A Political Biography of John Toland

A Political Biography of John Toland

A Political Biography of John Toland

A Political Biography of John Toland

Synopsis

John Toland was notorious. A pamphleteer, a polemicist and a prankster of the first order, modern scholarship has struggled to position his writings within the debates of his day. This study is the first to fully recount his remarkable biography, situating his writings within the controversies that sparked and shaped them.

Excerpt

John Toland was dying. Bankrupt following a foolish financial foray in South Sea Stock, he was suffering from ‘my old pains in my thighs, reins, and stomach [which] seized me violently two days ago; with a total loss of appetite, hourly retchings and a very high coloured water’. As the illness progressed, and ‘I grew much worse than I was … [and I] relapsed again into all my former symptoms, more frequent and malignant than ever’, he gave himself up to the ‘hands of a Physician, who I believe to be an honest man [who] prepares his own medicine and explains everything he does to me’. Despite the care, he did not prevail, and succumbed in backroom of a carpenter’s shop in Putney. The year was 1722; he was fifty-two.

Yet, even as he was losing his battle with a series of chronic conditions, from rheumatism, the stone and ‘black jaundice’, his endemic temperamental suspicion was abrasively on show. He railed vigorously against the treatment he was receiving. ‘An Historical Account of the Life of Mr John Toland’ takes notice of how ‘There was found upon his table when he died a small Latin tract, intitled, Diatriba contra Medicos, chiefly levelled against the use of Oils and Emeticks, so much late in vogue’. This was of a piece with a deep-felt antagonism towards doctors, expressed in a letter-cum-pamphlet, addressed to his friend Barnham Goode. Written while he was ‘recovering, indeed though very slowly’ from an episode of his illness, and composed ‘by fits and starts in my intervals of up-sitting’, he attacked the medical profession as consisting of ‘men who, the greatest part of them, ruin nature by art; and who by endeavouring to be always very cunning for others, by making everything a mystery, are frequently too cunning for themselves’. He declared that as a consequence of the misdiagnosis and mistreatment of his condition, he had finally sworn off future care by the profession, one he caustically observed ‘whose art is founded in darkness and improved by murder’. This places this pamphlet in relation to the Deist subversion of established authority, attacking the pretensions of those who proposed unmerited claims of a knowledge that was inaccessible to ordinary citizens. As he continued:

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