Saturday, 6 April 2019

Plan Your Epitaph Day (because it is your funeral, after all!)

Today is Plan Your Epitaph Day, for reasons, we must admit, that remain largely obscure but, some suggest that its purpose is to offer control freaks the opportunity to plan out what their gravestone is going to say! (Cute Calendar).

However, as Days of the Year observes, "your Epitaph is going to be that one thing that is remembered forever about you, even by those who never knew you. ... This day ... is the perfect day to set aside some time to figure out what you're going to have to say about yourself before you're gone."

John Toland, the Irish-born rationalist philosopher and freethinker was one who wrote his own epitaph, just a few days before his death on 11 March 1722. A Latin version (perhaps the original) has been digitised on the website of British History Online, who also note that "it was never inscribed on his tomb":
H. S. E. Johannes Tolandus, qui in Hiberniâ prope Deriam natus, in Scotiâ et Hiberniâ studuit, quod Oxonii quoque fecit adolescens; atque Germaniâ plus femel petitâ, virilem circa Londinumt ransegit ætatem: omnium literarum excultor, ac linguarum plus decem sciens: veritatis propugnator, libertatis assertor; nullius autem sectator aut cliens. Nec minis nec mails est inflexus, quin quam elegit viam perageret; utili honestum anteserens. Spiritus cum æthereo patre a quo prodiit olim, conjungitur; corpus item naturæ cedens in materno gremio reponitur. Ipse vero æternum est resurrecturus, at idem futurus Tolandus nunquam. Natus Nov. 30. Cætera ex scriptis pete.
Stephen H. Daniel, in his book John Toland: His Methods, Manners, and Mind, provides an English-language version which reads:
Here Lyeth John Toland.
Who born near Derry in Ireland
Studyed young in Scotland and Holland
Which, growing riper, he did also in Oxford
And, having more than once seen Germany
Spent his Age of Manhood in, and about London.
He was an assertor of Liberty
A lover of all sorts of Learning
A speaker of Truth
But no mans follower, or dependant,
Nor could frowns, or fortune bend him
To decline from the ways he had chosen
His spirit is join'd with its aithereal father
From whom it originally proceeded,
His body yielding likewise to nature
Is laid again in the Lap of its Mother
But he's frequently to rise himself again,
Yet never to be the same Toland more.
Born ye 30 of Novemb. 1670
Dy'd the 11th of March 1722
If you would know more of him
Search his Writings
Daniel notes that "The British Museum manuscript of the epitaph is not in Toland's handwriting" and suggest that it may have been transcribed by Pierre des Maizeaux, a French Huguenot exile who was with Toland in his last days and, after his death, arranged for a collection of Toland's writings to be published in two volumes.

Whoever transcribed it, that person would have filled in the date of death but also, as Daniel further notes, incorrectly identified the year that Toland was born as 1674. To avoid confusion, Daniel changes it back to 1670 and this is how it appears above, as well as in his book.
Plan your own Epitaph day is a day for reflection on our own mortality, and thinking forward to what kind of legacy we want to leave behind for those who come after us. While we will live on in the minds of our family and friends, the story of who we are will only be told to strangers in our final message to the world, left engraved in the marble tablet of our headstone.Days of the Year


Monday, 11 March 2019

John Toland: his life and times

St. Mary's Church Putney
St Mary's Church, Putney.
The final resting place of John Toland.

Edwardx [CC BY-SA 3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
John Toland, the celebrated Irish-born philosopher and freethinker, died on this day in 1722, at the relatively young age of 51 but, following a life that was not without controversy, incident and adventure.

His journey began on the remote, Gaelic-speaking peninsula of Inishowen, in Ireland's most northerly county of Donegal. He was educated at the universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Leiden and Oxford but, living Dublin when his first major work, an incendiary pamphlet that went by the title of Christianity not Mysterious, appeared in print in 1696. The pamphlet was first published anonymously however, Toland admitted authorship the following year.

The furore that enveloped led to three copies of the book being burned in Dublin by the public hangman, at the instigation of the Irish parliament. If Toland had not fled to England, where he found sanctuary among various radicals and reformers operating there, he would have been burned alive along with the copies.

Thereafter, he resided for the greater part of his life in England, mostly in and around London however, he was also a frequent visitor to the continent. He died in Putney, where he had taken lodgings with a carpenter, Edward Hinton, in 1718. It is here that he wrote most of his later works, including Pantheisticon.

Burial records of St Mary's Church, Putney
Scan from the burial register of St Mary', Putney – see 15th March, 1721 (Julian calendar).
Our thanks to Thomas Brunkard for supplying this image.

Parish records from the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Putney tell us that his remains were "decently interred in the church-yard" on 13 March 1722. (see British History Online)

Elsewhere, it is mentioned that, at the time of his death, he left a legacy amounted to about 150 manuscripts, piled high on two chairs. Shortly after his death, a biography by Pierre des Maizeaux, an exiled French Huguenot writer, appeared along with a collection of his works that ran to two volumes.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

John Toland (1670-1722): The Original Freethinker

Portrait of Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine (1737-1809)
Laurent Dabos [Public domain]
Today is Freethinkers Day, an annual celebration inviting people to 'challenge arbitrary authority, question the status quo, and construct logical and reasonable arguments against ingrained behaviour', among other things. (see Days of the Year)

According to sources, the celebration was devised sometime in the 1990s (by Truth Seeker magazine, the world's oldest Freethought publication, founded in 1873), the purpose being to promote appreciation of freethinking through the life and works of Thomas Paine (1737-1809), who was born on this day (at least, if one goes by the Old Style calendar). Paine, as is well known, was a seminally important figure of the Enlightenment period who, through his writings and his political activities, played an important role in both the American and French revolutions of the latter part of the 18th century.

That aside, it hardly seems right to let the day pass without also paying respect to one who might qualify for the status of 'the original freethinker'. That pedestal belongs to Irishman, John Toland (1670-1722). For, while the notion of 'freethought' has surely been around, in one form or another, since the time immemorial (whenever homo sapiens first acquired the ability to think, reason, rationalise and construct logical arguments), the terms itself appears to have been coined around the 1690s, when it was used to describe the ideas of John Toland, by his fellow Irishman fellow Irishman, Bishop (George) Berkeley (1685-1753).

Irrespective of who started it, or who's birthday it celebrates, Freethinkers Day is party time for freethinkers everywhere, past and present. Enjoy!

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Further Reading

  • An Account of the Courts of Prussia and Hanover: Sent to a Minister of State in Holland by John Toland