Herbert, Edward (Lord Herbert of Cherbury)

Herbert, Edward (Lord Herbert of Cherbury)

a distinguished English Deist, was born at Eyton, Shrewsbury, in 1581 or 1582. He was educated at Oxford, served with great credit in the war in the Netherlands, and on his return became one of the most accomplished gentlemen at the court of James I, who made him a knight of the Bath, and sent him minister to France in 1618. On a second mission to France he published a work embodying the principles of deism, entitled Tractatus de Veritate, prout distinguitur a Revelatione, etc. (Paris, 1624, 4to). In 1631 he was made a peer. In 1645 he published, a new edition of the Tractatus, adding to it his De Religione Gentilium (also published separately at Amsterdam, 1663, 4to; and in an English translation, by Lewis, The Ancient Religion of the Gentiles, London, 1705, 8vo). He died at London Aug. 20, 1648. His Life, written by himself, and continued to his death, was published by Horace Walpole (London, 1764; new edition, with additions, London, 1826, 8vo).

"Herbert of Cherbury was the contemporary of Hobbes of Malmesbury, to whose principles of philosophizing he was directly opposed, notwithstanding the striking coincidence of many of the results at which they respectively arrived. He maintained the theory of innate ideas, and made a certain instinct of the reason (rationalis instinctus) to be the primary source of all human knowledge. Accordingly he did not, with Aristotle and the Stoics, compare the mind to a pure tablet, or to the tabula rasa of the schoolmen, but to a closed volume which opens itself at the solicitation of outward nature acting upon the senses. Thus acted upon, the mind produces out of itself certain general or universal principles (communes notiones), by reference to which all debatable questions in theology and philosophy may be determined, since upon these principles, at least, all men are unanimous. Consistently with these views, he does: not, with Hobbes, make religion to be founded on revelation or historical tradition, but upon an immediate consciousness of God and of divine things. The religion of reason, therefore, resting on such grounds, is, he argues, the criterion of every positive religion which claims a foundation in revelation. No man can appeal to revelation as an immediate evidence of the reasonableness of his faith, except those to whom that revelation has been directly given; for all others, the fact of revelation is a matter of mere tradition or testimony. Even the recipient of a revelation may himself be easily deceived, since he possesses no means of convincing himself of the reality or authenticity of his admitted revelation. Herbert made his own religion of reason to rest upon the following grounds: There is a God whom man ought to honor and reverence; a life of holiness is the most acceptable worship that can be offered him; sinners must repent of their sins, and strive to become better; and after death every one must expect the rewards or penalties befitting the acts of this life. Lord Herbert is one of the numerous instances on record of the little influence which speculative opinions exercise upon the conduct of life. Maintaining that no revelation is credible which is imparted to a portion only of mankind, he nevertheless claims the belief of his hearers when he tells them that his doubts as to the publication of his work were removed by a direct manifestation of the divine will" (English Cyclopedia). He states the phenomena of this revelation as follows: "Thus filled with doubts. I was, on a bright summer day, sitting in my room; my window to the south was open; the sun shone brightly; not a breeze was stirring. I took my book On Truth into my hand, threw myself on my knees, and prayed devoutly in these words: 'O thou one God, thou author of this light which now shines upon me, thou giver of all inward light which now shines upon me, thou giver of all inward light, I implore thee, according to thine infinite mercy, to pardon my request, which is greater than a sinner should make. I am not sufficiently convinced whether I may publish this book or not. If its publication shall be for thy glory, I beseech thee to give me a sign from heaven; if not, I will suppress it.' I had scarcely finished these words when a loud, and yet, at the same time, a gentle sound came from heaven, not like any sound on earth. This comforted me in such a manner, and gave me such satisfaction, that I considered my prayer as having been heard." His style is very obscure, and his writings have been but little read, in spite of the talent and subtlety of thought which they evince. He is properly regarded as the founder of the school of English Deists, although he was himself a skeptic of a very high and pure sort rather than an infidel. Herbert did not profess, in his writings, to oppose Christianity, but held that his "five articles" embraced the substance of what is taught in the Scriptures.

"The ideas which his writings contributed to Deistical speculation are two, viz. the examination of the universal principles of religion, and the appeal to an internal illuminating influence superior to revelation, 'the inward light,' as the test of religious truth. This was a phrase not uncommon in the 17th century. It was used by the Puritans to mark the appeal to the spiritual instincts, the heaven-taught feelings; and, later, by mystics, like the founder of the Quakers, to imply an appeal to an internal sense. But in Herbert it differs from these in being universal, not restricted to a few persons, and in being intellectual rather than emotional or spiritual" (Farrar, Critical History, p. 120). For an examination and refutation of his theory of religion, see Leland, Deistical Writers, letter 1, and Halyburton, Nat. Religion (Works, 1835, 8vo, p. 253). See also Kortholt, De Tribus impostoribus (Herbert, Hobbes, Spinoza; Hamb. 1701, 4to); Van Mildert, Boyle Lectures, 1838; Remusati Revue des deux Mondes, 1854, p. 692; Farrar, Critical Hist. of Free Thought, lect. iv; Shedd, Hist. of Doctrines bk. 2, ch. 4:§ 2; Contemporary Review, July, 1869.

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