Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
A Religion of Hypocrisy
By Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke (16781751)
From Letter to Mr. Pope
EVERY one has an undoubted right to think freely: nay, it is the duty of every one to do so, as far as he has the necessary means and opportunities. This duty too is in no case so incumbent on him as in those that regard what I call the first philosophy. They who have neither means nor opportunities of this sort, must submit their opinions to authority; and to what authority can they resign themselves so properly, and so safely, as to that of the laws, and constitution of their country? In general, nothing can be more absurd than to take opinions of the greatest moment, and such as concern us the most intimately, on trust. But there is no help against it in many particular cases. Things the most absurd in speculation become necessary in practice. Such is the human constitution, and reason excuses them on the account of this necessity. Reason does even a little more; and it is all she can do. She gives the best direction possible to the absurdity. Thus she directs those, who must believe because they cannot know, to believe in the laws of their country, and conform their opinions and practice to those of their ancestors, to those of Coruncanius, of Scipio, of Scaevola, not to those of Zeno, of Cleanthes, of Chrysippus.
But now the same reason that gives this discretion to such men as these, will give a very contrary direction to those who have the means and opportunities the others want. Far from advising them to submit to this mental bondage, she will advise them to employ their whole industry, to exert the utmost freedom of thought, and to rest on no authority but hers, that is, their own. She will speak to them in the language of the Soufys, a sect of philosophers in Persia, that travellers have mentioned. Doubt, say these wise and honest freethinkers, is the key of knowledge. He who never doubts, never examines. He who never examines, discovers nothing. He who discovers nothing, is blind, and will remain so. If you find no reason to doubt concerning the opinions of your fathers, keep to them, they will be sufficient for you. If you find any reason to doubt concerning them, seek the truth quietly, but take care not to disturb the minds of other men.
Let us proceed agreeably to these maxims. Let us seek truth, but seek it quietly as well as freely. Let us not imagine, like some who are called freethinkers, that every man, who can think and judge for himself, as he has a right to do, has therefore a right of speaking, any more than of acting according to the full freedom of his thoughts. The freedom belongs to him as a rational creature. He lies under the restraint as a member of society.
If the religion we profess contained nothing more than articles of faith, and points of doctrine clearly revealed to us in the Gospel, we might be obliged to renounce our natural freedom of thought in favour of this supernatural authority. But since it is notorious that a certain order of men, who call themselves the Church, have been employed to make and propagate a theological system of theirs, which they call Christianity, from the days of the Apostles, and even from these days inclusively; it is our duty to examine, and analyse the whole, that we may distinguish what is Divine from what is human; adhere to the first implicitly, and ascribe to the last no more authority than the word of man deserves.
Such an examination is the more necessary to be undertaken by every one who is concerned for the truth of his religion, and for the honour of Christianity, because the first preachers of it were not, and they who preach it still are not agreed about many of the most important points of their system; because the controversies raised by these men have banished union, peace, and charity out of the Christian world; and because some parts of the system savour so much of superstition and enthusiasm, that all the prejudices of education, and the whole weight of civil and ecclesiastical power can hardly keep them in credit. These considerations deserve the more attention, because nothing can be more true, than what Plutarch said of old, and my Lord Bacon has said since; one, that superstition, and the other, that vain controversies are principal causes of atheism.
I neither expect nor desire to see any public revision made of the present system of Christianity. I should fear an attempt to alter the established religion as much as they who have the most bigot attachment to it, and for reasons as good as theirs, though not entirely the same. I speak only of the duty of every private man to examine for himself, which would have an immediate good effect relatively to himself, and might have in time a good effect relatively to the public, since it would dispose the minds of men to a greater indifference about theological disputes, which are the disgrace of Christianity, and have been the plagues of the world.