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William Law’s Spirit of Love: Rationalist Argument and Behemist Myth

  • Patrick Grant

Abstract

For William Law (1686–1761) the world without God is tragic and absurd. This is the main point of his best-known book, A Serious Call to a Devoutand Holy Life (1729), in which he describes true devotion — the disposition, that is, of one ‘who lives no longer to his own will … but to the sole will of God’.1 Law does not cut corners: ‘The short of the matter is this, either Reason and Religion prescribe rules and ends to all the ordinary actions of our life, or they do not: If they do, then it is as necessary to govern all our actions by those rules, as it is necessary to worship God’ (p. 10). Among Law’s ‘rules’ are directives for regular prayer, recommendations on the charitable use of money and time, injunctions to universal love, and, especially, an insistence on the inner nature of true religion (in a notorious phrase he points out there is ‘not one command in all the Gospel for Public Worship’ — ibid.). Religion, in brief, supplies ‘strict rules of using everything’ (p. 100), and will therefore ‘relieve our ignorance’ by saving us ‘from tormenting ourselves’ (p. 99). Although Law agrees that the strict piety he advises might at first seem oppressive and anxiety-producing (p. 93), it is, he concludes, really the opposite, as the test of common experience will prove.

Keywords

Spiritual Life Lightning Flash Natural Religion Spiritual Truth Universal Love 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, in The Works of William Law, 9 vols (Setley, Hants: G. Moreton, 1892–3; first published 1762) iv, 7. Page numbers are cited in the text.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    A. Keith Walker, William Law: His Life and Thought (London: SPCK, 1973) p. 67. Law is careful, however, to avoid Quietism. See A Serious Call, p. 153: ‘you ought not to say, that I encourage that quietism by placing religion in the heart’. Desirée Hirst, Hidden Riches. Traditional Symbolism from the Renaissance to Blake (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1964) pp. 196ff., maintains that Law’s work represents an attempt to keep in touch with the mainstream of Christian spirituality. See also Arthur W. Hopkinson, About William Law (London: SPCK, 1948) p. 75, on Law’s mystical readings.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    James Boswell, Life of Johnson, ed. R. W. Chapman, corrected by J. D. Fleeman (London: Oxford University Press, 1970) pp. 50–1; Edward Gibbon, Memoirs of my Life, ed. George Bonnard (London: Thomas Nelson, 1966) p. 22. See also Katherine C. Balderston, ‘Dr Johnson and William Law’, Publications of the Modern Language Association, lxxv (1960) 302–94. For a brief summary of the indebtedness of Wesley, Whitefield, Pope, Johnson, Blake and Coleridge to Law, see John Sitter, Literary Loneliness in Mid-Eighteenth-Century England (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 1982) pp. 50ff.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    See Colin Wilson, Religion and the Rebel (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1957) p. 212: ‘This is a clean, hard-hitting prose. In its clarity, it has something in common with Shaw.’ See also Gerald Bullett, The English Mystics (London: Michael Joseph, 1950) p. 138.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    C. S. Lewis, Letters to an American Lady, ed. Clyde S. Kilby (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1967) p. 43.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    For the influence of Law on Pope, see Benjamin Boyce, The Character Sketches in Pope’s Poems (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1962) pp. 49ff.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    St Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, trs. E. Allison Peers (New York: Image, 1961) p. 68.Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    See C. Walton, Notes and Materials for an Adequate Biography of William Law (London: privately printed, 1854) pp. 429–41.Google Scholar
  9. 11.
    The Letters of C. S. Lewis, ed. W. H. Lewis (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1966) p. 143. See also Charles Williams, Descent of the Dove (Grand Rapids, Mich.:Google Scholar
  10. William B. Eerdmans, 1939) p. 195, who claims that a few books from Law’s later phase ‘form perhaps one of the best statements of the pure Christian religion that have ever been issued’.Google Scholar
  11. 13.
    For this background to Law, see Henri Talon, William Law. A Study in Literary Craftsmanship (New York: Rockliff, 1948), ch. 2, ‘The Background’, pp. 7ff.; N. Sykes, Church and State in England in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1934); Walker, William Law, ‘Early Years and Cultural Background’, pp. 1ff.Google Scholar
  12. 14.
    Ibid., p. 6.Google Scholar
  13. 15.
    John Byrom, Private Journal and Literary Remains, ed. Richard Parkinson, 2 vols (Manchester: Chetham Society, 1854–7) i, 23, which deals with Law’s early acquaintance with Malebranche. John Hoyles, The Edges of Augustanism. The Aesthetics of Spirituality in Thomas Ken, John Byrom and William Law (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1972) p. 104, deals with the fact that ‘A cult of Malebranche appears to have developed among the second generation of non-jurors who organised themselves as such after the 1715 Hanoverian settlement.’Google Scholar
  14. 16.
    For a summary of Malebranche, see Patrick Grant, Images and Ideas in Literature of the English Renaissance (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press; and London: Macmillan, 1979) pp. 175ff. Useful accounts of Malebranche’s thought can be found in R. W. Church, A Study in the Philosophy of Malebranche (New York and London: Kennikat Press, 1970; first published 1931); and Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, iv: Descartes to Leibniz (London: Burns and Oates, 1960) ch. 9, ‘Malebranche’, pp. 180–204. For Malebranche’s spirituality, see Pierre Blanchard, L’Attention à Dieu selon Malebranche (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1956); and Maurice Blondel, ‘L’Anti-Cartésianisme de Malebranche’, Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, 1916, pp. 1–26. For the relationship between science and religion in Malebranche, see Beatrice K. Rome, The Philosophy of Malebranche. A Study of his Integration of Faith, Reason and Experimental Observation (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1963); Michael E. Hobart, Science and Religion in the Thought of Nicolas Malebranche (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982).Google Scholar
  15. 17.
    Oeuvres Complètes de Bérulle, ed. J. P. Migne (Paris, 1886) col. 161.Google Scholar
  16. 18.
    See especially André Robinet, Malebranche de l’Académie des Sciences (Paris: J. Vrin, 1970).Google Scholar
  17. 19.
    See Remarks upon Some of Mr Norris’s Books, Wherein he Asserts P. Malebranche’s Opinion of our Seeing All Things in God, in The Works of John Locke. A New Edition, 10 vols (London: Thomas Tegg, 1823) x, 247–59; and An Examination of P. Malebranche’s Opinion of Seeing All Things in God, ibid., ix, 211ff. Thomas Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, 2 vols (Dublin, 1786) i, 142, says of Locke’s Examination, ‘whether it was written in haste, or after the vigour of his understanding was impaired by age, there is less of strength and solidity in it, than in most of his writings’. Yet Locke is shrewd in arguing that the curious structure of the eye and ear remains unexplained if, as Malebranche holds, God operates in the most direct andGoogle Scholar
  18. 20.
    For Malebranche’s knowledge of Bacon, Descartes and Newton, see Rome, The Philosophy of Malebranche, esp. ch. 1, ‘Scientific Method’, pp. 7ff.; Robinet, Malebranche de l’Académie des Sciences, pp. 212, 294ff., 318ff., et passim. Google Scholar
  19. 22.
    Malebranche, Dialogues on Metaphysics and on Religion, trs. Morris Ginsberg (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1923) pp. 147, 196.Google Scholar
  20. 26.
    Matthew Tindal, Christianity as Old as the Creation, or the Gospel a Republication of the Religion of Nature (1730) p. 179.Google Scholar
  21. 29.
    David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, ed. Norman Kemp Smith, 2nd edn, with supplement (New York: Social Sciences Publishers, 1948) p. 141. Page numbers are henceforth cited in the text.Google Scholar
  22. 31.
    See, for instance, Law’s An Humble, Earnest, and Affectionate Address to the Clergy (1761), in Works, ix, 82–3.Google Scholar
  23. 32.
    For Hume’s literary accomplishments, see Michael Morrisroe, Jr, ‘Hume’s Rhetorical Strategy: A Solution to the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion’, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 11 (1969) 963–74, and ‘Rhetorical Methods in Hume’s Works on Religion’, Philosophy and Rhetoric, 2 (1969) 121–38. See also Sitter, Literary Loneliness in Mid-Eighteenth-Century England, ch. 1, ‘Hume’s Stylistic Emergence’, pp. 19ff.Google Scholar
  24. 35.
    For accounts of Boehme’s influence on Law, see J. H. Overton, The Life and Opinions of William Law (London: Longmans, Green, 1881) pp. 140ff.; Caroline Spurgeon, Mysticism in English Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1913) pp. 91ff; Stephen Hobhouse, ‘Fides et Ratio, the Book which Introduced Jacob Boehme to William Law’, Journal of Theological Studies, 37 (1934) 350–68, and (ed.) Selected Mystical Writings of William Law (London: C. W. Daniel, 1938) pp. 303ff.; J. Brazier Green, John Wesley and William Law (London: Epworth, 1945) pp. 93ff.; Henri Talon,Google Scholar
  25. William Law: A Study in Literary Craftsmanship, pp. 58ff.; Peter Malekin, ‘Jacob Boehme’s Influence on William Law’, Studia Neophilologica, 36 (1964) 245–60; Walker, William Law, pp. 96ff.Google Scholar
  26. 38.
    See, for instance, John Joseph Stoudt, Sunrise to Eternity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1957); Malekin, in Studia Neophilologica, 36, 249ff.; Walker, William Law, pp. 96ff.; Patrick Grant, Literature of Mysticism in Western Tradition (London: Macmillan, 1983) pp. 86ff.Google Scholar
  27. 39.
    Law, The Spirit of Love, in Works, viii, 19. See also, Some Animadversions upon Dr Trapp’s Late Reply (1740), ibid., vi, 201: The illustrious Sir Isaac Newton, when he wrote his Principia, and published to the World his great Doctrine of Attraction, and those Laws of Nature by which the Planets began, and continue to move in their Orbits, could have told the World, that the true and infallible Ground of what he there advanced, was to be found in the Teutonic Theosopher. On Newton’s possible knowledge of Boehme, see Hobhouse, in his edn of Selected Mystical Writings of Law, pp. 397ff.; H. McLachlan, Sir Isaac Newton, Theological Manuscripts (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1950) pp. 20–1; S. Hutin, Les Disciples Anglais de Jacob Boehme (Paris: Editions Denöel, 1960) pp. 142–50; Walker, William Law, p. 106.Google Scholar

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© Patrick Grant 1985

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  • Patrick Grant

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