211. Robert Southey to John Prior Estlin, 9 April 1797

211. Robert Southey to John Prior Estlin, 9 April 1797 ⁠* 

Sunday April 9th— 1797.

{ Prospect Place. Newington Butts

{ No 20.

Dear Sir

I take the earliest opportunity of thanking you for your work, [1]  which was delivered to me yesterday at Johnson’s. [2]  I have read it with much pleasure & much attention. it is a subject often present to my mind, for I see xxxx of <many> Atheists & Sceptics, & as I never decline controversy, seldom seexx them without an argument. your discourse does not touch upon what appears to me the principal cause of Atheism, the existence of physical & moral evil, & the difficulty of reconciling its existence with that of a God powerful & benevolent. The system of Optimism, to which I assent & which I therefore profess, is not without difficulties, great & many. but every other system appears to me to have more & greater, & therefore I assent to this; to have used the word believe would have been perhaps expressing myself too strongly. Many of my friends & acquaintance believe these difficulties insuperable; I find them atheists or sceptics not because they are vain & conceited, not because the texture of their minds is coarse, but because there is evil in the world. the contemplation of the misery of others, or the endurance of their own, without giving an unnatural asperity to their characters induces them to doubt or to disbelieve the existence of that Being, who if he exists must be benevolent & powerful, & whose power could execute what his benevolence must prompt. this I believe to be the principal cause of Atheism. To answer these arguments so as effectually to overthrow them is beyond my power, such is the tyranny of the present over the future; & when I would direct the attention from individuals to the whole, I am told that an individual is every thing to himself. my mind is not adapted for methodical reasoning, & like Rousseau the answer to a question always recurs to me too late.

The eternal series is the common basis of Atheism. I always attempt to prove the necessity of an intelligent first cause, & deduce his attributes from his existence. this fort I find impregnable. the arguments from the evil in the world then become weaker when the present is merged in futurity. but the existence of a future state depends upon the benevolence of God & those arguments attack that basis.

Your work will not in all probability be read by those who are decidedly Atheistical. they are in general self-satisfied, & no man likes to have his settled opinions shaken. but it will fall into the hands of many whose scepticism inclines that way, & there I think & hope it will be useful. I will not wish you to examine the arguments upon the origin of evil in a second edition, because the subject deserves a seperate discussion, & I should gladly see another work from Mr Estlin.

Your observations upon Dupuis [3]  may do great good by showing the astonishing credulity of an Atheist. have you not perhaps praised Watsons book [4]  too highly? the ablest man of my acquaintance rose from its perusal with the full conviction that Watson was himself a disbeliever.

The Christian world will probably ere long be divided into two classes — the Roman Catholics, & the Socinians or Low Arians — those who allow every thing — or nothing to authority. I have heard from one who lives much with the more able Catholics that they despise the reformed sects heartily — but are very much afraid of the Socinians. this is a curious fact.

You will I hope excuse the liberty I have taken. gratified & instructed by both your publications, forgive me if I suggest a subject that deserves a third.

our remembrances to Mrs Estlin.

Robert Southey.


* Address: For/ The Reverend J P Estlin/ St Michaels Hill/ Bristol
Stamped: BRIDGE St/ Westminster
Postmark: DAP/ 10/ 97
MS: Bristol Reference Library, B20871. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Kenneth Curry (ed.), New Letters of Robert Southey, 2 vols (London and New York, 1965), I, pp. 123–124. BACK

[1] John Prior Estlin, The Nature and Causes of Atheism, Pointed out in a Discourse, Delivered at the Chapel in Lewin’s-Mead, Bristol. To Which are Added, Remarks on a Work, Entitled Origine de Tous Les Cultes, ou Religion Universelle. Par Dupuis, Citoyen François (1797). BACK

[2] Joseph Johnson (1738–1809; DNB), publisher and bookseller. His shop was at 72 St Paul’s Churchyard, London. BACK

[3] Charles Frances Dupuis (1742–1809), French mathematician, astronomer, revolutionary and author of Origine de Tous Les Cultes, ou Religion Universelle (1795). BACK

[4] Richard Watson, Bishop of Llandaff (1737–1816; DNB), An Apology for Christianity in a Series of Letters Addressed to Edward Gibbon Esq., Author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776). Watson was also the author of an Apology for the Bible, in a Series of Letters, Addressed to Tom Paine (1796). BACK

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