November 15: William Pitt + Albertus Magnus

William Pitt the Elder (1708)

It was on this date, November 15, 1708, that “The Great Commoner,” English statesman William Pitt the Elder, was born in London. After attending Oxford, Pitt stood for Parliament, where he attracted followers by opposing the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. He was a novel politician in a largely corrupt age, with a reputation for incorruptibility, serving under both the second and third King Georges. He was Paymaster General from 1746-1755, then dismissed for his criticism of the government’s war policy, made Secretary of State for the Southern Department from 1756-1757, and became Leader of the House of Commons from 1757-1761.

In 1766 Pitt became Lord Privy Seal and nominal Prime Minister, but eloquently opposed punitive measures against, and the war on, America, including the use of Indians against the citizens. He also called for reform of Parliament and modification of British colonial policies. Pitt was a colonialist, and opposed American independence, but counseled a softer edge.

Along with the Younger Pitt, Charles James Fox and Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, Pitt was so skeptical of religion that he was as close to Atheism as prudence would allow. There was an Atheistic Letter on Superstition that had appeared in The London Journal in 1733, which was widely believed to be Pitt’s writing.[1] In it, the author says that “the only true divinity is humanity.” Biographer Basil Williams denies Pitt’s authorship, but ratifies his skepticism, saying he had “a simple faith in God,” or was at best a Deist. Williams also quotes from unpublished sources a “fierce denunciation” by Pitt of those who “converted a reverential awe into a superstitious fear of God… ran into one of these extremes: mediating, interceding, atoning beings; or representing God hating, revenging, punishing, etc.”[2]

It is true that Pitt spoke of himself as a Protestant, but he also called Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, “the bulwark of Protestantism” — and Frederick was as skeptical as Voltaire. That Pitt was far from a Christian is attested by no less than William Wilberforce: referring to Pitt as the 1st Earl of Chatham, the churchman notes in his Correspondence (1840), “Lord C. died, I fear, without the smallest thought of God.”[3] Pitt had spent himself in debate, when he was too ill to speak, and died shortly thereafter on 11 May 1778. His son read Homer to him at his bedside, says Williams,[4] so the observation of Wilberforce was true.

[1] Austin Holyoake republished it in 1873. [2] Basil Williams. The Life of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham. London: Longmans, Green, 1913; repr. 1966. [3] Correspondence of William Wilberforce. 1840, vol. II, p. 72. [4] Williams, p. 331.

Albertus Magnus (d. 1280)

It was also on this date, November 15, 1280, that Albertus Magnus or Albert the Great, died at Cologne, in what is now Germany. Albert was born about 1206, the son of the Count of Bollstädt, and made his early studies at the University of Padua, where Latin translations from Greek of Aristotle, and where the science of such Arab Aristotelians as Avicenna (960-1017) and Averroës (1126-1198), were well known — and original work by non-Arab scientists, except for Albert’s contemporary and intellectual superior, Roger Bacon (1214-1292), was unknown.

Albert is often held up as proof that the medieval Church never opposed or retarded science. Albert was a Dominican monk, and as the “Universal Doctor” too famous to be persecuted — unlike the unlucky Bacon, who was imprisoned for his lack of orthodoxy. Albert was only criticized by his colleagues. But the telling fact about Albert is that, aside from Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274), who failed to learn any science from his teacher, when Albert died he had no pupils to follow his work. The sterility of science was assured by enjoining the Dominicans thereafter to turn their minds toward theology instead.

Originally published November 2003.

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Posted in Famous Freethinkers, Politics, Religion

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John Mill

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