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

XI. Berkeley and Contemporary Philosophy

§ 12. Anthony Collins’s Discourse of Free-thinking

Toland thus began as a liberal or rational theologian, and ended with some form of pantheistic creed. His writings do not enable us to trace accurately the steps in this change of view; but there is no evidence that he ever accepted the cardinal point of what is commonly called deism—the idea of God as an external creator who made the world, set it under certain laws, and then left it alone. He was a free-thinker rather than a deist. And this, also, describes the position occupied by Anthony Collins, the friend and disciple of Locke, in his best-known work, A Discourse of Free-thinking, occasioned by the rise and growth of a sect call’d Free-thinkers (1713). Bentley’s brilliant criticism of this book, in his Remarks upon a late Discourse of Free-thinking, gained for it an unenviable reputation. The Remarks admitted of no answer; but they were more successful in demolishing a free-thinker than in refuting free-thinking; and, perhaps, this was Bentley’s sole object in exposing the author’s slipshod scholarship. But he was not blind to an ambiguity of which Collins had taken advantage. “Free-thinking” may mean nothing more than the exercise of reason. If this had been all that Collins argued for, there would have been little point in his contention, for both parties claimed that they followed reason. So far, Tillotson would certainly have been with him, and, indeed, Collins claims his support. But he used the term, also, to cover the attitude or doctrines of a “sect of free-thinkers,” without any clear account of their position, or any suggestion that the word had more than one meaning. The ambiguity is connected with the duality of the motives which seem to have determined the writings of Collins. One of these was faith in reason—a faith which he had inherited from Locke; the other was a suspicion and dislike of priestcraft. These two motives are indicated by the titles of his earliest works—Essay concerning the use of Reason (1707), and Priest-craft in perfection (1709). They are combined in A Discourse of Free-thinking, in a way which generates more heat than light. Collins held firmly to a belief in God as established by reason; but (though sometimes in guarded language) he was a hostile critic of the Christian creed. His works produced a crowd of controversial literature: his chief later work—Discourse of the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion (1724)—having called forth no less than thirty-five replies in two years. He was also the author of a small book called A Philosophical Inquiry concerning Human Liberty and Necessity (1715)—an acute and clearly-written argument in favour of the necessitarian solution of the problem.