Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Herbert of Cherbury before Deism: The Early Reception of the De Veritate

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Herbert of Cherbury before Deism: The Early Reception of the De Veritate

Article excerpt

Perhaps more than any other seventeenth-century philosopher, Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1582-1648) has become the creature of his posthumous reputation. Since the middle years of the eighteenth century he has been widely known as 'the father of English Deism'. Despite a recent scholarly effort to question the inevitable association between Herbert and the English deists - an association forged by Charles Blount's pillaging of his manuscripts thirty years after his death - it has proved a remarkably persistent view, and one that continues to inflect modern perceptions of Herbert's writings.1 In particular, the widespread assumption survives that Herbert's purposes were overwhelmingly theological rather than philosophical, and that Herbert intended his major work, the De veritate (On Truth) exclusively as a deliberate charter for deism and natural religion.2 Modern scholarship, in short, remains very largely in thrall to the eighteenth-century characterisation of Herbert as the fountainhead of the deistic movement in England. This paper, in contrast, develops recent reassessments of Herbert's relation to 'deism' by examining how early readers of the De veritate read and responded to it. It aims to get behind the posthumous reputation Herbert acquired after the emergence of the tendency known as 'deism', and to explain the range of responses that his work provoked.

The deist characterisation of Herbert does not adequately represent the perceptions his contemporaries and immediate successors had of him. The suggestion one finds made that Herbert's early readers 'had no doubt' that his purposes were essentially religious rather than 'epistemological' by no means tells the full story.3 The eighteenth-century historians of deism who placed Herbert at the front of their books were developing an account of his writings that only arose from the 1670s onwards. Before then, Herbert's readers were excited, influenced, and often confused by his writings and their purposes. For in his lifetime, Herbert was not universally taken as an unequivocal enemy of Christianity - indeed, his most perceptive modern scholar, D. P. Walker, has already suggested that 'Herbert's reputation as an anti-Christian deist began only twenty years after his death'.4 Until 1645, the only published work Herbert's readers had to gauge his purposes was the De veritate, which was first printed in Paris in 1624. And even when early readers of this were suspicious of his intentions, as several were, they did not level at him the accusations of 'deism' and 'natural religion' that now sit so heavily upon him. Herbert's reluctance to mention Christ and his ingrained anti-clericalism were indeed suspected by some of those who knew him personally. But they only became widely known after accounts of his behaviour on his deathbed in 1648 began to circulate, and after the publication of his later writings: the De religione laici with its Appendix ad sacerdotes (1645) and the posthumous De religione gentilium (1663). Before then, Herbert's early readers principally understood his De veritate in terms of two principal contemporary intellectual preoccupations. The first of these was the search for philosophical concepts of 'method' and of an axiomatic foundation for logic. The second was the elaboration of metaphysical (that is to say, 'natural' or non-revealed) proofs of the existence of God. The responses of early readers of the De veritate, in short, were not as unequivocal as those of later readers and modern scholars have tended to be.

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It has been assumed that Herbert's writings were little read in England in the twenty-five years following his death - although that there was significant continental interest is well enough known.5 In fact, however, a good number of early readers of the De veritate can be found, in England as well as across Europe. It would be wrong, however, to suggest that the book had a wide circulation, for both bibliographic and external evidence suggests that Herbert himself carefully controlled the distribution of the early manuscripts and printed copies of the book. …

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