Monday, December 17, 2018

Ancient and Modern Celebrated Freethinkers by Charles Bradlaugh, A. Collins, and J. Watts

Poorly written sketches of interesting people
Ancient and Modern Celebrated Freethinkers is the American reprint of a work previously published in England in 1857 under the title Half-Hours with the Freethinkers. It is a collection of what appear to have been columns in a periodical, though the title of the journal is never named. The book provides profiles of 23 important freethinkers throughout history, a group that broadly includes atheists, pantheists, deists, and other heretics who publicly disagreed with Christian dogma. The essays are written by Charles Bradlaugh (writing under the pseudonym of Iconoclast), A. Collins, and J. Watts.

Bradlaugh was a prominent spokesman for freethought in his own right, but his writing here, and that of his colleagues, leaves much to be desired. The essays are a mixture of biographical sketches, philosophical summary, adulatory tribute, and textual excerpts. Unfortunately the authors rely far too heavily on the latter. Many of the chapters contain very little biographical content and instead rather lazily reproduce extensive and not judiciously edited excerpts of the subjects’ writings. Baruch Spinoza, for example, led an interesting life, but his chapter is mostly one big chunk taken from his Ethics, which I’d already read. One of the reasons I pick up a book like this is because I don’t want to read Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry; I just want to get an idea of his philosophical thought. Bradlaugh, however, chooses to reprint page after page of Shelley’s poetry when two summary paragraphs on the poet’s freethought views would have been more useful and effective. As far as biographical content goes, the best you can hope for is maybe two or three interesting facts about each person’s life, and for some of the lesser known personages you get almost no idea of who they were. Rather than really trying to educate readers, the authors write in a “but of course you already know this” tone that is strange and off-putting.

Because of the heavy reliance on excerpts, two of the more interesting entries are about ancient authors whose written works no longer exist: Epicurus and Zeno of Citium (the founder of Stoicism). With the exception of these two ancient thinkers and Spinoza, almost all the remaining figures are 17th or 18th century deists, meaning those who believed in an impartial creator god as opposed to the anthropomorphic Judeo-Christian deity who judges man and answers his prayers. The authors themselves are atheists, but they view the heretical thinking of these deists with admiration as necessary precursors toward modern atheism. A few of the subjects were bona fide members of the clergy who departed from church doctrine, and their excerpts tend to be long and tedious catalogs of biblical inaccuracies. Robert Taylor’s chapter consists almost entirely of Bible quotes while Joseph Barker focuses on the error-prone process of translating holy scripture. To 21st century freethinkers, this stuff is old hat and makes for a boring read, unless you are a fundamentalist Christian thinking of leaving the Church, in which case you could probably find a better book to guide you than this 19th century anthology.

I was hoping for a collection of biographical sketches, but what I got was far less interesting. The book did very briefly introduce me to some thinkers of which I was unfamiliar, and for that I am thankful. There are a few choice chapters, like the ones on David Hume or Frances Wright D’Arusmont, the only woman represented here. In general, however, the text was mostly dull and annoying. For those interested in the history of freethought, I would recommend the 1889 work compiled by Joseph Mazzini Wheeler, A Biographical Dictionary of Freethinkers of All Ages and Nations, a far more interesting work than this collection by Bradlaugh and company.

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