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James C. Sanford (Editor)


Selected quotations by famous skeptics and nonconformists

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2004).

In this collection "freethinker" is taken to designate someone who thinks independently and refuses to take the claims of authority on trust. It is not used as a synonym for "atheist", although many freethinkers have in fact been atheists. About 200 are included. Sanford tells us that he has preferred novelty and freshness over familiarity, which explains why some old favourites are not to be found.

The collection is arranged with a number of headings and subheadings. The main headings are Knowledge and Ethics, Religion, Psychology and Experience, The Physical and Metaphysical, The Arts, and Human Affairs. In each section the quotations are placed in chronological order. Inevitably, a classification of this sort is somewhat arbitrary and some of the quotations might have appeared in more than one category. Finally, there is a biographical index, giving very brief descriptions of the people cited and their dates (some are contemporary).

Some of the selections do seem a little eccentric. The writer who supplies the largest number of quotations, by a considerable margin, is George Bernard Shaw. Another playwright, Oscar Wilde, also figures largely. I am not sure that Shaw, in particular, merits this amount of space. Still, I was glad to see a fair number of citations for Montaigne and Jefferson, and H.L. Mencken obviously deserves all the attention he receives. I also welcomed the rather unexpected contributions from Virginia Woolf.

Not all the headings are of equal interest, at least to me. The best, in my view, are Religion and The Physical and Metaphysical. This may of course reflect my own present preoccupations. A few that I particularly liked:

To sum up: 1. The cosmos is a gigantic flywheel making 10,000 revolutions a minute. 2. Man is a sick fly taking a dizzying ride on it. 3. Religion is the theory that the wheel was designed and set spinning to give him a ride. [H.L.Mencken]

It is worth of remark that a belief constantly inculcated during the early years of life, whilst the brain is impressible, appears to acquire almost the nature of an instinct; and the very essence of an instinct is that it is followed independently of thought. [Charles Darwin]

To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralysed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it. [Bertrand Russell]

And finally, a quotation within a quotation:

For my part, I have no excessive confidence in reason. I know how weak and tottering it is. But I remember Diderot's clever apologue: "I have," he said, "only a small flickering light to guide me in the darkness of a thick forest. Up comes a theologian and blows it out." Let us first of all follow reason, it is the surest guide. [Anatole France]
This book is worth a place on the shelves of anyone with a skeptical turn of mind. Sanford asks for suggestions for future editions, so I offer this to be included under the subheading Nature, in The Physical and Metaphysical:
"She's a rum 'un is Natur." said Mr Squeers… "Natur' is more easier conceived than described." [Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby]
6 October 2004
%T Great Freethinkers
%S Selected quotations by famous skeptics and nonconformists
%A James G. Sanford (Editor)
%I Metacomet Books
%C Providence
%D 2004
%G ISBN 0-9747042-2-9
%P xiv + 250 pp
%K anthology, literature
%O hardback edition

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