The Miscellaneous Works of the late Reverend and Learned Conyers Middleton.
Few parts of our literature are better known by name, or less frequently read, than the books which contain the great moral and religious controversies of the eighteenth century. It is the habit of every successive champion of orthodoxy to repeat, with triumphant variations, the song of triumph which Burke sang, in his Reflections on the French Revolution, over the early Deists. 'We too have had writers of that description, who made some noise in their day. At present they repose in lasting oblivion. Who, born within the last forty years, has read one word of Collins, and Toland, and Tindal, and Chubb, and Morgan, and that whole race who called themselves Freethinkers? Who now reads Bolingbroke? Who ever read him through? Ask the booksellers of London what is become of these lights of the world?'
This is, no doubt, true to a great extent, though less true now than it was in 1790; but the questions ought to be carried further, if even justice is to be done. Who, born within the last forty years, has read those who answered the eighteenth - century Deists? The answers of the London booksellers to such questions would probably not be very favourable to these lights of the world. The truth is, that mere controversy must be ephemeral, however ably it is conducted. It is at best but pamphleteering. After a time, the soldiers on each side retreat, and leave the stage clear for a younger generation. The books which live are those which either rise to the height of real philosophy, like Hobbes and Butler; which add something to our knowledge of matters of fact, like Lardner or Gibbon; or which have the good fortune to answer some immediate practical purpose, as, for instance, by becoming University text-books, like Paley's Evidences.
It is, however, anything but true that the booksellers' test is the one by which the importance of controversy is to be measured. The controversies themselves, and the books in which they are embodied, by degrees die away and are forgotten, but their effects are permanent. They model the opinions and influence the conduct of thousands, nay of millions, who have never read a single word of them.
It is easy to ask, with superb contempt, who reads Bolingbroke, and who ever read him through? The answer is, Voltaire read Bolingbroke. The French nation read Voltaire to some purpose for a good many years. The most orthodox of mankind read, at all events, Sir Archibald Alison's History of the French Revolution; the least orthodox read Strauss and Renan; and each party reads the Pope's Encyclical Letter, and the eighty-four propositions which it condemns.
With facts like these before us, Burke's questions look less impressive than they did when he set the fashion of asking them. It is very true that, when we look into old controversies, we find a discussion of the questions of our own time under rather different conditions, but it is equally true that this increases instead of diminishing their interest. Nothing can help us to understand the nineteenth century better than some familiarity with the writers of the eighteenth.
Hardly any writer of that century attracted more attention in his time than Dr. Conyers Middleton. The names of his principal works are still sufficiently well known, though, with the exception of the Life of Cicero, they are probably little read; still no one who has a taste for controversy, and who takes up the Free Inquiry or the Letter from Rome, and their respective appendices, is likely to stop till he has read them through.
They are for the most part excellently written, for, notwithstanding the reproaches which have often been bestowed upon him for flippancy and want of reverence, Middleton always wrote both like a gentleman and like a good man. He is certainly severe enough on his antagonists, but he never abuses, and hardly ever sneers at them. The severity of his style consists entirely in the quiet and easy way in which he meets his antagonists; and the flippancy with which he is often taxed will be found on examination to be nothing else than a quiet indifference to the rank and station of his opponent, or to the popularity of the opinions which he is attacking.
Altogether his style is a model of well-bred, educated criticism. He says just what he means, no more and no less. He never gets in a passion, and hardly ever goes even the length of irony. Still, such is the clearness and neatness of his style that the mere statement of his opinions, and the grounds on which he held them, is incomparably more effective than the vehemence of such a writer as Warburton, and even than the rather affected irony of Berkeley.
Good as is Middleton's style, the position which he held in English literature and the substance of his principal controversial works are more important The present generation has almost forgotten, in its ignorant alarm at a few contemporary writers, how strong a current of what in the present day would be called liberalism, ran through the ecclesiastical literature of England for more than two centuries, from the days of Hooker to those of Bishop Horsley. Indeed, for obvious reasons, we are not so familiar as we might be with the fact that theologians were for a great length of time the most prominent of English literary men, and that during a considerable part of its history the Church might, without presumption, claim the position of the intellectual teacher of the nation at large.
This growth and progress of religious liberalism in the Church of England would be an excellent subject for a book. Such a work would begin by showing how—as against the claims of the Pope to infallibility, and the claim of the Calvinists to make the letter of the Bible a guide in every action of life, to the exclusion of every other source of knowledge — Hooker was led to ascribe to reason much higher functions and greater importance than were conceded to it by either of his antagonists.
This would lead to a consideration of the divines of Charles I.'s time, in whose writings there may be traced a sympathetic antipathy to liberalism, not unlike that which is to be seen in the present day, though of course the form in which it appears is different. Their theories led them to attach extreme importance to the doctrines of the early Church, and their tone of mind led some of them—Laud, for instance, and, to some extent, Jeremy Taylor—to sympathise with the ascetic and mortified view of life. On the other hand, the study of antiquity implied reasoning and criticism, and the nature of the case excluded appeals to any specific embodiment of infallibility.
Hence, in the literature and history of that time there may be found, on the one hand, what we should consider bigoted and superstitious views of human life in general, and, on the other, passages of a speculative kind, pointing to the theories of our own time. Laud, for instance, is praised by Clarendon for the zeal with which he upheld Church discipline. 'Persons of honour and great quality were every day cited into the High Commission Court upon the fame of their incontinence, and were there prosecuted, to their shame as well as punishment.' Laud 'intended the discipline of the Church should be felt as well as spoken of.' Yet Laud was the patron and friend of Hales and Chillingworth, and they were the first maintainers of the cardinal doctrine of all religious liberalism—that error is not in itself of the nature of sin.
Hammond, again, was one of the most saintly of men, yet his paraphrase of the New Testament contains passages precisely similar to those which are considered so shocking in our own days. For instance, his explanation of the miracle of the Pool of Bethesda is rationalising in the highest degree. The pool itself, he considers, was the receptacle of the offal and drainage from the Temple sacrifices; and the angel who troubled the water was, in his view, a sort of beadle occasionally sent to stir it up, so that the sick who were in attendance might get the full benefit of the savoury fluid.
Of Jeremy Taylor it is enough to say that he was the author both of the Holy Living and Dying and of the Liberty of Prophesying; and there are passages in Baxter which prove that, in his case at all events, there was no opposition between the most intensely devotional spirit and a vigour of criticism which condemned in express terms the morality of important parts of the Old Testament.
Towards the beginning of the eighteenth century a more cheerful view of life in general, and a less ascetic theory of morals, may be traced in a considerable number of our most eminent divines. Tillotson is perhaps the leading figure in this new generation, but, as every one knows, he did not stand alone. From Tillotson the inquiry which we have suggested would pass (mentioning only the principal names) through Berkeley, Warburton, Middleton, Paley, Hey, and Horsley, nor would there be any difficulty in carrying it on to our own times.
The common characteristics of this school, gradually but surely developed, are in the main three. First, a belief that natural religion is the foundation on which revelation must rest, and which is presupposed by it; secondly, a constantly increasing confidence in the use of the critical faculty; and, thirdly, a growing belief in what may be called the human theory of morals—the theory, that is, that morality rests upon a base of its own, and is antecedent to, and independent of, revelation. The application of this last principle both to politics and to common life, is the very essence of modern liberalism, and, if the Pope had wished to sum up in a few lines all the eighty-four propositions which his syllabus has condemned, he would probably have singled it out as the net result of all modern heresy.
The place which Middleton occupies in this long progress is a remarkable one for several reasons, and especially, because some of the controversies of our own day have invested with a fresh interest the particular points to which his attention was specially directed. His Letter from Rome, which went through several editions in his lifetime, was first published in 1729; and his Free Inquiry into the Miraculous Powers which are supposed to have existed in the Christian Church from the Earliest Ages, through several successive Centuries, was first published at the end of 1748.
One circumstance which is calculated to surprise the reader in each of these works is the tone in which they are written. We are generally accustomed in the present day to look upon the early part of the eighteenth century—the interval between the silencing of Convocation and the rise of Methodism—as the most irreligious part of our history, and in particular we are very apt to suppose that the controversy between Protestants and Roman Catholics had almost entirely gone to sleep. So far is this from being the case that Middleton, in his Introductory Discourse to the Free Inquiry, says, 'I found myself particularly excited to this task by what I had occasionally observed and heard of the late growth of Popery in this Kingdom, and the great number of Popish books which have been printed and published amongst us within these few years.'
It is perhaps still more singular to find him frequently referring to the use which the Papists made of the argument that miracles were worked in attestation of their doctrines, and of no others, and to the effect of that argument on the minds of ordinary Protestants. He describes it as the popular argument in the controversies of the day. The great object of his writings is to oppose and overthrow it, and the method which he takes is sufficiently well known.
The Letter from Rome contains an elaborate and curious parallel between Popish and heathen practices and miracles. He shows how the incense, the holy water, the image-worship, the festivals, the processions, the shrines, and the local deities or saints of the two systems resemble each other in details, which are at times surprisingly minute and characteristic, and he gives from the classics exact parallels for all the most striking Popish miracles. They certainly do repeat each other with wonderful minuteness. For instance, the images in the churches, alleged to have been brought from heaven by angels, are just like the image of Diana of the Ephesians; the weeping Madonnas match the weeping statue of Apollo mentioned in Livy; and the blood of Januarius is the legitimate successor of the frankincense which Horace saw at Gnatia on the road to Brundusium:
‘Gnatia lymphisThe parallel is so managed as never to fatigue the reader, and is admirably ingenious throughout.
Iratis exstructa dedit risusque jocosque,
Dum flammâ sine thura liquescere limine sacro
The Free Inquiry is a criticism of the various miracles which are supposed to have occurred in the early Christian Church. Middleton argues very shortly, but in a very powerful manner, that—unless they rest, as most of them do, on remote hearsay evidence—they are merely exaggerated accounts of natural events; that the witnesses who attest them were grossly ignorant and credulous, and in some instances positively dishonest; in short, that, tried by the ordinary rules of evidence, they are altogether unworthy of credit. The most curious thing about the book, is that this was considered at that time as a dreadful and impious paradox, though in the present day there is probably no Protestant writer who thinks himself in the least degree concerned to defend the authority of these accounts, and though the defence set up for them by such a writer as Dr. Newman implies an admission that the evidence on which they rest is altogether unsatisfactory, except to minds predisposed to believe them.
The interest of these books in our day lies in their relation to the controversies which excite so much attention amongst ourselves. Spirit-rapping, the Brothers Davenport, Mr. Home, and Dr. Newman's Apologia have given to Middleton's inquiries a degree of interest which did not attach to them some years ago.
It is worth while to describe the true state of the controversy. The great argument against Middleton always was that he could not draw the line between the miracles of apostolic times and those of succeeding ages. In his Book of the Roman Catholic Church, Mr. Charles Butler said that the Roman Catholics viewed the controversy with satisfaction, because Middleton's antagonists could not answer his challenge to show a time at which miracles had stopped; whereas Middleton could not answer their challenge to draw a line between the Apostles and the Fathers. Hence they inferred that Dr. Middleton and his critics proved, between them, either that the miracles of all ages must be believed, or that the miracles of the Gospels could not be believed.
This is precisely the same way of arguing as is used by their successors in the present day. It is the favourite argument, for instance, of Dr. Newman. Middleton's tracts are valuable as suggesting, though they do not state as clearly as might be desirable, two separate answers to it, each of which is conclusive.
The first answer is, that accounts of miracles, like all other historical statements, must be believed or not upon evidence. Destroy the weight of the evidence, and you destroy the belief. When, therefore, in answer to arguments destroying the weight of the evidence for the removal of the Holy House of Loretto, it is said that the evidence of the Christian miracles is no better, this is an argument against the Christian miracles, and can be good only in the mouth of those who do not believe them, or (which is much the same) are determined to believe them whether true or not.
The more the popular dilemma is examined, the more clearly will it appear that this is its true character. If the Christian miracles are true, if they really did occur as stated in the Gospels, the argument loses all its force. In that case the arguments of Lardner and Paley will prevail over those of Strauss and Renan. If, on the other hand, those who rely upon the dilemma in question are right in thinking that all the argument and all the evidence are against the truth of the Gospel history—if upon examination of all the antecedent probabilities of the case, and of all the positive subsequent testimony, it appears that there is no more reason to believe in the Resurrection than there is to believe in the House of Loretto—why should we believe in the Resurrection?
Once grasp the principle that the supposition that a creed is true is the only conceivable ground upon which any reasonable person can believe in it, and all attempts to put Popish and Christian miracles on the same ground appear at once in their true character. They are nothing but attacks on the Christian miracles. Suppose a man had his whole fortune in his pocket in the shape of a bundle of bank-notes, and discovered several of them to be forged, what should we think of a judicious friend who advised him to pass them all and ask no questions, inasmuch as he was inclined to think that they were all struck from one die? If such stories are to be believed, the important thing to prove is that they are true, and not that they are mixed up with other opinions which those who attack them believe to be true.
Before a man can have a right to urge the dilemmas which Butler proposes, he must entitle himself to do so by affirming on his own account, and as the expression of his own opinion, that the truth of the Gospel history is opposed to the strongest antecedent probability; that it is attested only by hearsay evidence given by witnesses who had a strong motive for making the statements of which it is composed, and a natural predisposition to believe or invent marvellous stories; and that the miracles themselves are mere wonders, like conjurors' tricks, neither calculated to produce, nor in point of fact productive of, any important or permanent effects, and indistinguishable from many others admitted to be forgeries. For it is upon these grounds that Middleton and other Protestants deny the truth of ecclesiastical miracles in general.
A man who, having made all these admissions about the Christian miracles, nevertheless professes to believe them, would certainly be consistent in believing the Popish miracles as well; but, unless he makes these admissions, he is always open to the observation that, on his principles, the fact that there may be evidence enough to prove the occurrence of an extraordinary event, proves that there are no tests by which we can estimate the probability of any event whatever.
Middleton's arguments, however, suggest a second answer to the dilemma in question, which leads, by a somewhat different road, to precisely the same result. There can be no sort of doubt, and it is not even denied by any advocate of ecclesiastical miracles, that there are numerous accounts of miracles, elsewhere than in the Romish Church, which rest on evidence at least as good as those of any saint in the calendar.
To say nothing of Greek saints, the best attested of all miracles in modern times are those which were worked at the tomb of the Abbe Paris, the Jansenist. These miracles were worked in direct opposition to the Bull Unigenitus, and in support of the last great heresy over which, as Dr. Newman tells us, the Church of Rome has triumphed.
This, however, is only a single instance. It is common ecclesiastical learning that heretics at times work miracles, and even pagans. Fleury, for instance, with perfect confidence, tells the following story about Simon Magus in his controversy with St. Peter. 'Simon likewise promised to fly and ascend the skies, which he effectually did, being carried up by evil spirits; but St. Peter and St. Paul, kneeling, prayed together, and invoked the name of Jesus, which having terrified the devils, they abandoned Simon, who fell down to the ground, and remained stretched out with his legs broken. He then was carried away to another place, where, not being able to endure his pains, nor the shame he felt, he cast himself down a precipice'— which, by the way, implies a third miracle, as his legs were broken; unless, indeed, he waited till he got well, and then threw himself down because of the past pain.
To say nothing of the prodigies in Livy and other ancient writers, look at our own times. The feats of Mr. Home and the Brothers Davenport are far better authenticated than those of the great mass of saints. Indeed, any one who has an appetite for such things may find in Mr. Howitt's History of the Supernatural any quantity of miracles, in all ages and countries, and worked by men of all sorts of religions, and of no religion at all, all of which are authenticated in much the same sort of way. Those, therefore, who called upon Middleton to draw the line between the Gospel miracles and those of the early Fathers, might themselves be asked, with equal justice, to draw the line between the blood of Januarius and the Brothers Davenport. To do them justice, they do not shrink from the task, and answer much to the purpose.
A few weeks ago a leading Roman Catholic newspaper gave an account of the Davenport Brothers, and expressed an opinion that the things done were miracles wrought by the Devil. This, indeed, is the answer always given in such cases. 'Miracles are worked in our Church—believe, therefore, that ours is the true Church.'—'Yes; but they are worked in all sorts of other bodies.'—'True; but the Devil works them.'—'Why does the Devil work these miracles more than yours?— 'Because ours is the true Church.'—'And why is yours the true Church?' —'Because miracles are worked in it.' It is obvious from this that a test of truth independent of miracles must be found, unless we are content to go on trundling this circular argument indefinitely.
It seems almost absurd, in this age of the world, to draw attention to arguments so old and so plain; but any one who considers the way in which people, who never think conscientiously or laboriously, but only by little bits, talk about great moral and religious problems, will understand the necessity for going over again in a popular form what is really a very old story.
To speak the language of old-fashioned sermons, there are two descriptions of persons who infest society in the present day, and whose fallacies it is eminently desirable to expose as far as possible. There is the clever, ignorant, flashy kind of man who, without any depth of character, hovers about between being an Atheist and being a Papist, with no real belief at all in his mind, but with a great appetite for the pleasures which are to be had in each character.
On the one hand, such a man finds it easy, in virtue of his atheistical proclivities, to sympathise to the greatest possible extent with all speculations of an unorthodox kind. He has not the least objection to know all about them, to canvass them, rather to patronise and favour them, and to admit with charming simplicity and candour that, as against the world at large, and ordinary Englishmen in particular, they are altogether unanswerable.
On the other hand, in his sentimental moments—for instance, if he is talking to a woman—he can always fall back upon his other order of ideas, and expatiate on faith and on the divine majesty and beauty of the Church—' Vera incessu patuit Dea.' This practice of hunting with the hounds of reason, and running with the hare of faith, is becoming very common, and is in reality a thin disguise for the most dishonest of all forms of scepticism—a form more dishonest than downright conscious lying, because a man who lies consciously at least tells himself that he does lie, and has therefore a notion in his own mind as to what the truth is; whereas the habit in question is really nothing else than a radical disbelief in truth itself— an unconscious poisoning of the very sources of truth.
Another form of the same disease is what may be described as its pathetic variety. This occurs in people who really do feel what the other class only pretend to feel. Instead of hovering between Atheism and Popery, they fly for refuge to Popery from Atheism, and hug its chains, not because they really believe it to be true, but because they think that a desperate determination to do so is their best chance of not being compelled to believe Atheism.
This is just as dishonest a frame of mind as the other, and for the same reason. Indeed, the only difference between the two is a difference of temperament. It is surprising to see how popular these ways of viewing religion are becoming. It is, indeed, very unlikely that they will ever prevail widely amongst a really honest, laborious, and strong-minded people; but there can be no doubt that many weak-spirited people will fall a prey to the one temptation, and many careless, ignorant, noisy men—who happen, as such men often have, to have a soft place about them —to the other.
If experience had not put the fact beyond all possibility of doubt, it might have seemed surprising that mankind should yet have to learn that the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, is the one thing needful to be believed; and that, of all pestilent inventions, none is more deadly and soul-destroying than a contrivance for enabling men to believe a thing whether it is true or not. Few errors are so injurious that it would not be better to hold them in good faith, and because they were honestly believed to be true, than to hold even the most important truths upon any other terms. It is sad to think how much theology in our days, whether Protestant or Popish, holds out to its disciples this great inducement: Come to me, all ye that are weary of doubt, and I will give you security that, if your creed is false, you shall be the last to discover it.
Saturday Review, February 11, 1865.