Katherine East

The Uniting Power of Freethought? Analysing the Intellectual Exchange between John Toland, Eugene of Savoy, and the Baron von Hohendorff

Intellectual Geography / Tuesday 6 September, 2011

When performing diplomatic duties in Holland between 1708 and 1710, the prominent radical philosopher John Toland was able to ingratiate himself among the circles of Freethinkers which featured prominently in that country. A particularly significant relationship was forged during this time: that between Toland and Prince Eugene of Savoy, who was at the height of his career as a military commander in the service of Joseph I, Holy Roman Emperor, and Eugene’s close associate the Baron von Hohendorff. The purpose of this relationship had the appearance of being a literary correspondence intended to enhance the contents of Eugene’s famed library: Toland advised Eugene on contemporary works and sought out books for him. Toland also looked to Eugene as a source of potential patronage: in 1712 Toland produced a proposal for a new complete edition of Cicero’s works, which he not only dedicated to Eugene, but which sought financial support for the project.

What makes this relationship all the more fascinating is the exchange of clandestine and subversive scribal works which it made possible. Toland certainly presented Eugene with a collection of manuscripts, entitled Dissertations Diverse, which encompassed a series of Freethinking works, including an early draft of Toland’s Nazarenus. Strong arguments have also been made (J. Champion, Nazarenus, Voltaire Foundation, 1999) that it was Toland who circulated the Traitè des imposteurs to Eugene. Eugene’s own library in turn provided Toland with access to vast resources of Freethinking literature.

In spite of the vast discrepancies in the public roles of these two men, their political affiliations and their geographical locations, each played a strong role in encouraging Freethought, and that intellectual connection allowed them to forge a relationship. By examining their correspondence, and the exchange of manuscripts that took place, I intend to determine the nature of the intellectual tradition that served to bridge the very real social, political, and geographical divides between these two men, and how that process was able to take place.