A Compendium of Irish Biography/Toland, John

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Toland, John, a theologian, was born at Eskaheen, in the County of Donegal, 30th November 1670. His real name was O'Tuathalain. Harris says that he was baptized Janus Junius. In the preface to his Pantheisticon he signs himself Janus Junius Eoganesius. Before he was sixteen he left the Roman Catholic Church, in the tenets of which he had been educated, and afterwards passed some time successively at the Universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Leyden, and Oxford. By constant reading in the Bodleian Library, he collected the materials for much of his subsequent writings. Early in life he showed that predilection for paradoxes and curious speculations which formed afterwards a marked feature of his literary productions. He became the correspondent of Leibnitz, Le Clerc, and Bayle, and had established a literary reputation almost before he attained man's estate. His first great work, published in 1696, Christianity not Mysterious, was received with great disfavour by the orthodox world. Toland denied that it was designed in any way as an attack on Christianity, but "only on those subtractions, additions, and other alterations, which have corrupted that pure institution." To avoid the storm it caused, he returned to Ireland; but the book preceded him, he was generally avoided, and a jury, some of the members of which confessed they could not comprehend a page of it, condemned the volume to be burned by the common hangman. The sentence was carried into effect in Dublin, in September 1697. He returned to England, and for a time turned his attention to political matters; and as his first work on theology had stamped his religion with something worse than heresy, so his edition of Milton's prose writings branded him as a Commonwealth man. It has been said that with Toland opposition produced controversy, which he loved, and controversy produced books, by which he lived. Yet for a time he renounced his heterodox opinions, and informed the Archbishop of Canterbury that he was willing to reform his religion to the prelate's liking. This apparent change of views cannot be reconciled with the tenor of his after writings. In his Pantheisticon, he describes a society of pantheists, worshipping the universe as God—their prayers, passages from Cicero and Seneca; instead of psalms, chanting long poems. Several liturgies are burlesqued in the book. Notwithstanding his poverty, he occasionally visited the Continent, where he became a favourite with the Electoral Princess Sophia and the Queen of Prussia, to whom he addressed his Letters to Serena, published in 1704. He then completely threw off the mask of orthodoxy. To the discomforts of poverty in his latter days were added the agonies of acute rheumatism. Lord Molesworth contributed somewhat to cheer his dying hours, passed in a poor lodging over a carpenter's shop in Putney. He sustained a philosophical patience to the last, replying to the enquiries of a friend: "I desire but death." He passed away 11th March 1722, aged 51. His property consisted almost solely of 155 volumes piled on four chairs. Disraeli calculates that he did not receive in the aggregate more than £200 for the fifty works he contributed to the literature of his country; this, however, does not accord with the statement that he lived by his literary labours. Toland may be said to have died with the pen in his hand. He avenged himself on an unskilful physician, by leaving behind an Essay on Physic without Physicians; as a dying politician, he had reached as far as the preface of a pamphlet on The Danger of Mercenary Pamphlets; and as a philosopher he composed his own epitaph in Latin, which is thus translated: " A lover of literature, and knowing more than ten languages; a champion of truth, an assertor of liberty, but the follower or dependent of no man; neither menaces nor fortune could bend him; the way he had chosen he pursued, preferring honesty to his interest. His spirit is joined with its ethereal father, from whom it originally proceeded; his body, likewise, yielding to nature, is again laid in the lap of its mother: but he is about to rise again in eternity, yet never to be the same Toland more." The notice of his life in the Biographie Générale thus concludes: " Toland and his writings have been presented too often in a false light. … His faults are chiefly to be attributed to an excessive vanity—he affected to be singular in all things; and he had neither critical taste, elevation of ideas, nor style. Nevertheless, a true passion for liberty, and generous ideas possessed him; nor can we reproach him with evil actions. Rationalistic as Locke at first, he gradually arrived at the deism, or rather the pantheism, he had at first combated." Toland had a perfect vernacular knowledge of Irish. [1] [2]

Authorities
  1. Biographie Générale. 46 vols. Paris, 1855-'66.
    An interleaved copy, copiously noted by the late Dr. Thomas Fisher, Assistant Librarian of Trinity College, Dublin.
  2. Calamities and Quarrels of Authors: Isaac Disraeli. London, 1859. See also No. 103*.