The Sovereignty of Reason

The Sovereignty of Reason: The Defense of Rationality in the Early English Enlightenment

Frederick C. Beiser
Copyright Date: 1996
Pages: 346
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    The Sovereignty of Reason
    Book Description:

    The Sovereignty of Reasonis a survey of the rule of faith controversy in seventeenth-century England. It examines the arguments by which reason eventually became the sovereign standard of truth in religion and politics, and how it triumphed over its rivals: Scripture, inspiration, and apostolic tradition. Frederick Beiser argues that the main threat to the authority of reason in seventeenth-century England came not only from dissident groups but chiefly from the Protestant theology of the Church of England. The triumph of reason was the result of a new theology rather than the development of natural philosophy, which upheld the orthodox Protestant dualism between the heavenly and earthly. Rationalism arose from a break with the traditional Protestant answers to problems of salvation, ecclesiastical polity, and the true faith. Although the early English rationalists were not able to defend all their claims on behalf of reason, they developed a moral and pragmatic defense of reason that is still of interest today.

    Beiser's book is a detailed examination of some neglected figures of early modern philosophy, who were crucial in the development of modern rationalism. There are chapters devoted to Richard Hooker, the Great Tew Circle, the Cambridge Platonists, the early ethical rationalists, and the free-thinkers John Toland and Anthony Collins.

    Originally published in 1996.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6444-7
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-2)
    (pp. 3-19)

    In 1781, in a famous footnote to the preface of the first edition of hisKritik der reinen Vernunft, Kant made a revealing statement about one of the characteristic beliefs of his age. He said of theAufklärung, or Enlightenment:

    Our age is, to a preeminent degree, the age of criticism, and to criticism everything must submit. Religion through its sanctity, and the state through its majesty, may seek to exempt themselves from it. But then they awaken just suspicion, and cannot claim sincere respect, which reason accords only that which has been able to withstand the test of a...

    (pp. 20-45)

    If we are to have a clearer idea of the problems facing rationalism in seventeenth-century England, it is necessary to have a more precise account of the limitations placed upon reason in Protestantism. But simply to pose this task is to walk into a minefield. The problem of the relationship between rationalism and Protestantism has been much disputed ever since the publication in 1904 of Max Weber’sDie protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus

    It is not my aim here, however, to reopen Weber’s question in all its complexity and depth. I wish to consider only one specific aspect...

    (pp. 46-83)

    If there is any single point that must be chosen as the beginning of the English Enlightenment, as the first glimmering of its dawn, then that would have to be the publication in 1593 of the first four books of Richard Hooker’sOf the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie.¹ The importance of theLawesfor the development of the early Enlightenment consists in its defense of the powers of reason.² Although Hooker did not intend it—or, at least, dared not admit it—the net result of his argument was to make reason the ultimate arbiter of questions of faith. Scripture...

    (pp. 84-133)

    After Hooker, the most important stage in the development of English rationalism in the seventeenth century was the founding of the ‘Great Tew circle’ in the 1630s. This group of philosophers, theologians, and poets met at the Oxfordshire estate of Lucius Cary, the second Viscount Falkland, in the village of Great Tew. There, unconstrained by all the prejudices, conventions, and orthodoxies of the day, they would hold frank and free discussions about all the latest issues in philosophy, theology, and poetry. There was no single philosophy, theology, or aesthetic to which all members of the circle subscribed. The guests at...

    (pp. 134-183)

    One of the most important stages in the development of rationalism in seventeenth-century England came with Cambridge Platonism. The members of this school were active in Cambridge from the late 1630s until the 1680s, and most of them were either fellows or students of two colleges, Emmanuel and Christ’s. Their inner circle consisted of Henry More (1614–87), Ralph Cudworth (1617–88), John Smith (1618–52), and Benjamin Whichcote (1609–83), who was the father of the school. Their outer circle of associates within Cambridge comprised John Sherman (d. 1666), John Worthington (1618–80), Peter Sterry (1613–72), George Rust...

    (pp. 184-219)

    A crucial step in the development of the principle of the sovereignty of reason in seventeenth-century England came with the criticism of ‘enthusiasm’, the belief in divine inspiration prevalent among the Puritans and radical sects. The struggle against enthusiasm attempted to clear the field of the most popular and potent contender against reason in the rule-of-faith controversy. What Hooker had done against the biblicism of the Puritans, and what the Great Tew circle had done against the tradition of the Catholics, the post-Restoration rationalists would now try to do against inspiration. The nethistorical effectof their criticism—whether valid...

    (pp. 220-265)

    One of the important events in the history of the early English Enlightenment was the so-called ‘deism controversy’, which began in 1696 and did not die out until the 1740s. In the most dramatic fashion, this dispute raised anew the old question of the rule of faith. But it did so in a new form. The issue was no longer whether reason hadsomeauthority—for everyone in the 1690s was ready to grant that—but whether it hadcompletesovereignty. Now it was the other rules of faith—Scripture, enthusiasm, and apostolic tradition—that were in question. The controversy...

    (pp. 266-322)

    The final stage of the early English Enlightenment was the emergence of ethical rationalism in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The birthplace of ethical rationalism was Cambridge: most of its exponents were either founders or followers of Cambridge Platonism. This doctrine was first vaguely sketched by Benjamin Whichcote and Nathaniel Culverwell in the 1640s, and then systematically developed by Ralph Cudworth and Henry More in the 1660s.¹ Ethical rationalism later became the predominant moral philosophy in England around the close of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries. It was preached in sermons, expounded in treatises,...

  12. Conclusion FAITH IN REASON
    (pp. 323-328)

    If, from a strictly philosophical standpoint, we look back upon the rise of rationalism in seventeenth-century England, it is difficult to regard it as either a triumph or a disaster. There were both strengths and weaknesses in the defense of reason. If some arguments in its behalf were persuasive, others were problematic. The rise of rationalism in seventeenth-century England cannot be regarded as the simple story of the triumph of truth over error, the victory of the forces of light over darkness. This was the explanation that thephilosophesandAufklärerloved to give for the rise of the Enlightenment....

  13. INDEX
    (pp. 329-332)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 333-333)