Situating Freethinking in the Early Enlightenment

Alaina Pincus
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Sarah Ellenzweig’s The Fringes of Belief: English Literature, Ancient Heresy, and the Politics of Freethinking, 1660–1760 (Stanford, 2008) picks up where Jonathan I. Israel’s 2001 Radical Enlightenment leaves off, moving the discussion of radical skepticism into a more literary sphere.[1] Ellenzweig’s robust and sophisticated study expands our understanding of the radical Enlightenment to include literary sources and shows how literary culture helped shape and reconcile modes of freethinking with Protestant political conservatism. Ellenzweig’s thesis is two-fold: first, the paradoxical reconciliation of “religious skepticism and the interests of the Protestant establishment” play an important, and yet-underappreciated, role in the history of secularization (2), and second, literary culture in particular offers the means by which the reconciliation takes place (4). English freethinkers were heavily invested in the idea of revealed religion as an imaginative fiction—one that served the purpose of providing much-needed structure and authority to English social and governmental structures.

Central to Ellenzweig’s argument is the idea of religion as a “pious fraud” that could be employed to preserve civil order. Although skeptics were more aware of, and therefore free to recognize, the ruse of religion, it served the purpose of keeping the lower orders from rising up to challenge governing authority. So long as the public’s attention was focused on religious debate, they were distracted from questioning or undermining the authority of the state. Ellenzweig begins her study by demonstrating the roots of the pious fraud in antiquity, citing ancient philosophers such as Plato, Plutarch, and Cicero, who maintained that the public’s belief in the lie that the concept presented was essential to structuring and maintaining civil society (4). English freethinking’s use of the classical concept of the pious fraud was well established through the efforts of England’s first recognizable deist, Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, who used it to trace the history of pagan religion and its complicity with the interests of the state. Lord Herbert observes that mysteries and oracles were specifically used for political ends. Implicit in his analysis is the suggestion that such manipulation can be both moral and ethical when put to the ends of good government (8–9). Ellenzweig connects the implications of Lord Herbert’s conclusion to the development of Thomas Hobbes’s political theory and demonstrates the historical connection between English skepticism and political conservatism (9).

Later writers such as Charles Blount, John Toland, Henry Stubbe, and Anthony Collins pick up Lord Herbert’s notion of civil theology and augment it with Spinozan philosophy to create an even more secular thread of freethinking. In this way, Ellenzweig bypasses the common assumption that the origins of Restoration and eighteenth-century freethinking lie in the sectarian arguments against mystery and priest-craft, and instead suggests that freethinking is not only the continued development of older forms of thought, but also a reaction against strident and fanatical sectarianism—after all, if religion itself is a lie, then the particulars of belief become much less important so long as the authority of the state is preserved. Ellenzweig thus draws a careful balance between the radical religious position of unbelief and that of political conservatism.

The first part of Ellenzweig’s book teases out skepticism’s connection to the radical philosophy of libertinism through a study of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester’s poetry in chapter 1, and Aphra Behn’s translations of Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle in chapter 2. Ellenzweig argues that “Rochester’s and Behn’s freethinking religious tendencies are perhaps more central to their thought and writing than their libertine critique of Christian sexual morality” (15). Here, Ellenzweig seeks to recover the radical conservatism of the English freethinking tradition and the intelligentsia as an important component of the English Enlightenment as well as of the broader European Enlightenment. Skepticism held that all knowledge is questionable and even reason cannot discover truth or moral certainty, which led some skeptics to accept religion on faith alone and others to submit to state religion on the assumption that because one cannot know with certainty, it is wisest to submit. The dictum that one cannot know also led to an assumption that it is impossible and/or undesirable to live justly, virtuously, and piously, which in turn led to the growing popularity of libertinism (11). Despite its apparent support for complete disregard of just, virtuous, or pious living, libertines employed their philosophical position to justify political conservatism—by denying the power of religious authority, the state can annex that power and employ the pious fraud to shore up its own authority. Libertinism—essentially unbelief—leaves open an emphasis on the state that faith does not allow (23–24).

Ellenzweig’s goal in part one of The Fringes of Belief is to recover libertinism from scholarship that overemphasizes its sexual component and instead to focus on its theological and philosophical implications. Additionally, Ellenzweig separates libertine philosophy from trajectories popularized by Christopher Hill and J. G. A. Pocock that link the development of libertinism to sectarian enthusiasm.[2] Ellenzweig argues that current historians have seized on inchoate threads of religious libertinism—such as anticlerical attitudes, criticism of the Bible, suspicion that institutionalized religion was a political ruse to subjugate the masses, and skepticism about heaven and hell as a punishment-reward system—in order to connect it to mid-century radical sectarian philosophy. However, these similarities exist on the surface level, and ignore the primary difference that belief still plays a central role for radical sectarians, while libertines and skeptics eschew belief (23). Religious libertinism has much more in common with freethinking because its primary tenets are freedom of opinion and the non-recognition of religious authority.

Although both libertines and sectarians reject “institutionalized revelation,” sectarians often accepted private revelation and enthusiastic inspiration in its stead (39). Libertines and skeptics, however, were overtly hostile to revelation in any form. It is essential, therefore, to maintain a distinction between the unbeliever and the heretic (23–24). Additionally, libertinism is distinctly aristocratic in heritage since it supports the idea that government and good faith are important for the masses, but assumes that the elite and those in the know are not bound by rules and laws (37).

Chapter 1 seeks to reconcile the ambivalence toward faith and religion that is apparent in Rochester’s poetry, particularly in “A Satyre Against Reason and Mankind” (ca. 1675). Rochester, Ellenzweig suggests, is deeply ambivalent about religion and faith, and his brand of libertine freethinking is much more complicated than critics have heretofore suggested (31–32). Rochester’s “Satyre” evidences the influences of Spinozan and deist philosophy, which call for a disavowal of revealed religion as well as a longing for a true faith uncorrupted by reason, enthusiasm, or politics (34–35, 41). The two positions are not incompatible because deism and pantheism both revere a more natural religion and, in fact, the central paradox of the “Satyre,” that use of reason compels a rejection of reason, is consistent with these traditions.

Rochester’s paradox suggests that too much reason vainly leads one to assume that it can be applied to doctrines of faith. It is this concern that is apparent in Rochester’s poetry—that if God does exist, humanity’s arrogance and misuse of reason has gotten it just as wrong as the manipulation of corrupt leaders and church officials (50). This stance is compatible with traditions of elite freethinking in England, which is decidedly not antinomian. It supports monarchy and government based on the idea that a state religion and belief in the immortality of the soul, properly encouraged, promotes moral virtue throughout the lower social orders, and therefore, strengthens the state (46–50). Furthermore, it reveres a natural, idealized form of religion that is disinterested, humble, and honest. Here, Ellenzweig puts Rochester into conversation with Blount and Bishop Gilbert Burnet in order to demonstrate how deism, in particular, influences Rochester’s philosophy and politically conservative bias.

Chapter 2 puts Behn’s translations of Fontenelle into dialogue with her more famous libertine works: the 1677 play, The Rover, the 1684–87 novel, Love-Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister, and the 1684 pastoral poem, “The Golden Age.” Ellenzweig argues that Behn’s libertine work suggests that religious heterodoxy functions as a component in the politics of sexual power (53). Behn’s translations of Fontenelle provide evidence of her attempt to extricate freethinking philosophy “from what she sees to be the corrupting influence of the libertine creed,” which is decidedly misogynist and therefore incompatible with her position as a female freethinker (53–54). The heroines of The Rover and Love-Letters clearly recognize the failure of libertinism to successfully free women from restrictive social institutions. Libertinism rejects traditional institutions like love and marriage, exposes women who adhere to libertine philosophy to the harsh judgment of larger society, and ultimately “reproduces the exploitation of women” by allowing men to indulge their desire without offering monetary compensation or protection of a legal tie. As a result, women continually are forced to submit to compromises, such as Helena’s insistence in The Rover that Wilmore wed her (54). Behn’s heroines do not reject libertinism or freethinking, but they suggest that men’s use of freethinking principles for the purpose of indulging their own desires is the grossest form of hypocrisy (57).

Behn’s 1688 translation of Fontenelle’s A Discovery of New Worlds (Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes [1686]), which consists of series of conversations between a philosopher and a marquise, demonstrates her efforts to enter into a serious intellectual discussion of freethinking philosophy. Although she did not have the same educational opportunities as her male counterparts, translation provided Behn with a suitable alternative that her heroines did not have (58). Behn’s translator’s preface allows her to maintain a safe distance from Fontenelle’s more radical ideas while engaging in the sly doubletalk so common to literary freethinkers. In her preface, Behn engages the major arguments against revealed religion, such as the suspicion of miracles and the rejection of Man’s special dispensation, by offering a satirically material take on biblical exegesis (68). Behn continues to align herself with elite traditions of freethinking. Her apparent step back at the end of the preface and her suggestion that “all good Christians” will submit to the authority of the established Church reveals her support for the pious fraud and her adherence to the radical conservatism of the literary elite, who value support for state religion as a method for preserving social order rather than as a matter of true faith (69).

Part two of The Fringes of Belief recuperates Jonathan Swift as part of the freethinker tradition, despite some critics’ efforts to deny his radical religious skepticism. Ellenzweig locates Swift within the freethinking tradition of Behn, noting that they both share a fascination with ancient religion. Ellenzweig situates Swift as part of Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke’s Esprit Forts, or one who understands that “truth must be sought quietly, without disturbing the minds of the untaught multitude” (19). Swift is a “radical conservative” who mixes conformity and doubt in a manner “definitive of conservative, neoclassical unbelief in the period” (20). Chapters 3 and 4 offer extended readings of Swift’s A Tale of a Tub (1704), and argue that Swift uses a materialist, mechanistic critique (informed by Hobbes) of revealed religion as the driving force of his satire. A Tale is arguably Swift’s most difficult satire, and Ellenzweig approaches its knottiness with a characteristically multi-valenced approach. Swift’s satire, she suggests, offers critiques of both revealed religion and freethinking, and suggests that civil investment in the pious fraud is the only way to maintain civil society, since both religious fanatics and fanatical freethinkers would derail civil order in their efforts to enforce their own particular ideologies. Swift’s tale of the satirists is informed by his use of ironic materialism and targets both revealed religion and those who would elevate primitive Christianity as a purer form of belief—they both elevate a suit of clothes, plain or embellished, over true and honest faith (98). Similarly, Swift’s parody of the Delphic oracle and its vapors ridicules those who elevate enthusiasm and spiritual ecstasy over more honest faith; this, Swift suggests, provides a ruse for corrupt leaders to exploit superstition (103–6).

In her analysis, Ellenzweig finds similarities between Swift’s critique of religion and Rochester’s valuation of the honest clergyman at the end of his “Satyre,” as well as in his own deathbed conversion—once stripped of all embellishment, faith becomes a matter of the willing suspension of disbelief (119–20). Because faith can function only through a suspension of disbelief, Christianity serves as a “profitable delusion, one whose promises of rewards and infinite bliss carry unique powers to increase our comfort” (119). Swift suggests that the pious fraud is what creates and maintains worldly civil order.

Ellenzweig’s final chapter reads Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man (1733–34) as the natural extension of English radical Enlightenment thinking and demonstrates “the broader significance of the Tory neoclassical heritage” to the larger European Enlightenment (20). In Essay on Man, Pope dispenses with the idea of the pious fraud, suggesting that it ultimately fails in its goal of preserving civil order (151). Pope more openly embraces an idea of natural religion, attacking the concept of Man’s special dispensation and the trappings of religious practice. By putting humanity on the same level as the rest of the natural world, Pope suggests that all features of humanity, including its vice and failures, are part of a larger system—to suggest otherwise is nothing more than arrogance. Pope’s mechanistic determinism, Ellenzweig argues, makes him much more attractive to European Enlightenment thinkers and ultimately invigorates the development of the Enlightenment’s brands of secular humanism (150).

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Another recent addition to the discourse on the early radical Enlightenment is The English Deists by Wayne Hudson (Pickering & Chatto, 2008). Hudson’s book offers a good supplement to Ellenzweig’s more sophisticated book. Hudson, like Ellenzweig, suggests that deist writings, as well as other writings of the radical early Enlightenment, work on multiple levels to reach multiple audiences. Hudson’s main concern is to offer a more nuanced, dialectical understanding of deism, which he argues cannot be defined in the broad, totalizing strokes scholars have typically used to identify deism as a coherent school of thought. Hudson points out that despite their efforts, historians have had little success in defining deism’s main tenets, arguing among themselves over whether deism entails belief in an absent God, or God as a “first cause,” an adherence to natural religion that leads to salvation or the rejection of the concept of the immortality of the soul, as well as a complete rejection of revealed religion and mystery, or the belief that reason can explain revelation (30). Under Hudson’s rubric, deism encompasses all of these positions and can be better understood as a methodology, or a “mobilization of repertoires” that intellectuals used to suggest reforms to Protestant Christianity and English social structures, opening them to broader participation (39). Rather than a single deism, Hudson argues for multiple deisms that writers could slip into and out of, depending on a given context, without either needing or caring about the coherence of a larger body of work or rigorous set of principles.

Hudson’s text is most useful for his discussion of Lord Herbert and Blount, both of whom Ellenzweig acknowledges as influences on radical Enlightenment thinking, but whose works she does not explore as fully as does Hudson. Hudson devotes a chapter to each writer and demonstrates how each uses rational argument to explore genealogies of Christianity and other religions, and to shape Protestant Christianity’s relationship to political and social structures. The final chapter attempts to situate Toland, Collins, and Matthew Tindal as active participants in shaping Protestant political philosophy. Here, Hudson is mostly concerned with demonstrating that while these authors may have privately held radical beliefs, their public writings work on multiple levels and actively engage in shaping a Protestant public. Hudson’s book occasionally falls short in its overemphasis on the less-radical overtones of each author’s work. Hudson is intent on teasing out the various threads of each author’s work, but does not fully demonstrate how the multiple valences of radical philosophy and social and political conservatism work together.


[1]   Jonathan I. Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650–1750 (Oxford, 2001).

[2]   See, for example: Christopher Hill, “Irreligion in the ‘Puritan’ Revolution,” Radical Religion in the English Revolution, eds. J. F. McGregor and B. Reay (New York, 1984), 191–211, and “Freethinking and Libertinism: The Legacy of the English Revolution,” The Margins of Orthodoxy, ed. Roger D. Lund (Cambridge, 1995), 54–72; J. G. A. Pocock, “Post-Puritan England and the Problem of the Enlightenment,” Culture and Politics from Puritanism to the Enlightenment, ed. P. Zagorin, (Berkeley, 1980), 91–111, and “Enthusiasm: The Anti-self of Enlightenment,” Enthusiasm and Enlightenment in Europe, 1650–1850, eds. Lawrence E. Klein and Anthony J. La Vopa (San Marino, 1998), 7–28.