“[Because] the Publick Good is the advantage you propose to your self in all your Learned and Excellent Writings, .. you are deservedly styl’d every where, and particularly abroad, Philosophus Britannicus, the English Philosopher.” –David Abercromby, A Moral Discourse of the Power of Interest (London, 1690), dedicatory epistle.
In my previous post, I provided some evidence of Boyle’s piety and devotion to God. We also saw how the latter motivated him to treat others charitably, even in scientific disputes. I now present further, equally important examples of Boyle’s Christian charity, in matters of conscience and in the importance of having a vocation of service to others.
Putting Piety into Practice: Christian Charity in Word and Deed
The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century resulted in the fragmentation of Christendom, giving princes religious excuses to make war for political gain and prelates excuses to persecute other Christians whose theological views they didn’t like to consolidate their power. Religious strife continued well into the next century. Matters were usually worse in several places on the Continent, but even in England Christians burned one another to death for believing the wrong things about Christ and his church. In the following century, the English Civil War had a significant religious dimension. It began while Robert Boyle was in Geneva—where he was being tutored by a Protestant refugee from religious persecution in France—but it was still going on when he returned from the Continent in the summer of 1644. Although he managed to stay out of the conflict personally, members of his large family were not unanimous in their loyalties. His own first thought was actually to join the King’s army—his brother Richard was a royalist officer—but his sister Katherine, who was closely tied to the Parliamentary faction, persuaded him not to do so. Boyle later saw this as a providential turn of events, by which he was not “expos’d to the manifold & great temptations of a Court & an Army, where … the generality of those he would have been oblig’d to converse with were very debaucht & apt, as well as inclinable to make others so” (Robert Boyle: By Himself and His Friends, p. 25).
It was indeed a very difficult time, especially for a pious and tender soul like Boyle, who was then just seventeen years old. Already as a young man, however, his tolerant attitude was forming. While Parliament was considering an ordinance making heresy a capital crime, Boyle wrote his former tutor to express strong dissent, saying, “why a man should be hanged, because it has not yet pleased God to give him his spirit, I confess, I am yet to understand. Certainly to think by a halter to let new light into the understanding, or by the tortures of the body to heal the errors of the mind, seems to me like applying a plaister to the heel, to cure a wound in the head; which doth not work upon the seat of the disease” (The Correspondence of Robert Boyle, vol. 1, p. 40).
Boyle’s vision of a world free of religious persecution did not go unnoticed in his day. Although he always supported the established Anglican church, one of his pastors (Stalbridge rector Thomas Dent) observed that he “was for moderation to those, who dissented from us, & not to force Tender consciences–for which he seem’d to expresse great aversen[ess].” According to Gilbert Burnet, a liberal churchman who knew his views as well as anyone, Boyle “had a most peculiar zeal against all Severities and Persecutions upon the account of Religion. I have seldom observ’d him to speak with more Heat and Indignation, than when that came in his way.” Indeed, Boyle considered religious persecution “Immorall.” Burnet’s description of Boyle’s overall religious attitude is revealing. “He always considered [Christianity] a System of Truths, which ought to purifie the Hearts, and govern the Lives of those who profess it; he loved no Practice that seemed to lessen that, nor any Nicety [i.e., point of doctrine] that occasioned Divisions amongst Christians. He thought pure and disinteressed Christianity was so Bright and Glorious a thing, that he was much troubled at the Disputes and Divisions which had arisen about some lesser Matters, while the Great and the most Important, as well as the most universally acknowledged Truths were by all sides almost as generally neglected as they were confessed” (Robert Boyle: By Himself and His Friends, 105, 49, 28, and 48).
The ecumenical attitude evident in much of Boyle’s writings has long made me suspicious of several scholarly works that present Boyle as an anti-Catholic thinker and writer. To be sure, Boyle had thought about the issues separating Protestants and Catholics, just as he had thought about so many other important religious matters. When asked, he could articulate objections to Catholicism. For example, there is a long, fascinating letter to Boyle from an Italian Jesuit scholar, Lorenzo Magalotti, who had visited Boyle while accompanying the crown prince of Tuscany, the future Duke Cosimo III de’ Medici, on a trip to London in the spring of 1669. When Magalotti fell ill with a fever, Boyle spent two or three hours with him every day. About three years later, in the only letter between the two men that still survives, Magalotti responded to objections Boyle had apparently voiced against Catholicism during their time together and tried to draw Boyle into further conversation.
Magalotti’s comments about Boyle’s character only reinforce what I’ve already said. “You are not alone in knowing the true measure of your desire to love God. First of all, your servants know it—your servants towards whom the zeal of your charity is so tender that after your feeding of them no less with material bread than with the milk of philosophy, they change the simplicity of their livery for doctoral clothes, by employing (especially for the benefit of the poor) that treasury which they have gathered up from the phials of your most noble foundry. I saw them running through London in the public squares with extraordinary piety helping poor epileptics with the comfort of very powerful remedies which they were accustomed continually to take with them for this very purpose alone” (beautifully translated by Lawrence Principe, in The Correspondence of Robert Boyle, vol. 4, p. 266).
After ingratiating himself to his English friend here and in other ways, however, Magalotti gently chastised Boyle for not trying to convert him! “I said to myself, if Mr Robert, as a claimant to the title of a follower of the Gospel, truly loves me as himself, and then loves me yet again as a friend, how can it happen that he has never tried, throughout all this time, with either spoken or written words, to make sure that I could have the benefit of that good he hopes for by the merit of his religion?’” Answering his own rhetorical question, Magalotti wrote, “either he does not believe that he needs to try to come to where you are, or at least does not believe that you need to move from where you are” (The Correspondence of Robert Boyle, vol. 4, pp. 271-2).
As far as we know, Boyle never replied to this letter, and I cannot answer Magalotti’s question confidently on his behalf. But, we can say at least this much, based on the whole conduct of his life and the whole content of his writings: Boyle knew why he wasn’t a Catholic, and he regarded some Catholic beliefs as no more than vulgar superstitions. He was willing to discuss this privately, but not publicly in print. He probably viewed Catholics (in general) as fellow Christians who did not need to convert in order to attain salvation, even though he certainly felt that Protestants had a better grounding for their faith. Above all, he had no taste for putting anti-Catholic arguments into his books: he never sought to advance controversies among Christians.
For reasons such as these, I never believed that Boyle wrote an anonymously published tract called Reasons Why a Protestant should not Turn Papist—despite the fact that for a long time most scholars believed that he did, including John Farquhar Fulton, the physician and historian of medicine who compiled the standard bibliography of Boyle’s works. Many years ago, I found decisive evidence confirming my conviction. In a surprising turn of events, the real author turned out to be the Scottish physician David Abercromby, a former Jesuit who had become a Protestant and who worked for Boyle in the 1680s.
The source of Boyle’s generous ecumenism is often said vaguely to be his sympathy with the broadly tolerant “Latitudinarian” wing of the Anglican Church, which sought to avoid both a rigid Calvinism on the one hand and an equally rigid Catholicism on the other hand. It is more helpful to point to some specific influences early in Boyle’s life. Peter Anstey stresses the significance of two different, but somewhat overlapping, sources. One was the Dutch statesman and jurist Hugo Grotius, whose work, On the Truth of the Christian Religion (1627), Boyle obviously admired, since he paid Edward Pococke to translate it into Arabic. With his countryman Jakob Hermanszoon (better known by his Latin name “Arminius”), Grotius admired the tolerant Christian humanism of Erasmus. He hoped that reason might be able to sort out religious differences among Christians, while at the same time showing the overall truth of Christianity. In England, Grotius’ attitude was adopted and his ideas were adapted by several members of the “Great Tew” circle, a group who gathered for intellectual exchanges at the home of Lucius Cary near Oxford. Boyle knew Cary and some of the others, and the charitable approach of Erasmus’ disciples seems to have shaped his thoughts, words, and deeds. On the other hand, Grotius’ thought was repeatedly attacked by the Puritan theologian John Owen, who viewed him as a Socinian heretic. Facts such as these make it very difficult to claim Boyle for the Puritan camp, as some have done. If his piety closely matched the Puritan ideal, his ecumenism and eclecticism did not.
A complementary influence, as John Harwood has shown, was the massive Encyclopædia (1630) compiled by German theologian Johann Alsted, under whom the great Czech educational reformer John Comenius studied. Boyle consulted it heavily in his twentieth year, while he was busy at work on a lengthy essay about happiness and moral virtue that he never published. It was through writing this and some other early essays, Harwood argues, that Boyle “found a vocation, a concept crucial to the moral life.” He did this self-consciously, and he understood its significance at the time, stressing that “it is very requisite (if not absolutely necessary) to settle our Youth ... in a fit Vocation, ... because A Convenient civil Calling is a sovveraigne Preservative agenst Idleness, (that mother of Vices) and an excellent prevention of a world of Idle, Melancholick and exorbitant thouhts, and un-warrantable Actions” (The Early Essays and Ethics of Robert Boyle, pp. xliv and 85).
What follows shortly after this is one of the most revealing statements Boyle ever entrusted to paper: “He is but an useless wastful Droane, and unworthy of the Benefits of Humane Society; whose endeavors in som honest particular Calling, do not som way or other Cooperate (and contribute) to the Good of the Common-welth.” He went on to say, “While a Gentleman” is “busying himself in any lawfull Employment that tends to the Good, of himself, his Family, others, or the Commonwelth, he may be (favorably) beleeved to be diligent to embrace in his Profession. But when a Gentleman ... shal spend his whole stock of precius time in Carding, Dicing, Hunting, revelling, Seeing of Plays, Reading of Romances, Powdring his haire, Staring upon looking-glasses, courting of Ladys that he means not to marry (not to mention what is worse) and in Sum make Vacation his only Vocation: he must have a Stronger Charity than Judgment, that beleeves that God and Nature intended only this for that man’s Calling.” Though Boyle dearly hoped that “pray God we have not too many” like the latter, his circumstances must have provided abundant opportunities for second thoughts—as we shall see in my next column (The Early Essays and Ethics of Robert Boyle, pp. 85 and 88).
Boyle’s piety and religious attitude were substantially shaped by the superb example set for him by his sister Katherine, whom I mentioned only in passing here. Her influence on him is our next topic.
References and Suggestions for Further Reading
Adapted from Edward B. Davis, “Robert Boyle’s Religious Life, Attitudes, and Vocation,” Science & Christian Belief 19 (2007): 117-38, with additional information from Davis, “The Anonymous Works of Robert Boyle and the Reasons Why a Protestant Should not Turn Papist (1687),” Journal of the History of Ideas 55 (1994): 611-29, and Peter Anstey, “The Christian Virtuoso and the Reformers: Are there Reformation Roots to Boyle’s Natural Philosophy?” Lucas: An Evangelical History Review 27 & 27 (2000): 5-40. Boyle’s cautious political stance is analyzed by Malcolm Oster, “Virtue, Providence, and Political Neutralism: Boyle and Interregnum Politics,” in Robert Boyle Reconsidered, ed. Michael Hunter (Cambridge University Press, 1994), 19-36.
Manuscripts by Thomas Dent, Gilbert Burnet, and Boyle (the autobiographical note quoted in the first paragraph of the main section) are published in Michael Hunter, Robert Boyle: By Himself and His Friends (Pickering & Chatto, 1994). Quotations from Boyle’s unpublished ethical treatise, “The Aretology,” are from the edition by John T. Harwood, The Early Essays and Ethics of Robert Boyle (Southern Illinois University Press, 1991), an indispensable source for understanding Boyle’s overall moral outlook, including the importance of a proper vocation. In some cases I have modernized Harwood’s direct transcription, which retains Boyle’s “u” and “i” instead of the modern “v” and “j.”