Edward Herbert: What is Truth?

In 1624, an Englishman named Edward Herbert (also known as Lord Herbert of Cherbury) wrote a book entitled De Veritate (“Concerning Truth”). Herbert (1583-1648) was later called “the Father of Deism.” Actually, Herbert was not a deist, and he lived and wrote before the deist movement in England. But Herbert proposed that truth can be discovered by the use of reason and other innate human “faculties” which Herbert described and applied to the subject of religion.

The World Book Dictionary defines “truth” as “that which is in accordance with the fact or facts; that which is true, real, or actual; reality.” How we live each day, and the countless decisions that we make depend largely upon what we, as individuals, perceive as “reality” or “truth” in any matter.

How can we know the “truth?” This is the question that philosophers, theologians, scientists, and others have wrestled with for centuries.

In his book, De Veritate, Herbert began with this question, “How can we know the truth?” According to Herbert, human beings have innate “faculties” that can be used in determining the truth in any matter. Herbert divided these faculties into four groups which he called: (1) basic instinct, (2) internal sense, (3) external sense, and (4) reason.

While Herbert wrote over 200 pages in describing his methodology for determining truth, I will give a brief, and somewhat oversimplified, description of the four kinds of innate “faculties” that Herbert proposed.

“Basic Instinct” was defined by Herbert as a person’s natural inclination to search for happiness. Under “Internal Sense,” Herbert grouped a number of “faculties” which, taken together, meant “conscience.” By “External Sense,” Herbert meant the five senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell) by which a person perceives objects. And by “Reason,” Herbert meant the intellectual ability to assess the meaning of what is perceived, but Herbert believed that “reason” is guided by all of the other “faculties.”

Herbert proposed that by using all of the innate “faculties,” a person can arrive at truths, which Herbert called “common notions,” implying that they are given “universal assent” or generally accepted by people in all places and at all times. According to Herbert, these “common notions” should guide us in what we “ought” to do.

When Herbert applied his methodology to the subject of religion, he came up with five “common notions,” or religious truths, which he believed had universal assent. Herbert’s idea that “religious truths” could be discovered by ordinary individuals was very radical because the church taught that “religious truths” must come only from religious “authorities” and must be accepted unquestioningly by ordinary people on “faith.” Herbert’s approach to religion meant that each person had the power and responsibility for determining religious truths for himself or herself.

Before presenting the five “common notions” that Herbert identified in religion, I must say that during Herbert’s time (the seventeenth century) in England, writers who opposed the Church of England were subject to imprisonment or execution. Herbert escaped such punishment for a number of reasons. Herbert was from a prominent family and he was a personal acquaintance of the king. In fact, Herbert served as the English ambassador to France, and was a knight and prominent landowner. Also, he claimed to be a member of the Church of England, and none of Herbert’s “common notions” about religion conflicted with any specific doctrines of the church. In addition, Herbert took the precaution of writing his book in Latin and printing it in France.

It was only in the latter part of the 17th century that the book De Veritate got much attention because it was quoted by a deist, Charles Blount, in a book published in 1683, long after the death of Edward Herbert. Nevertheless, Herbert’s book De Veritate and other books written by Herbert promoted the idea of natural and rational religion, such as found in “Deism.”

In his book De Veritate, Herbert applied his methodology for determining truth to the subject of religion. He introduced this by writing the following:

“Every religion which proclaims a revelation is not (necessarily) good, nor is every doctrine which is taught under authority always essential or even valuable. Some doctrines due to revelation may be, (and) some of them ought to be, abandoned. In this connection the teaching of Common Notions is important; indeed, without them it is impossible to establish any standard of discrimination in revelation or even in religion.” (Note: “necessarily” and “and” added in parentheses for clarity.)

While Herbert accepted the idea that God may communicate truth through some supernatural “revelation,” Herbert believed that the validity of such revealed “truth” depends on whether it is consistent with “common notions” that are known through human “faculties.”

Herbert wrote, “Theories based on implicit faith, though widely held not only in our own part of the world but in the most distant regions, are here irrelevant. Instances of such beliefs are: (1) the human reason must be discarded, to make room for Faith; (2) that the Church, which is infallible, has the right to prescribe the method of divine worship, and in consequence must be obeyed in every detail; (3) that no one ought to place such confidence in his private judgment as to dare to question the sacred authority of priests or preachers of God’s word; (4) that the utterances, though they may elude human grasp, contain so much truth that we should rather lay them to heart than debate them; (5) that to God all the things of which they speak and much more are possible. Now these arguments and many other similar ones, according to differences of age and country, may be equally used to establish a false religion as to support a true one.” (Note: the numbers in parentheses were added to make this long paragraph more readable.)

Then Herbert wrote, “Anything that springs from the productive, not to say seductive seed of Faith will yield a plentiful crop. What pompous charlatan can fail to impress his ragged flock with such ideas? Is there any fantastic cult which may not be proclaiming under such auspices? How can any age escape deception, especially when the cunning authorities declare their inventions to be heaven-born, though in reality they habitually confuse and mix the truth with falsehood? If we do not advance toward truth upon a foundation of Common Notions, assigning every element its true value, how can we hope to reach any but futile conclusions? . . . . The supreme Judge requires every individual to render an account of his actions in the light, not of another’s belief, but of his own. So we must establish the fundamental principles of religion by means of universal wisdom, so whatever has been added to it by the genuine dictates of Faith may rest on that foundation as a roof is supported on a house.

When Herbert applied his “faculties” to the subject of religion, he came up with the following five “Common Notions”:

1. “There is a Supreme God”

Herbert wrote that God is (1) “blessed” (Herbert did not define this term); (2) “the end to which all things move”; (3) “the cause of all things, at least in so far as they are good”; (4) “the means by which all things are produced” to meet the needs of humankind. This is called “providence”; (5) “eternal”; (6) “good”; (7) “just” and (8) “wise”.”

Deists would agree with Herbert that there is a God, the Creator and sustainer of humankind. In regard to God’s “providence” to meet the needs of humankind, Herbert recognized “Universal Providence” or “Nature” as a means of such provision (which all deists accept) but Herbert also believed in “particular” or “special” Providence when God provided “divine assistance in times of distress.” Herbert did not explain how God would provide this “special” assistance. Deists can accept the idea of God providing special assistance through natural means if available, but deists would reject the idea of God acting partially by performing some supernatural “miracles” for favored persons because it would be unfair for God to do this.

2. “This Sovereign Deity ought to be worshipped.”

Herbert wrote, “While there is no general agreement concerning the worship of Gods, sacred beings, saints, and angels, yet the Common Notion or Universal Consent tells us that adoration ought to be reserved for the one God.”

Herbert believed that “adoration” for God is based on recognition of and appreciation for God’s providential care, both Universal and Special. Herbert wrote, “Hence divine religion–and no race, however savage, has existed without some expression of it–is found established among all nations, not only because of the benefits which they received from general providence, but also their recognition of their dependence upon Grace, or particular providence.”

According to Herbert, this recognition of dependence on the providence of God has led people to worship God through “supplications, prayers, sacrifices, acts of thanksgiving; to this end were built shrines, sanctuaries, and finally for this purpose appeared priests, prophets, seers, pontiffs, the whole order of ministers.” Herbert saw “this external aspect of divine worship in any type of religion from every age, country and race” as evidence that worship of God is a “common notion” and that “the same religious faculties which anyone can experience within himself exist in every normal human being, though they appear in different forms and may be expressed without any external ceremony or ritual.

Deists would agree with Herbert that recognition of and appreciation for God’s provisions to sustain life prompt “adoration” or love for God. Appreciation to God for the benefits of “Universal Providence” is certainly accepted by deists as a principle in religion. But Deists would disagree with Herbert’s statement, “The All Wise Cause of the universe . . . . bestows general Grace on all and special Grace on those whom it has chosen.” Herbert admitted that not everyone agreed with him in regard to “special Grace” or special providence. He wrote “Although I find that the doctrine of special providence, or Grace, was only grudgingly acknowledged by the ancients, as may be gathered from their surviving works, . . . .”

3. The connection of Virtue and Piety . . . . is and always has been held to be, the most important part of religious practice.”

The word “piety” refers to reverence for God. The word “virtue” refers to good behavior. Herbert’s third “common notion” is that a person’s reverence, or gratitude, toward God is expressed by the good behavior of the person. The connection between virtue and piety is recognized by deists as a basic principle in deism.

Herbert wrote, “No trait, therefore, is so excellent as gratitude, nothing so base as ingratitude. And when gratitude is expressed by more mature persons . . . . religion becomes enriched and appears in a greater variety of ways. . . . With the advantage of age, piety and holiness of life take deeper roots within the conscience, and give birth to a profound love and faith in God. . . . Nature itself instills men with its secret conviction that virtue constitutes the most effective means by which our mind may be gradually separated and released from the body and restore it to its lawful realm . . . .so that freed from the foul embrace of vice, and finally from the fear of death itself, it can apply itself to its proper function and attain inward everlasting joy.”

In a somewhat awkward way, Herbert explained that gratitude toward God expressed in virtuous behavior frees the mind from “vice” and “fear of death” and brings “inward everlasting joy” or feelings of happiness.

4. “The minds of men have always been filled with horror for their wickedness. Their vices and crimes have been obvious to them. They must be expiated by repentance.”

Herbert wrote, “There is no general agreement concerning the various rites or mysteries which the priests have devised for the expiation of sin.” . . . . “General agreement among religions, the nature of divine goodness, and above all conscience, tell us that our crimes may be washed away by true penitence, and that we can be restored to new union with God. For this inner witness condemns wickedness while at the same time it can wipe out the stain of it by genuine repentance, as the inner form of apprehension under proper conditions proves.”

Herbert recognized that individuals have an “inner witness,” or conscience, that “condemns wickedness” or sin in the individual. We are our own judges. At the same time, this “inner witness” tells us that repentance brings forgiveness as proven by the change in the “form of apprehension” (or relief) we feel within us. In Herbert’s words, we feel “restored to new union with God.” In the practice of deism, repentance is a basic principle.

Herbert makes another important point in writing, “This alone I assert, whatever may be said to the contrary, that unless wickedness can be abolished by penitence and faith in God, and unless Divine goodness can satisfy Divine justice (and no other appeal can be invoked), then there does not exist, nor ever has existed any universal source to which the wretched mass of men, crushed beneath the burden of sin, can turn to obtain grace and inward peace. If this were the case, God has created and condemned certain men, in fact the larger part of the human race, not only without their desire, but without their knowledge. This idea is so dreadful and consorts so ill with the providence and goodness, and even the justice of God, it is more charitable to suppose that the whole human race has always possessed in repentance the opportunity of being reconciled with God.” (Note: words in parentheses also belong to Herbert.)

Herbert added, “To declare that God has cut us off from the means by which we can return to Him, provided we play our part to the utmost of our ability, is a blasphemy so great that those who indulge in it seek to destroy not merely human goodness, but also the goodness of God.”

Herbert clearly opposed the idea that a particular religion that is unknown to many persons can provide the means for reconciliation with God. Herbert explained that repentance is the only means for obtaining forgiveness from God, and the “goodness” and “justice” of God require that this “common notion” be naturally known by all normal persons.

Deists recognize that the “common notion” of repentance is universal and essential in religion.

5. “There is reward and punishment after this life.”

Herbert wrote that “all religion, law, philosophy, and what is more, conscience, teach openly or implicitly that punishment or reward awaits us after this life.” This statement, of course, is not true. All religions and philosophies do not teach that “punishment or reward awaits us after this life,” nor is “conscience” known to forecast the future.

Individual deists hold various views about what happens to us after the life we have now. Deists would agree that the life we have now is evidence that God certainly has the power to give life. Whether God chooses to give us life in the future is unknown to us. Deists would agree that we should live our present life in a way that gives us reason to hope that God will choose to give us life again. Beyond this, deists are satisfied to leave the future in God’s care.

Herbert wrote, “That reward and punishment exist is, then, a Common Notion, though there is the greatest difference of opinion as to their nature, quality, extent, and mode.” After reciting various and conflicting beliefs about reward and punishment, Herbert concludes that “it is clearly a Common Notion . . . . that purity of life and courage of mind promote happiness.”

Deists believe that human nature is designed for virtuous living. When we act against our nature, we experience the discomfort of guilt unless we have lost touch with reality. We experience “reward and punishment” here and now in terms of our own feelings of self-respect or self-condemnation that come from our self-judgment. Inner feelings of satisfaction with oneself are called “happiness” and inner feelings of dissatisfaction with oneself are called “unhappiness.” If we refuse to live as we are designed to live, and we refuse to repent, we punish ourselves with feelings of self-dissatisfaction (unhappiness) as we live now, and we give God no reason to entrust us with life again. There is no need for any other punishment, so deists reject the absurd belief that God punishes people by endless torture in a fiery “Hell.”

Edward Herbert, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, lived and wrote four hundred years ago. In many ways he was far ahead of his times. His belief that human beings have natural “faculties” to help them discover the truth is very close to deist beliefs. Herbert identified the human instinctive search for happiness, conscience, observation through the five senses, and human reasoning as these “faculties.” In my essays, I have referred to deists using “observation, experience, and reason” as the means of discovering truth. Some of the parallels are obvious.

Herbert’s “common notions” included belief in God who should be worshipped (honored) by gratitude and virtuous living, belief in repentance for failures to live virtuously, and belief that human beings are accountable for how they live. These “common notions” certainly sound familiar to deists. While deists would agree with much of what Herbert believed, it is more important to appreciate Herbert as a pioneer in encouraging individuals to use their own natural “faculties” as the means for answering the question, “What is truth?”

Brother John

March 17, 2004

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