Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Waligore on the Kinds of Deism that Influenced Ben Franklin, Part II

By Joseph Waligore. See below:

Three deists who believed angels still communicated with people 

Franklin’s first taste of the English deists came through reading Thomas Tryon, who was well-known in both England and America for advocating vegetarianism. While often depicted as a mere health-food advocate, he was also a deist. His book Knowledge of a Man’s Self the Surest Guide to the True Worship of God included a long chapter entitled “Of True and Universal Religion.” Here Tryon expressed the typical deist position that there was one universal religion which taught that God was completely good, and God only wanted people to love him and be virtuous. Tryon believed that every human being who had ever lived was aware of this religion, but, over time, priests and ministers had convinced and coerced people into performing meaningless ceremonies and believing mysterious doctrines.2

Tryon was a follower of Pythagoras, the early Greek philosopher. Pythagoras was passionate about mathematics, and was reputed to have discovered the Pythagorean theorem about the length of the sides of a triangle which had a right angle in it. He also believed that everything was ultimately composed of numbers, although what this meant to him we do not currently understand. While he was very intellectually oriented, he established an ascetic, religious community where people ate vegetarian food. The people in this community were noted in antiquity for never sharing their spiritual secrets with the common people. Later Pythagoreans emphasized that angelic-like beings communicated with people during their dreams. Tryon was like the Pythagoreans, not only in his emphasis on vegetarianism as an ascetic practice, but also in his belief that angelic beings still directly communicated with people. Tryon believed that the real reason Christians thought divine communications had ceased after biblical times was because people were no longer practicing true Christianity. He identified true Christianity with a mystical kind of Christianity which he believed was compatible with his Pythagoreanism. He thought it was reasonable to believe divine communications and visions have actually increased in later, post-biblical times since the good spirits were inflamed with the same zeal for spreading the glory of God now as formerly, and people still needed it. For this reason, he asked, “why then should we think all intercourse cut off between us and these blessed spirits have ceased?”

In his book Pythagoras His Mystick [sic] Philosophy Reviv’d; or, the Mystery of Dreams Unfolded, Tryon gave very explicit instructions on how people could prepare themselves to receive angelic communications in their dreams. To attract the attention of good angels, people first needed to purify their bodies by avoiding tobacco, drugs, alcohol, and meat. Then they need to divest themself of all worldly cares and focus their attention on godly matters. Such preparation opened the way for divinely inspired dreams. In these dreams, good spirits warned people of impending dangers and reveal spiritual secrets. Tryon stressed the importance of discretion if such angelic communications occurred. “Above all things,” he insisted, one should not tell the common multitude about their angelic visitations “for nothing drives away, and offend [sic] the divine Powers & good Angel Guardians more then [sic] to publish mysteries to the profane multitude.”3 In his emphasis on vegetarianism, asceticism, angelic communications, and not sharing their secrets with the common people, Tryon was following the ancient Pythagorean tradition.

In 1724, when he was eighteen, Franklin traveled to London and got a job at a printing shop. There he helped set the type for the William Wollaston’s deist book The Religion of Nature Delineated. In this book, Wollaston, like Tryon, emphasized that divine beings directly communicated with people by placing ideas and suggestions into people’s minds. Wollaston contended that God or the angels influenced us “by means of secret and sometimes sudden influences on our minds,” or by “suggestion, and impulse, or other silent communications of some spiritual being.” He said these direct influences caused a person to want to avoid a street where a building was about to fall or where a dangerous enemy was lying in wait for him. Through such divine communications, God or the angels care for us without altering any laws of nature. Wollaston thought these influences happened “so frequently” that anyone who closely observed his thoughts and actions could observe them. He also thought that these divine influences had important consequences in world history: he cryptically suggested that God planted the idea into Hannibal’s mind to never directly attack Rome, and thus Hannibal lost his chance to destroy Rome.4

After setting print Wollaston’s book, the young Franklin encountered Dr. Lyons, who in 1721 wrote the book The Infallibility of Human Judgment. While current scholars of English deism never list him among the English deists, eighteenth-century Germans considered him a noteworthy English deist.5 Moreover, eighteenth-century French thinkers considered his book such an articulate exposition of deist ideas that it was clandestinely circulated in manuscript form in France.6 Scholars of American deism are aware that Lyons was a deist because he befriended Franklin while Franklin was in London. These American scholars, though, have not noticed that Lyons had many religious beliefs and was particularly influenced by Pythagorean philosophy. Indeed, Lyons venerated Pythagoras, calling him “this Great Man” and “our Divine Philosopher,” and Lyons shared many Pythagorean beliefs.7

Just as Tryon thought angels communicated with people, Lyons asserted that divine beings cared for people by putting helpful guidance, commands, thoughts, and strong emotions into their minds. Lyons declared, “A judicious and curious Observation of these Things will lead a Man to the Sight of several Matters of Fact, which discover a certain secret interposing Power, which is commonly call’d Providence.” He emphasized this providence worked in two ways. One way was divine beings putting commands or thoughts into people’s minds, with Socrates being the best-known example of this phenomenon. He asserted that chance, natural consequences, and Providence are “distinguishable to the Wise; to whom the Story of Socrates’s Daemon will not seem impossible, there being suchlike real Matters to be frequently observ’d.” Providence also worked by inciting strong emotions in a person’s mind and thus helping him or her avoid danger. He declared that sometimes “there are also some sudden and strong Emotions exciting Men to Actions they can see no reason for, which appear afterwards to have been necessary for the avoiding an unknown (tho’ imminent) Danger.”8

Most significantly for discussing Franklin, Lyons believed that dreams often tell people about the future. Lyons claimed that knowledge of the future via dreams is “an evident Matter of Fact . . . against which very few are able to shut their Eyes, and which needs no Argument or Persuasion to defend or prove it.” He claimed the knowledge of what was going to happen in the future was “presented to us, sometimes by a real View of the Thing it self, or by symbolical Representations.” So he asserted that “if a Man dreamt he was cutting or killing another, this may perhaps be only an Endeavour of the Mind to explain to him, that some Person will do him an injurious Action the next Day.” Lyons did not know how prescient dreams worked, but, among other ways, he hypothesized it might work because people are “assisted by some other Daemon or Spirit.”9

The Pythagoreans strongly stressed the division between the foolish, common people who were centered on worldly things and the spiritual elite, who cared about God and divine matters. The Pythagoreans were forbidden to share their religious beliefs with the masses and instead only shared their spiritual teachings with the elite few. Lyons concurred with these views, talking of the “Fools” who were stuck in common opinions versus “the Wise” who understood the reality of divine messages. While he did not disclose significant spiritual secrets in his book, he hinted he knew of deeper spiritual knowledge. Immediately after discussing prescient dreams and divine suggestions, he asserted, “let the Curious follow these delightful Processes for themselves, which will sufficiently reward their Industry.” He claimed that if people followed the hints he was giving them, “The Temple of Knowledge is open’d, the Bars removed, and a Clue of Thread in their hand, with which they may enter the Labyrinth, and search all its secret Recesses, without confounding or losing themselves.”10

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