Monday, 30 November 2020

350th Anniversary of the birth of Irish Philosopher, John Toland (1670-1722)

Recalling the Life of Irish Philosopher, John Toland (1670-1722)

– Some Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Mr. John Toland –


Front cover of Some Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Mr. John Toland by Pierre des Maizeaux
John Toland (1670-1722)
The 350th anniversary of the birth of Irish rationalist philosopher, John Toland (1670-1722), which falls today, is being observed with the re-issue of Some Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Mr. John Toland by Pierre des Maizeaux, first published in 1726.

Given the sparsity of biographical information about John Toland, the fact that this account of his life comes from the pen of a contemporary makes it all the more valuable to students of Toland, the early Enlightenment and of philosophy in general. The reader will gain a flavour for the times in which he lived, his character, the impression that he made on those who encountered him (both friends and adversaries) together with some helpful insight into the many polemics and controversies in which he frequently found himself embroiled. "If you would know more of him, search his writings," Toland said of himself and des Maizeaux's account provides every incentive to do just that.

Pierre des Maizeaux was a French Huguenot, living in exile in London at the time of writing. While his original purpose was simply to provide an overview of Toland’s immense literary output, it was "by greatest accident in the world, that I fell into the company of a Gentleman, who had been intimately acquainted with Mr. Toland, and who very generously communicated to me several particulars concerning him."

While John Toland left Ireland in 1698, never to return, following the fallout arising from the publication of Christianity not Mysterious, what we can glean from this short account of his life would suggest that he retained a certain connection to his Irish roots.

In a visit to Prague, in 1708, he met with Irish Franciscans, who gave testimony that "Mr. Toland was descended from an honourable, noble, and most ancient Family" contrary to some of the wilder and more sensational claims made by his detractors (who included Jonathan Swift, also born on this day but three years earlier, in 1667).

In 1719, Toland lobbied against a bill before parliament, "for the better securing the Dependency the Kingdom of Ireland, upon the Crown of Great Britain" arguing that it "shou’d not pass into a Law."

The History of the Druids is mentioned, as a project left unfinished at the time of Toland's death but which, des Maizeaux says, "I believe, he intended to pursue in good earnest", drawing upon his own knowledge of Irish manuscripts, as well as customs and traditions that he would have encountered directly during the first sixteen years of his life, growing up in "in the most northern Peninsula in Ireland … originally called Inis-Eogan, or Inis Eogain, but is now call’d Inisoen, or Enis-owen."

Some Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Mr. John Toland by Pierre des Maizeaux is published by The Manuscript Publisher and available to buy online, in print and e-book editions.

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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)