A controversial philosopher

John Toland’s Letters to Serena, edited by Ian Leask (Four Courts Press, €45.00/£47.70)

John Toland, born in 1670 into Catholic Gaelic speaking Inishowen is among the most controversial philosophers and religious writers ever to emerge from Ireland. Toland, who died in 1722, is representative of Ireland’s encounter with the Enlightenment, and as such is a key figure in the development of deistic attitudes which Catholic philosophers of the period opposed. He is interesting because of his untypicality, which makes him of interest to every student of Irish culture. Letters to Serena is one of his lesser known works, when set beside Christianity Not Mysterious, which had the grim distinction of being burned by the common hangman for its irreligion. Surprisingly, this is modern English language edition of the book.  Editor Ian Leask lectures in philosophy at Mater Die Institute, and he provides not only an exemplary edition, but a very full introduction both to Toland’s thought and to the contemporary situation in which he found himself.