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Walter Charleton’s The Darknes of Atheism Dispelled by the Light of Nature stands in a unique position relative to other writings in mechanical philosophy from the early modern period. That Charleton was heavily influenced by both of the main types of mechanical philosophy, those of Gassendi and Descartes, is evident in his writings, but he is often portrayed as a vector through which the new philosophy spread into the English-speaking world, rather than a mechanical philosopher in his own right. Osler takes Charleton as Gassendi’s representative in her comparison of Cartesianism and Gassendism. Similarly, Kargon uses Charleton to explore the reception of Epicureanism in England . In these cases and others, Charleton is a champion of mechanical philosophy, but not an originator of new ideas . Viewed in this way, The Darknes of Atheism Dispelled by the Light of Nature is at best, an exhibition of parts of the new philosophy, and at worst, a wholesale reproduction of another person’s work. Lewis takes a different view, arguing that the mix of ideas present in Charleton’s work belie a commitment to a philosophical methodology that prescribes taking the best of what is available to fulfill a certain objective . Because of his philosophical eclecticism, Charleton was free to pick and choose parts of the mechanical philosophy to suit his needs. From this perspective, Charleton’s objective in using various ideas was not simply to explicate the world, but to characterize it in terms useful to furthering other arguments. The streams of thought that Charleton juxtaposes within his works, including this one, have been taken as evidence for his lack of commitment to a single type of natural philosophy, but the way that Charleton chooses to merge and reconcile different viewpoints are consistent in method and intent. Within the various ideas presented in Darknes can be found indications of Charleton’s true objective: to provide a philosophical foundation for a theology based on a view of God as a continuously active agent within nature. Using the light of nature, or reason, Charleton presents a series of arguments against any conception of nature without God. The Darknes of Atheism Dispelled by the Light of Nature can be roughly divided into three parts. The first part proves that God exists and created the world from nothing, primarily from arguments based on ones Descartes used in the Meditations on First Philosophy. The second part describes God’s relationship to the world. Charleton writes on the reasons for creation, and the nature of God’s interaction in the world. The final part focuses on the place of humans in creation, and the nature of fate and fortune.

The conceptual framework that Charleton employs to make his arguments is similar to that used by other Christian thinkers of his era. For example, Francis Bacon believed that empirical study of nature could support religion. Bacon cites Psalm 19:1 to support his claim : “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” Charleton also refers to scripture to support his claim that

“the Creator was so visibly represented in the mirrour of the Creature, as no excuse could remain to those unhappy Ethnicks, who making more then superficial inspection into the one, did yet praetend an Indiscovery of the other.”
Instead of Bacon’s Psalm, Charleton appeals to Biblical authority in the book of Romans, and the book of Wisdom from the Apocrypha. In both, investigation of the world leads to recognition of God and his works. The passage from Romans is essentially equivalent to Psalm 19:1 which reads:
“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”
The indicated section from the Book of Wisdom is terse, but taken in context, amount to the same meaning. The relevant part of Romans is in verse 18 and 19:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.
For Charleton, this is evidence to support the contention that there is a truth to be found in nature. Similarly, the section in the book of Wisdom is:
But all men are vain, in whom there is not the knowledge of God: and who by these good things that are seen, could not understand him that is, neither by attending to the works have acknowledged who was the workman: But have imagined either the fire, or the wind, or the swift air, or the circle of the stars, or the great water, or the sun and moon, to be the gods that rule the world.
Something that these passages add to what is written in the Psalm is the placement of men who fail to recognize God within nature as their subject. The Psalm is a positive declaration that God is to be found in nature, but Charleton chooses parts of scripture that refer to the error of the atheist (or at least non-Christian) view. Through these citations, Charleton introduces the main idea of this work.

The clearest statement of Charleton’s objective in The Darknes of Atheism Dispelled by the Light of Nature is perhaps given in the last line of the poem preceding the table of contents, written by Clemens Barksdallus, entitled “Upon Doctor Charlton’s sic Natural Theology”: “Your Physick has done Miracles: But sure, Th’ Atheist Converted’s, your Divinest Cure.” This counter-atheist theme persists throughout the book. In “A Preparatory Advertisement to the Reader,” which precedes this poem, Charleton describes the rise of atheistic thinkers in England. He writes, “this our Island ... hath of late produced, and doth at this unhappy day foster more swarms of Atheisticall monsters ... then any Age, then any Nation hath been infested withall.” Charleton has constructed his book as a response to these “Atheisticall monsters”, whom he identifies in the book primarily as those who hold views received from ancient Greece. As he hinted in the two Biblical citations above, this work is Charleton’s attempt to mount an offensive against atheism.

The social and political context in which Charleton was writing had a profound influence in the content of this book. It contains several references to “civil war”, sometimes literally and other times figuratively. The first instance occurs in the Preparatory Advertisement. Lamenting the rise of atheism in England, he writes,

Nor, indeed, can this Assertion sound harsh in the ears of any aequitable person; who shall but have observed, that Religion ... and the sacred Authority of the Church ... are both so shatter’d and undermined by our Fatall Civill Warre
As a physician to the king, Charleton found himself on the wrong side of the English civil war. Although the reasons for the war were diverse, Charleton views its most significant result as the degradation of faith in Christianity in England. Where the civil war is used as a metaphorical device, it is always in reference to chaos (specifically, the chaotic state of atoms in the traditional Epicurean view), disorder, and atheism . The parallel that is drawn between the chaos of atoms, and disorder in society show that this work was not simply philosophical in nature. Charleton saw it as having real and immediate implications. It is a theology based in natural philosophy and reason, much like AquinasSumma Contra Gentiles. To achieve his goals, Charleton must first provide reasons for belief in God, which he does in the first chapter.

In his “Preparatory Advertisement to the Reader,” Charleton makes clear the source of the bulk of the first chapter, entitled “The Existence of God demonstrated”:

Bee pleased, then Candid Reader, to know from us, first that the Demonitration sic of the Existence of God ... together with the ensuing Explanation of the sundry Scholastick Terms, therein unavoidably used, and the Responses to the severall Objections was wholly collected out of the incomparable Metaphysicks of that heroicall Wit, Renatus De’s Chartes.
Looking at the first chapter of Darknes, Descartes’ presence is clear. Charleton’s use of Descartes borders on plagiarism. The second section of Charleton’s first chapter is a condensed version of Descartes’ Third Meditation. Descartes separates the ideas he has in his mind into three categories: “Among my ideas, some appear to be innate, some to be adventitious, and other to have been invented by me.” Similarly, Charleton writes,
Now of those Ideas, or Representations exhibited to the understanding, there are three distinct orders. 1. Some are Innate, or Congenial ... 2. Others are Adventitious, or emergent from external objects, ... 3. And finally others are Created, modelled, or coyned in the mint of the Imagination.
The rest of the second section proceeds in the same order as Descartes’ third meditation, ending with the analogy drawn between the idea of God imprinted on the mind and the mark of a craftsman on his work . The definitions in Charleton’s third section are lifted almost directly from Descartes’ Second Set of Replies in the Meditations . The remainder of the chapter takes parts of other Objections and Replies to the Meditations. Charleton clearly found Descartes’ approach to the proof of the existence of God to be strong and useful. The certainty of the argument, which Descartes asserts and Charleton accepts, fits into Charleton’s greater plan of providing an absolute and undeniable basis for belief in God. However, Charleton’s conception of God departs from Descartes’ after this point. Whereas Descartes’ God must always be constant in action, owing to the immutability of God’s will, Charleton believes that God has not “tied up his own hands, or limited his Prerogative, as not to have reserved to himself an absolute superiority”. Charleton is able to trace all that happens in the world to the first cause, God, who acts through intermediate, secondary causes, but he makes it clear that God does not require these secondary causes in order to act in the world. The actions of the secondary causes, Charleton writes,
are impulsive and necessary yet those of the First Cause are Elective and Arbitrary; though God hath by the severe laws of Nature, bound up the hands of his Creatures, limited their activities, and punctually consigned them their several provinces: yet he hath reserved his own free, and as an absolute Monarch, can at pleasure alter, transcend, or pervert those Statutes
For Charleton, such a view would be difficult to reconcile with a Cartesian God, and so he brings in an atomistic explanation of the universe, albeit one which has been blended with the idea of an active God. This is consistent with the placement of Charleton as a voluntarist, who believes in the absolute power of God to act in nature, as opposed to an intellectualist, such as Descartes who, in some sense, binds up God’s hands. This distinction is of primary importance throughout the work.

Charleton first addresses the Epicurean atomist viewpoint in the second chapter of the book. This section is a proof for God’s creation of the world from nothing. One of his first tasks in this chapter is to refute certain parts of classical atomism, specifically the notion of order in the world arising by chance, but this is followed quickly by a section in which Charleton seeks to winnow “the Chaffe from the Wheat concealed in the ... theory of Epicurus”. Charleton has three major objections to the Epicurean system: that it denies God’s creation of the world, that it denies God’s governance of the world, and that it denies the immortality of the human soul. In the Preparatory Advertisement, Charleton identifies the source of the first two errors as a misconception of God (the third is to be proven through philosophical inquiry, as he does using Cartesian arguments.) Charleton writes that he has

found them to be derived from one of those two poysonous Fountains; either that Human Affections are imagined to be in God, or that man doth vainly arrogate so great Sagacity and perfection of Prudence to his owne Minde, as he thereupon praesumes to be able to comprehend what God can, and determine what he ought to do.
Those who deny God’s act of creation, and God’s action in the world are, in Charleton’s view, erroneously projecting human characteristics onto God. With this opinion, Charleton clearly could not have accepted atomist philosophy as is, nor the physical explanations that Descartes gives, such as in the Principles of Philosophy . This is again, an expression of Charleton’s voluntarist commitments.

Charleton takes the intrinsic order of the world to be evidence for its creation by God. Through biological and astronomical examples, Charleton rejects the Epicurean explanation of order arising out of chaos. He uses several cases , but they all amount to the argument from design – that nature could not be the way it is without an intelligent creator. However, these do not explain why even an augmented Epicurean system should satisfy him. In keeping with the view toward God’s relationship shown above, his justification for adopting the Epicurean system is empirical; it describes nature better than any of the alternatives that are available for consideration .

In order to complete his theological project, Charleton must establish a means by which one could begin with the natural world and reach religion. Having proven the existence of God, and argued for an atomistic system in which God maintains the absolute power to act in creation, he must show that humans occupy a special place in creation and that this necessarily leads to religion. As before, he begins this section by looking at the implications of a purely Epicurean view, this time in the moral and theological spheres. According to Epicurus, the Gods are completely disinterested in human or worldly affairs:

Th’ Immortal Nature, placed above the sense Of sorrow, danger, and all indigence, Rich in its own Perfections; neither can Smile at the Good, nor from at’h Ill of Man.
Echoing his earlier condemnation of the Epicurean view of the deity, Charleton again derides Epicurus and his followers for propounding this view. It is obviously incompatible with Christianity, and Charleton has already rejected this facet of Epicureanism, but the nature of his project and its adoption of atomism necessitate repetition of this important point. But for Charleton to be able to properly reconcile a Christian God with the Epicurean system, he must surmount the problem of evil in the world. If the creator of the world is concerned with human affairs, then the existence of evil results in a paradox that must be overcome – “the Adversity of the Pious and Prosperity of the Impious, in this life”. This is a difficult but important problem for Charleton to address, and the commitment to using only reason to explicate his system falters somewhat.

His arguments against atheism are founded on the existence of a special relationship between humankind and God, which he established by returning to the Cartesian notion of a “Mark or Signature” imprinted on man.

That God extends the right hand of his Providence upon the head of man (the Heir of all his blessings, though the youngest of his Creatures) ordering the occurrences of his life, nay the manner and moment of his death, by a paternal and special care ... is amply manifest from hence, ... that he hath impressed upon the mind of man a knowledg of his Divinity more cleare and distinct, then upon any created natures, Angelical and intuitively intellectual spirits only excepted.
His reference to the mark of God as “cleare and distinct” shows the Cartesian influence, but much more rests on this notion than Descartes would have admitted. It has been previously proven that God has given man reason, which other things in creation lack. From this, Charleton reasons that the idea of God in man is clearer and more distinct than in any other creature (angels and the like excepted), and therefore “there must be a greater measure of Providence in God for man, then for any other; it being necessary that the Providence of God should hold exact proportion and be aequilibrated to his Love.” He extends the same argument to prove the existence of an awareness of God’s providence, which forms the basis of religion.

Approaching the problem of evil, Charleton takes a convenient and effective approach in debunking it; he avoids it. What may on the surface appear to be good or evil may, from God’s viewpoint, be the opposite. When something good happens to an evil man, it might be for two reasons. The first is that God is using something that is actually good to entice the evil man towards virtue. The second is that what initially appears to be good will prove to be evil, “no more then ... real Evils couched under the specious hatchment of apparent Goods.” The explanation for evil things occurring to the pious is similar; they are only apparent evils that are actually blessings. It seems that no matter how clear and distinct the notion of God in humans, there is a strict limit to what humans may know about the reasons for God’s actions. By conceiving of God’s special providence in this way, the problem of evil disappears. Up to the beginning of this chapter, Charleton has proven the existence of God, his creation of the world, and his continuing action in the mechanism of the world. In this section, Charleton is able to fulfill the main goal of his work. He has reached the basis of religious belief.

Throughout this work, expressions of Charleton’s conception of God are apparent. He proceeds from a Cartesian view of God, through an Epicurean view of nature, and arrives at a Christian view of man. He integrates these different traditions by adhering to a singular conception of God as an active force in nature, which governs human affairs in a way analogous to his governance of the microscopic world of atoms. The goal Charleton sets out for himself at the beginning of the text – to provide a basis for Christian theology without resorting to scripture – is interestingly fulfilled by the elements of natural philosophy he chooses.

This was submitted to a class on the history of science. Footnotes have been omitted, and none of the teacher's corrections or revisions have been added. Node your homework.

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