Shelley on Christianity


Thanks to the Percy Bysshe Shelley Resource Page his Essay on Christianity is available, written in the style of the 19th century it is  – inevitably – a long and  somewhat tortuous read. The following was added by H. Buxton Forman, for what appears to be – in part – a recapitulation and conclusion written by Shelley.

“It is reasonable to think that this would have been further developed; but the final sentences are peculiarly weighty, and likely to be the ‘conclusion of the whole matter’. Mr. Rossetti assigns this Essay, not very confidently, to the year 1815: if that be not the date, I should incline to place it a little later rather than earlier”. (H. Buxton Forman)

[Note – The following links relate to editorial comment by H.B. Forman]

No mistake is more to be deplored than the conception that a system of morals and religion should derive any portion of its authority either from the circumstance of its novelty or its antiquity, that it should be judged excellent, not because it is reasonable or true, but because no person has ever thought of it before, or because it has been thought of from the beginning of time. The vulgar mind delights to [abstract?] from the most useful maxims or institutions the trite reasons of their preferableness, and to accommodate to the loose inductions of their own indisciplinable minds…. Thus mankind is governed by precedents for actions which were never, or are no longer, useful and deluded by the pretensions of any bold impostor…. Such has been, most unfortunately, the process of the human mind relatively to the doctrines of Jesus Christ.

Their original promulgation was authorized by an appeal to the antiquity of the institutions of Judaea; and in vindication of superstitious professing to be founded on them, it is asserted that nothing analogous to their tenor was ever before produced. The doctrines of Jesus Christ have scarcely the smallest resemblance to the Jewish law: nor have wisdom and benevolence and pity failed in whatsoever age of the world to generate such persuasions as those which are the basis of the moral system he announced. The most eminent philosophers of Greece had long been familiarized to the boldest and most sublime speculations on God, on the visible world, and on the moral and intellectual Nature of Man.The universality and unity of God, the omnipotence of the mind of man, the equality of human beings and the duty of internal purity, is either asserted by Pythagoras, Plato, Diogenes, Zeno, and their followers, or may be directly inferred from their assertions.

Nothing would be gained by the establishment of the originality of Jesus Christ’s doctrines but the casting a suspicion upon its practicability. Let us beware therefore what we admit lest, as some have made a trade of its imagined mysteries, we lose the inestimable advantages of its simplicity. Let us beware, if we love liberty and truth, if we loathe tyranny and imposture, if, imperfect ourselves, we still aspire to the freedom of internal purity, and cherish the elevated hope that mankind may not be everlastingly condemned to the bondage of their own passions and the passions of their fellow beings, let us beware. An established religion turns to deathlike apathy the sublimest ebullitions of most exalted genius, and the spirit-stirring truths of a mind inflamed with the desire of benefiting mankind. It is the characteristic of a cold and tame spirit to imagine that such doctrines as Jesus Christ promulgated are destined to follow the fortunes and share the extinction of a popular religion.

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