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Modernes et 'antimodernes'

The Age of Credulity: Believing the Unbelievable in the Century of Enlightenment

Jeffrey Hopes
p. 181-191

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  • 1  “Then I heard one saint speaking, and another saint said unto that certain saint which spake, How (...)

1In 1795 appeared a pamphlet by the Calvinist preacher Thomas Williams entitled The Age of Credulity. The occasion of this publication was the public support given by the orientalist, philologist and close ally of Warren Hastings, the MP for Lymington (Hampshire), Nathaniel Brassey Halhed to the self-styled prophet, millenarian and Anglo-Israelite, Richard Brothers. In 1794 Brothers had published A Revealed Knowledge of the Prophecies and Times written, according to the title page “under the direction of the Lord God,” in which he proposed a revised chronology of the Bible based on the proposition that periods of days mentioned in the Old Testament should be interpreted as years. Applying this technique to the prophecies, notably of the Book of Daniel, Brothers calculated that in 1794 5,913 years had passed since the creation. He interpreted the prophecy at Daniel 8, 13-14 concerning the cleansing of the sanctuary,1 to indicate the return of the tribes of Israel to Palestine, an event that would take place in 2,300 days (so, for Brothers, 2,300 years). Working from his own detailed biblical chronology, Brothers calculated this to be in the year 1798. The return of the Jews, which Brothers himself would be instrumental in bringing about, would usher in a new epoch of peace and piety. This happy event was however not to happen without some collateral damage. Brothers recounts how, at the beginning of January 1791, he heard a “very loud and unusual kind of Thunder” (27), the voice of an angel proclaiming God’s judgment. Having been commanded to travel to a point eight miles from London, in the company of an angel, Brothers there successfully negotiated with the almighty the postponement of the complete destruction of London while he informed Londoners of the danger they were in. Indeed, so persuasive was Brothers that God even agreed to completely spare a small number of people whose names Brothers supplied Him with. These included William Pitt, William Wilberforce, the King and his family, Charles James Fox (who must have been most surprised to find himself in such company), and one Ponsonby whose face Brothers found honest, and who he claimed was descended, like himself and the Countess of Buckinghamshire, from King David. These chosen few needed to be rapidly informed as the Almighty intended to draw people into the capital before obliterating it. In order to better intercede, Brothers decided to make a quick visit to heaven where God spoke to him from a cloud. Unsurprisingly, He was becoming somewhat exasperated with Brothers’ meddling in his judgment day plans and sulkily refused to speak to Brothers for three days. However ten days later he called the whole thing off, recognizing that “there is no other man on earth that could stand before me to ask for so great a thing” (30). Brothers nonetheless gives an apocalyptic vision of what the destruction of London, and indeed whole swathes of the globe, planned for 1793, would have entailed.

2In a second part of A Revealed Knowledge published later the same year Brothers expands his reading of biblical prophecies to include more contemporary events in Europe. Considering the French Revolution to be divinely ordained, Brothers prophecies, amongst other events, the death of the Empress of Russia, the victory of the Emperor of Germany over the Electors following the signing of a peace treaty with France, the subsequent defeat of the Emperor at the hands of the French Republic, the victory of Russia over Poland and the Ottoman empire and its later defeat at the hands of the Swedes. Brothers affirms that the French monarchy will never return and that if Britain persists in waging war on France, it too will see its monarchy removed. Brothers told the king and Pitt of this important knowledge, but when he went to inform parliament on May 17th 1792 he was treated with “unfeeling contempt and incivility” (24). Such treatment is perhaps unsurprising given Brothers’ defence of the French Revolution and his equating London with Sodom. He was finally arrested, charged with treason in 1795 and imprisoned despite being found insane.

3At this point Nathaniel Brassey Halhed came out in support of Brothers, first on the floor of the House of Commons and later in print. Halhed had entered politics in order to give his unstinting support to his mentor Warren Hastings, the former governor of Bengal, who was on the point of being finally acquitted after the extended trial which had opposed him in particular to Edmund Burke. Halhed not only offered his support to Brothers by replying to his detractors, he took his case into Parliament making a speech on March 31st 1795 in which he moved that Brothers’ book should be printed and distributed for the benefit of MPs. In so doing he called down on himself almost universal derision and indeed hostility, given the political radicalism that underpinned Brothers’ prophecies. The only positive outcome he achieved was to secure the removal of Brothers from prison to a private asylum from which he continued to issue his prophetic writings. As for Halhed himself, his reputation was ruined. He left parliament and largely ceased his scholarly activities, living in seclusion until his death in 1830.

4What can have induced such an erudite scholar and a brilliant linguist, the author of a grammar of the Bengali language and the translator, from Persian, of the Code of Gentoo laws, originally dictated in Sanskrit as part of Hastings’ plan to apply local legal codes in the territories he governed, to fall for the extravagant delusions of Richard Brothers to the point of sacrificing his own career and reputation ? This is a question to which we will never know the answer, but the title of Williams’ pamphlet points to something more than a personal frailty. Clearly Williams saw Halhed’s case as symptomatic of a widespread propensity to credulity, to believing the unbelievable. The Age of Credulity has other resonances however. The previous year Williams had penned The Age of Infidelity, one of many replies to Tom Paine’s The Age of Reason, the first part of which had appeared the same year. Paine’s deist attack on revealed religion, on the authority of the Bible, and on the trinity of obfuscation that represented in his eyes mystery, miracles and prophecy, came forth from his imprisonment in Paris where he had fallen foul of the Committee of Public Safety. In the French context Paine was seeking to defend belief in a deity against secular atheism but in Britain his ideas, which were hardly new, where seen as threatening the very foundations of religious belief, particularly as his work was avidly read by the literate sections of the lower classes to whom it was clearly addressed.

5Paine sought to wean his readers from their unquestioning religious credulity : “Credulity, however, is not a crime, but it becomes criminal by resisting conviction. It is strangling in the womb of the conscience the efforts it makes to ascertain truth. We should never force belief upon ourselves in any thing.” (323) In denouncing the contradictions and absurdities that he saw as abounding in the scriptures, Paine seeks to oppose the new age of reason, one which the two revolutions in America and France had inaugurated, to the continued imposition of revealed religion. In this imposition, prophecy played a major role, despite the word having, according to Paine, been distorted from its original signification of poetry. Not only did he seek to explode the elaborate cross-referencing which had designated parts of the Old Testament as prophetic of what would happen in the New, but he poured ridicule on any attempt to derive subsequent historical meaning from books such as that of Daniel. Richard Brothers affirmed that the four beasts mentioned in Daniel chapter 7 signified George iii (the lion), the Empress of Russia (the bear), Louis xvi (the leopard) and the Emperor of Germany (the monster). Thomas Williams reiterated the orthodox interpretation of this vision as anticipating the fall of Babylon, the humiliation and conversion of Nebuchadnezzar, the cruelty of the Medo-Persians, the conquests of Alexander the Great and the rise of the Roman Empire. But for Paine, all such interpretations were just ridiculous speculations with no rational foundation whatsoever. Christians were as credulous to Paine as Nathaniel Brassey Halhed and other followers of Richard Brothers were to Williams. Williams’ attack on Paine’s infidelity would have been seen by Paine as mired in an irrational belief in the authority of biblical texts, while Paine was himself denounced for seeking to lead credulous and uneducated readers astray into the politics of sedition, revolution and deism.

6What these debates are about is not just questions of truth, but the even more fundamental question of belief, or, to give it its more derogatory and secular equivalent, credulity. Whereas orthodox Protestantism defended belief against the credulity of those who were deceived by fanaticism and superstition, deists denounced the credulity of all Christians. Some years earlier, but as part of the same debate, David Hume sought to navigate between the Scylla of outright rationalist dismissal of religious mysteries and the Charybdis of religious credulity. In his Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40) Hume first defines belief as no different in kind from other ideas : “An opinion, therefore, or belief [the synonymity of these two terms is in itself significant] may be most accurately defin’d, a lively idea related to or associated with a present impression” (144). Hume admits to considerable difficulty in taking this definition further. Despite his refusal to see belief as distinct from ideas, he nonetheless senses, recognizing that people in general think the same, that belief is in some way different. He finds this difference (and a way out of his difficulty) in the manner in which it is conceived : “An idea assented to [a belief] feels different from a fictitious idea, that the fancy alone presents to us : And this different feeling I endeavour to explain by calling it a superior force, or vivacity, or solidity, or firmness, or steadiness” (146). In thus distinguishing (if only in manner) belief from “the fictions of the imagination” (146) Hume walks a narrow and rather wobbly tightrope between making belief comparable to fiction and recognizing its distinctive, if ill-defined nature.

7As a corollary to this precarious analysis, Hume invokes the notion of credulity to distinguish belief in the unbelievable from belief which rests on a firmer basis : “No weakness of human nature is more universal and conspicuous than what we commonly call Credulity, or a too easy faith in the testimony of others” (162). Hume accounts for our propensity to credulity by the resemblance between the account of someone else and our own experience. Where such resemblance is lacking, as in the idea of the immortality of the soul, people are much less likely to be convinced. Yet what is most striking here is the introduction of the criterion of testimony, the credit accorded to someone else’s account of something of which we have no direct experience. If this line of enquiry seems not to be pursued in the Treatise, it is because Hume decided to suppress the chapter on miracles which subsequently appeared in the Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748). In the later work, Hume asserts that our belief, or disbelief, in extraordinary events such as miracles depends on our judgment of the probability of such events occurring on the basis firstly of the evidence of our own experience, secondly of evidence indicating proofs which go beyond our own experience, and finally on the credibility of the testimony which reports such events. These criteria might well be mutually contradictory, yet ultimately the superior evidence of our own and others’ knowledge and experience of the laws of nature must prevail. Hume can thus conclude, again somewhat tortuously, “[t]hat no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish : And even in that case, there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior” (174).

8Whilst leaving open the theoretical possibility that a testimony might be so entirely trustworthy that its supreme credibility would overrule all other proofs to the contrary, Hume goes on to say that no such testimony has been produced in the case of miracles so that belief in their having taken place, and by extension in the religion which is posited on their existence, can only be the result of “a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is contrary to custom and experience” (186). Most importantly for our purpose is the way in which the criterion of testimony makes fiction and religion strictly comparable, differing only in the strength or degree of credibility that can might be accorded to one or the other. Even though Hume also cites the sceptical adage recounted in Plutarch to the effect that “I should not believe such a story were it told me by Cato” (172), he considers that human responses to ‘stories’ are more often characterised by a credulity that inclines us to believe even the most ludicrous accounts :

With what greediness are the miraculous accounts of travellers received, their descriptions of sea and land monsters, their relations of wonderful adventures, strange men, and uncouth manners ? But if the spirit of religion join itself to the love of wonder, there is an end of common sense ; and human testimony, in these circumstances, loses all pretensions to authority. A religionist may be an enthusiast, and imagine he sees what has no reality : He may know his narrative to be false, and yet persevere in it, with the best intentions in the world, for the sake of promoting so holy a cause : Or even where this delusion has no place, vanity, excited by so strong a temptation, operates on him more powerfully than on the rest of mankind in any other circumstances ; and self-interest with equal force. His auditors may not have, and commonly have not, sufficient judgment to canvass his evidence : What judgment they have, they renounce by principle, in these sublime and mysterious subjects : Or if they were ever so willing to employ it, a passion and a heated imagination disturb the regularity of its operations. Their credulity increases his impudence : And his impudence overpowers their credulity. (175)

9The link which Hume makes here between travel narratives and religious fanaticism places us firmly on Swiftian territory. But before I come to Gulliver’s Travels, and to Alain Bony’s detailed and scrupulous account of the ‘truths’ it expounds, we need to draw out some of the implications of Hume’s insight into the nature of readerly credulity.

  • 2  See Leonora, especially chapters 4 and 7.

10Alain Bony rightly sees the 1740s as a turning point in the history of the novel in England, pointing in particular to the innovations of its two principal practitioners : Samuel Richardson introduced not just the epistolary novel but a new relationship with his readers through the involvement of a small circle of female friends in pre-publication discussions about Pamela.2 Fielding initiated his new ‘kind of writing’ in Joseph Andrews by creating a naive quixotic hero who comically offsets the novel’s classical erudition. For all their differences, Pamela and Joseph Andrews exhibit a shared preoccupation with questions of belief and credulity. Fielding’s novel inaugurates a whole series of mid-century quixotic novels of which Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote (1752), Tobias Smollett’s Sir Launcelot Greaves (1760-61), Richard Graves’s The Spiritual Quixote (1773), Henry Brooke’s The Fool of Quality (1776), and of course Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-1767) are some of the most important. I have written elsewhere of the importance of these novels in the emergence of the sentimental novel and the resurgence of romance (Hopes). What is important here is the credulity of their heroes, their willingness to believe what others tell them and what they read, a naivety that is invariably a quality, not a defect, or at the very least, as with Arabella in Charlotte Lennox’s novel, a failing which in no way diminishes her charm. The protagonists’ credulity constitutes a mise en abyme of a new, less sceptical contract with the implied reader. Richardson on the other hand posits not so much a sentimentally quixotic reader as a Christian believer in a text which takes immense pains to demonstrate its credibility in order to validate its quasi-miraculous dénouement. Prose fiction thus shares with biblical exegesis and philosophical enquiry a preoccupation not only with questions of truth, but with the way the appeal to the sympathetic reader raises the crucial issues of belief and credulity.

11It is in this light that I offer the following remarks on Gulliver’s Travels and on a few aspects of Alain Bony’s brilliant analysis of this endlessly fascinating text (Discours et vérité). Throughout this book he seeks to situate Swift’s central preoccupation with truth within the parameters of the text itself, in its discursive logic, in its poetics. It is through a meticulous reading of the text, one that reveals how intimately he had come to know it, that both the narratorial and authorial dimensions of ‘truth’ are explored, these two dimensions being inextricably linked. The philosophical truths that the text encodes can only be expressed through the complex (but also comic) recourse to an unreliable narrator because such truths are not abstract precepts but rooted in human behaviour, in particular the dialogic activity of story-telling where the extent of the narrator’s credibility and the reader’s credulity are themselves only defined by the interaction (or transaction) that takes place between them. As Alain Bony writes, “La notion même de vérédiction prend ainsi dans les Voyages une configuration fuyante et variable” (26).

12Yet despite the transactional nature of truth in Gulliver’s Travels, the reader’s (and particularly the scholarly critic’s) desire to penetrate to the core of those philosophical truths which are perceived as being the standard by which all the various parameters of the narrative are to be judged, cannot be completely abandoned. Located within the text itself, truth will out and it is inevitably extrapolated in the form of a moral code or an authorial intention. This very human urge to escape a hall of mirrors and to discover the reality behind the image (one which A Tale of a Tub constantly frustrates) comes to the fore in the fourth book when Gulliver is forced to confront truths about his own human (Yahoo) condition, truths which lead him to madness and misanthropy, his only refuge being the retelling of his travels. Alain Bony adopts a resolutely ‘soft’ reading of this book, to use the rather confusing critical jargon that so defines a reading of the land of the Houyhnhnms as a dystopia and the horses as exemplifying the dangers of the sort of mathematical reasoning familiar from A Modest Proposal. Their inhuman, totalitarian perfection is seen as irreconcilable with the imperfections of the human condition :

Les Houyhnhnms sont condamnés à un autisme mortifère dont Gulliver dans son aveuglement n’a pas conscience, et qu’il va jusqu’à adopter pour lui-même. Pure construction intellectuelle, le pays des Houyhnhnms n’a finalement rien à proposer à l’humanité souffrante... En d’autres termes, l’écart est infranchissable entre la corruption humaine et la perfection houyhnhnm, qui ne sert qu’à designer, en le creusant irrémédiablement, cet écart, sans suggérer le moindre modèle, la moindre « maxime » d’action personnelle ou collective. (186-87)

13Some, such as Irvin Ehrenpreis, have read the fourth book as an attack on deism and the rationalist arguments of the Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Collins and John Toland. Alain Bony reads it more in the utopia/dystopia tradition. Either way, such ‘soft’ interpretations, often reinforced by an association of the Yahoos with the Irish poor, give the last part of Gulliver’s Travels a more normative philosophical framework than is generally accorded the rest of the book.

  • 3  James Bruce, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, in the years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772 (...)

14Yet just as important as the discursive and philosophical truths that can be indentified in Gulliver’s Travels are the differing perceptions of truth it reveals. Such perceptions exist on various levels. There are first of all the perceptions detailed in the text itself, those of Gulliver when he learns what the Lilliputians are up to for instance, or those of the king of Brobdingnag when he interrogates Gulliver about his own country. Such perceptions include the inability to recognise truth, as when Gulliver, despite the evidence of his being a Yahoo, seeks the company of horses on his return home. Secondly, we have the text’s own construction of the perception of the implied reader, one who is both candid (the word suggests honesty but also naivety) and sceptical, allowing an ironic interplay between the unreliable narrator and this Janus-like reader for whom the model is the reader of travel narratives. To the open-mouthed credulity which Hume comments on, Swift adds the anticipation of an entirely incredulous response to tales of strange lands and peoples. That both responses did exist requires little demonstration. Travel narratives were immensely popular and widely believed, even in such fictional form as Robinson Crusoe. Yet when the Scottish explorer James Bruce published his detailed account of his travels in Ethiopia in search of the sources of the Nile, his account was almost unanimously dismissed as a fabrication.3

15Finally we have the real reader, one who is not ‘implied’, not configured by the text and whose relation to it is not just discursively but historically and culturally determined. And here we must confront the most important question of all. If the ‘soft’ interpretation is correct, why was book 4 so generally ‘misunderstood’ in the eighteenth century ? If it is an attack on the Houyhnhnms, why was it taken as a panegyric ? If Alain Bony’s reading is correct, the text, in terms of the transmission of its philosophical truth, was a failure. It could be argued that Swift deliberately set out to demonstrate the incapacity of readers to understand his book, but if so, who was he demonstrating this to ? How are we to account for this hiatus between a perceived authorial intention and its aborted realisation ?


16Part of the explanation for this ‘failure’ must be the way Gulliver’s unreliable voice proves incapable of articulating a serious philosophical satire on the Houyhnhnms. His accreditation of their ‘truth’ discredits it in the eyes of the sceptical reader who finds herself in the same position as the Houyhnhnms (or as the Brobdingnagians in book 2). If on the other hand the reader is credulous, then she will believe Gulliver’s account of the Houyhnhnms and will not question their reason either. It would seem that Swift, voluntarily or involuntarily, put himself in a double bind where credulous and incredulous readings, instead of being contradictory, lead to the same result. The perceived unreliability of a narrator can lead to the wholesale rejection of the narrative, but it requires an entirely new sort of reading for this unreliable narrator to be ‘trusted’ as the mouthpiece of truth.

17I cannot agree with Alain Bony that Gulliver’s Travels parodies and criticizes the emergent novel by anticipation. It seems to me to be a text whose nexus is the dichotomy of scepticism and credulity, one which informed so much religious debate in the early eighteenth century. In A Tale of a Tub, Swift had given his ironic definition of happiness as “a perpetual possession of being well deceived” (83) – in what he calls “this unbelieving age” (13). It is striking how little we have moved (backwards) from Richard Brothers, Thomas Williams and Tom Paine. The age of enlightenment had apparently done little to dissipate the propensity to credulity which Swift commends for the happiness of mankind :

In the proportion that credulity is a more peaceful possession of the mind than curiosity ; so far preferable is that wisdom which converses about the surface, to that pretended philosophy which enters into the depth of things, and then comes gravely back with the informations and discoveries that in the inside they are good for nothing. (Swift 83)

18An (ironic ?) motto for Gulliver’s Travels and all its critics, and one which I am sure made Alain Bony chuckle.

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Primary sources

Brothers, Richard. A Revealed Knowledge of the Prophecies and Times. London, 1794.

Brothers, Richard. Revealed Knowledge of the Prophecies and Times... Book the Second. London, 1794.

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. Ed. Ernest Campbell Mossner. Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1985.

Hume, David. An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding. Ed. Tom L. Beauchamp. Oxford : OUP, 1999.

Paine, Thomas. The Age of Reason, in Thomas Paine: Representative Selections, Ed. Harry Hayden Clark. New York: American Book Company, 1944.

Swift, Jonathan. A Tale of a Tub and Other Works Ed. Angus Ross and David Woolley. Oxford: OUP, 1986.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels ed. Paul Turner. Oxford : OUP, 1994.

Williams, Thomas. The Age of Infidelity : in answer to Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, part 1. London, 1794.

Williams, Thomas. The Age of Credulity : A Letter to Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, Esq. M.P., in answer to his testimony in favour of Richard Brothers. London, 1795.


Secondary sources

Bony, Alain. Discours et vérité dans Les Voyages de Gulliver de Jonathan Swift. Lyon : PU de Lyon, 2002.

Bony, Alain. Leonora, Lydia et les autres. Étude sur le (nouveau) roman anglais du XVIIIe siècle. Lyon : PU de Lyon, 2004.

Hopes, Jeffrey. “Quixotic Readings : Satire, Sentimentalism and Romance in the Mid-Eighteenth-Century British Novel” in Discours critique sur le roman 1670-1850. Ed. Orla Smyth and Jeffrey Hopes. PU de Rouen et du Havre, 2010 : 103-114.

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1  “Then I heard one saint speaking, and another saint said unto that certain saint which spake, How long shall be the vision concerning the daily sacrifice, and the transgression of desolation, to give both the sanctuary and the host to be trodden under foot? And he said unto me, Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed” (Authorized version).

2  See Leonora, especially chapters 4 and 7.

3  James Bruce, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, in the years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772, and 1773. 5 vols., Edinburgh,1790.

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Jeffrey Hopes

Jeffrey Hopes is Professor of English at the Université d’Orléans. His work on eighteenth-century literature addresses both the novel and the theatre. He has co-edited, with Orla Smyth, Discours critique sur le roman 1670-1850, Publications des universités de Rouen et du Havre, 2010, and, with Hélène Lecossois, Théâtre et nation, PU de Rennes, 2011. His recent articles include “ ‘La maladie anglaise’ in French Eighteenth-Century Writing: From Stereotype to Individuation” in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Fall 2011: 109-132 and “David Garrick et l’expression vocale de l’émotion théâtrale au milieu du XVIIIe siècle” in Les sons du théâtre: Angleterre et France (XVIe - XVIIIe siècles). Eléments d’une histoire de l’écoute, éd. Xavier Bisaro and Bénédicte Louvat-Molozay, PU de Rennes, 2013, 317-29.

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