We tend to associate the practice of genealogy, especially in its unmasking variety, with Nietzsche (or the emulators of Foucault). But teaching Toland's (1704) Letters to Serena reminded me that genealogy has a genealogy that precedes Nietzsche. One of Toland's genealogies focuses on the idea of the immortality of the soul, (the subject of the second letter). In paragraph 1, of Letter 2, the "immortality of the soul" is treated as a "truth" known to classical sources independent from and preceding Biblical revelation (p. 20; in fact, he insists that the doctrine is unknown to the Hebrew Bible (Letter II, p. 56)). In the very next paragraph (2) on the very next page, Toland speaks in his own voice and offers a concise statement of his methodology:
To persons less knowing and unprejudiced than Serena, it would [be] found strange perhaps to hear me speak of the soul's immortality, as of an opinion, which, like some others in philosophy, had a beginning at a certain time, or from a certain author who was the inventor thereof, and which was favoured or opposed as peoples' persuasion, interest or inclination led them. Letters II.2 (p. 21 [I have modernized spelling to some degree--ES].)
Serena is the official addressee of the Letters; she is a high status, educated interlocutor. The preface to the Letters has, in fact, a resounding defense of intellectual, gender equality. Toland suggests that it is either "inveterate custom" or the "design in the men" that causes female exlusion from the "world of learning." In general, Toland thinks nurture is responsible for much of our (very flawed) "second nature" in women and men. So, while Toland accepts a universal human nature, it is according to him extremely plastic. Echoing Plato and Malebranche, he suggests that belief and character formation starts in the womb and is developed (or degenerated by) our major social institutions (family, church, universities, etc.)--he treats our acculturation as inevitable, but as practiced as a form of social disease (cf. "infection.")
Toland offers us an out of Egypt account insisting that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul can be traced back to a common origin in a poetic mis-interpretation of Egyptian funeral rites (which, in Toland's hands, taken at face value do not imply an immortal soul). Toland then explains how the versions of the doctrine most familiar to us are promoted by Greek poets, priests, and philosophers as well as politicians prying on fearful and credulous people. Toland is explicitly indebted to Pliny, and while critical of the atomists (and eventually Spinoza), he also recycles plenty of Epicurean tropes.
Even so, recent attempts to enlist Toland into the 'radical' camp of the Enlightenment are misguided. For, when Toland turns to what his readers can learn from (Diodorus Seculus' account of) the ancient Egyptians, it turns out to be this only:
[T]he punishment of the wicked and the recompense of the good, not being contained in fables, but exhibited to our eyes, each party is every day put in mind of his duties; and by this custom there grows the best and most useful reformation of manners. Letters II (p. 5o--quoting Diodorus Siculus).
So, regardless if unmasking is the main purpose of Tolland's Letters, he has a political message, too. Rather than telling people tales of Hell and Purgory, society would be much better, even best served by the strict enforcement of justice. (This is the Wisdom of the Ancients worth finding for those that know how to read according to Toland.) And this reformist course makes Toland the father of the (moderate) Scottish Enlightenment however much Toland's purported modern friends might claim otherwise. This (provisional) conclusion might be disappointing to those who think of genealogy as an essentially transformative method, but that very idea requires its own genealogy.