Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), credited by historians of science as a founder of modern chemistry and the first discoverer of the chemical element oxygen, was also a political radical and idealist, who believed in the inevitability of social and political progress. As a supporter of both the American and French Revolutions, he argued on behalf of the universal liberty of human beings. A theologian by profession, a political writer by avocation, Priestley was convinced that life ineluctably improved as human beings advanced through the ages.
Priestley's understanding of human activity was not, however, merely grounded in his observations of everyday life and politics; it was always informed by the penetrating insights he derived from his study of natural philosophy. Science, he believed, was a vehicle, a conduit, by which human beings may best understand the universe as God had originally intended and created it. The more people learned of the fundamental nature of matter, the better informed they would be about the direction human life must ultimately take. With this understanding, Priestley joined science and politics in a wholly unique manner. His work stands, therefore, as a major contribution to the unity of science, religion, and politics in eighteenth-century thought, and a model for our own time.
Jack Fruchtman, Jr., professor of political science at Maryland Towson State University, has written several works on Priestley, including The Apocalyptic Politics of Richard Price and Joseph Priestley (1983). In addition, he is the author of Thomas Paine and the Religion of Nature (1993), Thomas Paine: Apostle of Freedom (1994), and several articles and commentary.
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