Cato's Letter No. 123

Inquiry concerning Madness, especially religious Madness, called Enthusiasm.

Thomas Gordon (Saturday, April 6, 1723)

SIR, I have supposed, in my last, that our desires and fears are passions or impressions made upon us by the actions of other beings; and that a due balance of those passions, or equal impressions made upon the several parts of the machine, duly impregnated with vital spirit, makes it act regularly, and constitutes what we call prudence: but when it is over-informed, or irregularly informed, or when those impressions are too strong for the machine to grapple with, it becomes madness and distraction; for the truth of which we need only appeal to experience. Men of warm constitutions are easily animated into madness by fiery liquors and high food, or by occasional strokes of good or bad fortune; whereas those who have not a sufficient share of vital spirit, are only elevated and raised to a proper pitch by high living, or wholly depressed by afflictions, as wanting vigour to resist their power, whilst nature, in the former, by an unequal struggle and contention with it, over-exerts itself, and disorders and shakes the whole machine.

This hypothesis receives further confirmation from the methods usually taken to cure madness; namely by fasting, bleeding, or purging; which methods can operate only by removing, carrying off, or suffering to exhale or perspire, the superabundant particles of spirituous matter, which overcharge and disorder the fabrick, till it receive a fresh fermentation from the addition of new ones, when the distemper again returns. Since therefore it is evident, that some of our thinking faculties receive addition and diminution from the action of other bodies, and from many internal and external causes, it must be equally evident, that they must be mortal, or perishable in their own nature; for what is mortality but a being changing its form, shape, or state? And what is immortality, but its continuing always the same? And every alteration makes it a different being in some respects from what it was before.

It seems therefore to me, that all the operations of our minds do not flow from our immortal souls; but that many of them have much lower sources: For what can be more absurd, than to suppose that what is immortal, and consequently not perishable, can be bleeded, purged, or starved away, in whole or in part? or that a being independent of matter, that pervades and permeates all matter, and yet (as it is said) has no extension, nor takes up or fills any place, can be acted upon by matter, which we cannot conceive to act otherwise than by contact or impulse, and consequently cannot affect what it cannot touch mediately or immediately; that is to say, either by instant action upon an adjoining body, or by striking or gravitating upon distant ones, by the communication of most or of all which are intermediate. I do not pretend to describe the modus of gravitation, or to explain how material substances attract one another, whether by Lucretiusís system of hooked atoms, or by an elastick principle that God has given every particle of matter, which keeps it in constant motion, and by impelling all contiguous parts; which motion must force the more dense bodies together, the more subtle and thin ones not being able to resist their power, and interrupt their union.

It is highly probable, if not certain, that every part of matter is affected more or less by all parts of matter; and therefore the greater the quantity is that is united together, the more it must impel some bodies, and resist others; and when any part of matter is kept from having its full influence and operation upon a dense and aggregate substance by the interposition of another, acted upon by the motion of bodies encompassing it, then it seems evident that those two substances must meet together, unless some other power hinders their junction; for all circumambient bodies having their full force upon them, except in those parts which look towards one another, and they still preserving their own force and intrinsick motion, must necessarily gravitate, and more where they meet with the least opposition. But whether this be the true cause of gravitation, or whether we shall ever know the cause of it whilst we are in these frail bodies still I conceive that we are under no necessity to recur immediately to the first cause, when we cannot dive into his manner of governing the universe; nor, since we want faculties to conceive how he has united the soul to the body, are we to determine it to be done in a manner which apparently contradicts the nature of both; but we ought to leave and submit those searches to the secret decrees of providence, and to the time of the last resurrection, when our minds and bodies will be as immortal as our souls, and when possibly all these matters may be revealed to us.

I think therefore it is pretty evident, by what I have said in this paper and the last, as well as from constant observation, that madness is a super-abundance of vital spirits; which must burst their vessel, if they do not overflow, or be let out by tapping; but which way soever they find their evacuation, they generally ferment first, and make a terrible combustion within. This is the devil which haunts us, and often carries away part of an empty house, or blows it up. If he ascend to our garrets, or upper regions, he disorders the brain, and shews visions, airy and romantick images and appearances, carries the hero out of himself, and then sends him armed cap-a-pee in wild expeditions, to encounter windmills, and giants of his own making; till at last he return home (if ever he return home) transported with his victory, and in his own opinion a most consummate knight-errant.

Whenever the mind cannot be confined within its inclosure, but flies like Phaeton into the great abyss, and gives the full reins to imagination, it will quickly be carried out of its knowledge, and ramble about wherever fancy, desire, or vision, leads it. It will quickly rise above humanity, become proper conversation for the celestial beings; and, when once it can persuade itself into such angelical company, will certainly despise all other; and the man who is animated by it will think that he has a right to govern all. If the excess of any passion be madness, the excess of them altogether is exorbitant and outrageous madness; and whoever can get it into his head, that he has secret communications with the deity, must have all his passions at work together. The awe of a divine presence must strike him strongly with fear and reverence: The fancied indulgence and condescension shewn him, must raise the highest love, adoration, and transports of joy: So visible a partiality of the deity to him beyond other men, must create pride, and contempt towards others: Such a support and assistance must inspire the highest courage and resolution to overcome all opposition: Hatred, and revenge, to all who do not believe him, will bring up the rear. At last the jumble of all these passions, with many more, will make an accomplished reformer of mankind.

Religious enthusiasm, therefore, is a flaming conceit that we have great personal interest with the deity, and that the deity is eminently employed about us, or in us; that he warms and solaces our hearts, guides our understandings and our steps, determines our will, and sets us far above those who have less pride and more sense than our selves. The enthusiast heats his own head by extravagant imaginations, then makes the all-wise spirit of God to be the author of his hot head; and having worked up his brains into the clouds, despises and hates all that are below, and if he can, kills them, unless they submit to be as mad as himself; for, because he takes his own frenzy for inspiration, you must be guided by his frenzy; and if you are not, you are a rebel to God, and Ďtis ten to one but he has a call to put you to death.

I have but a bad opinion of that devotion which is raised by a crazed head, and can be improved by a dram, and a hot sun, or the assistance of wine, or can be lessened by cold weather, or by letting of blood. It is great madness, mixed with presumption, to pretend to have the spirit of God, unless we can shew it by doing works which only Godís spirit can do; that spirit which can do all things, but foolish things. Enthusiasm is doubtless a fever in the head, and, like other fevers, is spreading and infectious; and all the zeal of the enthusiast is only an ambition to propagate his fever.

You never knew a madman of any sort, who was not wiser than all mankind, and did not despise his whole race, who were not blessed with the same obliquity of head. Those in Bedlam think, that they are all mad who are out of it; and the madmen out of Bedlam, pity the madmen in it. The virtuoso, or dealer in butterflies, who lays himself out in the science of blue and brown beetles, thinks all science but his own to be useless or trifling. The collectors of old books are of opinion, that learning, which is intended to improve and enlighten the understanding, is inseparable from dust, and dirt, and obscurity, or contemptible without them. The pedant loads his heavy head with old words, and scorns all those who are not accomplished with the same lumber.

Now all these madmen, and many more who might be added, are harmless enthusiasts; and their pride being part of their madness, is only a jest. But your holy enthusiast is often a mischievous madman, who out of pure zeal for God, destroys his creatures, and plagues, and harasses, and kills them for their good. The Saracens, a barbarous, poor, and desert nation, half-naked, without arts, unskilled in war, and but half-armed, animated by a mad prophet, and a new religion, which made them all mad; overrun and conquered almost all Asia, most part of Africa, and a part of Europe. Such courage, fierceness, and mischief, did their enthusiasm inspire. It is amazing how much they suffered, and what great things they did, without any capacity of doing them, but a religion which was strong in proportion as it wanted charity, probability, and common sense.

They saw rapturous visions in the air, of beautiful damsels richly attired, holding forth their arms, and calling to them for their embraces; and being animated by such powerful deities, no enterprize was too hard for them. They scarce ever departed from any siege, however inferior to it in military arts or numbers. Their constant rule was to fight till they had subdued their enemies, either to their religion, or to pay tribute. They had God and his great apostle on their side, and were obstinately determined to die, or to conquer; and therefore they always did conquer. And their success confirmed their delusion; for finding that they performed greater actions than any other race of mankind ever did, or could do, they believed themselves assisted by heaven; and so esteemed their madness to be inspiration. And then it was very natural to believe, that they were the sole favourites of the Almighty, who interposed thus miraculously in their behalf; that they were employed to do his work; that all the good things of this world were but just rewards of their obedience; and consequently that it was their duty to plunder, distress, kill, and destroy all who resisted the will of God, and denied to give to them their undoubted right.

Now what was able to withstand these inspired savages; who if they lived and conquered, had this world, or, which was better, if they were killed, had the next? They were sure either of empire or paradise; a paradise too, which gratified their carnal appetites. There is no dealing with an armed enthusiast: If you oppose real reason to his wild revelations, you are cursed; if you resist him, you are killed. It signifies nothing to tell him, that you cannot submit to the impulses of a spirit which you have not, and do not believe; and that when you have the same spirit, you will be of the same mind: No, perhaps, that very spirit has told him, that he must kill you for not having it, though you could no more have it, than you could be what you were not.

Don Quixote was a more reasonable madman: He never beat, nor famished, nor tortured the unbelieving Sancho, for having a cooler head than his own, and for not seeing the extraordinary miracles and visions which he himself saw. If a man see battles in the air, or armies rising out of the sea, am I to be persecuted or ill used because I cannot see them too, when they are not to be seen! Or ought not rather their distracted seer to be shut up in a dark room, where no doubt he will have the same sights, and be equally happy in his own imaginations? As there is no reasoning with an enthusiast, there is no way to be secure against him, but by keeping him from all power, with which he will be sure to play the Devil in Godís name. I would not hurt him for his ravings; but I would keep him from hurting me for not raving too.

All men who can get it into their own heads, that they are to subdue others to their opinions, reasonings and speculations, are enthusiasts or impostors, madmen or knaves. Almighty God has given no other light to men to distinguish truth from falsehood, or imposture from revelation, but their reason; and in all the addresses which he himself makes to them, appeals to that reason. He has formed us in such a manner, as to be capable of no other kind of conviction; and consequently can expect no other from us: It must therefore be the last degree of impudence, folly, and madness, in impotent, fallible and faithless men, to assume greater power over one another, than the Almighty exercises over us all.

The appointing judges in controversy, is like setting people at law about what they are both in possession of. A man can have no more than all that he is contending for; and therefore I can compare the quarrelling of two men about their religion, to nothing else in nature, but to the battle between Prince Volscius and Prince Prettyman in The Rehearsal, because they were not both in love with the same mistress.

G. I am,&c.

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