Cato's Letter No. 77

Of superstitious Fears, and their Causes natural and accidental

John Trenchard (Saturday, May 19, 1722)

SIR, As my design in these letters is to endeavour to free and manumit mankind from the many impositions, frauds and delusions, which interrupt their happiness; so I shall, in this, and some of the succeeding ones, attempt to remove the popular impressions and fears of spirits, apparitions, and witches; which more or less afflict and terrify the greatest part of the world: and consequently it will conduce much to their ease and felicity, if I can lay these phantoms.

There is a strange propensity in human nature to prodigy, and whatever else causes surprize and astonishment, and to admire what we do not understand. We have immediate recourse to miracle, which solves all our doubts, and gratifies our pride, by accounting for our ignorance. We are not affected by things which we frequently see; or if we can trace but one link of the infinite chain of causes, our admiration ceases; though we are then as far from our journey's end, as when we set out: for all the works of providence are miraculous to us, who cannot do them ourselves, or know how he, who is the author of them, does them. And in this sense every thing is a miracle to us; though we ought to be no more surprized at seeing a blazing star, which makes its revolution but once in five hundred years, than in seeing the sun every day.

For many ages the phenomena of meteors, eclipses and comets seemed unaccountable; and the causes of thunder and lightning were unknown to the world; as they are to most people in it at this day. Great guns were esteemed, by the Americans, to be angry deities; ships, floating monsters; the sun to be the God of the world; watches to be living animals; paper and ink to be spirits, which conveyed men’s thoughts from one to another: And a dancing mare was lately burnt for a witch in the inquisition of Portugal.

All nature is in perpetual rotation; and in the great variety of actions which it produces, some must appear very extraordinary and unaccountable to us, by all the powers of matter and motion which fall within our narrow observations; and yet may, and undoubtedly have as certain and regular causes and effects, as the most obvious mechanick operations. We see into the bottom and internal frame and constitution of no one thing in the world, and probably never can do so, whilst we continue in these frail bodies. We see not into the principles and contexture of animal or vegetable beings; and consequently cannot know what nature can spontaneously produce, or how she works. We see only the outside and film of things; and no more of them than what is necessary to the preservation or convenience of ourselves, and not the thousandth part of what is so. Almighty God hath hid all the rest from our eyes; to baffle our foolish curiosity, to raise our admiration of his power, and to excite our homage and adoration to him, the great author of all things.

Nature (as is said in print elsewhere) works by infinite ways; which are impenetrable to our vain and fruitless inquiries.

The loadstone draws iron to it; gold, quicksilver. The sensitive plant shrinks from the touch. Some sorts of vegetables attract one another, and twine together; others avoid one another, and grow farther apart. The treading upon the torpedo affects, and gives raging pains to, our whole bodies. The bite of a mad dog causes madness. Turkey-cocks and pheasants fly at red. A rattle-snake, by a sort of magical power in his eyes, will force a squirrel to run into his mouth. Musick will cure the bite of a tarantula. The frights and longings of women with child, will stamp impressions upon the babes within them. People, in their sleep, will walk securely over precipices and ridges of houses, where they durst not venture whilst awake. Lightning will melt a sword without hurting the scabbard.

And there are very many other surprizing instances of the powers of matter and motion, which we every day see and feel; and without doubt, there are infinite others which we know nothing of.

If some men could follow scents, like dogs, or see in the dark, like cats, or have the same presages and prognosticks of fair weather or tempests, which other animals seem to have; how many things would they know and do, unaccountable to the rest of mankind? If Almighty God had thought fit to have bestowed upon any man one or more senses above the rest of the species, many of his actions must have appeared miraculous to them.

But if these minute and pretty works of nature cause so much our surprize and astonishment, how ought we to admire and adore the Author of all nature, in the greater works of his creation! The Earth itself is but as a mustard-seed to the visible world; and doubtless that is infinitely less in comparison of the invisible one. It is very likely, that its many fellow-planets, which move about the sun, as we do, are filled with inhabitants, and some of them probably with more valuable ones than ourselves: And ‘tis next to certain, that the numerous fixed stars, nightly seen by us, and the more numerous ones frequently discovered by new and better glasses, are so many different suns, and possibly with each a different chorus or system of worlds moving about them, and receiving vital warmth and nourishment from their beams; for ‘tis impossible to believe, that the all-wise disposer of all things should place so many orbs, many thousand times greater than this Earth, in the vast abyss of space, far out of our sight, and of no use to us, unless to serve suitable purposes of his providence.

We are not, nor can we be, sure that there are no other beings who are inhabitants of the air or aether, with bodies subtle enough to be adapted to, and nourished by, these thin elements; and perhaps with senses and faculties superior to us: for the works of Almighty God are as infinite as is his power to do them. And ‘tis paying greater deference to him, and having higher conceptions of his omnipotence, to suppose that he saw all things which have been, are, or ever shall be, at one view, and formed the whole system of nature with such exquisite contrivance and infinite wisdom, as by its own energy and intrinsick power, to produce all the effects and operations which we daily see, feel, and admire; than to believe him to be often interposing to alter and amend his own work, which was undoubtedly perfect at first; though in the pursuit of his eternal decrees, and in the course, progress, and unbroken chain of his original system, he seems to us sometimes to act occasionally; when, in compliance to our weak comprehensions, and in condescension to our low capacities, he speaks and appears to act after the manner of men. We have not faculties to see or know things as they are in themselves, but only in such lights as our creator pleases to represent them in to us: He has given us talents suited to our wants, and to understand his will, and obey it; and here is our ne plus ultra, the farthest we can go. We may be very sure that we are not obliged to know what is beyond our power to know; but all such things are as non-entities to us.

Whensoever therefore we hear of, or see any surprizing appearances or events in nature, which we cannot trace and connect to their immediate causes; we are not to call in supernatural powers, and interest heaven or hell in the solution, to save our credit, and cover our own folly, when there are so very few things in the world which we know any thing of, and of those few we know but very little. We are not to measure the works of God by our scanty capacities; and to believe that he miraculously interposes in the course of human affairs, but only when he pleases to intimate to us that he does, or intends to do so; much less ought we to introduce daemons into his system of the universe, unless as objects or instruments and executioners of his vengeance; but not to intrude into his government of the world, to trepan and mislead his creatures, and to thwart and oppose himself, and every now and anon to cut the chain, stop the wheels, and interrupt the course of his providence.

We are very sure that God can do, and impower any other beings to do, every thing which he would have done; but we are not obliged, by any precept, moral or divine, to believe every thing which weak, crazed, or designing men tell us in his name; and the disbelieving their foolish and fantastical stories, is not questioning the power of God, but the veracity or judgment of the persons who tell them: For sure there can be no occasion of recurring to supernatural causes, to account for what may be very easily accounted for by our ignorance of natural ones, by the fraud or folly of others, or by the deception of ourselves. There can be no wonder at all in a man’s telling a lie, or in his being deceived.

Which of our senses does not often deceive us? Strangling, or strong pressure of the eyes, causes all things to appear on fire; that of the ears, makes us hear noises; straight things in the water appear crooked; bodies by reflexion or refraction appear otherwise, and in other places, than they are in nature. All things appear yellow to men in the jaundice: To those in calentures, the sea appears like a green meadow; and if not restrained, they will leap into it: Melancholy and enthusiastick persons fancy themselves to be glass bottles, knives, and tankards; madmen often believe themselves gods or princes, and almost always see spirits; and a reverend divine, some time since, thought himself big with child, and could not be persuaded to the contrary, till a man midwife pretended to deliver him of a false conception.

In fevers and malignant distempers, people see visions and apparitions of angels, devils, dead men, or whatever else their imaginations render most agreeable or terrible to them; and in dreams all men see, or fancy that they see, such false appearances. Their imaginations, in sleep, are often so lively and vigorous, that they can scarcely be persuaded of their mistake when they awake out of it, and would not be so, if they did not find themselves in bed; and therefore, if a credulous, fearful, or melancholy man, should carelessly nod himself to sleep in his closet or his garden, and receive a vigorous representation of an angel, daemon, or dead man, speaking to him, or delivering a message, and after wake on a sudden, without observing his own sleeping (as often happens) I cannot see how he should distinguish this appearing phantom from a real vision or revelation, and I should be glad to have a rule to do it by.

The frame and contexture of our bodies betrays us to these delusions. For, as all objects and images from without are let in upon the mind by the windows or conduits of the outward senses, and the mind afterwards ranges, methodizes, operates, and reasons upon them; so it can only work upon such materials as it receives: and consequently, when the organs of sensation are wrong framed in their original contexture, or depraved afterwards by sickness or accidents, the mind must be misled too, and often mistake appearances for real beings: When the spies, scouts, and out-guards, are seized, corrupted, or deceived, the intelligence will be fallacious, or none at all.

It is evident, in a thousand instances, that the mind and body mutually act and operate upon one another; both grow and increase by age and exercise, both are impaired and enervated by distempers and accidents, and all the noble faculties of the former are often destroyed and extinguished by accidental injuries done to the latter, and by other fortuitous events and occasional strokes of fortune. Common experience shews us, that if men are born without one or more of their senses, so many conduits of knowledge are stopt: If a child comes into the world without the faculties of seeing or hearing, he can have no understanding at all, unless he afterwards acquire them; and if he loses them again, all further progress is at an end: The vigour and capacity of our mind depend very much, if not altogether, upon the organization of our bodies; and are altered, improved, and increased, by proper diet, action, or education; and oppressed, lessened, and sometimes quite lost, by drunkenness, gluttony, laziness or misfortunes. I have often almost fancied that men may be dieted into opinions; as experience shews us, they may be educated into the most absurd ones by custom, conversation, and habit.

Every passion or affection of the mind produces visibly a suitable and correspondent disposition of the muscles and lineaments of the face, and consequently must affect and alter the whole mechanism of the body; and by like reason every thought or motion of the mind must do the same in a lesser degree (though not equally subject to common observation) by forcing or directing the blood, juices, or animal spirits, into peculiar tubes, conduits, or vessels: and when by frequent use those channels and passages become habitual to them, they will often flow thither of their own accord, or are easily driven thither; and so, by working backwards, will cause those passions and perceptions which at first caused them, and in consequence the same impressions and dispositions of the organs of sense.

If this observation be true, it will account for our delusions in dreams, when exterior objects are shut out, which must otherwise control and overpower the weaker and more faint operations of the internal machine; and this too will account for the many panick and unreasonable fears and prejudices which we are subject to from education, custom, and constitution, as well as for the difficulty, if not impossibility, of our shaking off and conquering any other habits of mind or body acquired by early and continued practice.

I shall in my next apply these general principles to the system of spirits; and shew that philosophy and religion both contradict the commonly received opinions of them.

T I am, &c.

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