Many of us know that the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) was an atheist, and some also know that he was one of the first “out” atheists in Britain. In 1811, while a first-year undergraduate at Oxford, Shelley published an inflammatory pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism, (You can read it online here.) I couldn’t find out how his name got associated with the pamphlet, as it was published anonymously, but he was found out—and expelled. As Wikipedia notes:
At that time the content was so shocking to the authorities that he was rusticated for contumacy in his refusing to deny authorship, together with his friend and fellow student, Thomas Jefferson Hogg. A revised and expanded version was printed in 1813.
I love that antiquated word “rusticated”, which is still used in India to mean “expelled” (check the link). And its linkage with “contumacy” is delicious. Here’s the pamphlet:
At any rate, Shelley could be seen as the first “New Atheist,” since he argued that the idea of God should be seen one that requires supporting evidence. The frontispiece of my book Faith Versus Fact starts with a quote from the 1813 edition of the pamphlet:
“God is an hypothesis, and, as such, stands in need of proof: the onus probandi [burden of proof] rests on the theist.”
One of the characteristics of “New Atheists”, as I see it, is their framing of religious “truths” as questions subject to empirical and rational examination (i.e., science construed broadly). Although Shelley wasn’t a scientist, I adopted him as an Honorary Scientist (and honorary New Atheist) for making the statement above.
Shelley was offered readmission to Oxford if he recanted his views, but he refused. His love life was tumultuous, and he abandoned his pregnant wife to run off to Switzerland with Mary Wollstonecraft, who later wrote the novel Frankenstein. And of course he was one of the greatest lyric poets of his time, producing masterpieces like “Ozymandias” and “Ode to the West Wind“, with its famous last line. He drowned at age 29 while trying to sail his boat through a storm on the Gulf of La Spezia in Italy.
That’s a long introduction, but I do love Shelley’s poetry, especially “Ozymandias”; and his atheism is a bonus. Reader jjh brought to my attention a new discovery about Shelley’s nonbelief published on polymath Graham Henderson’s website. The title is self-explanatory, “Hotel register in which Shelley declared himself to be an atheist: found.”
On 19 July 2016, the University of Cambridge made a startling and almost completely unheralded announcement. They were in possession of a page from the register of a hotel in Chamonix: not just any page and not just any hotel. The hotel was the Hotel de Villes de Londres and the page in question was the one upon which Percy Bysshe Shelley had inscribed his famous declaration that he was an atheist, a lover of humanity and a democrat. Not a copy of it….THE page. No reproduction or copy of this page has ever, to my knowledge been made available to the public. Evidence for what Shelley wrote was based almost exclusively on either eye witnesses, such as Southey and Byron, or mere hearsay.
I make the point in my article “Atheist. Lover of Humanity. Democrat.” What did Shelley Mean?” that Shelley’s declaration is exceedingly important to our understanding of his entire literary output. There I wrote,
“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.” Thus the discovery of this page is a rather momentous occasion; rather like finding a hitherto unknown, handwritten copy of the Gettysburgh [sic] Address.
This famous page, whose discovery was announced this month in the Cambridge News, has an enigmatic history. It disappeared from the hotel register three years after Shelley’s death, and then was found pasted into Shelley’s personal copy of one of his poems—ironically, “The Revolt of Islam.”
Here’s the only picture of the page on the Internet, unfortunately not in high resolution. Below it I’ve enlarged the part of the page on which Shelley declares himself.
I can’t make out the Greek, as the document is not in high resolution, but perhaps a reader can.
On the left hand side of the page we see Shelley’s familiar signature – I don’t know why, but I felt quite emotional seeing this. Below it are the initials of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin: “MWG”. Beside their names we have their country and city of origin: London, England.
Interestingly, Shelley’s signature has been underlined twice – but by whom?
Henderson thinks it was Shelley’s friend Lord Byron who did this. He goes on about the signature:
Under the column heading, “destination”, Shelley writes “L’Enfer” [JAC: French for “hell”]; both for himself and for Mary. We might find this amusing – but it was anything but in those days.
And the Greek inscription given as Shelley’s profession?
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.”
Be sure to read Henderson’s complementary article, which explains in detail the significance of the words used by Shelley to identify himself. Henderson feels that all three descriptions were meant to be provocative, though it’s not quite clear whom Shelley intended to provoke by writing in a hotel register! Apparently it was meant to be seen by other British tourists who frequented the hotel. And it was, and they were outraged. As Henderson notes in his ancillary post:
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.
It took a lot more guts back then to declare yourself an atheist than it does now. But Shelley was the Hitchens of his day: he simply didn’t give a damn what people thought of him, and delighted in provoking the pious.