Bolingbroke, Henry St. John (1678–1751)

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Henry St. John Bolingbroke, the English Tory statesman, orator, man of letters, friend of the Augustan wits, libertine, and deist, was born at Battersea, the son of Sir Henry St. John and Lady Mary Rich, daughter of the second earl of Warwick. After early schooling by his paternal grandmother, he was educated at Eton and, putatively, at Christ Church, Oxford, for in 1702 he was made an honorary doctor of Oxford. He had made the customary dissipated grand tour, 16981699, but he also mastered several languages and studied the history and customs of the lands he visited. In 1701 he became M.P. for the family borough of Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire. His eloquence and brilliance soon made him a leader of the Tory party. With the help of Robert Harley, he became secretary at war in 1704, but resigned in protest over the dismissal of Harley in 1708. The growing unpopularity of the "Whiggish" War of the Spanish Succession brought Harley back into power in 1710, and Bolingbroke joined the new Tory ministry as secretary of state. Two years later he was created Viscount Bolingbroke and was one of the negotiators of the Treaty of Utrecht signed in 1713. Following the accession of George I in 1714, Bolingbroke and the other Tory ministers were dismissed from office. In 1715 he fled to France to take political asylum for alleged Jacobitism. In 1723 he was pardoned, and he spent the remainder of his life living variously in England and in France.


Some of Bolingbroke's political writings appeared in the Tory periodical the Craftsman between 1726 and 1736; but most others, including the philosophical, were published posthumously in 1754 by David Mallet in an edition of five quarto volumes. This publication elicited Dr. Johnson's famous attack on this "blunderbuss against religion and morality." David Hume's reaction is less well known but more pertinent:

Lord Bolingbroke's posthumous Productions have at last convinc'd the whole World, that he ow'd his Character chiefly to his being a man of Quality, & to the Prevalence of Faction. Never were so many Volumes, containing so little Variety & Instruction: so much Arrogance & Declamation. The Clergy are all enrag'd against him; but they have no Reason. Were they never attack'd by more forcible Weapons than his, they might for ever keep Possession of their Authority.

political and historical works

Bolingbroke's contributions to the Craftsman exhibit much vigorous political writing, including Remarks on the History of England and Dissertation on Parties. Other tracts, political and historical, are On the True Use of Retirement and Study, On the Spirit of Patriotism, and Letters on the Study and Use of History, the last of which made famous the maxim, "History is philosophy teaching by examples." The Idea of a Patriot King also became famous because of its use in the education of the future George III. Matthew Arnold was to lament that Bolingbroke's historical writings were unduly neglected. Unfortunately, the neglect of his philosophical writings is less to be regretted.

philosophical writings

Bolingbroke made much of the antithesis between nature and art; that is, the alleged superiority of a pure state of nature over the evils of civil society. Edmund Burke, who wrote his Vindication of Natural Society (1756) as an imitation of Bolingbroke's style and as an ironic refutation of this antithesis, asked rhetorically in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790): "Who now reads Bolingbroke? Who ever read him through?" The long-held myth of Voltaire's great indebtedness to Bolingbroke has been completely disproved by N. L. Torrey. A similar claim of Alexander Pope's great indebtedness has been vigorously challenged by Maynard Mack, who presents evidence that Bolingbroke's Fragments or Minutes of Essays were composed later than the Essay on Man. There is, however, no question that Pope discussed many matters with his "Guide, Philosopher, and Friend." With the single exception of Peter Annet, Bolingbroke was the last of the distinguished group of English deists beginning with Lord Herbert of Cherbury; but he proves somewhat of a disappointment to students of the history of ideas. Scrappy and unsystematic in his presentations, he is replete with contradictions. Despite recent attempts, especially by D. G. James and W. McMerrill, to take Bolingbroke's philosophy more seriously than has been customary, candor demands the conclusion that, although his style is more eloquent than that of most other deists, he contributed little or nothing original to the movement. This is not, however, to accuse him of plagiarism; for his ideas were part and parcel of the Augustan climate of opinion.

Despite frequent use of the name of John Locke (a device used by many deists), Bolingbroke was an unmitigated but curiously inconsistent rationalist. At one moment he asserts that the existence of Deity can and must be proved empirically, and at the next he asserts that only Right Reason can demonstrate the existence of Deity. He wrote Reflections concerning Innate Moral Principles to prove that compassion or benevolence is founded on reason alone. Unlike many of the deists, he was a metaphysical optimist, explaining away the evils of the universe and arguing that it is for man the best of all possible worlds despite the sufferings of individuals. He did not, however, believe that immortality and a future state of rewards and punishments can be proved by reason; and, although he accepted God as spirit, he was a materialist insofar as man is concerned.

He believed that there is no separation between soul and body and that at death man is annihilated; even in life, there is no communication between divine spirit and human matter.

Bolingbroke's concept of Natural Religion was essentially the same as the Common Notions of Lord Herbert of Cherbury. Yet with all his insistence on a priori reason, he lamented time and again that reason is fallible and must be corrected by a return to the primitive religions, particularly those of China and Egypt. Like all the deists, he was contemptuous of priestcraft and, despite his rationalism, of metaphysics. His criticism of Christian revelation is much like Matthew Tindal's, and the insinuation is that any revelation that is not universal is unnecessary.

In sum, Bolingbroke was more the orator than the philosopher. There is, however, considerable truth in his statement that "There is no reason to banish eloquence out of philosophy; and truth and reason are no enemies to the purity, nor to the ornaments of language." He considered Plato, Nicolas Malebranche, and George Berkeley as poets, not philosophers, and his own best defense is the eloquence he admired.

See also Annet, Peter; Arnold, Matthew; Berkeley, George; Burke, Edmund; Deism; Herbert of Cherbury; Hume, David; Johnson, Samuel; Locke, John; Malebranche, Nicolas; Plato; Pope, Alexander; Tindal, Matthew; Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de.


primary works

A Collection of Political Tracts, 2nd ed. London: B. Francklin, 1748.

Letters on the Study and Use of History. London: T. Cadell, 1770.

The Works of Lord Bolingbroke, 4 vols. New York: A. M. Kelley, 1967.

Political Writings. Edited by David Armitage. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

secondary works

Dickinson, H. T. Bolingbroke. London: Constable, 1970.

Harkness, Sir Douglas. Bolingbroke: The Man and His Career. London: Staples Press, 1957.

James, D. G. The Life of Reason: Hobbes, Locke, Bolingbroke. London: Longmans, Green, 1949.

Kramnick, Isaac. Bolingbroke and His Circle: The Politics of Nostalgia in the Age of Walpole. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968.

Mansfield, Harvey C., Jr. Statesmanship and Party Government: A Study of Burke and Bolingbroke. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.

McMerrill, Walter. From Statesman to Philosopher: A Study in Bolingbroke's Deism. New York: Philosophical Library, 1949.

Nadel, George H. "New Light on Bolingbroke's Letters on History. " Journal of the History of Ideas 23 (1962): 550557.

Petrie, Sir Charles. Bolingbroke. London: Collins, 1937.

Pope, Alexander. An Essay on Man. Edited by Maynard Mack. London: Methuen, 1951.

Sichel, Walter. Bolingbroke and His Times, 2 vols. London: J. Nisbet, 1901.

Torrey, Norman L. "Chubb and Bolingbroke: Minor Influences." In Voltaire and the English Deists. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1930.

Ernest Campbell Mossner (1967)

Bibliography updated by Philip Reed (2005)

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Bolingbroke, Henry St. John (1678–1751)

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