The Divine Legation of Moses demonstrated on the Principles of a Religious Deist, from the Omission of the Doctrine of a Future State of Rewards and Punishments in the Jewish Dispensation (by William Warburton).
There are many books of which every one knows the title, and hardly any one knows much more, and though it may often be true that those who do happen to have read such works would find a difficulty in recommending others to follow their example, they may generally extract from them some few observations of general interest. It is in the hope of doing so that we propose to make a few remarks on the book to which Bishop Warburton dedicated so many years of his life, the Divine Legation of Moses. It is one of the most singular books that ever was written. Though it is not merely itself a nominis umbra, but a member of a class now obsolete, it contains an amount of learning, of ingenuity, and of mental power which has seldom been equalled in any single book, and it illustrates habits of mind, and ways of thinking, which have deeply affected the whole history of England, intellectual and political.
The Church of England has often been praised for its learning, and it has also been largely credited with its liberalism. For a great length of time it was customary to compare it with the Church of Rome on the one hand, and the extreme Protestants on the other, and to contrast with great complacency, the degree in which it had fostered reason and learning, with the antipathy which the Romanists felt for everything which could rival the supreme authority claimed for their Church, and which the Puritans felt for everything which could make their rigid systems appear ungraceful and unnatural.
In this, as in all other boasts, there was no doubt a great deal of hollowness. To claim for the Church of England pre-eminence in these respects is manifestly absurd. It is simply puerile to underrate the learning of the French ecclesiastical writers on the one hand, or that of the Germans on the other; but it is nevertheless quite true that for a long period the Church of England had not merely a strong, but a special and peculiar sympathy, with learning, and that its clergy always enjoyed, as they still enjoy, a remarkable degree of liberty in speculation. No confession of faith leaves so many questions open as the Thirty-nine Articles, and no spiritual courts were ever so little inclined to suppress, or even to meddle with, theological inquiry, as the courts of which those articles are the law. Careful inquiries recently made disclosed the fact that, between the Restoration and the Gorham case, there were but three or four prosecutions for heresy.
The peculiar character of this alliance between the Church of England and literary criticism and speculation—in other words, the peculiar character of that sort of liberalism which has always been natural to the Church of England—has seldom been better illustrated than in the works of Warburton. Its specific peculiarity consists in arriving at orthodox conclusions upon grounds open to all the world. A learned Roman Catholic has his first principles found for him, and his learning and ingenuity have always had to address themselves to the task of deducing new conclusions from the old principles, or supporting the old assertions by new facts. The stricter kinds of Protestants were confined to the interpretation of the Bible, which they were bound to construe in accordance with their own austere systems. Those who had cast off all definite creeds were, of course, not anxious about the orthodoxy of their conclusions; but the great writers of the Church of England piqued themselves on their orthodoxy, and piqued themselves also on the principle that the Bible was by no means to be taken as the exclusive guide to truth, but was to be illustrated and confirmed by every other kind of knowledge, whether of matters of fact or of matters of speculation.
This is the leading principle of Hooker, and to this day it has never been entirely dropped out of sight. The consequence has been twofold. On the one hand, Anglican divinity is singularly rich in learned and ingenious apologies, and books on the evidences of religion. On the other hand, Anglican divines, though comparatively free from the failings of dogmatists, are full of the failings of advocates. They show plenty of industry in getting up their briefs, and abundant ingenuity in addressing the jury, but, with some few exceptions, they always hold a brief and address a jury.
Thoroughgoing dogmatists and independent inquirers are not subject to this temptation, though they have doubtless others of their own; but no one will do justice to the peculiar character of English theology who does not bear in mind this its special characteristic. It proceeds on the twofold assumption that certain conclusions are true, and that reason is the proper judge of truth. This explains, amongst other things, the great controversial success of English theology, and the slightness of the hold which many of its most celebrated works have had on the conscience and on the permanent convictions of the nation.
Five-and-twenty years ago it was a common remark that, in the great controversy of the last century, the Divines completely silenced the Freethinkers. This was true in a sense, and in an important sense, yet it was but an advocate's triumph after all. If they had not only answered their opponents, but found out and set in a full light the whole truth as to the matter in dispute, the controversy would not have broken out again.
Of the advocates who were renowned in the great case of Deism, none was more thoroughgoing or more showy than Warburton. He was more liberal than some of his colleagues (Waterland for instance), and infinitely more voluminous and noisy, though in the long run far less popular, than Butler. It may perhaps be fairly said of him that he was, in theological controversy, very much what a noisy popular leader of a Circuit would be at the Bar. He was immensely ingenious, voluble, vigorous in his use of language, omnivorous in his reading, and pugnacious beyond all bounds or limits.
The notes, of which the later volumes of his great work are full, were called, with considerable humour, his 'customary places of execution,' and the manner in which his unhappy antagonists are dealt with in them amply justified the phrase. The following amenities occur in a few pages: 'Another answerer is yet more shameless.' 'There is a strange perversity in these men.' 'This man' (the author of the Second Book of the Maccabees) 'is such a lover of prodigies that, when he has made a monstrous lie, and so frighted himself at the size of it that he dare not tell it out, he insinuates it.' 'The miserable efforts of these men to evade the force of a little plain sense are deplorable.' 'By the vilest prevarication he repeats,'etc. 'Pretended contradiction, first insisted on by Spinosa, and through many a dirty channel derived at length to M. Voltaire.'
There is, however, a spirit and vivacity about the whole book which carries the reader on; and the argument itself, to say nothing of the strange collateral topics into which it runs, is in the highest degree characteristic of the author, and of the sort of matter which, as he considered, the interests of the Church for the time being required him to produce.
In common with all the men of his own time who possessed any considerable power of mind, Warburton felt the gravity of the Deistical controversy. Being what and where he was, he also felt a perfectly immeasurable and boundless indignation and contempt for those who had excited it. This appears, amongst other things, from his well-known dedication of the Divine Legation to the Freethinkers. It is written in a tone of indignant though suppressed disgust, which shows that Warburton either could not or would not believe in the possibility of an honest doubt on the subject of religion.
His own books, indeed, show little, if they can be said to show any, trace of a calm or large-minded consideration of the subject. They do not give the impression that their author was a good man, or that he had any strong personal feeling of religion. But they show, in every page, a genuine intellectual contempt and dislike for his opponents, and also an unhesitating persuasion, which one may hope was the result of something better than mere personal pride and self-confidence, that his side was the right one, and that he could show it. He was neither a great artist nor a great philosopher, but he had thought on several of the great subjects of speculation, he had read an enormous number of books, and had an almost unlimited supply of crotchets; and he worked all his opinions, all his reading, and all his crotchets into one enormous mass, which he called a demonstration of the Divine Legation of Moses.
Its general drift, as every one knows, was to show that Moses must have been divinely commissioned to set up the institutions which he gave to the Jews, because he did not teach the doctrine of a future state, which all merely human legislators had found indispensable to their success. The argument is strange enough, but the mere statement of it gives no notion of the book in which it is contained. It fills six octavo volumes; and as Warburton is by no means a lengthy writer, these volumes might be divided into several different treatises, all more or less converging upon or diverging from the main point. We will try to give a general notion of their relation to each other, and of their bearing on the main argument.
The argument itself is stated with much logical exactness and formality, at the very beginning of the book, as follows. It rests upon one postulate—
'That a skilful lawgiver, establishing a religion and civil policy, acts with certain views and for certain ends, and not capriciously or without purpose and design.It is worth while to quote this passage at length, because it gives an excellent summary of the argument, and shows how the different parts of the book are linked together. The major proposition of the first syllogism involves a theory of civil society and of its relation to religion. The major of the second syllogism involves a history of all ancient philosophy in so far as it relates to religion and legislation. The minor of each syllogism involves an examination of all the leading parts of the Old Testament in their relation to the New. This shows how vast a field the book was intended to cover, and how natural it was that a man who considered himself capable of conducting such an argument should look upon the mass of mankind as mere pigmies, whose sentiments he was justified in regarding with superb contempt and virtuous horror, if they were at variance with that theory of orthodoxy which so sublime an intellect as his own honoured with its preference.
'This being granted, we erect our demonstration on these three very clear and simple propositions.
'1. That to inculcate the doctrine of a future state of rewards and punishments is necessary to the wellbeing of society.
'2. That all mankind, especially the most wise and learned nations of antiquity, have concurred in believing and teaching that this doctrine was of much use to civil society.
'3. That the doctrine of a future state of rewards and punishments is not to be found in, nor did make part of, the Mosaic dispensation.
'Propositions so clear and evident, that one would think we might proceed directly to our conclusion that therefore the law of Moses is of Divine origin, all which one or both of the following syllogisms will evince.
'I. Whatsoever religion and society have no future state for their support must be supported by an extraordinary Providence.
'The Jewish religion and society had no future state for their support.
'Therefore the Jewish religion and society were supported by an extraordinary Providence.
II. The ancient lawgivers universally believed that such a religion could be supported only by an extraordinary Providence.
'Moses, an ancient lawgiver, versed in all the wisdom of Egypt, purposely instituted such a religion.
'Therefore Moses believed his religion was supported by an extraordinary Providence,'
The first book, which fills nearly half of the first volume, is an essay on the origin of civil society, and the necessity of the doctrine of a future state to its wellbeing. The argument, when condensed in the highest degree, is that civil society can only punish, and that its punishments can apply only to outward actions; that this is not enough to secure its wellbeing, unless there be also some internal sanction by which the thoughts and dispositions of the heart can be directed aright, and that this sanction can be supplied by religion alone.
The doctrine of Cardan and Bayle, that Atheism is not necessarily destructive of morals and civil society, is confuted at considerable length, and by arguments which have still great interest as they apply to Comte as much as to Bayle, though, if they were to be addressed to a modern audience, they would require a complete restatement. Mandeville's paradox about private vices being public benefits is exposed with manly logic and with a force of language which is not much impaired by its occasional brutality ('unheard-of impiety wickedly advanced and impudently avowed,' 'execrable paradox,' 'so corrupt a writer,' 'a writer of such depravity of heart,' etc. etc.) Mandeville deserved some severity, but there was no use in calling him names.
This is the substance of the proof given by Warburton of the first of his three general propositions. Probably few serious thinkers would deny the utility of religion to civil society, and Warburton was, in our opinion, quite right in insisting on the vital importance of the religious sanction to morality. But to say that no civil society could, without a continuous miracle, exist without that sanction is quite another thing; and though that is what Warburton had to prove, his attempt to do so seems to us to have been not only a complete but a ludicrous failure. He hardly seems to have appreciated the difficulty of the undertaking.
The second book is meant to show that, in point of fact, ancient legislation was always founded on religion. The proof of this is partly direct, and consists in references to cases in which early legislators claimed a divine character, and also to the works of Plato and Cicero, who expressly affirm that religion is the sanction of law. It is partly indirect, and consists in the argument that the character of ancient Paganism was that it was the invention of legislators. You find a systematic theology, he says, in a country like Peru, where there was a government. You find little or none in Canada, where there was no government, yet the Canadian savage was in a more favourable position for inventing a system of natural theology than the Peruvian slave. The religion, therefore, was the invention of the Government. This, with our wider knowledge of early times and of barbarous nations, is easily seen to be a mere piece of ingenuity built upon a slender and mistaken view of the facts. The Canadians had a good deal of religion of a sort, and of a better sort too than the Peruvians. Besides, the whole argument proceeds upon the false hypothesis that there were in those early times philosophic legislators far superior to the mass of mankind, and capable of inventing all these devices, without believing them, for the purpose of government. This is a mere assumption, if it is not to be called a delusion.
Warburton seems to have been sensible of the fact that this part of his case was rather weak, and this led him into one of the most famous and the strangest of all his paradoxes. The ancient mysteries, he maintained, were 'solely instituted for the propagation and support of the doctrine of a future state of rewards and punishments'; and, in order to prove this, he maintains at great length, and with much learning and ingenuity, the strange doctrine that the Sixth Book of the Aeneid is nothing else than 'an initiation into and representation of the theory of the mysteries.' Our readers will no doubt remember the beautiful little essay in which Gibbon combated this wonderful paradox.
Having shown how the ancient magistrates propagated religion, Warburton proceeds to show how they supported it. This is one of the most curious parts of his book, for he maintains that they had Established Churches, though they also tolerated dissenters. 'An established religion with a test law is the universal voice of nature. The most savage nations have employed it to civilise their manners; and the politest knew no other way to prevent their return to barbarity and violence.' Strange as this sounds, it has a certain truth in it, though it may well be doubted whether the ancient religious establishments were not founded on genuine superstition, rather than on any theory about morals or politics. Rome and Athens worshipped particular gods, because the people and the legislators alike believed that these gods really existed, and protected Rome and Athens; not because the Roman and Athenian legislatures wanted to obtain moral and political ends by an imposture.
In the third book, Warburton supports his proposition as to the opinions of antiquity about the doctrine of a future state, by reference to the doctrines of different schools of philosophy, and for that purpose he devotes about three hundred pages to an inquiry into the opinions of the ancient philosophers on the subject of a future life. His inquiries on this subject are very interesting, and are in our judgment by much the most valuable part of the book.
In a very compressed shape, their result is as follows: The ancient philosophers did not believe in a future state of rewards and punishments, and indeed could not do so consistently with two fundamental principles which, in one shape or another, were held by all of them. The first of these principles was, that God cannot be angry, nor hurt any one. The second, that the soul after death is absorbed either into the substance of God or into the substance of the material universe. This is worked out with great care and in minute detail. The ancient philosophers, however, always taught this doctrine, though they did not believe it; and this they did, because they held that truth and utility differed, and that utility, and not truth, was the object of religion.
In this part of his book Warburton displays in profusion all his great qualities, his learning, his ingenuity, and his vigour; but he also shows that coarseness and want of sympathy with great minds, which led him continually into offensive paradoxes.
There is no doubt a great deal of truth in what he says, and yet every one who reads the book must feel, that it is the work of a man who lived on a different level from the authors of whom he wrote, and was incapable of doing them justice.
There is a certain similarity, but in the last-mentioned particular a curious contrast, between this part of Warburton and one or two of Mr. Charles Merivale's sermons on the Conversion of the Roman Empire. Both lay the same kind of stress on the memorable speech of Caesar on the conspiracy of Catiline, in which he denied that there was anything to come after death. It must not be supposed that Warburton leaves the matter thus. He argues at length to show that the opinions of the ancient philosophers were ill-founded. He feels, however, that the course which he has taken is a dangerous one for a Christian advocate, inasmuch as it involves an admission that the fundamental doctrines of natural religion (on which, as Warburton always contended, Christianity itself depends) were rejected by the ante-Christian philosophers. He answers this, however, by saying that the additional truths brought to light by Christianity confirmed and explained those partial views of religion which were taken by philosophy. 'The only view of antiquity which gives solid advantage to the Christian cause is such a one as shows natural reason to be clear enough to perceive truth, and the necessity of its deductions when proposed, but not generally strong enough to discover it and draw right deductions upon it. Just such a view as this I have here given of antiquity.'
To meet the further imputation that he had ascribed the origin of religion to imposture, Warburton enters at great length into the subject of early Paganism, and argues that the original religion was a pure worship of one God, which in course of time was corrupted by idolatry, upon which statesmen and philosophers engrafted, for political reasons, the doctrine of future rewards and punishments, which happened to be true, though they believed it to be false. The intricate ingenuity of all this is thoroughly characteristic of Warburton.
This is, in outline, Warburton's argument on the first of his propositions—the importance and nature of the doctrine of a future state antecedently to Revelation. It is far the most important and interesting part of the work. The rest we may pass over very slightly.
He goes on to show that the doctrine of a future state was not taught to the Jews. The Jews, he says, derived a great part of their polity from the Egyptians, and he accordingly prefaces his inquiry into the Old Testament with a volume of what we should now call Egyptology. This volume is as characteristic as anything that Warburton ever wrote, but it is at present fallen quite out of date, and is moreover exceedingly wearisome. We may therefore pass it over.
The next volume contains an account of the Jewish constitution as framed by Moses. Its main object is to vindicate the general scheme of that polity against Deistical objections, and to show that there were reasons why it should be framed as it was, and why, though—or rather, as Warburton puts it, because—it was a theocracy, it did not include the doctrine of a future state. It is difficult to put the result of such an argument shortly without injustice, but in a few words it is something like this. The Jewish people were formed by God into a society which was a standing miracle, one of the most remarkable features of which was that, amongst the Jews the Divine commands were sanctioned by temporal rewards and punishments, which proved the superintendence of 'an extraordinary Providence' over them, and so preserved for the fulness of time the doctrine of the Divine unity which was to become the source of a new revelation.
This general account of the Jewish constitution is followed by a critical examination of all the passages in the Old Testament which have been supposed to prove that the doctrine of a future state was known to the Jews. This includes a strange argument about the Book of Job, and a still stranger one about the true meaning of the history of the sacrifice of Isaac, each of which furnished the counsel for Dr. Rowland Williams with curious parallels to speculations for which that unfortunate divine was prosecuted before the Court of Arches. Whatever the merits or demerits of Dr.Williams may have been, he certainly never said anything so odd as what Warburton said about Abraham and Isaac; and there was the strongest resemblance between the way in which the famous Bishop treated Job and that in which the Essayist and Reviewer treated Daniel.
The last volume of the Divine Legation was never fully completed. Its object is to state the author's view of the general nature of Christianity, and to show how it fitted on to Judaism. It is a strange and intricate statement, worked in and out and round about in such a complicated way, that it is difficult at times to catch the author's drift, and impossible to do anything like justice to his views in a moderate compass.
Such are the contents of this extraordinary book, which was at once the glory and the torment of a great part of its author's life. It has many faults, but it has one great merit which ought to outweigh many faults. Its author was rash, imperious, paradoxical, abusive; he had, in a word, all the faults of an intemperate advocate; but, on the other hand, he was a reasoner, and not a dogmatist. He never refuses to state, to discuss, and to meet face to face, every objection which can be brought against the creed which he defends, and the particular theory by which he defends it. He never, either in practice or in theory, turns his back upon reason and betakes himself to authority; and this, which was the strength of the Church of England in his day, affords an impressive and much-needed example to our own.
As to the book itself, the first part contains much that is both curious and true, especially the account of the religious opinions of the ancient philosophers; but the argument, as a whole, is worthless. To say that, if one form of government differs in one important particular from all others, it must be supported by miracle, is childish. Yet this is really all that Warburton tries to prove. If the feeble and intricate chain of reasoning which connects the different parts of the book is struck off, and if the substantial questions treated of are considered in themselves, it must be admitted that they are of the first importance, and that they are even now comparatively unsolved.
What was Paganism?—what was Judaism?—what was the religious belief of the ancient philosophers? — are three questions as vast and as important as any which the mind can entertain; and any one who undertakes the task of solving any one of them ought at least to know what Warburton has written on the subject.
Saturday Review, June 3, 1865.