The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

February 1, 2014

February 1, 1787

Our sources for this article on Richard Whately (February 1, 1787 to October 8, 1863), who was the Archbishop of Dublin (Church of Ireland) are an Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article, and the volumes Life and Correspondence of Richard Whately, D.D.: Late Archbishop of Dublin, (1866) which his daughter, Elizabeth Jane Whately, put together after his death. It is his daughter who included her father's aphorism, "the scalded cat is afraid of cold water". The subtlety of this observation reminds us of Dr. Whately's reputation for philosophical cleverness in his thinking. To regain a contemporary view of this Victorian personage, we need to look at his biography.

At Oxford, as a student and then tutor, Whately encountered Noeticism, which was a "school of Anglican apologetics at Oxford, ...[Noeticism] sought to provide a defence of Christianity on the ground of its reasonableness against the onslaught of deists and Unitarians."  

To understand this forgotten intellectual stance we need to recall the currents of scientific thinking at the start of the 19th century. Many things were new and exciting and it made sense to assert that the miracles recounted in the Bible were as reasonable as some of the new scientific discoveries. 

Thus Whately could propose that to deny some miracles made as much sense as denying the existence of Napoleon, as he did satirically with his article, "Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Buonaparte (1819)."

This treatise was:   a bold, ironic attack on Hume's essay on miracles, in which he sought to weigh the evidence for the existence and exploits of Napoleon in order to demonstrate that proof of the existence of the exceptional can only ever amount to a probability, relying as it does on testimony and not experience. But, he argued, if it were accepted that Napoleon existed, in the absence of any prejudice against religion, there was equally no reason to doubt that Christ had performed the miracles recorded in the Bible.

From the archbishopric in Dublin Whately demonstrated a moderation and desire for harmony among religions, but he became alienated from intellectuals like Newman, whom he felt expected people to derive their religion not just from the scriptures, but also from a tradition. He also rejected movements like Methodism for their emphasis on emotion. 

And he "
favoured the promotion of theological learning over evangelical enthusiasm: 'true Christianity is a very quiet and deliberate religion.'" Christianity was a persuasive religion if one made logical deductions based on the facts recounted in the scriptures. That was Whately's position, and for a brief time in intellectual history Whately was a persuasive and popular leader. 

...Whately's Christianity was a religion of reason resting on evidence (thus the fault of evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism was that they were anti-intellectual, the former believing sincerity was enough, the latter sacrificing independent judgement to tradition..

And in The Errors of Romanism Traced to their Origin in Human Nature (1830)... Whately held that Wesleyanism was the product of ambition, while Unitarianism was attributable to a love of novelty, and many Calvinists were motivated by an undue love of disputation. He advocated toleration of dissenting views on the ground that their true meaning might be misunderstood by orthodox protestants.....

Again, if we do not recall the realities of the boundaries of scientific learning in the 19th century we miss the very reasonableness of Whately's conclusions and  actions.
He opposed the death penalty, and the transportation of criminals. And he: 

became an enthusiastic phrenologist: he had a cast of his head made at Oxford in 1831 and submitted it to three phrenologists in all. This was no doubt because he sympathized with, if he did not entirely endorse, George Combe's view of phrenology as the philosophy of the New Testament. It was another example of the compatibility of Christianity with the new sciences, and in particular a 'scientific' demonstration of man's moral faculty, the existence of which Whately asserted....

[I]n 1863 he developed an ulcer in his right leg. His devotion to homoeopathy led him to refuse to consult the leading Dublin surgeons: in 1862 the Royal College of Surgeons had prohibited its members from applying homoeopathic cures. The disease made rapid progress and he died at Roebuck Hall, his country house outside Dublin, to which he had moved from Redesdale following his wife's death... He was buried in St Patrick's Cathedral and Mozart's Requiem was performed at the service; his devoted black dog, Jet,  followed him under the hearse to the cathedral.

Richard Whately is forgotten today. That may be just, but we should not forget the extent to which reason itself, can be a fad, and his life helps us do just that.

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