Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Biographical Dictionary of Freethinkers of All Ages and Nations by Joseph Mazzini Wheeler

Comprehensive catalog of atheists, pantheists, deists, and heretics
J. M. Wheeler
A Biographical Dictionary of Freethinkers of All Ages and Nations was originally published in 1889. As the title suggests, the book is a who’s who of nonbelievers, commemorated with brief biographical entries arranged in alphabetical order. It was compiled by Joseph Mazzini Wheeler, a British atheist and freethought essayist, who clearly did an enormous amount of research for this herculean undertaking. As an encyclopedic reference volume, this biographical dictionary is not going to emotionally engage the reader the way a philosophical novel or a stirring essay might, but there is still nonetheless a great wealth of knowledge and inspiration to be mined from this rich text.

Wheeler wisely chose the term “Freethinkers” rather than “Atheists” because the book includes a broad range of the skeptical spectrum including agnostics, pantheists, deists, positivists, and other dissenters against Christian dogma. The qualifier “All Ages” is accurate, as Wheeler covers freethought luminaries from ancient times to the present. “All Nations” may be stretching it a bit, but not from a nineteenth-century Western perspective. The personages cited are considered British unless stated otherwise, but Wheeler gives equal space to the intellectual revolutionaries of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the United States, and a surprising number of Belgians. As one would expect from the era of publication, no Africans are included, except for one South African transplant and maybe a few Moroccans. Asia is represented by the great Arab and Persian philosophers of ancient and medieval times, such as Averroes, Avicenna, and Omar Khayyam. From farther East, Wheeler only recognizes the most obvious giants of Eastern thought like Confucius and the Buddha. Only a handful of Latin Americans are represented. About one out of every fifty entries is a woman. The diversity of the selections or lack thereof is probably more an accurate reflection of the published writings available to Wheeler at the time than of any deliberate bias on his part.

One would think the most recognizable freethinkers like Giordano Bruno, Thomas Paine, or Robert Ingersoll would get the longest entries, but that’s not necessarily the case. The lengthiest treatment goes to either Annie Besant or George William Foote, neither of which I had ever heard of. The life summaries usually only amount to a paragraph each, but that’s still room enough for some of them to be quite fascinating. The basics of birth, death, career trajectory, and philosophical slant are covered, often accompanied by interesting facts and anecdotes. The best feature of the book is its highlighting of the most important writings of each author, making it an excellent bibliography of freethought texts.

The antiquity of this volume should not be considered a disadvantage. If a book like this were published today, it would contain many movie stars and pop singers who once made an offhand comment about not going to church. The freethinkers listed in this book, on the other hand, gave great consideration to their personal philosophies, published books on the subject, and lived their lives of nonbelief in the face of persecution. For today’s freethinkers, this biographical dictionary is an inspiring look into the lives of those who fought for whatever scrap of nonreligious freedom we might enjoy today. If you consider yourself a freethinker, browsing through this encyclopedia of kindred spirits will assure you that you are in good company.
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