Benjamin Franklin Representative selections, with introduction, bibliograpy, and notes

By Benjamin Franklin

Page 21

thus man desires to effect a correspondingly
harmonious inner heaven; (5) and feels assured of the plausibility of an
immortal life. Newton was a believer in scriptural revelation. It is
ironical that through his cosmological system, mathematically
demonstrable, he lent reinforcement to deism, the most destructive
intellectual solvent of the authority of the altar.

Deists, as defined by their contemporary, Ephraim Chambers (in his
_Cyclopaedia ..._, London, 1728), are those "whose distinguishing
character it is, not to profess any particular form, or system of
religion; but only to acknowledge the existence of a God, without
rendering him any external worship, or service. The Deists hold, that,
considering the multiplicity of religions, the numerous pretences to
revelation, and the precarious arguments generally advanced in proof
thereof; the best and surest way is, to return to the simplicity of
nature, and the belief of one God, which is the only truth agreed to by
all nations." They "reject all revelations as an imposition, and believe
no more than what natural light discovers to them...."[i-6] The
"simplicity of nature" signifies "the established order, and course of
natural things; the series of second causes; or the laws which God has
imposed on the motions impressed by him."[i-7] And attraction, a kind of
_conatus accedendi_, is the crown, according to the eighteenth century,
of the series of secondary causes. Hence, Newtonian physics became the
surest ally of the deist in his quest for a religion, immutable and
universal. The Newtonian progeny were legion: among them were Boyle,
Keill, Desaguliers, Shaftesbury, Locke, Samuel Clarke, 'sGravesande,
Boerhaave, Diderot, Trenchard and Gordon, Voltaire, Gregory, Maclaurin,
Pemberton, and others. The eighteenth century echoed Fontenelle's eulogy
that Newtonianism was "sublime geometry." If, as Boyle wrote,
mathematical and mechanical principles were "the alphabet, in which God
wrote the world," Newtonian science and empiricism were the lexicons
which the deists used to read the cosmic volume in which the universal
laws were inscribed. And the deists and the liberal political theorists
"found the fulcrum for subverting existing institutions and standards
only in the laws of nature, discovered, as they supposed, by
mathematicians and astronomers."[i-8]

Complementary to Newtonian science was the sensationalism of John Locke.
Conceiving the mind as _tabula rasa_, discrediting innate ideas, Lockian
psychology undermined such a theological dogma as total depravity--man's
innate and inveterate malevolence--and hence was itself a kind of
_tabula rasa_ on which later were written the optimistic opinions of
those who credited man's capacity for altruism. If it remained for the
French _philosophes_ to deify Reason, Locke honored it as the crowning
experience of his sensational psychology.[i-9] Then, too, as Miss Lois
Whitney has ably demonstrated, Lockian psychology "cleared the

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