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  • John Toland’s Letters to Serena ed. by Ian Leask
  • William Uzgalis
Ian Leask, editor. John Toland’s Letters to Serena. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2013. Pp. 164. Cloth, $70.00.

Ian Leask’s new edition of John Toland’s Letters to Serena, last published in 1704, has all the marks of a fine new edition of an early eighteenth-century book—it has an index, timeline, all of Toland’s notes, along with editor’s notes explaining many of the obscure names to be found in the letters; and it has a first-rate introduction in which Leask nicely explains the letters and what he takes Toland to be doing. John Toland’s intentions and influences are a matter of a very high degree of scholarly debate. The story that Leask weaves around the Letters to Serena is really quite fascinating and, while he published a detailed version of this account in “Unholy Force: Toland’s Leibnizian ‘Consummation’ of Spinozism” in the British Journal for the History of Philosophy (2012), as well as a less detailed version in the Introduction to the Letters, it is still worth noting some of the details. Serena is presumably one of the two Hanoverian princesses who were in line to ascend the English throne, both of whom ended up dying before Queen Anne. Toland had been on the diplomatic mission that had worked out the details of the Hanoverian succession. During his visit he engaged in a series of discussions with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the court savant, and adopted the Leibnizian view that motion or force is inherent in matter. This is of interest because, in the fourth letter, Toland offers a critique of Baruch Spinoza that turns on the fact that since God is immanent in nature, Spinoza—who thinks that matter is passive—has no way to account for the origin of motion. Toland cites published letters between Spinoza and Ehrenfried Walter von Tschirnhaus, who pressed Spinoza on this issue and never got a satisfactory answer before Spinoza died. Leask claims that what Toland does in the fifth letter is take his Leibnizian insight about motion as an essential quality of matter and use it to create an improved materialistic Spinozism. But we are not quite to the end of the story yet. Toland also appropriates Isaac Newton and claims that the Principia is compatible with Toland’s Leibnizian interpretation of matter as essentially active. The Newtonians feared that, with the coming of the Hanoverians, they would lose their influence to Leibniz. One of their chief goals was to support Anglican orthodoxy by connecting it to Newtonian science. So they presumably would be horrified that Newtonian science was compatible with a Spinozistic or Leibnizian materialist system! Presumably also, Toland is trying to undermine their efforts at bolstering Anglican orthodoxy by showing that Newtonian science is equally compatible with another system that presumably is not compatible with Anglican orthodoxy.

One question about Leask’s compelling account of the Letters relates to the answer Toland gives to the last of Jacob Heinrich von Fleming’s objections (in section 30 of Letter 5), which Toland claims is the weakest of all the objections. Toland makes various points that would seem puzzling coming from a Spinozist, and especially a materialist Spinozist. The objection is that, if matter is active, “there is no need of a presiding intelligence” (158). In his reply, Toland treats God as immaterial and not material. It also seems to be the case that the God of section 30 is a creator God, for Toland endorses the notion that from the jumbling of atoms alone, either passive or active, neither plants nor animals, neither mouse nor man, could arise. This is a standard substance dualist claim whose purpose is to require an immaterial creator God. Nor was Toland running into this argument for the first time. He had been through this with Pierre Bayle a few years earlier. (See the article “Dicaearchus” in Bayle’s Historical and Critical Dictionary, especially note L.) So he is rejecting the kind of emergence of life and mind that seems to be one of the few options for a materialist and that he had...


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