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2017 February Anthony Collins Discourse on Free Thinking

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Anthony Collins, A Discourse of Free-Thinking (1713)

 

The English philosopher Anthony Collins was born in 1676 and educated at both Eton College and the University of Cambridge. A disciple of John Locke (1632-1704), who saw Collins as his philosophical successor, in 1713 he published his most controversial work: A Discourse of Free-Thinking (DFT).  By ‘free-thinking’ Collins meant the ability of the human mind to determine the truth of a proposition based solely on the strength of the available evidence. Such an approach necessitated the freedom to arrive at an informed conclusion without fear of persecution for the assertion of views that ran counter to mainstream normative discourses.

 

The basis of this approach had been forged by the ‘scientific revolution’ which transformed the intellectual landscape in which Collins work was introduced. Whilst in many cases it did not openly challenge religious orthodoxy, it tacitly undermined faith-based beliefs through the application of empirical enquiry. Through experimentation it was demonstrated that the world was governed by universal laws and intelligible to mankind through observation. Coupled with this, the work of philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), queried the authority and authorship of the Bible and the possibility of divine intervention in worldly affairs.

 

The implications of such a sceptical approach was that the advocacy of intellectual freedom in a spirit of free enquiry could lead to potentially heterodox religious views which were a substantial challenge to both state and ecclesiastical authority. Such concerns provoked anxiety surrounding the destabilising influence such views would have on social order and cohesion.

 

 

The book is primarily concerned with religion and the capacity of reason to establish religious truths. It is strongly anti-clerical and argues for the necessity of religious toleration. It challenged established norms that advocated belief without evidence, or the formation of beliefs that actively ignored contradictory evidence. Collins advocated an investigation of religious questions liberated from restrictive censures imposing limits upon enquiries.

 

Divided into three sections, the first two sections advance Collins’ arguments in favour of free-thinking while the third is used to counter the objections against free- thinking.

 

 

For Collins, restrictions on free thought led to falsehoods and superstition being regarded as truth. For thoughtful and productive enquiry, thinking needed to be freed from imposed limits on what was allowable within public discourse. He utilised the analogy of restrictions being placed on a craft. If restrictions were placed upon painting, ‘it is evident the Art in that particular would be narrow’d and restrain’d’ (DFT, p. 6). For him the mind was the same and in a period where limits were placed upon the freedom to think freely ‘a prodigious Ignorance prevail’d’ (DFT, p. 8). He noted that it was only though free-thinking that scientific advances such as developments in astronomy were possible.

 

In the period religious dogma dictated that in the pursuit of salvation belief in certain issues was essential whilst beliefs contrary to these led to damnation. Collins argued that such importance was attached to these beliefs that ‘Men are deny’d the Right to think by the Enemies of Free-Thinking(DFT, p. 32), limiting their capacity to interrogate and reflect upon their belief systems. As a consequence they hold ‘opinions they have imbib’d from their Grandmothers, Mothers or Priests’ (DFT, p. 32). This method meant that ‘they can only be in the right by chance; whereas by Thinking and Examination, they have not only the mere accident of being in the right, but have the Evidence of things to determine them to the side of Truth’. (DFT, p. 33) The import of such reliance on the beliefs of others was that ‘they do in effect declare they would have been Papists or Heathens, had they had Popish or Heathen Priests for their Guides, or Popish or Heathen Grandmothers to have taught them their Catechisms’. (DFT, p. 35)

 

Consequently, the application of reason was necessary due to the multiplicity of interpretations advanced on religious matters and supposed revelations ‘supported by Miracles, containing new Notions of the Deity, new Doctrines, new Commands, new Ceremonies, and new Modes of Worship’ (DFT, p. 40). The ability to think freely on these matters and distinguish truth from error required the analysis of contradictory evidence to conclude the truth or otherwise of a given proposition.

 

This was given particular impetus by Collins’ analysis of the multitude of differing interpretations amongst various religious denominations and also within individual denominations. Disagreements concerning the nature and attributes of God, the meaning of scripture, and a variety of doctrinal differences amongst priests, whom he called ‘the chief Pretenders to be the Guides to others in matters of Religion’, ensured that ‘Free-Thinking on the Nature and Attributes of the Eternal Being or God, on the Authority of Scriptures, and on the Sense of Scriptures, unavoidable’ (DFT, p. 46). Collins also attacked the rituals, ceremony, and dogmas that characterised a number of Christian denominations as unnecessary on the basis of rational enquiry. He wrote that

‘God being incapable of having any addition made either to his Power or Happiness, and wanting nothing, can require nothing of Men for his own sake, but only for Man’s sake; and consequently, that all Actions and Speculations which are of no use to Mankind, [as for instance, Singing or Dancing, or wearing of Habits, or Observation of Days, or eating or drinking, or  slaughtering of Beasts…or the Belief of Transubstantiation or Consubstantiation, or of any Doctrines not taught by the Church of England] either signify nothing at all with God, or else displease him, but can never render a Man more acceptable to him’ (DFT, p. 37-8).

 

The final section attempts to counter arguments advanced against free-thinking. Amongst these was the anxiety that free-thinking allowed for an innumerate number of divergent opinions and would produce social disorder. Collins argued that diversity of opinion was commonplace in society and no ill effects were produced as a result of allowing free debate on a variety of subjects. He argued that it was restraint being placed upon thinking that was at fault in disputes ‘and that Liberty of Thinking is the Remedy for all the Disorders which are pretended to arise from Diversity of Opinions’ (DFT, p. 103) and ‘mere Diversity of Opinions has no tendency in nature to Confusion in Society.’ (DFT, p. 101)

 

A common argument advanced in the period was that free-thinking would result in an increase in atheism. Collins argued that in the absence of free-thinking ‘it remains only for Men to take up their Religion upon trust from the Priest’ with the truths of religion depending upon ‘fallible men’. In such a scenario ‘Ignorance is the foundation of Atheism, and Free-Thinking the Cure of it. And thus tho it should be allow’d, that some Men by Free-Thinking may become Atheists yet they will ever be fewer in number if Free-Thinking were permitted, than if it were restrain’d’ (DFT, p. 105).

 

Anthony Collins, A discourse of free-thinking, occasion’d by the rise and growth of a sect call’d free-thinkers (London, 1713), p. 109.

 

It was argued that priests were specialists in the same way that lawyers and doctors were specialists and their specialism should be relied upon by their adherents. To this Collins asserted that whilst a person could be treated by a physician and acted for by a lawyer they were ‘by no means under an Obligation implicitly to believe the Principles or Opinions upon which the one prescribes or the other acts’ (DFT, p. 108). The difference for Collins was that in matters of religion: ‘I am oblig’d to believe certain Opinions myself, and can depute no Man to believe for me; nor will any Man’s Belief save me, except my own. So that it is my Duty to think for my self in matters of Religion, and I am at liberty whether I will study Law or Physick’ (DFT, p. 109). Collins further argued that with lawyers and physicians it was only worldly matters that were at stake but in matters of religion the fate of the soul was in jeopardy: ‘If I die thro the Conduct of a Physician, or lose my Right by the Conduct of my Lawyer, that is the worst which can befall me; but if I trust to a Priest who is in the wrong, I am suppos’d to be eternally damn’d’ (DFT, p. 110). He ends by refuting the idea that free thinkers are the ‘most infamous, wicked, and senseless of all Mankind(DFT, p. 118). Collins invoked the lives and works of a number of figures he considered freethinkers who were generally accepted as being virtuous individual characters including Socrates (469–399 BCE), Plato (429?–347 BCE), Aristotle (384–322 BCE), Cicero (106-43 BCE) as well as British thinkers including Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).

 

Manuscript annotation on front flyleaf of Edward Worth’s copy

The copy of the book held in the Worth Library was originally owned by Robert Gibbon before becoming part of Edward Worth’s collection. Gibbon was a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin and a Church of Ireland clergyman. It is likely that he was prebendary at the Diocese of Cork, Cloyne and Ross, and the Diocese of Lismore. The flyleaf also has the name ‘Pepyat’ inscribed in the top right hand corner. This may refer to Jeremiah Pepyat, a Dublin bookseller and printer.

While much of the Worth Library is comprised of medical texts, Edward Worth had a wide variety of interests in contemporary thought. The collection contains works by many prominent thinkers that helped lay the intellectual foundations of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, including, Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), Isaac Newton (1643-1727) and John Locke (1632-1704). Edward Worth seems to have been interested in heterodox views and works that challenged the intellectual hegemony of the established Church and indeed all revealed religion. There are also works by the most prominent deist thinkers who were contemporaries of Edward Worth such as John Toland (1670-1722), Mathew Tindal (1657-1733), and Anthony Collins (1676-1729). These will be explored in our forthcoming exhibition, ‘Deism and the Early Enlightenment at the Worth Library’.

Sources:       

Alumni Dublinenses: a register of the students, graduates, professors and provosts of Trinity College in the University of Dublin (1593-1860), Trinity College Dublin Alumni Records & Registers (Genealogy Resources), IE TCD MS 378.415C F8.

Collins, Anthony, A discourse of free-thinking, occasion’d by the rise and growth of a sect call’d free-thinkers (London, 1713)

Cotton, Henry, Fasti ecclesiae Hibernicae: the succession of the prelates and members of the Cathedral bodies of Ireland (Dublin, 1848).

Dybikowski, James, ‘Collins, Anthony (1676–1729)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/5933, accessed 9 Feb 2017].

Pollard, Mary, A Dictionary of Members of the Dublin Book Trade 1550-1800 (London, 2000).

Uzgalis, William, ‘Anthony Collins’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Winter 2014 Edition, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), [https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2014/entries/collins/, accessed9 Feb 2017].

 

Text: Dr Brendan Power, Edward Worth Library, Library Assistant at the Edward Worth Library.

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