Journeys of Janus: John Toland


“I acknowledge no ORTHODOXY but the TRUTH .… ”

—John Toland1

John Toland probably was born in 1670 in the Inishowen peninsula of County Donegal, in the north of Ireland. His father may have been a Catholic priest, his mother may have been a prostitute. Toland would claim to have been christened, ‘Janus Junius’. Some scholars suspect that, instead, he was christened, ‘Sean Eoghain O Tuathallain ’ (in English, ‘John Owen Toland’). In their view, Toland concocted the “Janus Junius” story.2

Even so, the stories of his name and his parentage typify, Richard Kearney says, Toland’s “ludic doubleness,” a playful duplicity that is more than playful merely. Kearney locates in the ludic duplicity Toland’s Irishness.3 ‘Janus’ invokes a sculpture that stands to this day on Boa Island, County Fermanagh. Known as the “Janus figure,” the ancient stone depicts two faces that stare in opposite directions. For the pre-Christian Celts, the sculpture may have expressed reverence for paradoxical insight or multiple vision. Toland’s own philosophy abounds in plurality and paradox. On the one hand, Toland, appreciated simple Celtic Christianity; on the other hand, he despised the Roman Christianity that would eventually redefine Catholicism in Britain and Ireland. He particularly abhorred its priesthood. Moreover, though Toland despised Roman Catholicism, he admired certain values exemplified by the Roman Republic. The name, ‘Junius’, seems to honor the Roman philosopher Marcus Junius Brutus, whom Toland may have respected for his opposition to Caesar. Given all the doubleness, and Kearney’s suggestion that in doubleness is found philosophical Irishness, we begin to see why the title of this book is dedicated to John Toland/Janus Junius.

To a degree exceeded by few thinkers, the young Toland embodied the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. At 15 years of age, he abandoned Catholicism, apparently for Anglicanism. At 16, he crossed the channel to Scotland, to study theology at the University of Glasgow; three years later he received an M. A. in theology at the University of Edinburgh. He seems then associated with Presbyterianism. By age 22, he was studying in the incomparably tolerant atmosphere of Holland, at the universities of Leyden and Utrecht. A philosophical life had begun, one beyond labels save “free thinker.” 

At age 26, back in London, he anonymously published Christianity not Mysterious. The book castigated obedience to governmental and ecclesiastical authority. High Church Anglicans in London denounced it. Toland brought out a second—signed—edition, and returned, in the spring of 1697, to Dublin, where, possibly, he hoped that publicity from the book might help him obtain employment or patronage. If so, he had misread situation.  Christianity not Mysterious was, at the time, infuriating many within the Anglican Church of Ireland. By fall, the Irish Parliament had directed the hangman to burn the book in public; one senator had proposed that the hangman should burn its author as well. Disgraced, impoverished, the young Toland found a boat back to England.

Toland would continue the fight for religious toleration and civil liberty for the remainder of his life, but, chastened, he would thenceforward consider England his home. He conceived London as, in some sense, the center of the cosmos because of its cosmopolitanism. From this center, he would travel widely in Europe, conversing “promiscuously.” Linguist extraordinaire, competent in nine languages in addition to his native Irish, he would meet the major philosophers and scientists of the day; debate in coffee houses and taverns; flirt with royalty; read in the private and public libraries of Europe; write books and pamphlets on a range of topics that, one way or another, argue for religious tolerance and civil liberty for all—tolerance and liberty for all, that is, excluding Catholics and including Jews, the latter whom he classified as Protestants by virtue of their monotheism, anti-trinitarianism, and anti-papism.

Coffeehouses symbolize Toland’s life and thought. Stephen H. Daniel notes that, in the 17th and 18th centuries, coffeehouses embodied the irreverence and rationalism of the Enlightenment in a way seldom found in universities or churches.

For Toland, the coffeehouse was more than simply a place to test ideas or to refine argumentative skills. It fulfilled a demand of effective philosophizing: a place where men of divergent opinions could converse about matters of religious or political importance.… Unrecognized by his contemporaries as an essential part of his methodology, Toland’s presence in coffeehouses in London, Oxford, Dublin, and elsewhere became the focus of attacks by his enemies and bewildered his friends.4

Blessed with verbal virtuosity and philosophical daring, inspired by the goals of civil liberty and religious toleration, energized by a self-confidence that invited charges of arrogance and vanity, bedeviled by life-long financial vicissitudes, shadowed by the notoriety for expressing unpopular views publicly and unapologetically, this “father of modern Irish philosophy”5 has received little attention in the United States.

In his most famous work, Christianity not Mysterious, Toland announces, “[T]here is nothing in the Gospel contrary to Reason, nor above it; and … no Christian Doctrine can be properly called a Mystery.”6 The clause before the semicolon asserts two, distinct, claims. It asserts, first, that the Gospel cannot conflict with reason, that is, that it cannot be unreasonable. It asserts, second, that the Gospel cannot transcend reason, that is, that an apparent conflict with reason may not be dismissed or excused on the ground that the Gospel expresses a mystery: Any event or utterance in the Bible that appears mysterious, is either really unmysterious or actually unbiblical. The clause afterthe semicolon asserts one claim, the thesis of the book, that no doctrine can be at once mysterious and Christian.

That no doctrine can be at once mysterious and Christian follows, in Toland’s view, from both moral and epistemic considerations.  Morally, we should believe the Gospel and all doctrines that it genuinely generates; but how could a good God command us to believe—or to say that we believe—what we do not understand? For God’s part, would not such a (supposedly divine) injunction entail that we violate the very rationality with which God has endowed us? For our part, would not compliance with the (supposedly divine) command dishonor our God-given endowment, our reason? 

Further, epistemically, how can we comply? How can we believe an utterance that we experience as meaningless? There is no trick, of course, in saying that we believe words or sounds that we cannot understand; the challenge is, in fact believing them. What does ‘believing the unintelligible’ mean? Since believing presupposes understanding, ‘believing the unintelligible’ entails ‘understanding the unintelligible’. We are awash in unintelligibilities.

Toland repudiates faith and miracles, as these concepts are commonly construed. Most people would say that a miracle is intrinsically mysterious because, in principle, it cannot be predicted. Most would say that faith, too, is mysterious because it warrants belief when the evidence does not. Since many Christians maintain that “through faith they believe in miracles,” Christianity must involve mystery—so the standard thinking goes.

Toland disagrees: The standard view misconstrues both miracles and faith. Miracles are not essentially mysterious. If an event were mysterious, it would be contradictory; if contradictory, impossible of performance. God does not do what it is impossible to do. To claim the contrary, that God does what it is impossible to do, would require shrouding, ‘God does what it is impossible to do’ in, again, mystery. 

True, Toland would allow, we do not understand how God performs what we call miracles. We do not understand the mechanism or dynamic whereby the divinely desired result is achieved. But miracles are not thereby distinguished from many aspects of our lives that are non-religious. That much eludes our apprehension, whether inside or outside religion, is just a fact about the human epistemic condition. Generally, fortunately, we know enough to conduct our daily affairs effectively, to behave morally, and to revere God appropriately. God does not perform miracles frequently or pointlessly. But on those few occasions when God has a purpose to achieve, He brings about a possible—if rare—event through an unusual method that we human beings merely fail to fathom as we fail to fathom various non-religious phenomena. What we fail to understand in religious experience does not differ essentially from all that we fail to understand in general.

Toland formulates this position ambiguously: 

A Miracle then is some Action exceeding all humane Power, and which the Laws of Nature cannot perform by their ordinary operations.”7

The passage allows two interpretations.

  1. God performs what nature will not perform.

  2. God and nature perform by extraordinary operations what nature will not perform by ordinary operations.

In the first case, God overrules natural processes. In the second case, God only assistsnatural processes, but the processes are extraordinary natural processes rather than ordinary natural processes. Toland adds, 

“Miracles are produc’d according to the Laws of Nature, tho above its ordinary Operations, which are therefore supernaturally assisted.”8

Apparently, Toland intends 2: God assists nature’s extraordinary operations. ‘Extraordinary’ is ambiguous. In some contexts ‘extraordinary’ could mean ‘contrary to natural law’. Here, however, it should mean ‘natural but merely unusual’, lest this critique of Christian mystery presuppose a conception of the extraordinary that, finally, turns out to be mysterious. If we are not going to have mysteries, miracles should reduce to rarities, not to theoretical inexplicabilities.

‘Assist’ is also unclear. Toland seems to want ‘assisting’ natural processes to differ from ‘overruling’ or ‘contravening’ natural processes; but in what could such a difference consist? If God has any influence at all, must we not understand ‘assisting’ just to mean (some degree of) ‘contravening’ or ‘overruling’? If God can assist without contravening, is God not redundant? If God does not enter history and change what would otherwise occur, are not God’s purported miracles historically superfluous? A dilemma catches Toland: Either ‘assisting’ does not mean (any degree of) ‘overruling’, in which case God becomes redundant; or God is influential, in which case God, contravening nature, performs what nature will not perform, namely, miracles that are mysterious. How can Toland avoid this dilemma? He seeks intelligibility; but his grail, “the non-mysterious miracle,” may lead him nearer than he wishes to “the Gibberish of your Divinity Schools.”9

Toland’s analysis of faith fares better than his analysis of non-mysterious miracles. He distinguishes between self-evidence and faith, but not between faith and reason. Self-evident claims are recognized as true immediately; claims held on faith are recognized as true mediately, that is, they are inferred. For example, if a woman sees that the sun has risen, that the sun has risen is, to that woman, self-evident. But if a man sees that the sun has risen, and from its brilliance infers that the day will be free of rain, the man holds the latter belief though reasoning; he has, in Toland’s terminology, faith that the day will be free of rain.

The Author of the Epistle to the Hebrews do’s not define Faith a Prejudice, Opinion or Conjecture, but Conviction or Demonstration:  Faith, says he, is the confident Expectation of things hop’d for, and the Demonstration of things not seen. These last Words, things not seen, signify not (as some would have it) things incomprehensible or unintelligible, but past or future Matters of Fact, as the Creation of the World, and the Resurrection of the Dead, or the Belief of some things invisible to our corporeal Eyes, tho intelligible enough to the Eyes of our Understanding.10

Toland thus assimilates religious faith to faith in general, construing faith in general as the product of inconclusive if adequate reasoning. Moreover, he designates religious faith knowledge, construing knowledge as assent not to claims that are “… taken for a present and immediate View of things…” but to claims that are understood.11 He grounds religious belief on reason. He banishes mysteries to the four winds.

Now, which mysteries? From which impossible tales, which incoherent doctrines, whichpreposterous entities has Toland attempted to free Christian belief? Not the divine creation, not the resurrection of the dead—both of which, for many in the 21st century, seem mysterious enough—for, surprisingly, Toland classifies these as inferred “Matters of Fact.”12 By contrast,

[T]he celebrated Feats of Goblins and Fairies, of Witches, of Conjurers, and all the Heathen Prodigies, must be accounted idle and superstitious Fables.… 13

These examples, viewed literally, seem uncontroversial: Stories about goblins do not report the behavior of strange persons who exist side by side with human beings, surprising or tricking or impeding us as our fellow human beings sometimes do. The point is highly probable, hence hardly illuminating. A bit more interestingly,

Therefore all those Miracles are fictitious, wherein there occur any Contradictions, as that Christ was born without opening any Passage out of the Virgin’s Body; that a Head spoke some Days after it was sever’d from the Body, and the Tongue cut out.… 14

These events would seem contradictory to one familiar with the medicine of the late 17th century. Familiar with the medicine of the 21st century, they strike us differently, as implausible, but not contradictory. Given our confidence in medical possibilities, and Toland’s view that God can cause improbable events, 21st century Tolandians would exclude such candidates for mysteryhood; but Toland includes them. 

He mentions the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation. According to this doctrine, during the mass, the wine and bread convert to the blood and body of Christ. Toland loathes Catholicism because he loathes its priests; he loathes its priests because the priests propound mysterious doctrines and perform purportedly mysterious sacraments. Toland surely would consider Transubstantiation a case of doctrinal mystery.

Yet probably the main case of doctrinal mystery Toland doesn’t even mention, partly because he doesn’t need to. Every philosopher, every theologian, every educated lay person during the 17th and 18th centuries would have known that a subject of controversy was the doctrine of the Trinity; anyone familiar with Christianity not Mysterious would have known that the doctrine of the Trinity is “mysterious” in the Tolandian sense.

This doctrine has a long, sophisticated history. Roughly, it maintains that God is simultaneously one and three, fully unified yet fully diverse, at once individual and social. The doctrine seems contradictory. One does not equal three. The attempt to make sense of the Trinity has tried the best minds in the history of Christian thought. In retreat from the difficulties, some people propose mistaken analogies, for example, that God can at the same time be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as easily as one woman can at the same time be mother, attorney, and physical fitness devotee. The analogy trivializes the Trinity.  One person can, of course, perform three kinds of activities, such as those involved in mothering, lawyering, and exercising; but, according to the Trinity, three persons—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—are supposed to be identical to one person, God. Some analogies, such as that mentioned, would reduce a doctrine, intellectually bold and troubling, to an insipid platitude. Almost surely, Christianity not Mysteriousaims to deflate the unreduced, venerable, difficult, doctrine. 

Toland’s attack on mysteries implies respect for his readers’ reason. His confidence in the rational judgment of individuals is virtually unreserved. He would represent all human beings when he writes, 

“… I hold nothing as an Article of my Religion, but what the highest Evidence forc’d me to embrace.”15

Only the preponderance of evidence can adjudicate the truth or falsity of claims, including religious claims. 

But Toland goes further. Any purported authority other than the individual must pass certification by the authority of the individual himself. Not only does the individual’s analysis of evidence adjudicate claims with respect to truth or falsity; it certifies the authenticity and authority of their source.

All Faith now in the World is … entirely built upon Ratiocination. For we must first be convinc’d that those Writings are theirs whose Names they bear, we then examine the outward State and Actions of those Persons, and lastly understand what is contain’d in their Works; otherwise we cannot determine whether they be worthy of God or not, much less firmly believe them.16

Toland essentially says that moral claims that the Bible makes, or that clerics purport to derive from the Bible, are only possibly divine. A moral injunction that appears in the Bible is bogus, un-Biblical, unauthoritative, unless it concurs with the logically prior moral judgment of the individual. The individual’s conscience precedes, pre-empts, all external presumptions to moral authority.

“We are not only to prove or try all things, and to hold fast that which is the best, but also to try the Spirits whether they be of God.”17

In sum, the rationality of individual conscience must certify commands that are putatively divine as commands that are actually divine, before subscription to the commands is permissible.

Toland’s celebrated English contemporary John Locke (1632-1704) comes essentially to the same conclusion, though less directly. Locke divides religious beliefs into those that are mere opinions, those that are held on faith, and those that constitute knowledge. According to Locke, the last category, knowledge, is either immediate, that is, the product of insight, or demonstrative, that is, the product of inference. Since we have immediate knowledge of only our minds and ideas, and God is, in God-self, not an idea, the knowledge that we have of God is inferred. 

The second category, faith, is supposed to differ from knowledge. For Locke, as for much of the Christian tradition, faith and revelation complement one another: We have, it is frequently said, faith in divine revelation. Again, as for much of the Christian tradition, this epistemic dyad—faith/revelation—differs from reason; for Locke, too, this difference entails that it differs from what he calls knowledge.

All of this may seem straight forward enough. The problem concerns Locke’s apparent recognition that, to accept on faith the content of a divine revelation, one must first have reason to believe that that content is, indeed, divine. Thus, even when the Christian believes within the mode of faith, she is bound to an argument that takes the form:

  1. God has revealed that P.

  2. Therefore, P.

Locke wants 4 to be revealed, that is, the object of faith; 3 is not an object of faith but an object of (inferred) knowledge, since the individual must first certify that P came from God. Nevertheless, however it is that the believer is to infer 3, her assurance of 4 may not exceed her assurance of 3. Thus, 4 becomes an object of (inferred) knowledge, as well. Locke’s distinction between religious claims taken on faith and those that count as (inferred) knowledge thereby collapses into inferred knowledge. By contrast, Toland clearly and boldly announces their indistinguishability at the outset: Both human beings and God, he says, can “reveal” truths; likewise, prospective assenters to such putative revelations—human or divine—must determine whether the revelations are legitimate; the determination of legitimacy consists in an act of “faith,” which just is to say, an inference. 

Thus, in John Toland, the Enlightenment respect for the autonomy of individual judgment, the respect for freedom of individual conscience, attains a new height. Indeed, a theme of autonomy here appears that certain philosophers of the 20th and 21st centuries will express more fully.18 Moreover, Toland formulates this respect directly and transparently.

Toland’s thought would develop over the years, beyond the influential argument of Christianity not Mysterious, in at least four ways. First, during the 17th and 18th centuries, many intellectuals subscribed to materialistic mechanism, sometimes called corpuscularianism. According to this theory, matter consists of atoms or corpuscles that remain inert until activated by some external mind. Toland argues that motion is not imparted to matter but essential to matter; motion, extension, and solidity parallel one another as matter’s fundamental properties.19

Second, relatedly, Toland believes that all of matter is alive. His affirmations that motion is essential to matter and that matter is alive qualify him as a “process philosopher” three centuries before the English metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead would popularize the expression. Much as do 20th century physicalists, Toland believes that all that thinks is material, but that not all that is material thinks.20

Third, although he expresses high confidence in human reason, he acknowledges that there is much that we cannot know. He believes that we can know what we need to know; what we cannot know we do not need to know, and we should not waste time trying to know it.21

Finally, while his dismissal of the unknowable anticipates 20th century American pragmatism, his metaphysical speculation represents disagreement with most 20th century philosophers on what is knowable. Toland apparently coined the term, ‘pantheist’.22 “[N]othing is more certain,” he says, “than that every material Thing is all Things, and that all Things are but one.”23 In his strange work Pantheisticon, written late in life, he suggests that societies of pantheists were meeting secretly. They shared in food, drink, and philosophical discussion. Also, evidently, they participated in a liturgy comparable to a Christian service of worship, but which confessed faith in the sanctity of humankind’s philosophical forbearers. The societies must remain prudently secret, for the prejudices of the priests and the superstitions of the masses stultify the discourse of philosophers and can even result in reprisal. Toland had come to fear “the vulgar” as much as he feared the priests. 

The need, at least as experienced later in Toland’s life, for the security of secrecy, and the need for conversation interact paradoxically. John Toland believed that the philosopher has a professional obligation to “converse promiscuously,” to talk not just with other philosophers, not just with other academics, not just with the members of a single political party or a single religious sect, not just with people from one’s country of birth. Toland’s disreputable attraction to coffee houses and public houses, especially earlier in life, illustrates his own adherence to the obligation. On one occasion, Toland stopped at a German inn. The keeper asked for the name of his country. Toland answered, “The Sun is my Father, the Earth my Mother, the World’s my Country, and all Men are my Relations.”

According to Richard Kearney, Toland’s Janus-like personality, his proclivity for paradoxes such as that between privacy and publicity, help to comprise his Irish character.

Toland’s complex Irishness … defies a narrow logic of identity; it epitomizes the defiance of an excluded middle.… 24 [T]oland is a typical Irish thinker in that his genius for dual forms of identity epitomizes a crucial feature of Irish culture.… Perhaps, as John Toland reminds us, the truest Irish mind is at its best when differentiated into diverse minds. Its greatest resource is the preference for complexity over uniformity.… All reminders that we are a hybrid, mongrel, mixed-up group of peoples are to be welcomed, especially at the historical juncture at which we find ourselves some three centuries after Toland.25

London became the center of the cosmos for Toland by virtue of its cosmopolitanism, the access that it provided to the “hybrid, mongrel, mixed-up” peoples of the earth. On this view, Toland was Irish by way of becoming British. 

At the end, he was penniless, pained with rheumatism and jaundice, living in the rented room of a cottage outside London. The remains of his library were stacked on chairs.26He died in March, 1722. He had written his own epitaph.

Here lieth John Toland who, born near Derry in Ireland, studied young in Scotland and Holland, which, growing riper, he did also at Oxford. And, having more than once seen Germany, spent his age of manhood in and about London. He was an assertor of liberty, a lover of all sorts of learning, a speaker of Irish, but no man’s follower or dependent. Nor could frowns or fortune bend him to decline from the ways he had chosen. His spirit is joined with its ethereal father, from whom it originally proceeded. His body, yielding likewise to nature, is laid again in the lap of its mother. But he is frequently to rise himself again, yet never to be the same Toland again. If you would know more of him, search his works.27


  1. (Back to text) John Toland, Christianity not Mysterious, edited by Philip McGuinness, Alan Harrison, Richard Kearney (Lilliput Press, Dublin, 1997), 100.

  2. (Back to text) Thoman Duddy, A History of Irish Thought (Routledge, 2002), 83.

  3. (Back to text) Kearney, “John Toland: An Irish Philosopher?”, published in Christianity not Mysterious, 213.

  4. (Back to text) Stephen H. Daniel, John Toland: His Methods, Manners, and Mind (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1984), 145.

  5. (Back to text) David Berman, “The Irish Counter-Enlightenment,” published in The Irish Mind, edited by Richard Kearney (Wolfhound Press, 1985), 120.

  6. (Back to textChristianity not Mysterious, 17. We have removed Toland’s own italics.

  7. (Back to text) Ibid., 88. The italics are Toland’s. ‘Then’ he does not italicize.

  8. (Back to text) Ibid., 91.

  9. (Back to text) Ibid., 87. We have removed Toland’s own italics.

  10. (Back to text) Ibid.

  11. (Back to text) Ibid., 86.

  12. (Back to text) Ibid., 82.

  13. (Back to text) Ibid., 90.

  14. (Back to text) Ibid., 89.

  15. (Back to text) Ibid., 7.

  16. (Back to text) Ibid., 81.

  17. (Back to text) Ibid., 42.

  18. (Back to text) See Kai Nielson, “God and the Good,”.… 

  19. (Back to textLetters to Serena, IV.

  20. (Back to text) Ibid.

  21. (Back to text) Ibid., 58-9.

  22. (Back to textPantheisticon.

  23. (Back to textLetters to Serena, 192.

  24. (Back to text) Kearney, “John Toland: An Irish Philosopher?”, published in Christianity not Mysterious, 213. Dating from Aristotle, the principle of the excluded middle, one of the three “laws of thought,” maintains that every claim is either true or false. For example, the sentence, ‘Today is Thursday’ is either true or false; thus, disjunctions in which each disjunct denies the other are true necessarily. By this principle, ‘Today is Thursday or today is not Thursday’ does not just happen to be true, but is true necessarily. Kearney raises the idea that (some) such disjunctions may not be true necessarily.

  25. (Back to text) Ibid., 220.

  26. (Back to text) J. G. Simons, “John Toland: Donegal Heretic,” Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 16, Issue 63, March 1967, 318.

  27. (Back to text) Quoted by Simons, ibid.