The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XIV. The Beginnings of English Philosophy

§ 13. Herbert of Cherbury

While Bacon was engaged upon his plan for the renewal of the sciences, his younger contemporary Edward Herbert was at work upon a similar problem. But the two men had little in common except their vaunted independence of tradition and their interest in the question of method. And their thinking diverged in result. Bacon is claimed as the father of empirical or realistic philosophy; Herbert influenced, and, to some extent, anticipated, the characteristic doctrines of the rationalist or intellectualist school of thought.

Edward Herbert, the representative of a branch of the noble Welsh family of that name, and elder brother of George Herbert the poet, was born at Eyton in Shropshire on 3 March, 1583, matriculated at University college, Oxford, in 1595, married in 1599 and continued to reside at Oxford till about 1600, when he removed to London. He was made a knight of the Bath soon after the accession of king James. From 1608 to 1618, he spent most of his time on the continent, as a soldier of fortune; seeking, occasionally, the society of scholars in the intervals of the campaign, the chase, or the duel. In 1619, he was appointed ambassador at Paris; after his recall, in 1624, king James rewarded him with an Irish peerage. He was created an English peer as baron Herbert of Cherbury in 1629. The civil war found him unprepared for decision; but he ultimately saved his property by siding with the parliament. He died in London on 20 August, 1648.

His works were historical, literary and philosophical. His account of the duke of Buckingham’s expedition to Rhé and his history of Henry VIII were written with a view to royal favour. The latter was published in 1649; a Latin version of the former appeared in 1658, the English orginal not till 1860. His literary works—poems and autobiography—are of much higher merit. The former were published by his son in 1665; the latter was first printed by Horace Walpole in 1764. His philosophical works give him a distinct and interesting place in the history of thought. His greatest work, De Veritate, was, he tells us, begun in England and “formed there in all its principal parts.” Hugo Grotius, to whom he submitted the manuscript, advised its publication; but it was not till this advice had been sanctioned (as he thought), by a sign from heaven that he had the work printed (Paris, 1624). To the third edition (London, 1645) he added a short treatise De Causis Errorum, a dissertation entitled Religio Laici and an Appendix ad Sacerdotes. In 1663 appeared his De Religione Gentilium—a treatise on what is now called comparative religion. A popular account of his views on religion was published in 1768 under the title A Dialogue between a Tutor and His Pupil, by Edward Lord Herbert of Chirbury; and, although the external evidence is incomplete, it may have been from his pen.

Herbert does not stand in the front rank of speculative thinkers; but his claims as a philosopher are worthy of note. In the first place, he attempted a far deeper investigation of the nature of truth than Bacon had given; for he based it on an enquiry into the conditions of knowledge. Here, his fundamental thought is that of a harmony between faculty and object. Mind corresponds with things not only in their general nature but in all their differences of kind. The root of all error is in confusion—in the inappropriate connection of faculty and object. Underlying all experience and belonging to the nature of intelligence itself are certain common notions. In the second place, Herbert’s treatment of these common notions made him the precursor of the philosophy of common sense afterwards elaborated by Reid and the Scottish school. Some of his tests of common notions are logical: knowledge of particulars depends upon them. But others of them are psychological: they are prior in time, and all sane minds possess them. And it is this last test—that of universality—that he uses most frequently. “What is in all men’s ears,” he says, “that we accept as true”; and he adds that this universal consent is the highest philosophy and theology. In the third place, the common notions which he discovered in all minds determined the scope and character of English Deism. He attempted no complete account of them, except in the sphere of religion. These common notions of religion are: (1) that there is a supreme Deity; (2) that this Deity ought to be worshipped; (3) that virtue combined with piety is the chief part of divine worship; (4) that men should repent of their sins and turn from them; (5) that reward and punishment follow from the goodness and justice of God, both in this life and after it. These five articles contain the whole doctrine of the true catholic church, that is to say, of the religion of reason. They also formed the primitive religion before the people “gave ear to the covetous and crafty sacerdotal order.” In the fourth place, Herbert was one of the first—if not the first—to make a systematic effort after a comparative study of religions; but he had no idea of the historical development of belief, and he looked upon all actual religions—in so far as they went beyond his five articles—as simply corruptions of the pure and primitive rational worship.