The Labour of Being at Ease

John Mullan

What is the opposite of Reason? To some writing in the late 17th and early 18th century the answer was Enthusiasm. ‘Enthusiasm’ meant knowing the truth by direct inspiration – being in direct communication with God. ‘Enthusiasm’, Locke wrote in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, takes ‘the ungrounded Fancies of a Man’s own Brain, and assumes them for a Foundation both of Opinion and Conduct’. Enthusiasts are ‘raised into an Opinion of a greater familiarity with GOD, and a nearer admittance to his Favour than is afforded to others’. They know that they are doing what God wants. Enthusiasm intrigued Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers because it appeared an exemplary case of unreason. More than dogmatism, superstition or intolerance, it represented the human inclination to ‘get above’ rational thought.

Immediate Revelation being a much easier way for Men to establish their Opinions, and regulate their Conduct, than the tedious and not always successful Labour of strict Reasoning, it is no wonder, that some have been very apt to pretend to Revelation, and to perswade themselves, that they are under the peculiar guidance of Heaven in their Actions and Opinions, especially in those of them, which they cannot account for by the ordinary Methods of Knowledge, and Principles of Reason.

Enthusiasm was self-deception hardened into certainty, ‘Men being most forwardly obedient to the impulses they receive from themselves’. It was ridiculous (hence Locke’s dry tone), but powerful.

Locke passed his intellectual curiosity about the powers of enthusiasm to his pupil, the young Anthony Ashley Cooper, who was to become 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury had Locke as his private tutor for the early years of his education and was to call him his ‘foster-father’. Locke had been at the right hand of his grandfather, the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, leader of the Whigs opposed to the accession of the Catholic James II. The 1st Earl was immortalised as the satanic Achitophel of Dryden’s brilliant exercise in monarchist propaganda: ‘For close designs and crooked counsels fit,/Sagacious, bold, and turbulent of wit’. To his grandson, however, he was the epitome of public virtue, sacrificing himself – he was exiled to Holland, where Locke was later to join him – for the sake of liberty and toleration. It was the 1st Earl who had arranged for Locke to superintend his grandson’s education, teaching him the ways of reason and encouraging him to take seriously the civic responsibilities of his class. Shaftesbury was not exactly a disciple of Locke. (In particular, he came to argue, against his former mentor, that humans are born with innate ideas of both aesthetic harmony and moral propriety: ‘the Notions and Principles of Fair, Just and Honest’.) Yet his thinking was shaped by Locke’s trust in the capacities of human reason – and on occasion there was evidence of Locke’s scepticism about the willingness of humans to employ these capacities.

It was curiosity about unreason that led Shaftesbury to seek out the spectacle of religious inspiration. On 5 July 1707, he watched as John Lacy, a well-to-do Presbyterian gentleman, spoke in tongues before a London audience of interested observers and fellow members of Lacy’s own Protestant sect: the French Prophets. This millenarian group, founded by Camisard refugees escaping persecution in France, had at its heart a number of divinely inspired prophets. When Lacy first encountered them, he found them telling of a ‘glorious Dispensation, touching the Vocation of the Jews, the Conversion of all Nations, the Destruction of Antichrist, an universal Holiness to the Lord, and in fine, the Kingdom of God on Earth’. Impressed, he had helped publish their ‘Warnings’: utterances made under the influence of the Holy Spirit, which were accompanied by seizures and violent palpitations – ‘The Agitations of Body being the outward sign given of the Time, when the Word of the Lord comes into, or his Spirit over-rules the Mouth of the Person’. Soon Lacy, along with other new followers, was becoming a prophet himself (prophecy being the potential gift of any godly individual). Before long, he was the sect’s star turn.

Lacy’s performances were a minor tourist attraction. (The visions and predictions of the French Prophets also attracted the hostile attentions of Defoe and Swift, among others.) Shaftesbury was a philosophical aristocrat at the dawn of what he hoped was an Age of Reason, and his reaction to the spectacle was ambivalent. Was this sect a sign of the marginalisation of religious fervour, or of the persistence in human nature of a passion for inspiration? Lacy’s show did in fact ‘inspire’ Shaftesbury, for it was the occasion of the first work that he intended for publication, his Letter Concerning Enthusiasm (1708). In the excellent, terse notes to his new edition of the writings that Shaftesbury collected under the title of Characteristicks, Philip Ayres tells us this, and shows that Shaftesbury was interested enough in these enthusiasts to read Lacy’s prophetic writings, and to quote several times (without acknowledgment) from Lacy’s A Cry from the Desart, his translation of a French account of the spiritual struggles under persecution of the Camisards.

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