"I am a Lover of Humanity, a Democrat and an Atheist.” What did Shelley Mean?

Part of a new feature at www.grahamhenderson.ca is my "Throwback Thursdays". Going back to articles from the past that were favourites or perhaps overlooked.  This was my first article for this site and it was published at a time when the Shelley Nation was in its infancy.  I have noted how few folks have had a chance to have a look at it.  And so I am taking this opportunity to take it out for another spin. If you have seen it, why not share it, if you have not seen it, I hope you enjoy it!

The "catch phrase" I have used for the Shelley section of my blog ("Atheist. Lover of Humanity. Democrat.") may require some explanation.  The words originated with Shelley himself, but when did he write it, where did he write it and most important why did he write it.  Many people have sought to diminish the importance of these words and the circumstances under which they were written.  Some modern scholars have even ridiculed him.  I think his choice of words was very deliberate and central to how he defined himself and how wanted the world to think of him.  They may well have been the words he was most famous (or infamous) for in his lifetime.

Shelley’s atheism and his political philosophy were at the heart of his poetry and his revolutionary agenda (yes, he had one).  Our understanding of Shelley is impoverished to the extent we ignore or diminish its importance.

Shelley visited the Chamonix Valley at the base of Mont Blanc in July of 1816. 

"The Priory" Gabriel Charton, Chamonix, 1821

Mont Blanc was a routine stop on the so-called “Grand Tour.”  In fact, so many people visited it, that you will find Shelley in his letters bemoaning the fact that the area was "overrun by tourists." With the Napoleonic wars only just at an end, English tourists were again flooding the continent.  While in Chamonix, many would have stayed at the famous Hotel de Villes de Londres, as did Shelley.  As today, the lodges and guest houses of those days maintained a “visitor’s register”; unlike today those registers would have contained the names of a virtual who’s who of upper class society.  Ryan Air was not flying English punters in for day visits. What you wrote in such a register was guaranteed to be read by literate, well connected aristocrats - even if you penned your entry in Greek – as Shelley did. 

The words Shelley wrote in the register of the Hotel de Villes de Londres (under the heading "Occupation") were (as translated by PMS Dawson): “philanthropist, an utter democrat, and an atheist”.  The words were, as I say, written in Greek.  The Greek word he used for philanthropist was "philanthropos tropos." The origin of the word and its connection to Shelley is very interesting.  Its first use appears in Aeschylus’ “Prometheus Bound” the Greek play which Shelley was “answering” with his masterpiece, Prometheus Unbound.  Aeschylus used his newly coined word “philanthropos tropos” (humanity loving) to describe Prometheus. The word was picked up by Plato and came to be much commented upon, including by Bacon, one of Shelley’s favourite authors.  Bacon considered philanthropy to be synonymous with "goodness", which he connected with Aristotle’s idea of “virtue”.

What do the words Shelley chose mean and why is it important?  First of all, most people today would shrug at his self-description. Today, most people share democratic values and they live in a secular society where even in America as many as one in five people are unaffiliated with a religion; so claiming to be an atheist is not exactly controversial today.  As for philanthropy, well, who doesn’t give money to charity, and in our modern society, the word philanthropy has been reduced to this connotation. I suppose many people would assume that things might have been a bit different in Shelley’s time – but how controversial could it be to describe yourself in such a manner? Context, it turns out, is everything.  In his time, Shelley’s chosen labels shocked and scandalized society and I believe they were designed to do just that. Because in 1816, the words "philanthropist, democrat and atheist" were fighting words.

Shelley would have understood the potential audience for his words, and it is therefore impossible not to conclude that Shelley was being deliberately provocative.  In the words of P.M.S. Dawson, he was “nailing his colours to the mast-head”. As we shall see, he even had a particular target in mind: none other than Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Word of the note spread quickly throughout England.  It was not the only visitor’s book in which Shelley made such an entry. It was made in at least two or three other places.  His friend Byron, following behind him on his travels, was so concerned about the potential harm this statement might do, that he actually made efforts to scribble out Shelley’s name in one of the registers. 

While Shelley was not a household name in England, he was the son of an aristocrat whose patron was one of the leading Whigs of his generation, Lord Norfolk. Behaviour such as this was bound to and did attract attention.  Many would also have remembered that Shelley had been actually expelled from Oxford for publishing a notoriously atheistical tract, The Necessity of Atheism.

Shelley's pamphlet, "The Necessity of Atheism"

Shelley's pamphlet, "The Necessity of Atheism"

While his claim to be an atheist attracted most of the attention, the other two terms were freighted as well.  Democrat then had the connotations it does today but such connotations in his day were clearly inflammatory (the word “utter” acting as an exclamation mark).   The term philanthropist is more interesting because at that time it did not merely connote donating money, it had overt political and even revolutionary overtones. To be an atheist or a philanthropist or a democrat, and Shelley was all three, was to be fundamentally opposed to the ruling order and Shelley wanted the world to know it.

What made Shelley’s atheism even more likely to occasion outrage was the fact that English tourists went to Mont Blanc specifically to have a religious experience occasioned by their experience of the “sublime.” Indeed, Timothy Webb speculates that at least one of Shelley’s entries might have been in response to another comment in the register which read, “Such scenes as these inspires, then, more forcibly, the love of God”. If not in answer to this, then most certainly Shelley was responding to Coleridge, who, in his head note to “Hymn Before Sunrise, in the Vale of Chamouni,” had famously asked, “Who would be, who could be an Atheist in this valley of wonders?" In a nutshell Shelley's answers was: "I could!!!"

Mont Blanc, 16 May 2016, Graham Henderson

The reaction to Shelley’s entry was predictably furious and focused almost exclusively on Shelley’s choice of the word “atheist”.  For example, this anonymous comment appeared in the London Chronicle:

Mr. Shelley is understood to be the person who, after gazing on Mont Blanc, registered himself in the album as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Atheist; which gross and cheap bravado he, with the natural tact of the new school, took for a display of philosophic courage; and his obscure muse has been since constantly spreading all her foulness of those doctrines which a decent infidel would treat with respect and in which the wise and honourable have in all ages found the perfection of wisdom and virtue.

Shelley’s decision to write the inscription in Greek was even more provocative because as Webb points out, Greek was associated with “the language of intellectual liberty, the language of those courageous philosophers who had defied political and religious tyranny in their allegiance to the truth."

The concept of the “sublime” was one of the dominant (and popular) subjects of the early 19th Century.  It was widely believed that the natural sublime could provoke a religious experience and confirmation of the existence of the deity.  This was a problem for Shelley because he believed that religion was the principle prop for the ruling (tyrannical) political order.  As Cian Duffy in Shelley and the Revolutionary Sublime has suggested, Prometheus Unbound, like much of his other work, “was concerned to revise the standard, pious or theistic configuration of that discourse [on the natural sublime] along secular and politically progressive lines...." Shelley believed that the key to this lay in the cultivation of the imagination.  An individual possessed of an “uncultivated” imagination, would contemplate the natural sublime in a situation such as Chamonix Valley, would see god at work, and this would then lead inevitably to the "falsehoods of religious systems." In Queen Mab, Shelley called this the "deifying" response and believed it was an error that resulted from the failure to 'rightly' feel the 'mystery' of natural 'grandeur':

"The plurality of worlds, the indefinite immensity of the universe is a most awful subject of contemplation. He who rightly feels its mystery and grandeur is in no danger of seductions from the falsehoods of religious systems or of deifying the principle of the universe” (Queen Mab. Notes, Poetical Works of Shelley, 801).

 He believed that a cultivated imagination would not make this error. 

This view was not new to Shelley, it was shared, for example, by Archibald Alison whose 1790 Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste made the point that people tended to "lose themselves" in the presence of the sublime.  He concluded, "this involuntary and unreflective activity of the imagination leads intentionally and unavoidably to an intuition of God's presence in Creation".   Shelley believed this himself and theorized explicitly that it was the uncultivated imagination that enacted what he called this "vulgar mistake." This theory comes to full fruition in Act III of Prometheus Unbound where, as Duffy notes,

…their [Demogorgon and Asia] encounter restates the foundational premise of Shelley’s engagement with the discourse on the natural sublime: the idea that natural grandeur, correctly interpreted by the ‘cultivated imagination, can teach the mind politically potent truths, truths that expose the artificiality of the current social order and provide the blueprint for a ‘prosperous’, philanthropic reform of ‘political institutions’.

Shelley’s atheism was thus connected to his theory of the imagination and we can now understand why his “rewriting” of the natural sublime was so important to him. 

If Shelley was simply a non-believer, this would be bad enough, but as he stated in the visitor’s register he was also a “democrat;” and by democrat Shelley really meant republican and modern analysts have now actually placed him within the radical tradition of philosophical anarchism.  Shelley made part of this explicit when he wrote to Elizabeth Hitchener stating,

“It is this empire of terror which is established by Religion, Monarchy is its prototype, Aristocracy may be regarded as symbolizing its very essence.  They are mixed – one can now scarce be distinguished from the other” (Letters of Shelley, 126).

This point is made again in Queen Mab where Shelley asserts that the anthropomorphic god of Christianity is the “the prototype of human misrule” (Queen Mab, Canto VI, l.105, Poetical Works of Shelley, 785) and the spiritual image of monarchical despotism. In his book Romantic Atheism, Martin Priestman points out that the corrupt emperor in Laon and Cythna is consistently enabled by equally corrupt priests. As Paul Foot avers in Red Shelley,  "Established religions, Shelley noted, had always been a friend to tyranny”. Dawson for his part suggests, “The only thing worse than being a republican was being an atheist, and Shelley was that too; indeed, his atheism was intimately connected with his political revolt”.

Three explosive little words that harbour a universe of meaning and significance.