Thursday 21 November 2019

World Philosophy Day!

Today marks World Philosophy Day, an event that is celebrated annually on the third Thursday in November (for some reason!). In 2019, by happy coincidence, the event coincides with the birth, in 1694, of François-Marie Arouet, known to the world by his non de plume, Voltaire. The Irish-born, rationalist philosopher, John Toland (1670-1722) has been referred to as the Irish Voltaire.

Nicolas de Largillière, François-Marie Arouet dit Voltaire adjusted
Nicolas de Largillière
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
World Philosophy Day has been celebrated annually since 2002 however, in 2005, UNESCO designated it an official day of observation at the United Nations:
"In establishing World Philosophy Day, UNESCO strives to promote an international culture of philosophical debate that respects human dignity and diversity. The Day encourages academic exchange and highlights the contribution of philosophical knowledge in addressing global issues."United Nations

Philosophy (from the Greek word phílosophía, meaning 'the love of wisdom') in this instance, is described as "the study of the nature of reality and existence, of what is possible to know, and of right and wrong behaviour. ... it aspires to get at the very meaning of life."

So, why does it merit its own day of observation and what exactly does that mean? Again, according to the UN:
"International days are occasions to educate the public on issues of concern, to mobilise political will and resources to address global problems and, to celebrate and reinforce achievements of humanity. The existence of international days predates the establishment of the United Nations, but the UN has embraced them as a powerful advocacy tool."United Nations

In 2019, World Philosophy Day is being celebrated with the aim of highlighting "the importance of philosophy in different regional contexts. ... to obtain regional contributions to global debates on contemporary challenges that support social transformations. The purpose of this approach is to foster regional dynamics, stimulating global collaboration to address major challenges, such as migration, radicalisation, environmental change, or artificial intelligence."

Thursday 14 November 2019

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716): philosopher, mathematician, Google Doodle honouree

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Bernhard Christoph Francke
Christoph Bernhard Francke
[Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, philosopher and mathematician, died on this day in 1716.
"... he is often regarded as one of the three great advocates of rationalism. A largely self-taught polymath, his discoveries and contributions to many fields of human scientific enquiry would, in time, have important implications right up to the computer age"Sophia of Hanover – Winter Princess: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716)

He was both a contemporary and acquaintance of the Irish-born, rationalist philosopher, John Toland, who whom this web project is dedicated. Leibniz was court librarian at the House of Hanover from 1676 until his death. There, he came under the patronage of the Electress Sophia, who also sponsored Toland. The two men respected each other but, may not always have seen eye to eye for, as author J.N. Duggan (biographer of both Toland and Sophia of Hanover) recounts, Leibniz thought him to be "a man of esprit and is not lacking in erudition, but he pushes things too far" – see John Toland: Ireland's Forgotten Philosopher, Scholar ... and Heretic J.N. Duggan, 2010.

In 2018, Leibniz was an honouree of the prestigious Google Doodle – "the fun, surprising and sometimes spontaneous changes that are made to the Google logo to celebrate holidays, anniversaries and the lives of famous artists, pioneers and scientists" – on the occasion of the 372nd anniversary of his birth.
Google Doodle on the occasion of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's 372nd Birthday

In view of the upcoming centenaries that surround his birth and his death, we ask, would not John Toland (1670-1722) also make a worthy honouree? Have your say by taking part in the poll below.

You can also make your views known directly, by contacting the Google Doodle team. Information about how members of the public can submit ideas for future doodles is available from their dedicated web page.

Saturday 19 October 2019

John Toland and Jonathan Swift: comparisons and contrasts

Jonathan Swift by Charles Jervas detail
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)
from a painting by Charles Jervas (c.1675-1739)
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Jonathan Swift, who died on this day in 1745, was a contemporary and compatriot of John Toland with whom he even shared a birthday (30 November) although, Swift was three years older, being born in 1667. Like Toland, his strongly held views earned him a certain reputation for controversy, polemic, satire. Both men ran the gauntlet of political and ecclesiastical authority in their day, for which they both paid a heavy price in terms of how it affected their respective careers and their livelihoods.

Yet, the similarities that one can't help but notice also betray the contrasts that come to the surface as one digs deeper. For, while both men were deeply involved in the politics and public life of the time, it was usually from opposing platforms that they enunciated their views, often having the effect of engulfing them in controversy of one sort or another.

Indeed Swift was among those who spoke against Toland in the outcry that ensued from the publication of his seminal work, Christianity not Mysterious, in 1695. He was also among those who called into question Toland's parentage, describing him as a "priest and the son of a priest" in a 'Letter to a Member of the House of Commons of Ireland etc. written on September 3rd 1697' (cited in John Toland: Ireland's Forgotten Philosopher, Scholar ... and Heretic by J.N. Duggan)

The price that both men paid included exile although, in opposite directions for, while Toland found himself banished from Ireland, Swift probably felt that he was being banished to the country of his birth, upon finding himself on the wrong side of the fence, politically, in England.

Toland arrived in Dublin sometime prior to the publication of Christianity not Mysterious, after many years studying abroad in Scotland, England, the Netherlands. It is believed that he had hopes of securing a position of some kind in Dublin but, following the furore, it was not even safe for him to remain in Ireland. Thereafter, he spent much of the rest of his life in England (although he was an regular visitor to the Continent), championing and polemicising on behalf of various Whig causes. This, after all, was the political movement of the day to which he had always been closest.

Swift, on the other hand, started out, politically, as a Whig but, eventually crossed over to the Tories. Hence, while Toland largely welcomed the period of Whig supremacy that followed the ascension of Elector George Louis of Hanover to the British throne (as King George I), for Swift, this was the kiss of death in terms of his own political ambitions.
"When he sought a church appointment in England, in reward for his services, the best position his friends could secure for him was that of Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin. It seems that Queen Anne had taken a particular dislike to Swift and, made it clear that he would not have received even that position if she could have prevented it. Among other things, she regarded his work, A Tale of a Tub, to be blasphemous. With the return of the Whigs to power in 1715, Swift left England and returned to Ireland, it is said, "in disappointment, a virtual exile [and] to live like a rat in a hole." – see Writing & Literary on the 350th Anniversary of the Birth of Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)

Jonathan Swift, essayist, poet, political pamphleteer and contemporary of John Toland, died on this day in 1745.

Monday 14 October 2019

The Heretic and the Heiress: John Toland and Sophia, Electress of Hanover

Sophia of the Palatinate, who was Electress of Hanover from 1692 to 1698, was born on this day in 1630. Often described as a woman of letters and patron of the arts, who sponsored both Gottfried Leibniz and John Toland, a claim has also been put forward that she "made interesting philosophical contributions of her own, principally concerning the nature of mind and thought," according to Lloyd Strickland of Manchester Metropolitan University.

She first encountered Toland on his trip to Hanover in 1701, as part of Lord Macclesfield's delegation that delivered a copy of the Act of Settlement (or Act of Succession as it is sometimes referred to) to her. In Hanover, it is said that Toland was particularly well received by the Electress Sophia and it is recounted by J.N. Duggan (author of biographies of both Sophia of Hanover and John Toland) that:
"... it was noted that during the daily walks around the gardens of Herrenhausen, Sophia and the Irishman would distance themselves from the attendant courtiers so that they could talk in private."
The subjects of Toland's relationship with Sophia, Leibniz, the courts of Hanover and of Berlin are matters that we hope to return to, in due course. In the meantime, we are reproducing here, from the website dedicated to Sophia of Hanover, an article that originally appeared in 2010.

John Toland and Sophia of Hanover

The Heretic and the Heiress

What is the connection between a European Princess, a descendant of the Wittelsbach and Stuart dynasties, who would go on to become Heiress Presumptive to the throne of Great Britain by the Act of Settlement of 1701 and, a Donegal heretic widely denounced by political and ecclesiastical authorities of the day? Two new books by Irish author, J.N. Duggan, furnish an answer.

Sophia of Hanover: Winter Princess by J.N. Duggan (book)
Sophia of Hanover: Winter Princess
by J.N. Duggan
Sophia, Electress of Hanover (1630-1714) was daughter of Frederick and Elisabeth of the Palatinate, known as the Winter King and Queen of Bohemia. Irish readers may be interested to know that she was a 20x great grand-daughter of Brian Boru and counted Strongbow and Aoife among her ancestors.

She is best remembered in the English-speaking world as the connection between the Houses of Stuart and Hanover but, in the opinion of her biographer, she deserves to be remembered, in her own right, as a gifted writer and chronicler of her times (1630-1714).

She has left us an enormous legacy of writings in the form of her memoirs, (which she wrote at the age of 50) and, the many letters which she wrote to her family and friends over the course of her long and eventful life. Her writings are remarkable, both for the light that they throw on the politics and personalities of the 17th Century (she was related by blood or marriage to all the great families of Europe) but also, for the insider's view that she gives us of life in the princely courts of Europe.

Because of her privileged position and ringside seat at the cockpit of European politics, she was able to report to Leibniz on 4 November 1688:
The Prince of Orange left last Saturday with 50 vessels. He had no manifesto except a memoir that the English Protestants sent him listing all their grievances against their King and the reasons that made them doubt that the Prince of Wales is the Queen’s child. However, the King of England [James II] has done me the honour of writing to me in his own hand on this subject, where he says that he would have to be the wickedest man on earth to do such a thing, but it seems that those who believe in such an imposture judge him by their own standards. H.M. writes to me also that he had not been able to believe for a long time that his son-in-law and nephew would be willing to invade his country and that was why he had delayed so long in making preparations, but that if the wind remained contrary for another few days he would be in a state to receive him. Therefore we are all impatient to learn how matters went in England. On all the Prince of Orange’s banners there is 'For Religion and Liberty'.
J.N. Duggan is the author of Sophia of Hanover: from Winter Princess to Heiress of Great Britain, 1630-1714, recently published by Peter Owen Publishers of London. The circumstances in which her book on Sophia of Hanover was completed, led directly to her second book, John Toland: Ireland's Forgotten Philosopher, Scholar ... and Heretic. The author explains that she had never heard of John Toland (1670-1722) until coming across his name while researching for her biography of Sophia:
Searching through other people’s bibliographies, I realised that he was the recognised source of information on the Courts of Hanover and Berlin in the first decade of the Eighteenth Century, and Chambers Biographical Dictionary informed me that he was an Irishman.
In fact, John Toland was born and raised on the Inishowen Peninsula in Co. Donegal, in 1670. He was a prolific writer on important political and religious issues of the day. He was the first person to be called a freethinker (by Bishop Berkeley); a radical republican who challenged the divine right of kings; the first to advocate full citizenship and equal rights for Jewish people in Great Britain and Ireland, among other notable achievements.

John Toland: Ireland's Forgotten Philosopher, Scholar ... and Heretic by J.N. Duggan
John Toland:
Ireland's Forgotten Philosopher, Scholar
... and Heretic

by J.N. Duggan
Toland left Ireland soon after his first book, Christianity Not Mysterious, was publicly burned in Dublin, having been denounced in both the Irish and English parliaments. He moved to London, where he resided till his death in 1722 but, was also a frequent visitor to the continent. At the behest of some leading Whig lords, he wrote a book (Anglia Libera) in support of Sophia of Hanover's claim to the throne. He was able to present her with a copy, in person, when he travelled with Lord Macclesfield's delegation that delivered the Act of Settlement to her.

That Toland and Sophia would take an instant liking to each other is not surprising, according to the author of these two volumes. It was noted that that during daily walks, Sophia and the Irishman would distance themselves from the attendant courtiers so that they could talk in private. They were both very forward-looking but also very practical people. He loved an audience and she loved to be entertained.
Throughout her life, Sophia kept in touch with the thinking of the foremost philosophers of her day. Gottfried Leibniz was not only librarian to the court of Hanover, he was Sophia’s best friend and confidante. The two of them, together with the Catholic bishop of Neustadt, Christof Rojas de Spinola, attempted to reunite the Catholic and Protestant churches. The attempt ended in failure and acrimony but, in any case, Sophia's enthusiasm for ecumenism was waning as prospects of a Protestant crown loomed on the horizon.

Toland, for his part, was in turn a member of each of the major religious sects – Catholic, Church of Ireland and Presbyterian – but, he abandoned them all and was denounced by each as a dangerous heretic. Outside of academic circles, he is barely known in his native Ireland but, where he is remembered, he is celebrated for the important part he played in laying the groundwork for the 18th century Enlightenment.
  • Sophia of Hanover: from Winter Princess to Heiress of Great Britain, 1630-1714 is published by Peter Owen Publishers (ISBN: 978-0-7206-1342-1)
  • John Toland: Ireland's Forgotten Philosopher, Scholar ... and Heretic is published by The Manuscript Publisher (ISBN: 978-1-907522-08-6)
Further information about both of these titles, including how to buy online, is available from the author's website.

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!

Submit a Story

Got some news or an idea for a story that you would like to see covered here? We would love to hear from you. Articles and other material with a view to publication (including press releases) may be conveyed, by e-mail, to the Editor.

Milestones and Anniversaries

Further Reading

  • An Account of the Courts of Prussia and Hanover: Sent to a Minister of State in Holland by John Toland (The Manuscript Publisher, 2013)
  • Letters to Serena by John Toland (Four Courts Press, 2013)
  • Nazerenus by John Toland (Voltaire Foundation, 1999)
  • Physic without Physicians byJohn Toland (The Manuscript Publisher, 2020)
  • Reasons for Naturalizing the Jews in Great Britain and Ireland by John Toland (The Manuscript Publisher, 2013)