Proofs of God in Early Modern Europe

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Lloyd Strickland
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , August
     2018.
     325 pages.
     $49.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781481309318.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Lloyd Strickland’s Proofs of God in Early Modern Europe  pulls together a broad sample of philosophically sophisticated arguments for the existence of God from mid-17th to late-18th century Western Europe. In addition to the usual canonical authors (René Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz, Baruch Spinoza, etc.) the long-neglected voices of women and other lesser-known figures are here finally given their due. Strickland puts it well when he identifies the strength of his anthology in its demonstration of the “impressive range of proofs” offered by “the leading and lesser lights of early modernity” (xiii). Selected texts are introduced with brief headnotes on their authors’ arguments and are offered in either new English translations or revisions of texts previously available. In the process, Strickland makes clear the true diversity of theistic arguments in the early modern period.

The volume opens with a brief but essential introduction. While medieval arguments are relatively well known, early modern proofs for God are all but ignored in undergraduate teaching and even among advanced scholars. Too often it is assumed that the period in question is one of steady secularization and Enlightenment culminating in the work of Immanuel Kant who, it is often assumed, banished rational theology from philosophical respectability finally and definitively. In proof that this is not the case, one can point to the selections included in this anthology. Strickland’s great contribution, beyond the work of collecting, annotating, and in some cases translating texts, is to answer the question so obviously relevant that it is easily overlooked. “What prompted so many thinkers of early modernity to develop proofs of God’s existence at all?” (xiv). To this easily ignored question Strickland argues convincingly, albeit briefly, that philosophers composed their proofs for one of three reasons: “(1) as a corrective against atheism, (2) as the first step in a program of Christian apologetics, or (3) as the foundation of a philosophical system or philosophical explanation of the world” (xiv).

The anthology is arranged in three unequal parts. Part I offers “classic” versions of metaphysical and physical proofs. These include versions of the so-called “ontological argument” which proceeds a priori and a wide range of cosmological arguments that argue for God’s existence based on observed characteristics of the world, including less-common variants such as the arguments from eternal truth and universal aseity. Particularly noteworthy here is the inclusion of the cosmological argument from John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Thomas Basset, 1690) (22-32), in addition to Descartes’ ontological and cosmological arguments (3-10), Spinoza’s metaphysical arguments (11-21), one of Leibniz’s cosmological arguments (33-42), and the design arguments of Isaac Newton (45-53) and Francois Fenelon (54-81). While Locke is well-known for his arguments concerning religious toleration and empiricist epistemology generally, he also importantly argued for the existence of God in ways reminiscent of the rationalist Cambridge Platonists. Locke asserts that in order to show that we can know that God exists we “need go no further than ourselves, and that undoubted knowledge we have of our own existence” (24). From this, he goes on to show, among other things, that since something cannot arise from nothing there must be some eternal being from which all things have arisen.

Part II presents “alternative” versions of traditional physical and metaphysical proofs from many canonical philosophers (Leibniz [again], George Berkeley, Voltaire, and Christian Wolff) as well as “lesser lights” including the Cambridge Platonist Henry More (85-109), and the cosmological arguments of Susanna Newcome (162-181) and Émilie du Châtelet (210-220), among others. The inclusion of Newcome and du Châtelet marks a real advance beyond the usual ignoring of the voices of women in early modern philosophy. However, this is no matter of morally motivated revisionism. Rather, Newcome’s cosmological argument, for example, is notably different from the better known Thomistic and Kalām arguments. Part III gives a miscellaneous sample of the metaphysical and moral arguments from relatively little-known authors including John Norris (270-279) and André-Pierre Le Guay de Prémontval (280-291).

While there are, inevitably, certain limitations both in texts included and/or excluded, and in terms of the headnotes to each selection, these are the stuff of specialized debate; however and they do nothing to detract from the wonderful service Strickland has done for students of natural theology and the philosophy of religion. That said, a conclusion offering some assessment of the arguments offered would have made for a more unified volume. Given the inherent interest in and the brilliance of the arguments anthologized however, there is no doubt that readers will shortly make up this limitation for themselves. That is, the book will spur much-needed work in the assessment of the history of the philosophy of religion. For this, we owe Strickland our sincere thanks.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Derek A. Michaud is  lecturer of philosophy and coordinator of religious and Judaic studies at the University of Maine.

Date of Review: 
November 14, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lloyd Strickland is Professor of Philosophy and Intellectual History in the Department of History, Politics, and Philosophy at Manchester Metropolitan University.

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