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Anthony 
Collins
1676 - 1729


Anthony 
Collins
, Anthony Collins was born near Hounslow in Middlesex on 21 June 1676 and died in Essex on 13 December 1729. He was educated at Eton, then at King's College, Cambridge, which he left without taking a degree. His tutor at Cambridge was Francis Hare, later a bishop but also the author of The Difficulties which attend the Study of the Scriptures (1714), an unorthodox work that Collins quotes with approval. Following family tradition, Collins studied law at the Middle Temple, but was never called to the Bar. His writings, however, show signs of his legal training. Much of Collins' largely uneventful life was spent in rural Essex, tending his extensive estates of more than 20,000 acres, or his magnificent library of more than 7,000 volumes from which he `even furnished his antagonists with books to confute himself' or discharging the duties of a county justice. From a wealthy family himself, Collins married the daughter of a banker, Sir Francis Child, in 1698. In 1703 his wife died, leaving him with three children. The same year was also crucial as the year that Collins met John Locke, probably the main influence on his thought. Their cordial friendship is recorded in the letters they exchanged from early 1703 until Locke's death on 28 October 1704. In his letters to Collins – first published in 1720 – Locke expresses a high regard for Collins' amiable character, love of truth and grasp of Locke's philosophy. Some of these letters suggest that Locke looked on Collins as his intellectual heir or chief interpretator: in a letter of 3 April 1704, Locke says that he knows no one who understands his Essay concerning Human Understanding `so well, nor can give me better light concerning it' than Collins. Collins' authorship falls into two periods of about a decade each. His mainly philosophical works are from the first period, from 1707 to 1717. From 1720 to 1730 his writings are chiefly historical. From his long, unpublished letter to Henry Dodwell senior, we know that as early as October 1706 he had decided against `owning' his publications – and all of them are, indeed, anonymous. He was not, as is sometimes claimed, the author of Several London Cases (1700), although it is likely that he assisted his friend Matthew Tindal, with whose anti-clerical views he was certainly in agreement (see Berman, 1975, pp. 62–4), with his Rights of the Christian Church (1706). Collins' first solo published work was An Essay concerning the Use of Reason (1707), in which he defends the minimal standards of reason against what he took to be important theological qualifications. The work looks back to the controversy started by Christianity not Mysterious (1696), whose author, John Toland, was another of Collins' many freethinking friends. In his Essay , Collins seems to be replying, at least in part, to two of Toland's main critics, Peter Browne and Edward Synge (the elder), who, in their responses to Toland, published in 1697 and 1698 respectively, made much of a key analogy, namely, that the way we ought to regard religious mysteries is similar to the way a blind man must make sense of vision, light and colours. Like the blind man we should, according to them, modestly accept our fundamental inadequacy and accept the help of a guide or guides. Collins, however, resists this conclusion. The blind man, he says, `goes not one step beyond his Ideas'; hence any assent the man gives to the word `red', say, must be confined to `a general undetermin'd idea of something' (p. 8). Therefore, when the blind man is told that his face is red, he `understands no more than if he was told his Face was Cousheda [a nonsense word like Toland's “Blictri”]'. In his Essay concerning Reason Collins is taking very seriously Locke's psychological accounts of meaning and truth: that all meaningful words stand for ideas and that truth and falsity consist in seeing the agreement or disagreement of our ideas. Hence we can never go beyond our own ideas. So while Collins is in many respects a hard-headed materialist, he is also a subjectivist, in that he does not believe that we can check our ideas against material things, because we can never (directly) experience material things. All our judgements are based on our ideas, on how things appear to us. Hence perception is the only criterion of truth. I cannot know something `to be true but by my own Perception' (p. 10). Collins never abandoned this subjective theory of judgement and truth. He is, however, aware that this theory seems to undermine the distinction between `real and seeming' (pp. 10, 32), and that it could lead to extreme scepticism or subjective idealism. But he seems to assume that no sane person would go that way, since, as he puts it in a later pamphlet, it would `destroy all knowledge of Science relating to things existing …' (Answer, 1708, p. 8). Perhaps the main advantage he saw in this subjective theory is that it excludes any external authority or religious mysteries. That is, we can and must judge things from our own perception. And what we know, for Collins, we can know clearly and distinctly, proportioning our assent to the available evidence; and if we do not have clear and distinct ideas, the fault lies in us. Collins, I suggest, is drawing out the rationalistic implications of Locke's theories of meaning and knowledge, not so much for the `quieting of disputes' – as Locke expressed it (Essay, IV.iii.22) – but for settling them. Collins' epistemological rationalism has militant, rather than quietistic, aims. Thus it is at least partly by its means that he is able to argue for the materiality of the mind in his 1707–1708 duel with Samuel Clarke, in which each philosopher issued four pamphlets: Collins' last and philosophically most important is An Answer to Mr. Clarke's Third Defence (1708). Collins here examines, among other things, personal identity (pp. 4–11) and the nature of substance (pp. 68–72). Collins claims throughout the debate to be a believer in immortality, based on the Gospel promise of a eternal life. Although some commentators have accepted Collins at his word, it seems more likely that he was lying theologically, that he was not only a materialist but a covert mortalist. While seeming to support this fundamental religious belief, Collins really aims to subvert it. And this is also the case with belief in the existence of God, which Collins says that he wishes to see supported on a firm basis. Yet what he says at the end of his last pamphlet against Clarke, on the question of the creation of matter, is implicitly atheistic. In short, since we cannot conceive the creation of matter ex nihilo (as Locke seemed to accept in Essay IV.x) we are not entitled to believe it. But then what grounds do we have for believing that the world consists of anything more than matter? This tendency towards atheism is also present in Collins' next work, A Vindication of the Divine Attributes, in some Remarks on the Archbishop's [King's] Sermon (1710). The apparent vindication conceals, as George Berkeley recognized, a deep subversion. Thus Collins shows that literal knowledge of God is a necessary condition for theistic belief; and that William King's fideistic negative theology, which was aimed at overcoming (apparent) conflicts in the divine attributes, cannot satisfy this necessary condition. Nor does Collins do anything to remove the contradictions which, as he notes, Bayle had importantly called attention to in his famous Historical and Critical Dictionary . So the conclusion (not acknowledged by Collins) is that the Baylean contradictions remain in place, threatening any coherent notion of God. In 1713 Collins issued his Discourse of Free-Thinking, which continues his defence of reason by opposing restrictions on intellectual inquiry. Here, too, Collins insinuates both his atheism and mortalism and much else besides through a brilliant use of rhetorical techniques. Probably his most popular book, the Discourse drew numerous replies from a wide range of critics, including Richard Steele, Jonathan Swift, Benjamin Hoadly, Daniel Williams, William Whiston, George Berkeley, Francis Hare and, most notably, Richard Bentley, who, it is often said, crushed Collins. There is, however, some debate about where the victory, or best argument, lies. In his Dynamics of Religion (2nd edn, 1926) J.M. Robertson vigorously champions Collins; more recently the older view has been endorsed by James O'Higgins in his scholarly study of Collins. Collins' next book followed four years later; this is his classic defence of determinism, A Philosophical Inquiry concerning Human Liberty (1717). It is his last strictly philosophical work, in which he unites the psychic determinism of Locke with the metaphysical determinism of Hobbes and Spinoza. The work was widely praised by Voltaire, Priestley (who reprinted it in 1790) and the French materialists. After 1717 Collins' work becomes more deistic, in the sense of being a critique of revealed rather than natural religion. Collins' most important work in this area was his Discourse of the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion (1724), which provoked a major debate, probably even more heated and wide-ranging than that over the Discourse of Free-Thinking. In the later Discourse Collins examines the status of Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament and their alleged fulfilment in the New. Before his critique, Christian apologists had tended to conflate or confuse literal and symbolic fulfilment. Only literal fulfilment, Collins held, could provide Christianity with a solid, scientific foundation. He then went on to show that none of the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah could have been literally accomplished by Jesus, as described in the New Testament. Most of them could be shown to be about events which occurred many years before his birth. Hence it follows that Christianity has no solid foundation in the prophecies. However, in line with his strategy of theological lying Collins says that symbolic fulfilment is sufficient. In this case, no commentator took him at his word. Collins followed up the Discourse on the Grounds with The Scheme of Literal Prophecy Considered (1726) and Letter to the Author of the Grounds (1726), works that fill in the details of his argument, which anticipates the later Higher Criticism, and answer some of his many critics. Of less interest is his elaborate Historical and Critical Essay on the Thirty-nine Articles (1724), which had been preceded by his Priestcraft in Perfection and Reflexions on it, both published in 1710. In these works, Collins maintained that the Thirty-nine Articles contained (pious) forgeries and he insinuated that there were comparable forgeries in the Bible. While Collins never developed an original, well-rounded philosophy, his work draws together some of the most radical thinking of his predecessors and combines it into a formidable whole – if, that is, one reads him as a deep, covert atheist (as Berkeley, for example, did). If not, he seems to be a confused and vacillating thinker, moving between liberal Christianity and deism, which is the reading of James O'Higgins, whose low opinion of Collins' Discourse of Free-Thinking, for example, may well derive from taking Collins' theological lies – his deliberate errors and intentionally weak arguments – for his genuine views. Although Collins was widely known as an unbeliever, he was also held to be a man of high moral character, even by his theological opponents. Apart from the works mentioned above, Collins almost certainly collaborated with Trenchard and Gordon on The Independent Whig , an influential periodical paper published between 1720 and 1721. Most of Collins' twelve articles – signed `C' in later editions – are on the evils of priestcraft; however, two posthumous essays, also by Collins, are of wider interest, particularly that on mystery. It is also highly probable that Collins was largely responsible for the 1741 annotated edition of Cicero's Treatise on the Nature of the Gods , which in some respects anticipates Hume's argument against miracles. Two other works, both published in the year of his death – the Discourse concerning Ridicule and Irony and A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity – have also been attributed to him. It is likely that only the former is by him. According to O'Higgins (1976, p. 5): `Collins died – and the story seems to have good grounds … – saying that he had always endeavoured … to serve God, his king and country and that “he was persuaded he was going to that place which God has designed for them that love him”'. But there are strong grounds for not taking the death-bed story at face value, probably the least of which is that there is a rival account in the Memoirs of George Horne (1795), according to which `on his death-bed [Collins] was under great anxiety, and, just before he expired, with a deep sigh pronounced the following words – Locke has ruined me! His niece, who attended him at the time, related this circumstance to Mr. Wogan … as he assured a friend of mine' (p. 278). More important is that Collins wrote against both the philosophical defence of immortality and the authority of the New Testament. Hence it is difficult to see what basis he could have for a belief in the afterlife. It is not that Horne's lesser-known anecdote is more credible than that reported by O'Higgins (which was reported in some English newspapers shortly after Collins' death). Both were probably devised for ideological purposes – the former to discredit Collins and Locke; the latter as the freethinker's final ritual bow to Christianity. Bibliography Collins' works were all published anony-mously. An Essay concerning the Use of Reason in Propositions (1707; 2nd edn, 1709). An Answer to Mr. Clarke's Third Defence of his Letter to Mr. Dodwell (1708; 2nd edn, 1711). A Vindication of the Divine Attributes, in some Remarks on his Grace the Archbishop of Dublin's [King's] Sermon intituled Divine Predestination … (1710). A Discourse of Free-Thinking, Occasioned by the Rise and Growth of a Sect call'd Free-Thinkers (1713). A Philosophical Inquiry concerning Human Liberty (1717). A Discourse on the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion (1724). Other Relevant Works Further Reading Berman, David, `Anthony Collins: Aspects of his Thought and Writings', Hermathena, vol. 119 (1975), pp. 49–70. —————, `Anthony Collins's Essays in the Independent Whig', Journal of the History of Philosophy, vol. 13 (1975), pp. 463–9. —————, `Hume and Collins on Miracles', Hume Studies, vol. 6 (1980), pp. 150–53. —————, A History of Atheism in Britain from Hobbes to Russell (1990). O'Higgins, James, Anthony Collins: The Man and his Works (The Hague, 1970). ————— (ed.), Determinism and Freewill: Anthony Collins's A Philosophical Inquiry concerning Human Liberty (The Hague, 1976). Robertson, J.M., Dynamics of Religion (2nd edn, 1926). David Berman The Dictionary of Eighteenth-Century British Philosophers 2 volumes : ISBN 1 85506 123 6 Γ Thoemmes Press, 1999

Born: 21st Jun 1676Baptised:
Died: 13th Dec 1729Buried:
Family:
Collins

Ancestors
[ Patrilineage | Matrilineage | Earliest Ancestors | Force | Force2 | Options ]

1.
Anthony 
Collins
(
Child
) 1676 - 1729

Siblings



Spouses



1. 1698
Martha 
Child
(
Collins
) 1676 - 1703

Descendants
[ Options ]

a.
Martha 
Child
(
Collins
) 1676 - 1703
1.
F/? 
Collins
* ante 1703
2.
Martha 
Collins
(
Fairfax
) ante 1703 - 1743
2a.
Robert 
Fairfax
(
Collins
,
Best
) 1707 - 1793
2.1.
M/? 
Fairfax
* 1743
3.
U/? 
Collins
* ante 1703
Sources

Timeline


21st Jun 1676Born
1698Married
Martha 
Child
(
Collins
) 1676 - 1703
8th Jul 1698MARL/ROLE FIANCE
13th Dec 1729Died
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