Collins, Anthony

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Collins, Anthony (1676-1729): English Theologian.

A professed freethinker, Anthony Collins was the most philosophically accomplished of the English deists. His writings demonstrated how wit, irony, and common sense arguments could be used against those who based their religious outlook on revelation and tradition. Collins was a member of the country gentry. He was born at Heston in Middlesex, England; he attended both Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, studying law. After he established himself on his family's estates between 1715 and 1718, he was active in local administration, serving as justice of the peace and County Treasurer until his death. The role he preferred, however, was that of gentleman scholar. He owned one of the largest private libraries of his day. He knew the deist Toland, John and counted John Locke as a friend. Both men influenced Collins’ thinking, although he was more radical than either one.

Collins believed in the god of natural religion. He mistrusted theologians, considering them quarrelsome, contradictory, confused, and even fraudulent. He denied the possibility of revelation and found the Bible flawed. He insisted that only uncensored reason, based on sense perception, could disclose truth. Collins rejected the existence of genuine free will; will is determined by sensation, appetites, passion, reason, and especially the desire to secure pleasure or avoid pain. The laws of cause and effect bind all, even God. These were themes expounded in his first work, An Essay concerning the Use of Reason (1707) and elaborated upon in responses to his many critics as well as in Priestcraft in Perfection (1710), A Discourse of Freethinking (1713), and A Philosophic Inquiry concerning Human Liberty (1717).

During a long debate with Samuel Clarke in 1707-8 over the attributes of the human soul, Collins argued that man and soul are strictly material, so thinking and consciousness are modes of matter. God alone is noncorporeal.

Collins’ most notorious books were A Discourse on the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion (1724) and A Scheme of Literal Prophecy Considered (1727), where he investigated whether Jesus’ claim to be the messiah was vindicated by his fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. Some prophecies, Collins said, are clear and have nothing to do with the life of Jesus. Others are cryptic. They can be applied to Jesus only allegorically, but allegory is the tool of sophists, who twist anything to mean whatever they want. Collins thus concluded Biblical prophecies offer no evidence of a divine mission for Jesus.

Collins’ attack on prophecies became a standard component in the deist critique of conventional Christianity. His determinism influenced Priestley, Joseph and Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de, among others, while his materialism provided inspiration for Holbach, Paul Henri Dietrich, Baron d’ and La Mettrie, Julien Offray de.

Further Reading:

James O’Higgins, Anthony Collins: The Man and His Works, 1970.

Robert Luehrs