Cato's Letter No. 124

Further Reasonings upon Enthusiasm.

John Trenchard (Saturday, April 13, 1723)

SIR, Besides the flaming enthusiasm mentioned in our last, which is there supposed to be inspired by a super-abundance of spirits, labouring for evacuation; and shaking, disordering, and sometimes bursting its tenement to get ready vent (like gun-powder in a granado or mine, or subterraneous fire enclosed in the bowels of the earth); there seems to me to be another sort of religious enthusiasm, not at all mischievous, but rather beneficial to the world; and this has shewn itself in several ages, and under several denominations. There is much to be read of it in the mystick writers in all times. Hermits seem to be inspired with it, and several sects have built their innocent superstitions upon it; as the Alumbrati in Spain, the Quietists in Italy, the French Prophets lately amongst us; and I doubt, a very great part in Europe, called Quakers, owe their rise and increase to it. Having mentioned this last sect, I think myself obliged to declare that I esteem them to be a great, industrious, modest, intelligent, and virtuous people; and to be animated with the most beneficent principles of any sect which ever yet appeared in the world. They have a comprehensive charity to the whole race of mankind, and deny the mercies of God to none. They publickly own, that an universal liberty is due to all; are against impositions of every kind, yet patiently submit to many themselves, and perhaps are the only party amongst men, whose practices, as a body, correspond with their principles.

I am not ashamed to own, that I have with great pleasure read over Mr. Barclayís Apology for Quakerism; and do really think it to be the most masterly, charitable, and reasonable system that I have ever seen. It solves the numerous difficulties raised by other sects, and by turns thrown at one another, shews all parts of scripture to be uniform and consistent; and as Sir Isaac Newton, by allowing him gravitation, has accounted for all the phenomena of nature, so if we allow Mr. Barclay those operations of the spirit, which the Quakers pretend to feel, and which he says every man in the world has and may feel, if he watch its motions, and do not suppress them; I think that all the jangling vain questions, numerous superstitions, and various oppressions, which have plagued the world from the beginning, would cease and be at an end.

But this postulatum will not be granted, and I fear will never be proved; though such a discovery be much to be wished, and the opinion of it alone must render those very happy, who can persuade themselves that they have attained to it. Mr. Asgil wrote and published a book, to prove that all true believers (that is all who had attained a spirit like this) shall be translated without passing through death; and, as I doubt not but he believed his own dream himself, so if he had published it before any man had actually died, I cannot see how it could have been answered, or how it can be answered now, but by opposing fact to it, and by making the words eternal death signify eternal life in torments, which liberty no language will bear in other disputes; and yet his doctrine cannot be assented to, without supposing that no man ever had faith but Elias and Enoch; which is a very wild supposition.

For the same reason, I cannot concur with Mr. Barclay, in believing that all men who cannot find this spirit in themselves, do or have suppressed it; for I believe that there are many thousands in all respects equally virtuous with himself, who have actually tried all experiments of watching, internal prayer, outward and inward resignation, separation from worldly thoughts and actions, acquiescence of mind, and submission to the operations of the deity, yet have found themselves, after all, just where they set out; nor could recollect any thing that happened to them in those intervals, but absence of thought; and therefore, till I can feel something in my self, or discover some traces in others, which I cannot account for from lower motives, I shall take the liberty to call the pretenders to it, enthusiasts: though I must confess that all or most religious parties have laid claim to this spirit upon certain occasions, and have bestowed it upon their founders, or particular men amongst them; and the Quakers only say, that all men have it, and may exert it, or rather permit it to exert itself if they please.

It is supposed that the power so claimed is Jesus Christ operating within us; and as it is allowed by all that the least drop of his natural blood was enough to atone for the sins of the whole world; so one might imagine that the least portion of his godhead, working within us, might be too hard for and overcome the depravity transmitted to us by our first parents, or at least be able to engage our attention or acquiescence, which is all that is supposed requisite to the farther progress and effusion of his deity. It is very hard to conceive, that we can serve God by sequestering for a time all the faculties which he has given us; by sending our wits out of doors, to make room for grace, and by believing that the spirit of God will never exert it self but in an empty head; and therefore I shall presume to believe, till I am better informed, that as the Almighty shews and exhibits to us the visible world by the medium of the outward senses, which he had before given us, so he dispenses all that we do know or can know of the invisible one, through the vehicles of our reasoning faculties.

We have not yet been able thoroughly to discover any vacuum in nature, but as soon as any body gets out of a place, another leaps in; if therefore a man can once drive his wits out of house and home, some other being of a different kind will certainly get into their room, and wind is always at hand crowding for preferment; which, in various shapes, has a great share in human transactions, and always has contributed much to the great revolutions in empire and superstition, such as have often overturned the world. But to return to my dream.

A clock, or other machine, made by a skilful artist, will have certain and regular motions, whilst it continues in that state; but if it gather filth, meet with obstructions, or its springs and wheels decay and wear out by time, or be hurt by accidents, it moves irregularly, or not at all. Experience proves the same in the mechanism of animals, who have infinitely finer contextures, as consisting of thousands of tubes, veins, arteries, nerves, and muscles, every one of which, in a certain degree, contributes to the operations of the living engine; and as all these are more tender and delicate, and consequently more susceptible of injuries, than the parts which constitute and give motion to other organized bodies, so they are much more easily put out of order: and we find in fact, that a cold which stops perspiration, and hinders the evacuation of the super-abundant particles of matter, disorders the whole fabrick, clogs and interrupts its action; and that those effluviums which cannot find their proper vent through the pores, over-shadow and oppress the brain, and render the mind unactive, and incapable to perform its functions, till they are let out by larger passages, as by bleeding, or vomiting, or forced out by sweating, or other violent action, or by fasting, and taking in no new supplies, there is time given to them leisurely to expire; but if they require quicker vent than these conduits can give, then fevers, or other violent distempers ensue, when the brains of men are so oppressed, that they see visions, appearances of angels, demons, and dead men, talk incoherently, and sometimes surprisingly, and have obviously different sensations, affections, and reasonings, from what they have at other times.

The same is true of madmen, who through wrong organizations at first, or through the indisposition of the organs afterwards, persuade themselves that they are princes, prophets, or messengers from heaven; and certainly often utter flights, and sallies of imagination, which are amazing, and that never fall from them in their lucid intervals, and which are often passed upon the whole world for inspiration; insomuch, that in several ages, and in several countries in our age, they have been and are thought to be divinely inspired. Now madness shews itself in a thousand shapes; and as has been said in my former paper, there is scarce a man living but at times has more or less of it, though we denominate it from a train of irregular actions; and many kinds of it certainly do not fall within common observation, or scarce within any observation.

When we see men in the main of their conduct seemingly act with prudence in such things as we understand, we are apt to take their words in such things as we do not understand; especially if we see them do such actions, shew such emotions of spirit, and utter such discourses as we cannot otherwise account for, though we perceive the same done by men in known distempers, and in sleep, and often feel it in our selves: For it is incredible to those who have not seen or observed it, what energy and strength men shew in convulsive distempers, when too they often vent surprising discourses, without knowing what they say; and there are few men, who do not sometimes strike out sudden and extemporary thoughts and expressions, without being able to observe by what traces they came into their minds; and fanciful and conceited men easily persuade themselves, or are persuaded by others, to believe that at those times they are inspired from above.

But if we compare things which we do not know, with those which we do, I think we may account for them both by the same principles in nature. Men, as has been said, in sleep see visions, hold discourses, and sometimes very good ones, with phantoms of their own imaginations, and can walk about, climb over houses and precipices, which no man who is awake durst venture to do. Men in distempers see spirits, talk and reason with them, and often fancy themselves to be what they are not. Melancholy men have believed that they were glass bottles, pitchers, bundles of hay, prophets, and sometimes that they are dead; and yet, in all other actions of life, have behaved themselves with discretion; and as these things happened often, few or none are surprised at them, and therefore treat them only as subjects of jest or merriment; but if they had happened but once, or seldom, we should either have not believed them, or have recurred to miracle and witchcraft for the solution. No man wonders at the sunís rising every day, and yet all are amazed and frightened by seeing a blazing star once in their life-time, though that is certainly the less wonder of the two.

Now what stretch will it be upon our imagination, to believe that once in an age, or more, a catching distemper of the mind should actuate a man or two, and communicate itself afterwards to others of the same complexion, of the same temperament of juices, and consequently of the same dispositions of mind; all which certainly are as infectious as those of the body, though not so observable? We assimulate to the passions, habits, and opinions of those whom we converse with; and their tempers are catching. This indeed is not true in all instances; neither does a plague infect every body, but only those who have proper juices, and suitable dispositions of body to receive it. We see often, that the yawning of one man, will make a whole company yawn; and that the sight of men in convulsive distempers will throw others into the same; as many people were agitated with the same motions and spirit of prating with the French Prophets, though they went to see the Prophets fall into their trances, with a design only to divert themselves; which trances undoubtedly were an unusual kind of epileptick fits, which often actuate the organs of speech without the patientís knowing it, and have often been mistaken for divine trances, and his incoherent rhapsodies been esteemed revelations.

If we may believe Mr. Barclay, and Mr. George Keith, in his Magick of Quakerism (who was once of that sect, and afterwards took orders in the Church of England), the same thing has happened to many others who went to insult the Quakers and were caught by their shakings, groanings, and the solemnity of their silent meetings, and became afterwards steady converts. I think it is Thucydides, who tells us, that at Abdera, a city in Greece, upon a hot day, all the spectators who were present in the theatre to see Andromache acted, were suddenly seized with a madness, which made them pronounce iambicks; and the whole town was infected with the distemper, which lasted as long as that weather continued. And he tells us too of another sort of madness, which seized the young women of Athens, many of whom killed themselves; and the magistrates could not stop the contagion, till they made a decree, that those who did so should be exposed, and hung up naked. There seems to be no difficulty, in conceiving that the effluviums, which steam from the body of an enthusiast, should infect others suitably qualified, with the same distemper; as experience shews us, that the minute particles, which are conveyed by the bite of a mad dog, cause madness, and will make the person infected bark like the dog who bit him. And such particles in other instances may be conveyed through the pores, and in a common instance undoubtedly are so; for many people will swoon if a cat be in the room, though they do not see her. And all infectious distempers must be communicated by those passages.

Some distempers or dispositions of body, make men rave; others make them melancholy: Some give them courage, impetuosity, prodigious energy of mind, and rapturous thoughts and expressions; others sink and depress their spirits, give them panick fears, dismal apprehensions, melancholy images, and secret frights; and they will all account for such sensations from their former imbibed prejudices by early education, and by long use become familiar to them. One of these distempers will make a flaming false prophet, and the other a despairing penitent, in spite of the mercies of God; and afterwards physick or abstinence shall cure the first, and a bottle of wine, now and then moderately and cheerfully taken, in agreeable company, shall make the other a man of this world again.

Opium in different constitutions will work both these extremes, and other drugs will give temporary madness. The oracular priests of old well understood this secret of nature. The high priestess of Delphos sucked inspiration from the fumes of an intoxicating well, which disordered her brain, made her rave and utter incoherent speeches, out of which something was found out to answer the devout querist, and tell the meaning of the god: And in the temple, as I remember, of Amphiaraus, where oracles were conveyed in dreams, the humble and submissive votary was let down into a deep hole, that had several fantastical apartments, where he saw sights and apparitions, which his mind was prepared to receive before by physick, suitable diet, and sometimes by fasting; and then he was wrapped up in the skins of victims, rubbed and impregnated with intoxicating drugs, which made him dream most reverently; and when he related his visions, it was very hard luck if the priests could find nothing in them for their purpose: but if that happened to be the case, the same operation was tried over again; and if they had no better fortune then, the god was angry with the impious seeker for his sins, and so was become sullen, and the poor miscreant was sent away as an excommunicate person (if he had the good luck to escape so), and perhaps hanged himself in his way home.

We see and feel, by constant experience, that our thoughts in dreams are lascivious, frightful or pleasing, according to the temperament of our bodies, the food which we eat, or as our spirits are oppressed or cherished by it. We see too that drunken or distempered men are overcome by liquor or diseases, and made to talk, reason, and act differently from what they do in sobriety and in health; and we all confess such discourses and actions to be the indispositions of their organs, and the operations of external or internal material causes, and will yet not account for other sensations equally extravagant from like mediums, though we cannot shew any difference between them: However, as it is not to be denied but Almighty God has sometimes communicated himself to particular persons by secret impressions upon their senses and understandings, so I dare not affirm, that he may not, and does not do so still; nor will I dogmatically assert, that any one who pretends to feel his divine spirit is a liar or enthusiast; but I think I may safely affirm, that no one is concerned in his visions or revelations but himself, unless the other feels them too, or he can prove the truth of them by miracles.

Almighty God, as has been said, has given us reason to distinguish truth from falsehood, imposture from revelation, delusion from inspiration; and when we quit that light we must wander through endless mazes and dark labyrinths, and ramble where-ever fancy, imagination, or fraud leads us. If Mr. Barclay had meant only, by the testimony of the spirit, that natural faculty, or principle which the deity has inspired into all men to regulate their actions, and to acknowledge his divine bounty (which principle I call reason), and could have reconciled the workings of his light to the only one which I can find in myself, I could readily have subscribed to a very great part of his system; for I must confess that it is most beneficent to the world, in my opinion, most agreeable to the scriptures, and makes them, or rather shews them, to be most consistent with themselves, and comprehends every thing which has been since said by the best of writers for liberty of conscience, and against all sorts of religious impositions. And this he has done with as much wit, happy turn, and mastery of expression, as is consistent with the plainness and simplicity affected by those of his sect, and for the most part used in the holy writings.

T I am, &c.

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