress, acquired a practical force which, in antiquity, not even an emperor could have given to them.*”
* The New Testament ethic influenced heterodox movements protesting against Church worldly wealth and power such as the Waldenses, Lollards and Franciscans who preached evangelical poverty. These tended to proclaim primitive communism and other forms of distributive justice but played no part in the evolution of reformist humanitarianism.
* Julian was Roman Emperor from A.D. 361 to 363. He was famous for his renunciation of christianity as well as for his dying words, ‘Thou hast conquered, O Galilean’.
* Meditations, IV, i, Marcus Aurelius.
* See Aristotle, Politics, Everyman Library, p.213, 327, who contrasted the Greeks with the Northern Europeans, who were wanting in understanding, and the Asiatics, who were wanting in courage. The Greeks, he claimed, possessed both qualities.
* Rhadrakrishnan, Eastern Religions and Western Thought, Oxford U.P., p.386.: Also, Plutarch suggested Alexander was putting stoic theory into practice.
* Tarn, Hellenistic Civilisation, London, Longmans Green & Co, 1927, p.266.
* ‘I am persuaded by those who argue that there was a clear split in the stoic’s school at Rome starting about this time, one group supporting the Republican conservatives… the second supporting the more radical tradition of the Graachi…’ Patterson, Freedom in the Making of Western Culture, Basic Books, p.270.
* Professor Finley has written, in an essay on ‘Utopianism Ancient and Modern’, that ‘for all his radicalism… Plato, like the other ancient Utopians, could never depart from the notion of the natural inequality of men. Nor could Zeno: he simply cut the Gordian knot by excluding all men who were not virtuous…” (italics added). This assimilation of Zeno to Plato’s inegalitarianism very much overstates the position. Whether or not Plato envisaged his Guardians as hereditary (c/f H.D.P. Lee, The Republic, Introduction, Penguin, p.38 and Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, Allen & Unwin, p.129) it remains true that the Platonic class system was inherently inegalitarian. Plato regarded non-Hellenes as inferior and the proper subject of slavery. This is not true of Zeno. The egalitarian thrust in Zeno, and even more in Chryssipus, are not to be found in Plato.
* Patterson, Freedom and the Making of Western Culture, Basil Books, p.269.
* Roman stoicism originated the concept of humanitas, but this stopped well short of reform of the social structure or political institutions. See Fritz Schulz, History of Roman Legal Science, O.U.P.297.
* “The origin of (natural law) was certainly not Roman. It was a foreign importation. It was borrowed wholesale from Greek philosophy, particularly from Stoicism”, D’Entreves, Natural Law, Harper Torchbooks, p.20.
* Dennis Lloyd, The Idea of Law, Pelican, p.76.
* “To the Greek, it has been said, the natural apple is not the wild one from which our cultivated apple has been grown, but rather the golden apple of the Hesperides. The ‘natural’ object was that which expressed most completely the idea of the thing. It was the perfect object. Hence the natural law was that which expressed perfectly the idea of law applied to the subject in question; the one which gave to the subject its perfect development”, R Pound, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Law, Yale, p.10.
* See particularly the quotations from Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Bk Four, 4: Cicero, De Republica, III, xxii, 33 set out in the ‘Quotations from Stoic philosophers’ at page 319 of the text.
* A D Lindsay, Politics, Everyman Edition, Aristotle, Introduction, xvi.
* Nichomachean Ethics, Everyman Edition, Book 5, Chapter 7, 1134b.
* Politics, Everyman Edition, Chapter II, 1252b.
* Pollock, The History of the Law of Nature, Journal of Comparative Legislation, 1900.
* Politics, supra, Chapter II, 1253 a.
* Politics, Chapter VIII, 1328 b: Greek Philosophy, M.E.J. Taylor, The Worlds Manuals, 133.
* And it remains an influence in the Catholic world: see Rerum Novarum.
* See Endnote, The Roman Law Background to Natural Law.
* This came relatively late in the piece. “In classical legal literature the term does not occur before Gaius: in lay literature it occurred for the first time in Cicero,” Fritz Schulz, History of Roman Legal Science, Oxford, p.73.
* The oratores were the advocates who appeared in Court but paradoxically knew relatively little law. They depended upon advice from the jurisconsults. However they had imbibed Greek rhetoric and along with it the idealistic version of the law of nature.
* Pollock, Essays in the Law, pp.31-87.
* It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of this to Roman law. Roman law needed to expand but it needed to expand rationally. Along with the law of nature (which they identified more or less with the ius gentium), Roman lawyers had acquired Greek dialectic from the Greeks in the second century B.C. Together these enabled Roman law to expand to meet changing and more international conditions but remain consistent and certain in the application of its rules.
* Maine Ancient Law, Everyman edit, p.45.
* Dig I, i, 9.
* Dig I, i, 2.
* By the first century the number of slaves was declining. This gradual reduction of slavery seems to have resulted from what was happening to the free poor, the peasants. They suffered from increasing taxation, the requirement of military service and the disorders during the breakdown of the Roman Empire. This led them to seek ‘protection’ from land owners who provided it in return for their liberty. These former peasants became the ‘humilores’ of the Roman world. ‘The decline of slavery, in other words, was a reversal of the process by which slavery took hold. Once upon a time the employers of labour in their regions imported slaves to reach their requirements. Now their own lower classes were available, as they had not been before, from compulsion, not from choice, and so there was no need for a substantial effort to keep up the supply of slave labour…’, Finley, The Ancient Economy, p.87.
* Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, Letter XLVII, Penguin, trans. Robin Campbell.
* Finley, The Ancient Economy, The Hogarth Press, 2nd Edit., p.88.
* Patterson, Freedom and the Making of Western Culture, Basic Books, p.321: St Paul was equivocal, Ephesians 6:5; 1 Corinthians 7:21-21.
* Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, Cornell U.P., p.83.
* Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Ch XXIII.
* D’Entréves, Natural Law, Harper Torch Books, p.30.
* Schulz attributes this to the idea of humanitas which in the second century B.C. ‘received a special Roman stamp in the circle of the younger Scipio and Panaetius’. Humanitarianism became specially active in connection with Graeco-Roman philosophy in the post-classical period but Schulz adds that ‘by the side of the tendency to humanise the law there appeared from the time of Constantine a tendency to Christianise it.’ As Schulz himself points out the Christian influence supported the humanising tendency, which originated with the Stoa in regards to slavery, but it did not do so with criminal punishments. After Constantine, punishment in the Eastern Empire became appallingly brutal: See Schulz, History of Roman Legal Science pp.297-298: J Lindsay, Byzantium into Europe, The Bodley Head pp.111-112.
* “There is … a good deal of difference between the approach which regards (natural) law as purely an ideal standard to be elicited by reasoning, revelation, intuition or some such process, and the factual approach which starts primarily from man’s behaviour.” Dennis Lloyd, The Idea of Law, Pelican p.76.
* A History of Western Philosophy, Allen and Unwin, p.293.
Roman law developed in three ways: through the interpretation of the jurisconsults, often described as the jurists; through the equity of the praetor and through legislation.
The office of praetor was established in 367 B.C. when it was separated from that of the consul; the praetor being charged with the administration of justice. The praetor would decide in consultation with the parties the formula or statement of claim which was to be referred to the iudex or Judge. In doing this the praetor would define the law which was to govern the case before the Judge. The Judge would decide the facts in accordance with the formula.
In a direct sense the praetors were responsible for the evolution of Roman law, the simplification of its procedures and the liberalisation of its rules. But the praetors were at all times administering law "The essence of the praetor's power lies in his control over remedies. He does not give a right (as a law can), he promises a remedy but once there is a remedy there is by implication a right."* Whilst, therefore, it was unquestionably through the praetor's power of granting a formula that Roman law developed, the praetor was not, when granting or refusing a formula vested with a plenary discretion. In order to ascertain the law when framing it, the praetor and the parties would consult with a jurist. The jurists have no exact parallel in our legal system. They gave legal advice but did not themselves appear in court. Although, in a direct sense, it was the praetor who evolved Roman law, the jurists upon whom the praetor was dependent for advice exercised a controlling influence. So much so that eventually Augustus introduced a procedure to determine which jurists' opinions were to be authoritative in court.
The appointment of the praetor was limited to one year. He was required to issue an edict on his appointment declaring the way in which he would exercise his jurisdiction. Thus he might say that, in such and such a case, he would grant a remedy: and, more rarely, he might indicate when he would deny a remedy. These annual edicts were open to scrutiny. In time the praetors' edicts very often repeated what earlier praetors had declared. It was through the praetorial edicts that a body of legal principles, the ius honorarium ‑ similar to English Equity ‑ grew up.
In 242 BC a second praetor was appointed ‑ the praetor peregrinus. This was made necessary by Rome's increasing interaction, commercially and otherwise, with foreigners. In 129 A.D. the edicts were consolidated. This consolidation was confirmed by a senatusconsultum. It provided that if, thereafter, no remedy were available for a particular grievance, the principles of the senatusconsultum should be followed in finding one.*
Roman law applied ‑ and applied rigidly ‑ the principle of personality. The ius civile thus applied to citizens only. In accordance with the same principle, Roman courts would leave disputes between foreigners to their own law. But what of a dispute between a Roman citizen and a foreigner? Strictly, a foreigner was rightless and could, if say, a debt were unpaid, be seized by his Roman claimant. But the expanding commercial interests of Rome made it necessary to accord protection to foreigners. From the earliest period there had been commercial treaties of mutual protection. But these were insufficient.
We have said that the ius civile could not be applied. It was quite unsuitable anyway. Most foreigners, especially those in the Greek world would not have wanted their disputes settled by the cumbrous formalism of the ius civile. Romans came increasingly to the same view.
It was this jurisdiction over foreigners which was assumed by the newly appointed praetor peregrini and by the Governors, who administered justice to the provincial peregrini in the Provinces.* By the nature of things, in administering his jurisdiction, the praetor peregrinus (and the Governor) was less bound by strict law than the praetor urbanus as he was not purporting to apply the ius civile. The praetor peregrinus, in settling a formula, would turn to the ius civile in the first instance but if the rule were thought to be over‑formal, he would examine the common law of nations. Many of the disputes were commercial. There was a 'law merchant' of the Mediterranean people. It was thus not so difficult to ascertain the law generally applicable. From this he would endeavour to extract a uniform principle analogous to the ius civile but eliminating any inessential technicality. Vinogradoff cites an example from the jurist Paul, 'As leases are suggested by nature itself and are to be found in the law of all nations, a particular form of words is not necessary for their validity, but only consent. The same holds true in regard to sale."*
What grew up through the praetor peregrinis' edicts and formulae was 'a general system of rules governing relations between free men as such, without reference to their nationality. Much of this system of law, seeing that it was based on the edicts of Roman magistrates, was Roman in origin, but it was stripped to a great extent of its formal elements and influenced by other especially Greek ideas.'*
But what justified this course of action by the praetors? It must be emphasised again that they were not applying some supra‑national legal system. They were at all times applying Roman law. The systematic character of Roman law was fundamental to its universal supremacy. The sinews of the system were Roman legal science. That was very much the result of Greek and more specifically stoic logic. It was absorbed by the jurists who used it to classify Roman law, determining through logic, how general rules would be applied to particular cases in the light of convenience in the changing Roman world.* * *
The concept of natural law was received from Greece in the second century B.C. at about the same time as these developments. It was just what the jurists needed in order to enable the praetor, on their advice, to justify drawing upon the law of nations. The law of nature never had juridical supremacy. It was an ideal. But it had a moral claim as a source of positive law. The law common to all nations embodied human reason. As such it could be conceived as equivalent to natural law and therefore justifying the modification of positive law, provided it was merely liberalising or glossing the civil law rule and not superseding it.* Natural law thus gave the ius gentium legitimate force to form part of Roman law.
There were other pressures upon the ius civile. Italians outside Rome had until 89 B.C. fallen within the jurisdiction of the praetor peregrinus. In that year they were made Roman citizens. One result of this was disagreeable. They had hitherto, in their dealings with Romans, come within the jurisdiction of the praetor peregrinus. They were unwilling now to find themselves suddenly subject to the more rigid and formalised ius civile.
The ius gentium became increasingly important with the expansion of trade. This was even more so with the Empire and when the Pax Augusta had become the foundation of commercial activity. Roads spread out from Rome. The Mediterranean became, as it was said, a 'Roman lake'.
The praetor urbanus eventually began adopting the ius gentium to justify liberalising the ius civile itself. With the ending of the edictal development of Roman law ‑ Hadrian, closed off the annual edicts in 129 A.D. ‑ the ius gentium became the prime source of equity in Roman law. When, in 212 A.D., Caracalla made all free subjects throughout the Empire Roman citizens, the distinction between the ius civile and the ius gentium was in effect obliterated altogether. In these circumstances the need for the law of nature to provide a rational foundation became even more relevant.
During the first three centuries of the christian era the writings of the jurists did much to make Roman law comprehensible. They constructed a comprehensive system. However, an early difficulty emerged. This was the differences among the jurists themselves. Augustus sought to meet this problem by the responsa prudentium which conferred imperial authority on certain nominated jurists. This extended to their legal writings. Divergences continued. Various expedients were adopted. Finally in 426 A.D., Theodosius II declared in the Law of Citations that the writings of the five jurists Papinian, Paulus, Gaius, Ulpian, and Modestinus could be cited as authorities. Where a majority had a common opinion a judge would be bound by it: if they were equally divided that of Papinian would prevail.
One area of difference was the relationship of natural law to the ius gentium. Paulus believed natural law to be ideal justice ‑ 'the equitable and the good' ‑ and Ulpian laid down that the law of nature 'has taught all animals, a law not peculiar to the human race'. Gaius, on the other hand, identified natural law with the common law of nations, ‘what natural reason dictates to all men and is most equally observed among them is called the law of nations, as that law which is practised by all mankind.'
Roman law was definitively laid down in the great Corpus luris of Justinian (534 AD), comprising the Code, the Pandects and the Institutes. In the Institutes, the private law of Rome is stated as having a 'three‑fold origin' being 'collected from the precepts of nature, from those of the law of nations and from the civilian law of Rome'. The Institutes did not in their introductory and general comments clarify the precise relationship between natural law and the ius gentium in this threefold classification. Nevertheless, the provisions of the Institutes relating to slavery, made the distinction very clear.
Title II reads:
"The law of nations is common to the whole human race; for nations have settled certain things for themselves as occasion and the necessities of human life required. For instance, wars arose, and then followed captivity and slavery, which are contrary to the law of nature; for by the law of nature all men from the beginning were born free."
Title III reads:
"In the law of persons, then, the first division is into free men and slaves ... Slavery is an institution of the law of nations, against nature, subjecting one man to the dominion of another. The name 'slave' is derived from the practice of Generals to order the preservation and the sale of captives, instead of killing them; hence they are also called mancipia, because they are taken from the enemy by the strong hand. Slaves are either born so, their mothers being slaves themselves; or they become so, and this is either by the law of nations, that is to say by capture in war or by the civil law..."
Title V reads:
"Manumission is the giving of freedom; for while a man is in slavery he is subject to the power once known as manus; and from that power he is set free by manumission. All this originated in the law of nations; for by natural law all men were born free ‑ slavery, and by consequence, manumission, being unknown. But afterwards slavery came in by the law of nations, and was followed by the boon of manumission;..." (Italics added)
It was the maintenance of this distinction which enabled natural law to fulfil its historical role as an ideal.
* Jolowicz, Historical Introduction to Roman Law, Cambridge, p.97.
* Hunter, Introduction to Roman Law, Sweet & Maxwell, p.13.
* Encyc. Brittanica (1958 Ed) Roman LawVol.19, p.447.
* Common Sense in Law, H.U.L. p.273.
* Jolowicz, Historical Introduction to Roman Law p. 101.
* See Schulz, p.84.
* Gibbon described the process, when speaking of the jurist Servius Sulpicius, 'for the discernment of truth and falsehood he applied, as an infallible rule, the logic of Aristotle and the Stoics, reduced particular cases to general principles and diffused over the shapeless mass the light of order and eloquence', The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, see Ch.XXIII.
* The Greeks themselves did not deploy their own dialectic in the administration of justice. The reasons for this are complex but the chief two were that (a) Greek justice, restricted in its territorial extent to the City State, was administered by popular assemblies excluding professional advisers. (b) Greek thought turned more to abstract questions such as the nature of justice than to the technical aspects of law.
* "The ius gentium (as the law common to all nations came to be called) may be defined as the universal element, in antithesis to the national peculiarities (ius civile), to be found in the positive law of every State", de Zuleta, The Science of Law, The Legacy of Rome, O.U.P. p.202.
END NOTE : QUOTATIONS FROM STOIC PHILOSPHERS ON HUMAN SPIRITUAL EQUALITY
END NOTE : QUOTATIONS FROM STOIC PHILOSPHERS ON HUMAN SPIRITUAL EQUALITY
“Man has a primary social bond with God in their common possession of Reason - seeing that there is nothing higher than Reason, and that this highest of all faculties is to be found in Man and in God alike. Those, however, who have Reason in common have Right Reason in common as well; and, since Right Reason is another name for Law (lex), we human beings must be regarded as being associated with the Gods through the bond of Law likewise. But those who share the same law are living under the same juridical dispensation (ius), and this implies that they are members of the same Commonwealth. If, however, they are subject to the same authorities and powers, then they are also subject … to the heavenly ordinance and to the divine intelligence and to Almighty God. And so the whole of this universe is to be regarded as one single Commonwealth of gods and men.”
“If we have Intelligence in common, we must also have in common the Reason in virtue of which we are reasonable creatures; and from this it would follow that we have in common, again, the Reason that tells us what to do and to leave undone. From this it would follow that we have Law in common; from this that we are citizens; and from that, again, that we are members of some kind of polity. If so, the universe is like a Commonwealth; for what other polity can one think of which has a membership comprising the entire Human Race? And is not this all-embracing Commonwealth the only conceivable source of the intelligent and reasonable and law-abiding veins in our human nature?”
“If there is truth in what the philosophers say about the kinship between God and men, is not the moral of this, for us men, that one should do like Socrates and never say, when asked ones nationality, that one is an Athenian or a Corinthian, but always answer that one is a native of the universe?”
“All this that you see - this sum of things human and divine - is a unity. It is a vast body of which we are the members. Nature brought us into the World already bound to one another by the ties of kinship, when she fashioned us from the same elements and placed us in the same environment. It was she who planted a mutual love in our hearts and made us social animals. It was she who created Right and Justice. It is by her enactment that it is more painful to inflict injury than to suffer it. Let us obey her command by holding out our hands to those who need our succour”.
The Idea of the Soul and the formation
of European Individualism
– Jewish, Greek and Christian influences
The soul as an entity of significance was fundamental to European individualism and individualism was fundamental to the humanitarian movement. Jewish, Greek and christian conceptions were to influence the shaping of the idea of the soul. In the first instance it was Jewish and Greek ideas which merged in forming the christian conception.
We need to consider three elements in the ultimate idea - the nature of the soul, the significance of the soul and the grounds of that significance. Of these the first was important to philosophy but less so historically. It was important of course that such an entity as the soul should have been defined but the greater importance historically was that it should have been thought significant and the grounds for that belief. In fact though the three elements interact.
By the end of the first century it had become clear to the followers of Jesus that his return was not imminent. The Last Judgement to be made upon every human being would need to take place after many had died. This involved that something of each person should survive death to be ‘judged’. What then was this entity which was to be saved or damned?
Jewish thinking held life could not continue independently of the body. Before the Exile personal immortality of any kind was ill-defined.* The after-life, Sheol, was a shadowy world, ‘a land of thick darkness … without any order, and where the light is darkness’.* Presence there was unrelated to individual ethical behaviour. “The Hebrew conception of the unity of the physical and the psychological implied that when (a man) died, his interests and emotions died with him”. His further existence in Sheol was not as a living thing but as a disembodied ghost.*
The Old Testament had ‘anchored in this world’ the hopes and expectations of the Jewish people not as individual souls surviving in the after-life. The Jews were unusual in that it was the people, not a king or priest, who by entering into the blood covenant with Yahweh, had established a relationship with God. ‘So long as the prophets could attribute national misfortune to collective sin’, especially the sin of idolatry or worship of other Gods, ‘they could rely upon disasters suffered by the nation to teach repentance and reform’.* But after the Babylonian exile this became less tenable. The Jews had witnessed the virtual abolition of the nation. And yet the people had not deviated in their worship of Yahweh: the reforms of Josiah (621 B.C.) had previously eliminated the local sanctuaries and condemned divination. But the Jews continued to suffer even after their return from Exile, especially during the cruel persecution of the hellenising Seleucid overlord of Judah, Antiochus Epiphanes.*
Faced with this, there grew up in the last centuries before Christ, a tendency to give up hope of seeing justice in this world. In Daniel - recognised as the last Book in the Old Testament - we see the clearest reference to a general resurrection after death.* At such a general resurrection, ‘the dead shall arise: the inhabitants of the dust shall awake and shout for joy’.* ‘Many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt.’* Sheol had ceased to be ethically inactive and had become a place of individual rewards and punishments.
This idea of the general resurrection passed into the New Testament teaching. In his first epistle to the Thessalonians, Paul said ‘the dead shall arise first: then we which are alive shall be caught together with them’.
then was the Jewish inheritance of a general resurrection and Day of Judgment
which assumed the involvement of a restored body. The Jews were never to draw a clear
separation between Nepesh, the spirit, and Basar, the body.*
A Gentile world steeped in Greek ideas of an immortal soul could not easily accept Judaic ideas of a resurrected body. The death of Socrates, as described in the Phaedo, was an epochal event in the ancient world. The argument advanced in the Phaedo was that the soul was immaterial and, being immaterial, did not occupy space. Moreover, it was not divisible into parts. Accordingly, it could not be destroyed because, according to Plato, the essence of destruction was the separation of a thing into parts.
This Platonic philosophy of an immaterial soul though was to present difficulties for the christian idea of the Last Judgment. Plato regarded the body as the prison of the soul which upon death was discarded. The soul was liberated. What was immortal was pure soul - or more precisely the element of reason in the soul. If, however, the soul continued, but liberated from the body, where, in terms of the last Judgement, was it during the interim period before Judgement was passed? And, as a resurrected body was contemplated by christian teaching, how did the body reconnect with the detached but immortal soul?
The problem was that “on the one hand, the theologian had to conceive man as endowed with a personal immortal soul, so as to ensure the possibility of his future beatitude (salvation). On the other hand, the Christian belief in the resurrection made it necessary for the same theologians to attribute to human nature as a whole, and not only to the human soul, a substantial unity of its own. It was not easy to find a solution that met these two requirements: a soul free enough from its body to be able to survive it, a body so intimately connected with the soul that it could share in its immortality”.*
This gave rise to continuing controversy in the early centuries. Hellenised as he was, Paul could not give up the corporeal nature of the person and so, in the first Epistle to the Corinthians, he speaks of a natural body and a spiritual body ‑ ‘so also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption… there is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body’. This non-Platonic Jewish idea that the soul must be body or matter survived among some of the christian Fathers. Thus Tertullian said ‘if the soul is not body it is nothing’. Others, such as Clement and Origen, held that the soul was incorporeal.
Over the centuries the Church worked out a definitive position based largely upon Aristotle. The soul was at once the ‘form’ of the body and also spiritual substance not dependent upon it. The notion of the soul as the form of the body meant, in Aristotelian terms, that the soul gave purpose or organisation to the body and integrated its parts into a unity. In Aristotles’ words the soul was the ‘governor’ of the body.
This was the idea of the soul which guided christian belief throughout the middle ages. It was the entity which was ‘judged’ and it was the entity capable of being ‘saved’.*
We turn to the grounds of the soul’s significance. Although Greek philosophy was critical to the identification of the entity which was immortal and thus of being capable of christian salvation, Greek philosophy itself never pivoted the significance of the soul on its immortality. Professor Rhadrakrishnan has said that ‘the Greeks played with the belief in future life, though they were little affected by it’* and it is true that, at the popular level, ‘the writing on graves is entirely silent concerning posthumous existence’ until the fifth century B.C.* Although Socrates accepted the immortality of the soul, he comments almost casually in the Phaedo, that polluted souls ‘will continue to prowl around tombs as ghosts’ until finally imprisoned in another body which they crave. In the Myth of Er* Plato speaks of the good man’s rewards in the afterlife but the whole of the preceding argument had been that goodness was its own reward irrespective of the consequences.
But in saying that the Greeks played with the future life, Professor Rhadrakrishnan may have understated the importance of immortality to them.* After the Homeric Age the mystery religions, and Orphism in particular, introduced a moral content into the hereafter by making the soul’s lot dependent upon its former life on earth.*
However that may be, what seems clear is that Greek philosophy did not hold the soul to be significant because it was immortal. Rather it was the reverse. Immortality was an attribute of the soul’s significance. We have to search elsewhere for the grounds upon which the Greeks regarded the soul as significant.
Socrates identified the soul with our conscious self. It was not, as Anaximenes taught, the impersonal breath of air which we inhale and which sustains life. It was something to be ‘cared for’ and guided in the way of wisdom.* Socrates thus treated the individual conscious self as an entity of moral significance. Plato held to the same basic conception. “The soul is in all respects superior to the body and in this life makes us what we are.”* Plato believed that the soul consisted of three elements: the first and superior part was intellect or reason; the second was the emotional or spirited element and the third, which belonged also to the lower animals, were the animal instincts - the seat of the passions. Only reason was indestructible and survived - the other elements in the soul perished with the body.
Reason was the governing element in this tripartite division of the soul. Plato illustrated this by the myth in the Phaedrus, in which Reason, the charioteer, drives and controls a pair of winged horses, the emotions and animal passions.
All schools of Greek philosophy, differing in other respects, were agreed in attributing to ‘Reason’ the element that gave significance to the soul. The stoics regarded it as the spark of the divine fire. Aristotle held the nous or faculty of reason to be the eternal element in the psyche.
The highest life in Man was to live in accordance with Reason which is implanted in him. In that way a human being lived ‘in accordance with the Mind and Spirit of the World’. That was the Law of Nature. The law of nature of the stoics was not something imposed. It was derived. It was not a body of obligations which came from divine command but was discoverable by human reason from the essence of Nature. It was inevitable that such a notion, when introduced into christianity, would come into conflict with the Hebraic God in which good and bad were dogmatically defined simply because commanded or forbidden by the Deity. Medieval natural law reflected the dominance of an Hebraic God. Reason was subordinate to revelation. Nevertheless, the very process by which Reason was sought to be reconciled by medieval theology to revealed truth represented a concession to Reason.
The stoics were the first to proclaim the brotherhood of man and did so upon the basis of an equally shared divine reason.* This though involved conflict and disagreement among the Greek schools. Aristotle had recognised the supremacy of intellect and reason and thought of it as the controller of the body. However, in certain human beings, he taught, the appetites of the body governed the soul. “These men therefore who are as much inferior to others as the body is to the soul, are to be thus disposed of, so the proper use of them is their bodies, in which their excellence consists; and if what I have said be true they are slaves by nature, and it is advantageous to them to be always under government”.* There were, in the Aristotelian view of Nature, and in contrast with the stoics, natural slaves. Aristotle’s philosophy was relied upon by the Church to support the functional inequalities of feudal society. But the ideal of spiritual equality according to nature, was never extinguished. It was to revive in a secular form in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
We have discussed various ideas of the soul which were to prove vital to the grounding of its significance in European history. But in the Graeco-Roman world of early christianity, they were like streams eddying about the main current, but never quite being submerged by it.
The main current was the doctrine of salvation.
It was that which in christianity gave the soul significance. First let us describe the evolution of the doctrine and then turn to its historical importance.
Orlando Patterson explained the origins of the historical development of christianity as a religion of salvation as follows:
“The fundamental need of the times was that of salvation ‑ the desperate need for relief from physical and mental strain and uncertainty, for inner peace and security. Christianity began as, and remained, one such religion of salvation. The most successful of them like the different creeds and cults, christianity was to offer its version of salvation… but it was unique in what it offered.*
The prevalence of salvation religions at the time of Christ throughout the Roman world was due primarily to the influx of oriental religion. This had been greatly facilitated by the pacification Augustus introduced. The vast number of slaves, freedmen and soldiers returning from the eastern provinces brought with them cults originating in the east. One factor of importance was the system of Roman roads which spread like a net over the whole ancient world. Of only marginally less importance was Greek as a lingua franca throughout the Roman world. Further, Rome was generally tolerant of all these differing sects (christianity was a special case). And so the Persian God, Mithras, was brought to Rome by Pompeys’ soldiers returning from Cappadocia and Cilicia. By the second century Mithras had become the favourite cult god of the Roman army. Another oriental deity was the Egyptian Isis who had a wide appeal to women. There were others. Each of these new religions promised salvation in one form or another.
‘The spread of oriental religions inculcated the communion of the soul with God and its eternal salvation as the only objects worth living for’.*
It was in this world that Jesus’s small band of followers faced the crisis of his death by ignominious execution as a criminal. He had proclaimed to them the Kingdom of God. And that Kingdom was to have been established during their lifetimes: ‘there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God’. That was all entirely consistent with Jewish teaching about the Kingdom of God and about the messiah. The Jesus movement was an offshoot of Judaism. There was no question at this time of it becoming a universal religion.
The idea of a messiah was ancient enough but Judaism had never suggested that the messiah was divine. The messiah or ‘anointed one’ would be a temporal monarch descended from David. The messiah would restore the nation to God and to national regeneration.
There were many prophets at the time of Jesus prophesying the imminence of a messiah. Pompey had marched into the Kingdom of Judah in 63 B.C. and converted it into the Roman province of Judea. The Jews suffering under the Roman yoke yearned for just such a messiah.*
In the dilemma caused by the execution of Jesus his followers had recourse to an idea, suggested in the post-exilic books of Isaiah, that Jesus, as messiah, had by his crucifixion taken upon himself the nations’ sins as an act of atonement.
This is how things stood when St Paul experienced his conversion on the road to Damascas and christianity became forever changed, ceasing to be an adjunct of Judaism and becoming in time a universal religion.
Precise timing is not possible but about 47 A.D. Paul began a number of missionary journeys which took him all over the Eastern Mediterranean. This was followed in turn by a period of solitary contemplation in Arabia and preaching in synagogues in Damascus, Antioch and Tarsus. Paul was inevitably brought into contact with the Gentile world. In about 49 A.D., the Council in Jerusalem allowed a mission to the Gentiles ‑ and momentously ‑ did not require the Gentiles to undergo circumcision, the principal overt characteristic of Judaism.
Paul’s mission was to create a universal religion of salvation. His message that all mankind could be ‘saved’ was in contrast to the apostles’ ideas of a purely Jewish salvation. The salvation which Pauline christianity offered was salvation from sin and from the consequences of sin. Sin was universal. Paul originated the importance of original sin. God, as the first chapters of Genesis relate, had made Adam and Eve immortal and blessed, but when they ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they allowed themselves to be tempted by sin and thus they angered God. He punished them by abandoning them to sin and sorrow, and stripping all their descendants of the gift of immortality. “As by one man (Adam) sin entered into the world and death by sin”, Paul wrote, “and so death passed upon all men so that all have sinned’.*
Christian salvation was thus the salvation of each and every immortal soul from the consequences of sin ‑ eternal damnation.* Salvation was achieved in the first instance by Christ’s crucifixion. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, said that ‘Christ our Paschal lamb has been sacrificed’. ‘But God showed his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood… For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled shall we be saved by his life’.*
It was not evident why a merciful God should need propitiation from mankind, nor, if so, why he should secure it through the death of an only son who was innocent of original or any other sin.
To explain this, Irenaeus in the second century, suggested that the human race had through Christ’s death been ransomed from the power of Satan. Augustine similarly taught that God had, through Christ’s death, bought mankind from the devil. The Church finally approved the doctrine of satisfaction as put forward by Anselm in Cur Deus Homo. It was this. Man owed God total obedience. Accordingly, transgressors deprived God of what was due to him. As all mankind since Adam were transgressors, they should “satisfy in order to avoid punishment for their transgressions”; that is restore the losses suffered by God. ‘But how can mankind do this? How can it repay God? Since all good that can be done is owed to God… only a perfect being who agreed to be punished for the sins of other men could satisfy God. This perfect being can be no other than God himself. Therefore he has to be incarnated to offer himself, to suffer for others’.*
In their endeavour to explain the crucifixion, a distinction was drawn by the early Fathers between reconciliation and justification.
Mankind generally is reconciled to God through the sacrifice of Jesus. But the individual human being is not thereby justified. The future of each person follows upon a Judgement in which all ‘will appear before God and Jesus. The supreme judge shall be the Messiah, seated on a majestic crown and assisted by the apostles, the saints and the martyrs’.* The Judgement is to be preceded by the general resurrection of the dead at Christ’s Second Coming.* To be saved each person must be ‘justified’.
Justification is achieved through faith. This is indeed the central Pauline doctrine. ‘If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For Man believes with his heart and so is justified, and confesses with his lips and so is saved’.* Paul’s theory of justification met the needs of the Gentile world for salvation. At the same time it involved a repudiation of the legalism of Judaism. ‘A man is not justified by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ’.* We do not know precisely the intellectual source of Paul’s transformation of the Jesus movement. It was though surely the product of the terrific tensions in his spiritual and intellectual environment. Born a Jew, educated as a Pharisee in Tarsus a predominantly gentile city with a stoic university, he was a Greek speaking Roman citizen.
Christianity became ‘Christianity’, separate from Judaism. It chiefly owed this to Paul who not only preached to the Gentiles but taught universal salvation through faith in Christ. Much had happened with tremendous speed. Jesus had only begun his ministry in 29 A.D. By 66 A.D. Paul was dead. After the Jewish Christians had been dispersed in the course of the Jewish Revolt and the destruction of the Temple, christian communities of the Greek-speaking cities in the Mediterranean severed their ties with Judaism entirely.
As a salvation religion christianity was victorious.
It had little difficulty in disposing of the non-salvation philosophy of stoicism, even while absorbing stoic ideas. This has been explained by Paul Tillich in ‘The Courage to Be’ as follows: “Therefore it (stoicism) is the only real alternative to christianity in the western world… the highly educated individualistic stoics seemed to have been not only not dangerous for the Christians but actually willing to accept elements of christian theism. But this is a superficial analysis. Christianity had a common basis with the religious syncretism of the ancient world, that is the descent of a divine being for the salvation of the world. In the religious movements which centred around this idea the anxiety of fate and death was conquered by man’s participation in the divine being who had taken fate and death upon himself. Christianity, although adhering to a similar faith, was superior to syncretism in the individual character of the Saviour Jesus Christ and in its concrete historical basis in the Old Testament. Therefore christianity could assimilate many elements of the religious-philosophical syncretism of the later ancient world without losing its historical foundation; but it could not assimilate the genuine stoic attitude. This is especially remarkable when we consider the tremendous influence of the stoic doctrines of the Logos and of the natural moral law on both christian dogmatics and ethics. But this large reception of stoic ideas could not bridge the gap between cosmic resignation in stoicism and cosmic salvation in christianity. The victory of the christian church pushed stoicism into an obscurity from which it emerged only in the beginning of the modern period.” (italics added).
Christianity also overwhelmed the oriental mystery cults. Mithraism was a very serious rival. Mithra, the old Persian deity, offered salvation. The resemblances between the rites of christianity, as for example Christmas on the 25th December, and Mithrasim were so close as to lead certain of the early Doctors to ascribe them to Satan seeking to seduce Mankind. This similarity was especially so in regard to heaven, hell and salvation. It was not until late in the second century that christianity’s superiority was established. Christianity won, Tillich implies, because its saviour was a concrete historical figure unlike the mythical Mithras. Also, importantly to the underclasses of the Roman world, christianity demanded no purifying rite as a precondition to admission to those who could be saved. The typical Pauline congregations during this period were artisans comprising mostly freedmen or slaves. Slavery was particularly widespread in the areas in which Paul preached, especially Ephesus and Corinth.* It is interesting that the yearning of these lower classes, whether they be christian, Mithraic or adhering to some other oriental cult, was for other-worldly salvation, not social transformation of the institution of slavery. Slavery was so entrenched as to be an unalterable fact of life.*
We may turn to the final pages of Rostovtzeff’s History of Rome for a summing up of the consequences of the christian victory: “One thing is clear: the victory of christianity indicates a break with the past and a changed attitude in the history of the human mind. Men had grown weary and unwilling to seek further. They turned greedily to a creed that promised to calm the troubled mind, which could give certainty in place of doubt, … Reason neither gave nor promised happiness to mankind: but religion, and especially the christian religion gave Man the assurance of happiness ‑ beyond the grave. Thus the centre of gravity was shifted, and men’s hopes and expectations were transferred to that future life. They were content to submit and suffer in this life, in order to find true life hereafter. Such an attitude of mind was entirely foreign to the ancient world … To a Greek the future life was something shadowy and formidable; life on earth alone was prized by him. But now all this was radically changed: and this change of feeling more than anything else, proves that the beginning of the fourth century is the turning over of a new page, and a page of strange matter, in the history of humanity.”
We have engaged in this extended discussion of the doctrine of salvation and its history because of its relationship to the significance of the individual soul, the most important relationship for the next eighteen hundred years.
Christian salvation gave terrific significance to each human soul. And it was through christian salvation that the significance of the soul was understood for the first time by the proletariat of the ancient world and not just by an intellectual elite.
As Professor Herbert Butterfield described it in his ‘Christianity and European History’:
“When all men in Christendom year in and year out, for century after century, were continually being told that they were souls to be saved and that they were destined to a life eternal… there was something in the human being which was to go marching on even after this whole globe should have become a heap of dust drifting through space… it involved an assertion concerning the spiritual nature of personality itself. For those who believed this statement there could be nothing … to which human beings could be regarded as subject or subordinate.”
Salvation was open equally to all. As Paul said in Galatians* “So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we may be judged by faith. But now that faith has come we are no longer under a custodian, for in Christ Jesus you are the Son of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptised into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; For you are all one in Christ.” And in Colossians* he speaks of eternal life ‘where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free, but Christ is all, and in all”.
But this spiritual equality was essentially other-worldly.* Its focus was on salvation. Paul himself could enjoin ‘wives to be subject to your husbands’. He was neutral on the subject of slavery.
Christian salvation was salvation from original sin, the consequences of which were damnation. This idea of damnation produced terror among believers. As salvation depended upon faith as exclusively laid down by the church it rendered the human person subject to priestly power and the human conscience subject to priestly authority.
The soul, the entity capable of salvation, had been the product of Greek philosophy. It was, in stoic terms, the centre of rationality. It thus had for the Greeks a significance independent of salvation and independent of immortality.
The grounds upon which the Greeks attributed significance to the individual person became buried beneath the doctrine of salvation, the institutions of the church and of feudal Europe but they were to re-emerge with the European Enlightenment.
* * * * * *
This completes the analysis of the Jewish, Greek and early christian influences upon the European conception of the soul which in turn became the foundation of European individualism. These influences were a preface to further developments in the 17th and 18th centuries resulting from the scientific and religious revolutions. I have dealt with these aspects more fully in later essays but it seemed that an epilogue summarising them in this essay would be helpful to the reader.
Salvation, or more precisely salvation conferred posthumously, gradually ceased to be the foundation of the individual’s significance.
Seventeenth century science modified the medieval idea of the soul. It introduced a severe dualism between soul and body, departing in this respect from the Aristotelian notion held by the Church. Descartes, in the Fifth Part of his Discourse on Method emphasised the immateriality of the soul. The body was extended matter. Locke also believed in the independence of the soul from the body which, in his view, was the property of the soul, the latter being pure mental substance. For Locke, this idea of the soul led to religious toleration. Since the individual soul was a purely private observer it was independent of every other soul and thus the beliefs and opinions held by each person had no higher or lower status than any other person. “The very narrow way which leads to heaven is not better known by the Magistrate than to private persons”. Of more general importance, seventeenth century science undermined the doctrine of salvation through the principle of physical causation and the consequent removal of divine intervention.
Essentially this removed the prospect of salvation and the possibility of damnation as the grounds upon which the individual was morally significant.
These had to be sought elsewhere. Grotius went back to Reason. Natural Law, he thought, was a body of law which Man was able to discover by the use of Reason. And Locke also. The state of Nature was characterised by Reason. “The state of nature has a law to govern it which obliges everyone; and reason, which is that law, treats all mankind who will consult it that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another…”
But this Greek basis for the individual’s significance became displaced, or rather conjoined with, another and more powerful ethical idea. This was the idea of autonomy. It had its beginnings in the humanism of the renaissance. Man became the measure of all things. Earthly fulfilment was his goal, rather than, as in the Middle Ages, preparation for eternity. There was an emphasis on the development of human personality. Man’s creative powers were at the core of his being. And hence the idealisation of the many-sided man such as Alberti or Lorenzo himself and the cult of fame which, as Machiavelli said, should even be achieved by ‘infamous deeds’.
But in the renaissance this emphasis on individual personality was an attitude rather than an ethical idea. With the reformation it began to be reduced to an ethical proposition with the belief of the protestant sects in the unfettered authority of the private conscience. Eighteenth century philosophy grounded natural rights theory against the State on human autonomy. Kant formulated the principle of autonomy in his ‘What is the Enlightenment’.
“Enlightenment is Man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is Man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude. ‘Have courage to use your own reason’, that is the motto of the enlightenment.”
These secular grounds of significance are vital to the position of individualism in liberalism and humanitarianism. It should not however be supposed, especially in regard to humanitarianism, that christian belief had become redundant. It had not, but it was not the christianity of the mainstream churches.
The Quakers believed the Holy Spirit worked through every individual human being. They described this as the ‘Inner Light’. The Quaker, Dorothy Gregory, observed that ‘although the early Friends did not realise it, the Biblical writings of John and Paul both of whom included much Greek philosophical thought did influence them in the formulation of their mystical concepts’. It was inevitable that the divine character of the inner light gave significance to the individual who possessed it. Nor was the inner light merely a passive presence. The Holy Spirit actively worked through each individual. It could be listened to either alone or in the silence of a Friends meeting. It was a guide to every individuals’ decisions for action. It followed from this central belief that the Quakers should have been in the forefront of religious toleration and freedom of belief for every individual, including non-christians. Fellow-feeling for other human beings possessed of the divine element led to absolute pacifism on the one hand and encouraged humanitarianism on the other.
The evangelicals were the other christian humanitarians and they too based their humanitarian activity firmly on individualism.
As with mainstream christians, the evangelicals believed the significance of the soul would depend upon its capacity to be saved especially from eternal damnation. They believed salvation depended upon God’s Grace but shared the belief with other protestants that it was dispensed to each believer individually without the intercession of the Church.
What however was distinctive was their belief that attainment of salvation was an event happening in the world during the earthly life of the believer. It was experienced as a sudden act of conversion as occurred in the case of the Wesleys.
Pursuit of salvation, whether salvation
is to occur posthumously or during the course of the believer’s life, produces
enormous energy. But pursuit of
salvation is a personal, almost egoistic, travail. It does not in itself lead to humanitarian
action. In the case of the evangelicals it did so. The reasons for this would take us beyond
this epilogue but are traversed in the footnote below. What can be said is that the recognition that
each individual soul could inherit eternal life by a conversion to Christ was
the base for their humanitarian action.*
* In 597 B.C. Nebuchadrezzar exiled the King and Jewish nobility to Babylon. In 586 B.C. Jerusalem was destroyed and thousands were deported.
* Job 10:22.
* William Neil, One Volume Commentary, Hodder and Staughton, p.269. The Hebraic conception of the after-life was similar to that of the Babylonians. Although ethically irrelevant, burial rites were necessary to ensure the shade’s peace and prevent it being everlastingly a ‘peturbed spirit’. This ethical irrelevance contrasted with the Egyptian judgement upon the dead by Osirus, God of the underworld. Although ritual was important to the Egyptians, so was the ethical behaviour of the deceased. This is evident from the Book of the Dead (1500 B.C.), a kind of guide book to the after-life.
* Neil, supra, p.269.
* 175-164 B.C.
* Isaiah xxvi 19, from the Greek period.
* Paul though did not have in mind our physical bodies being restored to their physical state. Our spiritual bodies were like the seed that dies in order to produce, Cor:15:1-58.
* Etienne Gilson, The Elements of Christian Philosophy, mentor-Omega, p.222.
* On the 19th December 1513 the Lateran Council, meeting under Pope Leo X, reiterated condemnations, previously issued in the fourteenth century, against those who taught that the human soul was mortal.
* Eastern Religions and Western Thought, p.5.
* Rhadranishnan, Seneca de Anima, Oxford, p.430.
* Plato, The Republic, Book Ten.
* In Homeric times the Greeks believed the future state to be a cheerless abode. The spirit would become a shade, tenanting the shadowy outline of the human form it had quitted, and live brooding, in a state of semi-consciousness. Like Sheol, this afterlife had little ethical relevance. Burial rites were extremely important though in order to prevent the spirit wandering restlessly forever on the banks of Acheron. Just how important can be seen from Antigone (although written in a later Age), where the whole drama turns upon Antigone having given a decent burial to Polynices contrary to Creon’s decree.
* A.R. Burn, The Pelican History of Greece, Pelican, 1996, p.133.
* See Burnet, The Legacy of Greece, Philosophy, Oxford U.P., pp.78-79.
* Plato, Laws p.959.
* In saying this, the stoics went back beyond Plato to Heraclitus. Heraclitus did not, as did Plato, draw a sharp distinction between Spirit and Matter. Everything was in process and everything was interrelated. It was Divine Reason that imposed order on this flux and human reason was the instrument to achieve this.
* Politics, Everyman Lib, trans. William Ellis, p.8.
* Paterson, Freedom in the Making of Western Culture, Basic Books, p.294.
* The strength of the oriental influence is suggested by Augustus’ deification. Augustus had no illusions about his humanity but, in deference to oriental practices, he allowed himself to be deified, but only outside Italy. Fraser, The Golden Bough, McMillan, p.470.
* Isaiah xliii, 1-4 and xlix, 1-6, 4-9.liii.
* Rom. 5:12; Craveri, The Life of Jesus, Fletcher & Son Ltd, p.430.
* Subsequently, other places than hell and heaven, which the soul might inhabit, were added. Purgatory was declared by the Council of Trent as a truth of the faith on the 3rd December 1564. The existence of Purgatory had arisen out of questions in the fourth century concerning the martyrs of the persecutions. It was speculated whether these souls must remain with their bodies in their tombs until the Last Judgement. St Augustine maintained that before being accepted into Paradise they must undergo a process of purification. Hence the origin of Purgatory. In the Middle Ages a further territory for souls after death was added. This was Limbo. Limbo is the zone outside hell not subject to the demons jurisdiction where guiltless but unbaptised souls rest.
* Rom. 5:8-11.
* See generally, Craveri, The Life of Jesus, Secker & Warburg p.432; De Burgh, The Legacy of the Ancient World, Pelican, pp.470-471.
* See Rom. 14:10; 2 Cor. 4:10.
* John 5 (28 & 29).
* Rom.10 (9-10).
* See Patterson, op. cit., p.320.
* See Patterson, op. cit., p.321.
* Col. 3 (9-11).
* “Man is fundamentally sinful, and whatever sacramental means may exist to reconcile God to him, this reconciliation can never be complete on earth. We are to expect our happiness in an after-life. In all the great religions in their prime the after-life is a reflection of society in this world: a few are in a state of bliss, the fast majority in a state of torment - although the positions might be reversed after death. Some heretical movements claimed salvation for all men, or at last to all members of a given community; but this conception never won acceptance by any established church so long as it held a monopoly position; in Europe that is to say until well after the reformation. “Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, Penguin, p.151.
* We must start by restating that for the evangelicals salvation could only be attained through Grace and not by good works, although the latter might be an outward indication that a person was in a state of Grace. With this in mind perhaps the most helpful explanation of the link between evangelical salvation and benevolent activity is that given by David Brion Davis in The Problems of Slavery, p.386:
(a) first there is the Arminian premise that Grace could be bestowed on any person irrespective of his or her sins or station in life but Grace can be resisted by the free and sinful will of the believer;
(b) through faith, contrition and inner struggle Grace might be realised in the act of conversion, an instantaneous transformation of the soul as had occurred to Wesley on that May evening in 1738;
(c) at the moment of conversion the soul is liberated from original sin but as the erstwhile sinner may fall from this state of Grace he or she must continue to strive to maintain the state of Grace by living a holy life.
A number of circumstances came together in the late 18th century leading to the identification of a holy life with benevolent activity. These may be summarised as:
(i) the philosophy of benevolence which originated with Lord Shaftsbury (1671-1713). Although non-christian, it widely influenced all 18th century ethical thought in England and could not but have affected the Wesleys. As developed by the Cambridge Platonists and Francis Hutcheson (1694-1747) it gave primacy to sympathy – the internalised sense which enables us to feel the sufferings of others;
(ii) the industrial revolution had its beginnings in the 18th century. It would not have been possible for the evangelicals to regard with indifference the sufferings of the unchurched masses who crowded into the towns and cities and whom they addressed at great revivalist meetings;
(iii) the idea of reform and education immediately attracted the evangelicals because they recognised that the poor could not attain salvation unless they could read the Bible and for this they had to become literate. Hence the Sunday school movement and the Charity schools;
(iv) adventitiously, many of the evangelicals were parliamentarians and naturally absorbed the new idea of legislative reform; and
(v) most potent of all, slavery brought all the Christian humanitarians together in the movement for its abolition.
Protestantism and Humanitarianism
There are a number of aspects in the relationship between protestantism and humanitarianism which we need to consider ‑ the anti-humanitarianism of Calvinist doctrine, the contribution protestantism made to religious toleration and the great humanitarian reforms achieved by protestant Quakers and protestant evangelicals in the nineteenth century.
Long before his death in 1564 the whole of Europe, other than Spain, had in one way or another fallen under the influence of Jean Calvin (1509-1564). Germany and Scandinavia became predominantly Lutheran but Switzerland and the Netherlands were Calvinist. The Presbyterians of Scotland, a large segment of the Puritans in England and the Hugenots of France were Calvinist. Calvinist minorities appeared in Southern Germany, Poland and Hungary. Calvin published the French version of the Institutes in 1541. It was reprinted nine times before his death. Seven Latin editions appeared. The Institutes were translated into the vernacular of most European languages.
Calvin himself became a point of consultation on all the religious controversies of the Age. This was due largely to his army of disciples which made his movement truly international. Presbyterianism, the Scottish description of Calvinism, is no more Scottish than it is Dutch or French. None of the Calvinist churches had any formal links with Geneva but they absorbed the doctrines and teachings of the Institutes through the shorter and more popular catechism. Calvin’s appeal lay in the simple terms in which his teaching was expressed and the uniform discipline which was imposed. All churches were organised in the same way - ministers, elders, deacons.
Both Luther and Calvin rejected salvation through the Church and the sacraments. Both went back to the Bible. Luther believed that he had rediscovered St. Paul’s meaning in ‘Romans’, that a Christian would be saved not by ceremonial works nor by moral works but by his faith in God incarnate in Christ. Neither fastings, gifts to the church nor charity or good works could lead to salvation. Salvation was never deserved. It was a free gift of God. In a sense it was this Lutheran insistence upon the passive nature of human action in the process of salvation which was taken further by Calvin.[ "The Mass is central for the entire Roman Catholic system because the Mass is believed to be a repetition of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion. When bread and wine are transsubstantiated, God again becomes flesh and Christ again dies upon the altar. The wonder can be performed only by priests empowered through ordination. Inasmuch as this means Grace is administered exclusively by their hands, they occupy a unique place within the Church; and because the Church is the custodian of the body of Christ, she occupies a unique place in society.", Roland H. Bainton, Here I stand, a Life of Martin Luther, (1961), Mentor, p.107 ]
Calvin’s central belief, around which everything else resolved, was the absolute sovereignty of God. ‘God is the arbiter and governor of all things who, in His own Wisdom, has, from the remotest eternity, decreed what he would do, and how by his own power, execute what he has decreed’* . ‘The Will of God’ Calvin wrote ‘is the highest rule of Justice so that what He Wills must be considered just, for this very reason, because he wills it.’
Such a transcendental God was identified with omnipotence and power. The forgiving and loving Father of the New Testament was submerged by the Jehovah of the Old. It was a Jealous God who rejoiced in the slaughter of idolatrous priests and in his enemies being hewn to pieces: ‘cursed shalt that be in the City and cursed shalt thou be in the field… The Lord shall smite thee with a consumption, and with a fever and with an inflammation”.
It also followed from such a God that the individual human being could not by his or her own actions influence salvation. It would detract from God’s omnipotence if that were the case. Salvation could thus not be won. It had already been bestowed by God. It had been conferred upon an Elect. ‘By the desire of God for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated into everlasting life and others foreordained into everlasting death’.*
It was this idea of God which became accepted by most of the calvinist and puritan world. This was not universal. Milton’s response was that ‘though I may be sent to hell for it such a God will never command my respect’. Fatalism was the only logical response to the doctrine of predestination. The paradox was that calvinists were highly active. The explanation for this is psychological. For Calvin, God’s Elect were an army on the march carrying out God’s work for his purpose and for his glory. Activity in accordance with his word was an outward manifestation of belonging to the Elect.
Fear of damnation was just as strong in Calvinism as in the Catholic church. For a protestant such as Bunyan earthly existence was an interim affair before the believer reached life everlasting or suffered eternal damnation. And the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ was a lonely and highly personal journey. ‘So I saw in my dream that the man began to run. Now he had not run far from his own door when his wife and children, perceiving it, began to cry after him to return; but the man put his fingers to his ears, and ran on, crying ‘life! life! eternal life!’ So he looked not behind him, but fled towards the middle of the plain’. Such is Bunyan’s description of Christian.
Good works had a very limited
place in such a vision. ‘Good works
performed for any other purpose than the Glory of God are sinful’* Success in this world was a sign of God’s
favour. In the sixteenth century the
this-worldly intervention of the deity was hardly questioned. Why then should it be doubted that God had
bestowed his favour on those whom he had chosen? In the same way the puritan, like the Friends
of Job, regarded misfortune as a ‘sign of exclusion and a divine punishment for
sin’. Poverty was never viewed as a
matter of social organisation. Calvin
himself quoted with approval the words of St Paul, ‘if a man will not work
neither shall he eat’ and he condemned indiscriminate alms giving.
Persecution for non-conforming religious belief existed before the Reformation.[ Some of the early Fathers opposed persecution. The Edict of Milan(311) implied toleration. But christian toleration was comparitively short-lived.The schisms over doctrine led to intolerance and from that to persecution.First, was the Donatus schism in Africa which began in the early 4th century and lasted a century. The question which produced this fierce reaction was whether priests who had renounced their faith during Diocletian's persecutiion of the christians (303) could administer the sacraments. This gave rise to a general issue whether it was the office of the priest -- as St Augustine laid down --or his character, that gave validity to the sacraments administered by him. St Augustine, who initially opposed persecution, developed the the theory that as salvatiion could only be attained through the one true church "it was an act of kindness toforce people to conform, and to punish for any lack of conformity", A.C.Grayling, Towards the Light, Bloomsbury,p.25] In the twelfth century Innocent III condemned the Albigenses and brought about their massacre. The Inquisition, founded by Gregory IX in 1223 and more fully established by Innocent IV in 1252, institutionalised persecution. But it was in the 150 years following Luther’s challenge (1517) that Europe was torn apart by religious wars and persecution. The stake, the rack, the massacre of women and children seemed an inevitable accompaniment to the espousal of any form of christian belief.
There was something peculiarly Christian in the fierce religious wars and intense religious persecution during the Reformation. Arnold Toynbee has suggested that this tendency in Christianity was a reflex to the persecution christians suffered in the first three centuries of the Christian era. It would seem also that intolerance was a natural incident of a religion in which ‘faith’ was pivotal. ‘Hence the enormous importance of formulations, which viewed abstractly, seem hair splitting and trivial’.*
There were, it is true, exceptions. Montaigne, who had witnessed the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day, revealed an unusual scepticism when he remarked that ‘it is setting a high value on one’s opinions to roast men on account of them’. But this was rare. In general, the idea of toleration was not within the medieval vision.
What we are now about to describe is the long history, stretching over three centuries, by which a new idea – a new value – became accepted in Europe - the idea of a free conscience. That idea itself is only an exemplification of the primary concept of the individual human person as a ‘spiritual personality’. The history of the acceptance of this idea and its eventual practical application takes us through the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Before proceeding though we need to put aside our inherited assumptions and endeavour to understand why in these centuries intolerance was hardly questioned.
In an age of general scepticism - to go to the other extreme - toleration is easy. Objective truth is thought not to exist or, if it does, it is not discoverable. This was the situation which prevailed among the educated classes in large parts of Europe in the latter part of the eighteenth century. Toleration based upon scepticism does however depend upon everybody or almost everybody being sceptical. It is the toleration of reciprocal indifference. Where a social or religious group really believes, scepticism is, by definition, irrelevant as a basis for tolerance. When a person or group hold strongly to a belief, intolerance of a contrary belief seems logical.* It is simply the elimination of error. Toleration, on this supposition, would imply that one is not confident in the truth of one’s belief or that it is permissable to allow error to be propagated. This logic of intolerance is all the greater when the beliefs in question are not merely personal but have been laid down and commanded by God either through his divinely inspired Church or by holy Scripture.
The first avenue of escape from this logical impasse was advanced by St. Augustine: ‘credere non potest homo, nisi volens’; ‘it is impossible for a man to believe unless he does so freely’. Such a position, whatever its theoretical merits, did not in fact prevail against evangelical zeal. As a religion of faith christianity had always endeavoured to induce others to believe. ‘Compel them to come in’, taken from the parable of the Marriage Feast in Luke (14:23), is seen to provide scriptural justification for intolerance. It was relied upon by St. Augustine himself in the dispute with the Donatists which plagued the Church in North Africa throughout the fourth century.
The proposition that coerced belief is not true belief justifies opposition to persecution only. That is, it justifies not ‘compelling them to come in’. It does not however go further and justify affirmative toleration of the proselytisation of belief by a dissenting minority and permitting that belief to exist on terms of equality with majority opinion. That requires a bigger and more difficult philosophic step. It is a step which can only be based upon the moral significance attached to the free conscience of the individual human being.
It is against the background
of these kinds of considerations that we must approach the seventeenth century
and its attitude to divergent religious opinion.*
The protestant reformers rejected the authority of the Church.At first Luther opposed persecution and, indeed, one ground for his excomunication was his objection to persecution as not conforming to the Holy Spirit. It was Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich who was the first protestant persecutor.But Luther was horrified by the peasant’s uprising and, notwithstanding his initial sympathies towards them approved, if he did not enjoin, the slaughter of the Anabaptists when they supported the peasants. The Anabaptist leader, Müntzer, was captured at Frankenhausen, tortured and beheaded. Turning against the peasants, Luther cried ‘kill them, strangle them …’. Within a few months in 1524-1525 some hundred thousand peasants were killed.
Calvin, in Geneva, epitomised intolerance.
For both Luther and Calvin, God’s word was laid down in the Bible. But in declaring that to be so, neither was intending to permit every person to form his or her judgment upon its meaning: ‘… if authority and liberty of judging the law be left to private men, there will never be any certainty set down, but rather all religion will become doubtful’, Calvin wrote. And those in Geneva, who like Jean Balard, protested, maintaining that ‘we particularly said that no man had the power to Lord it over our conscience’, suffered severe punishment. The Council in Geneva passed edict after edict under Calvin’s dominating influence. All must attend the five weekly sermons. One who left the church during the sermon spent a spell in prison: another for playing bowls when he should have been at church. Every child was required to have a biblical name. A father protesting at his son being christened ‘Abraham’ went to prison. Detailed regulation went hand in hand with persecution. Anabaptists, atheists and heretics were tortured and put to death.
The most celebrated instance of calvinist intolerance was the execution in Geneva of Michael Servetus. Servetus had denied the Trinity. The sentence pronounced against him on the 27th October 1553 read:
“Wherefore we … Judges of criminal cases in this city, having witnessed the trial conducted before us.. against you Michael ‘Servet’ …, and having seen your voluntary and repeated confessions and your books judge that you, Servetus, have for a long time promulgated false and thoroughly heretical doctrine, despising all remonstrances and corrections and that you have with malicious and perverse obstinacy sown and divulged even in printed books opinions against God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, in a word against the fundamentals of the Christian religion… And you have neither shame nor horror of setting yourself against the Divine Majesty and Holy Trinity, and so you have obstinately tried to infect the world with your stinking heretical poison… for these and other reasons desiring to purge the Church of God of such infection and cut off the rotten member, and having taken counsel with our citizens and having invoked the name of God to give just judgement … We now in writing Give Final Sentence and condemn you, Michael Servetus, to be bound and taken to Champel and there attached to a stake and burned with your book to ashes. And so shall you finish your days and give an example to others who would commit the like”.
Calvin’s intolerance was communicated to his followers. The English puritans began as a Calvinist sect within the Church of England seeking to purify it. Thomas Cartwright, their leader during the reign of Elizabeth, had returned from Geneva inspired by fanatical zeal. All forms of religion other than Calvinism were to be stamped out. The punishment for heresy was death. ‘I deny’ he said ‘that upon repentance there ought to follow any pardon of death… Heretics ought to be put to death now. If this be bloody and extreme, I am content to be so counted with the Holy Ghost’.
If then the protestant Reformation had stopped at Luther and Calvin its effect upon the growth of the humanitarian idea would have been solely destructive.
The release of the Bible - God’s Holy Word - to an increasingly literate public was a seminal event in the European Reformation. All the varied ideas that belonged to the Reformation flow like tributaries from the general availability of the Bible during the two centuries after Luther.
The ‘Greek New Testament’ of Erasmus was published in 1516 the year before Luther nailed his Theses to the Cathedral door at Wittenburg.["(Erasmus) combined the tolerance of humanism with loyalty to the christian faith, and emboding both was able to argue that these (points of doctrinal authority) should be left to the after-life." There were many things as to which a person should be 'free to follow his judgement'. Erasmus was able to express thse views before the Counter Reformation following the Council of Trent in 1542, [Grayling, op.cit. p.20] Erasmus realised that the Vulgate (the only translation tolerated by the Church) was full or error and obscurity. So he set about a new translation. In parallel columns with the original Greek, he presented his revision of the Latin Vulgate, with critical comment elucidating its errors. Erasmus’ ‘Greek New Testament’ was a turning point. There had been Latin versions and translations in the vernacular since the advent of printing but they had been presentationally obscure. From this time the Bible began to be thought of as a book. And it became the basis of new translations into the vernacular. Tyndale used the ‘Greek New Testament’ for the first printed translation of the Bible into English. Between 1525 and 1568 five English versions of the Bible appeared. The ‘Geneva Bible’, published after the reign of Queen Mary, was the work of protestant exiles who had made Geneva their home during her reign. The ‘Geneva Bible’ was superior in its presentation to any that had preceded it. Its quarto size made it convenient. Blackletter print was abandoned in favour of Roman type. Published in 1560 it went through 120 editions before 1611.
Reading the Bible became a European phenomenon. The English, in particular, were the people of a Book. It was read in churches, read at home and read at public recitations.
The dangers of ‘private judgement’ which worried Calvin were eventually realised. A reaction set in. In England, Grafton the printer of Cramner’s ‘Great Bible’, was thrown into prison and forbidden from printing any more Bibles until King and Clergy had agreed upon a new translation (1542). In 1543 it was made illegal for all except the higher classes to read the Bible in English. In 1546 the possession of a Tyndale or Coverdale Bible was prohibited.
Later, after the Elizabethan Settlement, and under its authority the Geneva Bible was, as we have seen, widely distributed. Finally, in an endeavour to reconcile Anglican and Puritan divergences, the King James version (1604-1611) definitively settled on an English translation.
This opening up of the Bible resulted in a proliferation of different interpretations. No matter how hard Calvin and others - but particularly Calvin - sought to restrain the genie, it kept breaking out.
Protestant reformers had, without recognising it, relied upon a principle which would eventually undermine their own authority. If one were free to reject the Pope, why should one be bound to accept the authority of a Luther, a Calvin or a Zwingli?
Calvinism provoked a reaction within protestantism Opposition to its essential tenet, predestination, and the religious aristocracy of the Elect, took a variety of forms. These were reflected in a multiplicity of sects*.
The Unitarians - Castellio and Socinus: Sebastian Castellio was the first Reformation figure to advocate religious toleration. Castellio was Professor of Greek at the University of Basel at the time of the burning of Servetus. He was prompted by Servetus’s execution to write a work entitled ‘Concerning Heretics and Whether they are to be Coerced by the Sword of the Magistrate’ in 1554. Castellio emphasised right mind and genuine belief. He observed that Servetus could have saved himself by recanting - in other words by being false to his own opinions. Castellio did not deny the importance of dogma but drew a distinction between those doctrines essential to salvation and those that were not. Among the latter he included the doctrine of predestination, the doctrine of the Trinity and the issue whether the risen Christ is diffused locally, as maintained by the Lutherans, or was, as the Calvinists insisted, situated on the right hand of the Father in Heaven. Castellio’s letter to Duke Christoph of Würrtemberg was decades, if not centuries, ahead of its time. This magnificent statement deserves extended quotation:
“We dispute, not as to the way by which we may come to Christ, which is to correct our lives, but rather as to the state and office of Christ, where he now is and what he is doing, how he is seated on the right hand of the Father, and how he is one with the father; likewise with regard to the Trinity, predestination, free will; so, also, of God, the angels, the state of souls after this life and other like things, which do not need to be known for salvation by faith, (for the publicans and sinners were saved without this knowledge)… Nor if these things are known do they make a man better, as Paul says, ‘though I understand all mysteries and have not love it profiteth me nothing’. This perverse curiosity engenders worse evils. Men are puffed up with knowledge or with a false opinion of knowledge and look down upon others. Pride is followed by cruelty and persecution so that now scarcely anyone is able to endure another who differs at all from him. Although opinions are almost as numerous as men, nevertheless there is hardly any sect which does not condemn all the others and desire to reign alone. Hence arise banishments, chains, imprisonments, stakes and gallows and this miserable rage to visit daily penalties upon those who differ from the mighty about matters hitherto unknown, for so many centuries disputed, and not yet cleared up ….
O Creator and King of the World, doest thou see these things? Art thou become so changed, so cruel, so contrary to thyself? When thou wast on Earth, none more mild, more clement, more patient of injury… doest thou now command that those who do not understand thy precepts, as the mighty demand, be drowned in water, cut with lashes to the entrails, sprinkled with salt, dismembered by the sword, burned at a slow fire, and otherwise tortured in every manner as long as possible?”*
Calvin was furious and although the work had been published anonymously, Castellio had to flee from Switzerland.
Even at this early stage, one sect believed toleration could be combined with faith. This was a group of Italian reformers who were to become the fathers of Unitarianism.
Unitarianism is summarised in the Brittanica in the following passage:
“Unitarianism, a system of Christian thought and religious observance, deriving its name from its doctrine of the single personality of God the Father, in contrast with the Trinitarian concept of his three fold being as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The significance of the movement, however, is imperfectly indicated by its name and its true importance lies in its undogmatic approach to religious questions and its teachings concerning God, Man, the nature of the work of Jesus Christ and the sources of religious belief… The greatest single influence which led to the origin and growth of Unitarian Christianity was the free and independent study of the Bible in the reformation and post reformation period…” (italics added)*
The Unitarians in Italy were forced to flee to Switzerland but there they met the intolerance of Calvin and fled again, settling in Poland and Transylvania. Religious toleration was established in Transylvania at the Diet of Torda (Turda) as early as 1557. It was declared that ‘everybody shall live in the creed he chooses’. In 1571 a Statute was enacted allowing the free operation of the four received religions: Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist and Unitarian.
The Independents - Robert Browne: Slightly later, a movement began in England whose chief object was the separation of Church and State. Its founder, Robert Browne (1550-1633), had, whilst studying at Cambridge, come under the influence of the Calvinist leader, Thomas Cartwright. But Browne eventually developed his own position. He rejected both ecclesiastical control of belief and State control of the Church. He asserted the separation of Church and State.
Browne had considerable appeal. For many ordinary persons the main change resulting from the Reformation had been the reading of the Bible in the vernacular. The Bible began to speak to believers individually and inwardly. Many of these felt it not possible to reform the Church from within.
The separatists began as a few zealots but within a short time numbered 20,000. Rejecting a national church as contrary to the Word of God they naturally fell outside the Elizabethan Settlement (1559). But the opposition of the Presbyterians (Calvinists) towards them was quite as bitter as that of the established church. And a predominantly Puritan Parliament was eventually to legislate against the Browneists (1593).
In such works as ‘A Treatise of Reformation without Tarying for anie’ (1582) and ‘A Booke which showeth the life and manner of all true Christians’, Browne set out the theory of congregational independency. What was essential to the Independents was the ‘voluntary’ principle. The independence of each church from the State or episcopal control depended upon a covenant of believers. This was a church of a quite different character. It was no longer a medium for bringing salvation. It was a community of believers brought together in voluntary fellowship.
The Browneists suffered severe persecution, many leaving for Holland or the New World. They were protected by Cromwell’s Commonwealth but after the Restoration repression recommenced under the Act of Uniformity (1662).
Religious toleration in America - Rhode Island and Roger Williams: In the New World puritans were intolerant not only of anglicans and catholics but of other protestant sects. Moreover, the small communities and the congregation tended to be identified so that Magistrates would arbitrate disputes between congregations and even rule upon where they should be located.
Roger Williams (1604-1685) left England with his wife for New England in February 1631. In 1633 he became a teacher at Salem. There he incurred the hostility of the authorities of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for asserting that the civil power had ‘no jurisdiction of the consciences of men’. In 1635 he was sentenced to banishment. In June 1636, Williams, with four companions, founded the first settlement in Rhode Island. It was based upon complete religious toleration with a view to it becoming ‘a shelter for persons distressed for conscience’. Magistrates could interfere only in civil matters. Toleration even extended to non-christians although they were not to have the same political rights as christians.
Rhode Island was the first colony in the New World to embody the separation of Church and State.
At a time when the idea of toleration was still half-formed in Europe, it became recognised in other New World settlements - an Act of Toleration was passed in 1649 in Catholic Maryland, a colony established by Lord Baltimore, and William Penn established toleration in the new Quaker colony of Pennsylvania (1682).
To the Quakers paramountcy of conscience was fundamental. George Fox (1624-1691) proclaimed that God did not reveal himself through scripture exclusively. God also revealed himself through the Holy Spirit; the holy spirit which dwelt in every person. It was this that the Quakers meant by the ’inner light’. That was “the light of christ in our consciences”.* The ‘inner light’ is the centre of Quaker beliefs and decisions at a Quaker meeting are not made by formal resolution but by finding ‘the sense of the meeting’ after each believer present has consulted his or her own conscience.
Religious toleration was an inevitable corollary of the belief in the ‘inner light’ - even non-Christians were held to possess it.
Although George Fox advanced the idea of the ‘inner light’ he had also said that the Bible supplied the ‘words of God’. How then did the Quakers reconcile the ‘inner light’ with the authority of the Bible as a source of truth? Quakerism wrestled with this issue. In the end it rejected the exclusive authority of Scripture. During Fox’s lifetime, his friend Robert Barclay [1648 - 1690]* examined the dilemma in his ‘An Apology for the True Christian Divinity held by the Quakers’ . He taught that the Bible, although inspired by God, was a ‘secondary rule, subordinate to the spirit’ and that “it must be interpreted in the light of the Spirit of God.”.*
Prominent among the Quakers was William Penn [1644 - 1718] who, as a relatively young man, wrote ‘The Great Case of Liberty of Conscience’ , a wonderful defence of toleration and, as an old man, led the dissenters in thanking the Throne for reaffirming the Toleration Act . In the meantime, he had taken the ideal of toleration to New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the New World.*
The Quakers represent a paradox. They took the right of private judgement not only to the point of rejecting sacerdotal religion and the Church, but to rejection of the exclusive authority of the Bible.
John Milton (1608 - 1674): John Milton was not the last protestant to advocate religious toleration - Bayle and Locke were both protestant - but as Cromwell’s Latin Secretary and the author of ‘Paradise Lost’, he was the last and greatest figure of the Reformation to do so.
In ‘Areopagitica’ (1644) Milton was chiefly concerned with the liberty of expression. But his reasoning necessarily supported freedom of belief. He condemned the licensing of literature for ‘if the waters of truth flow not in a perpetual progression they sicken into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition’. In 1823 the long-lost manuscript of Milton’s ‘De Doctrina Christiana’ was discovered. It was his major theological work revealing, as was the case of other reformers who preached toleration, a sympathy with Unitarianism. In De Doctrina Milton said ‘no man, no Synod, no Session of men though called the Church can judge definitely the sense of Scriptures to another man’s conscience’.
In 1660, in ‘The Ready and Easy Way to establish a Free Commonwealth’ he wrote the best words of the Protestant Reformation on the subject we have been discussing:
“Who can be at rest, who can enjoy anything in this world with contentment who hath not liberty to serve God and to serve his own soul according to the best light which God had planted in him to that purpose by the reading of His Word and Will and the guidance of His Holy Spirit?”.
In the middle of the seventeenth century the European Reformation entered its final phase. The Peace of Westphalia (1648) brought to an end a century of religious wars. That Peace not only signified the end of the Thirty Years war but of religious wars in general. During the years that followed there was much warfare but rarely was it religious in purpose. Warfare and active persecution ceased or were greatly moderated. Nevertheless the seventeenth century was by no means a period of religious toleration. In France, the Huguenots had been protected – although in a very limited way – by the Edict of Nantes. But when Louis XIV assumed active power in 1661 he initiated a series of laws against protestants which culminated in the Revocation of the Edict (1676) and the recommencement of active persecution. The French clergy justified this by the New Testament text ‘compel them to come in’. Persecution came to life in Germany. Count Fermian, Archbishop of Salzburg, expelled some 15,000 protestants from his principality. Religious strife continued in Switzerland until the Peace of Arrau (1712).
In England the Restoration of Charles II (1660) led to a period of increasing intolerance. The Act of Uniformity (1660) provided that only those who had received episcopal ordination could officiate in the Church. It demanded that all incumbents and school masters should swear ‘unfeigned assent and consent’ to all that the Prayer book contained and that acceptance was to be publicly declared before St. Bartholemew’s Day 1662. The resulting exodus from the Church of England saw the beginning of modern dissent. The Act of Uniformity was only one Act forming part of a code – the Clarendon Code – imposing restraints upon dissenters. These restrictions were inspired in part by revenge against the puritans but also from fears of their attempted return to power.
When, in 1672, Charles sought to mitigate the discrimination from which the dissenters suffered through a Declaration of Indulgence, the House of Commons insisted that the Declaration be withdrawn.
On the other side, the Roman Catholics were subject to harsh restraints and prevented by the Test Act from occupying positions of public trust. There were genuine fears that first Charles and then James were seeking to reintroduce Roman Catholicism into England. This perhaps explains the aggressive Anglicanism of the Church of England during this time. All of this culminated in the invitation to William of Orange and his wife Mary to assume the throne (1688).
The reformation did not bring about religious toleration. The sects whom we have described, and individual thinkers like Milton, laid the groundwork by their advocacy of primacy of conscience. Primacy of conscience had first to combine with rationalism - the distinctive eighteenth century influence - before religious toleration became a reality.
We turn to rationalism and its impact and then take up the movement to religious toleration in the light of that.
* Institutes 1, 16, 8.
* The Westminster Confession, 1647.
* Hanserd Noll’s Confession Chapter xvi.
* Lindsay, Byzantium into Europe, The Bodley Head, p179.
* Some of these propositions are exemplified by ancient Rome. Generally Rome tolerated all religions and opinions. Blasphemy was not punished. But it was the tolerance of indifference. As the emperor Tiberius said ‘if the gods are insulted, let them see to it themselves’. The cults were viewed as being similar to Roman religion. The atmosphere was syncretic. All religions or cults tended to a union or reconciliation of their diverse or conflicting beliefs. At no time did the newer oriental cults challenge Roman religion.
The christians were an exception. They were aggressively hostile to all other creeds. Not only did they claim exclusivity of truth but, unlike the Jews, proselytised. Roman policy oscillated. Persecution was directed against a sect which denied the divinity of the emperor and appeared to be subverting the authority of the Imperial Government. Domitian took severe measures to prevent the proselytisation of Roman citizens. Trajan laid down that christianity was an offence punishable by death. Nevertheless, there was little persecution during the second century. Indeed Trajan himself in a letter to Pliny, then Governor of Bithynia, discouraged informers bent on persecuting the Christians as being ‘quite unbecoming to our civilised age’. Fierce persecution took place in the third century, in 250 by Decius and finally, by Diocletion in 302 but ceased with Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313. This permitted christians ‘freely to profess their private opinions’. There seems little doubt that the christians would not have been persecuted had they been prepared to accept other cults and religions as on a par with christianity, and emperor worship in particular. Roman toleration therefore failed at the critical point. It could not tolerate strong belief. Strong belief will only be tolerated when there is a recognition of the primacy of the individual conscience.
* It needs to be remembered that much religious persecution was politically based. Protestantism and Catholicism became identified with the religious affiliation of the ruler of each country. Thus the Pope sought to assert a supreme loyalty as in the Bull Regnans in Excelsis [25/2/1570] in which Queen Elizabeth was excommunicated and her subjects absolved from their allegiance to her.
* Some of the sects were politically important, translating the idea of the individual conscience in religion into the area of government. The Levellers proclaimed the moral proposition that no person ought to be governed except with consent. The Leveller, Colonel Rainboro, put the reason for this to Cromwell and Ireton at the Grand Council of Officers at Putney on the 25th October 1647, when he said “that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the richest he”, A.D. Lindsay, The Essentials of Democracy, O.U.P., p.14.
* The Age of the Reformation, Roland H. Bainton, Van Nostrand Company, p.183.
* Encyclopaedia Britannica (1959) Edit, Vol 22, 703.
* ’Quakers’, originally a nickname given to the Society of Friends by those wishing to sneer at it. It first arose when George Fox told a Judge in Court to tremble in the name of the Lord. The Society was properly called the ‘Friends’ or ‘Friends of Truth’, MacCulloch, op.cit. p.526.
* Fox, Journal, I, p.268.
* Robert Barclay, An Apology of the true Christian Divinity held by Quakers, Fourth Edit, London, 1701, the first reasoned account of Quaker belief and originally published in 1678.
Dorothy Gregory, a Quaker writer, has said that although not recognized by Fox and the early Quakers the ‘inner light’ was ultimately derived from the opening verses in St John ,The Inward Light, Two Essays, Friends, The Inward Light in Quaker Thought and Experience, pp 2-3
* Barclay, an associate of Fox and friend of William Penn; for a brief description of the life of this interesting man, see Encyc Britt (1958) Vol3, p.105.
* Encyc. Britt, (1958), Friends, Vol 9, p.846.
* MacCulloch, op.cit., pp.542-543.
Rationalism and Religious Toleration in Europe
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries merge; the latter bringing to fruition certain attitudes which had their origins in the previous century. Rationalism, as we now understand it, derived from the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century and continental thought.**
There was a medieval rationalism. It was however of a very different kind. Medieval rationalism, theologically based, sought to establish a comprehensive system of thought concerning God, Man and the Universe deriving from fixed premises. Revealed religion was axiomatic. Revelation was the paramount source of truth. Reason was only a subordinate ally. Rationalism was directed to reconciling reason with revelation and with Aristotle. It was this which Aquinas attempted in his Summa Theologiae.*
But Descartes (1596-1650) in formulating his principle of ‘doubt’ and his philosophy of knowledge through innate ideas, undermined the subordinate status of reason and placed it upon a different footing (notwithstanding his attempt to reconcile revealed religion with his theory of knowledge* and thereby avoid antagonizing the authorities).
Medieval christianity assumed God intervened in human affairs and that this intervention was the cause of things. Comets and other astronomical events were still regarded as portents of divine intervention in the time of Shakespeare and later.* Intervention was not confined to the Deity.Satan, witches and other malign forces were also the cause of things, particularly of misfortune. In 1484, Innocent VIII promulgated a Papal Bull, summis desideratus affectibus, in which plagues and fierce storms were attributed to witches.*
Unlike medieval rationalism which started from certain given truths the new science started from an inquiry into facts. Ascertaining facts did not depend upon some authoritative text but from observation. From facts it may be possible to deduce a valid generalisation. Bacon had been the first to enunciate the inductive method.* Newton expressed it quite clearly as his own opinion. In a letter to the secretary of the Royal Society in 1672, he wrote:
“The best and safest method of philosophising seems to be first, to inquire diligently into the properties of things and to establish those properties by experiments, and then to proceed later to hypotheses for the explanation of things themselves. For hypotheses ought to be applied only in the examination of the properties of things and not made use of in determining them.”*
Newton’s dictum, ‘I do not invent hypotheses’ became the slogan of seventeenth science and philosophy.*
With this went a quite new idea of causation. Events were now thought to result from physical laws which were applicable not only on earth but throughout the Universe.* Such a view did not eliminate divine intervention entirely but restricted its operation.[ For an excellent and near-contemporary description of the nature and influence of seventeenth century science, see Voltaire,The Age of Louis XIV, Everyman,pp352-353,378-379.] This was described, somewhat cynically, by Bertrand Russell in the following way:
“God had originally created nature and decreed nature’s laws so as to produce results he intended without fresh intervention except on grand occasions such as the revelation of the christian religion.”*
The effects of this kind of thinking and of the new ideas of causation, were extremely important. Hitherto the punishment inflicted by an intervening God and the misfortunes due to an intervening Satan had sanctified much cruelty. Belief in extra-physical causation was not confined to illiterate peasants. As we have said, Innocent VIII declared witches to be the source of scourges and plagues.
The church had not always persecuted witchcraft. In the early middle ages, to call up Satan was not heresy but sin. Towards the end of that period, Satan, as a disinherited Lucifer became worshipped increasingly by the poor and oppressed. The fearful epidemic known as the Black Death which devastated Europe in the fourteenth century was widely believed to have been brought about by witchcraft. The Papal Bull confirmed popular belief that witches were in communion with the devil. Thereafter witches were guilty of heresy. In 1487, two Dominican Inquisitors, Heinrich Kramen and Jakob Sprenger, who had engaged in punishing witchcraft with Papal approval, published a work on it, ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ or the ‘Hammer of Female malefactors’. This became an authoritative text on the subject for inquisitors and set out how witches were to be tried and dealt with.* In 1532, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, prescribed the death penalty for heretics and witches and authorised the use of torture.* At the reformation protestants accepted the idea of witches being in communion with the Devil. For protestants the destruction of witches received its Biblical justification in the text, “ Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”*
“From the Papal Bull of 1484 to its decline in the eighteenth century, the craze persisted intermittently for 300 years, consuming vast numbers of innocents.”* Between 1450 and 1550 thousands of women were put to death in Germany alone. Mostly they were burnt. Jakob Sprenger who acted as Inquisitor in Germany was a fanatic.
Witchcraft was a difficult charge from which to escape. If the woman pleaded guilty she was burnt alive immediately. If she pleaded not guilty she was tortured until she confessed. The barbarity and perfidy of the legal procedures almost defy belief. Any means of obtaining a confession were authorised. Both before and after torture, the Judge could promise the accused her life, without telling her that she would be imprisoned for life. The judicial promise would be kept for a time but then she would be burnt.*
Very few were prepared to risk death by protesting. Johann Weyer, physician to Duke William of Cleves (upon whom he depended for protection), published a work, De Praestigiis Daemonum, in 1563 to prove that so-called witchcraft was false. He influenced the Northern Netherlands to abolish witchcraft in the early seventeenth century -- one of the first countries to do so.* Reginald Scot, of Kent, a squire, published Discoverie of Witchcraft in 1584 in which he stated that belief in witchcraft was based on ignorance and illusion. The book made a very real impression on the clergy.* A Bavarian priest, a Jesuit, Father Spee, accompanied nearly 200 victims to the stake at Wurzburg in less than two years. He was horrified. He was convinced the women were innocent. They had confessed rather than be tortured again. His book condemning the “callous doctors and bishops of the church” was published in 1631. And yet the witchcraft mania continued.James1 of England, who was also James VI of Scotland, and who had long supported the repression of witches, wrote a book on the subject condemning both Weyer and Scot. Even physicians of the calibre of Harvey assisted in the examination of witches.
Witchcraft was wholly at variance with the new notion of physical causation introduced by seventeenth science and also with the limits which that imposed on divine intervention. For it was not to be supposed that if God no longer intervened he would allow Satan and witches to do so.*
In England, which had proscribed witchcraft by legislation in 1563 and by a further Act early in the seventeenth century, a change of thinking gradually emerged in the Anglican clergy and landed gentry. Towards the end of the seventeenth century there was increasing scepticism about witchcraft among the educated classes in Europe generally. In England the last execution took place in 1682. In 1736 Parliament repealed the laws which condemned witches to death. This repeal was, as Trevelyan wrote, ‘greatly to the indignation of many simple folk’. In Scotland the burning of witches continued into the eighteenth century, the last burning taking place in about 1722.
Bertrand Russell summed up fairly enough the part religion had played in this nasty piece of European history:
“The harm that theology has done is not to create cruel impulses, but to give them the sanction of what appears to be a lofty ethic, and to confer an apparently sacred character upon practices which have come down from more ignorant and barbarous ages.”*
At the same time there was a gradual lessening in the terror of Hell if not in the actual belief in it. If God were no longer concerned with momentous events such as plagues and storms it seemed improbable that he would be concerned with sins committed by each human being, some quite trivial, to the point of allocating precise punishment for them. We are speaking only of a tendency. Fear of Hell was to be a potent force in Wesleyanism and Evangelicalism. But the fear of Hell waned. And with that, the claim that God was a God of love became more convincing. Christopher Hill has written that ‘in the seventeenth century men - and especially the religious and political radical - came to question the theological assumption that God had condemned the mass of mankind to an eternity of torment, and to assert the right of the majority to heaven. Sin began in some men’s minds to lose its power as the great deterrent.’ Hill has described ‘the breakdown of Calvinism in the mid-seventeenth centuries as one of the great turning points in intellectual history’.* This is true and the truth of it has never been sufficiently acknowledged. It was of immense importance from the standpoint of humanitarianism for it released Europe from the excessively retributive spirit that had hitherto prevailed in Christianity.
Throughout the Reformation the divine origin of Scripture remained unquestioned. The exclusive authority of the Bible was generally if not universally assumed. And so the freedom of conscience asserted in the late seventeenth century was a freedom to interpret the Word of God and not a freedom to hold a conscientious belief in some alternative source of truth. What Milton had said was that no church ‘can judge definitely the sense of scriptures to another man’s conscience’. And so we see in the seventeenth century an endeavour to harmonise different interpretations of Scripture in order to avoid conflict. The authorised version of the English Bible was such a case. King James convened a meeting of Puritans and Anglicans at Hampton Court in 1604 to secure their agreement upon a new translation. This – the Authorised Version – was published in 1611, the translation itself taking less than three years. Wisely the King insisted that there be no marginal commentary. In the past the commentaries added by translators had fuelled different interpretations. In the case of the authorised version, the translators themselves said that they had avoided ‘the scrupulosity of the Puritans’ and ‘the obscurity of the Papists’.*
But at this stage there was hardly any toleration accorded by Protestants to the view that something other than Scripture could be a source of truth or by Catholics that there could be any source of authority other than the Church. On the whole, religious toleration in the seventeenth century never went beyond this.
Descartes had claimed that true knowledge could be derived from ideas ‘innate’ to the mind. Despite Descartes’ concession that revelation was a superior source of knowledge the Church saw the danger in any suggestion that ‘innate’ ideas could be an alternative source of truth and Descartes thereafter felt compelled to be very cautious.*
Galileo was more explicit. In ‘The Authority of Scripture’ addressed to the Dowager Grand Duchy of Tuscany, in 1614, Galileo wrote:
‘…I think that in the discussion of natural problems we ought to begin not with the Scriptures, but with experiments and demonstrations. Nor does God less admirably discover himself to us in nature than in Scripture, and having found the truth in nature we may use it as an aid to the true exposition of the Scriptures. The Scriptures were intended to teach men those things which cannot be learned otherwise than by the mouth of the Holy Spirit; but we are meant to use our senses and reason and discover for ourselves things within their scope and capacity, and hence certain sciences are neglected in the Holy Writ. Astronomy for instance is hardly mentioned and only the sun and the moon and Lucifer are named’.
As we know the Church silenced Galileo[See the comprehensive description of the Copernican model and the trial of Galileo, Grayling, op.cit. pp.90-97].
Different views were creeping in. In 1594 Richard Hooker, an Exeter-born Oxford academic published the first volumes of his ‘On the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity’. Hooker’s work is a bridge between medieval and modern natural law. For our purposes though it was an all-out attack on the puritan assumption that the fixed rule for all human institutions and human action was laid down and laid down only in Scripture. Hooker claimed that the world formed part of a Divine Order. Human reason was the province for determining the laws of this Order. ‘Natural law as understood by human reason is the seat in the bosom of God, her voice the harmony of the World’*. Hooker here was gently arguing that Reason as well as Scripture was a source of truth and that natural law was the embodiment of it. It was not natural law as specified by the Church nor was it natural law in the cast iron mould of St. Thomas but natural law as identified by human reason, of which Hooker was speaking. Perhaps the medieval origins of his philosophy concealed the heterodox character of his position. Perhaps also it was the stately language in which it was expressed.
The distinction between the toleration of differing interpretations of Scripture and the toleration of alternative sources of truth to Scripture, was never clear-cut during the seventeenth century. Thus the Socinians* did not deny the authority of Scripture but when Fausto Sozzino and his followers attacked such received doctrines as the divinity of christ, the trinity and original sin, they appeared to be renouncing the ‘Word of God’. Locke was a christian but his work, ‘The Reasonableness of Christianity’, published in 1695, appeared to leave no place for original sin or the trinity. The work provoked great wrath among orthodox christians. The Bible appeared to be being denied without that being acknowledged.
Blurred though the distinction may have been, the trend throughout the eighteenth century was increasingly away from the exclusive authority of Scripture.
Religious toleration derived from a compound of two strands. Both rejected the exclusive authority of Scripture. The first and more lasting was that the free conscience was supreme and could place its own interpretation upon Scripture or believe independently of Scripture. In such a case toleration was allowed because even though dissenting belief was assumed to be wrong, the value of a free conscience was held to prevail over the value of truth. The second strand was scepticism. Scepticism simply assumed that we cannot know whether Scripture is true or not. Historically, although not logically, eighteenth century scepticism often grew into atheism.
We will first look at the way in which paramountcy of conscience developed at both the religious and philosophical levels, and then at scepticism and its influence. Finally, we will describe the eventual Europe-wide acceptance of religious toleration.
The paramountcy of conscience - The influence of John Locke and Pierre Bayle: The paramountcy of ‘conscience’ as an accepted value was finally due to the influence of the Englishman, John Locke [1632 - 1704] and the Frenchman, Pierre Bayle [1647 - 1706] who both wrote at about the same time towards the end of the seventeenth century, but were largely ignorant of the others’ writings.*
Of the two, Locke was the more significant. He was probably the most influential philosopher of the Enlightenment. That influence extended beyond religious toleration. His views on the nature of the human person, on property and the social contract were important to the development of natural rights theory and political democracy. French democracy derived from Locke by way of Voltaire* and the Encyclopaedists. He was especially influential in America. Lockean ideas were at the heart of the American Revolution.
Locke was a physician and experimental chemist. He was a close friend of Newton and was well-grounded in seventeenth century science.* Locke’s famous, first, Letter concerning Toleration was published in 1689. Two later Letters followed.
Pierre Bayle was a Hugenot born into a poor family in a small town at the foot of the Pyrennes. He was largely self-educated although he studied theology. The range of his reading was prodigious as was his memory. Bayle very briefly converted to Catholicism upon being defeated in argument by a Jesuit. His reconversion was no easy matter in late seventeenth century France. He went to Geneva but eventually returned to France under an assumed name. With the publication of his works he felt it necessary to leave France altogether and fled to Holland. In June 1685 his brother Jacob, to whom he was devoted, was imprisoned. After five months of prison conditions Jacob died. He had been visited daily by a Jesuit priest offering him release if he would abjure.
It must not be supposed that Bayles’ difficulties were confined to the Catholics. They were almost as great with the strict Calvinists of Holland. The Calvinists were appalled by Bayles’ views on toleration as he was by theirs, in calling for a Holy War against Papists and other sects.
Bayle wrote a number of works but the two for which he is famous are the ‘Philosophical Commentary’ and the ‘Historical and Critical Dictionary’’. The full title of the ‘Philosophical Commentary’ was ‘Philosophical Commentary on the Words of our Lord ‘Compel them to come in’* in which it is proved by demonstrative reasoning that nothing is more abnormal than to make conversions by force, and in which all the sophistry of those who do so is refuted; likewise the Apologia made by St. Augustine for persecution’.
The Dictionary was published in 1686. It was an arsenal of scholarship and formed the basis for Diderot’s Encyclopaedia in the next century. The Dictionary was enormously popular.
Both Locke and Bayle affirmed the paramountcy of the human conscience, Locke saying that, ‘although the magistrate’s opinion in religion be sound, and the way that he appoints to be truly evangelical, yet if I be not thoroughly persuaded thereof in my own mind, there will be no safety for me in following it. No way whatsoever that I shall walk in, against the dictates of my conscience, will ever bring me to the mansions of the blessed. I may grow rich by an art that I take not delight in; I may be cured of some disease by remedies that I have not faith in; but I cannot be saved by a religion that I distrust, and by a worship that I abhor. It is vain for an unbeliever to take up the outward show of another man’s profession’.*
Locke grounded his opinions on religious toleration upon his ideas as to the nature of the human person. This is important. It gave those opinions a coherent philosophical base.*
Locke started from the distinction made by seventeenth century physics between the observer and the observed. The soul was identified with the observer. It was pure mental substance. When natural objects impinged upon it it became aware of qualities in sensed space and time. It was the soul which constituted the human person. The body was an aggregate of natural substances or atoms owned by the soul. Since the soul or individual mental substance was a purely private observer it was independent of every other soul. It followed that the beliefs and opinions held by each person had no higher or lower status than those held by any other person.* “The one only narrow way which leads to heaven is not better known by the Magistrate than to private persons.” Such a view necessarily leads to mutual toleration of each other’s beliefs.
The critical element in Locke’s thinking was that the private and independent nature of each soul meant that nobody else could know the truth better than the person could himself or herself.
Bayle, in the Philosophical Commentary, called for scrupulous respect for the conscience of each individual even if he or she were in error.* ‘Conscience is given to us to be the touchstone of that truth that we are commanded to obey and love. And even if the person persecuted is worthless, the persecution is always unjust. It is not a matter of what you force people to do, but you are wrong to use force at all … As soon as you do so, you commit a most wicked act, categorically opposed to the spirit of any religion and, above all, to that of the Gospel’.
Both Locke and Bayle excluded atheists from religious toleration. Bayle would not have proscribed the holding of atheistical belief* but only its propagation. Locke feared that atheists would have no belief inducing them to keep promises or more solemn convenants.* Locke’s reasoning is not merely implausible but contradicts his more general approach. What explains this? Both Locke and Bayle remained christians. That, however, seems an insufficient explanation. What we do know is that both Bayle and Locke felt it necessary to express their views on toleration anonymously. When Locke wrote the second Letter concerning Toleration in 1690, he was still writing anonymously and chose to pretend that he was not the author of the first Letter but merely someone who approved of its arguments. The only work that Bayle published in his own name was the ‘Historical and Critical Dictionary’. It cannot have been lack of tolerance which inspired the exclusion of atheism. It was simply that, at that time, to publicly espouse toleration of complete repudiation of christianity was extremely dangerous.*
Scepticism, the other strand in the Enlightenment idea of religious toleration, accepted atheism which had become increasingly widespread among the educated classes.
It was inevitable that once Reason was acknowledged as an alternative source of truth, Scripture itself would be questioned. This was particularly so as the idea of physical causation and the exclusion of divine intervention took hold. Miracles, which had once seemed to evidence the divine character of Scripture, increasingly became obstacles to that.
As early as the fifteenth century, John Colet, friend of More, recognised that the story of the creation was at odds with science. With Copernicus and Galileo the conflict between Scripture and science became sharper.
The scientific attitude led to textual scrutiny of the Bible. Thomas Hobbes, for example, observed that the Pentateuch seemed to have been written about Moses rather than by him.* Many traditional beliefs concerning date and authorship were found to have no support in the text of the Bible.
Writers began also to hint at improbability. Bayle,* in his Dictionnaire Historique said of the Fall, ‘no undertaking was ever as important since the destiny of the whole of humanity for all time was at stake … and yet no matter was completed so swiftly … It must be admitted that the two creatures to whom God had confided the salvation of mankind could not have looked after it worse … they put up less resistance than a child when someone is trying to take away its doll’.
Works on Scripture at the end of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth, such as John Toland’s ‘Christianity not Mysterious’* and Anthony Collins’ ‘Discourse of the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion’* not only asserted Reason to be a source of truth but that it displaced biblical revelation as a source of authority and that in case of conflict the former would always prevail.*
Scepticism and then atheism gathered momentum. The third Earl of Shaftsbury, in his influential ‘Inquiry Concerning Virtue’ (1699) made clear his aversion to the God of the Old Testament. He held that if there were such a God he would be less displeased with atheists than with those who accepted him in the guise of Jehovah. Shaftsbury argued that the doctrinal scheme of Heaven and Hell and the fears which they inspired corrupted ethics.*
In 1736, Bishop Butler reacted against this. He complained that Christianity had been discovered to be ‘fictitious’ and ‘among all people of discernment it was a subject of mirth and ridicule, as it were by way of reprisal for its having so long interrupted the pleasures of the world’. The ‘Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed’ was Bishop Butler’s own refutation of this attitude. In his work he deployed reason to demonstrate that christianity was in the highest degree probable.*
The major response in England to this mood of atheism and scepticism was however that of John Wesley and the evangelical revival. There was no such reaction in France before the Revolution. The Church itself was in a moribund and decaying state. The Bishops, who belonged to the aristocracy, were cynical and were themselves affected by atheism. Hilaire Belloc in his French Revolution said that ‘it did not shock the hierarchy that one of its Apostolic members should be a witty atheist; that another should go hunting upon the Corpus Christi, nearly upset the Blessed Sacrament in his gallop … The Bishops found nothing remarkable in raising a large proportion of their body to be loose livers or in some of them openly presenting their friends to their mistresses…’* Indeed Louis XVI, in possibly the only amusing remark ever attributed to him, said, when declining a recommended appointment, ‘No. The Archbishop of Paris must at least believe in God’.
The eighteenth century scepticism was conducive to religious toleration. It extinguished the previous fanaticism. But, as we have said, scepticism can provide no lasting base for religious toleration. It fades in the face of firm belief. To the believer’s question, why should we permit error to be propagated?, the sceptic can only answer unsatisfactorily – ‘you should not take your beliefs seriously – indeed you should not believe at all’.
The history of religious toleration in Europe did not, even at this point, happen suddenly or, except perhaps in Prussia, occur in an unqualified way. But, although the course remained tortuous, the end was never really in doubt in any part of Europe touched substantially by the Enlightenment.
The first law in England modifying legislation directed against religious non-conformity was the Toleration Act of 1689. It was a limited and inconsistent measure. The Act removed the worst features of the persecution to which protestant non-conformists had been subjected by the Conventicle Act and the Five Mile Act, in effect allowing dissenters freedom of worship. It permitted Quakers to make a declaration instead of taking an oath.* But dissenters still remained disqualified by the Test Act and the Corporation Act from holding any office in the State. Some mitigation of this inequality occurred after 1728 as a result of the Indemnity Acts. Final relief came only in 1828 when the Test Act and the Corporation Act were repealed.
Roman Catholics were treated much more harshly than nonconformists. The laws against them, first passed in the reign of Elizabeth, were exceedingly strict. The Toleration Act gave no relief to Roman Catholics. The more extreme aspects of the rigorous code against them were repealed in 1791. All Catholics were exempted from these extreme measures upon them taking an oath renouncing the Pope’s civil power and the doctrine that faith need not be kept with heretics and that Princes excommunicated by the Pope might be deposed or murdered. A Catholic, upon taking such an oath, was freed from civil disabilities, could worship in his own way in a registered place and could not be prosecuted for failure to attend church. It was not until 1829 that the Roman Catholic Emancipation (Relief) Act relieved Roman Catholics from the very substantial penalties to which they were, at that time, still subject.*
The Toleration Act had not relieved Unitarians of the disabilities imposed upon them and it was not until 1813 that remonstrances were given the same privileges as other non-conformists and the Blasphemy Act of 1698, in so far as it related to the denial of the doctrine of the Trinity, was repealed.*
In 1846 Jews were released from their disabilities and were placed generally on the same footing as protestant non-conformists and were admitted to full rights of citizenship.*
Intolerance of atheists remained. Full toleration indeed had to await the twentieth century. In the case of Bowman v The Secular Society Limited, in 1917, it was established that it was not against the law of England to deny the Christian faith or to propagate doctrines in oppositions to Christianity.*
Freedom of conscience in England was at last established.
In France persecution continued throughout the first half of the eighteenth century. An Edict of 1724 forbade heretical religious assemblies: the penalty was a sentence of perpetual galleys for men and life imprisonment for women. The penalty for protestant preachers was death. In 1749 the Parlement of Bordeaux ordered 46 persons to separate for concubinage, that is, for having been married by protestant rites. Their children were declared illegitimate.
But, from about the middle of the century there was a change. This was led by literary agitation on the part of rationalists and deists. Voltaire (who at all times retained his belief in God) poured contempt upon institutionalised Christianity: ‘so many frauds, so many errors, so many disgusting absurdities with which we have been inundated for seventeen hundred years, have been unable to do any harm to our religion. It is unquestionably divine, since seventeen centuries of imposture and imbecility have not destroyed it’. These assaults and the decay of the Church finally led enlightened Catholics to join the cause for toleration. This culminated in the Edict of Toleration made just before the Revolution in 1787.*
In Germany toleration was promoted by the German Enlightenment, led by such writers as Lessing. But it was the ascension of Frederick the Great to the throne of Prussia (1740) which gave religious toleration its greatest impetus in Germany. Shortly after becoming King he noted in the margin of a State Paper that ‘everyone should be allowed to get to heaven in his own way’.* Morality, in Frederick’s view, was independent of religion. A man could be a good citizen whatever his faith. That was all that the State was concerned about. Catholics were given equality with protestants. Frederick breached the Treaty of Westphalia so as to extend full toleration to all the forbidden sects. In the result complete religious toleration was granted for the first time by the free thinking ruler and this, after his death, was embodied in the Prussian Territorial Code of 1794. The rest of Germany did not follow suit until, by one of the last acts of the Holy Roman Empire, the Westphalian settlement was modified (1803). Religious freedom throughout Germany was established before the foundation of the empire (1870). In Austria Joseph II issued an Edict of Toleration in 1781. The toleration allowed by the Edict was limited, although it did extend geographically to the Austrian states in Italy. Full religious liberty was not established in Austria until 1867.
Piedmont became the first State in Italy to have full religious liberty when Cavour introduced it in 1848. But this only prepared the way for liberty of conscience being extended throughout the Italian kingdom in 1870.
Two interacting ideas led, after more than three centuries, to religious toleration.
The first was the idea of the moral significance of the human person which required that every human being be allowed a free conscience in matters of belief. The paramountcy of conscience was proclaimed by the Quakers and asserted by John Milton. It was implicit in the opposition of the Independents to State religion. It was not only affirmed by Locke, but given philosophic form by him in the private independent entity which, as he supposed, constituted the human person. The paramountcy of conscience assumes the possibility of proponents and opponents holding strong and conflicting beliefs whilst recognising the supremacy of conscience even though that may be at the expense of truth. It is symbolised by Voltaire’s famous statement to the effect that though he disagreed with ‘what you say, he would fight to the death for your right to say it’.
That was the first strand.
The other influence which pervaded the centuries was that of rationalism. The central effect of rationalism was to weaken ‘authority’. It also contributed, as a secondary influence, to a general attitude of tolerance.
The exclusive ‘authority’ of the protestant Reformation was the Bible. Not only the Bible, but, in the first instance, particular interpretations of it. Only reluctantly was toleration accorded to these differing interpretations. Rationalism led first to a freer reading of the Bible so as to emphasise the spirit over the letter. The spirit of Jesus in the New Testament was one of tolerance and mercy. Thus the cry of Castellio, ‘O Creator and King of the World, doest thou see these things? Art thou become so changed, so cruel, contrary to thyself? When thou wast on Earth, none more mild, more clement, more patient of injury.”
The second influence of rationalism was to advance an alternative source of truth to that of the Bible. This was done at first very cautiously by Hooker who sought to establish the inbuilt recognition of natural law by every human being as an alternative, although compatible basis for truth. But the greatest impetus in this direction was given by seventeenth century science. We have an early explanation of this in Galileo’s letter to the Dowager Grand Duchess in ‘The Authority of Scripture’. Finally, rationalism led to the critical examination of the Bible itself both in terms of internal consistency and historical accuracy.
In all of these ways rationalism weakened religious authority and thereby made it easier to concede the claims of the private conscience. But in the end, rationalism was only an activating principle. Paramountcy of conscience did not derive from Reason but from the concept of the human person* which had its beginnings long before the Reformation. It was the gradual working out over centuries of the stoic ideal of the equal moral significance of the individual human being that each should have the same freedom to believe.
* If one had to choose a date for the commencement of the European Enlightenment one could hardly do better than 1687, the year in which Newton published his Principia.
* A more comprehensive explanation of rationalism and its relationship to the idea of reform is set out in the appended End-Note.
* Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, Pimlico, p.175-178, esp.pp.177,178; Russell, History of Western Philosophy, George Allen and Unwin Ltd, p.485; for an interesting comment on the Islamic influence of Averroes (12th cent) on the question of the relationship between revelation and reason, see Bury, History of Freedom of Thought, Home University Library,p.57
* Discourse on Method, Descartes believed that if everything could be ‘doubted’ he would have discovered an irrefutable basis for ascertaining the truth.
* See John Redwood, Reason, Ridicule and Religion, Thames and Hudson, p.144 ‘comets represented a world in which God intervened’ and for the subsequent change, later in the century, see p.145.
* Bury, op.cit., p.49.
* “Our only hope, therefore, lies in true induction.”, The New Organum, Spedding, Ellios and Heath, iv, Bk 1.
* Quoted, Great Ages of Man, Time-Life Library, p.19.
* Quoted, Great Ages of Man, Time-Life Library, p.19.
* See generally, John Redwood, op.cit., p.134.
* Russell, Religion and Science, Home University Library, p.100.
* Russell, Religion and Science, Home University Library, p.100.
* MacCulloch, Reformation, Penguin, p.567.
* Exod. xxii. 18.
* Davies, op.cit., p.567.
* It is interesting to note that the Spanish Inquisition was unwilling “to join in the widespread European mania of witch hunting. Most Spanish theologians did not believe in the existence of witchcraft and held that spells and sorceries were only female vapourings which could be safely ignored or dealt with by shutting the witch-women up in convents.”, Encyc. Britt. The Spanish Inquisition,(1994-1998).The Navarrese Inquisitor, Alonso de Salazar Frias, a careful lawyer, who, after examining hundreds of cases, could find no evidence of witchcraft, MacCulloch, Reformation,Penguin,p.575.
* The rebellion against Spain was another factor.
* Mitchell and Leys, A History of the English People, Longmans, Green and Co., p.369.
* Russell, op.cit, p.100.
* B. Russell, Religion and Science, H.U.L., p.106.
* Christopher Hill, God’s Englishman, Pelican, p.207.
* Authorised Version of the Holy Bible(1611),Oxford and Cambridge Universities, Eyre and Spotiswoode, 1951, The Translators to the Reader, appended to the original version, p.xxx.
In the comment on the text in the 1951 edition, it is said King James ‘made the most wise stipulation that it should contain no marginal commentary”, xivi.
* Descartes, himself, after learning of the Inquisition proceedings against Galileo halted publication of his great work, Discourse on Method; commenting on this he wrote, “Three years have now elapsed since I finished the Treatise containing these matters and I was beginning to revise it with the view to put it in the hands of a printer, when I learnt that persons to whom I greatly defer, and whose authority over my actions is hardly less influential than is my own reason over my thoughts…” would object to the views expressed, Descartes, Discourse on Method, Readings in Western Civilization, Vol 2, p.95, Alfred Knopf. Inc; see also on this Russell, Religion and Science, op.cit. p.172 and J.D. Bernal, Science in History, Pelican, Vol 2, p.446.
Hammerton, The World’s Great Books in Outline,Vol.7,p.3844. The Authority of Scripture, a magnificent defence of free speech, arose from an argument over dinner at the Grand Ducal Court of Tuscany about the Copernican system. Galileo was not present at the dinner but was later approached to provide a letter to the Grand Duchess. For a more complete description of Galileo’s response, see Arthur Koestler, The Sleep Walkers, Hutchison, pp.433-442.
* Ecc. Polity 1,xvi,8
* “The unitarian creed was moulded by Fausto Sozzini, generally known as Socinius, and in the catechism of the sect (1574) persecution is condemned.”, Bury, History of Freedom of Thought, H.U.L. p.73.
* Locke’s First Letter was written in December 1685 and Bayle’s ‘Commentary’ in 1686 but it appears he had read Bayle’s, Pensees sur le comete, see Introduction, David Wooten, John Locke, Political Writings, Penguin Classics, p.107.
* “After all”, Voltaire wrote, ”he must admit that anybody who has read Locke… must find the Platos mere fine talkers”, quoted John Morely, Voltaire, Chapman and Hall,p.64.
* F.S.C. Northrop, The Meeting of East and West, The Macmillan Company (New York) p.72.
* The words are taken from the parable of the marriage feast, Luke 14:23, and the interpretation placed upon it by Augustine that it permitted the use of force against the heretical Donatists.
* John Locke Political Writings, A Letter Concerning Toleration (1685), Penguin Classics, p.410.
* We are not asserting the philosophical validity of Locke’s idea of the self. David Hume, writing towards the end of the 18th century, made substantial criticisms of the Lockean idea of the ‘self’ but that did not detract from its historical importance, especially in providing a foundation for the theory of natural rights vesting rights in the individual person.
* F.S.C. Northrop, The Meeting of East and West,op.cit.p.83.
* Elisabeth Labrousse, Bayle, Labrousse, Oxford University Press, p.83, “ The maxim ‘Compel them to Come in’ has nothing to do with the use of force, it only urges us to invite others, lovingly, to seek the light”.
* John Locke Political Writings, Introduction, David Wooten, Penguin Classics, p.109.
* Bayle, op.cit., p.81.
* It is strange and difficult for us to recognize the revolutionary character of religious toleration but as late as 1832,Pope Gregory XVI, could denounce ‘the absurd and erroneous maxim, or rather insanity, that freedom of conscience should be promised and guaranteed to everyone’ and in Singulari Nos (June 25, 1834) “the barrier that must be erected against the wild license of opinions; finally, the condemnation of an absolute liberty of conscience”.
* Encyc. Britt. (1958), Bible, Vol 3, p.508.
* Bury, A History of Freedom of Thought, H.U.L. pp. 107-109; Elisabeth Labrousse, Bayle, Oxford Paperbacks, pp. 63-64.
* The Age of Enlightenment, Great Ages of Man, Time-Life, p.38, Bury,op.cit.p.106.
* The Age of Enlightenment op.cit p.38, Bury, op.cit. p.112.
* John Redwood, Reason, Ridicule and Religion, Thames and Hudson,p.200, although mostly there was an endeavour to harmonise christianity with reason, as with Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity. Bury, op.cit. pp105-106.
* Bury, op.cit., p.119.
* Bury, op.cit., p.120.
* Oxford University Press, p.179.
* The History Today Companion to British History, edited by Juliet Gardiner and Neil Wenborn, Collins and Brown, p.746.
* The History Today Companion To British History,op.cit.p138.
* Bury, op.cit., p.83.
* Bury, op.cit., p.83.
* Bowman v Secular Society (1917) A.C. 406;See Bury pp.110-111.
* For religious toleration in France generally, see Bury pp 85-92.
* Bury, op.cit., p.95.
* It is often by looking back and reviewing the tortuous history of an idea that one can recognise the magnitude of the achievement and the advance in civilisation that has accompanied that history. When in 1517 Luther initiated the Reformation there began two centuries of persecution and a further century of religious intolerance. In 1948, Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights laid down as a universal right, ‘that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion…’.
Enlightenment rationalism was very much a combination of French and English influences, and this was so notwithstanding that their interaction produced sharp philosophical conflict.
The founder of French rationalism was René Descartes (1596 - 1650). Descartes based his philosophy on the method of ‘doubt’. His first rule was ‘to accept nothing as true which I did not clearly recognise to be so; to accept nothing more than what was present to my mind so clearly and distinctly that I could have no occasion to doubt it.’
The Cartesian process of inquiry into truth was from ‘doubt’ to ‘thought’. Descartes’ famous postulate ‘cogito ergo sum’, ‘I think therefore I am’, one of the most famous in philosophy, is perhaps less a statement about ‘I’ than about ‘thinking’. Thought was to Descartes the foundation - the primary reality. Certainty was achieved through ideas innate to the mind. Descartes was a formidable mathematician and the father of coordinate geometry. To these his philosophy of ‘innate ideas’ was admirably apt. Descartes rejected the notion that understanding or knowledge depended upon, or was initiated by, perception and observation. In Part VI of ‘The Discourse on Method’ (1637), he explains that ‘first I have essayed to find in general the principles, or first causes of all that is or can be in the world, without taking into consideration for this end anything but God himself who has created it, and without educing them from any other source than from certain germs of truth naturally existing in our minds. In the second place, I examined what were the first and most ordinary effects that could be deduced from these causes … Thereafter turning over in my mind all the objects that had ever been presented to the senses, I freely venture to state, that I have never observed any which I could not satisfactorily explain by the principles I had discovered’.
Descartes pronounced the axiom of doubt in very wide terms – ‘de omnibus dubitandum’, we must doubt everything’.
There were in fact severe limitations, some arbitrary and self-imposed, to the method of doubt as he applied it. Descartes was and remained throughout his life a devout Catholic. It was not his wish to controvert the Church. Accordingly he excluded scripture and church doctrine from the principle of ‘doubt’. The trial of Galileo also had its effect upon him. In his ‘Discourse on Method’ Descartes wrote that ‘three years have now elapsed since I finished the treatise containing all these matters; and I was beginning to revise it, with a view to putting it into the hands of a printer, when I learned that persons to whom I greatly defer, and whose authority over my actions is hardly less influential than is my own reason over my thoughts, had condemned a certain doctrine in physics’. (Galileo was condemned in 1633, for endorsing Copernicanism in his ‘Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems’, (1632), after having been forbidden from doing so in 1616).
The Church correctly recognised that Cartesian doubt could not be contained and was eventually bound to threaten its authority. Innate ideas emanating from each person’s divine soul were dangerous. Accordingly, notwithstanding Descartes’ disavowal of any heretical intent, the Church inhibited the publication of his works.
In his ‘An Essay Concerning Human Understanding’, Locke rejected Descarte’s principal proposition that ideas were innate. All our ‘ideas’ - Locke’s term for knowledge - derived, in his opinion, from experience. They ‘are the result of sensations which flow in upon us from the natural and social world, and of the operation of the reflecting mind upon these sensations’. This latter addition is critical. Knowledge is not, in Lockean terms, simply what we experience. Knowledge is the product of reason working out the connections and the meaning of experienced impressions and sensations.
Voltaire was very largely responsible for introducing Lockean empiricism to France. Voltaire lived in England from 1724 to 1729. The experience profoundly influenced his whole life. Newton died at the age of 84 during Voltaire’s stay. Voltaire was very much affected by the universal reverence in which Newton was held. Locke and Newton were friends. It was natural that Voltaire should have become attracted to Locke – ‘that truly wise man’ – whose writings he would, during his long life, always turn to when he felt the need to replenish his spirit. Voltaire returned to France not only with the imprint of Locke upon his thinking but with a fervent determination to transmit Lockean thought to his own country.
In the result Locke’s philosophy became superimposed upon French rationalism.
Whatever their differences, both French and English thinkers established reason as the cardinal tenet of the Enlightenment. To that extent tradition, sacred text and authority were relegated to an inferior status.
Descartes and Locke differed in the application of rationalism to religion, history and social conditions. It is evident that deductive logic – the reaching of conclusions from premises ‘innate’ to the mind – is more amenable to mathematics and abstractions such as extension and motion than to history and religion, which depend upon ascertainment and assemblage of facts. Locke started with facts or at least the impression of them as received by the mind. Reason then worked on these. The inductive method adopted by Locke’s friend, Isaac Newton, held that if an event has been observed in many instances to follow another event and no instance was known of it not having followed that other event, it would be treated (at least as a matter of probability) as having been caused by that other event. This method justified the principle of physical causation which excluded magical or religious causes - either divine or diabolical.
Locke forged a breach between Reason and biblical and ecclesiastical Authority. He did so through the empirical relationalism we have mentioned and also his conception of the human person. The Protestant reformation had introduced into western religious thought the right of private judgement. It was given a firm foundation in the Lockean concept of the person - a purely private introspective mind - which, on that account, was vested with a right to free belief. That personal right would prevail not just in a society of indifferent scepticism but in a society where the State or other instruments of coercion were themselves committed to firm belief. We may bring out the point more clearly by contrasting Locke with Hume. David Hume was thoroughly sceptical but he rejected the Lockean self as an identifiable entity. In Hume’s philosophy what passed through and constituted the mind was simply an association of sense data. If Hume and not Locke had been the dominant influence, toleration may not have withstood firm belief. It would not have been possible to attach a right to a mere process of perceptions and impressions.
Rationalism did much to clear away superstition and the notions of diabolical intervention and miraculous causation upon which medieval inhumanity was founded. Doubt, tolerance and compassion replaced or tended to replace authority, dogmatic certainty and retribution.
Rationalism alone though would never have produced the idea of reform. It may in itself have merely culminated in the weary scepticism of Gibbon. It is to be noted that, with the possible exceptions of witchcraft and treatment of the insane, none of the great achievements of the humanitarian movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries occurred without substantial legislation.
The Christian Reformers
The humanitarian action of the Quakers is a remarkable story, no less so than their influence on religious toleration. Throughout, their history has been one of balancing conflicting tendencies. The reconciliation of the authority of private, individual conscience with the need for an effective organization was the first step towards engagement in humanitarian social action.
“For all protestant churches the appeal to conscience, to the inner voice, competed with the necessity of organisation and discipline if the church was to survive”. This comment by Christopher Hill was acutely true of the Quakers.* The Quakers had escaped from puritanism by taking the principle of private judgement to the ultimate extreme. The Society of Friends was not a church and did not purport to be a church.
It was, moreover, founded in a period of faction and rebellion. For almost one hundred years after the reformation, ecclesiastical institutions, the authority of the Bishops and religious censorship had maintained an uneasy stability in England. This collapsed in the 1640’s. The attempt to substitute the authority and discipline of the Presbyterians proved a failure.
“Once the fabric of political and ecclesiastical authority began to unravel, men’s aspirations were left without guide or limits To the horror of the more orthodox Presbyterians and Independents, the wars spawned a host of ‘gangrena’ where millinerian prophets were coupled with defiance of the law and demands for political and agrarian reform. For those sectarians the essence of religion was a rapturous experience which had nothing to do with creeds, churches or covenants; in a searing flash the Divine Spirit annihilated man’s sinful nature… and freed him from obligations to external law (italics added).”*
Some of the sects, such as the Seekers and Ranters were wild and anarchic. In the early years the Quakers were identified with these; Bunyan spoke of Quakers as having the same beliefs as the Ranters, a quasi-pantheistic sect.
George Fox at first accepted Luther’s doctrine of a priesthood of all believers in an extreme form. ‘What’, Fox asked in one of his Letters, ‘are all christians priests? Yes; all christians’.* And in the 1650s and 1660s Quakers tended in an anarchic direction. James Nayler represented an extreme wing of the movement.* Also, it was during this period that Quakers refused to take oaths, to pay tythes and, from the 1660’s, refused to take part in military service. Had this tendency continued the Quakers would never have been able to direct their energies to concrete objectives in the humanitarian field. That the tendency did not continue was due chiefly to George Fox himself, whatever earlier statements he may have made.* He rejected the preaching and practice of lawlessness common to some of the other sects. He urged good citizenship. Gradually he tightened the organisation despite its natural tendencies in the other direction. This led to opposition and in the 1670s, when he required the subordination of the individual Inner Light to the ‘sense of the meeting’, a group of dissidents left.* Thereafter the Quaker ‘meeting’ enabled the movement to receive advice and to make corporate decisions.
Also, the period of serious persecution, in the thirty years before 1690, drew Quakers together and tended to solidify the organisation. Of course, the Society continued to have differences and divisions, but from the end of the seventeenth century it was able to combine the high degree of individual judgement implicit in the principle of the inner light with coherent organisation.
The reconciliation of the significance of the private conscience with the authority of scripture was vitally important to the movement’s future humanitarian role. Whilst not dismissing scripture, the Society upheld the primacy of the continual revelation through the working of the Holy Spirit of the world, as manifested in each individual. It meant that Quakers were guided by an ethic of intent and spirit and not of ordained commands. Had higher authority been given to scripture, the Quakers may have reverted to Biblical literalism and a Divine command system of ethics.
It did not follow that humanitarian social action was a necessary consequence of these beliefs. The idea that ‘God dwells in each one of us’ is consistent with a life of inner contemplation: and in the early part of the eighteenth century Friends seemed to be moving in a quietistic direction. (At the same time they began to be prominent in industry and commerce, largely because of the discrimination of the Test and Corporations Acts and their exclusion from Universities.)
One factor that halted this tendency was the coincidence of Quaker arrival in America with the Atlantic slave trade. The tensions caused within the Society are described elsewhere* but, faced with slavery, Quakers could not remain passive.
Another factor was the rise of the evangelical movement. The effect of this is described in the Encyclopaedia Britannica as follows: “The evangelical movement quickened the social conscience… the whole Society was involved in this cause (the abolition of slavery). This was part of a wider concern for right race relations springing directly from the Friends’ belief in the Light of Christ being given to every man. Many aspects of penal reform claimed their ardent support: the first Society for the abolition of capital punishment in Great Britain was formed partly by Friends in 1808 and Elizabeth Fry, supported by other Friends, initiated reforms in prisons and convict ships which quickly revolutionised both. The movement for universal education derived much of its impetus from Joseph Lancaster (1778-1838)… Friends were involved in the London Peace Society to educate public opinion to the renunciation of War as an instrument of policy.”*
Anglican evangelicalism derived from Wesleyanism and like Wesleyanism was a reaction against Latitudinarianism* in the Church of England.
Latitudinarianism, a now forgotten movement, refers to allowing latitude to or toleration of differing religious beliefs. Like continental deism it tended to reduce the essential beliefs of a Christian to a small number of basic tenets. Locke, in his ‘The Reasonableness of Christianity’ had postulated that only two beliefs were needed to be a Christian: that Christ was God the Messiah and that life should be lived according to his teaching. Locke was Latitudinarian in attitude and was friendly with Latitudinarian bishops such as John Tillotson, Archbishop of Canterbury (1691-1694). Like other Latitudinarians, Tillotson “vigorously defended the use of reason in reading the Scriptures and denounced what he described as religious ‘enthusiasm’”;* the kind of enthusiasm exemplified by the revivalist sects. Human beings should be humane, generous and tolerant. In particular, he agreed with Locke’s views on the toleration of religious minorities.
The same sort of ideas were given effect in Scotland under the name of moderatism. This did much to detach Scotland from the bigotry of the old Presbyterianism. Even deist philosophers such as David Hume and Adam Smith (then Professor at Glasgow University) were more or less acceptable.*
The Whigs were in government for almost fifty years following the Hanoverian Accession. Most ecclesiastical appointments were Latitudinarian (Low Church). The Jacobite tendencies of the High Church Party and its fervour in persecuting dissenters made Latitudinarian appointments politically desirable if not essential.*
There were however limits to the popular spread of Latitudinarianism and its Scottish counterpart. Religion became too cool, rational and intellectual under their influence to appeal to the working classes or agricultural labourers many of whom were illiterate. The urban working class was growing and this was to expand with the industrial revolution. It was disoriented and found the ‘reasonable’ Christianity of the upper classes increasingly unacceptable. This unacceptability was accentuated by the laxity of many of the clergy.
Wesleyanism was born in this environment. It was a reaction within the Church against Latitudinarianism. It must be remembered that only at the end of the eighteenth century did Wesleyanism depart institutionally from the established Church of England.
John and Charles Wesley began preaching in 1738. They replaced the stilted sermons of the Church with preaching charged with emotion. Together with Whitefield they attracted enormous crowds throughout England. *
Wesley believed in the literal interpretation of the Bible as the word of God. Any criticism of the Bible was the work of the devil.* In his sermons he brought back Hell as an ever present reality. His references to death and to everlasting punishment produced strange convulsions among those present at the vast assemblies at which he preached.*
Wesley would have nothing to do with the Newtonian conception of physical causation. He not only believed in miracles but believed in an almost crude daily intervention by the deity. It became a ‘miracle’ for Wesley if the rain stopped and allowed him to set forth on a journey.*
Politically, Wesley was conservative and detested the political philosophes and radicals. He regarded the Enlightenment and the French Revolution as the direct work of Satan. Wesley was intolerant and encouraged a violent hatred of Papists.* He supported the laws against them and similarly against the Jews whom he believed to be the murderers of Christ.
Wesleyanism was a revival - a revival of the puritan element within the Church of England. Hell was restored to its pre-eminence. The Bible was claimed to be the sole source of divine authority. A literalist reading was required and its inerrancy (freedom from error in history as well as in faith and morals) was insisted upon.*
Had this been all there was to Wesley he would simply, if successful, have extirpated Latitudinarianism in the Church of England and led a reversion to puritanism.
But Wesley differed from the older Puritan in a number of ways. The salvation in which he believed was not the salvation of the Calvinist - the salvation of the Elect. This was to be a matter of great significance.
Wesley’s mother Susannah had always been a powerful influence upon him. She regarded the theological position of the Calvinists with hostility. She insisted on Wesley departing from them “even at the risk of splitting the young movement”.* In this Wesley broke with his colleague Whitefield. Wesley’s fervent opposition to predestination is brought out in the following passage recorded in his works.* “This is the blasphemy clearly contained in the horrible decree of predestination. You represent God as worse than the devil; more faults, more cruel, more unjust. But you say you will prove it by scripture. Hold! What will you prove by scripture? That God is worse than the devil? It cannot be. Whatever that scripture proves, it can never prove this; whatever its true meaning be, it cannot be this meaning. No scripture can mean that God is not love, or that his mercy is not over all his works; that is whatever it prove beside no scripture can prove predestination.”
The explanation for Susannah’s attitude was the family Arminian background. Arminianism influenced the Wesleys and the evangelicals and perhaps more than anything else prevented the ‘puritan’ revival in both England and America from being Calvinist.
Arminians were the followers of the Dutch theologian, Jacobus Arminius (1560- 1609) who studied at and then taught at the University of Leiden. During the latter part of the sixteenth century Holland was in a ferment over the issue of religious toleration. Leiden, where Arminius was professor from 1603 to 1609, was the centre of this controversy. He became the leader of the anti-calvinist school of the reformed theology in Holland which later created the Remonstrant Church.
Arminius had not reduced his theology to a systematic form before his death. This was done by his pupil, Simon Episcopius (1583-1643). In 1610 the Arminians presented a famous remonstrance to the States of Holland and Friesland. The remonstrance comprising five articles set out the doctrinal difference between the Arminians and Calvinist. Of these the most important were, “ that though the Grace of God is a necessary condition (for salvation) it does not act irresistably in man” and “believers are not beyond the possibility of falling from Grace”. In effect, by holding the view that God’s Grace could be resisted and that human beings could be damned for that resistance, Arminius was denying predestination.
Arminians were imprisoned and executed.The Synod of Dort (1618) resulted in the total victory of the Calvinists but in 1630 the Arminians were re-admitted to Holland. And thereafter they became an increasing influence both on other denominations and on the English reformation.The Arminian insistence on free will in salvation powerfully influenced the Baptists and led to a formal division between calvinist and arminian sects in that church.
Arminianism was fundamental to Wesleyanism.
As a result in Wesleyanism salvation was open to all, but how did this take place?
To Wesley, conversion came as a sudden personal assurance of salvation, bringing new birth and dominion over sin. Every individual was capable of that conversion. In this he relied upon his own experience. As he recorded at the famous religious meeting Aldersgate Street on 24th May 1738: ‘I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt that I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.’*
Personal salvation is characteristic of evangelicism generally. Evangelicals believed in original ‘sin’, the utter depravity of human nature in consequence of the Fall. Jesus atoned for our sins on the Cross. It is only through ‘faith’ in Jesus and in his atonement for our sins that we can be ‘saved’. Being ‘saved’ was commonly, though not necessarily, thought to occur through a specific conversion experience.*
It was in this somewhat unpromising soil that humanitarianism was to grow.
Notwithstanding the puritan character of the revival, the Wesleyans were not, as we have said in relation to salvation, puritan. One can also see non-puritan characteristics in the attitude they took towards the poor. To the puritan, poverty was a consequence of sin, especially the sin of idleness.
In the eighteenth century, popular journals of a Wesleyan character began to praise benevolence. Wesley was particularly affected by the poor and the neglected. ‘I love the poor’* he wrote ‘in many of them I find pure genuine Grace’. Many of his own enterprises resulted from the needs of the poor. ‘All my leisure hours this week’ he recorded in 1783, ‘I am employed in visiting the poor and in begging for them.’ He raised moneys for them, started a dispensary, began a Loan Society, founded a home for widows and a school for poor children. All of this was quite unpuritan.
Evangelicalism thus turned away from puritan self-sufficiency to christian compassion.
The historian J H Plumb said of this that ‘Susannah Wesley saved Methodism as a social force for good works’.* By this he was referring to the influence Wesley’s mother exercised in causing Wesley to break with Whitefield and reject the Calvinist doctrine of the Elect. In a sense what Plumb says is true but it is something of an oversimplification. It is true that the great starting point of evangelical humanitarianism was the rejection of predestination and the doctrine of the Elect. That was the open door through which humanitarianism was able to enter. But Wesley never suggested that salvation could be attained by compassionate or benevolent action in the form of ‘good works’*. Good works only evidenced a person being in a state of Grace. In evangelical christianity there is no direct line between the New Testament ethic of compassion and salvation.
And yet Wesleyans and, for the next one hundred years, evangelicals were at the forefront of social concern and compassionate activity. ‘God willeth all men to be saved’ Wesley said,* echoing the words of Arminius. But what led from this to benevolent activity and thence to social reform, an intellectual ‘creature’ of the despised’ Enlightenment?
To explain this we come upon a difficulty that neither the Wesleyans nor the Anglican Evangelicals ever explained the principles underlying their position. Cardinal Newman once said of evangelicalism that it had ‘no internal idea, no principle of unity, no theology’. That may be an overstatement but it contains a large measure of truth. Alfred North Whiteheads’ commented to the same effect on Wesleyanism.*
One must first relate the evangelical humanitarian activity to their conception of salvation, for whatever else, salvation was and remained central. (It is also to be kept in mind that the behaviour of a sinner after being ‘saved’ only becomes a question with evangelical ‘this-worldly’ salvation.)
In his work, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture* David Brion Davis seems to give the most helpful explanation of the link between evangelical salvation and benevolent activity. (a) We start from the Arminian premise that Grace may be bestowed on any person irrespective of his/her sins or station in life but that Grace might be resisted. (b) Through faith, contrition and inner struggle Grace might be realised in conversion, an instantaneous transformation of the soul, such as had occurred to Wesley himself on that May evening in 1738*. (c) The soul is thus liberated from original sin but the erstwhile sinner may fall from this state of Grace. He or she must continue to strive by living a holy life.
What has been said to this point explains how the need to live a holy life fits with salvation through Grace dispensed by God. It does not explain why a holy life was equated with benevolent action. In the abstract such a life could have been one of contemplation or, alternatively, a life of Old Testament righteousness, something more akin to puritanism. But ‘benevolent or habitual disposition of love was… the ultimate ideal of methodism’. Living a holy life required living benevolently and in perfect love.
Wesley had shifted puritanism to the New Testament. It may be that this shift was supported by the philosophy of benevolence which developed during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. This had its origins in the ethic of the third Earl Shaftsbury (1671-1713) and the Cambridge Platonists who sought to detach ethics from religion and base them upon humanity’s moral sense. Francis Hutcheson (1694-1747) did most to give this philosophy coherence. Sympathy is the internalised sense which enables us to feel the sufferings of others.* God comes into the picture only by having ingeniously created human beings who have those feelings and are thus able to live harmoniously with each other.*
This philosophy attracted the Latitudinarians in the Church of England, whom Wesley abhorred. He would have had violent objections to the premises of this philosophy. But it is not difficult to see how, in this atmosphere, the pure and holy life of the ‘saved’ believer could be identified with the prevailing ethic of benevolence. It accorded, first, with his Arminian background. Once it is accepted that we are all sinners and equally engaged in the struggle for liberation from sin, it was natural to feel a common sympathy for sinful but suffering humanity. One no longer looked upon human suffering with the cold and judgemental detachment of the Calvinist Elect. In Biblical terms it was necessary only to shift one’s gaze from the Old Testament to the New. Despite Wesley’s hostility to latitudinarianism and to the English Enlightenment, the ethic of benevolence, harmonised with his christianity. And so, although ‘good works’ would not gain a sinner salvation, by a curious inversion, after the sinner has been ‘saved’, ‘good works’ become necessary to preserve the state of Grace otherwise achieved.
Wesleyanism was, in the first instance, a missionary organisation. It was a revivalist movement bringing salvation to the “unchurched masses”* in the new industrial towns. It was a message preached by itinerant preachers (Wesley himself travelled 6,000-8,000 miles a year, a total of 225,000 miles over half a century, and toured Ireland 19 times).* At the time of the final break with the Church of England the unordained preachers had been placed on an equal footing with the ordained. For them though the sacraments were of lesser importance than the personal experience of the grace of God at highly emotional mass meetings. It was not possible for these preachers, many of whom belonged to the lower classes, to disregard the conditions of the industrial masses to whom they preached or the hardship from which their followers suffered.
It was necessary therefore if persons were to be ‘saved’ that they should be relieved of their poverty and ignorance. This idea was very ‘unpuritan’ for it implied that human beings could themselves do something to bring about their salvation. That was precisely the ‘heresy of universal redemption’, which Whitefield and other Calvinists feared. This evangelical concern about economic and social conditions springs from an entirely different source from that of the Enlightenment. The human person was not, as Locke taught, a tabula rasa, a blank recipient of external sensations which could improve or corrupt his or her essentially good nature. For the evangelicals sin was embedded in the human condition. Man was originally corrupt not originally perfect. It was the purpose of life to be ‘saved’ from sin.
It was apparent though that ‘faith’ could not be acquired unless the poverty of the industrial classes was relieved and their conditions changed. Perhaps the clearest link between evangelical concern for salvation and human improvement was in the field of education. How - in evangelical terms - could one have faith if one were unable to read the Bible? Hence the need for schools.
Robert Raikes (1735-1811)* established the first Sunday School in Gloucester in 1781. This led to what may be described as the Sunday School movement. His success was immediate. He established a rigorous routine: regular sessions commencing at eight o’clock in the morning and lasting until eight o’clock at night and this was often for those attending after they had worked long hours in the Gloucester pin factories during the week.
It must not be supposed that the beginnings of education among the lower classes was uncontroversial. The move had to be defended against attacks that education would sow seeds of insubordination.
A similar development was the new Charity Schools. The object was to save children from debauchery. This encountered a great deal of opposition. But in the face of it, evangelical churchmen and dissenters combined to provide a rudimentary education among working class children and to give them certain practical skills.
Provision of education led to the provision of social services. Captain Coram established the Foundling Hospital to help abandoned children who had been left by their parents to die.* James Hannay founded Magdalen Hospital for prostitutes and was a predecessor to Lord Shaftsbury in campaigning for boy chimney sweeps. Hannah More, a prominent literary and social figure, drew attention to the plight of agricultural labourers. It was Wilberforce who directed her attention to the conditions that prevailed in Mendiphils where she and her sister worked.*
Wesley broke from the Church of England in 1784 although the final breach only took place after his death in 1791.At his death his followers could be numbered in thousands. In time the Methodist Church came to have millions of adherents.
But from the standpoint of the humanitarian movement the importance of Wesleyanism lay in its impact upon the Church of England. In the same year as Wesley’s breach with the Church, 1784, William Wilberforce converted to evangelical christianity and formed the Society for the Reformation of Manners. He and a small but influential group known as the ‘Saints’ constituted “the bridge between the Establishment and dissent”*
The effect upon the Church and the laity of the interacting influences of Wesleyanism, Evangelicalism and the French Revolution is explained in the following passage from Trevelyan’s Illustrated History of England:*
“It was only at the close of the eighteenth century that something of the spirit of Methodism began to react upon the established church and upon the upper classes themselves. The greater seriousness induced in those quarters by the prospect of the French Revolution, helped the change in tempo. But though evangelism then gained a formidable party among the Church clergy, its strength lay in the Church laity, in Wilberforce and the anti-slavery Saints, in Shaftsbury and the philanthropists of the new century."*
The Anglican evangelicals were responsible for the Wesleyan influence in the Church of England but there were inevitable differences.
One aspect of Wesleyanism, as of all the revivalist sects, was what has been described as “enthusiasm”. It was the ecstasy felt by the believer at the moment of salvation brought about by personal conversion. It was this ‘enthusiasm’ which the latitudinarians deprecated. And the Church of England evangelicals, many of whom came from the educated upper class, were less moved in this way.They chanelled their emotions into humanitarian activity. As Trevelyan said, “humanitarian activity was the characteristic form in which religious piety expressed itself”*
One need only record the array of activities in which they engaged—endless campaigning for the abolition of slavery (Wilberforce and the Saints); reform of criminal punishments;* prevention of cruelty to children (Lord Shaftsbury was a founding member of the Society formed for this purpose); prevention of cruelty to animals (among the founders of the Society for the prevention of cruelty to animals were Wilberforce and Fowell Buxton).
It is evident that the new evangelical recognition of social and economic conditions could have stopped at philanthropy and charity rather than social and legal reform – reform leading to the kind of laws which Lord Shaftsbury demanded to protect the poor. The ethic of benevolence did not require reform. One strand of evangelicalism was indeed restricted to charity and philanthropy. The Salvation Army begun by Booth, formerly a Methodist, in 1865, had as its object only the relief of poverty. This was considered essential to enable the poor to attain salvation.*
There were a number of reasons why the evangelical reformers went beyond philanthropy to social reform.
The reformers could not help but absorb the tendency in favour of reform inspired by the Enlightenment. Notwithstanding their objections to many of the Enlightenments’ contemporary manifestations, reform was part of the air they breathed.
Another reason was more adventitious. Many of the evangelicals were members of Parliament – Wilberforce, Clarkson and Shaftsbury – to mention some only. The natural course for them to take was to seek a change in the law.
The most potent factor of all was the issue of slavery. That issue brought all the christian humanitarians together. Before 1772 negroes were commonly bought and sold in England. In that year Lord Mansfield held slavery to be illegal. The Chapham sect’s interest began with concern for the freed slaves. It sought to have them returned to Africa. Freetown in Sierre Leone was established for that purpose. It was evident, however, that the only way the trade in slaves could be stopped was by legislation. Slavery thus united all the christian humanitarians in the grinding work of achieving legal reform.
In addition to the ‘element of reform’, (although intertwined with it), was the conviction of the ‘wrongness’ of the conditions which the evangelicals sought to remove – whether slavery, treatment of workers, treatment of the insane or cruelty to animals. Philanthropy does not concern itself with the wrongness of the situation. For it, misfortune is in the nature of things. Evangelical reform, on the other hand, could be vehement in its condemnation. In the last week of his life Wesley wrote to Wilberforce, ‘Reading this morning a tract wrote by a poor African, I was particularly struck by that circumstance, that a man who has a black skin being wronged or outraged by a white man can have no redress… what villainy is this! That he who has guided you from your Youth may continue to strengthen you in this and all things is the prayer of, dear sir, your affectionate servant, John Wesley’.* That same idea of ‘wrongness’ runs through Shaftsbury’s denunciations of the Factory owners. To some extent the idea of wrongness arose from the nature of legislative change. Once the reformers began to agitate for legal change the outcome of a particular issue necessarily turned upon rights and duties. Debate proceeded upon the basis that the question was whether those who were suffering had been wronged. Although a sense of wrongness underlay their social action the evangelicals never articulated any criterion or general principle of wrongness underlying their social action. In this they can be contrasted with the Quakers. It would seem that it was personal experience that was the decisive consideration -- in the case of Wesley, slavery in Georgia; for Shaftsbury, the inspections of mines and slums and for John Howard and Elizabeth Fry the visiting of prisons. In the colonial field missionaries like David Livingstone among the slave traders in Africa, sought to protect the subject peoples from the oppression which they saw about them.
Inevitably, Wesleyans and evangelicals were in a missionary situation whether in the cities or in the colonies. They were seeking conversion to Christ of the industrial proletariat, indigenous peoples and the downtrodden. What they saw was the maltreatment of human beings by the exercise of power. Slavery was, in Wesley’s words, ‘villainy’, and Shaftsbury cried out against men and women being used as machines. But their outrage was directed against the particular abuses they witnessed. They never sought to go further and relate it more precisely, to a set of christian principles.*
If we may sum up - evangelicalism, with its strong belief in original sin, damnation and salvation was an unlikely source of humanitarianism. It became so because of an equally unlikely combination of ideas and feelings: the equal capacity of all to attain salvation, the need, in order to attain it, to read and understand God’s holy word in the Bible; the attaining of salvation as a personal experience in this world, the fulfilment of a holy and benevolent life by the person saved and the wrongness of depriving any human being of the opportunity to be ‘saved’ because of ignorance or the conditions of poverty in which he or she lived.
Above all in the case of the Anglican evangelicals these combined with the idea of social and legislative reform derived from the Enlightenment and facilitated practically by the parliamentary positions occupied by the evangelicals.
All of these came together on the issue of slavery.
* Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, Penguin History, p.252.
* David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, Cornell U.P., p.299.
* Letter 249.
* “In this first period of its power Quakerism – based on the doctrine of the inner light, that is the direct personal inspiration of each christian man and woman – was revivalist in its spirit and methods among the common people rather than staid and quiet as it became in later generations”, G.M. Trevelyan, Illustrated History of England, p.431.
* Christopher Hill, op.cit., p.252.
* Christopher Hill, op.cit., p.255-256.
* See The Humanitarian Movement in the Nineteenth Century, supra, Slavery, the Slave Trade and their Abolition.
* Encyc. Britannica (1958) Vol. 9. p.847.
* “They declared against superstition on the one hand, and enthusiasm on the other…..They wished that things could be carried out with more moderation.”, Bishop Burnett, History of his own Time,(2nd edit) 1833, quoted Redwood. op.cit. p.172;
“The Latitudinarians stood halfway between the unquestioning reliance on authority which was characteristic of the early seventeenth century and the rationalism of the early eighteenth.”, Gerald R. Cragg, The Church and the Age of Reason(1648-1789),The Penguin History of the Church,p.72.
* Age of Enlightenment, Great Ages of Man, Time-Life, p.32.
* See ‘Scottish Enlightenment’, The History Today Companion to British History, edited by Juliet Gardiner and Neil Wenborn, Collins and Brown, p.680
* G.M. Trevelyan, Illustrated English Social History,Pelican,p.113.
* John Wesley, Journal, On the 16/7/1739, “I preached at Moorefield to about 10,000 people and at Kennington Common to near 20,000”,The World’s Great Books in Outline, Hammerton,Vol.2 p.914.
* J.H. Plumb, England in the Eighteenth Century, Pelican, p.96; Bury, op.cit. p.103.
* G.M. Trevelyan, Illustrated History of England, Longmans, p.520.
* J Richard. Green, History of the English People,p.738.
* Gerald R. Cragg, The Church and the Age of Reason (1648-1789), The Penguin History of the Church,p.94.
* The Wesleyans differed from the Pietists, their counterparts within German Protestantism, who accepted the study of scripture, especially in the new university in Berlin, the University of Halle.
* J.H. Plumb, op.cit., p.94.
* Wesley’s works (ed) by T Jackson London 1856-57, Vol. VII p.365.
* Quoted, J.H. Plumb, op.cit., p.92.
* Bishop Butler at a meeting with Wesley rebuked the sects for their emotion, ‘Sir, the pretending to extraordinary gifts of the Holy Ghost is a horrid thing - a very horrid thing’. H de B. Gibbins, op.cit. p.90.
* Quoted, Gerald R. Cragg, op.cit., p.92.
* J.H. Plumb, op.cit., p.94.
* At the Aldersgate Street meeting, Wesley said that it was after a reading of Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans that he felt ‘strangely warmed’.
* Gerald R. Cragg, op.cit., p.145.
* ‘The movement was singularly devoid of new ideas, and singularly rich in vivid feelings… From the earliest Greek theologians … every great religious movement was accompanied by a noble rationalistic justification… The great Methodist movement more than deserves the eulogies bestowed upon it. But it can appeal to no great intellectual construction explanatory of its modes of understanding. It may have chosen the better way. Its instinct may be sound. However that may be, it was a notable event in the history of ideas when the clergy of the western races began to waver in their appeal to constructive reason.” Adventures of Ideas, Pelican, p.33.
* Op.cit., p.386.
* This idea of a sudden and dramatic personal experience was not peculiar to Wesleyianism among the non-Calvinist sects. “Sound contrition and brokenness of heart brings a strange and sudden alteration into the world,… turns the world upside down, makes things appear as they are”, Thomas Hooker, The Application of Redemption (1659), p.557.
* Encyc. Britannica (1958) Vol 11p.943; Albert Schweizer, Civilization and Ethics, Unwin pp. 87-89
* See Davis, op.cit., p.375.
* Encyc. Britannica (1958) Vol 19., p.240, H. de B. Gibbins, op.cit, p.85.
* Encyc. Britannica (1958) Vol 19., p.241.
* J.Richard Green, op.cit. p.740 but it seems the idea of Sunday schools did not originate with Raikes. John Alleine, the puritan had conducted Sunday Schools in England in the seventeenth century and Wesley had held Sunday classes in Savanah, Georgia in 1737. Also according to Buckle in his Civilization in England, Vol 1 p.348 one Lindsey had conducted schools since 1765. But, however this may be, Raikes was the first to organize Sunday Schools on a wide scale.
* G.M. Trevelyan, Illustrated English Social History, Pelican, Vol .3.p.94.
* G.M. Trevelyan, Illustrated English Social History,Vol.4. p.62, H. de B. Gibbins, op.cit., p.92.
* Most of the ‘Saints’ were laymen, except for Charles Simeon and Isaac Milner. In addition to Wilberforce and the Buxtons, they included the ‘Clapham Sect’. Among this group were Zachary Macaulay, former Governor of Sierra Leone, and James Stephen, the distinguished lawyer.
Authorities differ on the origin of the name ‘Clapham’. In the History Today Companion to British History, p.170, it is attributed to one of its leading members, the Reverend John Venn, being rector of Holy Trinity Clapham. The Encyclopaedia Britannica (1958), Vol.23 p.595 states that it was so named after Wilberforce’s marriage in 1797 and his acquisition of a house in Clapham (which of course assumes Wilberforce belonged to the Sect).It does not matter. All these evangelicals were a close knit group.
* G.M. Trevelyan, op.cit, p.62.
* Wilberforce was one of Romilly’s strongest supporters maintaining, as early as 1787, that hanging was barbarous and, even after Romilly’s death, continuing his support as a member of the important 1819 Select Committee on Criminal Law. Wilberforce was also an active member of ‘The Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline and for the Reformation of Juvenile offenders’. He proposed a special prison for them.
* Also, as Undershaft jibed in George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, it is necessary to have the poor around that they might be ‘blessed’.
* Robert Gribben, Sacred Readings, Australian Broadcasting Commission broadcast, 27th May 1988. Wesley died on the 2nd March 1791. The letter to Wilberfroce was written on 24th February.
* This is something of an overstatement. The christian socialists - J.F.D. Maurice, Charles Kinglsey, J.M. Ludlow and others – endeavoured, after the collapse of the Chartist movement in 1848, to enunciate a philosophy based upon christian principles of compassion and co-operation against self interest and competition. Without wishing to suggest christian socialism was without influence, particularly in the co-operative movement, it can be said that influence was not dominant.