January 22

August Strindberg (1849)

It was on this date, January 22, 1849, that Swedish dramatist and novelist Johann August Strindberg was born in Stockholm. From a poor childhood and a poor showing at the University of Uppsala, Strindberg made his reputation with his first published novel, a dramatization of the excesses of Stockholm capitalism, Red Room (Röda Rummet, 1879).His second attempt to mount the historical drama Master Olof (Mäster Olof, 1872) met with success in 1881. But his play criticizing official Swedish history, Svenska Folket (1880-82), was reviled by the profession and eventually persuaded Strindberg to move to France with his family (1883). The next year, his Getting Married (Giftas, 1884-85) outraged the guardians of virtue with his critique of married life.

Strindberg's criticisms frequently included the church. A novella called The Eward of Virtue included an unorthodox description of the Last Supper, for which Strindberg was charged with blasphemy. He was acquitted in spite of some passages that were virulently anti-Christian. During his productive life Strindberg was an Atheist, but between 1892 and 1897 he began having psychotic episodes. He became a follower of Emmanuel Swedenborg, but his mental health deteriorated and he turned to mysticism in his later years. Strindberg died on 14 May 1912.

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Lord Byron (1788)

It was also on this date, January 22, 1788, that English poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, was born in London. He became radicalized and skeptical of religion during his student years at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1806 he had Fugitive Pieces, printed. But the Rev. John Beecher objected to some of the poems, so Byron withdrew his first book of poetry.

From his youthful scorn for Christianity, Byron moderated into a Deistic belief that remained toward churches and skeptical toward life after death, yet he maintained a friendship with Percy Bysshe Shelley, an Atheist. As he wrote in an 1811 letter to Rev. Francis Hodgson,

I do not believe in any revealed religion. I will have nothing to do with your immortality; we are miserable enough in this life, without the absurdity of speculating upon another.

And in his epic poem, Don Juan (1819), Byron wrote,

Christians have burnt each other, quite persuaded
That all the Apostles would have done as they did.
Byron's first major biographer says he was "to the last a sceptic."* Still, there was enough of the youthful radical in Byron to compel him to help the Greeks fight for independence. He caught a fatal chill in the effort and died on 19 April 1824.

* Letter of June 18, 1813.
** Thomas Moore, Letters and Journals of Lord Byron; with Notices of his Life, 2 vols., 1830-31.

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Francis Bacon (1561)

Finally, it was on this date, January 22, 1561, that English science essayist Francis Bacon was born in London, a contemporary of William Shakespeare in Elizabethan England. His father died when Bacon was 18, but he nevertheless read the law and got himself elected to the House of Commons at age 23. Elizabeth did not favor him, but after 1603 James I did. Bacon became Baron Verulam, Viscount St. Albans and Lord Chancellor of England.

Bacon professed religious orthodoxy in public, and from the line clerics love to quote —

A little philosophy inclineth man's mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion. (Essays, "Of Atheism")
— he would seem so. But in the very next essay, Of Superstition, Bacon shows that Atheism is socially superior to superstition:
Atheism leaves a man to sense, to philosophy, to natural piety, to laws, to reputation; ... but superstition dismounts all these, and erecteth an absolute monarchy, in the minds of men. Therefore theism did never perturb states; ... (Essays, "Of Superstition")
Bacon was a promoter of scientific inquiry. This can be seen in his Novum Organon (1620), De Augmentis Scientarum (1623) and New Atlantis (1627). To his dying day, on 9 April 1626, Bacon believed science, not religion, was the salvation of the human race. It was Francis Bacon who said, "The more contrary to reason the divine mystery, so much the more must it be believed for the glory of God."*

* Rufus K. Noyes, Views of Religion, 1906.
NB: Bacon's Essays (1625) can be read at this link (or in the original Latin at this link); his Novum Organon and New Atlantis through this link.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer.
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