John Thelwall’s Peripatetic Deism

John Thelwall

The late eighteenth century is often seen as the end of the line for English Deism. Toland, Shaftesbury and Bolingbroke were all long gone and the baton had passed first across the Channel to Rousseau and Voltaire and then across the Atlantic to Franklin, Paine and Jefferson. But English Deism was not dead – although it had been severely bludgeoned by the establishment and overshadowed by Methodist revivalism. It lived on, however, in the minds of the radicals. Men like Robert Owen, Richard Carlile and, the subject of this short essay, John Thelwall.

John Thelwall (1764-1834) was one of the leading political radicals and parliamentary reform activists of late 18th century Britain. In 1794 he, along with Thomas Hardy and John Horne Tooke was confined in the Tower of London and tried for treason. He was acquitted, but controversy followed him for the rest of his life as a journalist and public orator.

In The Peripatetic, Thelwall weaves his political radicalism into an unquestionably deistic worldview that espouses both reverence for Nature and the radical socialism with which his name is more readily associated in history. Written in 1793, it predates the official beginning of the Romantic period of English literature, but his writing is infused with Romantic, almost pantheistic, sentiment.

Thelwall, walking along in imitation of the ancient “peripatetic” footstep followers of Aristotle (though actually the Peripatos of this ancient school of philosophy probably referred to the colonnades of the Lyceum where they were inclined to meet rather than any genuine pedestrian habits of Aristotle himself), narrates a conversation that touches on various aspects of philosophical concern that give him occasion to reflect deeply on many, often political, but also social and religious issues that beset life in Britain in the late 18th Century.

He gives an account of how his thinking had gravitated towards the kind of natural deistic religion he more clearly espouses in verse later in the book (see below).

In fact, my mind was making its first painful efforts against the prejudices of education; Reason was becoming importunate for the free exertion of her powers; and Faith was no longer to be tamely held in the arbitrary chains of hereditary opinion. The contemplation of so many glories of Creation had naturally conducted my thoughts to the Creator.

On coming to an old Church his attention is drawn to the sculptures that adorned the building. “The most remarkable parts of this structure are the finely executed sculptures of human sculls…” which he writes “are executed with the most beautiful and anatomical accuracy”. He then proceeds with what he calls “A Digression for the Anatomists” in which he notes that those of tender disposition – fine ladies and the petit maîtres (Fr. lit. “little masters” meaning in English usage a “dandy” or a “fop”) who might well faint at the mere mention of human body parts – might not take pleasure from the consideration of such unseemly objects, but that for himself, “the various operations of Nature present nothing but beauty to my senses – command my reflections, and awaken my admiration”.

Thelwall follows with this poetic consideration, noting that science, far from detracting from the awe and reverence he had for Nature, enhances his appreciation all the more:

Who can behold great Nature’s awful face,
Her form majestic, and her varied grace;
See through mid-air yon orb refulgent stray,
Or when still night becalms the pensive soul,
See silver lamps in countless myriads roll;
Mark heaving ocean, while his tempests roar,
Or the slow lapse steals murmuring from the shore;
See earth’s broad bosom, with perennial pride,
With various stores her various race provide;
Or mark, while round these obvious stores she deals,
What secret stores her verdant robe conceals:
Who these can view? – Nay; who the turf, the flower,
That decks the field, or scents the mantling bower,
The smallest insect-tenant of the spring
That creeps on earth, or buzzes on the wing,
Who can behold – and blind to Reason’s laws,
Not mount to THEE? Thou FIRST ALMIGHTY CAUSE

But if bold science her assistance lend –
If to her deep recesses we descend –
If there the tome mysterious we explore,
Of Nature’s genuine theologic lore,
What wider fields of wisdom and delight
Unfold their beauties to our ravish’d sight!
Thro’ which, with reverent wonder we pursue
Creation’s course, and Heaven’s own footsteps view!

This is perhaps the clearest statement of Thelwall’s deism, and it came to him, we are told, as he trod the byways of late 18th century London. Notwithstanding the probable inaccuracy of interpretation of the origin of the term, perhaps there is still something to be said for “peripatetic deism” – a good walk in the countryside accompanied with quiet reflection on the nature of reality.

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