Joseph Glanvil


From RATIONALISM IN EUROPE, 1895 by William Lecky

. . Joseph Glanvil, a divine, who in is own day was very famous, and who, I venture to think has been surpassed in genius by few of his successors. Among his contemporaries he was especially praised as an able scholar and dialectician, and as a writer whose style, though not untinctured by the pedantry of his age, often furnishes the noblest examples of that glorious eloquence, so rich in varied and majestic harmonies, of which Milton and the early Anglican divines were the greatest masters. To us, however, who look upon his career from the vantage ground of experience, it assumes a far higher interest, for it occupies a most important position in the history of that experimental philosophy which has become the great guiding influence of the English mind. As the works of Glanvil are far less known thanthey should be, and as his defence of witchcraft was intimately connected with his earlier literary enterprises, I shall make no apology for givin g a general outline of his opinions.

To those who only know him as the defender of witchraft, it may appear a somewhat startling paradox to say, that the predominating charcteristic of the mind of Glanvil was an intense scepticism. He has even been termed by a modern critic 'the first English writer who had thrown scepticism into a definite form;'2 and if we regard this expression as simply implying a profoudn distrust of human faculties, and not at all the rejection of any dstinct dogmatic system, the judgment ca hardly be disputed. And certainly, it would be difficult to find a work displaying less of the credulity and superstition that are commonly attributed to the believers in witchcraft than the treatise on 'The Vanity of Dogmatising, or Confidence of Opinions,'1 in which Glanvil expounded his philosophical views. Developing a few scattered hints of Bacon, he undertook to make a comprehensive survey of the human faculties, to analyse the distorting influences that corrode or pervert out judgments, to reveal the weakness and fallibility of the most powerful intellect, and to estimate the infinity of darkness that encircles our scanty knowledge. Not only did he trace, with the most vivide and unfaltering pen, the proneness to error that accompanies the human intellect in the moments of its greatest confidence ; not only did he paint in the darkest colours the tenacity and the inveteracy of prejudice ; he even accepted to the fullest extent the consequence of his doctrine, and, with Descartes, enjoined a total abnegation of the opinions that have been received by education as the first condition of enquiry. He showed himself perfectly acquainted with the diversities of intellectual tone, or as he very happily termed the, the 'climates of opinion,' that belong to different ages ; and he devoted an entire chapter [Chapter xi] to the deceptions of the imagination, a faculty which he treated with as much severity as Butler.

1   There is a good review of this book in Hallam's Hist. of Lit., vol. iii, pp. 358-362. It is, I think by far the best thing Glanvil wrote, and he evidently took extraordinary pains in bringing it to perfection. It first appeared as a short essay ; it was then expanded into a regular treatise ; and still later, recast and published anew under the title of ' Scepsis Scientifica. '   This last edition is extremely rare, the greater part of the impression having, it is said (I do not know on what authority), been destroyed in the fire of London. It was answered by Thomas White, a once famous Roman Catolic controversialist. I cannot but think that Paley was acquainted with the works of Glanvil, for their mode of treating many subjects is strikingly similar. Paley's watch simile is fully developed by Glanvil, in chap. v.

On the publication of this treatise Glanvil had been elected a fellow fo the Royal Society, and became one of the most distinguished of the small but able minority of the elergy who cordially embraced the inductive philosophyl. To combat the strong antipathy with whichthis philosophy was regarded in the Church, and to bring theology into harmony with its principles, was the task to which he devoted the remainder of his life.
[ . . ] . . the manner in which Glanvil conducted is enterprise separates him, I think, clearly from his fellow-labourers. For, while his contemporaries seem to have expected as the extreme consequences of the philosophy, on the one hand a period of passing disturbance, arising from the discovery of apparent discrepancies between science and the Bible, and on the other hand increased evidence of the faith, arising from the solution of those difficulties and from the increased perception of superintending wisdom exhibited in 'the wheelwork of crea tion,' Glanvil preceived very clearly that a far deeper and more general modification was at hand. He saw that the theological system existing in a nation, is intimately connected withthe prevailing modes of tought or intellectual condition ; that the new philosophy was about to change that condition ; and that the Church must either adapt herself to the altered tone, or lose her influence over the English mind. He saw that a theology which rested ultimately on authority, which branded coubt as criminal, and which discouraged in the strongest manner every impartial investigation, could not long co-exist with a philosophy that encouraged the opposite habits of thought as the very beginning of wisdom. He saw that while men maintained every strange phenomenon to be miraculous as long as it was unexplained, each advance of physical science must necessarily be hostile to theology ; and that the passionate adoration of Aristotle ; the blind pedantic reverence, which accounted the simplest assertions of dead mendecisive authorities ; the retrospective habits of thought the universities steadily laboured to encourage, were all incompatible with the new tendencies which Bacon represented. In an essay on ' Anti-fanatical Religion and Free Philosophy,' which was designed to be a continuation of the New Atlantis of Bacon, he drew a noble sketch of an idal church constructed to meet the wants of an intellectual and a critical age. Its creed was to be framed on the most latitudinarian principles, because the doctrines that cold be defe nded with legitimate assurance were but few and simple. Its ministers were to be much less anxious to accumulate the traditions of the past than to acquire 'the felicity of clear and distinct thinking,' and 'a large compass in their thoughts.' They were to regard faith, not as the opposite of reason, but as one of its manifestations. Penetrated by the sense of human weakness, they were to rebuke the spirit of dogmatic confidence and assertion, and were to teach men that, so far from doubt being criminal, it was the duty of every man ' to suspend his full and resolved assent to the doctrines he had been taught, till he had impartially considered and examined them for himself.'

A religious system which is thus divested of the support of authority, may be upheld upon two grounds. It may be deffended on the rationalistic ground,a s according with conscience, representing and reflecting the light that is in manknd, and being thus its own justification ; or it may be defended as a distinct dogmatic system by a train of evidential reasoning. The character of his own mind, and the very low ebb to which moral feeling had sunk in his age, induced Glanvil to prefer the logical to the moral proof, and he believed that the field on which the battle must fist be fought was witchcraft.

Revised edition.
New York : Appleton 1895,
Vol. I, pp. 129-33.


Selected bibliographic (University of California )

Author Glanvill, Joseph, 1636-1680 Title Two choice and useful treatises : the one, Lux orientalis, or, An enquiry into the opinion of the Eastern sages concerning the praeexistence of souls, being a key to unlock the grand mysteries of providence in relation to mans sin and misery : the other, A discourse of truth / by the late Reverend Dr. Rust ... ; with annotations on them both Publisher London : Printed for James Collins and Sam. Lowndes ..., 1682 Description [47], 195, [7], 171, [6], 173-276, [4] p Series Early English books, 1641-1700 ;71:2 Early English books, 1641-1700 ;844:3 Note "Lux orientalis, or, An enquiry into the opinion of the Eastern sages ...," "Annotations upon the two foregoing treatises ... / by one not unexercized in these kinds of speculation [i.e. Henry More]" and "Annotations upon the Discourse of truth : into which is inserted by way of digression a brief return to Mr. Baxter's reply, which he calls a placid collation with the learned Dr. Henry More ... : whereunto is annexed a devotional hymn / translated for the use of sincere lovers of true piety, 1683" all have separate t.p.'s Lux orientalis is by Joseph Glanvill. Cf. Wing Errata: p. [47] at beginning Advertisements on p. [1-3] at end Reproduction of original in British Library and University of Illinois Library [microform]


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