Rationalism is a term of such diverse connotations in the minds of different writers that, like the term "Socialism," it is not susceptible of any brief definition which should be free from ambiguity. The intellectual method, or attitude, or spirit which is suggested by it has inspired such heterogeneous systems in the controversial struggle of the last few centuries that it can no longer be said to describe any actual system with clearness. It is applied equally to Agnosticism, the extreme revolutionary form of heterodoxy, and to a certain theological school that professes to remain within the precincts of the orthodox temple; and it is frequently taken to be synonymous with a destructive system of Biblical criticism. Rationalism, in the earlier part of the last century, was a school of anti-Christian Deists in England and France; towards the close of the century, and in the earlier part of the present century, it was a system of Biblical criticism, usually of a hostile character; modern Rationalism is a system which rejects both natural and supernatural theology, and is antagonistic to the orthodox Churches on every point, although the term is still often used in its earlier senses.
However, it is easy to trace through all these systems, divergent and even contradictory as they would have been if they had co-existed, the operation of one and the same spirit. The Deist rejected supernatural religion, but emphatically retained belief in a personal God; whereas the modern Rationalist declines all profession of a Theistic nature—or, at the most, retains only a profession of the most evanescent character. Yet the principle which actuated the departure from orthodoxy was the same in both cases: it was discovered to have a deeper application by the later generation. Both schools, and indeed all systems to which the name is applied, accepted as their primary and fundamental principle that reason is the supreme criterion of all truth, whether in secular or religious, natural or supernatural, spheres. Any thesis, on whatever authority it may be asserted, which violates the dictates of reason must be rejected. On that test were rejected, first the mysterious rites and dogmas of Christianity, then its sacred literature, and, finally, even the positions of natural theology. From Collins and Shaftesbury to Mill and Huxley the history of Rationalism is but a consistent and progressive application of that principle.
Rationalism, therefore, is rather a "cast of thought" and "bias of reasoning," as Mr. Lecky says, than a stereotyped system, although he would seem to define it inadequately in saying that "its central conception is the elevation of conscience into a position of supreme authority as the religious organ, a verifying faculty discriminating between truth and error;" for speculative reason has been as operative as practical reason in the destructive progress of Rationalism. From all time there have been religious statements current among all nations which purported to come from a source other than the natural activity of the human mind, from a higher authority, and before which the vast majority of mankind have bent in feeble and unquestioning submission. Sooner or later, however, a departure from that attitude is inevitable. Reason claims its prerogative as the ultimate test of all truth, applies its first principles and the knowledge it has already acquired to all ethical and religious traditions, and comes to reject a greater or less section, or even the whole, of its inherited profession.
Unless, however, this activity of reason yields conspicuous destructive results, it does not attract the title of Rationalism. Thus, even the Church of Rome, most conservative of orthodox sects, recognises that reason is a tribunal from which there is no appeal (it is one of the first propositions of dogmatic theology); yet the title of "Rationalistic" was not applied until the school of Günther and Hermes (which was promptly suppressed) began to alter its stereotyped formulae. So, also, in the Church of England (and Germany) only that school is called Rationalistic which departs in a marked degree, in dogma or Biblical criticism, from the formulae which have been sanctioned by the religious acceptance of many centuries, and which constitute what may safely be called orthodoxy. The Rationalistic spirit is, therefore, a critical action of reason on authoritative religious tradition, which leads to its partial or entire rejection, either from defect of satisfactory evidence to recommend it, or because it conflicts with known facts or evident moral or speculative principles—the negative and positive criterion of the Catholic theologian.
The importance of that spirit in the modern world of thought cannot be exaggerated. Mr. Lecky states that it "seems absolutely to over-ride our age." Yet it must not be supposed to be an exclusively modern phenomenon; in every civilized nation there are manifestations of it from the earliest dawn of scientific thought. Reason has ever protested, in its nobler embodiments, against the excessive tyranny of authority and the excessive credulity of the majority. At least, in such nations as had a body of cultured laymen, distinct from the sacerdotal body, it led to the formation of powerful antagonistic systems. In Greece, which enjoyed that prerogative to an extent which has found a parallel only in the modern civilized world, speculation had the utmost freedom, and was indulged without a glance at the religious traditions of the race. From Thales to Carneades a marvellous diversity of systems crossed the intellectual arena, the majority of them freely modifying and combating the most fundamental points of tradition. At Rome there was less originality, but equal liberty and scepticism, when the great military nation found time at length for culture and reflection; all educated Romans were Stoics or Neo-Academic sceptics. In Judæa the Rationalistic spirit found emphatic expression in the Sadducees, who denied the most essential points of traditional belief—even the immortality of the soul.
And from the very commencement of the Christian era the spirit manifests itself in revolt. The Gnostics attempted a curious blending of Oriental mysticism and Platonic philosophy applied to Christianity. The great Trinitarian struggles of the fourth and fifth centuries were due to its operation. Even within the Church, at Alexandria, the then centre of the intellectual world, a semi-Rationalism was evolved, which culminated in the περι αρχων of Origen. A continuous series of heresiarchs illustrate it until the twelfth century, some of whom, as John Scotus Erigena, the celebrated Irish scholar of the tenth century, professed scepticism on the most fundamental points, such as the fire of hell and even the personal existence of the Deity. In the twelfth century the fierce renewal of intellectual life developed much Rationalism. Abelard seems to have been a typical, though a timid, free thinker, and made a strenuous effort to disentangle philosophy from theology. At the same time, Rationalism of a profound character was brought to bear upon the theological world from the Arab schools in Spain. So powerful was their influence, indeed, that Averroes came to be identified with Antichrist. Even among the pious schoolmen there were Rationalists. Joannes Paulus de Oliva cowardly retracted his teaching. Scotus was a semi-Rationalist; his English pupil, Occam, a thorough Rationalist, who boldly rejected the authority of the Church. In the fifteenth century the immigration of the Greeks to Italy after the fall of Constantinople led to a splendid revival of Greek art and literature. A freethought movement, culminating in Pomponatius (1462-1524), was very powerful in the universities of Padua and Bologna, and philosophy once more made an effort to speculate apart from theology. But the Church was still all-powerful; it crushed the Renaissance which it had at first patronized.
In the sixteenth century came the great revolt against the time-honoured authority of the Church, which effectively prepared the way for the marvellous development of Rationalism in the last three centuries. The reformers, indeed, extended little patronage to the exercise of reason in religious matters; they denounced it and its fruit, philosophical speculation, as an evil not to be tolerated; and Luther went so far as to assert (even to the disgust of the Church of Rome) that a proposition may be true in theology and false in philosophy. Still, by the force of their own example, they inevitably introduced the Rationalistic spirit, the right of personal speculation on authoritative teaching: when the impressiveness of their usurped authority waned, the practical lesson of their revolt, the right to examine and criticise, was more clearly perceived. At the same time, no adequate and permanent authority was established in place of the rejected papacy; an admittedly fallible authority only encourages criticism and individual speculation. The iron bond of unity and discipline was broken, never to be replaced; no authority remained that could absolutely enforce a devised formula, and against which revolt would have a supernatural demerit. A Church teaching in virtue of its collective wisdom, and expounding an obscure objective code of faith and morals, could never hope to repress individual vagaries.
Other causes co-operated happily in hastening the dawn of perfect liberty of thought. The rapid multiplication of sects and dissipation of spiritual jurisdiction made it possible for independent thinkers to escape a persecuting authority and take up a bold, isolated position. Culture, too, began to pass more extensively into the ranks of the laity, who were naturally more ready to express their scepticism than the professional theological caste. Secular sciences, history, and physics began to breathe freely at last and develop in utter disregard of religious doctrines. Printing was introduced; a religious controversy thus obtained an infinitely wider audience than it had had formerly, and the writings of sceptics were universally diffused. The destruction of a venerable authority, the violent changes of theological schemes, the deafening roar of controversy, the accumulation of diverse and contradictory opinions, tended to produce distrust in the educated and bewilderment in the uneducated. Such, briefly, were the predisposing conditions of modern Rationalism.
One important Rationalistic school, Socinianism, the revival of Arianism, and predecessor of modern Unitarianism, dates from the time of the Reformation itself. Still, it is only attributable to the Reformation in the sense that that movement afforded it some liberty of utterance and expansion. It may easily be traced through the Italian-Greeks of the Renaissance to the earlier Greek heresy; if, indeed, it may not be said to voice the unceasing impatience of the mind in all ages under the Christian mysteries, especially the dogma of the Trinity. This time, however, the system came to stay, and it has played a most important part in the rationalization of theology. But the broader Rationalistic movement soon began in earnest with the appearance of isolated writers of great authority, of enduring influence, and often of the most destructive scepticism. In 1588 Montaigne published the first great sceptical work of a thoroughly Pyrrhonist character. A literary critic of profound influence, he was in effect a Rationalist of the most advanced type; his essays were the inauguration of the modern period of Freethought. He was warmly supported by Charron, a French priest, and is even said to have profoundly influenced Pascal. Descartes also, with his system of philosophic doubt, assisted the growth of freedom and reflection. Bayle was not only profoundly sceptical in the composition of his Dictionary, but he made a most eloquent and effective appeal in smaller works, as the Compelle Intrare, for liberty of thought and expression. Even the religious Leibnitz earned the title of "Glöbenichts" (believer of nothing). Spinoza was profoundly destructive.
In England a series of powerful writers embodied the Rationalistic spirit with great effect in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Bacon had virtually commenced the movement with his protest against "idols" and authority and the insistence on an empirical method. Hobbes followed with a most uncompromising iconoclasm. Locke introduced the empiric philosophy, which is so largely responsible for the Agnosticism of the nineteenth century. Hume developed the system and indicated its true conclusion, and diffused a literary scepticism with far-reaching effect. Gibbon brought the Rationalistic spirit to bear on history. If it is true that "the controversialists of successive ages are the puppets and unconscious exponents of the deep under-currents of their time," the Rationalistic spirit must have made rapid progress in England since the rejection of Papal despotism. One salutary effect of the controversies and of the downfall of Rome was the birth of a spirit of toleration for the first time in the history of Christianity; even orthodox writers, such as Chillingworth (the first to do so), began to teach "the absolute innocence of error."
In the course of the eighteenth century the controversy assumed a different character. Rationalistic criticism passed from the contents of Christianity to its external defences; the spirit was penetrating deeper every century. There was, it is true, a fierce revival of the Trinitarian controversy. The Unitarians waxed bolder and stronger in their attempt to rationalize theology, and some of their Trinitarian opponents, headed by Bull and Waterland, developed a semi-Rationalism on their own side, dropping off, as in the ancient controversy, into semi-Arianism on the one side, and Tritheism on the other. But the struggle is principally characterized by the rise of the Deistic school. Allied with the Voltairean school, which was permeating France with Rationalism, there was in England a powerful body of writers—Toland, Collins (the first to bear the title of Freethinker), Chubb, Woolston, Tindal, Shaftesbury, and Bolingbroke, who made a virulent organized attack upon the very credentials of Christianity, ridiculing its history and its mysterious contents, and denying the very possibility of miracles. They were opposed by Dr. S. Clarke, Dr. Berkeley, and Dr. Butler (the first two again developing a certain amount of private Rationalism in the course of their apologetic efforts). The rise and spread of Wesleyanism created a diversion in favour of the Rationalists by slighting the efforts of the evidential school and creating an emotional concentration upon the Atonement and similar doctrines. The fall of High-Churchism and the ascendancy of the Broad Church tended to produce a similar effect. Still, it is not too much to say that the Deistic controversy remains buried in the eighteenth century. As a consecration and development of the Rationalistic spirit, the Deistic school wrought an enduring effect. But even the brilliant writings of Bolingbroke and Shaftesbury are now practically shelved. Hume and Gibbon are the only Rationalists whose works pass on into the nineteenth century.
Such had been the progress of the Rationalistic spirit up to the period with which this sketch will deal. As a spirit, or method, it had been extensively used against orthodox belief; but few of its results were useful in the great struggle of the present century. The controversy once more changes its entire character, though animated by the same spirit. Modern Rationalism differs in two ways from Voltairean or Deistic Rationalism. It is more fundamental, and it is not merely destructive, but teaches also elevated social and ethical ideals to humanity. Once the spirit of criticism had successfully attacked the evidences of supernatural religion, it turned its attention to the evidences of natural religion, or pure Theism, which the older Rationalists had respected. The century opens with a development of the empirical philosophy which rapidly produces its most negative results. Coleridge introduces the transcendental philosophy from Germany, which he has learned from Kant's followers, and the first efforts of Biblical criticism from Lessing and Semler. In the course of the century the empirical philosophy developes into pure Agnosticism and Positivism, evokes a brilliant series of exponents from James Mill to Spencer, and obtains a wide acceptance from the gradually-educated country. German philosophy runs its course into Hegelian Pantheism, and its moral anxiety, in virtue of which it still clung to Theism, finds a relief in the rise and rapid growth of a system of purely rational ethics. Biblical criticism, availing itself of the growing effectiveness of philology and archaeology, works a revolution in the educated and the popular view of the Bible. Physical science makes gigantic progress throughout the century, rising like a flood over the successive entrenchments of retreating theologians, and constructing a new view of man and his material environment, which induces a profound modification of the earlier theological teaching. History throws new and wondrous light upon the origin and nature and ethical contents of non-Christian religions, and the strange analogy of their myths to Christian dogmas. Education is improved and secularized; the spirit of inquiry pervades the masses. By the end of the century a sceptical Rationalism "absolutely over-rides our age," and "is found in every able book" which we open. The list of ardent Rationalists in England includes the two Mills, Darwin, Lewes, Spencer, Carlyle, George Eliot, Arnold, Shelley, the two Stephens, Huxley, Tyndall, Morley, Lyell, Bain, Max Müller, Lecky, Browning, Tennyson, Tylor, Lubbock, Clifford, F. Harrison, Sully, Maudsley, and Bastian. The vast majority are Rationalists of extreme type, or Agnostics.
At the same time a change has been taking place within the orthodox Church itself. The ceaseless attack of ethical and speculative criticism upon its dogmas has had a profound corrosive influence. The clear lines that were laid down in the ecclesiastical conscience have grown dim and shadowy: several specific dogmas have been completely transformed, works of quite a revolutionary character have emanated from professed theologians, and there has been a general tendency to attach more importance to ethical and useful conduct, and much less to creeds and formulae. Biblical criticism and comparative religion have also deeply affected theological positions. This rationalizing tendency inside the Church may be described before proceeding to more fundamental changes.
- Lecky's "History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism."