Freethought Archives > G.W. Foote > Arrows of Freethought (1882)


[A Paper read at the Annual Conference of the National Secular Society, in the Co-operative Hall, Bury, June 5th, 1881.]

When I was invited to read a paper at this Conference, I thought that, as editor of the Freethinker, I ought to say something about Freethought. And as the deliberations of this Conference are mostly on practical matters, it occurred to me that I had better select a subject of less immediate though not of insignificant interest. So I resolved to address you on Freethought in Current Literature.

I have said that this subject, if not practical and urgent, is assuredly not unimportant. The power of literature over men's minds cannot be estimated too highly. Science is a tremendous force, but its greatest influence is exercised over the human mind when it quits the merely practical task of ministering to our material desires, and seeks to mould our moral and spiritual conceptions of our position and destiny in the universe. To do this it must address us through the medium of literature. Art also is a great force, more especially in countries which have not been subjected, like ours, to the bondage of Puritanism. But art has hitherto appealed to a restricted circle, although that circle is rapidly widening in our own age. The greatest, most permanent, and most universal force is literature. Raphael and Michael Angelo have not influenced the world so profoundly as Shakespeare and Dante; while so many artistic achievements of antiquity are lost or half decayed, its literary masterpieces still survive with undiminished freshness and charm; and while the most eminent works even of contemporary artists are seen only occasionally by a few, the most eminent writings of the world's master minds may and do become a household possession to thousands who move in the humblest spheres of life.

In these cosmopolitan days the Freethinker and Humanitarian naturally looks beyond his own country into the great world, which is at present divided by national and other barriers, but which will in time become the home of one all-embracing family. And I confess that I was strongly tempted to trace the workings of the spirit of Freethought as far as I could in the general literature of Europe. But I soon recognised the necessity of limiting myself to the manifestations of that subtle and pervasive spirit in the current literature of our English tongue.

When the present century commenced Europe was stirred to the utter depths by that great French Revolution which marked a new epoch in the world's history. The revolutionary wave surged across the western world, and passed over England as well as other countries. Some thought the huge eclipse of social order which accompanied it the herald of approaching night, and others thought it the dawn of a new day; but none were indifferent. There was an intense excitement of radical passions and desires, a quickening of all the springs of life. This produced a blossoming of our literature such as had not been witnessed since the great Elizabethan age, and then, as before, Free-thought mixed with the vital sap. Of the long array of post-revolutionary names I select three—Thomas Paine, who represented the keen and restless common-sense of Freethought; William Godwin, who represented its calmer philosophy; and Shelley, who represented its lofty hopes and soaring aspirations. Godwin has almost faded into a name; Paine's great work is nearly done, for a deeper and more scientific scepticism has possessed itself of the field in which he labored; but Shelley has a message for generations yet unborn. He emerges as the supreme figure destined to immortality of fame. All great and noble and beautiful qualities cohere in him, the "poet of poets and purest of men." And he is ours. Byron, with all his splendid energy and terrible scorn, quailed before the supreme problems of life; but Shelley faced them with a courage all the greater because it was unconscious, and casting aside all superstitious dreams and illusory hopes, yearned prophetically towards the Future, when freedom, truth and love shall supersede all other trinities, and realise here on earth that Paradise which theologians have only promised in a world to come.

A Shelley cultus has grown up during recent years, and many of our most gifted writers reverently bow themselves before him. I have only to mention such names as Browning, Swinburne, and Rossetti to show the intellectual rank of his worshippers. Their number increases every year, and it is touching to witness the avidity with which they seize on all new facts relating to him, whether the record of some episode in his life, a reported conversation, or a scrap of writing from his hand.

From the Shelley and Byron period to the fresh revolutionary outburst of 1848 there was a lull in England as well as elsewhere. Several great political reforms were achieved in the interval. A Reform Bill was carried. Catholics and Jews were emancipated, and freedom and cheapness of the press were won by the untameable courage of men like Carlile, Hetherington, Lovett, and Watson. But quietude reigned in the higher spheres of literature. The age was eminently respectable, and it acclaimed the highly respectable Wordsworth as, the prophet divinely inspired to teach men how to rest and be thankful.

But during that interval of apathy and respectability, Science was slowly gathering strength and making conquests, in preparation for the time when she might plant her feet firmly on the solid ground she had won, and challenge Theology to mortal combat. Geology and Biology, in especial, were getting themselves ready to overthrow the fables of Genesis and destroy its doctrines of special creation. And one is glad to admit that they have completely succeeded at last. Professor Huxley declares that he is not acquainted with any man of science or properly instructed person who believes that Adam and Eve were the first parents of mankind, or that we have all descended from the eight persons who superintended that wonderful floating menagerie which survived a universal deluge less than five thousand years ago. And all the clergy can say in reply is that Professor Huxley is not endowed with that theological faculty which enables them to perceive in the language of Scripture a meaning which is quite undiscernible to the eyes of common sense.

Another influence was at work during that interval. Mainly through Carlyle, the treasures of German literature were opened up to English readers. The greatest German writers, from Leasing, Göethe, and Schiller to Fichte, Richter, and Heine, were outrageous Freethinkers compared with our own respectable and orthodox writers, and their influence soon made itself evident in the tolerance and courage with which English authors began to treat the great problems of morality and religion. German scholarship, too, slowly crept among us. Its Biblical criticism showed us the utter inadequacy of evidential works like Paley's, and made us see that the Christian Scriptures would have to be viewed in a very different light and studied in a very different spirit. To estimate the extent of this change, we have only to place Paley's "Evidences of Christianity" beside such a work as "Supernatural Religion." The gulf between these works is enormous; and it is notable that the more scientific and rigorous is the criticism of the New Testament books, the more heterodox are the conclusions reached. Even Scotland has been invaded by this German influence, and it now affords us the laughable spectacle of a number of grave ministers pursuing as a damnable heretic a man like Dr. Robertson Smith, whose only crime is having stated about the Bible nothing new, but what every scholar in Europe knows to be admitted and indisputable. These solemn ministers of the old creed are determined to keep the deluge of what they call "German infidelity" from flooding the valleys and mounting the hillsides of Scotland; but their heresy-hunts are just as efficacious against what they so piously dread as Mrs. Partington's mop against the mighty onrush of Atlantic rollers.

With the revolutionary movement of '48 came a fresh impulse from France. The great evangel of '89 had not perished; it was only in abeyance; and again it burst upon Europe with its words of fire. We all know how the Republic which was then established was soon suppressed in blood by the gang of adventurers presided over by Napoleon the Little. But the day of retribution came, and the empire went the way of all tyrannies. On its ruins the Republic has been established anew, and now it reckons in its service and among its champions the best intellects and the noblest characters in France; while the masses of the people, taught by the bitter lessons of adversity, are also content to enjoy the benefits of ordered liberty and peaceful progress under its benign sway.

Now French progress has always been a question of ideas no less than of material advantage. The great democratic leaders in France have nearly all been avowed Freethinkers. They have separated themselves alike from "the blood on the hands of the king and the lie at the lips of the priest," being perfectly assured that outward freedom in politics is in the long run impossible without inward freedom of thought. The chief statesman in France, M. Gambetta, has publicly declared himself a disciple of Voltaire, and neither at the marriages nor at the funerals of his friends does he ever enter the doors of a church. He stays outside and quietly allows those who desire it to go in and listen to the mumbling of the priest.

My purpose, however, being literary and not political, I must recur to my remark that a fresh impulse came to us from France after the revolution of '48. Lamartine at first exercised considerable influence here, but gradually Victor Hugo's star ascended, and from the moment it reached the zenith until now, he has been accounted the supreme poet of France, and the greatest contemporary evangelist of the ideas of '89. He is a Freethinker as well as a Republican; and it was inevitable that the younger school of writers in England, who acknowledge him as a lofty master, should drink from his inexhaustible spring the living waters of Democracy and Freethought.

French influence on our very recent literature is evident in such works as Mr. John Morley's Studies on Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, and Condorcet; Mr. Christie's monumental Life of Etienne Dolet, the Freethought martyr; and Mr. Parton's new Life of Voltaire; all of which demand and will amply requite our attention.

Such are the influences which have conspired to shape the literary activities of the generation in which we live. Now Freethought, like a subtle essence, penetrates everywhere. Every book betrays its presence, and even the periodical literature of our age is affected by it. The Archbishop of Canterbury laments that Christian men cannot introduce the most respectable magazines into their homes without the risk of poisoning the minds of their families with heretical ideas.

One of the signs that Freethought had begun to leaven the educated classes was the publication of the famous "Essays and Reviews." The heresy of that book was exceedingly small, but it roused a great storm in the religious world and led to more than one clerical prosecution. Another sign was the publication of Colenso's learned work on the Pentateuch. This hard-working Colonial Bishop was denounced as a heretic by the idler home Bishops, and Ruskin has said that they would have liked to burn Colenso alive, and make Ludgate Hill easier for the omnibuses with the cinders of him. An antagonist very different from the Bishops was Mr. Matthew Arnold, who severely censured Colenso's whole method of criticism, as a handling of religious questions in an irreligious spirit. Mr. W. R. Greg admirably defended the Bishop, and the controversy ended in a drawn battle.

But what has happened since? The same Matthew Arnold who censured Colenso has himself published two remarkable works on "Literature and Dogma" and "God and the Bible," written it is true on a different plan from Colenso's, but containing a hundred times more heresy than the Bishop crammed into all his big volumes. For Mr. Arnold deprecates the idea of a personal god, likens the Christian Trinity to three Lord Shaftesburys, and says that the Bible miracles must all be given up without reservation. All the positive religion he leaves us is the belief in "An eternal not ourselves that makes for righteousness," which is about as nebulous a creed as ever was preached. Now Mr. Arnold is not an insignificant person. He is recognised as a past-master of English letters, a ripe scholar, a fine poet, and an exquisite critic. When such a man carries destructive criticism to its utmost limits, we may well congratulate ourselves on a signal triumph of Freethought. And we may also find comfort in the fact that nobody thinks of flinging a stone at Mr. Arnold for his heresy. By-and-by the censors of religion in the press will cease to throw stones at the Freethought teachers among the masses of the people, who only put into homlier English and publish in a cheaper form the sentiments and ideas which Mr. Arnold expresses for the educated classes at a higher price and in a loftier style.

During the winter a gap was made in the front rank of English literature by the deaths of Carlyle and George Eliot. Neither of these great writers was orthodox. Carlyle was a Freethinker to the extent of discarding Christian supernaturalism. Very early in his life he told Edward Irving that he did not, nor was it likely he ever would, regard Christianity as he did. We all remember, too, his scornful references to Hebrew Old Clothes, and his fierce diatribes against the clergy who, he said, went about with strange gear on their heads, and underneath it such a theory of the universe as he, for one, was thankful to have no concern with. In the "Latter-Day Pamphlets" he likened Christianity to a great tree, sprung from the seed of Nazareth, and since fed by the opulences of fifty generations; which now is perishing at the root, and sways to and fro ever farther and farther from the perpendicular; and which in the end must come down, and leave to those who found shelter beneath it and thought it infinite, a wholesome view of the upper eternal lights. And his contempt for controversial or dogmatic theology may be gauged by his reply to one who asked him whether he was a Pantheist. "No," said Carlyle, "never was; nor a Pot-Theist either."

George Eliot was notoriously a Freethinker. Early in her literary career she translated Strauss and Feuerbach into English, and through all her novels there runs a profound Secular spirit. Among her friends she was well known to be a Positivist; and though her creed held forth no promise of personal life beyond the grave, she found inspiration and comfort in the thought that Humanity would advance after she was gone, that though she died the race was practically immortal. Her mind was thoroughly imbued with the scientific spirit, and her writings give some conception of the way in which the Evolution theory affected a mind, fortified by culture and abundant common sense against the crudities of enthusiasm. The doctrine of Evolution did not fill her with despair; on the contrary, it justified and strengthened her ardent hopes for the future of mankind.

Many other novelists betray a strong spirit of Freethought.

It pervades all George Meredith's later writings, and is still more conspicuous in Mrs. Lynn Linton's "True History of Joshua Davidson" and her powerful "Under which Lord?" the hero-husband of that story being an Agnostic gentleman who founds a workmen's institute and delivers Freethought lectures in it.

Almost all the young school of poets are Freethinkers. Browning, our greatest, and Tennyson, our most popular, belong to a generation that is past. Mr. Swinburne is at the head of the new school, and he is a notorious heretic. He never sings more loftily, or with stronger passion, or with finer thought, than when he arraigns and denounces priestcraft and its superstitions before the bar of humanity and truth.

The reception of Mr. Thomson's poems and essays affords another sign of the progress of Freethought. This gentleman for many years contributed to secular journals under the initials of "B.V." He is a pronounced Atheist, and makes no concealment of it in his poems. Yet, while a few critics have expressed horror at his heresy, the majority have treated it as extremely natural in an educated thoughtful man, and confined themselves to the task of estimating the genius he has put into his work.

I must now draw to a close. Freethought, I hold, is an omnipresent active force in the English literature of to-day. It appears alike in the greatest works of scholarship, in the writings of men of science, in the songs of poets, in the productions of novelists, in the most respectable magazines, and in the multitudinous daily press. It is urgent and aggressive, and tolerates no restraint. It indicates the progress we have made towards that time when the mind of man shall play freely on every subject, when no question shall be thought too sacred to be investigated, when reason shall be the sovereign arbiter of all disputes, when priestly authority shall have perished, when every man's thought shall decide his own belief, and his conscience determine the way in which he shall walk.

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