Priestley was a Freethinker and Nonconformist - a "dissenter," the term then was. He reached his own opinions on any subject
he took up: in religion or philosophy, in science or politics. As well as Science, he wrote on a dozen other subjects: not just the nature of factitious airs (what we call gases) but also rhetoric, free will and the origin of language: Jefferson and he had corresponded since the early 1780s. As Minister of the Unitarian New Meeting in Birmingham, he had taught a common sense Christianity that avoided all doctrinal technicalities. The Trinity and Transubstantiation were [for him] "ideas at which the common sense of mankind will ever revolt." Jesus' teachings were (he said) intelligible today to the kinds of men and women who were the first disciples: this was what Jefferson meant by simplifying Christianity, and defending the laity from power and priestcraft.
What then got Priestley into trouble: his theology, science, or politics? Nowadays in the United States, Unitarian Universalism is hardly a matter for scandal, but in 1794 it was still a cutting edge system: at Philadelphia, Priestley gave the series of lectures that firmly linked Unitarian theology to Universalist natural philosophy. Nor need we assume that Unitarianism no longer has political overtones nowadays. The religion of Bosnia (e.g.) originated in the theological debates of 11th century Constantinople. The Bogomils of the Balkans saw Jesus as the best of human teachers, skirting around the mystery of how he could be both God and Man. In a word, they were not Trinitarians, but Monophysites: the nearest thing in the year 1100 to Unitarians. Only later, coming under criticism from the Roman Church to the West and from the Orthodox Church to the East, both of which are Trinitarian churches, did the Bosnian Bogomils join Islam; and they did so for theological as much as political reasons: if Jesus had been a human "messenger" from God, after all, his standing was like that of Muhammad.
(At a time when people in this country are tempted to demonize Islam, we need to recall just how much in theological history Islam and Christianity have shared.)
Still, a Birmingham mob in the 1790s would not have rioted about theology alone; so what about Priestley's scientific ideas?
There too he took a solitary road, which led him to conclusions that sound more innocent in the 1990s than they did in the 1790s. Though widely respected, he was an idiosyncratic scientist who walked a cusp between the respectable and the unorthodox. From the 17th century on, European discussions of Mind and Body had been (as we say) dualistic: treating Mind and Matter as distinct and separate realms, so that the question was, "How do the two interact?" A minority of writers argued that mental activity needs bodies or brains to support it, not a separate mind or soul; but they were denounced as materialists and Epicureans - wrong headed, immoral, or worse. When news arrived that the liveliest of these writers, Julien de la Mettrie, had died of food poisoning at the Court in Berlin, the reaction was that he had met his just reward. Priestley also belonged to this despised minority, and he put up a plausible defense of his beliefs. The point of the Resurrection [he said] is not that we survive death as immaterial souls: it is that, at the Last Day, God restores our Material Bodies, so that we can resume our interrupted lives in the flesh.
Priestley could afford to take such eccentric positions, because socially he did not belong to the English Establishment. He was always a religious Nonconformist, and this - looking back - was an advantage: as such he was barred, not just from joining Parliament and the professions, but from attending Oxford and Cambridge University, where he would have learned only Ancient Literature and the mathematics of Newton. Instead, he went to the Dissenters' Academy at Daventry in the Midlands, where the students had a richer curriculum. With this as background, he could read La Mettrie's polemic against the narrowness of 17th century physical theory, and speculate about the spiritual potentialities of the material world.
Yet, once again, the Mind-Body Problem was scarcely a reason for riot. What got Priestley into trouble was his support for
the French Revolution. He was a colleague of Richard Price, whom Edmund Burke pilloried in his Reflections on the Revolution in France - and he himself wrote a reply to Burke. Why was it so shocking to applaud the French Revolution? At first, many English people saw 1789 as continuing the 1688 English Revolution, when the Dutch Protestant Prince William of Orange replaced the Catholic James II; and also the Revolution of the 1580s, in which the Dutch reacted to Spanish religious persecution by abjuring their earlier loyalty to Philip of Spain. After the Terror of 1791, however, Anglican preachers attacked dissenters as enemies of the British Monarchy, and for 30 years events in France traumatized respectable England, as the Russian Revolution of 1917 traumatized mid-20th century America.
Calling Priestley a Dissenter thus meant only a religious Nonconformist, who did not accept the teaching of the Anglican Church.
Yet feeling against dissenters cut deep. The Revolution in France convinced many people in England that religious conformity was
needed in order to defend the State from sedition. (The word keeps cropping up in sermons and pamphlets in the 1790s.)
After the American War of Independence, the British monarchy had been frail, but the execution of Louis XVI was the last straw: from then on, anyone with a good word to say for the French was suspected of plotting against George III, and damned as a "regicide" or King-killer.
How wonderful is the power of Denial! In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides tells us how, flushed with pride at their victories over Persia, the Athenians would not let the colony of Melos declare its neutrality between Sparta and Athens, but put to death all the grown men they took, and sold the women and children as slaves. This barbarism was not acceptable in the city of Pericles and Phidias; and the name of Melos - like My Lai for us - was one the Athenians prefered to forget. Likewise, when they executed Charles I in 1649, the English had set an example of the very "regicide" they now chose to condemn; yet, by 1790, most people in England found the memory of that event unacceptable. Priestley might insist that Unitarians had nothing against the Royalty - indeed, had no political agenda at all - but by this time blood was stirred, and a riot was easily whipped up.
The bigotry that burnt Priestley's home and church was just the pigheadedness that led the Founding Fathers to reject any establishment of religion. Before Independence, the history of Europe taught them that, for the sake of civil peace, no country could risk religious war. Priestley's last public act in England was a sermon On the Present State of Europe that forecast a replacement of feudal monarchies by more egalitarian rŽgimes. He spoke in the measured tones of Vaclav Havel today; but, after his own misfortunes, he feared changes as violent as those in France, and looked to America as a Laboratory of Toleration in which the contrast of Establishment and Dissenters finally lost sense. For, in America, there were no established doctrines for Dissenters to dissent from.
Priestley's arrival in Philadelphia did not end his troubles: once here, he was still open to attack.
Jefferson hoped to attract him to Monticello, where they might jointly pursue their shared interest in natural science together. As it was, Priestley was active in the American Philosophical Society to which Jefferson (the Society's President from 1797 to 1815) gave papers on paleontology -- e.g., on the large fossils from Paraguay of a clawed animal known to scientists today as the Giant Sloth, Megalonyx Jeffersoni. Still, despite Jefferson's support for education, his scientific interests did him no good politically: notably, when he put the bones of ancient vertebrates on show in the East Room of the White House.
Even in religion, Jefferson was an ambiguous ally, for his views made him plenty of enemies among the Churchmen of his time --
The Christian priesthood [he wrote] finding the doctrines of Christ levelled to every understanding, and too plain to need explanation, saw in Plato materials with which they might build up an artificial system which might give employment for their order and introduce it to profit, power and pre‘minence. The doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus himself are within the comprehension of a child; but thousands of volumes have not yet explained the Platonisms grafted on them. . .for this obvious reason, that nonsense can never be explained --
But, in saying this, Jefferson based his views on ideas set out in Priestley's own book, A History of the Corruptions of Christianity. So, as a refugee from England, Priestley did not set up a new home in Pennsylvania expecting his life to be one of pure peace. It was not obvious that the U.S. he actually came to was exactly the U.S. he idealistically foresaw: a place where religious toleration was the rule in fact, not just an article in the Consitution. But that did not matter to him: he had never shirked a good argument.
To sum up this story: I am not arguing that Priestley was right in all he believed and everybody else was wrong.
I am not saying that he was right to be a Republican not Monarchist in politics, a Materialist not an Idealist in philosophy, or a Unitarian not a Trinitarian in religion. None of his dissenting opinions taken alone explains why he was attacked quite as violently as he was. As we shall see, the explosive mixture was made up of all his opinions taken together. But again, even that is not the point: the point is, that he was entitled to hold and argue for his opinions; many of his English contemporaries were too intolerant to respect this right; and the first question to ask is, "Why?"
II Let me now step aside, and look at the backdrop to this episode. Neither Priestley nor Jefferson was just a scientist or a mere essayist. Neither of them may have been a William Shakespeare or an Isaac Newton, but both combined literary sensibility with scientific talent. Ask my old friend, the late C.P. Snow, which of his "Two Cultures" they belonged to - Natural Sciences or Humanities - and he could not put either of them on one side only: their minds transcended that division, so he would have had to reply, Both. So let me now take a wider angle lens, and set the present episode at a point half way between the Gutenberg revolution of the late 15th century, and the new revolution in communication in which we are living today. Snow's Two Cultures - I will suggest - separated as a result of two different innovations that followed Gutenberg's invention, each of which carried its own distinct philosophical preoccupations. Around 1500, it was at last economic to distribute knowledge in printed form, not as manuscripts. Along with this, came a revival of the old tradition of Humane Letters: what we now know as the Humanities. The worlds of learning and public service were opened to a lay public, who could now study texts that had been closed to them before. Print taught readers to recognize the complexity and diversity of our human experience: instead of abstract theories of Sin and Grace, it gave them rich narratives about concrete human circumstances. Aquinas had been all very well, but figures like Don Quixote or Gargantua were irresistible. You did not have to approve of, or condemn such figures: rather, they were mirrors in which to reflect your own life. Like today's film makers, 16th century writers in the Humanities from Erasmus and Thomas More to Montaigne and Shakespeare present readers with the kaleidoscope of life. We get from them a feeling for the individuality of characters: no one can mistake Hamlet for Sancho Panza, or Pantagruel for Othello. What count are the differences among people, not the generalities they share. As Eudora Welty said in appreciation of V.S. Pritchett, who died just recently at the age of 96: The characters that fill [his stories] -- erratic, unsure, unsafe, devious, stubborn, restless and desirous, absurd and passionate, all peculiar unto themselves -- hold a claim on us that cannot be denied. They demand and get our rapt attention, for in the revelation of their lives, the secrets of our own lioves come into view. How much the eccentric has to tell us of what is central!
What an "unscientific" thought Eudora Welty here offers us - that the eccentric explains the central, rather than the other way around. No wonder the Humanities contributed as little as it did to the creation of the Exact Sciences. As late as 1580, Montaigne still questioned whether any universal theories about Nature were possible at all: let alone, mathematical ones like Newton's were to be. Given the uncertainties, ambiguities and disagreements in our experience, that ambition struck him as presumptuous.
The creation of the Exact Sciences was, thus, a separate, 17th-century story, which I turn to now. In 1618, the final and most brutal of Europe's religious wars broke out. Henri IV of France set an example of toleration, by treating his Protestant and Catholic subjects as equal citizens: this had led a fanatic to murder him in 1610. From then on, things went only downhill. From 1618 to 1648 Central Europe was laid waste: during thirty years of war, one third of the population of Germany were killed, half of its cities destroyed. (From Grimmelshausen to Brecht, playwrights have written of this horror.) One event was especially ironic. To commemorate the slaughter of a Protestant army outside Prague, in 1620, a pearl among Rome's smaller churches was built. Dedicated to the Holy Mother of the Prince of Peace, it was called Santa Maria della Vittoria -- or Saint Mary of the Victory.
With Europe split by War, the 16th century Humanists' modesty about the human intellect and their taste for diversity came to look like luxuries. Instead, new and more systematic ways of handling problems were devised, what we call disciplines, whose standardized procedures could be taught as a drill, which students learned to perform step by step, in one-and-only-one right way. Devised by the Flemish scholar Lipsius, this method was put to practical use by Maurits van Nassau, the Dutch Prince whose military academy at Breda in Holland was a Mecca for students from all across Europe. Maurits was struck by the consensus achievable in mathematics. If religion had been discussed with the same kind of neutrality, what miseries Europe might have escaped! Even while dying, he was no partisan. A Protestant Minister asked him to declare his beliefs: he replied, "I believe that 2 + 2 are 4, and 4 + 4 are 8. This gentleman here [pointing to a mathematician at his side] will tell you the details of our other beliefs." Soon, this mathematical ideal took a more general hold. In theory and practice alike - in jurisprudence and philosophy, as much as in the training of infantry - Skill gave way to Technique, Artistry to Artisanship.
The young Descartes himself visited Maurits's Academy after dropping out of Law School in 1618, and before he joined the Duke of Bavaria's staff. Caught up in the prevailing Religious War, he looked for a rational alternative to those rival theological systems that had lost their credibility: ideally, for a mathematical system, free of the uncertainties, ambiguities and disagreements that Montaigne had seen as unavoidable. Following Galileo's example, Descartes adopted as goal a universal system of physics in mathematical form. So began both those philosophical inquiries that John Dewey was much later to call The Quest for Certainty, and also the scientific investigations that would lead, in 1687, to Newton's Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.
The two independent products of the new print culture - first the Humanities, later the Exact Sciences - embodied different conceptions of philosophy, and also different ideals of human reason. On the one hand, the humanists saw arguments as expressing human disagreements, in whose resolution Rhetoric had a legitimate role: on the other, exact scientists saw arguments as formal inferences, which appeals to Rhetoric could only distort. In the Humanities, the term reason thus referred to reasonable practices: in the Exact Sciences, rather, to rational theories. The Humanities recalled the variety in our experiences: in real life, generalizations are hazardous and certitude too much to ask. The Exact Sciences sought to put everything in theoretical order: formal certainty was their goal. So, a tension between the claims of rationality and reasonableness - the demand for demonstrably rights answers to questions of Theory, and respect for honest disagreements about matters of Practice - posed a challenge which (as we shall see) has lasted to our own time.
The Thirty Years War ended in 1648, with the Peace of Westphalia. From it there emerged the forms of the World in which we live in today: forms so familiar we forget they were then brand new. The Peace introduced three novel elements: a new System of States, a new policy in Church/State relations, a new concept of Rational Thought. Political power was vested absolutely in individual Sovereign States: within each State power was exercised from the top by a Sovereign, and outside States did not meddle in each other's affairs. Religious conflict was overcome by compromise: reviving an old formula from the 1555 Treaty of Augsburg - cuius regio eius religio - every Sovereign was free to choose the Church for his or her particular country. So, for the first time, the Westphalian System created Established Churches - Anglican in England, Calvinist in Holland, Catholic in Austria. Finally, the new idea of Reason took as starting point Descartes' claim that true Knowledge must have the certainty of a geometrical system: opinions unsupported by theory were just that -- unsupported opinions.
On the face of it, the three parts of the Westphalian system - Absolute Sovereignty, Established Religion, Logical Demonstration - were distinct and separable. As a matter practical politics, they were closely related, in two respects. (1) All of them operated Top Down, and gave power to oligarchies - political, ecclesiastical and academic - that supported one another. (2) They formed a single package. As Voltaire commented, "One leaves Dover, where Space is Empty, and everything happens through Attraction, and lands in Calais, where Space is Full, and everything happens through Vortices." In a word, the three elements of the Westphalian scheme formed, not just a package, but an ideological package. Challenging any one of the three axioms was thus viewed as attacking them all.
This was what got Priestley finally into trouble. For late 18th century Englishmen, Newton's physics was part of a larger ideological scheme. As it mapped God's Plan for the Creation, and proved the stability of the Solar System, its success was political as much as astronomical: bolstering the English self-image, of Hanoverian Monarchy, Anglican Church and all. By rejecting the odd blend of Newtonianism, Anglicanism and Monarchism that passed as "respectable opinion" - talking at the same time as a Nonconformist in religion, a Republican in politics and a materialist in philosophy - Priestley was throwing himself into hot water. From then on, he was regarded less as a man of unusual beliefs than as a trouble-maker: less a Dissenter than a Dissident.
It was is, and remains, the fundamental defect of any public ideology, that it makes it impossible for people to put forward unorthodox, or even unfamiliar views, without being accused of promoting hostility to the Powers that Be. The Birmingham Mob was not ready to let Priestley explain his opinions: let alone ready to listen to him, and see if they might learn anything from his views. For them, Priestley was a source of trouble, and they prefered to drive him out of town. Nor was this habit merely English. After 1650, States required that people's loyalties be exclusive: no citizen could be a subject of more than one Sovereign. Established Religions, similarly, expected their adherents to avoid Churches of other Faiths: the English were as harsh to Papists in their midst as the French and Austrians were to Protestants. As for Rational Knowledge: from Leibniz on, most philosophers relied on formal deductions, rejected appeals to Rhetoric as irrational, and so on. The Westphalian Settlement thus imposed exclusive attitudes on religious, political and intellectual life equally.
Things had not always been that way. Medieval rulers never exerted the exclusive sovereignty that Nation States later claimed: after Thomas Becket's murder, Henry II of England found that the Church's criticisms could shame him into changing policies. Nor was Sovereignty necessarily linked to Nationhood: the Habsburgs' subjects spoke not just German, but Polish, Portuguese, Magyar and Dutch . Nor is Religion always and everywhere exclusive. It is our custom to practise one-and-only-one religion, and other people's open mindedness can be a surprise. Friends from Tokyo who joined us in Chicago for Christmas sang carols at the Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue from memory. As they told us, many people in Japan build their lives around ceremonies from several religions. Baptised in Shinto, married in a Christian service, buried as Buddists: for them, the three religions peaceably cšexist.
Nor have philosophers always been exclusive in demanding formal proofs. When things go well, they have no objection to humane arguments. Diderot's Encyclopedia shows his passion for the activities and instruments of practical crafts: and his concern for physical theory was purely pragmatic. When things went badly, on the other hand - in the Thirty Years War, the French Revolution or the First World War - they are again tempted to insist on rigorous geometrical proofs. So, the history of philosophy has ended as an intellectual see-saw.
The Westphalian Settlement was, thus, a poisoned chalice - a mixture of intellectual dogmatism, political chauvinism and sectarian religion whose effect endured into our century. Priestley was right to decline it: the establishment of religion was, indeed, a policy of temporary necessity for countries that had lost their earlier habits of toleration. In 1794, the American Constitution enshrined the values of toleration, and Priestley seized on the opportunities it provided. To be more exact: the Westphalian System ended as a poisoned chalice. Initially, all its terms met needs of the time. Sovereign States, Established Religions, and Formal Rationality: at the time, all of these served as ways of ordering life and thought, and tempering the conflicts among countries and religions. (Again, a parallel with Bosnia and Dayton is to the point.)
From 1650 to 1950, then, the States of Europe lived in an International Anarchy: each went its own way, without fear of outside criticism. Established Churches were emasculated Churches: State and Church were tied at the ankles, in a three legged race that spared any State the indignity of moral reproof. Even in philosophy, the charms of Rationalism were reinforced by the needs of the day. Leibniz had hoped that his formal arguments might succeed where Diplomacy and War had failed: by ensuring agreement between the rival religions that had devastated his native Germany. But, in time, these devices outgrew their initial efficacy; and, at the end of our terrible Twentieth Century, they need to be reconsidered as new ideas or institutions come on the stage. Above all, the facts of global interdependence are no longer reconcilable with claims to unfettered national sovereignty: especially as such claims are expressed most stridently nowadays by such palpable villains as the military rŽgime in Burma.
For his image of the 17th century Sovereign State, Thomas Hobbes chose the Sea Monster he called the Leviathan - a natural image for a theorist from the British Isles: nowadays, a nuclear Superpower calls to mind rather a 900-pound gorilla, who sleeps wherever he pleases. The general interest lies in moderating the force of Nation States, not increasing it: so we find States joining together in larger units such as the European Union, which limit their Sovereignty. Meanwhile, on a global level, non-governmental organizations are becoming more influential: "voluntary associations" of the kind that - as George Abdo points out - Hobbes himself, sounding for once like the Government of Nigeria, called "worms in the intestines of Leviathan" that need to be "purged".
These transnational NGOs remind us of an earlier stage when Sovereigns were still subject to reproof. NGOs like Amnesty International are not emasculated: as the voice for the conscience of Humanity, they keep a distance from National States, which are agents of Force. NGOs cannot force Governments to act as they would please, but in suitable cases they can shame them into changing policies: recalling in this way that the politics of shame which the Church used to reprove Henry II is sometimes as effective as the politics of force. Here again, the Westphalian System has outlived its efficacy, and the older tension between the Church and the State is re‘merging on a new level. From now on, the Governments of States need to retune their ears, and listen to those unofficial institutions that speak, not for the special interests of any particular nation or party, but for "the decent opinion of humankind."
In closing this discussion, I have three chief points to make:
America's poets have captured these truths. Listen, for one, to Wallace Stevens. Writing early in World War II, near the end of his Notes toward a Supreme Fiction, he refers at the contrast I have emphasized here, between reasonableness and rationality. For him, too, Reasonableness is more important than Rationality; and its importance is itself more than an intellectual one. It is the expression - as he puts it - of a "more than rational distortion - the fiction that results from feeling."
I recall one of my Chicago colleagues lecturing on the theme, "Is it rational to act reasonably?" Unless reasonable actions could be proved to fit his abstract moral theory with geometrical precision, respect for human frailty was for him intellectually suspect. Yet, rather than ask, "Is it rational to be reasonable?", we might equally well ask, "Is it reasonable to argue in rational terms alone? In what situations can we reasonably rely on formal theories?" Since 1960, we have seen a turn of the tide, which at last lets us overcome this tension. As technological skills in Engineering and Medicine meet the limits of practical wisdom, we are learning to match the virtuosity of the Exact Sciences with the reasonable claims of human need. These days we are not - as some will argue - confronting the End of Modernity so much as its Fulfilment. Rationality did not fail us. It was just that, in a technological age, we did not always ask when or how far formal calculations alone can give us humanly relevant answers, and when or how far practical circumstances leave room to pursue or balance legitimate interests in their human detail.
We too easily forget how recent this change is. Forty years ago, you could read the Washington Post or the Chicago Tribune a whole month, without finding any articles about moral issues in medical practice: nowadays, such issues are raised every week. It is not that clinical medicine is now less ethical, but that medicine can no longer be - as we used to say - "clinically detached." We now understand the part that lay people have to play in helping to resolve moral problems in medicine. Increasingly, clinical practice requires a moral analysis of particular cases; and, as the old maxim has it, the
Devil lies in the details. So, when physicians today face moral problems, they cannot fasten their eyes on a disciplinary high road, and plug straight ahead. More and more, they have to recognize that other parties to any case - a patient's parents, or life partner, or spiritual adviser - need to be listened to; since the stakes they have in these issues are not merely legitimate, but crucial.
The key word here is, once again, Listen. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring appeared 35 years ago, in 1962, at a time when the role of Ecology in politics was near to zero. By now, the environmental effect of technological projects can raise problems of global concern, and no self-respecting government lacks an agency to deal with these issues. Figuring how to build a dam at this or that location calls for rational virtuosity; but the decision to build such a dam at all - asking if we can reasonably accept its side effects - does not call for calculations alone. As in medicine, the Devil lies in the details, and the voices we must listen to most carefully are those of all the other human beings who will be on the receiving end of those side effects.
To sum up: like the uniqueness of names, the individuality or particularity of cases and characters divides the world of practice, in its actuality, from the world of theory, with its abstractions. Behind the contrast of the reasonable and the rational, behind the rival attractions of Nation State and Global Future, underlying the survival in a time of general toleration of the things Jefferson called bigotry and priestcraft, lie abstractions that may still tempt us back into the dogmatism, chauvinism and sectarianism our needs have outgrown. To this extent, the conflict between Joseph Priestley and his English enemies is alive today, even on American soil. Nor is this conflict likely to be resolved permanently. It is another of those conflicts that demand eternal vigilance. So listen again to Wallace Stevens, writing in 1942:
They will get it straight one day at the Sorbonne.