Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

try deficient in examples of this kind: The belief attached to the doctrine of witchcraft, led our ancestors, little more than a century ago, to condemn and to burn at the stake hundreds of unhappy women, accused of crimes of which they could not possibly have been guilty.” In New England, about the year 1692, a witchcraft phrensy rose to such excess as to produce conmotions and calamities more dreadful than the scourge of war or the destroying pestilence. There lived in the town of Salem, in that country, two young women, who were subject to convulsions, accompanied with extraordinary symptoms. Their father, a minister of the church, supposing they were bewitched, cast his suspicions upon an indian girl, who lived in the house, whom he compelled, by harsh treatment, to confess that she was a witch. Other women, on hearing this, immediately believed that the convulsions, which proceeded only from the nature of their sex, were owing to the same cause. Three citizens, casually named, were immediately thrown into prison, accused of witchcraft, hanged, and their bodies left exposed to wild beasts and birds of prey. A few days after, sixteen other persons, together with a counsellor, who, because he refused to plead against them, was supposed to share in their guilt, suffered in the same manner. From this instant, the imagination of the multitude was inflamed with these horrid and gloomy scenes. Children of ten years of age were put to death, young girls were stripped naked, and the marks of witchcraft searched for upon their bodies with the most indecent curiosity; and 'hose spots of the scurvy which age impresses upon the bodies of old men, were token for evident signs of infernal power. In default of these, torments were employed to extort confessions, dictated by the executioners themselves. For such fancied crimes, the offspring of superstition alone, they were imprisoned, tortured, nurdered, and their bodies devoured by the beasts of prey. If the magistrates, tired out with executions, refused to punish, they were themselves accused of the crimes they tolerated; the very ministers of religion raised false witnesses against them, who made them forfeit with their lives the tardy remorse excited in them by humanity. Dreams, apparitions, terror, and consternation of every kind, increased these prodigies of folly and horror. The prisons were filled, the gibbets left standing, and

[blocks in formation]

all the citizens involved in gloomy apprehen sions. So that superstitious notions, so far from being innocent and harmless speculations, lead to the most deplorable results, and therefore ought to be undermined and eradicated by every one who wishes to promote the happiness and the good order of general society. Such, then, is the evil we find existing among mankind—false opinions, which produce vain fears, which debase the understanding, exhibit distorted views of the Deity, and lead to deeds of cruelty and injustice. Let us now consider the remedy to be applied for its removal. I have all along taken it for granted, that ignorance of the laws and economy of nature is the great source of the absurd opinions to which I have adverted,—a position which, I presume, will not be called in question. For such opinions cannot be deduced from an attentive survey of the phenomena of nature, or from an induction of well-authenticated facts; and they are equally repugnant to the dictates of revelation. Nay, so far are they from having any foundation in nature or experience, that in proportion as we advance in our researches into Nature's economy and laws, in the same proportion we perceive their futility and alsurdity. As in most other cases, so in this, a knowledge of the cause of the evil leads to the proper remedy. Let us take away the cause, and the effect of course will be removed. Let the exercise of the rational faculties be directed into a proper channel, and the mind furnished with a few fundamental and incontrovertible principles of reasoning—let the proper sources of information be laid open-let striking and interesting facts be presented to view, and a taste for rational investigation be encouraged and promoted—let habits of accurate observation be induced, and the mind directed to draw proper conclusions from the various objects which present themselves to view-and then we may confidently expect, that superstitious opinions, with all their usual accompaniments, will gradually evanish, as the shades of night before the rising sun. But here it may be inquired, What kind of knowledge is it that will produce this effect? It is not merely an acquaintance with a number of dead languages, with Roman and Grecian antiquities, with the subtleties of metaphysics, with pagan mythology, with politics or poetry: these, however important in other points of view, will not, in the present case, produce the desired effect; for we have already seen, that many who were conversant in such subjects were not proof against the admission of superstitious opinions. In order to produce the desired effect, the mind must be directed to the study of material nature, to contemplate the various appearances it presents, and to mark the uniform results of those invariable laws by which the universe is governed. In particular, the attention should be directed to those discoveries which have been made by philosophers in the different departments of nature and art, during the last two centuries. For this purpose, the study of natural history, as recording the various facts respecting the atmosphere, the waters, the earth, and animated beings, combined with the study of natural philosophy and astronomy, as explaining the causes of the phenomena of sature, will have a happy tendency to eradicate from the mind those false notions, and, at the same time, will present to view objects of delightful contemplation. Let a person be once thoroughly convinced that Nature is uniform in her operations, and governed by regular laws, impressed by an all-wise and benevolent Being, -he will soon be inspired with confidence, and will not easily be alarmed at any occasional Phenomena which at first sight might appear as exceptions to the general rule. For example, let persons be taught that eclipses are occasioned merely by the shadow of one opaque body falling upon another—that they are the necessary result of the inclination of the moon's orbit to that of the earth—that the times when they take place depend on the new or full moon happening at or near the points of intersection—and that other planets which have moons, experience eclipses of a similar nature —that the comets are regular bodies belonging to our system, which finish their revolutions, and appear and disappear in stated periods of time—that the northern lights, though seldom seen in southern clines, are frequent in the regions of the North, and supply the inhabitants with light in the absence of the sun, and have probably a relation to the magnetic and electric fluids—that the ignes fatui are harmless lights, sormed by the ignition of a certain species of gas produced in the soils above which they hover—that the notes of the death-watch, so far from being presages of death, are ascertained to be the notes of love, and presages of hymeneal intercourses among these little insects;* let rational information of this kind be imparted, and they will soon learn to contemplate nature with tranquillity and composure. Nay, a more beneficial effect than even this, will, at the same time, be produced. Those objects which they formerly beheld with alarm, will now be converted into sources of enjoyment, and be contemplated with emotions of delight.

“When from the dread immensity of space, The rushing comet to the sun descends, With awful train projected o'er the world : The enlighten’d few, Whose gol-like minds philosophy exalts, The glorious stranger hail. They feel a joy

* This fact was particularly ascertained by Dr. perham.–Philosophical Transactions, No. 291.

Divinely great; they in their powers exult;
They see the blazing wonder rise anew,
In seeining terror clad, but kindly bent
To work the will of all-sustaining Love.”
Thomson's Surxoner.

Such are the sublime emotions with which a person enlightened with the beams of science contemplates, the return of a comet, or any uncommon celestial appearance. He will wait the approach of such phenomena with pleasing expectation, in hopes of discovering more of the nature and destination of those distant orbs; and will be led to form more enlarged ideas of their omnipotent Creator.

Again, to remove the apprehensions which arise from the fear of invisible and incorporeal beings, let persons be instructed in the various optical illusions to which we are subject, arising from the intervention of fogs, and the indistinctness of vision in the night-time, which make us frequently mistake a bush that is near us for a large tree at a distance; and, under the influence of which illusions, a timid imagination will transform the indistinct image of a cow or a horse into a terrific phantom of a monstrous size. Let them also be taught, by a selection of well-authenticated facts, the powerful influence of the imagination in creating ideal forms, especially when under the dominion of fear— the effects produced by the workings of conscience, when harassed with guilt—by very lively dreams, by strong doses of opium, by drunkenness, hysteric passions, madness, and other disorders that affect the mind, and by the cunning artifices of impos:ors to promote some sinister or nefarious designs. Let them likewise be instructed in the nature of spontuneous combustions and detonations, occasioned by the accidental combustion and explosion of gases, which produce occasional noises and lights in church-yards and empty houses. Let the experiments of optics, and the striking phenomena produced by electricity, galvanism, magnetism, and the different gases, be exhibited to their view, together with details of the results which have been produced by various mechanical contrivances. In fine, let their attention be directed to the foolish, whimsical, and extravagant notions, attributed to apparitions, and to their inconsistency with the wise and benevolent arrangements of the Governor of the universe.*

That such instructions as those I have now hinted at would completely produce the intended effect, may be argued from this consideration, —that they have uniformly produced this affect on every mind which has been thus enlightened. Where is the man to be sound, whose mind is enlightened in the doctrines and discoveries of

*See Appendix, No. VII. for an illustration of some of the causes which have concurred to propagate the belief of apparitions.

modern science, and who yet remains the slave of superstitious notions and vain fears Of all the philosophers in Europe, is there one who is alarmed at an eclipse, at a comet, at an ignis fatuus, or the notes of a death-watch, or who postpones his experimen's on account of what is called an unlucky day? Did we ever hear of a spectre appearing to such a person, dragging him from bed at the dead hour of midnight to wander through the forest trembling with fear? No: such beings appear only to the ignorant and illiterate; and we never heard of their appearing to any one who did not previously believe in their existence. But why should philosophers be freed from such terrific visions, if substantial knowledge had not the power of banishing them from the mind? Why should supernatural beings feel so shy in conversing with men of science 2 They would be the fittest persons to whom they might impart their secrets, and communicate information respecting the invisible world, but it never falls to their lot to be favoured with such visits. Therefore, it may be concluded, that the diffusion of useful knowledge would infallibly dissipate those groundless fears which have so long disturbed the happiness particularly of the lower orders of mankind.* It forms no objection to what has been now stated, that the late Dr. Samuel Johnson believed in the existence of ghosts, and in the second sight: for, with all his vast acquirements in literature, he was ignorant of natural science, and even attempted to ridicule the study of natural philosophy and astronomy—the principal subjects which have the most powerful tendency to dissipate such notions,—as may be seen in No. 24 of his “Rambler;" where he endeavours to give force to his ridicule by exhibiting the oddities of an imaginary pretender to these sciences. He talks of men of science “lavishing their hours in calculating the weight of the terraqueous globe, or in adjusting systems of worlds beyond the reach of the telescope;” and adds, that “it was the greatest praise of So

• It would be unfair to infer from any expressions here used, that the author denies the possibility of supernatural visions and appearances. We are assured, from the records of Sacred History, that beings of an order superior to the human race, have “at sundry times, and in divers manners,” made their appearance to men. But there is the most marked oifference between vulgar apparitions, and the celestial messengers to which the records of Revelation refer. They appeared, not to old women and clowis, but to patriarchs, prophets, and apos; tles. They appeared, not to frighten the timid, and to create unnecessary alarm, but to declare “tidings of great joy.” They appeared, not to reveal such paltry secrets as the place where a pot of zold or silver is concealed, or where a lost ring may be found, but to communicate intelligence worthy of God to reveal, and of the utmost importance for man to receive. in these, and many other respects, there is the most striking contrast between populas ghosts, and the supernatural communications and

uppearances recorded in Scripture.

crates, that he drew the wits of Greece from the vain pursuit of natural philosophy to moral inquiries, and turned their thoughts from stars and tides, and matter and motion, upon the various modes of virtue and relations of life.” His opinions and conduct, therefore, can only be considered as an additional proof of the propriety of the sentiments above expressed.

Nor should it be considered as a thing impracticable to instruct the great body of mankind in the subjects to which I have alluded. Every man possessed of what is called common sense, is capable of acquiring all the information requisite for the purpose in view, even without infringing on the time allotted for his daily labours, provided his attention be once thoroughly directed to its acquisition, and proper means used to promote his instruction. It is not intended that all men should be made profound mathematicians and philosophers; nor is it necessary, in order to eradicate false opinions, and to enlarge and elevate the mind. A general view of useful knowledge is all that is necessary for the great mass of mankind; and would cer. tainly be incomparably preferable to that gross ignorance, and those grovelling dispositions, which so generally prevail among the inferior ranks of society. And, to acquire such a degree of rational information, requires only that a taste for it, and an eager desire for acquiring it, be excited in the mind. If this were attained, I am bold to affirm, that the acquisition of such information may be made by any person who is capable of learning a common mechanical employment, and will cost him less trouble and expense than are requisite to a schoolboy for acquiring the elements of the Latin tongue.

To conclude this branch of the subject:— Since it appears that ignorance produces superstition, and superstitious notions engender vain fears and distorted views of the government of the Almighty-since all fear is in itself painful, and, when it conduces not to safety, is painful without use-every consideration and every scheme by which groundless terrors may be removed, and just conceptions of the moral attributes of the Deity promoted, must diminish the sum of human misery, and add something to human happiness. If therefore the acquisition of useful knowledge respecting the laws and the economy of the universe would produce this effect, the more extensively such information is propagated, the more happiness will be diffused among mankind.

SECTION II.

ON THE Utility of KNow LEDGE IN PRE-
VIENTING Diseas F.S AND FATAL. Acco-
DENTs.
It is a conclusion which has been deduced

from long experience, “that mankind in their pinions and conduct are apt to run from one extreme to another.” We have already seen, that, in consequence of false conceptions of the Deity, and of his arrangements in the economy of nature, the minds of multitudes have been alarmed by the most unfounded apprehensions, and have been “in great fear where no fear was.” On the o her hand, from a similar cause, many have run heedlessly into danger and destruction, when a slight acquaintance with the powers of nature, and the laws of their operation, would have pointed out the road to safety. This leads me to the illustration of another advantage which would be derived from a general diffusion of knowledge, namely, That it would tend to prevent many of those diseases and fatal accidents which flow from ignorance of the laws which govern the operations of Mature. There are, indeed, several accidents to which mankin are exposed, which no human wisdom can foresee or prevent. Being furnished with faculties of a limited nature, and placed in the midst of a scene where so many powerful and complicated causes are in constant operation, we are sometimes exposed, all on a sudden, to the action of destructive causes, of which we were ignorant, or over which we have no control. Even although we could foresee a pestilence, a famine, an earthquake, an inundation, or the eruption of a volcano, we could not altogether prevent the calamities which generally flow from their destructive ravages. But, at the same time, it may be affirmed with truth, that a great proportion of the physical evils and accidents to which the human race is liable, are the effects of a culpable ignorance, and might be effectually prevented, were useful knowledge more extensively diffused. But it unfortunately happens, in almost every instance, that the persons who are exposed to the accidents to which I allude, are ignorant of the means requisite for averting the danger. To illustrate this point, I shall select a few examples, and shall intersperse a few hints and maxims for the consideration of those whom it may concern. The first class of accidents to which I shall advert, comprises those which have happened from ignorance of the nature and properties of the different gases, and of the noxious effects which some of them produce on the functions of animal life. We have frequently read in newspapers and magazines, and some of us have witnessed, such accidents as the following:—A man descends into a deep well, which had for some time been shut up. When he has gone down a considerable way he suddenly lets go his hold of the rope or ladder by which he descends, and drops to the bottom in a state of insensibility, devoid of utterance, and unable to point out the cause of his disaster. Another hastily follows him,

to ascertain the cause, and to rifford him assistance; but by the time he arrives at the same depth he shares the same fate. A third person, afer some hesia ion, descends with more cautious steps. But he soon begins to feel a certain degree of giddiness, and makes haste to ascend, or is drawn up by assistants. In the mean time, the unhappy persons at the bottom of the well are frequenly left to remain so long in a state of suspended animation, that all means of restoration prove abortive; and the cause of the disaster remains a mystery, till some medical gentleman, or other person of intelligence, be made acquainted with the circumstances of the accident. Similar accidents, owing to the same cause, have happened to persons who have incautiously descended into brewers' vats, or who have entered precipitately into wine cellars and vaul s, which had been long shut up from the external air, and where the process of fermentation was going on : They have been suddenly struck down, as by a flash of lightning; and, in some instances the vital spark has been completely extinguished. Many instances, too, could be produced, of workmen, who have incautiously laid themselves down to sleep in the neighbourhood of lime-kilns where they were employed, having, in a short time, slept the sleep of death. The burning of charcoal in close apartments has also proved fatal to many; more especially when they have retired to rest in sugh apartments, while the charcoal was burning, and before the rooms had received a thorough ventilation. Numerous are the instances in which accidents have happened, in the circumstances now stated, and which are still frequently recurring; all which might have been prevented had the following facts been generally known and attended to:—That there exists a certain species of air, termed fired air, or carbonic acid gas, which instantly extinguishes flame, and is destructive to animal life; that it is found in considerable quantities in places which have been shut up from the external atmosphere, as in old wells, pits, caverns, and close vaults; that it is copiously produced during the fermentation of liquons in brewers' vats, where it hovers above the surface of the liquor; in cellars where wine and malt-liquors are kept; and by the burning of lime and charcoal; and, that being nearly twice as heavy as common air, it sinks to the bottom of the place where it is produced. The following plain hints are therefore all that is requisite to be attended to, in order to prevent the recurrence of such disasters. Previous to entering a well or pit which has been long secluded from the external air, let a lighted candle or taper be sent down; if it continues to burn at the bottom there is no danger, for air that will support flame, without an explosion, will also support animal life; but, should the taper be extinguished before it reaches the bottom, it would be attended with imminent danger to venture down till the foul air be expelled. The noxious air may be destroyed by throwing down a quantity of quick lime, and gradually sprinkling it with water; for as the lime slakes it will absorb the mephitic air, and a person may afterwards descend in safety. Where lime is not at hand, a bush, or such like bulky substance, may be let down and drawn up several times; or some buckets of water may be thrown into it, till the air be so purified, that a lighted taper will continue to burn at the bottom. These precautionary hints will apply to all the other cases referred to, where this species of gas may happen to exist. To which I may also add, as another hint, that in every situation where fixed air is supposed to exist, it is more dangerous to sit or to lie down, in such places, than to stand erect; for, as this gas is the heaviest of all the gases, it occupies the lowest place; and therefore, a person lying on the ground may be suffocated by it, while another standing at his side would feel no injury, his mouth being raised above the stratum of the noxious fluid.*—I shall only remark farther on this head, that several disorders have been contracted by persons sleeping under the branches of trees in the nighttime, and in apartments where great quantities of fruit, or other vegetable matter, are kept, from ignorance of the fact, that during the night, the leaves of trees, and all vegetable matter perspire a deleterious air, which, when it has accumulated to a certain degree, may induce a variety of serious complaints, and sometimes prove fatal. The disasters which have hoppened in coal mines, and other subterraneous apartments, form another class of accidents, many of which have been the effects of ignorance. Of late years an immense number of men, boys, and horses, has been destroyed by the explosion of inflammable air in the coal mines in this country, particularly in the north of England, where the most affecting and tragical scenes have been presented to view. On the forenoon of Monday, 25th May, 1812, a dreadful accident took place at Felling, near Gateshead, in the mine belonging to C. T. Branding, Esq. When nearly the whole of the workmen were below, the second set having gone down before the first had come up, a double blast of hydrogen gas took place,

* The grotto del Cani, a small cavern in Italy, about four leagues from Naples, contains a stratum of carbonic acid gas. It has been a common practice to drive dogs into the cavern, where they suffer a temporary death, for the entertainment of strangers. But a man enters with perfect safety, and feels no particular inconvenience by standing in it, hecause his mouth is considerably above the surface of the stratum of deleterious air; but were he to lie down he would be instantly suffocated. The same precaution may also be useful in walking through certain caverns in our own country.

and set the mine on fire, forcing up an immense volume of smoke, which darkened the air to a considerable distance, and scattered an immense quantity of small coal from the upcast shaft. In this calamity ninety-three men and boys perished. The mine was obliged to be closed up on the following Saturday, in order to extinguish the fire, which put an end to all hopes of saving any of the sufferers. On the 6th October, in the same year, and in the same county, (Durham,) a coal-pit, at Shiney Row, suddenly took fire, by explosion of the inflammable air; in consequence of which seven persons were severely scorched. And on the Saturday following, (October 10th,) the Harrington Mill pit, distant from the other about two or three hundred yards, also took fire; by which four men and nineteen boys were killed on the spot, and many people severely wounded and burned, and two boys were missing. This dreadful catastrophe was likewise occasioned by the explosion of firedamp.f The above are only two or three examples of a variety of similar accidents which have happened, of late years, in the coal districts in the northern part of our island. That all such accidents could have been prevented by means of the knowledge we have hitherto acquired, would perhaps be too presumptuous to affirm; but that a great proportion of them were the effects of ignorance on the part of the miners, and might have been prevented by a general knowledge of the nature and causes of such explosions, and by taking proper precautionary measures, there is every reason to believe. That this is not a mere random assertion, will appear from the following extract from the Monthly Magazine for February 1814, p. 80:—“Mr. Bakewell, in his late lectures at Leeds, stated the following circumstance, which strongly evinces the benefits which arise from educating the working classes—that, in the coal districts of Northumberland and Durham, accidents are constantly taking place from explosions in the mines; so that not less than six hundred persons have been destroyed in the last two years. But, in one of the mines which was frequently subject to explosion, not an accident of any consequence had taken place for the last twelve years; the proprietors, besides other precautions, having for a considerable time past educated the children of the miners at their own expense, and given them proper information respecting the nature of the danger to be avoided.”:

* See Monthly Magazine, vol. xxxiii. p. 580, and vol. xxxiv. p. 462.

I This section of the present work was written in 1816, and the facts referred to in it happened within three or four years of that date. Since that period Sir Humphrey Davy's ingenious contrivance, called the safety lamp, has been invented, by means of which, we have every reason to believe, naily acci dents in coal mines have been prevented, and many lives preserved from destruction. The peculiar property of this lamp is, that the miner may move about

« ZurückWeiter »