Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 1. Undercurrent of Mystical Thought in England in the Earlier Half of the Eighteenth Century

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

XII. William Law and the Mystics

§ 1. Undercurrent of Mystical Thought in England in the Earlier Half of the Eighteenth Century

TO speak of mystical thought in the first half of the eighteenth century in England seems almost a contradiction in terms; for the predominating character of that age, its outlook on life and its mind as expressed in philosophy, religion and literature, was in every way opposed to what is understood by mystical. In literature, shallowness of thought is often found combined with unrivalled clearness of expression; in general outlook, the conception of a mechanical world made by an outside Creator; in religion and philosophy, the practically universal appeal to “rational” evidence as supreme arbiter. In no age, it would seem, have men written so much about religion, while practising it so little. The one quality in Scripture which interests writers and readers alike is its credibility, and the impression gathered by the student of the religious controversies of the day is that Christianity was held to exist, not to be lived, but, like a proposition in Euclid, only to be proved.

This view, however, of the main tendency of the time, though representative, is not complete. There is also an under-current of thought of a kind that never quite disappears and that helps to keep the earth green during the somewhat dry and arid seasons when rationalism or materialism gains the upper hand.

This tendency of thought is called mysticism, and it may be described in its widest sense as an attitude of mind founded upon an intuitive or experienced conviction of fundamental unity, of alikeness in all things. All mystical thought springs from this as base. The poet mystic, looking out on the natural world, rejoices in it with a purer joy and studies it with a deeper reverence than other men, because he knows it is not something called “matter” and alien to him, but that it is—as he is—spirit itself made visible. The mystic philosopher, instead of attempting to reason or analyse or deduce, seeks merely to tell of his vision; whereupon, words generally fail him, and he becomes obscure. The religious mystic has for goal the union of himself with God, the actual contact with the Divine Presence, and he conceives this possible because man is “a God though in the germ,” and, therefore, can know God through that part of his nature which is akin to Him.