Friday, June 8, 2012

Pantheisticon by John Toland

“All Things are from the Whole, and the Whole is from all Things.”
Pantheism is a metaphysical view that asserts that God is inseparable from the physical universe. This God, however, bears little resemblance to the Christian, Moslem, or Judaic God. In fact, among Pantheists the word “God” is often interchangeable with words like “Nature”, “Soul”, or “Mind”. Most religions of the world are dualistic philosophies which view the world as being comprised of two substances, matter and spirit. Most Pantheists, on the other hand, are monists who believe the universe is composed of only one substance (matter), and that any divinity, intelligence, or spirit must be an inherent quality of that matter. Thus this divinity permeates the entire universe and inhabits all things. Everything is a part of and subject to the governing order of the natural universe, and nothing, not even God nor human consciousness, resides outside of physical reality. Many of the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers were Pantheists, as were the early Hindus and the Chinese Taoists. The most prominent Pantheist in the Western philosophical canon is Baruch de Spinoza, in whose work John Toland, the author of Pantheisticon, was certainly well-versed.

Toland was an Irish philosopher and outspoken freethinker who often published writings attacking conventional religious views. Pantheisticon was first published in Latin in 1720; the first English translation appeared in 1751. It is a brief booklet, little more than 100 small pages. Toland devotes about half the book to an explanation of the basic concepts of Pantheism. What he has to say on the subject is in many ways a rehash of Spinoza, but less mathematically logical in its construction and harder to understand. At times it’s even difficult to determine whether Toland is proposing a monistic or dualistic form of Pantheism. He makes digressions into physics and astronomy that do little to clarify his position, especially when penned in the prose stylings of three centuries past.

In the second half of the book Toland presents something far more original and unique. He asserts that throughout the Europe of his time there existed Socratic Societies, brotherhoods of Pantheists who, in the tradition of the ancient Greeks and Romans, gathered for banquets and engaged in philosophical discourse. Toland transcribes the “Form” of these meetings, a sort of liturgy that’s to be recited at these secret dinners, which include many quotes from their patron saint Cicero and call-and-response hymns devoted to the triumph of reason over superstition. Whether or not societies of this sort actually existed, the sort of pan-European network that Toland proposes here seems unlikely. It’s more probable that Toland’s intention is to inspire such brotherhoods, and create for the disciples of reason something resembling an organized religion.

If you really want to get a thorough understanding of Pantheism, this is not the book to read. For that I would suggest The Ethics by Spinoza. Nevertheless, if you are a freethinker, you’ll get a big kick out of the Pantheisticon. It gives one the feeling that you’re not alone in the world, that somewhere out there exists a brotherhood of like-minded heathens who value reason over superstition and scientific investigation over dogma. The book is also well stocked with quotable gems, for example, “The Sun is my Father, the Earth is my Mother, the World’s my Country, and all Men are my Relations.” Words to live by for the human race, to be sure.

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