Cato's Letter No. 78

The common Notion of Spirits, their Power and Feats, exposed

John Trenchard (Saturday, May 26, 1722)

SIR, As I have shewn at large, in my last letter, that, in very many instances, our senses are subject and liable to be deceived in objects evidently material; so in this I shall endeavour as fully to shew, that we can have no possible ideas of any other. When we call God a spirit, we do not pretend to define his nature, or the modus of his existence, but to express the high conception which we have of his omnipotence, by supposing him most unlike to ourselves, and infinitely superior to every thing which we see and know; and then we are lost and buried in the abyss of our own ignorance: but we can have no other possible conception of what we mean by the word spirit, when applied to him.

We cannot have even the most abstracted images of things, without the ideas of extension and solidity; which are the mediums of conceiving all things that we can conceive at all. As the organs of our senses are all material, so they are formed only to receive material objects; and but a small part of those which are so. The ear cannot hear, the hands feel, the palate taste, the nose smell, or the eye see, bodies, but of certain magnitudes, dimensions, and solidity; and these vary too in different men, and in the same men at different times, and at different ages. There are millions of insects that cannot be seen without glasses; and probably infinite others, which cannot be seen with them: the subtle effluvia, or other minute causes of pestilential distempers, are not within the reach and observation of any of our senses. We cannot see wind and common air, much less pure aether, which are all too thin and too subtle bodies for the fabrick of the eye; and how should we see spirits, which we are told have no bodies at all, and in the dark too, when the contexture of the eye will not afford us the use of that organ.

I cannot conceive why the dreams of the old heathen philosophers should be adopted into the Christian system: or from what principles of reason or religion we should be told that the soul is totum in toto, and totum in qualibet parte; that is, that all of it is diffused through the whole body, and yet all of it is in every part of the body: That spirits take up no place; and that ten thousand of them may stand upon the point of a needle, and yet leave room for a million times as many more; that they may move from place to place, and not pass through the intermediate space; and that they are impenetrable themselves, and yet can penetrate every thing else. Is not this fine gibberish, and pretty divinity? And yet it is esteemed by some a sort of atheism to disbelieve it; but neither philosophy nor scripture tell us any such matter. It is true indeed, we are told, that spirits have neither flesh nor bones; no more than wind, air, or aether, and thousands of other things, which yet are bodies: but we are no where told, as I remember, that spirits have no extension or solidity: And if we were told so, we could understand no more by it, than that they were beings of which we neither had, nor could have, any other than negative ideas.

I think, therefore, that I may venture to assert, that either God hath created no beings independent of matter, or that such cannot be objects of our senses: But if there be any such, they are of a nature so different from us, and so incomprehensible by the faculties which he has given us, that we can form no propositions about them; and consequently are not obliged to believe or disbelieve any thing concerning them, till he pleases further to inform us.

But there are an humble sort of philosophers, who want the sagacity to conceive how any substance can exist without extension and solidity; and consequently are modest enough to confess, that they do not understand the distinction between material and immaterial substances; and that they cannot, with their most refined imaginations, have any notion of a middle state of things, between extended beings and no beings at all; between real essences and shadows, phantoms or images of disordered brains; or that any thing can exist in the universe, and at the same time in no part of it. And yet these gentlemen will not give up the general system of spirits, but suppose them to be beings of subtle aerial contexture, that in their own nature are not objects of our senses; but gave powers, by assuming more dense bodies, to make themselves so, and have capacities to do many things unaccountable to us, and beyond the limits and reach of our apprehensions. All which I think no man will affirm to be impossible; but I think any man may safely affirm, that such agents are not permitted to molest human affairs, and seduce or mislead men, by doing supernatural actions, or what must appear to us to be so.

A contrary supposition must destroy the very use of miracles: for if other beings, either by the energy of their own nature, or the will and permission of God, can do miracles, or actions which we cannot distinguish from miracles; then nothing can be proved by them, and we shall lose the best evidence of the truth of our holy religion. For if signs and wonders may be promiscuously shewn and performed by the best of all beings and by the worst, they may be done and used to promote error, imposture, and wickedness, as well as virtue and true religion; nor can I find out any criterion, or sufficient mark, whereby we can distinguish which are done by the preserver, and which by the professed enemy, of mankind. To say that the truth of the miracle shall be tried by the doctrine which it is brought to propagate, or the precepts which it commands, is to invert the very use and end of miracles, which is, to give credit and authority to the doer, who is always supposed to act by God’s power, in order to declare his will; and consequently, if the wonders which he does are to be tried by the doctrine which he teaches, there would be no use of any wonders at all, to prove not only what proves itself, but what is to prove the truth of the miracle, which is to prove the truth of the doctrine.

We are very sure, that the great Creator of heaven and earth, and the sole author of all our happiness, does not leave us in these uncertainties, to be tossed and tumbled in the thick mist and dark chaos of ignorance and deceit. How can we know the truth of any revelation, withot knowing the revealer himself to be true? We must be first certain, that a good and beneficent being speaks to us, before we can believe any thing which he tells us. Whenever therefore Almighty God, by means becoming his infinite wisdom, and from causes impenetrable to us, communicates his intentions by appearances and representations to our senses, or by any other ways out of the ordinary course of his providence, he always gives us sure marks whereby we can distinguish his works from delusion and imposture, which often ape truth itself, and mislead ignorant and unwary men. We are told in Holy Writ, that “young men shall see visions, and old men dream dreams”; which frequently happens; and that “false prophets shall arise and do wonders, which shall deceive almost the elect”; but we are bid to disbelieve them; which, if they worked true miracles, we could not do, without rejecting all miracles. For how can we believe any thing to be miraculous, and at the same time disbelieve another thing to be so, without being able to shew any difference between them? And therefore we may acquiesce in an assurance that such pretenders must be cheats, and their actions impostures and deceits upon our senses.

Whenever God works wonders, or produces those events which shall appear as such to us, he always does them for wise reasons, either to warn and inform men, to make them examples of his justice, or to communicate his will, and teach us some doctrine; and he takes the most proper and effectual means to attain his ends, and coerce our belief, by making such applications to our outward senses, and such impressions upon our understandings, as we must submit to and acquiesce in, unless we resolve to give up all certainty; or else by predictions which are justified by the event, and which are undoubtedly miracles. He does them in the most open manner before crowds at once; but our modern miracle-mongers do them all in secret, in corners, and in the dark; and their spirits and apparitions are seen only by melancholy, enthusiastick, and dreaming old men and women, or by crazy young ones, whose heads are intoxicated and prepared for these stories long before; and they are generally seen but by one at once, who is always in a fright when he does see them; or else they are the tricks and juggles of heathen and popish priests, or pretended conjurers, to pick men’s pockets, and promote some knavish and selfish design. They are never done before a House of Lords or Commons, or in a prince’s court, or in the streets before multitudes of people, or in the sight of several men at the same time, of clear and unprejudiced understandings, or of unquestionable integrity.

When our Saviour appeared to all his disciples together, he appealed to their senses, and bid them not be afraid, but to put their hands into his side, and believe themselves: He made his ascension before five hundred people at once: His miracle of the loaves and fishes was before five thousand: His turning water into wine was at a publick wedding; and the rest were of the same kind: He went through Judea from place to place, publickly doing miracles, confirming and convincing all, who were not willfully blind, of the truth of his mission; and teaching a doctrine of infinite advantage to mankind: Whereas our present workers or seers of miracles never tell us any thing worth knowing; and we have no other evidence that they are seen or done, but the veracity of those who tell them, who may be deceived themselves, or invent lies to deceive others. The proof ought always to be equal to the importance of the thing to be believed: For, when it is more likely that a man should tell a lie, or be deceived, than that a strange phenomenon should be true, methinks there should be no difficulty to determine on which side of the question we should give our assent; though in fact most men are so prepared by education to believe these stories, that they will believe the relation of them in these cases, when they will believe the relaters in nothing else.

If one or two men affirm that they saw another leap twenty yards at one leap, no one will doubt but they are liars; but if they testify that they saw a goblin with saucer eyes and cloven feet in a church-yard, leap over the tower; all the town is in a fright, and few of them will venture to walk abroad in a dark night. Sometimes these phantoms appear to one who is in company with others, and no one can see them but himself, and yet all the rest are terrified at his relation, without reasoning that they have the same or better faculties of seeing than he has; and therefore that his organs must either be indisposed, or that he designs to impose upon them: but it passes for a miracle; and then all doubts are solved, and all enquiries at an end. All men believe most of those stories to be false; and yet almost all believe some of them to be true, upon no better evidence than they reject the rest. The next story of an old woman inhabiting a cat, or flying in the air upon a broomstick, sets them a staring, and puts their incredulity to a nonplus. We often hear of a spirit appearing to discover a silver spoon, a purse of hidden money, or perhaps a private murder; but are never told of a tyrant, who by private murders has slaughtered thousands, and by publick butcheries destroyed millions, ever dragged out of his court by good or evil spirits, as a terror to such monsters: Such an instance would convince all mankind; and if Almighty God thought fit to work by such engines, and intended that we should believe in them, or any of them, it is impossible to believe but that he would take the properest methods to gain our assent.

From what I have said, and much more which might be said, I think I may with great assurance conclude, that these capricious and fantastical beings are not suffered to interfere and mingle with human affairs, only to mislead men, and interrupt them in the pursuit of their duty; nor can I see any foundation, in nature, reason, or scripture, to believe that there are any such as they are usually represented to us; which neither agree and keep up to the characters, dignity, and excellence of good angels, or the sagacity, office, and use of bad ones. Where are we commanded to believe that the Devil plays hide and seek here on earth; that he is permitted to run up and down and divert himself, by seducing ignorant men and women; killing pigs, or making them miscarry; entering into cats, and making noises, and playing monkey-tricks in church-yards and empty houses, or any where else here on earth, but in empty heads?

We know that he was cast headlong from heaven, is chained fast in the regions of the damned, and kept by the power of the Almighty from doing mischief to his creatures; and to say the contrary seems to me the highest blasphemy against heaven itself: For when we every day see and feel the many delusions to which human condition is subject, how we are the properties of impostors, the slaves to tyrants, and perpetual dupes of one another, and indeed are subject to daily and endless frauds and impositions; how shall we be a match for the most subtle and most sagacious being out of heaven? And is it possible to believe, that the good, merciful, and all-wise God should desert, leave, and betray us to so unequal a combat, without giving to us suitable precautions, capacities, and powers to defend ourselves?

I shall conclude by observing, that the heathen poets first invented these stories, and the heathen priests stole them from them; as badgers dig holes for themselves, and afterwards are stunk out of them by foxes.

T I am &c.

 Cato's Letters

 Classical Liberals