Thomas White was an English priest. As leader of the Blackloist faction in English Catholicism, he aimed to make Catholicism more acceptable to Protestant authorities. In his natural philosophical works, White combined Aristotelian philosophy with the findings of the new science. In his political work, he argued that rulers owe their authority to the people rather than to God and that states that fail to serve their subjects’ best interest lose their legitimacy.
KeywordsReasonable Doubt Oral Tradition Philosophical Work Mechanistic Account English College
Thomas White was born in 1592 or 1593 in Essex. Receiving his education at the English Catholic colleges of St Omer, Valladolid, and Seville, White graduated B.D. in Leuven in 1614. Between 1618 and 1623, he taught philosophy and theology at the English college of Douai and between 1625 and 1629 acted as a representative of English Catholics in Rome. Having served as President of the English Catholic college in Lisbon between 1630 and 1633, White spent the early 1640s in Paris, where he associated himself with the so-called Mersenne circle, which acquainted him with such figures as Kenelm Digby, Gassendi, and Hobbes. By 1655, White had returned to England, where he was to become leader of the Blackloist faction of English Catholicism, which was so-called after one of his aliases, Blacklo. Blackloism comprised both a broadly Aristotelian philosophical program and the political ambition of securing toleration for English Catholics by renouncing all worldly power. In theology, White’s Blackloism entailed a critique of papal infallibility and the traditional doctrine of purgatory. During the 1650s White continued to pursue his scientific interests, meeting and corresponding with such men as Ward, Wilkins, and Fermat. In 1655, White in his Grounds of Obedience and Government advised English Catholics to support the Cromwell regime. Just before the restoration of Charles II in 1660, White withdrew to Holland in 1659, returning to England in 1662. He died in London, on 6 July 1676.
In his early works on natural philosophy, White combined traditional teaching with the new science. Thus, in his 1642 De Mundo, White combined aspects of Galilean cosmology with Aristotelian natural philosophy and the 1646 Institutionum Peripateticorum outlined a mechanistic account of bodies within a broadly Aristotelian framework. Bodies were compounds of matter and substantial form. But at the same time, they were constellations of minute corpuscles of the four elements, and their characteristics could be accounted for in terms of the constellation and motion of these corpuscles. White’s synthesis of Aristotelian philosophy and mechanism owed a lot to the work of his friend Kenelm Digby, who in his Two Treatises of 1644 had claimed that bodies and their operations result from the motion of elementary particles and that this had been the thrust of Aristotle’s natural philosophy.
In his Grounds of Obedience, White argued that although “the Nature of Man is to be free,” man chooses to submit to government seeing that this is in his own best interest (White 1655, 6). The subject of a state must see that “what was ordered by the Government, was his owne truest interest” and states that fail to make this clear will in the long run lose their legitimacy (White 1655, 3). Among the yielding Grounds most vocal critics was Roger Coke, who reproached Grotius, Hobbes, and White for holding that men are by nature free and that the state derives its authority from the people. Instead, Coke argued that “Men are by nature born into society and subordination” and that the power to rule was divinely instituted (Coke 1660, 53).
As a Catholic, White believed that the text and meaning of the Scripture were too uncertain to function as a rule of faith. Only the unbroken oral tradition of the church could provide doctrinal certainty. Protestants such as John Tillotson and John Wilkins would later argue that certainty beyond a reasonable doubt, or moral certainty, was enough in religious matters, but White would not lower his standards in this way. In his 1663 Scire, sive Sceptices et Scepticorum a jure Disputationis Exclusio, he attacked Joseph Glanvill, who had argued that absolute or infallible certainty is not humanly attainable and that though we must aim to rule out reasonable doubts, we will never succeed in the elimination of every possible doubt. According to White, to settle for moral certainty was to give in to the sceptic, and in the second half of the seventeenth century, White’s friend, the Blackloist John Sergeant, would repeat and further develop this line of argument.