The Fringes of Belief: English Literature, Ancient Heresy, and the Politics of Freethinking, 1660-1760

The Fringes of Belief: English Literature, Ancient Heresy, and the Politics of Freethinking, 1660-1760

The Fringes of Belief: English Literature, Ancient Heresy, and the Politics of Freethinking, 1660-1760

The Fringes of Belief: English Literature, Ancient Heresy, and the Politics of Freethinking, 1660-1760

Synopsis

The Fringes of Belief is the first literary study of freethinking and religious skepticism in the English Enlightenment. Ellenzweig aims to redress this scholarly lacuna, arguing that a literature of English freethinking has been overlooked because it unexpectedly supported aspects of institutional religion. Analyzing works by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, Aphra Behn, Jonathan Swift, and Alexander Pope, she foregrounds a strand of the English freethinking tradition that was suspicious of revealed religion yet often strongly opposed to the open denigration of Anglican Christianity and its laws. By exposing the contradictory and volatile status of categories like belief and doubt this book participates in the larger argument in Enlightenment studies- as well as in current scholarship on the condition of modernity more generally- -that religion is not so simply left behind in the shift from the pre-modern to the modern world.

Excerpt

As we think for ourselves, we may keep our thoughts to ourselves,
or communicate them with a due reserve, and in such a manner
only, as it may be done without offending the laws of our country,
and disturbing the public peace.

—Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke,
Letters, or Essays, Addressed to Alexander Pope (1754)

When Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, wrote to Alexander Pope that “things the most absurd in speculation become necessary in practice,” his subject was the recent “noise made about free thinking” among his contemporaries, and his aim was to redeem the spirit of freethought from its many vociferous detractors. Suspicion of revealed religion, Bolingbroke insinuates, did not necessarily lead to an open denigration of Christianity and its laws. However absurd according to the rigors of speculation, orthodox religious practice takes precedence over the disenchanted truths revealed by freethinking. “Let us not imagine,” he continues,

that every man, who can think and judge for himself, as he has a right to do, has
therefore a right of speaking, any more than of acting, according to the full free
dom of his thoughts. The freedom belongs to him as a rational creature. He lies
under the restraint as a member of society.

It is a long-standing truism that the critique of religion and religious knowledge was a fundamental feature of the Enlightenment. And yet, if the Enlightenment was the epoch of “freethinking” (defined as a skeptical religious posture that saw Scripture and the truths of Christian teaching as idle tales and fables), Bolingbroke's emphasis on the demands of practice, or the need for conformity to the laws and opinions of one's . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.