Margaret Jacob
The Radical Enlightenment

By 1660 and the Restoration of monarchy in England and by 1663 and the establishment of the Royal Society under royal charter, the social vision of scientific learning that prevailed during the 1640s, that search for the 'great instauration', had given way to an increasingly entrepreneurial notion of scientific practice. Scientific learning became the work of great and enterprising minds at work in isolation, while the social purpose of science was linked solely with discoveries to improve trade and commerce, to build empire abroad and to promote material prosperity at home. We should not imagine, however, that the moderate idealists of the 1640s who fashioned a mechanical and experimental philosophy more accurate in its methods than anything proposed by Descartes and more compatible with the Christian definition of matter and spirit than the rival materialism, had become by 1660 broken and disillusioned men.

During the ensuing decade Boyle, Wilkins, Evelyn and Oldenburg (although he was suspected of heterodoxy) in the Royal Society, and Isaac Barrow at Cambridge, became the intellectual and even organisational leaders of the new scientific learning. They used the new mechanical philosophy as the foundation for a broad and tolerant Anglicanism, which found little favour among the restored Anglican hierarchy but which seems to have had considerable support among the educated laity, particularly in London and its environs (11, ch.l). They were described at the time by friends and foe alike as 'latitudinarians' and their position attracted a bevy of young Anglican clerics, Simon Patrick, John Tillotson, Thomas Tenison, Edward Stillingfleet and John Moore. Latitudinarianism, or simply liberal Anglicanism, will figure prominently in our discussion of the Newtonian Enlightenment, in the English origins of that philosophical version of the Enlightenment. Also important in that intellectual history were the so-called Cambridge Platonists, Henry More and Ralph Cudworth, contemporaries of Boyle and Barrow, who sometimes quarrelled with the new scientists on minor issues but who basically shared their mechanical philosophy and their religious liberalism. More as well as Barrow influenced the young Isaac Newton in the 1660s when he was a student at Cambridge.

During the English Revolution the mechanical philosophy of nature essentially derived from Descartes, and various pantheistic philosophies derived from the magical and Hermetic tradition merged for a time, but eventually came to clash with an empirical approach to learning inspired by Bacon. The arbitrators of these various traditions, virtuosi like Boyle and Wilkins, mathematicians like Barrow, philosophers like More and Cudworth, grappled with these approaches to the natural world within the context of political revolution. At every turn they rejected mechanistic explanations that hinged upon the power of matter unassisted by spiritual forces separate from the natural order. To their mind, scientific materialism, whether mechanistic or pantheistic in its inclination, justified atheism, social levelling, political disorder, in short the turning of 'the world upside down'.

These liberal Anglican opponents of materialism knew that at least one version of that 'atheistical' understanding of nature flourished among educated men, some of whom belonged to the highest ranks of the political nation. Their textbook, as churchmen and virtuosi might imagine it, was nothing less than the major political treatise to be occasioned by the revolution, Hobbes's Leviathan (1651). While materialism of a strongly pantheistic variety expressed a philosophy common within republican circles, whether lowly or even gentlemanly (33, 126), materialism of a totally mechanistic variety was imbedded in Hobbes's analysis of the natural order as well as of the political order (35).

Deeply influenced by the mathematical way of Descartes, Hobbes saw the universe as matter in motion, defined by its mathematically measurable attributes and moved by forces inherent to it. Hobbes leaves little doubt that he saw these mechanical operations as the sufficient explanation of natural phenomena-without recourse to supernatural agencies or providential oversight. Equally alarming, however, was Hobbes's attempt to apply these mechanical principles to the social actions of men.

Hobbes's thought displayed to his contemporaries as well as to recent commentators the fundamental unity of his science-based materialism and his political theory (34, 78-9). Because he analysed men as mechanisms in motion, as essentially self-moved matter, he could postulate their political morality as springing from their actions or motions, that is from their desires, passions and repugnances, and not from any outside source, any higher or supernaturally endowed ethical standard, other than themselves. Spiritual forces derived ultimately from God play no part in Hobbes's materialism. As a result, the traditional explanations of political obligation-that it is based upon reason or obedience to God's will-play no part in his political theory. The political meaning of Hobbes's stark rendering of the mechanical philosophy, which he spelled out at great length in Leviathan, added yet another dimension to the socially dangerous implications of a mechanical version of nature left un-Christianised.

But there was another, equally dangerous, threat posed by the teachings propounded in Leviathan. For Hobbes, religion is 'feare of power invisible, feigned by the mind, or imagined from tales publiquely allowed' (36, 124). In short, religious belief springs from perpetual fear, nothing more, nothing less. As a result 'the Gods were at first created by humane fear', and in the world of human politics, as distinct from the Kingdom of God (about which Hobbes would have us know very little), the purpose of religion is that it 'teacheth part of the duty which earthly kings require of their subjects' (36, 170, 173-4). Religion springs from public necessity and its purpose is to impose public order and to alleviate fear of 'powers invisible', of 'a whole kingdome of Fayries, and Bugbears'. Hobbes personally advocated absolute monarchy and he praised the social value of religious belief enforced by a priestly caste, in short of civic religion, but he based both prescriptions on the nature of man, on human solutions to human problems that arise from the passions, from matter in motion.

Hobbes was an extreme embarrassment to the royalist camp. Although a firm supporter of absolute monarchy, his ideas about political obligation and particularly about the origin and purpose of religious worship quickly found favour in freethinking and radical circles. Although the career of Hobbes's philosophy during the Restoration remains somewhat opaque, in the very early decades of the Radical Enlightenment we find Hobbes being championed by Commonwealthmen like Anthony Collins. He is also the only English political theoretician of the revolution singled out for special citation in the most virulently pantheistic and republican tract of that period, the Traite des trois imposteurs. The radicals simply stripped Hobbes of his royalism; they championed his notion that political obligation arises from the necessities of politics, from de facto obligations intended to secure peace and stability, and if necessary imposed by revolutionary action. But it was his materialism, and in particular its implications for established religion and churches that most delighted his radical readers. They, too, saw the necessity for civic religion, for some Freemasonry would constitute such a creed, but its 'priesthood' would be lay and not clerical. Enlightenment radicals would attempt to replace the fear of supernatural powers, postulated according to Hobbes because man 'cannot assure himselfe of the true causes of things', with the scientific study of natural causes and effects. Nature would replace God as the source and explanation of human endeavours; and the need for stability and community demanded in turn that civil society itself become the object of common worship.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.