Blount, Charles (1654–1693)
Charles Blount was an English deist, freethinker, and controversial writer on religion and politics. He was born at Upper Holloway, and was educated under the supervision of his father, Sir Henry Blount, traveler and author of Voyage to the Levant (1636). A disciple of Lord Herbert of Cherbury ("father of English deism") and of Thomas Hobbes, Blount is commonly regarded as the second English deist. Although not particularly original, he was the first popularizer of deistic thought. By artful writing—associating himself not only with Lord Herbert and Hobbes but also with John Dryden, Dr. Thomas Sydenham, Bishop Thomas Burnet, and Sir Thomas Browne—and by family influence, Blount was able to steer clear of prosecution under the Licensing Act and the blasphemy laws.
In 1679 Blount began a career of publication with Anima Mundi: or an Historical Narration of The Opinions of the Ancients concerning Man's Soul after this Life: According to Unenlightened Nature, a collection from pagan writers concerning disbelief in immortality. This was shortly followed by The Last Sayings, or Dying Legacy of Mr. Thomas Hobbs of Malmsbury, who departed this Life on Thursday, December 4th, 1679 (1680). This work is a compilation of some of Hobbes's rationalistic (deistic) passages on religion: For example, "To say he [man] speaks by supernatural inspiration, is to say he finds an ardent desire to speak, or some strong opinion of himself, for the which he can alledge no natural reason"; "He that believes a thing only because it may be so, may as well doubt of it, because it may be otherwise."
Also in 1680 Blount published an oblique attack on priestcraft in Great Is Diana of the Ephesians, or the Original of Idolatry, Together with the Politick Institution of the Gentiles Sacrifices. In the same year there appeared his ironic survey of a sham pagan miracle-maker in The Two First Books of Philostratus concerning the Life of Apollonius Tyaneus, written originally in Greek, with philological notes upon each chapter. In 1683 Blount published Religio Laici, "Written in a Letter to John Dryden, Esq.," whose poem of the same name had appeared the previous year. Blount's work, long supposed to have been derived from Lord Herbert's prose tract of 1645 also titled Religio Laici, is now known to be much more closely related to a similarly titled manuscript of Lord Herbert's, unpublished until 1933. In his tract, Blount, under the guise of defending universal or natural religion, attacked by indirection the whole concept of a particular revelation. Attributed to Blount (by Antony a Wood) was the free translation (1683) of Chapter VI of Benedict de Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (in Latin, 1670; in English, 1689), under the title of Miracles No Violations of the Laws of Nature, which emphasized the Spinozistic interpretation of biblical miracles as natural phenomena or metaphorical or exaggerated language.
The appearance of Bishop Thomas Burnet's Archaeologiae Philosophicae (Latin and English versions in 1692) gave Blount the welcome opportunity to "vindicate" the pseudoscientific and allegorical attempts of the writer to explain certain delicate problems in the early chapters of Genesis. Writing in the form of a letter to Charles Gildon, Blount cited the authority of Sir Thomas Browne that "there are in Scripture stories that do exceed the Fables of Poets" and proceeded to ridicule Burnet's amiable rendition of the conversation between Eve and the Serpent, and his handling of such questions as "how out of only one rib a woman's whole body could be built" and "what language Adam spoke in the first hour of his nativity in naming the animals." This work, edited by Gildon, appeared in 1693, the year of Blount's death, in The Oracles of Reason. Another letter in the same collection from Blount to Dr. Thomas Sydenham is prefixed to A Summary Account of the Deist's Religion, wherein the worship of God by means of images and sacrifices or through a mediator is impugned and worship by imitation of God's perfections is upheld.
Blount, a Whig, was also active on the political front. Derived from John Milton's Areopagitica, his A Just Vindication of Learning, And the Liberty of the Press, and Reasons humbly offered for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing were published in 1693. A third work of the same year, written under the pseudonym "Junius Brutus," was a master stroke demonstrating the futility of licensing. It was titled King William and Queen Mary Conquerors: Or, A Discourse Endeavouring to prove that their Majesties have on Their Side, against the Late King, the Principal Reasons that make Conquest a Good Title, and Blount duped the Tory licenser, Edmund Bohun, into granting permission to publish. By order of the House of Commons the work was burnt by the common hangman, and Bohun was dismissed in disgrace (Thomas Macaulay makes much of the incident in Chapter 19 of his History of England ).
In this year of triumph Blount let emotionalism get the better of rationalism and committed suicide over hopeless love for his deceased wife's sister, who would not agree to a marriage deemed illegal by the Church of England.
See also Deism.
The nearest approach to a collection of Blount's works is Miscellaneous Works (London, 1695), edited by Charles Gildon with a life of Blount and a justification of his suicide. But see J. S. L. Gilmour, "Some Uncollected Authors XVII: Charles Blount," in Book Collector 7 (1958): 182–187.
Modern studies of Blount include Harold R. Hutcheson, "Lord Herbert and the Deists," in Journal of Philosophy 43 (1946): 219–221; Eugene R. Purpus, "Some Notes on a Deistical Essay Attributed to Dryden," in Philological Quarterly 30 (1950): 342–349; George F. Sensabaugh, "Adaptations of Areopagitica," in Huntington Library Quarterly 13 (1950): 201–205; J. A. Redwood, "Charles Blount (1654–93), Deism, and English Free Thought." in Journal of the History of Ideas 35 (1974): 490–498.
See also the general bibliography under the Deism entry.
Ernest Campbell Mossner (1967)
Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)