Edward Herbert

The English philosopher, poet, diplomat, and historian Edward Herbert, 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648), is considered the father of English deism. His major work, "On Truth," is one of the few metaphysical treatises in English philosophy.

Edward Herbert was born on March 3, 1583, the first son of Richard and Magdalen Herbert, at Eyton, Shropshire. Edward was precocious in his early studies, and the poet John Donne was employed as a tutor for the Herbert children. On the death of Richard Herbert in 1596 the family moved to Oxford, where the young philosopher studied at University College. When he was barely 15, Edward married. The poetry of his younger brother, George Herbert, has been widely recognized, but Edward's Latin and English verse has also earned him recognition as an important disciple of Donne.

For the next 20 years Herbert divided his time between attendance at the courts of Elizabeth and James I and travels on the Continent. He served as a soldier, wrote verses, and dabbled in philosophy. All of this is recounted with enormous self-esteem in The Life of Edward Lord Herbert of Cherbury, Written by Himself. Horace Walpole's publication of Herbert's autobiography in 1764 created a literary sensation.

In 1618 James I appointed the 35-year-old Herbert as English ambassador to France, and he served with distinction for 6 years until he was recalled by the King. As a reward he was given an Irish peerage as Baron of Castle Island in 1624, and 5 years later he received an English title as the 1st Baron of Cherbury. But, in effect, his public career was ended, and he suffered the vicissitudes of English aristocracy during a period of great political turmoil. He unsuccessfully applied to court and to Parliament for redress and compensation. He died on Aug. 20, 1648, in London.

Deism holds that all elements of religion should be amenable to reason and therefore criticizes private revelation, priesthood, and dogma. In De veritate (1624; On Truth) Herbert begins with the attempt to find a medium between faith and skepticism. Truth is that which is universal and eternal and known by the interaction of the faculties—instinct, will, sensation, and reason—with the apprehension of objects, appearances, concepts, and truths of intellect. This view is supported with the thesis that man is born with implicit "common notions" which provide the foundations for all truth, law, and religion. John Locke later attacked this naive form of innatism. In De causis errorum (1645; The Causes of Error) Herbert expanded his notion of the uniformity, harmony, and universality of truth by defining falsity as that which is neither true, probable, nor possible.

In De religione laici (1645; The Religion of the Laity) Herbert anticipated the theory of the natural history of religion adopted by David Hume a century later. Religious documents should be treated historically, and true religion is that which expresses the greatest conformity to the universal common notions. Herbert further developed the application of common notions to religion in De religione gentilium (1663; Ancient Religion of the Gentiles). The universal characteristics of true religion are identified as the notions that there is one God, that He is worthy of worship, and that He rewards and punishes man, judging him according to his practice of virtue and his sorrow for sin.


Further Reading on Edward Herbert

Useful studies of Herbert's life and work are in the introductions to the English translations of his works: De veritate, with an introduction by Meyrick H. Carre (1937), and Lord Herbert of Cherbury's De religione laici, introduced by the editor and translator, Harold R. Hutcheson (1944). The Autobiography of Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury contains a useful introduction to his life and work together with letters and a continuation of his life by Sidney Lee (1886; 2d rev. ed. 1906). For deism, in general, Clement C. J. Webb, Studies in the History of Natural Theology (1915), and Peter Gay, Deism: An Anthology (1968), are recommended.