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  • Unbelief and Sympathy in Shelley and Hogg's Letters to Ralph Wedgwood
  • James Bryant Reeves

In the months before they published The Necessity of Atheism in February 1811, undergraduates Percy Bysshe Shelley and Thomas Hogg initiated a correspondence with the inventor Ralph Wedg-wood (1766–1837), of the famous pottery-owning family. The previous summer, Wedgwood had patented an "othiothograph," a device designed to reduce all languages to a set of rudimentary symbols. His ultimate goal was to return humankind to an Edenic state of innocence by restoring the original universal language that, the Bible claimed, preceded Babel. Seeing the othiothograph advertised, Shelley and Hogg reached out to Wedgwood, facetiously admiring his project. While they initially posed as Oxford dons, the atheist undergraduates quickly began discrediting Wedgwood's invention and its religious underpinnings. The eight letters written by Shelley and Hogg were lost until 2005, at which time they were purchased at auction by Oxford's University College. These well-preserved, legible letters have now been held in the Bodleian for over a decade, receiving minimal scholarly treatment.1

Like his more famous declarations from this time, the Wedgwood letters display Shelley's reliance on his freethinking predecessors, as well as his scrutiny of the clichéd characterization of atheists as selfish, unsociable, and incapable of sensibility.2 Shelley cast those aspersions on theists themselves. Since the Wedgwood letters show the poet's engaged combat against theists' supposed monopoly on sympathy [End Page 41] and sociability, they illuminate Shelley's place in the longer history of unbelief.

Critics have long disagreed about Shelley's exact beliefs at Oxford and after his expulsion. Recently, Alister McGrath and Gavin Hopps have renewed Carlos Baker's position that the early Shelley really believed in deism or agnosticism—but not in atheism. These scholars attribute Necessity's "central atheistic argument" to Hogg. More importantly, they hold that, despite its title, the pamphlet's arguments against the deity do not preclude any possibility of the divine. They conclude that Shelley's project "cannot legitimately be described as 'atheistic.'"3 David Berman accuses Baker et al. of reenacting Enlightenment Britain's denial of atheists' very existence. Berman insists that Shelley's self-description as an atheist means what it says, and that in fact the poet was a lifelong "strong minded speculative atheist."4 Finally, several present-day critics maintain Earl R. Wasserman's position that around 1816 Shelley converted from skeptical materialism to some version of immaterialism or idealism, what Monika Lee calls "spiritual atheism" and Michael O'Neill terms "believing unbelief"5—that is, believing the universe capable of numinousness while disbelieving God's existence.

The Wedgwood letters suggest scholars may have overstated Shelley's early commitment to materialism because, in them, Shelley critiques materialism as well as Christianity and theism. These letters thus indicate that Shelley was attracted to "spiritual atheism" long before the 1816 start-date usually cited. For Shelley, the material universe is "not brutishly or merely material,"6 and atheists are acquitted [End Page 42] of the utter disenchantment their opponents impute to them. Thus his particular brand of atheism accords with Akeel Bilgrami's account of wholly "secular forms of enchantment," forms that are grounded in our experience of the world as something laden with values and "desirabilities." Pushing against Charles Taylor's more religiously minded notion of enchantment, Bilgrami argues for a modest understanding of the concept that "merely finds value in the world external to human desire and benevolence, without there being any sacred source for value."7 This sort of "believing unbelief"—that matter places external, ethical demands on us and that it is therefore "every bit as astonishing" as the philosophies of "idealists from Plato to Berkeley"8—informs Shelley's Wedgwood letters.

The letters further suggest that scholars keen to taxonomize Shelley's beliefs have missed the rhetorical contexts in which he states them. In the Wedgwood letters, as elsewhere, Shelley counters cultural stereotypes of atheism as well as refuting theistic principles. Reversing his opponents' rhetoric, Shelley characterizes the theist, particularly the Christian theist, as entirely selfish and immoral. The Wedgwood letters inaugurate Shelley's attempts to recuperate the figure of the atheist...