|Born||26 March 1659
|Died||29 October 1724
|School||enlightenment philosophy, rationalism|
|Main interests||Ethics, Religion|
|Notable ideas||religion derived from adherence to truth, non-aggression principle, moral realism, natural law|
William Wollaston (26 March 1659 – 29 October 1724) was school teacher, a Church of England priest, a scholar of Latin, Greek and Hebrew, a theologian, and a major Enlightenment era English philosopher. He is remembered today for one book, which he completed only two years before his death: The Religion of Nature Delineated (1st ed. 1722; 2nd ed. 1724). Yet despite his cloistered life and his single book, due to his influence on eighteenth-century philosophy and his promotion of a Natural Religion, he may be considered one of the great British Enlightenment philosophers, along with Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. His work contributed to the development of two important intellectual schools: British Deism, and "the pursuit of happiness" moral philosophy of American Practical Idealism. It appears notably in the Declaration of Independence.
Wollaston was born at Coton Clanford in Staffordshire, on 26 March 1659. He was born to a family long-established in Staffordshire, and was distantly related to Sir John Wollaston, the Alderman and Lord Mayor of London.1 However, his family was not wealthy. At the age of ten, he began school at a Latin school newly opened in Shenstone, Staffordshire, and continued in country free schools until he was admitted to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, at the age of 15, in June 1674.2 From his writings it is clear that he was an excellent scholar, "extremely well versed" in languages and literature.3
In his last year at Cambridge, Wollaston published anonymously a small book, On the Design of the Book of Ecclesiastes, or the Unreasonableness of Men's Restless Contention for the Present Enjoyments, represented in an English Poem (London, 1691). Apparently embarrassed by his own work, Wollaston almost immediately suppressed it.
After leaving Cambridge in September 1681, he became an assistant master at King Edward's School, Birmingham and took holy orders. At this time, he became Perpetual curate of St Mary's Church, Moseley from 1684 - 1686. In 1688 an uncle left him a fortune and an estate at Shenton Hall, Leicestershire, and in November of the same year he settled in London. On 26 November 1689, he married the wealthy Catharine Charlton. They had eleven children together, four of whom died within his lifetime. They lived happily together for 30 years, until Catharine's death on 21 July 1720.
In London, Wollaston devoted himself to private study of learning and philosophy, seldom leaving the city and declining to accept any public employment. In retirement, he published The Religion of Nature Delineated (1722) in a private edition. He wrote extensively on language, philosophy, religion, and history, but in the last few years of his life, he committed most of his manuscripts to the flames, as his health worsened and he began to feel that he would never be able to complete them to his satisfaction.
Wollaston suffered from fragile health throughout his life. Just after completing The Religion of Nature Delineated, he broke his arm in an accident, and his strength declined and illnesses increased until his death on 29 October 1724. His body was carried to Great Finborough in Suffolk, where he was buried beside his wife.
Though other writers, including Dr. Samuel Clarke, had written on Natural Religion, Wollaston was attempting the first systematic proof of a system of ethics based on nature alone. The Religion of Nature Delineated was a work of constructive (positive) deism rather than critical (negative) deism. Written by a Church of England clergyman, this positive attempt at new system of ethics logically reasoned from nature struck a chord with the intellectual public of the British Empire: more than 10,000 copies were sold in the just first few years alone.4
A measure of its quick rise and somewhat slower fall in popularity and influence can be shown from its 22 imprints prior to 1800. There was Wollaston's private edition in 1722; after his death there was one public edition in 1724, five in 1725, five in 1726, two in 1731, one in 1737, four in 1738, one in 1746, one 1750, and one in 1759.5
The Religion of Nature Delineated was an attempt to create a system of ethics without recourse to revealed religion. He claimed originality for his theory that the moral evil is the practical denial of a true proposition and moral good the affirmation of it, writing that this attempt to use mathematics to create a rationalist ethics was "something never met with anywhere". Wollaston "held that religious truths were plain as Euclid, clear to all who contemplated Creation."6 Newton had induced natural laws from a mathematical model of the physical world; similarly, Wollaston was attempting to induce moral laws by a mathematical model of the moral world.
He starts by defining truth, writing, "propositions are true which express things as they are." The book was designed to be an answer to two questions: Is there such a thing as natural religion? and, If there is, what is it? His assumption is that religion and morality are identical. His most famous and often quoted sentence defines his answers:
And so at last natural religion is grounded upon this triple and strict alliance or union of truth, happiness and reason' all in the same interest and conspiring by the same methods to advance and perfect human nature and its truest definition is, The pursuit of happiness by the practice of reason and truth.
There is a curious dynamic to Wollaston's reputation: just about everyone begins by admiring the man and his work, then to some degree, turns on him, publicly rejecting his work while absorbing and accepting some part of his core ideas. In Britain the rejection was apparently final after 1759; no further editions of his work was published in the rest of the century. But in America Wollaston's influence was retained long enough to influence the core document of American Democracy, the Declaration of Independence.
Wollaston's idea of a Natural religion without revelation briefly inspired and revived the movement known as Deism in England. Some today consider him a "Christian Deist",7 while others note that there is no "significant evidence that William Wollaston was not a more or less orthodox Christian."8
Wollaston's idea that science and math could define a morality based on nature predated the scientific morality of Scottish innate or commonsense moral philosophy. Wollaston also held that a person is happy when the sum total of pleasure exceeds pains, anticipating Utilitarianism. Proponents of later schools of philosophy later criticized and sometimes even ridiculed Wollaston, including Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, Richard Price, and Jeremy Bentham.9
One source of influence was both immediate, and immediately rejected. Benjamin Franklin, who was in London 1725-1726 as a young journeyman printer, tells us in his Autobiography that he typeset one of the 1726 editions of the book. Though untutored outside of two years spent in the Boston Grammar school, it provoked him to write at age 19 the short pamphlet A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure, and Pain. He printed one hundred copies. But he quickly found it "so shallow and unconvincing as to be embarrassing",10 and like Wollaston own juvenile attempt in 1691, he disavowed it and burned as many copies as he could find. Still, Wollastson's concern with morality and happiness struck a chord in Franklin. Though he rejected Deism, saying "I began to suspect the doctrine, though it might be true, was not very useful",11 he retained a fondness for Wollaston's "pursuit of happiness" Natural Religion in general, believing that God was best served by doing good works and helping other people.
The Colonial American Rev. Dr. Samuel Johnson first read Wollaston in 1727. He agreed that there was a tendency towards Deism in Wollastson's work, writing in his own Autobiography that "Wollaston's Religion of Nature, though well meant, was a great stumbling block to many and what he could never had done without the data in Scripture, though he seemed insensible of it."12 Johnson combined Wollaston's natural religion with George Berkeley's idealism, and created a pursuit of happiness philosophy over a series of seven editions of college philosophy textbooks. Its focus on practice as well as speculation attracted a more mature Franklin, who commissioned and published Johnson's textbook Elementa Philsophica in 1752, then promoted it in the College of Philadelphia (now Penn University).
Johnson saw his work as both a “New System” and an extension of Wollaston’s concept of a Natural Religion that was suitable for teaching to a young man of any denomination.13 Thus, "a domestically mediated version" of Wollaston and other philosophers led to the "harmonizing sentiment" that was acceptable to all the delegates at the Continental Congress. By the time of the Revolution, a generation of Colonials had been exposed to the ideas of Natural religion in the form of "Nature and Nature's God", and "the pursuit of Happiness" — both of which may be found in the United States Declaration of Independence.14
- John Clarke, A Preface containing A General Account of the Life, Character, and Writings of the Author, The Religion of Nature Delineated, 1750 ed.
- "Wollaston, William (WLSN674W)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
- Altmann, Alexander, "William Wollaston (1659-1724): English Deist and Rabbinic Scholar", Transactions (Jewish Historical Society of England), Vol. 16, (1945-1951), pp. 185-211
- Porter, Roy, The Creation of the Modern World: The Untold Story of the British Enlightenment, W. W. Norton & Company, 2001, p. 112.
- English Short Title Catalog, http://estc.bl.uk/ search on "Wollaston, William", retrieved October 28, 2013
- Porter, p. 112
- Porter, p. 112
- Barnett, S. J., The Enlightenment and Religion: The Myths of Modernity, Manchester University Press, 2003, p. 89
- Becker Lawrence, and Becker, Charlotte, Encyclopedia of Ethics, Charlotte B. Becker, Volume 3, ISBN 0415936721, 9780415936729, Taylor & Francis US, 2001, p. 1818
- Isaacson, Walter, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Simon and Schuster, 2004 p. 45
- Issacson, p. 46
- Schneider, Herbert and Carol, Samuel Johnson, President of King's College: His Career and Writings, Columbia University Press, 4 vols., 1929, Volume I, p.23
- Olsen, Neil C., Pursuing Happiness: The Organizational Culture of the Continental Congress, Nonagram Publications, ISBN 978-1480065505 ISBN 1480065501, 2013, p.161
- Olsen, p. 195
- John Nichols, Illustrations of the Literary History of the Eighteenth Century (1817) p. 833
- John Clarke (1750): A Preface containing A General Account of the Life, Character, and Writings of the Author, from the 1750 edition of The Religion of Nature Delineated.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Portraits of William Wollaston at the National Portrait Gallery, London
- Works by or about William Wollaston in libraries (WorldCat catalog)