Leibniz, Locke, and ‘books aiming to prove the truth of religion’

[Cross-posted from philosophymodsquad.wordpress.com.]

At a recent conference I gave a paper on Leibniz’s correspondence with Thomas Burnett of Kemnay. Among my questions was how Locke appeared to Leibniz. Did he look like a Socinian, or similar sort of religiously dubious character? In answering that, it would be good to have some idea of how Leibniz thought about Locke’s Reasonableness of Christianity. But Leibniz said relatively little explicitly about that text. There is, however, an argument in Leibniz’s correspondence with Burnett that seems to bear on the issue.

It seems to me that too many books aiming to prove the truth of religion are written in your country. That’s a bad sign, and is something that doesn’t always have a good effect … I have often thought, and others have come to agree with me, that preachers should usually avoid this issue, because instead of relieving doubts, they give rise to them. Books in vernacular languages have this effect most often … I’d prefer that we concentrated on making the wisdom of God known through physics and mathematics, by revealing more and more of the wonders of nature. That’s the real way to convince the profane, and should be the goal of philosophy (Leibniz to Burnett, 18 July 1701, A 1.20.185, pp.286-7).

Who is Leibniz talking about here? Burnett’s previous letter mentions George Stanhope’s Boyle lectures (A 1.20.155, p.233). Before that, a useful source is a letter from late 1700 (A 1.19.132). The works below are just some of those mentioned by Burnett there.

  • Robert Jenkin, The Reasonableness and Certainty of the Christian Religion, second edition
  • John Richardson, The Canon of the New Testament Vindicated in answer to the objections of J.T. in his Amyntor
  • Stephen Nye, An historical account, and defence [sic], of the canon of the New Testament In answer to Amyntor 
  • Thomas Staynoe, Salvation by Jesus Christ alone … agreeable to the rules of reason and the laws of justice …
  • Richard Kidder, A demonstration of the Messias. in which the truth of the Christian religion is defended, especially against the Jews
  • John Sharp, The reasonableness of believing without seeing a sermon preach’d before the King in St. James’s Chappel, on Palm-Sunday, March 24, 1699/700
  • William Talbot, A sermon preach’d … at St. Bridget’s Church, Easter Monday
  • John Edwards, The eternal and intrinsick reasons of good and evil a sermon preach’d at the commencement at Cambridge on Sunday the second day of July, 1699
  • Nathaneal Taylor, A preservative against Deism shewing the great advantage of revelation above reason, in the two great points, pardon of sin, and a future state of happiness
  • Nathaneal Taylor, A discourse of the nature and necessity of faith in Jesus Christ with an answer to the pleas of our modern Unitarians for the sufficiency of bare morality or meer charity to salvation

These are, it seems, the sorts of book to which Leibniz was objecting. But there’s another book, not named above, that appears to me to be equally part of this context, equally the sort of thing to which Leibniz was objecting. This was a book that Burnett had mentioned to Leibniz back in 1697: namely, Locke’s Reasonableness of Christianity (Burnett to Leibniz, 4 May 1697, A 1.14.105, p.182). It’s part of the same debate, trying to do just the sort of thing that Leibniz criticized. Leibniz did not offer any explicit criticism of Locke’s Reasonableness at this point. But the above passage offers an implicit one — one that has little to do with the details of the views argued for, and more to do with the kind of book it was.

Burnett made some attempt to defend these books against Leibniz’s criticism (Burnett to Leibniz, 2 September 1701, A 1.20.247, pp.404-5), and Leibniz continued the discussion (Leibniz to Burnett, 24 February 1702, A 1.20.467, p.811), adding the point that “I have often remarked that these books have served as guides for the enemies of religion. Those who cannot find their own [anti-religious] books have sought their arguments in the books that refute them, without going to the bother of reading the refutations”. One ought, Leibniz thought, to be highly skeptical about the publication of such books. Publishing them is the wrong way for preachers or philosophers to be proceeding — and thus, presumably, the wrong way for Locke to be proceeding.

P.S. Thanks again to the conference organizers, in particular to Sam Levey and everyone else at Dartmouth and  to Ruth Mattern.

Published by Stewart Duncan

Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Florida