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Theology, Progressive. Harold Berman....
A MONTHLY MAGAZINE
the Extension of the Religious Parliament Idea
Vol. XXXVIII (No. 1) JANUARY, 1924
(No. 812) Copyright by The Open Court PUBLISHING COMPANY, 1924
SHELLEY-AFTER ONE HUNDRED YEARS
BY J. V. NASH HE fact that Percy Bysshe Shelley was born in the year 1792,
during the height of the French Revolution, furnishes a key to much of his philosophy. It was more than a coincidence that in this same year Thomas Paine published his Rights of Man, fled England to avoid arrest, and reached Paris, where he took a seat in the Revolutionary Convention as a delegate for Calais. There he was soon to begin writing his Age of Reason. Both of these books, the one political and the other religious, no doubt exercised a marked influence upon young Shelley's restless spirit.
The seeds of revolt, too, scattered in the air by the winds of the Revolution, crossed the channel and at an early date fell upon fertile ground in the soul of Shelley, for he was by nature highly imaginative, receptive to novel ideas, and rebellious toward all forms of outer authority and tradition. The radicalism let loose by the Revolution impregnated his mind during the most susceptible years of youth, when it was in the most plastic state. These influences greatly strengthened the natural bent of his character. The motto of the Revolution-Liberty, Equality, Fraternity-became his social creed.
Already at Eton School, which he entered at the age of twelve, he had acquired a reputation as a radical. He was dubbed an Atheist, a title which he adopted and gloried in. When he went up to Oxford in 1810, he fell in with congenial companions who encouraged and applauded his revolutionary tendencies. While at Oxford, Shelley published anonymously a pamphlet "On the Necessity of Atheism,” attacking the Bible and Revelation, copies of which he sent to all the leading bishops and officials, challenging them to a discussion of the subject.
This pamphlet naturally horrified those into whose hands it fell, and the college authorities quickly identified Shelley as the author. The story is told that he was called into the presence of the principal
of his college, who, in stern tones, delivered an ultimatum to the rash young iconoclast: "Mr. Shelley,” said he, "unless you provide yourself with a God of some kind before Monday morning I must ask you to leave Oxford."! Monday morning came, but Shelley had no deity to display to the putraged principal; so he left Oxford.
Shelley's defiance of authority and convention we see exhibited in his private life as well as in his writings. The former, the details of which it is impossible to go into here, was a continued protest against the long-established conventionalities and tabus of the social system into which he was born. Among the most spirited of his prose writings is his defense of freedom of the press, in the letter to Lord Ellenborough, a terrific philippic denouncing the imprisonment of the bookseller Eaton, who had been thrown into jail for selling copies of Paine's Age of Reason.
"Whence," he asks, "is any right derived, but that which power confers, for persecution? Do you think to convert Mr. Eaton to your religion by embittering his existence? You might force him by torture to profess your tenets, but he could not believe them, except you should make them credible, which perhaps exceeds your power. Do you think to please the God you worship by this exhibition of your zeal? If so, the demon to whom some nations offer human hecatombs is less barbarous than the deity of civilized society.
When the Apostles went abroad to convert the nations, were they enjoined to stab and poison all who disbelieved the divinity of Christ's mission ?
"The time,” he went on to say, "is rapidly approaching—I hope that you, my Lord, may live to behold its arrival when the Mahometan, the Jew, the Christian, the Deist, and the Atheist will live together in one community, equally sharing the benefits which arise from its association, and united in the bonds of charity and brotherly love."
In his poetry, Shelley catches more truly than any other poet the spirit of the new age which was ushered in by the French Revolution, the era of free inquiry and untrammeled criticism which has continued down to our own day. He was the incarnation of the Romantic spirit. As the herald of the modern world of thought, such a distinguished literary critic as W. M. Rossetti ranks Shelley higher than Byron, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Browning, or even Victor Hugo, who he thinks comes next to Shelley in this respect. He says that Shelley excels all the others in his idealism, in the music of his poetry, and in the force of his message—its grip upon the reader, its passion, and the permanence of its impression.
In 1817 Shelley published The Revolt of Islam. In this work