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ON THE ADVANTAGES WHICH WOULD FLOW FROM A GENERAL DIFFUSION OF knowledge.
THAT the intellectual faculties of man have never been thoroughly directed to the pursuit of objects worthy of the dignity of rational and immortal natures—and that the most pernicious •ffects have flowed from the perversion of their mental powers, are truths which the history of past ages and our own experience too plainly demonstrate. That the state of general society would be greatly meliorated, were the mists of ignorance dispelled, and the current of human thought directed into a proper channel, might appear, were we to take an extensive survey of the evils which have been produced by ignorance, and its necessary concomitants, and of the opposite effects which would flow from mental illumination, in relation to all those subjects connected with the improvement and the happiness of our species. Here, however, a field of vast extent opens to view, which would require several volumes fully to describe and illustrate: I shall, therefore, in the mean time, select, from the multitude of objects which crowd upon the view, only a few prominent particulars, the elucidation of which shall occupy the following sections.
On thr INFLUENCE which A GENERAL DIPFusion of know i.p. DGE wou LD HAVE in Dissipating those superstitious NoTION's And wain re.Arts which have so LONG Ensi. A v Ero the anix Ios or nien.
My first proposition is, that the diffusion of knowledge would undermine the fabric of su
perstition, and remove those groundless fears to which superstitious notions give rise. Ignorance has not only debarred mankind from many exquisite and sublime enjoyments, but has created innumerable unfounded alarms, which greatly increase the sum of human misery. Man is naturally timid, terrified at those dangers whose consequences he cannot foresee, and at those uncommon appearances of nature whose causes he has never explored. Thus, he is led, in many instances, to regard with apprehension and dread those operations of nature which are the result of regular and invariable laws. Under the influence of such timid emotions, the phenomena of nature, both in the heavens and on the earth, have been 'arrayed with imaginary terrors. In the early ages of the world, a total eclipse of the sun or of the moon was regarded with the utmost consternation, as if some dismal catastrophe had been about to befall the universe. Believing that the moon in an eclipse was sickening or dying through the influence of enchanters, the trembling spectators had recourse to the ringing of bells, the sounding of trumpets, the beating of brazen vessels, and to loud and horrid exclamations, in order to break the enchantment, and to drown the muttering of witches, that the moon might not hear them. In allusion to this practice, Juvenal, when speaking of a loud scolding woman, says, that she was able to relieve the moon.
“Forbear your drums and trumpets if you please, Her voice alone the labouring inoon can ease.”
Nor are such foolish opinions and customs ye. banished from the world. They are said to be still prevalent in several Mahometan and Pagan countries.* Comets, too, with their blazing .ails, were long regarded, and still are, by the vulgar, as harbingers of divine vengeance, presaging famines and inundations, or the downfall of princes and the destruction of empires.t The Aurorae Boreales, or northern lights, have been frequently gazed at with similar apprehensions, and whole provinces have been thrown into consternation by the fantastic coruscations of those lambent meteors. Some pretend to see, in these harmless lights, armies mixing in fierce encounter, and fields streaming with blood; others behold states overthrown, earthquakes, inundations, pestilences, and the most dreadful calamities. Because some one or other of these calamities formerly happened soon after the appearance of a comet, or the blaze of an aurora, therefore they are considered either as the causes or the prognostics of such events. From the same source have arisen those foolish notions, so fatal to the peace of mankind, which have been engendered by judicial astrology. Under a belief that the characters and the fates of men are dependent on the various aspects of the stars and conjunctions of the planets, the most unfounded apprehensions, as well as the most delusive hopes, have been excited by the professors of this fallacious science. Such impositions on the credulity of mankind are founded on the grossest absurdity, and the most palpable ignorance of the nature of things; Ror since the aspects and conjunctions of the celestial bodies have, in every period of duration, been subject to invariable laws, they must be altogether inadequate to account for the diversified phenomena of the moral world, and for that infinite variety we observe in the dispositions and the destinies of men; and, indeed, the single consideration of the immense distances of the stars from our globe, is sufficient to convince any rational mind that their influence can have no effect on a region so remote from the spaces which they occupy. The planetary bodies, indeed, may, in certain cases, have some degree of physical influence on the earth, by virtue of their attractive power, but that influence can never affect the operation of moral causes, or the qualities of the mind. Even although it were admitted that the heavenly bodies have an influence over the destinies of the human race, yet we have no data whatever by which to ascertain the mode of its operation, or to determine the formula or rules by which calculations are to be made, in order to predict the fates of nations, or the individual temperaments and destinies of men; and consequently, the principles and rules on which astrologers proceed in constructing horoscopes and calculating nativities, are nothing
else than mere assumptions, and their pretensions nothing short of criminal impositions upon the credulity of mankind. With equally the same reason might we assert, that the earth, in different positions in its orbit, would have an influence in producing fools and maniacs in the nlanet Jupiter, or in exciting wars and insurrections among the inhabitants of Saturn, as to suppose, with Mr. Varley, the prince of modern astrologers, that “Saturn passing through the ascendant, causes dulness and melancholy for a few weeks,” and that “Jupiter, in the third house, gives safe inland journeys and agreeable neighbours or kindred.” Notwithstanding the absurdity of the doctrines of astrology, this art has been practised in every period of time. Among the Romans, the people were so infatuated with it, that the astrologers, or, as they were then called, the mathematicians, maintained their ground in spite of all the edicts of the emperors to expel them from the capital; and after they were at length expelled by a formal decree of the senate, they found so much protection from the credulity of the people, that they still remained in Rome unmolested. Among the Chaldeans, the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Arabians, in ancient times, astrology was uniformly included in the list of the sciences, and used as one species of divination by which they attempted to pry into the secrets of futurity The Brahmins in India, at an early period, introduced this art into that country, and, by means of it, have rendered themselves the arbiters of good and evil hours, and of the fortunes of their fellow-men, and have thus raised themselves to great authority and influence among the illiterate multitude. They are consulted as oracles, and, like all other impostors, they have taken great care never to sell their answers without a handsome remuneration. In almost every country in the world this art is still practised, and only a short period has elapsed since the princes and legislators of Europe were directed in the most important concerns of the state by the predictions of astrologers. In the time of Queen Catharine de Medicis, astrology was so much in vogue, that nothing, however trifling, was to be done without consulting the stars. The astrologer Morin, in the seventeenth century, directed Cardinal Richelieu's motions in some of his journeys, and Louisa Maria de Gonzaga, queen of Poland, gave 2000 crowns to carry on an edition of his Astrologia Gallica; and in the reigns of Henry the Third and Henry the Fourth of France, the predictions of astrologers were the common theme of the court conversation. Even in the present day, and in the metropolis of the British empire, this fallacious art is practised, and its professors are resorted to for judicial information, not only by the vulgar, but even by many m the higher spheres of life. The extensive annual sale of more than 240,000 copies of “Moore's Almanac,” which abounds with such predictions, and of similar publications, is a striking proof of the belief which is still attached to the doctrines of astrology in our own age and country, and of the ignorance and credulity from which such a belief proceeds." Parhelia, parselenae, shooting stars, fiery meteors, luminous arches, lunar rainbows, and other atmospherical phenomena, have likewise been considered by some as ominous of impending calamities. Such are some of the objects in the heavens, which ignorance and supersition have arrayed with imaginary terrors. On the earth, the objects which have given rise to groundless fears, are almost innuinerable. The ignes futui, those harmless meteors which hover above moist and fenny places in the night-time, and emit a glimmering light, have been regarded as malicious spirits, endeavouring to deceive the bewildered traveller, and lead him to destruction. The ticking noise of the little insect called the death-watch—a screech-owl screaming at the window—a raven croaking over a house—a dog howling in the night-time—a hare or a sow crossing the road— the meeting of a bitch with whelps, or a snake lying in the road—the failing of salt from a table —and even the curling of a fibre of tallow in a burning candle,f have been regarded with aphensions of terror, as prognostics of impending disasters, or of approaching death. In the Highlands of Scotland, the motions and appearances of the clouds were, not long ago, considered as ominous of disastrous events. On the ovening before new-year's day, if a black cloud appeared in any part of the horizon, it was thought to prognosticate a plague, a famine, or Jhe death of some great man in that part of the country over which it seemed to hang; and in order to ascertain the place threatened by the omen, the motions of the clouds were often watched through the whole night. In the same country, the inhabitants regard certain days as unlucky, or ominous of bad fortune. That day of the week on which the 3d of May falls, is deemed unlucky throughout the whole year. In the isle of Mull, ploughing, sowing, and reaping, are always begun on Tuesday, though the
* That the absurdities of astrology are still in vogue among a certain class, appears from the pubacation of such works as the following:—“A Trease on Zodiacal Physiognomy, illustrated by engravings of heads and features, and accompanied sy tables of the times of the rising of the twelve signs of the Zodiac, and containing also new astrological explanations of some remarkable portions of ancient mythological history. By John Varley. No. 1., large ovo., pp. 60, to be comprised in four parts. Longnun and Co. 1823 ''' A specimen of some of the fooleries and absurdities gravely treated of by this sapient author, will be found in Nos. III. and IV. of the Appendix to this volume. * Called in Scotland, the dead speal.
most favourable weather for these purposes be in this way frequently lost. In Morven, none will, upon any account, dig peat or turf for fuel on Friday. The age of the moon is also much attended to by the vulgar Highlanders; and an opinion prevails, that if a house take fire while the moon is in the decrease, the family will from that time decline in its circumstances, and sink into poverty.” In England, it is reckoned a bad omen to break a looking-glass, as it is believed the party to whom it belongs will lose his best friend. In going a journey, if a sow cross the road, it is believed the party will inect either with a disappointment or a bodily accident before returning home. It is reckoned unlucky to see first one magpie, and then another ; and to kill a magpie, it is believed, will certainly be punished with some terrible missortune. If a person meet a funeral procession, it is considered necessary always to take off the hat, which keeps all the evil spirits that attend the body in good humour. If in eating, a person miss his mouth, and the victuals fall, it is reckoned very unlucky, and ominous of approaching sickness. It is also considered as unlucky to present a 4....., sussors, razor, or any sharp cutting instrument, to one's mistress or friend, as they are apt to cut love and friendship; and to find a knife or razor, denotes ill luck or disappointment to the party. Among the ancient nations, there was hardly any circumstance or occurrence, however trivial, from which they did not draw omens. This practice appears to have taken its rise in Egypt, the parent country of almost every superstition of pagal.ism; but, from whatever source it may have derived its origin, it spread itself over the whole inhabited globe, even among the most civilized nations, and at this day it prevails more or less among the vulgar in every country. Even kings and emperors, sages and heroes, have been seized with alarm, at the most trivial circumstances, which they were taught to consider as ominous of bad fortune, or of impen 'ing danger. Suetonius says of Augustus, that he believed implicitly in certain omens; and that, si mane sibi calceus perperam, ac sinister pro dertero inducereter, ut dirum, “if his shoes were improperly put on in the morning, especially if the left shoe was put
upon his right foot, he held it for a bad omen."
Thus it appears, that the luminaries of heaven, the clouds, and other meteors that float in the atmosphere, the actions of animals, the seasons of the year, the days of the week, the most trivial incidents in human life, and many other circumstances, have afforded matter of false alarm to mankind. But this is not all: Man, ever prone to disturb his own peace, notwithstanding the real evils he is doomed to suf
"Encyclopedia Britannica, Art. Omen.
fer, has been ingenious enough to form imaginary monsters which have no existence, either in heaven or on earth, nor the least foundation in the scenes of external nature. He has not only drawn false conclusions from the objects which have a real existence, to increase his fears; but has created, in his imagination, an ideal world, and peopled it with spectres, hobgoblins, fairies, satyrs, imps, wraiths, genii, brownies, witches, wizards, and other fantastical beings, to whose caprices he believes his happiness and misery are subjected. An old wrinkled hag is supposed to have the power of rendering miserable all around her, who are the objects of her hatred. In her privy chamber, it is believed, she can roast and torment the absent, and inflict incurable disorders both on man and beast;* she can transport herself through the air on a spit or a broomstick; or, when it serves her purpose, she can metamorphose herself into a cat or a hare; and, by shaking a bridle over a person asleep, can transform him into a horse; and, mounted on this new-created steed, can traverse the air on the wings of the wind, and visit distant countries in the course of a night. A certain being called a fairy, though supposed to be at least two or three feet high, is believed to have the faculty of contracting its body, so as to pass through the key-hole of a door; and though they are a distinct species of beings frominan, they have astrong fancy for children; and hence, in the Highlands of Scotland, new-born infants are watched till the christening is over, lest they should be stolen or exchanged by those fantastic existences. The regions of the air have been peopled with apparitions and terrific phantoms of different kinds, which stalk abroad at the dead hour of night, to terrify the lonely traveller. In ruined castles and old houses, they are said to announce their appearance by a variety of loud and dreadful noises; sometimes rattling in the old hall like a coach and six, and rumbling up and down the staircase like the trundling of bowls or cannon-balls. Especially in lonely church-yards, in retired caverns, in deep forests and dells, horrid sounds are said to have been heard, and monstrous shapes to have appeared, by which whole villages have been thrown into consternation.f
* The reader will find abundance of relations of this kind in “Satan's invisible world discovered," a book which was long read with avidity by the vulgar in this country, and which has frequently caused emotions of terror among youthful groups on winter evenings, while listening to its fearful reations, which could never be eradicated, and has endered them concards in the dark, during all the subsequent periods of their lives.
* That many of the superstitious opinions and practices above alluded to, still prevail even within the limits of the British empire, appears from the following extract from the “Monthly Magazine" for July 1813, p. 495–" In Staffordshire, they burn a calf in a farm house alive, to prevent the other calves from dying. In the same county, a woman
Nor have such absurd notions been confined to the illiterate vulgar; men of considerable acquirements in literature, from ignorance of the laws of nature, have fallen into the same delusions. Formerly, a man who was endowed with considerable genius and knowledge, was reckoned a magician. Doctor Bartolo was seized by the Inquisition at Rome, in the sixteenth century, because he unexpectedly cured a nobleman of the gout; and the illustrious Friar Bacon, because he was better acquainted with experimental philosophy than most persons of the age in which he lived, was suspected, even by the learned ecclesiastics, of having dealings with the devil. Diseases were at those times imputed to fascination, and hundreds of poor wretches were dragged to the stake for being accessary to them. Mercatus, physician to Philip II. of Spain, relates, that he had seen. a very beautiful woman break a steel mirror to pieces, and blast some trees, by a single glance of her eyes! Josephus relates, that he saw a certain Jew, named Eleazar, draw the devil out of an old woman's nostrils, by the application of Solomon's seal to her nose, in the presence of Vespasian. Dr. Mynsight is said to have cured several bewitched persons with a plaster of assafoetida. How the assafoetida was efficacious, was much disputed among the learned. Some thought the devil might consider such an application as an insult, and ran off in a passion; but others very sagely observed, that as devils were supposed to have eyes and ears, it was probable they might have noses too. James VI. who was famed for his polemics and theological acquirements, wrote a treatise in defence of witchcraft, and persecuted those who opposed
having kept a toad in a pot in her garden, her husband killed it, and she reproached him for it, saying, she intended the next Sunday to have taken the sacrament, for the purpose of getting some of the bread to feed him with, and make him thereby a valuable familiar spirit to her. At Long Ashton, a young farmer has several times predicted his own end, from what he calls being looked over; and his mother and father informed a friend of nine, (says the relater) that they had sent to the White Witch Doctor, beyond Bridge Water, by the coachman, for a charm to cure him, (having paid handsomely sur it;) but that he had now given him over, as her spells were more potent than his. If not dead, he is dying of mere fear, and all the parish of his class believe it. There is also, in that parish, an old man who sells gingerhread to the schools, who is always employed to cure the red water in cows, by means of charms and verses which he says to them. In the Marsh, we have water doctors, who get rich; at the mines, diviners with rods, who find ores and water; and at Weston-super-Mare, they see lights before funerals, and are agreed that the people in that parish always die by threes, i. e. three old, three young, three men, three women, &c. Such are Apart only of the superstitions of the West in 1813 "
Every one who is much conversant with the lower ranks of society, will find, that such notions are still current and believed by a considerable portion of the population, which is the only andlogy that can h made for stating and counteracting such opl nions.
lis opinions on this subject. The pernicious effects in mines, occasioned by the explosion of hydrogen gas, were formerly imputed to the demons of the mine. Van Helmont, Bodinus, Strozza, and Luther, attributed thunder and meteors to the devil. Socrates believed he was guided by a demon. Dr. Cudworth, Glanvil, and others, wrote in defence of witchcraft and apparitions. But it would be endless to detail all the foolish opinions which have been imbibed and propagated even by men who pretended to genius and learning. Besides the opinions to which I have now adverted, and which have a direct tendency to fill the mind with unnecessary apprehensions, there is also an immense variety of foolish and erroneous opinions which passed current for genuine truths among a great majority of mankind. That a man has one rib less than a woman,—that there is a certain Jew still alive, who has wandered through the world since the crucifixion of Christ,--that the coffin of Mahomet is suspended in the air between two loadstones,—that the city of Jerusalem is in the centre of the world,—that the tenth wave of the sea is greater and more dangerous than all the rest,--that all animals on the land have their corresponding kinds in the sea-that there is a white powder which kills without giving a report, that the blood of a goat will dissolve a diamond,-that all the stars derive their light from the sun,-that a candle made of human fat, when lighted, will prevent a person asleep from awaking, with many other similar unfounded positions,—are regarded as indisputable truths by thousands, whose adherence to tradition and authority, and whose indolence and credulity, prevent them from inquiring, with a manly independence, into the true state and nature of things. Such are a few, and but a very few, of the superstitious notions and vain fears by which the great majority of the human race, in every age and country, has been enslaved. To have attempted a complete enumeration of such hallucinations of the human intellect, would have been vain, and could only have produced satiety and disgust. That such absurd notions should ever have prevailed, is a most grating and humiliating thought, when we consider the noble faculties with which man is endowed. That they still prevail, in a great measure, even in our own country, is a striking proof, that we are, as yet, but just emerging from the gloom of intellectual darkness. The prevalence of such opinions is to be regretted, not only on account af the groundless alarms they create, but chiefly on account of the false ideas they inspire with regard to the nature of the Supreme Ruler of the universe, and of his arrangements in the government of the world. While a man, whose amind is enlightened with true science, Perceives
throughout all nature the most striking evidences of benevolent design, and rejoices in the benignity of the Great Parent of the universe, while he perceives nothing in the arrangements of the Creator, in any department of his works, which has a direct tendency to produce pain to any intelligent or sensitive existence,—the superstitious man, on the contrary, contemplates the sky, the air, the waters, and the earth, as filled with malicious beings, ever ready to haunt him with terror, or to plot his destruction. The one contemplates the Deity directing the movements of the material world, by fixed and invariable laws, which none but himself can counteract or suspend; the other views them as continually liable to be controlled by capricious and malignant beings, to gratify the most trivial and unworthy passions. How very different, of course, must be their conceptions and feelings respecting the attributes and government of the Supreme Being ! While the one views Him as an infinitely wise and benevolent Father, whose paternal care and goodness inspire confidence and affection; the other must regard him, in a certain degree, as a capricious being, and offer up his adorations under the influence of fear. Such notions have likewise an evident tendency to habituate the mind to false principles and processes of reasoning, which unfit it for forming legitimate conclusions in its researches after truth. They chain down the understanding, and sink it into the most abject and sordid state; and prevent it from rising to those noble and enlarged views which revelation and modern science exhibit, of the order, the extent, and the economy of the universe. It is lamentable to reflect, that so many thousands of beings endowed with the faculty of reason, who cannot by any means be persuaded of the motion of the earth, and the distances and magnitudes of the celestial bodies, should swallow, without the least hesitation, opinions ten thousand times more improbable; and find no difficulty in believing that an old woman can transform herself into a hare, and wing her way through the air on a broomstick. But what is worst of all, such notions almost invariably lead to the perpetration of deeds of cruelty and injustice. Of the truth of this position, the history of almost every nation affords the most ample proof. Many of the barbarities committed in pagan countries, both in their religious worship and their civil polity, and most of the cruelties inflicted on the victims of the Romish inquisition, have flowed from this source." Nor are the annals of our own coun
• In the duchy of Lorraine, 900 females were deli vered over to the flames, for being tritches, by one inquisitor alone. Under this accusation, it is reckoned that upwards of thirty thousand women have perished by the hands of the Inquisition.-"Inquestion Unmasked,” by Puigblanch.