Shelley's Necessity of Atheism
by Joe Palmer
[ opinion - july 11 ]
Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned, nowhe knows whether there is God or no.
- The Courier, a Tory newspaper
In March, 2011, the British Humanist Association held a meeting at Oxford University in order to commemorate the poet Percy Shelley's getting kicked out of that same school two hundred years ago, only one of the many public sevices the venerable university had performed throughout the centuries. The British Humanist Association, chaired by the infidel Richard Dawkins, heard the prize-winning and prolific author Ann Wroe talk about Shelley's inner life and motives.
Shelley spent only one term at Oxford before they expelled him for printing and distributing a tract about 'God' that any gifted child could have written, aguing that there are no scientific proofs that God exists, and that love, reason, and freedom are seldom to be found in this world because of competing religions and the society of men. He decried theology as nonsense, which it is, of course, but that was not his error. I doubt whether it does anyone a good turn to point out to them that their phavorite phantoms exist only in their minds. Atheism was a sin that dared not mention its name. Everybody else had thought it and shut up about it, unlike today:
Non-empirical beliefs that ignore reality aren't mysteries, they're bullshit.
- Stephen Law, Believing Bullshit
In Shelley's day there was plenty of precedent for punishing heretics. For example, John Wycliffe (1328-84), "The morning star of the Reformation," was exhumed and burnt, and William Tyndale (1494-1536), "The architect of the English language," was strangled and burnt. Those two had also been at Oxford, and they thought that ordinary folks had a right to both profane and sacred knowledge. Each translated the Bible into the English of his day, Middle and Early Modern. For their impudence they were burnt.
Shelley, on the other hand, rejected the Old Order, Christianity and parliamentary monarchy, while using classical Greek mythology as the vehicle for his poetic voice, particularly tragedy. He had spent years learning that irony resides in tragedy when two evil purposes are opposed in a lose-lose situation. In a tragedy we already know the result and that no good must come of the aftermath.
Shelley set the match to his own funeral pyre, defying the establishment and then daring the ocean not to drown him. He became the darling of revolutionaries, disestablishmentarians, and Victorian idealists, all those who were in love with the idea of progress and change. The ocean ate him up.
"Atheist!" the fellows of Oxford screamed, and he was out on his ear. Poor Shelley could afford to enjoy the notoriety. He was rich and smart and he wanted the stardom. He would have been reinstated if he had apologized.
Shelley was my heroic ideal when I was in college sixty years ago. I believed that smart people could fix things so that the world would be a better place without war and squalor. I had learned from Wordsworth that the world was too much with us, that we were still wasting our lives in greedy getting and spending, that what we needed was a revolution in society like the revolution in science, after which truth and goodness, expressed as love, reason, and freedom would save mankind. I was right, as right as Shelley and all who have faith in the inherent decency of mankind, but it was the wrong place and time to speak out. Laying blame seems always to happen at the wrong place and time. People do not like to be reminded of their faults and the human condition, and they already know that all attempts to make things better may cause as many problems as they solve and raise as many questions as they answer.
The struggle for freedom results in the destruction of the Old Order, the downfall of monarchs, dictators, and priests, and the collapse of the old ways, the loss of innocence, morals, art, and faith, and leads consequently to the hell of self-consciousness, isolation, and alienation from family, friends, and society. Romantics like Shelley would ignore the consequences of absolute freedom.
At Eton and Oxford Shelley toyed with scientific apparatus, with gunpowder, magnetism, and electricity, and he was a mediocre scholar put to sleep by stupifying, plodding recitations in the classrooms. He was a stuck up show off, vain, pompous, and mad. His classmates teased him cruelly. He barely got by, pretending to be awake in class while daydreaming, not caring to play the classroom game. He wrote and rewrote his little tract claiming:
...there is no God... [Yet] This negation must be understood solely to affect a creative Deity. The hypothesis of a pervading Spirit co-eternal with the universe remains unshaken.
His was is a rigorous, logical attack on the arguments of creation by design, an attack on tradition without a shred of compassion or humility towards politics, society, or morality. The world for him simply had to exist through chance and the unending change of the "intense inane," the same old arguments that we read about and hear today. The proof that there was no Creator follows logically from the fact that nothing can be made from nothing. There was and is no making of the world. The force of blind Necessity, Chaos, or Whatever caused things to fall together from the primordial dust, resulting in us being here.
He was an exhibitionist. Part of the essay he wrote en français, and long quotations are in the original Latin. For example, "the hypothesis of a pervading spirit" is a hot-dog noun phrase to be ashamed of like the rest of his pretentious diction, big words, and little ideas.
Shelley remembered everything he had read at Syon House, Eton, and University College, and so he was the perfect intellectual of the "Enlightenment," the 18the century Age of Reason when Romantics did not yet know that science shows us only how ignorant we are. The sincere seekers of the Enlightenment thought that science would reveal the truth, and the truth would set mankind free from error and sin. We know now that the truth does nothing of the kind.
People could not just hook up and make love in those days. Babies were easier to make, venereal disease was common, and so life for the young and fecund was more complicated by rules and expectations than it is today. As it was, Shelley had a passion for girls, even though he was a sissy. At home in Sussex he had been engaged to his cousin Harriet Grove, but her parents broke that up. At age eighteen, the year he left Oxford, he ran away to Scotland with sweet-sixteen Harriet Westbrook along with his best buddy and henchman, the unforgettably-named Thomas Jefferson Hogg, hoping to set up a ménage à trois, and failing.
He soon took up with a radical, free-thinking, feminist family in London, and then he went off to Switzerland with their daughter Mary Godwin, who had been his squeeze since she was sixteen. His wife Harriet drowned herself in the Serpentine in Hyde Park, and soon he married Mary [Wollstonecraft] Godwin, who later wrote, with his considerable assistance, the novel Frankenstein, featuring Doctor Victor Frankenstein (Victor was Shelley's pen-name) making a monster out of used parts, like Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Bonaparte.
Shelley published "The Necessity of Atheism" in 1811. In 1813 he printed a revised and expanded version of it as one of the notes to his poem "Queen Mab."
Mary Shelley had this to say about Shelley's motives in writing the poem 'Queen Mab', later entitled 'The Daemon of the World'.
To defecate life of its misery and its evil, was the ruling passion of his soul: he dedicated to it every power of his mind, every pulsation of his heart.
Notes to "Queen Mab" vi
In my copy of the first edition of Shelley's complete works edited by Mary (London, 1840), and dedicated to her surviving child Percy Florence Shelley, the title page has an epigraph from Petrarch's 306th sonnet for Laura, with the first word misspelled. Mary has substituted HIM for HER:
Lui [lei] non trov' io ma suoi santi vestigi...
I do not find [him] her yet (I always see) [his] her sacred footsteps... all directly
Tutti rivolti alla superna strada
On the heavenly path
Veggio, lunge da' laghi averni e stigi.
Far from Lake Averno and the Styx [illness and death].
If you, the reader, do not find proof of my pedantry in the foregoing, you will miss the irony in the following. Who but a nit-picking pedant, I, would discover discrepancies in a foreign language, as in the lines above, and yet fail to encourage an excellent student, as related next?
In 1956 I was completing the course work for a BA at Indiana State Teachers College, studying English and French. I had given up music as a profession, having sold my expensive French Besson trumpet in order to be able to pay the rent. My only other marketable skills were reading and writing, so in order to obtain a license to teach, I had to show my stuff to senior teachers by serving as an intern at a high school, where if the patients died no one would notice, no harm done, none intended.
Cursed with perfect pitch and having been taught French by a French speaker, I pronounce French so well that I am mistaken for a native, so it was my damnation to be thrust into a classroom dominated by an old lady who spoke French with the peculiar sounds of South Midland (Indiana) English. Immediately a smart-assed boy in the class requested, in front of the teacher, that I relieve her of her duties and take over the teaching so that they might hear "real French" spoken before they were graduated from high school.
I don't know what he was paying her back for, but it must have been an embarrassing event, or perhaps merely a series of little traumas called high school. The fact that I was shy and skinny with a bad eye didn't help. Madame Clabbert had it in for me right off the bat.
To my joy, on the other hand, I learned that one of my former classmates was to be my English critic teacher there at Wylie High School. She and I had recently endured an evening class together, an extra-credit gut course in "creative writing" that teachers took to pad out their credentials for higher certification. Sheila Rogers was teaching American and English literature at the school, and, by her request, I was to be her assistant.
Sheila's husband, Captain George Rogers, the subject of her creative writing efforts, had been called to Korea from the Army Reserve, never to return, leaving her with a retarded, today we say autistic, teenaged son in a special-care home, paid for from a widow's pension and a teacher's salary. Sheila was neat, sweet, and cerebral, and we had often shared coffee as fellow students. It was February, that time of year when senior students in American high schools get to the Romantic Period in their survey of English literature courses. "Oh frabjous day!" I chortled in my joy, my soon-to-be-tempered joy.
My introduction to the work of William Blake went down with stifled groans. "Little lamb, who made thee... Softest clothing woolly bright..." struck the athletes in their letter jackets as too cute for words. Of course, that's the point. "Sunday school shit," I heard someone mutter. Soft snickering. I was piqued and enraged that students would break a taboo in my class, testing me to see whether they could use me for entertainment to enliven their confinement.
"Sweet Jesus," I prayed silently for myself.
"OK. Listen to this," I said, and I read aloud:
Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
That threw them off course. A burning tiger, and the guy can't spell, and it doesn't rhyme? This poem is supposed to make sense?
I suggested that every noun and verb in the poem might mean something more than it usually does, standing for something more general, and so in order to see how well they could solve the puzzle for themselves, I asked for 500 words or more from each to be handed in, typewritten or in ink, and if chosen, to be read aloud to the class. That got their attention.
By waving around my personal facsimile copy of "The Necessity of Atheism," bound in brown kraft paper like all naughty books in those days, I tried to link Blake's gnosticism and Shelley's rejection of the "imaginary colossus" that rules the world. The sight of the cover of the pamphlet distracted the boys from peeking at their surreptitious copies of Playboy, Issue # 1, with its cover photo of Marilyn Monroe en déshabillé. Things were going well for me.
I thought the papers they wrote were surprisingly good, but of course Sheila had been teaching them to think and write. One essay struck me as faultless except for its content. The writer was a large girl with long sleeves who sat alone with a black Bible on her desk.
Dorothy Jewel Gale demanded no attention, and was always prompt and correct, reciting when asked, and listening politely to the others, but she was not one of the clique, the leaders that always form in any group. Today Dorothy Jewel would be home schooled because of the vulgarity, sex, drugs, and immorality in the community schools.
Her paper on "Tyger, Tyger" was as good a description as any I have ever read of the Devil, Satan, lurking about, waiting to tempt into damnation the pure of heart, mind, body, and soul. But she forgot to include sweet Jesus, Agnus Dei, and the Creator who made the lamb with the help of the other two "subsistences" (parts) of the Trinity. [See William Ames, The Subsistence Of God.] Not having an idea in Hell of the mysteries of metaphysics, she wrote that the Devil is going to get us if we do not watch out. Her world was either good or bad, and seldom both, like the world of her pastor, the Reverend Doctor Dodson who, with Dorothy Jewel's parents Mae and Edgar Gale in tow, soon visited the high school principal with thunderous complaint. At the bottom of Dorothy Jewel's faultless composition, in red ink, I had written my comment: BOO.
Now, American Baptists are just like other people except that they agree on one thing as their goal, the Christian example of purity, which is to be found, they say, in the New Testament. See Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture, by David deSilva, a recent scholarly exposition. You will find that Baptists are just as well read and worldly as atheists, and so they reject popular and usually ineffective therapy for treating personal alienation and the ills of society. Baptists do not rely on sex, drugs, psychologists, or social workers to find meaning in life. They are puritans seeking the same state of grace the poet is seeking, but they depend on faith to set them free. They are continuously aware of the Good News, also called the Gospel or the Evangelium.
I did not know that then. I thought Baptists were unschooled hillbillies like the Nazarene sect whose church services my grandparents had made me sit through. They took me to church on Sundays and Wednesdays where a lot of hollering, but little thinking, went on. I did not know that Baptists were Jesus without the plastic.
I don't care if it rains or freezes
Long as I got my plastic Jesus
Riding on the dashboard of my car.
- Ernie Marrs, traditional and anonymous
The earliest Baptists were originally Puritans within the Church of England who believed that history, tradition, and ancestry have nothing to do with faith and truth. Scripture alone was the source of truth. To them the old ways were not the standard of truth and the basis of faith. They were like Congregationalists, independent groups, who went by the Book, the New Testament, and they were like Quakers, mystics, who saw God. Like many new Americans they went on to be themselves alone without patrimony or official sanction except what they read in the Bible. Through all the Great Awakenings, the religious revivals in British and American history, Baptists were central in helping create new national identities and the grounds for the continuing American Revolution. They were centrally involved in the evolution of representative government because of their social liberalism and search for freedom. They use a Kantian philosophical base for their religious faith and moral judgments, the Categorical Imperative, relying on hard thinking about mystical religion, freedom of conscience, personal belief, and unconditional morality without creeds, dogma, or ecclesiastical authority.
I didn't know much about Baptists, or history, for that matter. I had been taught "about" poetry only what my teachers knew about it, the white-washed versions of periods of culture as seen by the makers of textbooks. Reverence for the Bible had carried over to reverence for the written word, and so textbooks were repositories of official truth, having the imprimatur of community school boards, as bland as Twinkies and Wonder Bread, containing nothing to offend anyone. Their contents are not to be interpreted critically to mean anything more than lessons of right conduct and the perils of selfishness.
The flaw in the idea of universal common schooling is the notion that everyone is the same, both as an individual and as a citizen, as if school were a giant cookie cutter. Yet people are as different as rocks on a beach, so we have friction and frustration at every touch producing thwarted, maladjusted, depressed patients for a bevy of specialists in habilitating, rehabilitating, mediating and remediating, analyzing, restoring, and curing the walking wounded, attempting through therapy to restore their self-confidence, self-esteem, sex appeal, and their talent.
What if, in spite of all the therapeutic interventions of friends, relatives, doctors, colleagues, counselors, lawyers, psychologists, the advice sold on TV, and the use of patent medicines, you still suffer the terror of having to grow up, the deadening boredom that comes with a 9-to-5 job and a 24/7 family, and the despair of your approaching death? What else can you do about your situation? Little else.
Baptists try to live without all that. They do not seek therapy because they have the Good News, every man is a priest, and every woman is a wife or a surrogate man, every child an apprentice. They have the structure necessary for the good life, like the life the Church used to hold for everyone before the Reformation and the Enlightenment.
The upshot of my interrogation and accusation of heresy was the demand that I be expelled from college after receiving a failing grade in teaching English. The reverend doctor, along with the high school principal, who was a member of the reverend's congregation, and Dorothy Jewel's parents were satisfied that justice would be done. Poor Sheila would give me the failing grade or lose her job.
Madame Clabbert awarded me the grade of "C" in teaching French from the same book I had memorized in high school. She apologized, with a Hoosier shrug, saying that giving me a better grade would be taken as defiance of the Principal.
After six weeks of summer school at the Laboratory High School of Indiana State Teachers College, assisting a pleasantly eccentric master teacher, who wore her husband's old ties around her waist instead of a belt, instructing twelve-year-old retards who had failed the seventh grade, I was awarded the grade of B because, she said, "It wouldn't look good for me to give you an A grade. It would look like I was defying the president."
Reputation and judgment, I learned, are both socially constructed, temporary states that just happen, created through political means, made valid by mindless coincidence. Reputation is whatever is popular, the myth of the day, like all religions, which are true, as far as they go. Judgment is not free will. It is the will of circumstance, necessity, and the mutability of all things. Our collective right brains create and augment fantastic religions, by Jove, that explain our being here and doing what we have done through the ages. We pass the religions on in a creative cycle whereby we pick up and add to the myth whatever mystery has us by the throat that day - from the evil eye to black holes. The truth is that we just happen to occur, slaves of contingency and chance.
Religions are merely unreal, not of this physical world, until they become the fires that burn heretics.