Remembering Margaret Fell

Margaret Fell, with George Fox before the judges, from a painting by J. Pettie 1663, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Margaret Fell with George Fox before the judges, from a painting by J. Pettie, 1663

Margaret Fell was born on some unknown date in 1614, so let’s take this occasion to remember her on the date of her death, April 23rd, 1702.

Fell’s lived a life as passionate as it was long. She was an unconventional thinker for her time, a zealous and progressive religious activist at times imprisoned for her beliefs, a prolific writer, well-traveled, a mother of eight children and a wife twice.

An early adherent and eloquent promoter of Quakerism, Fell is now considered one of its founders. She converted to Quakerism after hearing a sermon by one of its most charismatic preachers, George Fox, and almost immediately launched into a lifetime of hosting Quaker meetings and speaking out on behalf of her new religion. After her husband died some years later, Fell married Fox, probably more as a co-missionary than as a romantic partner since their work, travels, and imprisonments kept them apart for much of their marriage.

As I’ve had a lifelong fascination with the history of human rights, I’ve long admired the Quakers because, along with Unitarians and Deists, so many have been leaders in the struggle to expand, establish, and promote them. That’s because these faiths emphasize the importance of individual conscience, the primacy of the human mind, God’s rational nature, and the moral equality of all human beings.

Fell believed in the Quaker doctrine of the Inner Light which God has caused to shine equally in the hearts of all beings; all we need do is heed it. Therefore, one does not need ministers, priests, or any other authorities or intercessors to achieve salvation. And because God has created everyone for the same purpose and gave everyone that light, everyone is spiritually equal and capable of understanding and proclaiming the Truth. We can see how this doctrine, central to Quakerism, readily aligns with human rights movements centered on a belief human spiritual and intellectual equality. The right of women to speak in church and write religious texts, in her time limited to men, was a cause particularly dear to Fell’s heart. While Fell’s belief in the equality of women was limited to their role as spiritual beings, Quakerism tended to encourage ever-more progressive beliefs in its adherents. Over time, many Quakers came to be leaders in the abolitionist and pacifist movements, promoting the right of all to receive equal and universal education and for women’s rights in social and political spheres as well.

In light of her achievements as a female religious pioneer, and the human rights advances facilitated by the Quaker faith she helped found, Fell’s contributions should continue to be remembered and celebrated.

*A version of this piece has been previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

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Sources and inspiration

Broad, Jacqueline, ‘Margaret Fell‘, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Jacoby, Susan. Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion. New York: Pantheon, 2016 (see the chapter on Margaret Fell)

Photobook: Magdalen Chapel, Edinburgh, Scotland

Magdalen Chapel, built in 1541 in the Cowgate, Edinburgh, Scotland. This lovely little church, like so many of the oldest places of worship in Scotland, saw much drama over the centuries, involved as it was as the Catholic and Protestant battle to retain and to win over the hearts and consciences of the people. Covenanters executed nearby in the Grassmarket in the 1680’s were brought here and their bodies prepared for burial. The Chapel now belongs to the Scottish Reformation Society.

Magdalen Chapel historical plaques, Cowgate, Edinburgh, Scotland

View upon entering the Magdalen Chapel. The four stained glass roundels to the right are, according to’s 101 Objects project, ‘the only pre-Reformation stained glass of any importance surviving in-situ in Scotland.’ They ‘depict the coats of arms of Mary of Guise (mother to Mary Queen of Scots), the Scots Lion Rampant, and those of Michael MacQahane and his wife Janet Rynd.’

Interior view of the Magdalen Chapel, facing the choir (west) and the 1708 Deacon’s Chair

Interior view of the Magdalen Chapel, facing east. To the left, against which the facsimile of the Covenant of Scotland is leaning, is the small table on which the bodies of executed Covenanters were laid to prepare them for burial

Facsimile of the National Covenant of Scotland, signed in nearby Grayfriar’s Kirkyard in 1638

Mementos, memorials, and more on a wall of the Magdalen Chapel

Fragment of the original painted oak ceiling of the Magdalen Chapel

Painted panel with the insignia of the City of Edinburgh and other symbolic images in Edinburgh’s Magdalen Chapel

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Christine de Pizan’s Song of Joan of Arc: A Defense of a Political Heroine

Jeanne d’Arc by Albert Lynch, engraving from Figaro Illustre magazine, 1903, public domain

This is a paper I recently submitted for one of my classes at the University of Edinburgh. I was very glad for the opportunity to bring Joan into my studies here!


Song of Joan of Arc (Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc) is the medieval Italian-French writer Christine de Pizan’s paean to the teenage visionary who led the French army to stunning victories in the Hundred Years War against the English and their French allies. Prior to Song, from about 1399 to 1429, de Pizan authored forty-one works of poetry, prose, and praise and earned her own living doing it, the first European woman to do so.[1] Many of her works are called proto-feminist not because she advocated changing the social and political roles of women, but because she used her pen so often to defend the moral and intellectual worth of women against misogynist literary attacks, notably Jean de Meun’s The Romance of the Rose and Matheolus’ Lamentations.[2] Nadia Margolis describes de Pizan’s magnum opus The Book of the City of Ladies as ‘the first recorded history of women by a woman author, …one of the first deliberate, systematic refutations of male assertions of women’s inferiority ever written.’[3]

De Pizan draws on her canon for her Song of Joan. She marshals her characterizations of great female heroes and saviors of the past from her prolific body of work in celebration of this amazing heroine of her own time. She draws on the Bible and the classics for her Song as well. Nor does de Pizan stop with great women: a mythic and historic, Biblical and Greek array of great male and female figures march triumphantly before Joan in Song. Written in 1429, the year of de Pizan’s death and two years before Joan’s execution by fire, it’s the last of her works. This epic poem is not only a hagiography nor even, as we’ll see, is it interspersed with mere patriotic digs at the English foe and their allies. Like so many of her works, it’s also a defense, not of all women in this case, but of one particular woman. Specifically, it’s a defense of Joan against politically motivated attacks on her personal and religious character. Thus, I argue, de Pizan’s Song is a political work as well.

As the introductory stanzas give way to the main topics of the Song, de Pizan calls on God to help her tell her story well and truthfully.[4] This is reminiscent of the openings of ancient Greek works such as Homer’s Odyssey[5] and Hesiod’s Theogony[6], in which they call on the Muses to do the same. De Pizan draws this classical theme throughout her Song, calling on the ancients as well to help demonstrate the type and significance of Joan’s heroism. This device serves to underscore Joan’s monumental role in history as well as to make the God-ordained nature of her mission more believable: after all, God has called on people to do great things many times before. De Pizan portrays Joan as the fitting culmination for her own time of the great lineage of heroes and saviors from the Bible and the classics. And not only is Joan like them, she is superior to them: “She frees France from its enemies, …not even Hector – Nor Achilles could withstand her.”[7] In stanza XXIII, Joan is a Moses, leading her people out of subjugation.[8] In stanza XXV, Joan is a Joshua, a conqueror. In stanza XXVII, Joan is a Gideon, a simple shepherd called by God to be a warrior. But these were men, de Pizan points out, and Joan was a young girl. Not only did she perform brave and marvelous feats, she did so without the naturally greater physical strength of grown men.[9] Because this rendered her task more difficult, her feats were all the greater.

And de Pizan has no shortage of great female heroines to associate with Joan. Some of these associations are named: Judith, Esther, and Deborah. The exploits of these great heroines of the Bible would have been widely known to her Christian audience: Judith cuts off the head of the general Holofernes before he can destroy her city; Esther risks her life to reveal a plot that would have led her husband-king to destroy her people; and the prophet and judge Deborah arranges a battle to free her people, then cements the victory by hammering a tent pin into the enemy general’s head as he rests in defeat. Some of the women de Pizan associates with Joan, however, are not identified by name. Nevertheless, many of these latter associations would have been readily identifiable for the educated reader and especially for readers of de Pizan’s earlier work since they were drawn from the classics. For example, in stanza XIV, De Pizan attributes Joan’s military success to her intelligence as well as God’s help: “Once it was lost but now it is yours – …And all due to – the intelligence of the Maid who, thanks – to God, most expertly played her part.”[10] In earlier works, such as Letter of Othea to Hector and The Book of the City of Ladies, de Pizan lauds Minerva and Pallas Athena, two aspects of the same Greek goddess. Minerva is associated with war, as the wise woman who invents armor and iron weapons; Pallas is associated with wisdom and knowledge generally. As the wise warrior woman extraordinaire, Joan is Minerva-Pallas, personified.

The clearest and most-repeated association I find between Joan and an unnamed great woman is with the Virgin Mary. In one stanza, de Pizan praises Joan as both virgin and a moral mother “You are virgin, very young, – To whom God grants the strength and power – To be both woman and champion, – Who offers France the gentle breast, – the food of peace…”[11] Later on, de Pizan continues the Marian theme: “Aha!! What honor for the female – Sex! God shows how he loves it, – …By one woman [the nobles and realm] were fortified, No men could do this deed….”[12] If these parallels aren’t clear enough, de Pizan portrays Joan as the vessel through which salvation comes (to France) and through which the king comes to rule his kingdom (Charles’ coronation at Reims). And just as it was in Nazareth, God could have saved France any way he chose, and he chose to save both through women.

Some of de Pizan’s hagiographic characterizations of Joan do not relate to her virtues as a woman, such as those which reflect her earlier works such as City of Ladies and Letter of Othea, or as a savior, such as those which compare her to Old Testament and mythic heroines and heroes. It appears, rather, that they relate to her superiority over her foes. Angus J. Kennedy and Kenneth Varty, in the interpretive essay which accompanies their publication and translations of Song, identify the strong anti-English sentiment found throughout the work.[13] As they point out, de Pizan characterizes the English and their allies as evil, wicked, traitors, and before Joan and her army’s power, helpless as dead dogs.[14] De Pizan also uses the term l’Englecherie, which Kennedy and Varty describe as a pejorative term for the English in that place and time.[15]

Yet this patriotic poem goes beyond ‘heaping scorn’[16] on her foes. De Pizan offers a defense of Joan’s character by offering descriptions of her virtues and intentions that contradict the negative characterizations of her spread by the English and their French allies, the Burgundians. We have a contemporary record of these in the transcripts of her trial in Rouen. Joan was captured on May 23rd, 1430 at Compiègne, and after lengthy negotiations, was handed over to an ecclesiastical court in exchange for 10,000 livres.[17] Despite her being subjected to a purportedly religious trial, she was not, as was customary in those kinds of cases, kept in a religious prison looked after by nuns. Rather, she was kept in an English military prison, chained to a wall, with male guards inside and outside her cell.[18]

The trail at Rouen was widely understood to be both a character and a literal assassination carried out by means of a show trial,[19] carried out with elaborate procedure to make it seem as impartial as possible.[20] Her judges, led by Pierre Cauchon, a French judge in the pay of the English, set out to prove Joan was so depraved, morally and religiously, that she could not have been sent by God. The opening statement of the trial reads: “The reputation of this woman had already gone forth into many parts: how, wholly forgetful of womanly honesty, and having thrown off the bonds of shame, careless of all the modesty of womankind, she wore with an astonishing and monstrous brazenness, immodest garments belonging to the male sex…”.[21] The issue of men’s clothing, which Joan habitually worse since going to war, was a major theme throughout the trial. It was used as evidence not only of her immodesty but her heresy as well, since the Bible forbids women to wear men’s clothing[22]. The judges did not address the fact that imprisoning her in a cell with male guards exposed her to the continual threat of sexual assault and rape[23]; Joan may have found it expedient to wear men’s clothing to preserve her virginity[24], a status which these judges were so intent to undermine. After many sessions of testimony and questioning, twelve formal Articles of Accusation were drawn up and read aloud. One accuses her of staying in a house “with unguarded women” where soldiers liked to hang around[25]. Another accuses her of “having intimate relations” with Captain Robert de Baudricourt and promising to bear him one pope, one emperor, and one king[26].

In defense of Joan’s moral purity, De Pizan refers specifically to Joan’s virginity no less than 13 times in her Song, besides numerous allusions throughout to Joan’s generally virtuous character. De Pizan might have used this description to describe any great woman since de Pizan considers virginity as sacred a designation for women as any Christian of her time[27].

But aside from the sometimes rather startling charges pertaining to her sexual behavior, the imputations of witchcraft and heresy were more serious. The opening statement continues, “her presumptuousness had grown until she was not afraid to perform, to speak, and to disseminate many things contrary to the Catholic faith and hurtful to the articles of the orthodox belief. And by so doing, as well in our diocese as in several other districts of this kingdom, she was said to be guilty of no inconsiderable offenses[28].” Her judges expand on this theme in another statement read over a month later at the first public session[29].

De Pizan goes well beyond defending Joan as personally pious: she presents Joan as a defender of the Christian faith itself. De Pizan writes that not only will Joan defend the faith, but “The Christian faith and Holy Church, – Will both be set to rights through her…”[30] This was one of the passages which alerted me to the political elements in Song. The Hundred Year’s War and de Pizan’s Song long predate England’s schism with the Catholic Church; it so happened that the Pope bestowed the title ‘Defender of the Faith’ nearly one hundred years later on the English monarch Henry VIII before Henry broke England’s ties to the Catholic Church[31]. There were no particular reasons to charge England with being at odds with the Christian faith except as far as they refused to lay down their arms before Joan. Still, even if Joan were on God’s side in the quarrel between the French and the English, this wouldn’t imply that Joan was defender of the Christian faith at large. What, then, explains de Pizan’s remarks here?

The English and their allies certainly did not see themselves as enemies of God or the true faith[32]. They saw themselves as rightful heirs to the throne of France; indeed, as a result of the habit of monarchs creating alliances by marrying their children off to one another only to have these heirs to the crown die off in inconvenient succession, the English monarch did have a real claim to the French throne[33]. It was not in the English interests for their claim to be invalidated as against the will of God. It was in their interests to demonstrate that Joan was not on God’s side. If she had a reputation as indecent, immodest, unwomanly, or a woman of loose morals with a penchant for soldiers, that would weaken Joan’s reputation for holiness. It was even more in their interests that Joan be perceived as a witch, a heretic, or both: if this could be demonstrated, then Joan’s claim to be sent by God could not[34]. Therefore, de Pizan mounts a strong defense of Joan’s godliness, claiming her not only as a pious Christian but as a defender of the faith itself. But the role as a defender of the faith doesn’t seem necessary to add to Joan’s already impressive resume of Christian greatness in Song except as an additional qualifier, a sort of icing on the cake. But de Pizan goes even beyond that: “Yet destroying the English invader – is not, indeed, her primary concern. – For her calling is in preserving – the Faith….”[35]

Once again, we can ask: what impels de Pizan to make the claim that Joan’s primary concern is defending the Christian faith, on behalf of the impressive warrior-saint for whom she’s already claimed so much? When de Pizan mounts her defense of Joan, she could not have known that Joan would be tried by an ecclesiastical court that would seek to officially undermine Joan’ claim that she was doing the will of God on behalf of France. But while de Pizan wrote her Song, Joan was on trial in the court of public opinion. Both trials were political trials, each side out to win the public’s support for their legitimacy to rule. God had chosen a side in this political contest, and Joan said that was France. Therefore, de Pizan added, Joan, as God’s chosen champion of God’s chosen France, was also the champion of the faith itself. In Song, de Pizan places France, France’s king, Joan, God, and the Christian faith itself on one side, the English and their allies on the other. There was only one side, therefore, that the faithful could join, and that was Joan’s. The faithful was transformed, in Song, to the political.


[1] Redfern, Jenny. “Christine de Pisan and The Treasure of the City of Ladies: A Medieval Rhetorician and Her Rhetoric” in Reclaiming Rhetorica: Women and in the Rhetorical Tradition, ed. Lunsford, Andrea. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995, p. 74

[2] De Pizan, Christine. Letter of Othea to Hector (1399-1400). Trans., ed., and interpretive essay by Jane Chance. 1997, pp. 8, 14

[3] Margolis, Nadia. “A Feminist-Historical Citadel: Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies.” Feminist Moments: Reading Feminist Texts. Ed. Katherine Smits and Susan Bruce.: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. 11–18. Bloomsbury Collections. Accessed 28 Nov. 2017 at, paragraph 1

[4] De Pizan, Christine. Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc (1429). Ed. and trans. by Angus J. Kennedy and Kenneth Varty. Oxford: Society for the Study of Mediaeval Languages and Literature, 1977, pp. 41-42

[5] Homer, Odyssey. Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University. Accessed 6 December 2017 at, v. 1-10

[6] Hesiod, Theogony. Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University. Accessed 6 December 2017 at, v. 1-5, 20-25

[7] De Pizan, The Song of Joan of Arc. Trans. by Leah Shopkow. Retrieved 20 November 2017 from, stanza XXXVI

[8] Margolis writes that De Pizan sees herself in this role in the City of Ladies as well: ‘First, it echoes the Old Testament (2 Kings 17: 7) in comparing women constrained by misogyny to the Jews enslaved by Pharaoh, thereby likening Christine to Moses (Exod 1; Deut 34). Just as Moses was chosen to lead the Israelites to freedom, so Christine was chosen to lead women to better destinies.’ – paragraph 6

[9] Song, all translations, stanza XXVII

[10] De Pizan, The Song of Joan of Arc. Trans. by Ben D. Kennedy. Retrieved 20 November 2017 from Leah Shopkow translates the phrase to ‘wise Joan’, but the Middle French dictionary I consult translates the adjective sensible as closer in meaning to ‘intelligent.’ As Shopkow notes, in some places she sacrifices a little accuracy for overall coherence and poetic rhythm. See the introduction to her translation at

[11] Song, trans. Shopkow, stanza XXIV

[12] Song, trans. Shopkow, stanza XXXIV

[13] Ibid., p. 13

[14] Song, trans. Shopkow, stanzas XXIII, XXIV, XXXIV, XLV, and XXXIII, respectively

[15] Song, Kennedy and Varty, p 87

[16] Ibid., p. 13

[17] The Trial of Jeanne D’Arc. Trans. By W. P. Barrett. Originally published New York: Gotham House, Inc., 1932. From Medieval Sourcebook, Fordham University. Accessed 29 November 2017 at, p. x

[18] Ibid., p. x

[19] Michelet, J. Joan of Arc: Or, The Maid of Orleans: From Michelet’s History of France. New York: Stanford & Delisser, 1858. Accessed 28 November 2017 from, pp. 115-116; Robins, P. R. “Discerning Voices in the Trial of Joan of Arc and ‘The Book of Margery Kempe’.” Fifteenth-Century Studies 38, 2013, pp. 177, 187-188

[20] Robins, p. 183

[21] Ibid., p. 2

[22] Bible, King James Version. [online], Accessed 29 November 2017 at:, Deuteronomy 22:5

[23] On at least one occasion, though she was in chains, Joan successfully fought off a rape attempt: Michelet, p. 207-208

[24] Men’s clothing was somewhat time-consuming to remove: hose and chausses were laced to a belt and/or the upper garments to hold them in place – Houston, Mary G. Medieval Costume in England and France: The 13th, 14th and 15th Centuries. (1939). New York: Dover, 1996, p. 53, 80-81. Joan’s ability to fight off her would-be rapist may have been aided by her protective covering of laced-together, difficult-to-remove clothing

[25] Trial, Article XIII, p. 154

[26] Ibid., Article XI, p. 159

[27] De Pizan, Christine, The Book of the City of Ladies (1405). Trans. and intro. Brown-Grant, Rosalind. London, Penguin Books, 1999, p. xix, xxiii

[28] Trial, p. 2-3

[29] Ibid., p 34, 36 ‘Since she was appearing in judgment before us we began to explain… how many of her actions, not in our diocese alone but in many other regions also, had injured the orthodox faith, and how common report of them had spread through all the realms of Christendom…. Therefore, considering the public rumor and common report and also certain information already mentioned, after mature consultation with men learned in canon and civil law, we decreed that the said Jeanne should be summoned and cited by letter to answer the interrogations in matters of faith and other points truthfully according to law and reason….’

[30] Song, trans. Shopkow, Stanza XLII

[31] ‘Defender of the Faith’. Ed.s, Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011. Accessed 29 November, 2017 at

[32] Robins, p. 177

[33] Vale, M. G. A. The Origins of the Hundred Years War: The Angevin Legacy, 1250-1340. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996, pp. 227, 266

[34] Trial, p. xi, Robins, p 177

[35] Song, trans. Kennedy, stanza XLV

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Happy Birthday, Baruch Spinoza!

Portrait of Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), ca. 1665, by an unknown artist

Baruch Spinoza was born on November 24, 1632, in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He was the son of Michael and Hannah Spinoza, Portuguese Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity, then imprisoned and tortured by the Inquisition, then fled to relatively tolerant Amsterdam. The Spinozas became successful and respected members of Amsterdam’s Jewish community.

Their son Baruch (also called by his Latinized name Benedicto, also meaning ‘blessed’), was a precocious and brilliant boy who became an intellectually rigorous, curious, and free-thinking man. He wrote prodigiously, profoundly, and often obscurely while earning a humble living as a scientific instrument lens-grinder. He was excommunicated for his unorthodox beliefs (rather surprising still given the relative broad-mindedness of that synagogue), shunned and condemned by his fellow Jews and by Christians alike, and lived the rest of his too-short life in near-solitude, though in rich correspondence with a wide circle of friends and intellectuals.

His idea of God as a unified substance which, in some sense, can be understood as being the same as Nature or the Universe itself, is still widely beloved (the great physicist Albert Einstein and eloquent, outspoken atheist Christopher Hitchens, for example, were among his biggest fans), hated, and debated widely, especially insofar as it can be difficult to grasp the exact nature of Spinoza’s metaphysical and ethical ideas. Spinoza refused to repudiate his ideas despite the intense social pressure he had to deal with for the rest of his life. But however much his correspondents argued, cajoled, threatened with hellfire, or otherwise tried to convince him to abandon his beliefs, Spinoza responded with firmness, constancy, thoroughness, and courtesy.

Learn more about the integrious Baruch Spinoza at:

Baruch Spinoza ~ by Steven Nadler for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677) ~ in the Jewish Virtual Library

Benedict De Spinoza (1632—1677) ~ by Blake D. Dutton for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Betraying Spinoza ~ Rebecca Goldstein on her book Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity

Benedict de Spinoza: Dutch-Jewish Philosopher ~ by Richard H. Popkin for the Encyclopædia Britannica

From Baruch to Benedicto! (Spinoza pt. 1) and Spinoza Part 2 ~ by Stephen West for Philosophize This! podcast

God Intoxicated Man – The Life and Times of Benedict Spinoza ~ by Michael Goldfarb for the BBC’s Sunday Feature

Spinoza ~ Melvin Bragg discusses Spinoza’s life and thought with Jonathan Rée, Sarah Hutton, and John Cottingham for In Our Time

The Heretic Jew ~ by Harold Bloom, book review of Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity for The New York Times

The Writings of Spinoza ~ at Internet Sacred Text Archive

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Say What? David Hume on Religion

‘Convulsions in nature, disorders, prodigies, miracles, though the most opposite to the plan of a wise superintendent, impress mankind with the strongest sentiments of religion; the causes of events seeming then the most unknown and unaccountable.’

~ David Hume, The Natural History of Religion, Section VI, paragraph 3

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Rationality and the Origins of Myth: Bayle, Fontanelle, and Toland

Pierre Bayle, Bernard de Fontanelle, and John Toland; all images in the public domain or free for noncommercial use

This is an extended version of a blog post I recently wrote for my seminar class Myth and the History of Scholarship in Early Modern Europe. It’s a more formal style than I generally like to write in since it’s for an academic blog, but I thought I’d share it with you just in case you’re interested in what I’ve been working on at the University of Edinburgh lately ~ Amy

From the ancient philosophers of Greece and Rome to the European Renaissance to early modern Europe in the Age of Discovery, thinkers and scholars attempted to make sense of mythology and the multiplicity of belief from ancient to modern times, in light of their own understanding of the nature of God and the workings of the universe. The Renaissance saw the humanistic attempt to understand mythology as allegories, repositories of ancient wisdom in fable form which conveyed essential religious truths to those discerning enough to perceive them. Then, missionaries to the New World and theologians wrestled with the fact that vast numbers of human beings had no knowledge of the biblical God or of Jesus Christ. They attempted to reconcile this with their beliefs about God’s justice and mercy by recasting pagan myths as expressions of natural theology.

The years leading up to the Enlightenment saw another significant shift in ways of thinking, a rationalist approach that we now associate with the rise of skepticism and the scientific method. In the decades straddling the turn of the 17th century, Huguenot scholar Pierre Bayle, French scientist and writer Bernard de Fontanelle, and British freethinker and religious critic John Toland offered their own critical approaches to the myths of the ancients and of the New World.

‘…People began, in various countries, to write histories in a more reasonable manner and generally with more verisimilitude. So no new fables appear; people are satisfied with preserving the old ones. But can this ever stop those who are infatuated with antiquity? They imagine to themselves that under the fables are hidden secrets of the physical and moral world (Fontanelle 18)’

In On the Origin of Fables, Pierre Bayle (1647–1706) applies ‘natural reason’ and Aristotelian method to myths and ancient philosophy to determine whether they are worthy of belief or useful in promoting a rational understanding of God and the world. Bayle’s approach is to offer critical examinations of particular myths. Through these examples, Bayle intends to demonstrate that mythology is not a vessel of truth, allegorical or otherwise. For one, he considers the ancient Greek philosopher Anaximenes’ idea that the gods were produced by the air, which is the primary and original cause of everything. Bayle rejects this idea as absurd because natural reason doesn’t allow us to believe that a thing’s efficient cause (Aristotle’s term for that which is responsible for another thing’s state of being) to be inferior to that which gave rise to it (Bayle 110). Even more ridiculous, for Bayle, is the idea that a non-thinking thing like air could give rise to a thinking thing like a god (p 113). (I suspect that Bayle would have little use for the theory of evolution.) Other myths such as the birth of Venus, who arose from the foam created when Saturn cut off his father Chaos’ genitalia and threw them into the sea, or that  thunder and lightning is caused by Jupiter’s hurling thunderbolts to earth, aren’t only immoral and brutish, but entirely useless for understanding the rationality of the universe.

Bernard de Fontenelle (1657-1757) sees mythology as the product of the childishness of the human mind at the dawn of reason. When humans observed some amazing or unexpected thing that they couldn’t explain, they naturally embellished it a little so that they could (Fontanelle 11). These embellishments often consisted of positing beings with human-like capacities causing the phenomenon in some recognizable way. Fontanelle, like Bayle, uses the example of thunder and lightning, a mysterious phenomenon that could be explained by imagining a being very like a human but more powerful, who throws arrows of fire like humans do but much larger ones from higher up (p 11-12). He also uses the example of rivers: they originate somewhere, so why not from pitchers like these we use to make water flow? (p 11) But to make rivers, the being(s) who pour the pitchers must have much larger ones, with added power that can keep them flowing plentifully and with force. With each subsequent retelling of these stories, they took on more and more fantastic elements they passed from one person to the other (Consider Michel de Montaigne’s passage about un/reliable testimony in his essay ‘Of Cannibals’), resulting in elaborate and fantastic myths.

But Fontanelle doesn’t judge these almost accidental mythmakers harshly; rather, he makes an interesting and astute observation: it’s actually harder to adhere strictly to the truth than to embellish a tale, especially when it’s about something exciting. It’s harder because 1) ‘our imagination gets heated up with its subject’ (Fontanelle 11) and begins to elaborate the tale all on its own and 2) the more marvelous details you add, the more interest, encouragement, and admiration you arouse in your audience. But though rationality is hard and the imagination is lively (p 15), Fontanelle insists that it’s still essential that we resist ignorance. David Hume would later elaborate on Fontanelle’s idea about myths and miracles, making it one of the centerpieces of his skeptical philosophy in his Enquiry concerning Human Understanding.

John Toland’s (1670-1722) theory also cites human ignorance and frailty in the origins of myth, but he offers a less general account. In his view, myths spring from the honor paid to the dead. Worship of the gods is an extension of the respect, fear, and supplication of powerful rulers, warriors, magicians, and so on (Toland 72). He accepts Euhemerus’ idea that the gods of myth refer to real people but that, over time, their origins were forgotten (p 85). Toland observes that the honor paid to the gods closely resemble the honors paid to dead heroes and princes, so he postulates a common origin for these practices.

Toland further explains that the gods, based on exceptional humans now dead, are also based on human ideas and virtues (p 88). Here, both Toland and Bayle reflect the ancient philosopher Xenophanes, who argues that all gods are devised to resemble their creators. If animals had gods too, they would look, act, and have the same mental features as those animals—at least, the strongest, best, most admired animals among them. Fontanelle also takes a Xenophanean view in his description of how the gods evolve over time: the gods of the earliest, most primitive myths were as irrational, lustful, and brutal as the people themselves. But just as societies became more civilized, more rational, and more virtuous, so did the gods (Fontanelle 13).

Fontanelle, Toland, and Bayle all take a rationalist approach to the subject of myth, as they do to the sciences and all other areas of inquiry. All myths and idolatry are born from irrationality, and if we are to understand the world as it really is, as a rational place created and designed by a rational God, it’s important to demonstrate the irrationality of the myths and remove their power to promote irrationality in the general public. This will result in a more rational, moral, and free society.

Bayle, again, takes the approach of examining particular examples of myths to show that their origins are irrational and that they cannot, even as allegory, be seen to impart anything good or true, or to promote understanding in any way. He continues his exploration of ancient ideas about air, this time the myth that equates the goddess Juno with the air. Despite all attempts to understand this myth as a way of understanding a truth about the workings of the world, it does nothing but confuse and confound. Bayle again invokes Aristotle, who says that if it’s a thinking being, it must have a soul, and if that being is a part of nature and has a soul, it must be an animal. Therefore, if Juno is the air, she’s a sort of animal being constantly being torn and wounded by things passing through her, which he offers as such a patent absurdity that the myth couldn’t possibly promote a rational understanding of nature. (p 117-118)

Fontanelle argues that his time was one of the most intellectually vigorous (p 13), no doubt because he saw it as an age of rationality. He has a progressive view of the human capability for rationality (p 17), and sees it as the way of the world that all human societies will become more rational over time, just as the Greeks did, and just as he suspects that the Native Americans encountered by the Spanish would if given the time to develop their capabilities (p 16). This is consistent with Fontanelle’s view that creation itself is a rational system. It would make sense, then, that the more human beings come to understand it, the more rational they become as well. That’s why it’s a mistake to perpetuate irrationality by continuing to teach the myths through the arts such as poetry, fine arts, and theater (p 17).

Toland argues that a multiplicity of gods and objects of worship, which is characteristic of the less rational belief systems, is correlated with irrationality, less freedom, and more autocracy. The more gods a society creates, the more autocratic and the less free and rational the society – (Toland 98) (Noted scientist and religious skeptic Richard Dawkins would likely point out that in that case, the most free, rational, and democratic societies would have no gods at all.)

‘So [the well-meaning Philosophers] proceeded to explain away the rest of the Gods; and, as Allegorys are as fruitful as our Imaginations, scarce any two Authors cou’d wholly agree in their Opinions. But supposing the Truth of the matter had bin as any or all of ’em wou’d have it, yet their Religion was not a whit the better, and deserv’d to be abolished; since, what ever were the Speculations of a few among the Learned, ‘cis evident that the Vulgar took all these to be very real Gods, of whom they stood in mighty fear, and to whom they paid Divine Adoration…’ (p 122)

So even if the myths could be interpreted as allegories by the learned, their dissemination spread ignorance and irrationality and so did far more harm than good.

‘But if any shou’d wonder how Men cou’d leave the direct and easy Path of Reason ‘ton wander in such inextricable Mazes, let him but consider how in very many and considerable Regions the plain Institution of Jesus Christ cou’d degenerate into the most absurd Doctrins, unintelligible Jargon, ridiculous Practices, and inexplicable Mysterys…’ (p 129)

Bayle goes further than Toland, and believes that myth not only correlates with barbarous societies, but that they promote acceptance of bad behavior. The myth of Jupiter, for example, deifies a being guilty of just about every crime you can think of: murder, rape, incest, lies, and cruelty of every sort (Bayle 107). Fortunately, Bayle observes, most people behave better than the gods of mythology, an observation that extends beyond his close examination of many mythological beliefs.

Fontanelle also observes that belief does not necessarily inform moral convictions or behavior; in fact, they seem to be quite separate:

‘What is strange is that Christians, whose system of religion is so pure, yield almost nothing to the gentiles in respect to engaging in vices. It is a mistake to believe that the moral practice of a religion corresponds to the doctrines of its confession of faith. (p 107)’

People, then as now it seems, accept those religious beliefs that accord with their own principles and moral characters more than the other way around.

~ Thanks to Dr. Felicity Green for inspiration and insight


Bayle, Pierre, ‘Jupiter’, in Historical-Critical Dictionary: Selections [1697], trans. Richard Popkin (Indianapolis, 1991), pp. 107-119.

‘Bernard Le Bovier, sieur de Fontenelle.’ (2017, 25 January), In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from  ; accessed 09 November, 2017.

Falcon, Andrea, “Aristotle on Causality”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Retrieved from ; accessed 09 November, 2017.

Fontenelle, Bernard de, De l’origine des fables [wr. c.1691-99, pub. 1724]. English trans. Of the Origin of Fables by Burton Feldman and Robert D. Richardson, The Rise of Modern Mythology 1680-1860 (Indiana, 1972), pp. 10-18.

‘John Toland’. (2017, 17 August), In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from ; accessed 09 November, 2017.

Lennon, Thomas M. and Hickson, Michael, ‘Pierre Bayle’, In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), ; accessed 09 November 2017

Toland, John, Letters to Serena (London, 1704), part III

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He Died as He Lived: David Hume, Philosopher and Infidel, by Dennis Rasmussen

As the Scottish philosopher David Hume lay on his deathbed in the summer of 1776, his passing became a highly anticipated event. Few people in 18th-century Britain were as forthright in their lack of religious faith as Hume was, and his skepticism had earned him a lifetime of abuse and reproach from the pious, including a concerted effort to excommunicate him from the Church of Scotland. Now everyone wanted to know how the notorious infidel would face his end. Would he show remorse or perhaps even recant his skepticism? Would he die in a state of distress, having none of the usual consolations afforded by belief in an afterlife? In the event, Hume died as he had lived, with remarkable good humour and without religion.

The most famous depiction of Hume’s dying days, at least in our time, comes from James Boswell, who managed to contrive a visit with him on Sunday, 7 July 1776. As his account of their conversation makes plain, the purpose of Boswell’s visit was less to pay his respects to a dying man, or even to gratify a sense of morbid curiosity, than to try to fortify his own religious convictions by confirming that even Hume could not remain a sincere non-believer to the end. In this, he failed utterly.

‘Being too late for church,’ Boswell made his way to Hume’s house, where he was surprised to find him ‘placid and even cheerful … talking of different matters with a tranquility of mind and a clearness of head which few men possess at any time.’ Ever tactful, Boswell immediately brought up the subject of the afterlife, asking if there might not be a future state. Hume replied that ‘it was possible that a piece of coal put upon the fire would not burn; and he added that it was a most unreasonable fancy that we should exist for ever’. Boswell persisted, asking if he was not made uneasy by the thought of annihilation, to which Hume responded that he was no more perturbed by the idea of ceasing to exist than by the idea that he had not existed before he was born. What was more, Hume ‘said flatly that the morality of every religion was bad, and … that when he heard a man was religious, he concluded he was a rascal, though he had known some instances of very good men being religious.’

This interview might show Hume at his brashest, but in the 18th century it remained mostly confined to Boswell’s private notebooks. The most prominent and controversial public account of Hume’s final days came instead from an even more famous pen: that of Adam Smith, Hume’s closest friend. Smith composed a eulogy for Hume soon after the latter’s death in the form of a public letter to their mutual publisher, William Strahan. This letter was effectively the ‘authorised version’ of the story of Hume’s death, as it appeared (with Hume’s advance permission) as a companion piece to his short, posthumously published autobiography, My Own Life (1776).

Smith’s letter contains none of the open impiety that pervades Boswell’s interview, but it does chronicle – even flaunt – the equanimity of Hume’s last days, depicting the philosopher telling jokes, playing cards, and conversing cheerfully with his friends. It also emphasises the excellence of Hume’s character; indeed, Smith concluded the letter by declaring that his unbelieving friend approached ‘as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit’.

Though relatively little known today, in the 18th century Smith’s letter caused an uproar. He later proclaimed that it ‘brought upon me 10 times more abuse than the very violent attack I had made upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain’ – meaning, of course, The Wealth of Nations (1776). Throughout his life, Smith had generally gone to great lengths to avoid revealing much about his religious beliefs – or lack thereof – and to steer clear of confrontations with the devout, but his claim that an avowed skeptic such as Hume was a model of wisdom and virtue ‘gave very great offence’ and ‘shocked every sober Christian’ (as a contemporary commented).

Boswell himself deemed Smith’s letter a piece of ‘daring effrontery’ and an example of the ‘poisonous productions with which this age is infested’. Accordingly, he beseeched Samuel Johnson to ‘step forth’ to ‘knock Hume’s and Smith’s heads together, and make vain and ostentatious infidelity exceedingly ridiculous. Would it not,’ he pleaded, ‘be worth your while to crush such noxious weeds in the moral garden?’

Nor did the controversy subside quickly. Nearly a century later, one prolific author of religious tomes, John Lowrie, was still sufficiently incensed by Smith’s letter to proclaim that he knew ‘no more lamentable evidence of the weakness and folly of irreligion and infidelity’ in ‘all the range of English literature’.

In the 18th century, the idea that it was possible for a skeptic to die well, without undue hopes or fears, clearly haunted many people, including Boswell, who tried to call on Hume twice more after their 7 July conversation in order to press him further, but was turned away. Today, of course, non-believers are still regarded with suspicion and even hatred in some circles, but many die every day with little notice or comment about their lack of faith. It takes a particularly audacious and outspoken form of non-belief – more akin to the Hume of Boswell’s private interview than to the Hume of Smith’s public letter – to arouse much in the way of shock or resentment, of the kind that attended the death of Christopher Hitchens some years ago. (Indeed, there were a number of comparisons drawn between Hitchens and Hume at the time.) The fact that in the 18th century Smith endured vigorous and lasting abuse for merely reporting his friend’s calm and courageous end offers a stark reminder of just how far we have come in this regard.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Dennis Rasmussen is an associate professor in the department of political science at Tufts University in Massachusetts. He is the author of The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought (2017). (Bio credit: Aeon)

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