Shelley the Atheist
Though in his lifetime his poetry was seldom praised, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) is now ensconced in the pantheon of English poets. His "Ode to the West Wind," "Ozymandias," "To a Skylark," "The Cloud," "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty," "Mont Blanc," Adonais, and Prometheus Unbound are entrenched in anthologies of literature and studied throughout the world. He had a rare facility for lyricism. In English Romantic Poetry and Prose, Russell Noyes enlarges upon Shelley's "profuse strains of unpremeditated art":
Shelley was no idle songster, singing for singing's sake. He was an ardent philanthropist who wanted to rouse a soporific world from its moral stupor. In "Ode to the West Wind," he voiced his messianic aspirations:
A visionary anarchist, he decried the enslavement of the mind by church, state, law, custom, and tradition. He inveighed against priests, kings, soldiers, magistrates, and other wielders of institutional authority. In Prometheus Unbound, he envisions an autonomous race unshackled by external coercions and mind-forged manacles:
Despite his invective against organized oppression, Shelley spurned violent modes of redress. True emancipation, he believed, ensues from the cultivation of tolerance, fairness, benevolence, honesty, austerity, temperance, and unfettered discussion, not from armed revolt. Like Socrates, he thought knowledge begets virtue because nobody is wittingly iniquitous.
Shelley's exhortations were ignored when not derided. A scorned prophet, he was fitfully despondent: "I have," he confided to his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg, "sunk into a premature old age of exhaustion, which renders me dead to everything, but the unenviable capacity of indulging the vanity of hope." A half century later, Matthew Arnold characterized Shelley as a "beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain."
Few, in his own day, reckoned Shelley an angel. He was the notorious apostle of atheism, an affront to God and man. His nefarious reputation sprouted early with The Necessity of Atheism and Queen Mab. The first, a pamphlet, was published in 1811 when Shelley was a freshman at Oxford University, from which he and Hogg, his collaborator, were expelled for "contumacious conduct" when they declined to recant their wicked views. Queen Mab, a poem published in 1813, contains a stinging critique of Christianity (later elaborated in Essay on Christianity and A Refutation of Deism) and copious footnotes plumping for atheism. The notes include a modified version of The Necessity of Atheism and skeptical passages from Lucretius, Pliny, Bacon, Spinoza, Hume, and Holbach.
On the title page of The Necessity of Atheism, Shelley stated his purpose and invited rebuttals:
Shelley sent copies of the privately printed work to Oxford dons, clergymen, and his father. The remaining copies were burned in the print shop when the printer realized he was vulnerable to a charge of blasphemous libel. Shelley's father, a country squire, implored his wayward son to abjure the impious tract:
Mr. Shelley issued terms for rapprochement: The son must apologize to Oxford, seek reinstatement, "abstain from all communication with Mr. Hogg," and place himself under the moral tutelage "of such gentleman as I shall appoint." Should the son reject the terms, he would be left "to the punishment and misery that belongs to the wicked pursuit of an opinion so diabolical and wicked as that which you have dared to declare."
Unrepentant, Shelley juxtaposed his own fidelity to reason with the obduracy of the Oxford dons:
Shelley's unwillingness to repudiate atheism precipitated a lasting rift between father and son. (Shelley's mother, as the poet noted in a letter to Hogg, was tolerant of his atheism: She "is quite rational--she says, 'I think prayer & thanksgiving is of no use. If a man is a good man, atheist or Xtian, he will do very well in whatever future state awaits us.'")
In 1814, Shelley's infamy mushroomed when he abandoned his wife, Harriet Westbrook, and their two children to elope with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, whom he married two years later after the forlorn Harriet drowned herself. Shelley was now ostracized throughout England, even by friends and family. He was "a herd-abandoned deer struck by the hunter's dart."
His alleged turpitude was regarded as a consequence of his atheism. Robert Southey, poet laureate of England, admonished his erstwhile prot'g': "Look to that evidence [for God] while you are yet existing in Time, and you may yet live to bless God for bringing you to a sense of your miserable condition. I can think of you only as of an individual whom I have known, and of whom I had once entertained high hopes."
After Harriet's death, Shelley was denied custody of his children. His atheism disqualified him for parenthood. The bill in chancery stated:
In critiquing his poems, reviewers substituted epithets for analysis. They branded him "degraded, unteachable, unamiable, querulous, and unmanly." He "perverted his ingenuity and knowledge to the attacking of all that is ancient and venerable in our civil and religious institutions." He was "a hideous blasphemer" who "indited pages of raving atheism." As Ellsworth Barnard notes in Shelley's Religion, the ad hominem attacks made "Shelley's name a byword among the majority of middle-class readers for nearly three decades after his death."
In reality, Shelley was nothing like the b'te noir of public opinion. He was gentle, self-effacing, candid, sincere, courteous, generous, affectionate, idealistic. (He left Harriet because he deemed it immoral to live with a spouse when love had died.) In Portrait of Shelley, Newman Ivy White recounts the impression of an Englishman, William Baxter, who visited the poet in 1817, not long before Shelley moved to Italy, where he spent his final four years:
Shelley's tracts on religion aren't sensational or bombastic. They are erudite disquisitions tailored to reflective minds. They are grounded in Shelley's voluminous knowledge of philosophy, history, languages, literature, logic, and science. A true polymath, he was an omnivorous, fast, and extraordinarily retentive reader. The following three excerpts from A Refutation of Deism illustrate his manner. In the first, Shelley argues that a supernatural creator is an unnecessary hypothesis, a violation of Occam's razor:
In a second passage, Shelley notes that the putative attributes of God mirror human cognition, their source:
Finally, Shelley observes that widespread theism constitutes no evidence for the existence of God:
Like David Hume, Shelley held that belief in God derives from three sources: sensory experience, inferences therefrom, and testimony. None of these confirms the existence of a supernatural creator. Such was Shelley's belief when he was a schoolboy at Eton, where he acquired the enviable moniker "Shelley the Atheist"; such, presumably, was the belief he took to his grave.
Like many atheists, Shelley used the word "God" in a metaphorical sense. God was the "personification of human ideals"--the enduring quest for beauty, truth, love, freedom, wisdom, joy. God was also the universe or the totality of natural phenomena. Because of his ecstatic effusions on nature, Shelley is sometimes labeled a pantheist. He, more honest or accurate, preferred his Eton moniker.
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