Herbert of Cherbury (c. 1582–1648)

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(c. 15821648)

Edward Herbert, the first Baron Herbert of Cherbury, courtier, soldier, diplomat, poet, historian, philosopher, and theologian, was the brother of George Herbert (15931633), the pastor and poet. He matriculated at University College, Oxford, in 1596. He moved to London in 1600, where he continued his studies and attracted the attention of the aging Queen Elizabeth. On his accession to the throne of England James I created him a knight. As a young man Herbert traveled on the Continent, on occasion being involved in warfare where he showed what some judged bravery and others foolhardiness. Visiting Rome, he called at the English College and showed his undogmatic spirit when he told a person whom he met there that while he was not a Roman Catholic, he judged that "the points agreed on both sides are greater bonds of amity betwixt us, than the points disagreed on" (The Life of Edward Lord Herbert of Cherbury, Written by Himself, p.105).

In 1619 he was appointed ambassador to the French court. In this post he showed himself to be a skillful diplomat who was prepared to use his own initiative and to give sensible, even if unpalatable, advice to his government. In 1624 he was recalled. The Crown failed to reimburse his debts as ambassador but sought to satisfy him with peerages, first the Irish barony of Castle Island, and later the English barony of Cherbury. In vain attempts to recover royal favor Herbert wrote two histories. The first, Expeditio in Ream Insulam (published posthumously in 1656), tries to defend the Duke of Buckingham's conduct in an English invasion of the Isle de Rhé in 1627 that was intended to support the Huguenots. Unsurprisingly in view of what happened on the expedition, it is not a convincing defense. The other was The Life and Raigne of King Henry the Eighth (1649), in preparing which he used official archives. It was long regarded as an authoritative study.

Although a member of Charles I's Council of War, Herbert sought as far as possible to avoid playing an active part in the English Civil War. He surrendered Montgomery Castle, where he was living, to Parliamentary forces when they augmented their challenge with the threat to sell the library that he possessed in London. Soon after, he moved to London and died there in 1648. He was buried, as he directed, without "shew of mourning" at midnight. In a lively and somewhat tongue-in-cheek autobiography, The Life of Edward Lord Herbert of Cherbury, Written by Himself (originally published by Horace Walpole in 1764), he tells the story of his life and escapades up to his recall from France in 1624. His main claims to fame in the history of thought lie in his philosophical views (for which he is justifiably known as the first English author of a purely metaphysical study and for which he was respected as well as criticized by Hugo Grotius, Pierre Gassendi, and René Descartes) and in his religious thought (in which he produced a pioneer work on the study of other religions, and for which he has traditionally, but arguably inaccurately, been described as "the father of English deism").

Philosophical Thought

During his ambassadorship Herbert completed his major philosophical work, De Veritate, Prout Distinguitur a Revelatione, a Verisimili, a Possibili, et a Falso (On truth, in distinction from revelation, probability, possibility, and error), and had it privately printed in Paris in 1624. In this work he seeks to show, contrary to the doubts of "imbeciles and sceptics," that "Truth exists" (De Veritate, p. 83).

Although he was in touch with contemporary scholars, although his works show wide knowledge of classical, scholastic, and Renaissance literature and of hermetic literature, and although his arguments are sometimes less than persuasive, Herbert should not be seen as an eclectic thinker who merely puts forward a collection of sometimes discordant ideas that happen to attract him. Conflicts between his ideas are rather due to a failure to be sufficiently thorough in developing his innovative position.

the nature of truth

On the title page of the second and third editions of De Veritate, Herbert dedicated his work to "every reader of sound and unprejudiced judgement" (this was different from the first edition, which had been grander in its amusingly presumptuous dedication to "the whole human race without qualification"), regarding himself as an original thinker who thinks "freely" and recognizes only the authority of "right reason," and using what is at times rather infelicitous Latin, Herbert aims to determine the nature of truth and the way in which it is identified by "every normal human being." He regards such an investigation as necessary if people are to know how to avoid the errors of skepticism, dogmatism, and fideism that corrupt current thought and lead some to hold that "we can know nothing," and others that "we can know everything."

Although Herbert regards right reason as the final judge of what is true, he also puts forward a doctrine of universal consent as the criterion for truth. He defends this doctrine on the grounds that universal consent must be due to the work of Providence, and hence what receives it cannot be doubted. The doctrine is somewhat paradoxical, however, since the need for some such criterion only arises where people do not agree about what is true, and hence where there is no universal consent about the matter. Herbert's views on this issue reflect the question-begging nature of his appeal to the authority of right reason: those who disagree with him about what receives universal consent may be ignored because their disagreement shows that they are not people of "sound and unprejudiced judgement" who are clearly following the dictates of right reason. It also reflects his conviction that the overall providence of God prevents what is erroneous from receiving universal consent.

the doctrine of the 'faculties.'

Herbert rejects the notion of the mind as a passive blank sheet on which the objects of its knowledge make their impressions. Nevertheless, while he holds that what people truly know is determined by the structure and activity of their minds, he seeks to show that what is known is, as common sense maintains, what is actually the case. To do this he puts forward his doctrine of the faculties, using the term faculty to refer to an internal power of the mind that links a particular perception with a particular object. According to this doctrine an object, whether intellectual or physical, is perceivable as such, and only so perceivable, because there is a corresponding faculty preestablished in the mind. Within the mind of each person there are as many latent faculties as there are differentiable objects, and the existence of a faculty shows the existence of a corresponding object. Defining truth as "a matter of conformity between objects and faculties" (De Veritate, p. 78), Herbert maintains that true knowledge of an object occurs when the appropriate latent faculty is activated. He also claims that an inner sense of satisfaction shows when an object has been correctly perceived by its corresponding faculty.

Herbert distinguishes between four classes of truth and between four types of faculty. According to the former division, the four classes of truth are: the truth of things as they are in themselves, the truth of how things manifest themselves to people, the truth of concepts that differentiate between things, and the truth of judgments on the deliverances of the other faculties. The four types of faculty are natural instinct, internal apprehension, external apprehension, and discursive thought. The first of these, natural instinct, is described as "that mode of apprehension which springs from the faculties which conform to the Common Notions" (De Veritate, p. 115). These common notions are implanted in people by God. They are therefore all present, even if in many cases only latent, in every sane and whole person. The common notions are characterized by the qualities of priority, independence, universality, certainty, necessity (for one's preservation), and "the way of conformation" [De Veritate, p. 139141] (in the sense of being immediately recognized and not needing to be warranted by discursive thinking). When brought to consciousness through appropriate stimulation, the common notions are acknowledged by all reasonable people as the normative principles for discerning what is true and good and for exposing what is false and bad.

As Herbert himself admits, the forms of the second type of faculty, internal apprehension, are not easily distinguished from those of the natural instinct. What characterizes them is that they concern a person's active response to particular objects. They may be spiritual, bodily, excited by external objects, or mixed. Under the guidance of the natural instinct, they make judgments about what is good and what is evil. Conscience is the highest of them. It applies the common notions to individual cases and is only satisfied when the faculties are correctly adjusted to what is the case. It is also through this faculty that people sense what is erroneous. External apprehension, the third type of faculty, concerns the ways by which people become aware of the external characteristics of objects and of their relationships with each other. Although most of Herbert's discussion of this kind of apprehension is concerned with the conventional five senses, he denies that there are only these five external modes of apprehension. He maintains that each sense is a channel for many external forms of apprehension since there are as many forms of apprehension as there are differences between objects.

The final type of faculty, discursive thought, is peculiar to humankind. It draws inferences from what comes to be known through the other faculties. It is more liable to error than they are, and so its findings are not to be preferred to what they directly discover. To establish the proper limits and methods of discursive reasoning, Herbert presents what he calls Zetetica and Euretica (the terms seem to have been coined by him, presumably from the Greek words for "to seek for" and "to discover"). These rules of reasoning appear to be indebted to Aristotelian logic. According to Herbert right reasoning proceeds by asking the appropriate faculties ten questions about the object of enquiry, namely, whether it exists, what it is, what kind of object it is, what its size is, to what it is related, and how, when, where, whence, and why it exists. Herbert assures his readers that by using this method complete and true knowledge of an object will be obtained.

probability, possibility, and error

De Veritate closes by considering probability, possibility, and error. The first of these deals with knowledge of the past, in the course of which discussion Herbert indicates the insecurity of beliefs based on historical judgments, the second with knowledge of the future, and the last with the sources of wrong judgments. In 1645 Herbert published De Causis Errorum: Una cum Tractatu de Religione Laici, et Appendice ad Sacerdotes, nec non quibusdam Poematibus (Concerning the causes of errors, with a treatise concerning religion for the laity, and an appendix to priests, with certain poems), some copies of which were bound in an enlarged, third edition of the De Veritate. It does not add significantly to the epistemological discussions in the earlier work. Errors and fallacies are held to be the result of failing to satisfy the conditions for grasping the truth laid down in De Veritate.

Religious Thought

Herbert's thought is probably most widely known for his discussion of the common notions concerning religion. This was included in his treatment of common notions in De Veritate and was expanded in later editions. Herbert holds that the criterion for true religious belief is not found in some supposed revelation or ecclesiastical authority, but in five common notions. They are that (1) there is a God (Herbert's term for God is Supremum Numen [Highest divinity]); (2) this God ought to be worshipped; (3) the connection of virtue with piety is and always has been the most important part of religious practice; (4) while people are aware of their evils, they can and must expiate them by repentance; and (5) people face reward or punishment after this life. These common notions are, for Herbert, the foundation of the true catholic or universal church that covers all humanity and the only authentic source of salvation.

In De Religione Laici (On religion for the laity; 1645) Herbert argues that a layman, using both reason and prayer, can and should decide between competing claims to belief by choosing that religion whose doctrines and practices are closest to the five common notions of religion discerned by the natural instinct. Commands about what is to be believed and practiced that have supposedly been imparted to people by revelation and transmitted by tradition should only be regarded as credible if they are consistent with the common notions. Religious persecution, the pretensions of priestcraft, and restricted schemes of salvation are to be rejected. Authentic religion is realized in a virtuous life that conforms to the common notions of religion. This is fundamentally, if sometimes obscurely, recognized by people of right reason everywhere and at all times. According to Herbert De Religione Laici is written, not "with a mind hostile to the best religion," but to make clear what follows from holding that "universal divine providence" is "the highest attribute of God" (De Religione Laici, p. 125). In the attached Appendix ad Sacerdotes Herbert reaffirms his argument that God, as a universal providence, must have provided all people with the means of salvation and that these are found in the common notions. Nothing more is needed. Additions to them, whether proposed by priests or the Bible, are to be judged unnecessary.

Herbert wrote two works, both published posthumously, in which he attempts to justify his claim that people everywhere and all times recognize the truth and normative status of the common notions of religion. The first of these, De Religione Gentilium (On the religion of the Gentiles), first published in 1663 (with an English translation by William Lewis appearing in 1705 entitled The Ancient Religions of the Gentiles and Causes of Their Errors Consider'd ), is a pioneering work in the English study of other faiths. In it Herbert seeks to show that the evidence about religious belief and practice, which he derives for the most part from classical authors although there are some references to more recent reports, confirms that the common notions of religion are acknowledged everywhere. Evidence that seems to contradict this conclusion is rejected, for the most part on the grounds that it either is due to the corrupting effects of priestcraft or arises from a hermeneutical failure to appreciate symbolic usage. Herbert's sympathetic approach to non-Christian faiths did not blind him, however, to evils present in them. The "sound, most ancient and universal parts of religion" have to be abstracted from a vast heap of "superstitious rubbish" (De Religione Gentilium, Lewis translation, p. 292), largely introduced to serve priestly self-interest.

While in De Religione Gentilium Herbert concentrates on the first two common notions of religion, he focuses on evidence about the third and fourth in A Dialogue between A Tutor and His Pupil (published in 1768 and whose text, at least on the whole, is now generally accepted to be correctly ascribed to Herbert). Here again he denounces the corruptions and perversions of priestcraft while defending his conviction that the "five catholick articles" have been universally "engraved" in human "souls by the hand of God" (A Dialogue between a Tutor and His Pupil, p. 105).

Herbert and Deism

As has been mentioned, Herbert has commonly been dubbed "the father of English deism." When examined, the evidence of his thought and practice provides strong grounds for questioning the justification of this description. Apart from the case of Charles Blount (an eclectic and sometimes plagiarizing author), it is not clear that Herbert's views influenced the thought of those later writers commonly said to be deist (itself a designation whose vagueness renders it more misleading than useful as a description when applied to English writers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries).

In his epistemological attempt to find a reasonable way between the dogmatic errors of bigotry and skepticism, Herbert holds that God is a universal providence whose active benevolence influences people's lives, that salvation is available to all through repentance, that prayer is efficacious, that people are to live virtuous lives, and that people have a postmortem personal existence in which they are judged but also may expect to find fulfillment. He does not doubt that divine revelations are given to individuals and, indeed, claims that he only decided to publish De Veritate after praying for and receiving a sign from heaven. At the same time, he does limit the significance of appeals to revelation, gives rules for authenticating them, and points out that there is a crucial difference between what is actually revealed on some occasion and what is passed down as a tradition of historical faith, especially when priests claim to be the authorized bearers of the tradition.

As for the Bible, Herbert is aware that different faiths assert the authority of different sacred books and so holds that what is taught by any of them, including the Bible, is to be judged against, and interpreted in terms of, the common notions of religion, since these alone undoubtedly express "the undoubted pronouncements of God, transcribed in the conscience" (De Religione Laici, p. 101). Rather than having the dubious distinction of being called "the father of English deism," an ascription deriving from eighteenth-century works by Thomas Halyburton (16741712), Philip Skelton (17071787), and John Leland (16911766), it seems more accurate to regard Herbert of Cherbury as a thinker with liberal convictions who attempts to identify an understanding of theistic belief that avoids the gross errors of religious fanaticism and unbelieving skepticism.

See also Blount, Charles; British Philosophy; Deism; Descartes, René; Gassendi, Pierre; Grotius, Hugo; Skepticism; Truth.


works by herbert of cherbury

De Religione Gentilium. Amsterdam: Faksimile-Neudruck der Ausg. Amsterdam, 1663. An English-language translation of this work by William Lewis called The Ancient Religion of the Gentiles and Causes of Their Errors Consider'd was published in London by publisher John Nutt in 1705.

The Life of Edward Lord Herbert of Cherbury, Written by Himself. London: J. Dodsley, 1770.

De Veritate. Translated by Meyrick H. Carré. Bristol, U.K.: J. W. Arrowsmith, 1937.

De Religione Laici. Translated and edited by Harold R. Hutcheson. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1944.

A Dialogue between a Tutor and His Pupil, edited by Günter Gawlick. StuggartBad Cannstatt, Germany: Friedrich Frommann Verlag, 1971.

works about herbert of cherbury

Bedford, R. D. The Defence of Truth: Herbert of Cherbury and the Seventeenth Century. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1979.

Pailin, David A. "Should Herbert of Cherbury Be Regarded as a 'Deist'?" Journal of Theological Studies 51 (1) (2000): 113149.

Sorley, W. R. "The Philosophy of Herbert of Cherbury." Mind 3 (1894): 491508.

Webb, Clement C. J. Studies in the History of Natural Theology. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1915.

David A. Pailin (2005)

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Herbert of Cherbury (c. 1582–1648)

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