Collins, Anthony (1676–1729)
Anthony Collins, the English deist, freethinker, theologian, and philosopher, was born at Hounslow, near London, the son of Henry Collins, a well-to-do gentleman. Anthony Collins was educated at Eton and at King's College, Cambridge, and for a while was a student in the Temple. This training in the law later enabled him to maintain an excellent reputation for many years as justice of the peace and deputy lieutenant in Middlesex and in Essex. He was married twice to daughters of the landed gentry. A devoted admirer of John Locke both as philosopher and as writer on religion, Collins, aged twenty-seven, made the pilgrimage to Oates early in 1703 to meet the master, then aged seventy. They were strongly attracted to one another. Later that year Locke wrote poignantly to Collins: "You complain of a great many defects [in yourself] and that complaint is the highest recommendation I could desire to make me love and esteem you and desire your friendship. And if I were now setting out in the world, I should think it my great happiness to have such a companion as you, who had a true relish of truth … and, if I mistake not you have as much of it as I ever met with in anybody." In his will Locke left Collins a legacy of £110 and some books and maps, and named him one of three trustees of his estate. Collins arranged tributes to the master that appeared in 1708 as Some Familiar Letters between Mr. Locke and several of his friends and in 1720 as A Collection of Several Pieces of Mr John Locke, published by M. Des Maizeaux under the direction of Mr Anthony Collins.
By that time Collins had made a lasting, if at the time a notorious, name for himself through a series of outspoken yet restrained publications, all of which were anonymous (although most sophisticated readers were aware of the author's identity). The more important include An Essay concerning the Use of Reason in Propositions, the Evidence wherof depends upon Human Testimony (1707); Priestcraft in Perfection: Or, A Detection of the Fraud of Inserting and Continuing this Clause (The Church hath Power to Decree Rites and Ceremonys, and Authority in Controversys in Faith) In the Twentieth Article of the Articles of the Church of England (1710); A Discourse of Free-Thinking, Occasion'd by the Rise and Growth of a Sect call'd Free-Thinkers (1713; actually published late in 1712); A Philosophical Inquiry concerning Human Liberty (1715).
In 1711 Collins made the first of many visits to Holland, where he met numerous men of intellect. Soon after the appearance of the Discourse of Free-Thinking, with accompanying public uproar, Collins visited Holland briefly, possibly for reasons of prudence. His later major works include A Discourse of the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion (1724), which elicited thirty-five replies within two years and which Bishop Warburton later named one of the most plausible books ever written against Christianity, admitting that the replies might have been left to confute one another; The Scheme of Literal Prophecy Considered (The Hague, 1725; London, 1726), a sequel to the Discourse; A Discourse concerning Ridicule and Irony in Writing (1727); and the Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity (1729). This last, together with the earlier Philosophical Inquiry concerning Human Liberty, constitutes a powerful statement of the doctrine of necessitarianism. By and large, it is to be noted, the English deists upheld the freedom of the will.
During all this time Collins carried on vigorous, frequently witty, controversies with—to name but a few—Henry Dodwell the elder, famous nonjurist; and such clerical antagonists as Richard Bentley, the classical scholar; Samuel Clarke, the rationalist; and William Whiston, the biblical literalist. His health weakened by repeated attacks of the stone, Collins died late in 1729 and was buried in Oxford chapel. It is said that despite a lifetime of controversy, he was never attacked on the basis of his character. Collins represents the philosophical skeptic in the true sense of the word.
The right and the necessity to inquire freely and fearlessly into all subjects, especially religion, was Collins's constant and fundamental thesis. Its master statement is the Discourse of Free-Thinking, but it was adumbrated in two earlier works. The Essay concerning the Use of Reason makes the point that reason is "that faculty of the Mind whereby it perceives the Truth, Falsehood, Probability or Improbability of Propositions." Truth and falsehood are known rationalistically and are certain. Probability may take the form of opinion when discovered by reason or of faith when perceived by testimony. Testimony is the foundation of much of our knowledge but can never impugn the natural (rationalistic) notions implanted in the mind of man. The Bible, consequently, is not to be taken seriously when it portrays God in human terms; certain parts of the Bible are to be accepted, while others are to be rejected. Thus, Collins combined Locke's arguments for the reasonableness of Christianity and morality and religious principles with the rationalistic Common Notions of Lord Herbert of Cherbury. Priestcraft in Perfection carried the attack, common to most deists of the eighteenth century, against the dogmas of established churches. Such dogmas, Collins argued, must be viewed as fraudulent when contrary to reason. The appeal to mystery and to things above reason simply will not do.
The title page of the Discourse of Free-Thinking is embellished with several quotations: one from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament, one from Cicero, and one from the earl of Shaftesbury. The influence of Shaftesbury is apparent throughout, but Collins was less hesitant to employ the method of ridicule (as is fully attested in the Discourse concerning Ridicule and Irony in Writing ). The general definition of the right to think freely was applied mainly to religion. Collins pointed out that the new science and the new philosophy had exposed many errors of the past; the Reformation was the result of fearless thinking on the part of a few leaders; the abundant literature of travel exposed the superstitions of peoples throughout the world and also the infinite numbers of pretenders to divine revelation. Freedom had exorcised the witches that so plagued James I and Charles I: "great numbers of witches have been almost annually executed in England, from the remotest antiquity to the late Revolution; when the liberty given and taken to think freely, the Devil's power visibly declin'd, and England as well as the United Provinces ceas'd to be any part of his Christian territories." (The "Witches Act" of 1603 was to be repealed in 1736.)
With tongue in cheek, Collins suggested that the Society for Propagating the Gospel in Foreign Parts was really a freethinking organization because infidels must be asked to examine and to reject their native traditional religions in order to accept true religion. He further suggested that such zealous divines as Francis Atterbury, George Smalridge, and Jonathan Swift be drafted annually for this enterprise in the same manner as "military missionarys." The argument then turned against the priests of all ages who are responsible for quibbling about biblical interpretations and end up calling one another atheists. The Bible, Collins continued, is clearly replete with corrupted texts—30,000 in the New Testament alone, according to one authority. Its text, therefore, is to be examined in the same scholarly and critical manner as the texts of all ancient books. The Discourse concluded with a refutation of the standard objections to freethinking. Atheism is not, after all, the worst of all evils; enthusiasm and superstition hold that title, according to Francis Bacon. Cicero was quoted to confute the claim that some false ideas are necessary for the good of society (an early version of the Marxian notion of religion as the opiate of the people). A long list of freethinkers was given, including Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Plutarch, Cicero, and Seneca among the ancient pagans; Solomon and the prophets of the Old Testament; Josephus, the Pharisee; Origen, the Church Father; and, among the moderns, Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and Archbishop Tillotson ("whom all English free-thinkers own as their head"). Collins then asserted that he might well have added other names, such as Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, René Descartes, Hugo Grotius, Richard Hooker, Lord Falkland, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, John Milton, Ralph Cudworth, Sir William Temple, and the master, Locke. All enemies of freethinking were branded crackbrained and enthusiastical, malicious, ambitious, inhumane, ignorant, or brutal—or courters of priests, women, and the mob.
The Discourse of the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion and the Scheme of Literal Prophecy Considered follow the rational, scholarly methods for biblical criticism described earlier, but concentrate on the question of the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies in the New Testament. The most cogent attacks are on the virgin prophecy in the book of Isaiah and the unusually specific prophecies in the book of Daniel. In both works Collins pursued the theme of the necessity of thinking freely and went out of his way to defend the right of Whiston, one of his chief adversaries, to think freely—although wrongly, as he saw it—about prophecy. Whiston was a literalist, and Collins had no great difficulty and no little sport in pointing out the absurdities to which Whiston was driven. Collins himself had promised to investigate the miracles of the New Testament but was unable to do so before his final illness and death, and the task fell to Thomas Woolston.
Like John Toland before them, Collins and Woolston forced the issue of the scriptural canon upon the orthodox and opened the way in England for historical criticism.
Attfield, Robin. "Clarke, Collins and Compounds." Journal of the History of Philosophy 15 (1977): 45–54.
Berman, David. "Anthony Collins: His Thought and Writings." Hermathena (1975): 49–70.
Bibliotheca Anthony Collins. London, 1732.
Broome, J. H. "Une Collaboration: Anthony Collins et Desmaizeaux." Revue de littérature comparée 30 (1956): 161–179.
Cranston, Maurice. John Locke, A Biography, 460–477. London: Longmans Green, 1957. The Collins-Locke friendship.
Disraeli, Isaac. Curiosities of Literature. Vol. III, 333–343. Boston: Veazie, 1860.
Dybikowski, James. "Anthony Collins (1676–1729)." In British Philosophers, 1500–1799 (Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 252), edited by Peter Fosl. Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale, 2002.
Dybikowski, James. "Anthony Collins' Defense of Free-Thinking." In Scepticism, Clandestinity and Free-Thinking, edited by Gianni Paganini. Paris: Champion, 2002.
Hahn, Joseph. Voltaires Stellung sur Frage der menschlichen Freiheit in ihrem Verhältnis sur Locke und Collins. Borna and Leipzig, 1905.
Nichols, John. Illustrations of the Literary History of the Eighteenth Century. Vol. II, 148–150. London: Nichols and Bentley, 1817.
Snobelen, Stephen. "The Argument over Prophecy: An Eighteenth-Century Debate between William Whiston and Anthony Collins." Lumen 15 (1996): 195–213.
Thorschmid, Urban G. Critische Lebensgeschichte Anton Collins. Dresden and Leipzig, 1755.
See also the general bibliography to the Deism entry.
Ernest Campbell Mossner (1967)
Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)
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