Milestones and Anniversaries | A Literary Biography of John Toland (1670-1722)

Milestones and Anniversaries | A Literary Biography of John Toland (1670-1722)

Some Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Mr. John Toland by Pierre des Maizeaux

– Literary biography of Toland written by a contemporary

The passage of time may have partially obscured the life and work of ‘Ireland’s forgotten philosopher’, John Toland, born on this day in 1670, but his legacy certainly has not faded. The range of events accompanying recent centenaries surrounding his birth and death bear testament to his status as a philosopher of worldwide renown and an important figure of the early Enlightenment period.

The 300th anniversary of Toland’s death was marked, on 11 March 2022, with a special commemoration close to his birthplace in the townland of Ardagh on the Inishowen Peninsula in Co. Donegal. Elsewhere, the 350th anniversary of the birth, falling on this day in 2020, was observed with the re-issue of Some Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Mr. John Toland by Pierre des Maizeaux, first published in 1726.

Given the sparsity of biographical information about John Toland, the fact that this account of his life comes from the pen of a contemporary makes it all the more valuable to students of Toland, the early Enlightenment and of philosophy in general. The reader will gain a flavour for the times in which he lived, his character and disposition, the impression that he made on those who encountered him – both friends and adversaries.

“If you would know more of him, search his writings,” Toland said of himself and des Maizeaux’s account provides every incentive to do just that, offering an overview of Toland’s literary canon alongside details and some helpful insight into the controversies that he frequently found himself embroiled.

Pierre des Maizeaux was a French Huguenot, living in exile in London at the time of writing. While his original purpose was simply to provide an overview of Toland’s immense literary output, it was “by greatest accident in the world, that I fell into the company of a Gentleman, who had been intimately acquainted with Mr. Toland, and who very generously communicated to me several particulars concerning him.”

While John Toland left Ireland in 1698, never to return, on account of the fallout arising from the publication of Christianity not Mysterious, what we can glean from this short account of his life would suggest that he never lost touch with his Irish roots.

In a visit to Prague, in 1708, he met with Irish Franciscans who gave testimony that “Mr. Toland was descended from an honourable, noble, and most ancient Family” contrary to some of the wilder and more sensational claims made by his detractors (who included Jonathan Swift, also born on this day but three years earlier, in 1667).

In 1719, Toland lobbied against a bill before parliament, “for the better securing the Dependency the Kingdom of Ireland, upon the Crown of Great Britain”, arguing that it “shou’d not pass into a Law”.

The History of the Druids is mentioned, as a project left unfinished at the time of Toland’s death but which, des Maizeaux says, “I believe, he intended to pursue in good earnest”, drawing upon his own knowledge of Irish manuscripts, as well as customs and traditions that he would have encountered directly during the first sixteen years of his life, growing up in “in the most northern Peninsula in Ireland … originally called Inis-Eogan, or Inis Eogain, but is now call’d Inisoen, or Enis-owen.”

Some Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Mr. John Toland by Pierre des Maizeaux first appeared as the Introduction to A Collection of Several Pieces of Mr. John Toland, published in London in 1726, in two volumes. It is now published in a modern, standalone edition for the first time under the imprint of The Manuscript Publisher, as part of its Selection of Works Relating to John Toland (1670-1722) series, all of which are available to buy online, in print and e-book editions.

John Toland, the Irish-born rationalist philosopher, lived between 1670 and 1722. Starting in Ireland, his travels and his journeys took him to Britain and continental Europe. A centenaries web project, dedicated to his life and work has been created to serve as a free online resource and repository of knowledge pertaining to his writings, the times in which he lived and the intellectual current that he, along with others, spearheaded and represented.

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