Reason, Grace, and Sentiment: A Study of the Language of Religion and Ethics in England, 1660-1780

By Fitzpatrick, Martin | Anglican and Episcopal History, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Reason, Grace, and Sentiment: A Study of the Language of Religion and Ethics in England, 1660-1780


Fitzpatrick, Martin, Anglican and Episcopal History


ISABEL RIVERS. Reason, Grace, and Sentiment: A Study of the Language of Religion and Ethics in England, 1660-1780. Volume II: Shaftesbury to Hume. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. xiv + 386, bibliography, index. $69.95.

This is the second volume of Isabel Rivers' investigation into the relationship between religion and ethics from the late seventeenth century to the late eighteenth century. In the first volume and this one, she has developed a refreshingly individualistic approach to the study of the language of religion and ethics. Her belief, however, that the past should be studied in its own terms creates something of a paradox. The age she has so lovingly studied was an age of controversy and one in which a substantial number of those engaged in controversy believed that it furthered the cause of truth. Rivers begs to differ. "With a few admirable exceptions," she argues, "writers nearly always distort their opponents' views" (5). On such grounds she refuses to engage with current academic debates relating to her subject. Her books therefore represent special landmarks in the study of the subject, for they do not easily tie into current preoccupations. Where relevant, she does cite contemporary academic opinion, but she is never sidetracked by debate amongst authorities. Her emphasis is on the printed sources, of which she is a master. She is also a conscientious expositor, even noting when she is not following the exact ordering of a writer's argument (134).

Rivers begins by showing how freethinkers played a key role in creating the need for a naturalistic ethic through their attack on revelation. Unable to speak the plain truth as they saw it because of the danger of prosecution under the Blasphemy Act and/or the common law, they skillfully deployed irony to make their case. Decoding the meaning(s) of freethinking works is therefore fraught with difficulties, and Rivers sensibly concludes in relation to Toland that his works "are only as clear and intelligible as the alert reader...can make them" (50). Rivers is such a reader; her discussion of the religion of nature and of the problems of interpreting the ironic language of the Deist texts is quite brilliant.

The freethinkers, Rivers argues, created the need for a naturalistic ethic, but failed to supply it. Only Shaftesbury would do that and that gave him a status and influence quite different from the other Deist writers. Indeed, his views on human nature, notably his refutation of Hobbes and Mandeville, attracted attention from theologians which was often sympathetic. He is undoubtedly the hero of this volume. His Characteristicks has been Rivers' "constant companion." One may query the overwhelming prominence in eighteenth-century moral discourse given to Shaftesbury, and "Shaftesburians," for assessing influence is notoriously tricky. Nonetheless, viewing through the filter of Shaftesburian ideas the eighteenth-century debates on the relationship between reason and sentiment, and on the question as to whether morality should be grounded in human nature, gives the volume exceptional coherence. Moreover, Rivers at no point suggests that there is a single tradition founded on Shaftesbury's ideas; rather, she demonstrates that his ideas were adapted to particular circumstances and different intellectual traditions, and that they were used eclectically (187). Accepting that she is not so much studying his ideas as what those ideas were thought to be, she concludes that ultimately it was not so much his book (Characteristicks) as "a language" which constitutes his legacy (152). …

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