Percy Bysshe Shelley
There are some men and women who have furthered the cause of Atheism and Humanitarianism - rational and compassionate thought - to the extent that they can be referred to as stars in a dark sky. Percival Bysshe Shelley had so furthered both positions to the extent where, if the previous analogy deserves merit, he may be called a galaxy. Shelley lived in a cruel and barbaric time. It was an era where the insane were tortured for the belief that they were demonic or worse than criminals. It was a time when the rights of animals afforded no sympathy. It was a time when executions and dueling were commonplace. From the mist of these barbaric sentiments held tightly by the people of the early 1800's, the figure of Percival Bysshe Shelley slowly began to emerge.
"There Is No God." [Opening line from The Necessity of Atheism.] He was an Atheist. He denied that a god existed that allowed men and women to toil endlessly in the gross injustice that captivated the corruption and bribery of monarchies. When he examined the religious texts of his time, when he learned what men meant when they said "divine authorship," when he came to the age of reason and could understand for himself -- when he opened his eyes and saw the state of the world around him with its religious idols -- he immediately denied that a god existed that watched over men. Of life, Shelley has said...
"Life and the world, or whatever we call that which we are and feel, is an astonishing thing. The mist of familiarity obscures from us the wonder of our being. We are struck with admiration at some of its transient modifications, but it is itself the great miracle. What are changes of empires, the wreck of dynasties, with the opinions which supported them; what is the birth and the extinction of religious and of political systems, to life? What are the revolutions of the globe which we inhabit, and the operations of the elements of which it is composed, compared with life? What is the universe of stars, and suns, of which this inhabited earth is one, and their motions, and their destiny, compared with life? Life, the great miracle, we admire not, because it is so miraculous. It is well that we are thus shielded by the familiarity of what is at once so certain and so unfathomable, from an astonishment which would otherwise absorb and overawe the functions of that which is its object." [On Life, by Percival Bysshe Shelley.]
Shelley also held that all animals were deserving of equality. In this respect, he was a Vegetarian and he worked to render his fellow men with mercy towards all creatures. In his most celebrated work, Queen Mab, the poet Shelley wrote...
"......no longer now
He slays the lamb that looks him in the face,
And horribly devours his mangled flesh,
Which, still avenging Nature's broken law,
Kindled all putrid humors in his frame,
All evil passions and all vain belief,
Hatred, despair and loathing in his mind,
The germs of misery, death, disease and crime.
No longer now the wingèd habitants,
That in the woods their sweet lives sing away,
Flee from the form of man; but gather round,
And prune their sunny feathers on the hands
Which little children stretch in friendly sport
Towards these dreadless partners of their play." [Queen Mab, section VII, lines 211 to 224.]
It was also in this work that Shelley wrote the magnificent lines that some have attributed to describing Giordano Bruno. In only a few sentences, Shelley is capable of filling the minds of men with sympathy towards this one, lone, solitary Atheist. The words used to describe the death given to the Atheist are wondrous, inspiring, and a harmonious testament to the brutality of religious zealotry....
"'I was an infant when my mother went
To see an atheist burned. She took me there.
The dark-robed priests were met around the pile;
The multitude was gazing silently;
And as the culprit passed with dauntless mien,
Tempered disdain in his unaltering eye,
Mixed with a quiet smile, shone calmly forth;
The thirsty fire crept round his manly limbs;
His resolute eyes were scorched to blindness soon;
His death-pang rent my heart! the insensate mob
Uttered a cry of triumph, and I wept.
'Weep not, child!' cried my mother, 'for that man
Has said, There is no God.''" [Queen Mab, section VII, lines 1 to 14]
Percival Bysshe Shelley was expelled from his school for writing The Necessity of Atheism. (He also distributed it to members of the clergy.) When Shelley wrote Queen Mab, Shelley's children were taken away from him, because he was deemed an unfit parent. Concerning the fantastic poem, which the original weighed in at 250 pages, he said...
"A poem, entitled Queen Mab, was written by me, at the age of eighteen, I dare say in a sufficiently intemperate spirit--but even then was not intended for publication, and a few copies only were struck off, to be distributed among my personal friends. I have not seen this production for several years; I doubt not but that it is perfectly worthless in point of literary composition; and that in all that concerns moral and political speculation, as well as in the subtler discriminations of metaphysical and religious doctrine, it is still more crude and immature. I am a devoted enemy to religious, political, and domestic oppression; and I regret this publication not so much from literary vanity, as because I fear it is better fitted to injure than to serve the sacred cause of freedom." [Queen Mab, by Percival Bysshe Shelley, Introductory Note.]
It is undoubtedly true that Queen Mab is a collection of philosophical and social ideas concerning nature. It was in this enormously wonderful poem -- a philosophical poem -- that embodied his opinions on these subjects. Shelley himself had once said, "During my existence I have incessantly speculated, thought and read." [Queen Mab, by Percival Bysshe Shelley, Introductory Note.] Every word of this poem was written with the warmth and reason that Shelley attained -- every line was written in some scoring hope that it may allow his spirit to explore a new thought, define a new idea, reform an old part. Mrs. Shelley has said of Percival Bysshe Shelley...
"'He was animated to greater zeal by compassion for his fellow-creatures. His sympathy was excited by the misery with which the world is bursting. He witnessed the sufferings of the poor, and was aware of the evils of ignorance. He desired to induce every rich man to despoil himself of superfluity, and to create a brotherhood of property and service, and was ready to be the first to lay down the advantages of his birth. He was of too uncompromising a disposition to join any party. He did not in his youth look forward to gradual improvement: nay, in those days of intolerance, now almost forgotten, it seemed as easy to look forward to the sort of millennium of freedom and brotherhood, which he thought the proper state of mankind, as to the present reign of moderation and improvement. Ill health made him believe that his race would soon be run; that a year or two was all he had of life. He desired that these years should be useful and illustrious. He saw, in a fervent call on his fellow-creatures to share alike the blessings of the creation, to love and serve each other, the noblest work that life and time permitted him. In this spirit he composed Queen Mab.'" [Queen Mab, by Percival Bysshe Shelley, Introductory Note.]
In the May of 1812, Daniel Isaac Eaton was imprisoned for eighteen months for publishing Part III. of Paine's The Age of Reason. Shelley wrote a vindictive attack on the Lord Ellenborough who imprisoned Eaton for publishing Paine's work. In A Letter To Lord Ellenborough, Shelley wrote...
"By what right do you punish Mr. Eaton? What but antiquated precedents, gathered from times of priestly and tyrannical domination, can be adduced in palliation of an outrage so insulting to humanity and justice? Whom has he injured? What crime has he committed? Wherefore may he not walk abroad like other men and follow his accustomed pursuits? What end is proposed in confining this man, charged with the commission of no dishonourable action? Wherefore did his aggressor avail himself of popular prejudice, and return no answer but one of common place contempt to a defence of plain and simple sincerity? Lastly, when the prejudices of the jury, as Christians, were strongly and unfairly inflamed against this injured man as a Deist, wherefore did not you, my Lord, check such unconstitutional pleading, and desire the jury to pronounce the accused innocent or criminal without reference to the particular faith which he professed?
"In the name of justice, what answer is there to these questions? The answer which Heathen Athens made to Socrates, is the same with which Christian England must attempt to silence the advocates of this injured man-“He has questioned established opinions.”-Alas! the crime of inquiry is one which religion never has forgiven. Implicit faith and fearless inquiry have in all ages been irreconcilable enemies. Unrestrained philosophy has in every age opposed itself to the reveries of credulity and fanaticism.-The truths of astronomy demonstrated by Newton have superseded astrology; since the modern discoveries in chemistry the philosopher’s stone has no longer been deemed attainable. Miracles of every kind have become rare, in proportion to the hidden principles which those who study nature have developed. That which is false will ultimately be controverted by its own falsehood. That which is true needs but publicity to be acknowledged. It is ever a proof that the falsehood of a proposition is felt by those who use power and coercion, not reasoning and persuasion, to procure its admission.-Falsehood skulks in holes and corners, “it lets I dare not wait upon I would, like the poor cat in the adage,” except when it has power, and then, as it was a coward, it is a tyrant; but the eagle-eye of truth darts through the undazzling sunbeam of the immutable and just, gathering thence wherewith to vivify and illuminate a universe!" [A Letter To Lord Ellenborough, by Percival Bysshe Shelley.]
During his life, Percival Bysshe Shelley fought against censorship, cruelty, religion, and the death penalty. His life can be defined as a struggle against everything he thought was wrong. He remains still as a defiant figure facing oppression with unmoving convictions. The hearts of the men he inspired are countless and the reforms he ushered in are numerous. There were many men who worked for a great cause, unavailingly, and did as much as they could for that cause. Shelley was one of those men, and his cause was humanity and reason. No person throughout history in such a barbaric, uncivilized time has developed such outstanding, civilized opinions -- this man, Percival Bysshe Shelley, was a man of truth.