Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Reason: The Only Oracle of Man by Ethan Allen

Freethinking Founding Father
Ethan Allen was more than just the Founding Father of Vermont, a Revolutionary guerrilla, and the namesake of a furniture store. He was also a philosopher. Like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and other luminaries in the early history of the American republic, Allen was a deist, meaning he believed in God as the creator of the universe but denied that this deity took any interest in mankind’s affairs or prayers. Allen considered reason, what separates us from the animals, to be the greatest gift God gave us, and that to succumb to superstitions rather than exercising that faculty of reason would be a crime against nature. Such are the convictions behind the book that Allen published in 1785, Reason: The Only Oracle of Man.

Deists are often defined as believers in the “divine watchmaker,” meaning that God created the universe and then just set it running as part of his grand plan, a plan in which humanity is but an infinitesimally insignificant player. All that happens in the universe is beholden to a complex chain of cause and effect tracing back to the moment of creation (though Allen insists there really is no beginning since God is eternal). Allen denies all supernatural occurrences because they defy this impregnable chain of cause and effect. Elsewhere in the book, however, he does express a belief in mankind’s free will, which he never satisfactorily reconciles with this deterministic view. At times Allen’s philosophy resembles that of Baruch Spinoza, particularly when he asserts that the universe knows no good or evil, but rather is indifferent to mankind’s conceptions of morality. In one of the most interesting passages of the book, Allen perhaps takes a page from 16th-century Italian heretic Giordano Bruno when he proposes that the universe contains myriad worlds, perhaps populated by a variety of life forms. Why then would God bother to cater specifically to our petty needs?

One wishes Allen would have spent more time on these philosophical questions and quandaries, as a more fascinating book may have resulted from them. Unfortunately, about a quarter of the way into the book Allen commences a polemic against organized religion and he never really comes back from it. Rather than attacking the philosophical foundations of anthropomorphic theism he attacks its trappings. Among the religious beliefs Allen argues against are supernatural revelation, miracles, prophecies, and the trinity. He points out numerous inaccuracies and contradictions in the Bible, and holds a special grudge against Moses, the supposed author of the Bible’s first five books. Allen also questions the compilation, editing, and translation processes of the Bible’s creation, questioning how one could claim such a man-made text is the result of divine revelation. The points Allen argues are admirable but obvious. Back in his day, perhaps such an antireligious diatribe was necessary, but most of today’s readers don’t need to be told that the Bible shouldn’t be taken literally, and those that do aren’t going to be reading this book anyway.

Reason: The Only Oracle of Man was not received favorably when it was published, and I doubt philosophical scholars of today would consider it a great work either. As a freethinker myself, however, I like the idea that one of my nation’s Founding Fathers not only believed such heretical thoughts but actually published them, and I admire him for putting his name on it, which must have been a gutsy move for his day and age. Though I can’t say I really enjoyed reading this book, I am glad it was written.
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