John Toland was condemned by the Irish parliament and denounced from church pulpits all over Ireland after the publication in 1696 of his controversial book, Christianity not Mysterious. Threatened with arrest, Toland fled abroad (not for the first time). Then only 26, he was to spend the remainder of his years in exile, philosophizing, publishing and polemicizing on the burning issues of his time. On his death-bed in 1722, Toland signed one of his last books, Pantheisticon, with what he claimed was his original baptismal name Janus Junius Edganesius—a signature indicating his place of birth on the Inis Eoghain peninsula in Donegal in accordance with native Gaelic practice. Beside this baptismal name, he added the pseudonym Cosmopoli, meaning ‘one who belongs to the world’.
But who was John Toland? Those who have tried to answer this question have generally given up in despair. Pierre des Maizeaux, who embarked on a biography shortly after Toland’s death, found the materials insufficient. The intervening two-and-a-half centuries have not improved matters, as Robert Sullivan admits in his recent mammoth study of the man: ‘Toland habitually covered his tracks, and the bulk of his papers have been destroyed. Coming across the order “burn this” on the charred fragment of a letter concerning Toland, a researcher must wonder how much [else] has been lost besides’. 1 Toland himself proposes some solution to this anticipated dilemma—‘If you would know more of him (he writes of himself) search his writings’ (caetera scriptis pete).2 But this, as we shall see, is no solution. Toland’s final self-description, inscribed in a Latin epitaph on his grave in a Putney churchyard, declared that he would rise again, ‘yet never to [be] the same Toland more’ (At idemfuturus Tolandus nunquarri). But who, one is compelled to ask, is the same Toland? Which Toland are we talking about? Even in death, John Toland continued to tease and mystify. 3 He chose to remain an enigma.