History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe (W. E. H. Lecky, 1865)
The merits of Mr. Lecky's book have had the good fortune to meet with so general and speedy a recognition, that it is unnecessary to introduce it to our readers as if they were strangers to it. It is, indeed, a book which there is a great temptation to overpraise, but which is far too good to be so dealt with. It is written in an excellent spirit, with great power of style, though perhaps rather diffusely, and much learning of a kind which few are possessed of. We will give a short sketch of its contents, and try to discuss a few of the questions to which it gives rise.
It belongs to a class which of late years has become both common and influential. It is speculation thrown into a historical form, but claiming to be history and not discussion. There are two ways of propagating an opinion. You may either assert it polemically, setting out with admitted principles, and connecting the conclusion to lie asserted with those principles by appropriate evidence, or you may treat it historically. You may show how the first germs of it came to be formed, under what influences they grew to maturity, how it stands related to and connected with other opinions and with their development, and how the opinions which it has superseded are connected with opinions of an analogous character on different subjects which have also been given up.
There can be no doubt that this historical process is infinitely better fitted for the purposes both of persuasion and of dissuasion than the old direct polemical method. Whether it ought to be so is another question, and one which we will attempt shortly to discuss hereafter.
In the meantime we may observe that whatever may be the logical cogency of arguments arising from the history of opinions, there can be no doubt that those arguments derive their chief force from the way in which they act on the sympathies of those to whom they are addressed. As a matter of fact we hold a large proportion of our opinions rather on a priori than on a posteriori grounds. The difference between thinking an opinion, improbable and thinking it false is not in practice very great. When therefore we are shown that particular beliefs, about which we might be doubtful, were in fact associated in their origin with others which we have long ceased to entertain, this becomes a powerful inducement to give up the beliefs as to which we doubted. A man who has his doubts, for instance, about ecclesiastical miracles, and who has thoroughly given up all belief in witchcraft, is likely enough to cease to believe in either when he sees that the same turn of mind which led men to accept the one, led them also to accept the other. There is always a considerable degree of harmony between the different parts of our intellectual furniture. We have a general measure of probability produced imperceptibly by our general experience of the course of affairs, and this no doubt greatly influences the details of our belief upon every sort of subject. It is apt to decide what sort of things we will admit to proof, and what sort of things we will reject as incredible on the face of them. When we examine the history of the opinions of past times, we invariably look at them in the light of this general measure of probability.
This, in general terms, is the reason why we are apt to attach so much importance to the history of opinions, and to draw from them such strong inferences as to the truth of the opinions whose history is so recorded. It follows that the value of the historical argument as to any opinion depends upon the degree of truth which may be contained in our general measure of probability. The form of every such argument must be somewhat as follows:—Such and such an opinion arose out of such and such a state of things; according to our general measure of probability, it was probably false to such an extent. The value of this inference depends of course upon the degree in which our measure of probability approximates to the truth, and this is a question very difficult to be determined. Still, whatever deductions may be made from the logical cogency of arguments of this kind, there is no room at all for doubt as to their pre-eminent persuasiveness and interest when properly handled; and it is quite certain that Mr. Lecky has handled the particular topics which he has selected for the subject of his book with remarkable skill.
His general object is to write the history of Rationalism. By Rationalism he understands 'a certain cast of thought or bias of reasoning which has, during the last three centuries, gained a marked ascendency in Europe.' This cast of thought 'predisposes men, in history to attribute all kinds of phenomena to natural rather than to miraculous causes; in theology, to esteem succeeding systems as the expressions of the wants and aspirations of that religious sentiment which is planted in all men; and in ethics to regard as duties only those which conscience reveals to be such.' The attempt to give such a history is beset by two great difficulties. The first is, that it is extremely difficult to write the history of anything so vague as states of mind and changes of opinion. The second is, that as opinions are held with very various degrees of intensity, such an undertaking is continually frustrated by the impossibility of' distinguishing between professed and realized belief.' Mr. Lecky truly and weightily' observes, 'when an opinion" that is opposed to the age is incapable of modification, and is an obstacle to progress, it will at last be openly repudiated; and if it is identified with any existing interests, or associated with some eternal truth, its assertion will be accompanied by paroxysms of painful agitation. But much more frequently civilization makes opinions that are opposed to it simply obsolete. They perish by indifference not by controversy. They are relegated to the dim twilight land that surrounds every living faith; the land, not of death, but of the shadow of death; the land of the unrealized and of the inoperative.'
Dealing with these difficulties as well as he can, Mr. Lecky proceeds to illustrate the growth of rationalism as he understands it, by tracing the decline of the sense of the miraculous as it appears in the history of magic and witchcraft, and in the history of ecclesiastical miracles. He then proceeds to trace its development in art, in science, and in morals, as to which he gives its due place to the moral influence of the doctrine of eternal punishments. He next proceeds to the history of persecution, and he then traces out in two long and most interesting chapters the progress of secular modes of thought in politics, and the way in which the development of commerce contributed to the spread of the same spirit.
Before we describe his specific opinions on these points, or discuss the special questions which he raises, we will offer a few observations on the way in which he conceives the general problem which' he has proposed to himself, and on what appears to us to be the chief defect of his 'book. It is that the whole book 'sounds,' as a lawyer would say, in persuasion, not in conviction. The conclusion always is, this or that opinion is the one which is consistent with the sentiments of the day. It hardly discusses the question how far the sentiment of the day is well founded or not, and thus it indirectly but powerfully pleads in favour of temporary inclination as the ultimate test of belief, instead of setting up truth as the ultimate object and test of all thought whatever.
To quarrel with phraseology, if it is mere phraseology, is of course idle; but Mr. Lecky's phraseology appears to us to indicate a real obscurity of thought. In almost every page of his book, from the title-page onwards, he discourses of rationalism, which as a rule he contrasts with theology. He seems to conceive of rationalism and theology as different spirits acting in different spheres, developed according to ' laws' (to use the common deceptive metaphor) of their own, and more or less opposed to, and modifying each other. The passage quoted above, which defines rationalism as a 'cast of thought' or ' bias of reasoning' which predisposes men to certain ways of thinking, is an excellent illustration of a form of expression which constantly recurs throughout the whole book.
We think it is to be regretted that Mr. Lecky adopted this phraseology, because it gives the whole book an air of mystery, and introduces needless perplexity into what is really a very simple matter. When the matter is fully examined, there is we think no foundation for the sort of distinction which Mr. Lecky appears to recognize between the different 'spirits,' 'casts of thought,' or ' biases of reasoning,' which he contrasts together. All thought is reasoning. There are only two ways of reasoning—a right way, and a wrong way, and there are only two 'casts of thought'— true thoughts which do, and false thoughts which do not, correspond with the facts to which they refer or are supposed to refer. All our thoughts and beliefs on all subjects whatever, theological or other, are either true or false, and the difference between the man who docs believe (say) in witches, and the man who does not, is, that the one is right and the other wrong, not that the one is a rationalist and the other a theologian.
Mr. Lecky's great argument against this, is, that the same arguments and the same evidence produce a very different effect on different ages, because they set out with different measures of probability. He says, for instance, that the general belief in witchcraft arose 'not from accidental circumstances, individual eccentricities, or even scientific ignorance, but from a predisposition to see satanic agency in life. It grew from, and it reflected, the prevailing modes of religious thought; and it declined only when those modes were weakened or destroyed.' This only puts the difficulty one step further off. What caused the prevailing mode of religious thought to be what it was and not something totally different? How came it to be changed or destroyed? There must have been some reason both for its original and for its altered form. Twist the matter how you will, reason acting on the information supplied to the mind by the senses, mediately or immediately, is the sole cause of all our opinions, and the only test of truth. If people had at one time a predisposition to see satanic agency in life which they had not at another time, this was because reasonings which they afterwards had cause to alter, first led them to, and afterwards diverted them from, that opinion; but the whole affair from first to last is a matter of reason. It is, no doubt, perfectly true that the same arguments and the same evidence have different effects at different times, and that different ages have different measures of probability; but what is probability and what determines its measure? The probability of a statement is its capacity of being proved. Proof is the process of connecting by evidence a specific statement with a general statement supposed to be true. These general statements themselves are derived from experience as interpreted and generalized by a mind more or less well instructed: in other words they are conclusions of reason.
Mr. Lecky would probably say this is very well as a theory, and at first sight looks plausible; but it is false in fact. People do not form their opinions from argument, but from what a mere reasoner would call prejudice and general sentiment, which grows up to speak of itself, and, from time to time, allots to reason the province within which it is to reign. The reply to this is, that what he calls sentiment, the measure of probability, and the like, is in fact no more than the result of imperfect and forgotten reasoning, reasoning in which the conclusions are remembered whilst the steps by which they were reached, and therefore the limitations and restrictions under which they are to be received as true, have been forgotten. No doubt sentiment precedes reason and is its foundation. The five senses are the channels through which the reason gets all its materials; but all distinctness, all connexion of ideas, all, in a word, that certifies us that particular thoughts are true and not false is the work of the reason. No sentiment can be more universal than the sentiment or sensation of sight. The assertion that this moves whilst that is at rest would seem, if any proposition whatever can claim such a character, to be a proposition in which reason is' nothing, and sensation everything. Yet the proposition that the earth moves, and that the sun, relatively to the earth and other planets, is at rest, has now become popular, and part of the general measure of probability of the European world at least. "Why is this? Simply because it has been shown by arguments, which, though not known to every one, are easily accessible to every one, that this proposition is true. It has been for a considerable time before the world. It is affirmed with the greatest confidence by those who profess to have studied the subject. The general nature and method of the arguments on which it rests are well known, though their details are known only to a few: and for these reasons it is considered to be true. Take away these reasons, and the fact that it is generally admitted would prove nothing at all as to its truth. The doctrine that the sun moved whilst the earth stood still was held just as widely. The doctrine that there were and could be no antipodes prevailed very generally at one time, as Mr. Lecky himself has shown. All this proves that unless the groundwork of the existing measure of probability be capable of being stated, the mere fact of its existence and of its influence on opinion is a matter of very little consequence. .That an opinion is common and popular can never under any circumstances whatever be more than evidence of its truth; and the degree of weight which such evidence deserves depends entirely on the logical substratum on which it rests. The spirit of the sixteenth century was persecuting; the spirit of the 'nineteenth century is tolerant; but this takes us a very little way. The question is, which is right? Ought we to fall in with the spirit of the age or to oppose and denounce it? If nobody under any circumstances can be right in taking the latter course, some of the most remarkable chapters in the history of the world ought never to have been written. If some persons under some circumstances ought to do so, who ought to do so, and under what circumstances?
It is because he does not appear to have what he himself -would call a 'realizing' consciousness of this, it is because he asserts or implies that the whole balance of argument and weight of evidence goes one way in regard to -witchcraft and miracles, whilst the current of sentiment runs the other, that Mr. Lecky's book leaves an unsatisfactory impression on the mind, notwithstanding its many and great merits. In order to make it as powerful as it is interesting, it ought to have shown not only what in fact has been the course of public sentiment on the subjects to which it refers, but what is the theoretical basis of that course of sentiment, and how far, therefore, the sentiment itself is wholesome and one which ought to be adopted. If this had been thoroughly done, the book would have been a work of quite a different order of weight and importance. To supply the want it would be necessary to rewrite the book; but we may make a few observations on some of the points discussed by Mr. Lecky, tending to show the sort of arguments which may and ought to be considered in relation to them.
Rationalism, Mr. Lecky tells us, is the bias of reasoning or cast of thought which 'predisposes men, in history, to attribute all kinds of phenomena to natural, rather than to miraculous causes; in theology, to esteem succeeding systems as the expressions of the wants of that religious sentiment which is planted in all men, and in ethics to regard as duties only those which conscience reveals to be such.' It is a patent and indisputable truth, that these opinions do exercise a great influence over the minds of many persons; but is there any sort of reason for regarding them in the light of ultimate and, so to speak, absolute truths, beyond the reach of. argument, and famishing in themselves a measure of probability which is not the result of thought, and is not amenable to reason, but which itself supplies the ultimate groundwork of all our reasoning, and assigns to our arguments whatever degree of cogency they may possess? It is surely very extravagant to assign to them such a position. Every one of these propositions is disputable; the second and third appear to us to be untrue, whilst the first is so loosely expressed that it is hard to say whether it is true or false. Let us shortly consider them in their turn.
The first proposition is, that in history the spirit of rationalism leads men to attribute all kinds; of phenomena to natural, rather than to miraculous causes. This proposition, whether true or false, is surely unimportant. What we want to know is, not what the 'spirit of rationalism' does, but what reasoning shows to be true. The important proposition would thus be: 'Phenomena ought to be ascribed to natural rather than to miraculous causes.' Now this proposition is one which probably was never yet denied even in the darkest of the dark ages. To be strange or wonderful is, as the word itself shows, the very essence of a miracle. No one ever thought it a miracle that iron sinks in water, or that a knife cuts; and no one ever ascribed to miracle a result which it was easy to account for on natural principles. For instance, if a bigoted crowd of Neapolitan peasants were in the act of worshipping a winking virgin, and were suddenly shown the string by which the eyes were made to roll, their devotion would give way to contempt or anger. This can only be because they attribute phenomena rather to natural than to miraculous causes, when the phenomenon is consistent with both. They think it more probable that the thing which they do actually see, causes the motion of the eyes, than that there is also an invisible saint or angel pulling in the same direction at the same time, though the fact admits of either explanation. This illustration shows that the 'spirit of rationalism' is the same in all ages and in all countries. Every one, everywhere and always, prefers the less wonderful to the more wonderful of two explanations of the same fact. The real difference between age and age consists in the different amount of knowledge available for the interpretation of facts which they happen to possess. We, for instance, ;are acquainted with magnetism and electricity, and we accordingly explain, by the operation of those agents, many facts which in other ages either went altogether unexplained or were referred, it may be, to supernatural agents; but in each age the process is the same, and it is a reasoning process. Here is a flash of lightning. How do you explain it? I think, says the modern philosopher, that it is produced by the collision of two clouds which are respectively in a positive and negative electrical condition. I think, said the ancient Pagan, that Jove grasped a flash of fire playing near his throne, and hurled it at the tree or building which was consumed by it. The theories no doubt differ, and so do the grounds on •which they were advanced, but each alike is a theory, and is reached by a process of reasoning, good or bad. The difference between the two is simply that the one is a case of good reasoning, founded on good evidence, and the other a case of bad reasoning, founded on no evidence. To ascribe the difference between the two views to the action of a vague something called the spirit of rationalism, is to use words which really have very little meaning, and to bring into speculation by a new door one of those purely fictitious beings which it ought to be our great object to exorcise and finally dispose of.
If Mr. Lecky's first proposition were delivered from the ambiguity and obscurity which are introduced into it by the phrase 'spirit of rationalism,' it would mean hardly more than this:— Experience, as interpreted by reason, constantly increases the number of cases in which natural causes will account for unusual events, and diminishes the number of cases in which it is necessary for that purpose to resort to the hypothesis of miracle. This is quite true but it is surely improper to describe it as a cast of thought or a bias of reasoning. It is a plain matter of fact.
The second instance given by Mr. Lecky of the operation of the spirit of rationalism is, that' in theology it leads men to esteem succeeding systems as the expression of the wants of that religious sentiment which is planted in all men.' No doubt a certain number of persons who speculate upon the natural history of religion in the present day, do, as a fact, make a very free use of the words 'religious sentiment;' but surely the mere fact that such a sentiment exists as a distinct element of human nature is by no means generally admitted.
It is far from being an uncommon opinion that what is sometimes called the religious sentiment is in reality nothing more than a particular application of the common feelings of awe, reverence, admiration, and the like; and surely it is exceedingly rash, to say the least, to say that positive religion is nothing more than the expression of these sentiments. It is like asserting that political institutions are nothing more than the expression of the political sentiment which is implanted in all men. In all religions there is an element, and a most important element it is, of fact as well as sentiment; and -what is more, the facts which are connected with a given religion have an enormous influence over the religious sentiments of those who profess it Can any one say, for instance, that Mahometanism is the mere expression of a sentiment? It is a system, founded by a particular individual, and is marked in every part by the impression of his individual character and genius. No doubt the sentiments of reverence, awe, admiration, and the like, are intimately connected with religion, inasmuch as they make men capable of religious impressions. No doubt, too, the play of these sentiments is to many persons the most attractive branch of the whole subject of religious study, as it is certainly the most amiable and pleasing of its departments, and the one in which tho greatest demand is made upon. our sympathies by the events of history. It is, however, far from being true that the tendency of rationalism is to resolve all religion into religious sentiment. At least, if that is the tendency of rationalism, or, which is really the same thing, of reason, it will follow that it is the tendency of reason to deny that religion has any substratum of fact: and the difference between this and the blunt assertion that it is altogether false, is about as great as the difference between the assertion that a man is an habitual liar, and the assertion that reason has a uniform tendency to establish the conclusion that he ought to be viewed as one who never on any occasion speaks the truth. Every sentiment on which reasonable men are in the habit of acting, has, or is supposed to have, some object by which it is excited, and this is the case with the religious sentiment, as well as with others. It arises from, and is excited by, a belief in some object external to the person who feels it. Generally speaking, the great object of the religious sentiment is God. With Comte, the great object of it was the abstract idea of humanity. But to say that the religious sentiment creates theology, is like saying that the appetite of hunger creates beef-steaks. The true statement we conceive to be this. Reason suggests to us the existence of a state of things which, being believed to exist, calls into activity the sentiments which are called religious.
Mr. Lecky's third proposition about rationalism is, that 'it predisposes men, in ethics, to regard as duties only those which conscience reveals as such.' As Mr. Lecky is stating what has, as a matter of fact, been the course of the operations of the human reason, he surely ought not to have put forth this sentence as a fair summary of the results of its activity on moral questions. It can hardly be denied that, rightly or wrongly, the result of such inquiries has been not single but twofold. The moralists who believe that utility is the test ot right and wrong, are not inferior either in number or in eminence to those who refer everything to conscience. Indeed, it is barely conceivable that any one should be so rash as to assert that nothing is a duty except what conscience recognises as such. Are there no such things as torpid or ill-instructed consciences? Are there no such things as conscientious differences of opinion as to morals? If ' the spirit of rationalism' overlooks these facts, rationalism is something very different from reason, and we do not think that to write a history of so fantastic a tendency, or bias of intellect, is an undertaking worth the trouble which it would involve. Reason certainly does not overlook such problems. On the contrary, it may safely be asserted that one of the greatest intellectual problems of the day is to investigate the nature of conscience, and the value which ought to be assigned to its dictates in particular cases.
For these reasons, Mr. Lecky appears to us to have misconceived, and enveloped in unnecessary obscurity the true character of the problem which lay before him. He may of course reply that he is writing history, and not philosophy; that it is not his object to say what is or is not the truth as to the subjects of which he treats, but only to describe the course which, in point of fact, speculation has followed. This, no doubt, has been his object; but it appears to us that in choosing it, he has allowed himself to be seduced by the attractions of an impartiality which it is impossible not only to attain, but even to aim at without sacrificing both the value and the substantial fidelity of the narrative. The difficulties to which he refers in his preface are insuperable. Intellectual tendencies, especially the intellectual tendencies of a past age, are too vague to be made the subject of history, and the attempt to distinguish between real conviction and merely official professed belief, is practically idle. No one possesses the necessary knowledge about his contemporaries, or even about himself. The most acute and reflective of men would be obliged to pass years in sedulous self-examination before he could give a really authentic history of the growth of his opinions in his own mind, and of the degree of realizing power, to use Mr. Lecky's expression, with which he held them. Try to write such a history for a series of generations, and the result must be little better than conjecture. Even if greater accuracy were attained nothing would in fact be proved. The ultimate result would be an account of the reasons of the prevalence at a particular time of a special vein of sentiment It would prove absolutely nothing as to the truth or value of the theories on which that vein of sentiment reposed. The truth appears to be that, in writing a history of opinion or controversy, the opinions which it is important to ascertain are not those of the public at large, but those of the thoughtful and well instructed minority; and that the process which it is important to trace is not the growth of common sentiment, but the genealogy of instructed opinion. To know the intellectual relation of Hume and Berkeley to Locke and Hobbes is possible and important. To know to what extent and for what specific reasons the common run of people adopted the opinions of Locke or Berkeley is barely possible, and if it were possible, it would be of no great importance. Applying these general considerations to the particular points investigated by Mr. Lecky, it follows that his book would have been more interesting, and also more important, if it had been less impartial, if its author had frankly and openly taken a side upon the questions of magic, witchcraft, ecclesiastical miracles, and the like, and had either said the belief in these things died out in such and such a way, and its renunciation may be justified by such and such tenable reasons; or, the belief in these truths has fallen into decay under the influence of sophisms, the existence of which may be accounted for in such and such ways, and which are proved to be false by such and such considerations. There can be no doubt at all what side he would have taken. He has arrived at, and expressed in their strongest form, all the conclusions of what he calls rationalism; but the first part of his book is a sort of protest against reasoning. His conclusion is not that these doctrines are true, but that they are on the whole comfortable, and of a highly moral tendency. This appears to us to be the great defect of the book. It is a lukewarm defence of great truths, and is pervaded throughout by a tone which trembles on the verge of downright sentimentality, and occasionally falls over it. We have not room to go in detail through the whole of the subjects handled by Mr. Lecky. We propose to examine his views on the subjects of magic and witchcraft and ecclesiastical miracles, and shortly to notice the remainder of his book, with which we have much greater sympathy.
Mr. Lecky's discourse upon magic and witchcraft consists of two parts: a theory and a historical statement intended to illustrate and support it. His theory is as follows:—' Men came gradually to disbelieve in witchcraft because they came gradually to look upon it as absurd. . . . The disbelief in witchcraft is to be attributed' to ' what is called the spirit of the age. ... It is the result not of any series of definite arguments or of new discoveries, but of a gradual, insensible, yet profound modification of the habits of thought prevailing in Europe. ... If we ask what new arguments were discovered during the decadence of the belief, we must admit that they were quite inadequate to account for the change.' All the evidence is in favour of it 'Those who lived when the evidences of witchcraft existed in profusion, and attracted the attention of all classes and of all grades of intellect, must surely have been, as competent judges as ourselves of the question, were it merely a question of evidence. ... It is, I think. difficult to examine the subject with impartiality without coming to the conclusion that the historical evidence establishing the existence of witchcraft is so vast and varied, that it is impossible to disbelieve it without what on other subjects we should deem the most extraordinary rashness. . . . Some cases may be explained by monomania, others by imposture, others by chance coincidences, and others by optical delusions; but when wo consider the multitudes of strange statements that were sworn and registered in legal documents, it is very difficult to frame a general rationalistic explanation which will not involve an extreme improbability. The inference appears to be that a candid and reasonable person ought to put aside modern prejudices and believe in witchcraft. Let us see how far this inference is weakened by the history of the belief as Mr. Lecky gives it.
He ascribes the origin of the belief to man's terror at natural objects,—to his tendency to personify what he dreads. Thence comes witchcraft as we still see it amongst savages. This belief prevailed in a modified form in Greece and Rome. Christianity taught men to regard the ancient pagan deities as evil spirits, and to give great prominence to the conception of a devil, the personal enemy of God and man. For many centuries these views peopled the whole world with devils, fairies, and other supernatural agents. At last, after a long interval of repose, the series of controversies which prepared the way for "the Reformation began. The religious excitement which they produced directed men's minds to theological topics, and made their thoughts and imaginations run in a theological channel. Hence they found supernatural causes for every unusual or disastrous event; and this temper deepened till the time of the Reformation, and, throughout and after that tremendous crisis, convulsed society in nearly every nation in direct proportion to the degree in which its population adopted stem and fanatical views of religion. Mr. Lecky describes this state of mind with great power, but in a manner which appears to us not very consistent .with other parts of his book. 'Superstitious and terror-stricken, the minds of men were impelled irresistibly towards the miraculous and the satanic, and they found them upon every side. The elements of imposture blended so curiously with the elements of delusion, that it is now impossible to separate them. . . . For the most part the trials represent pure and unmingled delusions. The defenders of the belief were able to maintain that multitudes had voluntarily confessed themselves guilty of commerce with the evil one, and had persisted in their confessions till death. Madness is always peculiarly frequent during great religious or political revolutions, and in the sixteenth century all its forms were absorbed in the system of witchcraft, and caught the colour of the prevailing predisposition.' Mr. .Lecky gives long details of the horrible consequences of this state of feeling in particular places, especially in Scotland. He adds the curious remark, that 'the books in defence of the belief are not only &r more numerous than the later works against it, but they also represent far more learning, dialectic skill, and even general ability.' He enters into many remarkable and most interesting details on these subjects, and at last comes to the decline of the belief. It raged in the middle of the seventeenth century; it passed away altogether before the middle of the eighteenth. It was defended with more ability than was shown in its attack, so thinks Mr. Lecky, to the very last. Glanvil, the author of the Sadducismus Triumphatus, wrote, as he says, most ably in defence of the belief as a pure question of evidence. Thus the belief declined and finally disappeared because the idea of grotesqueness came to be attached to witchcraft, and because the enthusiastic study of physical science on the principles of the experimental philosophy predisposed men to turn away from supernatural, and to resort in all cases to natural causes for the explanation of all phenomena.
Such is Mr. Lecky's theory, and such in a very compressed form, indeed, the history to which he appeals in support of it. It is scarcely an unfair account of Mr. Lecky's theory to say that he teaches that men adopted a belief in witchcraft without reason, and gave it up against evidence, and that they did this because the bias of their minds was at one time theological, and at another rationalistic. Even if this were true of the great mass of mankind, of those who take up, their opinions by sympathy, and as a matter of taste, Mr. Lecky's own statements appear to us to prove as clearly as anything can be proved, that whatever were the reasons which, as a matter of fact, induced the numerical majority to give up their belief in witchcraft, their scepticism might be justified on the most solid grounds of reason, on grounds which ought to decide the belief of all reflecting men, even if the balance of sentiment was the other way.
Before we try to establish this, it will be desirable to make some observations on Mr. Lecky’s way of arguing. "With all his ability and learning he appears to us to be very imperfectly acquainted with the nature of evidence, and with the theory of probability. He continually falls into the elementary error of neglecting to distinguish between evidence of a fact and evidence of a theory. He does not seem to see that evidence of a theory means independent evidence of every separate proposition of which the whole theory is composed; and that till you have some evidence of all the facts required for the theory, you have no evidence at all of the theory itself. He also appears to be altogether unmindful of the truth that likelihood is in the last analysis the only reason that we have for any belief whatever, and that likelihood, the likeness of thing to thing, is itself ascertainable only by prolonged and carefully classified experience. He seems to think that the measure of probability comes of itself. It is, in fact, nothing more than experience in a highly generalized form. We see nothing unlikely in the transmission of an electric despatch, because we have seen many processes which generically resemble it. We see something very unlikely in an old woman riding on a broomstick, because with all our knowledge of facts we know of none which resemble it.
We proceed to illustrate this criticism. Mr. Lecky says,' If we ask why a narrative of an old woman who had been seen riding on a broomstick is deemed so entirely incredible, most persons would probably be unable to give a very definite answer to the question. It is not because we have examined the evidence and found it insufficient, for the disbelief always precedes where it does not prevent examination. It is rather because the idea of absurdity is so strongly attached to such narratives, that it is difficult even to consider them with gravity.' This is a remarkable passage in every way. In the firstplace, 'absurdity' is an equivocal word. It may mean either grotesqueness or falsehood. Now grotesque incidents continually occur, and accounts of them are readily believed. Hence the grotesqueness of an old woman riding on a broomstick is no more a reason for not believing it than the grotesqueness of the freaks of a drunken man at an election is a reason for not believing them. It is the unlikelihood and not the absurdity of the event which causes it to be disbelieved. "We suspect that if he were to ask the question which he suggests, Mr. Lecky would find that more persons than he supposes would give him a 'very definite' answer. They would say, likeliness—the general resemblance of one event to another—is the rule by which belief is regulated. The fact to be interpreted in the present case is A B's assertion that he saw a woman ride on a broomstick. It is more like the common course of events that A B should lie or be mistaken, than that the fact should have occurred. If Mr. Lecky went on to ask why it is said to be unlike the ordinary course of events that women should ride on broomsticks? 'the answer would be, because the fact is so, and the proof that it is so is, that even when such things were believed, they were considered extraordinary events, and attributed to a supernatural cause. They were believed not on the ground of their likelihood, not because they were considered like the common course of affairs, but because a special and supernatural agency capable of producing them was believed to exist and to be in activity. Now the existence of such a cause is itself a matter to be proved, and it can be proved only by evidence. Even if a woman did ride on a broomstick, that alone would not prove that the devil put her there. You must first prove your devil. You must not assume devils to make witchcraft probable, and then argue back from the existence of witchcraft to the existence of devils. The celebrated Jack was the only person who ever succeeded in lengthening his bean-stalk by cutting off the top and tying it on to the bottom. The ancient believers in witchcraft were guilty throughout, as Mr. Lecky conclusively proves, of the fallacy of begging the question. Unless satanic agency -was granted, the specific stories of witchcraft were incredible. Unless the specific stories of witchcraft were true, there was no rational foundation for the theory of satanic agency.
These simple considerations, which Mr. Lecky himself continually urges in a sort of way, ought to have prevented him from saying what he did on the supposed evidence in favour of witchcraft. To say,' the historical evidence establishing the reality of witchcraft' is 'vast and varied,' is to betray want of acquaintance of the elements of evidence. Witchcraft is not a fact, but a theory to account for alleged facts; and 'evidence to prove the reality of witchcraft' would have to consist first of evidence that there were devils, and next of independent evidence that these devils acted in a certain way. As we have shown, it is impossible to prove either of these propositions by specific histories of witchcraft, without assuming the other for the purpose of proof; and hence, as a matter of evidence, the case for the reality of witchcraft breaks down. There is abundant evidence of the existence of facts •which priests and lawyers chose to call by that name; but this may be, and in our opinion is, evidence not of the reality of witchcraft, but of the ignorance and rashness of those who believed in it. It is, indeed, impossible not to see that Mr. Lecky has loose notions of what he means by a fact and a theory. He tells us that it is very difficult to frame a general rationalistic explanation which will not involve an extreme improbability.' He forgets that witchcraft itself is a rationalistic explanation of a supposed fact. An old woman is supposed to be seen riding on a broomstick. How came she there? The devil put her. Surely this is an explanation, a hypothesis to account for a supposed fact, just as much as anything else. All that an eye-witness, if believed, could prove would be that a woman was astride of a broomstick; but this is no proof at all that the devil put her there. It must first be shown by independent proofs that there is a devil capable of doing such things, and next, that he did do this particular thing. When Mr. Lecky's assertion, that there is strong historical evidence for witchcraft, is examined, it conies to no more than this:—In a grossly credulous and perfectly ignorant age, many strange circumstances were truly or falsely alleged to have happened, which were universally described as witchcraft, and treated accordingly. Surely it is an abuse of language to call a number of odd stories 'vast and varied evidence' of a gratuitous hypothesis to explain those very stories. Mr. Lecky half appreciates this, for he says 'the degree of improbability we attach to histories of witches depends in a great degree upon our doctrine concerning evil spirits;' but he does not appear to see that the doctrine about evil spirits must, in its turn, depend upon evidence if it is to stand at all. All beliefs depend upon evidence; and most beliefs, especially such a one as the belief in witchcraft, are resolvable into a great variety of propositions. Thus the theory that A poisoned B consists of two propositions: the proposition that B died of poison and that A administered it with an intent to kill or to do grievous bodily harm. If it was supposed that there were strong evidence of the second proposition, and if the first, after being universally taken for granted, were at last discovered to rest upon no foundation at all, would any ono say that there was ' vast and varied evidence' of the murder; but that the general movement of the human mind, the 'spirit of the age,' had made it incredible? Surely the true criticism would be that there never was any evidence at all of the murder, and that though there might be evidence of the administration of something supposed to be poison, the theory framed upon it was framed under the influence of errors which totally destroyed its value.
If we turn from Mr. Lecky's argument to the consideration of his facts, let us consider first the inference which he ought to have drawn, and next the inference which we are entitled to draw. His inference, as it seems to us, ought to be that there is such a thing as witchcraft, but that it was treated at the time to which he refers with needless severity, under the influence of an ignominious panic caused by fanatical views of religion. Surely it is altogether irrational to refuse to believe that for which there is ' vast and varied evidence' merely because a vague something called the spirit of the age is averse to it. Surely, too, there is 'vast and varied evidence' of the same kind as there was for witchcraft in the present day of table-spinning and spirit-rapping. Is this to be disbelieved merely because it is unfamiliar and unwelcome to our preconceived notions? or if in fact it is disbelieved on such grounds, ought not Mr. Lecky to raise his voice against the timidity and idle self-indulgence which such a course of conduct proves? The hideous cruelties inflicted on witches no more prove that there was no such thing as witchcraft than the hideous cruelties inflicted on ordinary criminals prove that there were no thieves and murderers. That the ' idea of absurdity' is annexed to a belief is the weakest of all reasons for disbelieving it. What could appear to an early age more absurd than the existence of the antipodes, or the motion of the earth? Yet each of them is perfectly true. With the view that he takes of the evidence, Mr. Lecky, as it seems to us, ought to believe in the existence of witchcraft or to renounce reason as a guide to truth. The general tendency of the first part of his book is, in fact, in the latter direction.
Next let us consider the inference which we are entitled to draw from the facts stated by Mr. Lecky himself. We fully accept his history of the facts, and readily acknowledge the vigour with which it is written. But what does it prove? It appears to us to prove the following statement. The belief in witchcraft was the creature of fear acting on the imagination, and was not in any way founded upon evidence duly scrutinized. It allied itself for obvious reasons to religious belief, and was fanned into fury by every crisis which arose in religions feeling, as Mr. Lecky has truly observed. It supplied a ready explanation for every fact which a perfectly ignorant age—puffed up with the fiercest spirit of dogmatism, and utterly unconscious of its own ignorance observed with surprise and without understanding. In the ages in which the belief grew up there was absolutely no such thing as physical knowledge. A very small amount of pure mathematics, known to a very few persons, constituted the whole stock of real knowledge open to the world. On the other hand, there were enormous masses of sham knowledge which occupied the ingenuity of men of intellectual habits; but which, as Mr. Lecky himself observes, were based entirely upon premisses assumed to be true, and carefully protected from any sort of examination. 'In those age, says Mr. Lecky,' there was no such thing as uncompromising and unreserved criticism of the first principles of teaching; there was no such thing as a revolt of the reason against conclusions that were strictly drawn from the premises of authority.' If there was one thing more than another in which the general ignorance specially betrayed itself, it was in the incapacity of all classes of men to investigate facts for any purpose whatever. Mr. Lecky himself says, 'At the time of a Reformers, the study of evidence?, and, indeed, all searching investigations into the facts of the past, were unknown.' He does not say, but it is nevertheless true, that the art of investigating into contemporary facts was in an equally unsatisfactory state. The laws which regulated judicial evidence were, down to our own times, and in many countries still are, incredibly absurd. Ages which were so utterly unable to investigate the simples facts as to be obliged to rely upon compurgations, ordeals, and judicial combats, as ways of manifesting the truth, or to attach a of arbitrary mechanical the mere taking of an oath, were destitute of the very first rudiments of real knowledge. Mr. Lecky says, 'The ages in which witchcraft flourished were, it is true, grossly credulous, and to this fact we attribute the belief; yet we do not reject their testimony on all matters of secular history.' He attaches importance to 'the multitudes of strange testimonies that were sworn and registered in legal documents.' He refers with respect to the priests and lawyers who investigated charges of witchcraft as being 'as competent judges as ourselves, if the question were merely a question of evidence.' Surely in all this he does infinitely too much honour to the ages in question. In 'all matters of secular history' in which the facts were not as plain and notorious as any facts can possibly be, the historians of the ages in question are most justly suspected, and even in the details of those notorious facts they are often grossly inaccurate. As to the sworn testimony, Mr. Hallam somewhere remarks that the crying sin of the middle ages was gross habitual perjury of the most flagrant kind; and the results of their judicial inquiries deserve almost no respect at all when we consider the way in which they were conducted. Take for instance the original system of trial by jury, which lasted apparently till the fifteenth century. The jurors were sworn witnesses, who retailed the flying rumours of their immediate neighbourhood. Our system was bad enough, but the continental system, with its secret procedure, its tortures, and its nonsensical rules of evidence, was ten times worse. The truth is that, till physical science was invented, there was no such thing as a proximately true theory or sound practice in relation to judicial investigations; and in cases which involved any sort of nicety in point of fact, or which had any kind of relation to an established opinion or practice, the decisions of tribunals were simply worthless and deserved no respect at all. Let any one study a great modern trial, such for instance as the case of Palmer or Smethurst, and compare it with such scanty reports of ancient trials as remain to us, and he will see that, though our own machinery for the discovery of truth is by no means perfect, it differs from the processes employed by our forefathers as light differs from darkness. We need not go beyond Mr. Lecky's own pages for proof of this, which ought to make him blot out the compliments which he has paid to the judges and inquisitors of ancient times. One Dr. Fian was suspected of raising by witchcraft a storm, in which James I. was exposed to some danger. The proof of this guilt was a confession (subsequently retracted) extorted by torture. 'The bones of his legs were broken into small pieces in the boots. .. His nails upon all his fingers were riven and picked off with an instrument, called in Scottish a turkas, which in England we call a pair of pincers; and under every nail there was thrust in two needles even up to the heads.' Is this confession part of the 'vast and varied evidence' against which nothing but the spirit of the age can prevail, and which makes it difficult to give a rationalistic explanation of the facts of witchcraft'? Apart from such cases as this, which simply destroy the value of the results of judicial investigations considered as evidence, it ought to be observed that lawyers and priests are, of all witnesses to human guilt, the most utterly untrustworthy. To any one who knows how lawyers, even in our own days, feel about crime, it is perfectly obvious that Bodin and the other writers to whom Mr. Lecky refers, were prejudiced to the utmost in favour of the belief in witchcraft. If it were shown to be false, their profession was stultified and even branded with infamy. If, on the other hand, it were believed, they were justified, their importance was enhanced, the sphere of their power was extended, they were supplied with additional materials for that deep and fierce excitement which arises from the administration of criminal law in important cases. Their strange and ponderous learning became practically useful. These motives are far more than sufficient to account for the anxiety of professional advocates of authority to support and justify an established belief.
The inference from all this is, that the belief in witchcraft did not rest on reason but on fear, and was supported, not by evidence but by authority in the sense of power. How then did it decline? Mr. Lecky says by reason of a change in the spirit of the age, and he supports this by referring to the ability of those who defended it when the belief was dying out. It was not reasoning, not arguments, but' the spirit of rationalism,' the general repugnance to believe in supernatural agency which destroyed the belief.
This appears to us to be an entirely wrong inference from the facts. Mr. Lecky's own statement proves that the belief in witchcraft fell, not because it was opposed to the spirit of rationalism, or because the age felt a repugnance to believe in supernatural agency—but because it was not supported by evidence, and was shown by appropriate arguments to be false. Upon this Mr. Lecky naturally asks, where was, the defect in the evidence? What were the appropriate arguments? Who urged them, and who were converted by them? We will try to give an answer to these questions. In the first place we must observe that the very essence of the great intellectual change which took place in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and was pretty well established in the eighteenth, was, that the whole conception of the nature of knowledge was changed. Speaking generally, it was placed upon an experimental basis, and the principle that experience is the sole source of knowlege came to be generally received. The effect of this was to show at once, to every one capable of apprehending the nature of an argument, that all the beliefs of former times required to be recast before they could be accepted; that men must start afresh, and call for evidence of that which their predecessors had been accustomed to receive as true without evidence. Starting, then, from this point, and asking what was the evidence in favour of witchcraft, the answer was, that the evidence exhibited in former times was altogether discredited by the manner in which it had been exhibited, and by the prejudices of those who exhibited ii The belief, then, was to stand, if at all, on contemporary evidence of real cases of witchcraft then occurring. A few of these there were, which were entitled to go for what they were worth. Some were judicially investigated, and we have reports of the trials. Take, for instance, the trial of the Suffolk witches before Sir Matthew Hale. Every intelligent man who read that trial must haw been convinced that -the evidence on which those women were convicted was ludicrously insufficient to serve as a basis for a belief in witchcraft. To attempt, however, to prove witchcraft by evidence was a perfectly legitimate process, find if there had been any real evidence to prove it, the belief would have continued. The true inference, from the fall of the belief, is, that there was no evidence to support it. To say that it fell in spite of evidence, is to say that it fell untruly and wrongfully.
To this Mr. Lecky opposes Glanvil's book. Here, he says, was distinct evidence of witchcraft, philosopically put forward. Why did not people believe it? The answer is, because the evidence was not sufficient. Glauvil's argument, as stated by Mr. Lecky, was, as a lawyer would say, good on the face of it; but it does not follow that the evidence on which it rested was true. If it had been true, if there really had been a distinct class of facts constantly occurring, capable of bearing the strictest tests of scientific investigation, producing brew tangible results permanently open to the inspection of all the world. and incapable of being explained otherwise than on the hypothesis of invisible voluntary agency, then people would have come to believe in such agents, just as they believe in electricity and magnetism. The absence of the belief in competent in inquirers proves the absence of the facts which would inevitably have produced such a belief in such inquirers. Mere odd stories prove nothing. If a ghost really did appear to a man for five minutes, and the man went and said so, it would be in the highest degree unreasonable to believe him. When a ghost takes furnished lodgings, marries a female ghost, has a family of young ghosts, is stethoscoped by experienced surgeons, analyzed by chemists, weighed in scales, and found to be imponderable; when he is put in the county register of voters, objected to as being a ghost, and no man, and adjudicated on by the revising barrister; when he has continually vanished and reappeared before the whole Royal Society, and explained in a public lecture at Albemarle Street how he came to be a ghost, what he is made of, what his clothes are made of, and where he gets them, that will be something to call evidence of a ghost, as much evidence as there is of a new gas or metal; but till some such process as this has been gone through, there is absolutely nothing to prove that the word ghost represents anything whatever. If a man swore that he had seen a new metal, and could give no account of it, or of the process by which it might be obtained, or the substance from which it was to be extracted, no one would pay the least attention to him. Tales of ghosts and spirits are in the same category. Some general knowledge of them and their habits is an indispensable condition precedent to the reception of specific evidence of their presence here or there. When a man tells me that he saw a dog in the street, I understand him, because the class of beings called dogs is well known to me by independent testimony; but if he said that he met a hocus-pocus in the street, and that there were, and must be hocus-pocuses, because Tom, Dick, and Harry, respectively, had met a fiery horse, a cow without a tail, and a headless bear, all of which were hocus-pocuses, I should say he was talking nonsense; and if ghost is substituted for hocus-pocus, the principle is the same.:
The absence of belief amongst competent inquirers proves the absence of evidence adequate to produce that belief, for where the evidence exists, and where authority does not interfere with its natural effects by the application of terror, evidence produces belief as naturally as seed produces corn. Look, for instance, at spirit-rapping in the present day. It is believed by numbers of weak and credulous people. It is universally, or almost universally, disbelieved by men accustomed to scientific investigations. What is the inference? That the evidence is not strong enough to satisfy the strict conditions of science, though it may, and often does, satisfy the loose notions of minds which have not had the advantage of scientific training. The conclusion, upon the whole, is, that the belief in witchcraft disappeared as soon as it was generally understood that its existence or non-existence was a question of evidence, simply because there was no evidence in favour of it which would stand the test of scientific examination.
Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that such evidence had existed. Why should it not have been received, and have produced its natural result in a steady, settled, and well-founded belief of the theory to which the phenomena pointed?-' The great change in the general theory of knowledge affected other departments of it. Medicine, astronomy, all physical sciences, and at last, and by slow degrees, the sciences of history, politics, law, and theology, have all been, or are being, transformed by it, from their very foundations. What these things have undergone, or are undergoing, however, is not destruction, but transformation. Why is this? Because each of them rests upon evidence, and is capable of being put into the shape of probable propositions suggested by observed facts. Witchcraft and astrology have simply passed away. Why is this? Because they had no basis of fact upon which to rest.
Mr. Lecky puts this in a different way. He tells us that rationalism is a bias of thought which accompanies civilization (two very vague abstractions to be walking arm in arm), and that rationalism inyolves or even consists in a disinclination to attribute events to supernatural causes. But is this true? Has there been any general disinclination to attribute to God the creation of the world, and the authorship of what are unhappily called the laws by which, as the phrase goes, it is governed ? [*Law is organized threatening, and to speak of governing the motions of the stars by the law of gravitation, implies that the stars would be punished if they did not keep their time, and that they do keep their time accordingly. It would be difficult to show in a short compass all the harm which this metaphor does. The 'law' of gravitation is in fact, a rule by which men calculate the motions of bodies, and is a 'law' only in the sense in which the rule of three is a law. You will do your sum wrong unless you apply the rule correctly.] And what is this but the attribution, not of this or that event, but of all events whatever, together with their quality and the order of their succession, to a supernatural cause? This belief is so far from being opposed to science, that though some of the phrases commonly used in stating it may be objectionable, science strongly recommends and suggests it in a variety of ways. We do not think that Mr. Lecky would either think or say that the belief in a God, the ordainer and disposer of the whole universe, was weaker now than it used to be, or that such a belief is less powerfully realized, to use his own phrase, when the sphere of divine agency is considered to extend over all things, than when it is restricted to a few unusual events. Nor, again, has science exploded generally, though in some individual cases it has shaken, the belief in the human soul as something which subsists, and will subsist, independently of what we call material phenomena. But God and the human soul are both agents, and both supernatural. Therefore science does not oppose, but rather extends the belief in supernatural agency, as it certainly extends the powers of the agency of the human mind which is supernatural—that is, independent of material phenomena. The plain truth is, that science is opposed not to supernatural agency generally, but to supernatural agency not duly attested by evidence. Paley's Evidences is a strictly scientific book, whatever Kant may have said to the contrary. It may or may not be true in fact; and no doubt no; only Hennell, Strauss,and others, but Coleridge and his school, have done much to shake parts of Paley's argument; but to us, at least, it appears to be almost self-evident that a person who on independent grounds believed in a truthful and benevolent God, might see cause to believe that he had accredited a particular person as his messenger, and had given him the power of working miracles as a means of attracting the attention and affecting the imagination of those whom he addressed. Mr. Lecky himself has powerfully summed up the arguments which may be produced in favour of the possibility of such an event. He has done more; for he has given an account of tie extraordinary manner with which Paley, Lardner, and others confronted, and for a considerable toe defeated and silenced, deists. That victory has modified only by the slow advances of a closer criticism, and more minute examination of evidence, but the controversies of the us century appear to us to prove conclusively that the truth of the Christian history is a question of evidence, and that it is, has been, and will be believed or disbelieved, not on a priori or general grounds, but by reason of the view which prevails amongst those who are able to study the subject fully of the result of the evidence.
It would appear, then, from this great example, that supernal agency, as such, may be rendered highly probable by appropriate evidence, just as the existence of an electric fluid, or of what some people call a vital force, might be rendered probable. If, then, it is not believed, the inference is that there is no evidence to cause it be believed.
We have only one more remark to add in further illustration of this. The great defect of this part of Mr. Lecky's book appears to us to be that he has not what he would call a 'realizing' consciousness of the nature of evidence. He does not see that mere stories passed from hand to hand in loose conversation, and reported by credulous or prejudiced historians, are not evidence at all; that is to say, they are not evidence of the truth of the accounts which they contain, but only of the temper of mind of those who repeat them. The conditions upon which a statement of a fact is entitled to be considered evidence of the truth of the matter stated are just as rigorous as the conditions under which a scientific experiment is evidence of the conclusion in favour of which it is alleged. Before a statement that this or that happened can be considered as evidence that it really did happen, it must be shown that the circumstances tinder which it was made were such that the fact of its being made can be accounted for only by its truth, and a special motive causing the witness to tell the truth. In almost all cases these conditions are unfulfilled, and hence, in believing matters of fact, there is always a good deal of guess-work. In special cases, like a trial in a court of justice, this is an inevitable evil: all that we can do is to reduce the uncertainties to the lowest degree, and to make up our minds to perpetrate a certain quantity of injustice, and to make a certain number of mistakes. Where the object is to get at a general result, such as a belief on the subject of witchcraft, the chance of error cannot be eliminated by ordinary people, but it may be eliminated almost entirely by a person well acquainted with the nature of proof, who will and can take the trouble of going minutely into a number of cases, checking one against another, and trying appropriate experiments as he goes along. If several such persons gave the result of their inquiries, and the detail of their experiments, this would be evidence, on the effect of which the world at large would be entitled to pronounce. In the absence of evidence thus tested and digested by trustworthy persons, the mere repetition of odd stories, if they are heaped up by the thousand, and fill huge folios, proves just nothing at all, for a score of distinct issues might be raised on each of them. Now it is notorious that since it ceased to be a point of religion and professional honour to believe in witchcraft, no such digested evidence has been put forward to show its truth. [*See, for instance, Howitt's History of the Supernatural. It is a mere farrago of odd stories, compiled by a man with a love for the marvelous, often at second or third hand] The absence of such evidence is in itself sufficient ground for not believing in it. The condition which would justify belief has not been fulfilled.
Besides this, if witchcraft did exist, it would produce effects proportionate to the alleged cause. Spirits of immense power and great malignity could not be constantly engaged in their horrible office without producing dreadful calamities, unintelligible on any other supposition, but no such calamities are produced; therefore, the alleged cause does not operate.
These two arguments are each perfectly sound. Each is independent of 'the spirit of rationalism,' and either by itself would be sufficient to justify disbelief in witchcraft, even if witchcraft were generally believed to exist. We believe that it was the weight of these arguments, more or less obscurely felt, which destroyed the belief as soon as the general change in the theory of knowledge had established the principle that evidence was the only legitimate ground of belief. They could not apply when it was considered a positive virtue to believe in witchcraft, and a damnable sin to doubt it.
It may seem idle in the present day to compose a set argument against witchcraft, but in reference to the points suggested by Mr. Lecky, it is essential to do so; for if it is possible to point out broad and plain grounds of a rational kind on which the disbelief of witchcraft may be justified, and which could not have full weight at the time when witchcraft was believed, it is surely more reasonable to ascribe the fall of the belief to those grounds than to ascribe it to a vague and possibly irrational sentiment opposed at once to the weight of argument and the weight of evidence. Those who consider the love of truth one of the greatest of all virtues—and Mr. Lecky speaks with great power and eloquence on that topic in other parts of his book —would be as unwilling to disbelieve witchcraft if it is true, merely because they do not like it, or because the sentiment of the age is opposed to it, as to believe in it for the opposite reasons if it is false.
We pass next to Mr. Lecky's essay on ecclesiastical miracles. He seems to us to have bestowed less pains on this subject than on the subject of witchcraft, and to have treated the topic in a manner which is not altogether satisfactory, and especially with a constant and special reference to the Protestant and Roman Catholic controversy, which was hardly necessary under the circumstances. The chapter is a history of the steps by which in point of fact people gradually came to disbelieve in miraculous histories in general, and to regard even the miraculous parts of Christianity with great suspicion, and to yield to them, at best, a reluctant consent. After reading the chapter several times, we find it very difficult to seize its general purport or to reduce it to the form of definite propositions. It begins by describing the enormous profusion of miracles said to have been worked all through the early ages of Christianity and down to the time of the Reformation. Stupendous miracles were 'going on continually in every part of Europe without exciting the smallest astonishment or scepticism. This has now utterly passed away. Here and there, in the most ignorant parts of the most ignorant Roman Catholic countries, a miracle is worked; but by the educated in Roman Catholic countries, 'the very few modern miracles which are related are everywhere regarded as a scandal, a stumbling-block, and a difficulty. This shows that the repugnance of men to believe miraculous narratives is in direct proportion to the progress of civilization and ths diffusion of knowledge.... Civilization produces invariably a certain tone and habit of thought which makes men recoil from miraculous narratives with an immediate and instinctive repugnance, as though they were essentially incredible independently of any definite arguments, and in spite of dogmatic teaching. Whether this habit of mind is good or evil I do not now discuss. That it exists wherever civilization advances is I concern incontestable.' After drawing this inference from the state of feeling amongst educated Roman Catholics, Mr. Lecky comes to consider the course of opinion on this subject amongst Protestants. He gives at interesting account of the decline in the belief in ecclesiastical matters and in particular of the controvert excited by Conyers Middleton, and he enters into an argument apparently meant to show that the incredulity on this subject arose, not from specific arguments, but from the general course of thought. He then observes, that though the belief that miracles were worked in the Roman Catholic church weighed with Chillingworth and Gibbon, it did not in any appreciable degree influence or assist the Tractarian movement; and he then adds, that 'professed and systematized rationalism' has made great strides in Protestant Europe, and that ‘its central conception is the elevation of conscience into a position of supreme authority as the religion organ, a verifying faculty discriminating between truth and error. Mr. Lecky expatiates on this: he says,' The general current and bias of the intellect of the age is towards rationalism, in other words, there is a strong predisposition to value the spirit and moral element of Christianity, but to reject dogmatic systems and more especially miraculous narratives.' He traces the decline of the influence of the influence of the evidential school in England. He adds,' We find everywhere that the prevailing feeling is to look upon the defence of Christianity as a matter not external to, but part of, religion. Belief is regarded not as the result of an historical puzzle, the solution of an extremely complicated intellectual problem, which presents fewest difficulties and contradictions, but as the recognition by conscience of moral truth. In other words, religion, in its proofs as in its essence, is deemed a thing belonging rather to the moral than the intellectual portion of human nature. Faith and not reason is its basis; and this faith is a species of moral perception.' He goes on about Christianity being an ideal. He then sums up what he, had said before, and observes that 'to those who believe that the highest measure of truth we possess is furnished by an examination of the successive developments and tendencies manifested by the collective wisdom of mankind,’ the general intellectual movement we have been surveying will be invaluable as displaying one of the most unquestionably general movements that history records. To those, on the other hand, who separate themselves from the spirit of their age, and look forward to the future as to a period of predicted apostasy, it will furnish an example of one of the most subtle and powerful distorting influences by which the human mind is ensnared.' After a good deal more about the relative prominence of theology and science at different times, he says that by the growth of various forms of knowledge 'a new habit of thought is gradually acquired. A secular atmosphere is formed about the mind. The measure of probability is altered. Men formerly expected in every event of life something analogous to the theological notions on which they were continually meditating; they now judge everything by a secular standard. Formerly, their natural impulse was to explain all phenomena by miracle; it is now to explain them by science: this is simply the result of a general law of the human mind . . . An age that is essentially secular will judge everything by a secular standard.' He concludes with saying that' if it be true Christianity' to be charitable— then, 'never since the days of the Apostles has it (true Christianity) been so victorious as at present.'
The first question that all this suggests is, What would Mr. Lecky be at? What is his proposition? If it is merely that people much accustomed to explanations of startling events are disposed to expect that startling events will be found to admit of explanation; and that people accustomed to require strong evidence of the occurrence of startling events are indisposed to believe in startling events alleged to have happened, upon the bare assertion of those who make the allegation; his proposition is true, but it is almost trivial. If he means to say that in the present day people in general do not believe that spirit can act directly upon matter, or that any spirits other than the spirits of living men do in fact act, or ever have acted upon matter, this we believe is untrue, except of a very small school of philosophers not as yet at least very influential. Most people believe, rightly or wrongly, that when I lift my hand an event takes place generically different from that which occurs when my stick lifts a piece of mud, and that the difference lies in the fact that in the one case spirit acts upon matter, and that in the other matter acts upon matter. It is also very generally believed that God created the world and sustains it, and this is a case of the universal direct action of spirit on matter. There are, of course, those who deny the existence of God, and also the existence of the human soul as anything distinct from the human body; but no one, we apprehend, would deny that, as a matter of fact, belief both in God and in the human soul as distinct from matter, are, and long have been, the prevailing opinions of mankind; and Mr. Lecky studiously, and even, as we think, rather unduly, confines himself to the history of opinions and tendencies as a matter of fact. Now that those who do, in fact, believe that God and the human soul exist independently of matter, and act upon it, believe that natural events may be and are caused by other than natural causes, is an identical proposition; for a natural event is nothing else than the motion "of material things, and a natural cause nothing else than the motion of some other material thing shown by experience to be an unconditional antecedent of the first motion. There is no difference at all between this belief and belief in a miracle, except that in a miracle the idea of strangeness is introduced. Whoever believes that the soul acts on the body, believes in supernatural, or (which is the same thing), immaterial agency. A miracle is nothing else than supernatural or immaterial agency, exercised in a manner so unusual as to produce wonder. The fact, then, which Mr. Lecky has to deal with is, that men in general retain their belief in supernatural or immaterial agents, but have given up the belief that such agents act in a manner so unusual as to produce wonder, and are strongly disposed to require strong evidence that events so unusual as to produce wonder have, in fact, occurred, and to ascribe them, when proved to have occurred, to natural rather than to supernatural agents. The comment which he makes upon it, as may be gathered from the foregoing abstract of his chapter on the subject, appears to be somewhat to the following effect. Men have ceased to believe in miracles, not for any precise or specific reason, but by reason of a general bias in their minds against supernatural agency, which has produced a secular measure of probability, and a distaste for the old theological measure of probability. Besides this, the old conception of theology, as a dogmatic system, has given way to a moral conception of it, and the idea of miraculous agency is foreign to this moral conception.
No part of this statement appears to us to be correct. We believe that the whole of the change which has taken place in the general opinion of mankind on the subject of miracles, may certainly be justified, and was, in all probability, caused in very many instances by cogent specific reasons. We do not believe that there is a general bias in the minds of men against supernatural agency in general, but that experience has taught them that the supernatural agents which -we have grounds to believe to exist, act in a regular and not in a capricious or fantastic manner, and that we have no ground to believe in the existence of various supernatural agents formerly supposed to exist. Lastly, we deny that the 'elevation of the conscience into a position of supreme authority as the religious organ; a verifying faculty discriminating between falsehood and error' is the 'central conception' of rationalism, and we affirm that whether it is or not, it is not true. We also deny that this conception, whether true or not, has any relation to the question of miraculous agency, which is a mere question of fact. We now proceed to attempt to justify these remarks.
First, we believe that the whole change which has taken place in the general opinions of mankind on the subject of miracles may certainly be justified, and was in all probability caused in very many cases by cogent specific reasons. The change consists in the unanimous rejection in masse by persons of all creeds of the miraculous histories which are to be found in any quantity in mediaeval and patristic literature, and in the strong suspicion with which stories of modern miracles are received. Let us consider the reasons which may be alleged for this change. Mr. Lecky appears to think that it can be accounted for only by a general bias, an alteration of the measure of probability, and the like. We think that a much simpler explanation is the true one. The monkish and papistical miracles were disbelieved because, as soon as people learnt to think at all, they saw that there was no evidence of their truth, no such evidence as would be sufficient to establish the truth of any important matter; such, for instance, as the commission of a crime or the breaking of a contract for any of the common practical purposes of life. They also saw that there was the strongest specific evidence of their fraudulent falsehood. Mr. Lecky constantly forgets that hare untested assertion, especially assertion at second or third hand, is not evidence enough of anything whatever to convince a considerate person of its truth. If, for instance, we found an entry in Pepys' journal, that such a person died on such a day, the degree of belief of the fact which such an entry would cause, would be faint in the extreme. The matter being of no importance, it might not he worth while to doubt; but if anything turned upon it, if, for instance, the date of the death affected the title to an estate, it would be a very different matter. All sorts of questions would be raised on the subject. How did Pepys know? Did he see the man die? Had he any motive for exact inquiry? Are there any other mistakes in his journal? Has he not dated Charles II.'s leaving London on such a day, whereas, it appears by such a record, that he did not leave till another day? Does he not contradict Evelyn here and Burnet there? Was he not sometimes drunk? Was not his journal written in cypher, and may not the cypher have been obscure and misunderstood? Such questions may be multiplied to infinity, and certainly would be so multiplied, if anything particular turned upon the date of the death. Apply this to an event extraordinary in itself and the importance of the assertion diminishes indefinitely. Suppose, for instance, that Pepys said that Eichard Baxter had told him that he, Baxter, was a Jesuit in disguise. The value of this assertion would be very small. Now, the bulk of the miraculous stories of the middle ages cannot possibly be put so high in point of evidence as such statements as these. They are, for the most part, told at second or third hand, or rather, at an indefinite distance from the original witnesses. They are told by writers who were grossly credulous and wonderfully ignorant in the commonest matters, and in many cases, habitual liars. If we believed the monkish historians, we should believe not merely that Gregory of Tours met several thousand devils on a particular occasion, but that Brute was the first king of Britain, and that he came from Troy. We should believe in the forged decretals which for ages were the base of the canon law. We should believe a strange farrago of nonsense about King Arthur and his round table. We should believe heaps of prodigies which appear without any moral or religious significance, in the old chronicles, just as enormous gooseberries are said to appear at certain times of the year, in country newspapers. But Mr. Lecky himself is the best witness on this point.
He observes, 'The fathers laid down as a distinct proposition that pious frauds were justifiable, and even laudable, and if they had not laid this down, they would nevertheless have practised them as a necessary consequence of their doctrine of exclusive salvation. Immediately all ecclesiastical literature became tainted with a spirit of the most unblushing mendacity. Heathenism was to be combated, and therefore, prophecies of Christ by Orpheus and the Sybils were forged, lying wonders were multiplied, and ceaseless calumnies poured upon those who, like Julian, opposed the faith. Heretics were to be convinced: and, therefore, interpolations of old writings or complete forgeries were habitually opposed to the forged gospels. . . . The very sense of truth, and the very love 'of truth seemed blotted out from' the minds of men. That this is no exaggerated picture of the condition at which the middle ages arrived, is known to all who have any acquaintance with its literature, for during that gloomy period the only scholars in Europe were priests and monks, who conscientiously believed that no amount of falsehood was reprehensible which conduced to the edification of the people. Not only did they pursue with the grossest calumny every enemy to their faction; not only did they encircle every saint with a halo of palpable fiction; not only did they invent tens of thousands of miracles for the purpose of stimulating devotion; they also, very naturally, carried into all other subjects that indifference to truth they had acquired in theology. All their writings and more especially their histories, became tissues of the wildest fables, so grotesque, and at the same time so audacious, that they were the wonder of succeeding ages.'
This being the case, why need we resort to ' the spirit of rationalism,' to ' general bias of the human mind,' and other such generalities to account for the discredit into which mediaeval miracles fell. They were and are disbelieved for the simple and sufficient reason that they are either romances or gross and palpable lies, told by systematic liars. It is a pity, we think, to philosophize or use sympathizing language upon such a subject. It is more really philosophical to state the plain fact in plain words.
Mr. Lecky surely cannot doubt that specific discoveries of fraud and falsehood did occur at the time of the Reformation, and did attract general attention and produce a great and permanent effect. Can any one suppose that these exposures were wasted on the vulgar, or that the exposure of so monstrous, so audacious, and so successful a lie as the forgery of the decretals had no effect on those who were better informed? A few discoveries of this kind are quite enough to destroy the credit of a whole library of miracles, just as the removal of a few bricks will bring down a whole arch. Thus, the revival of learning led people to discover ignorance and fraud here, there, and everywhere in monkish writings. This led to a general suspicion of their miracles, and to the exposure of many of them, and this destroyed the credit of the rest. As men got to understand the nature of evidence and the proper mode of arguing from experience, they saw that the miraculous literature of the middle ages, and the miraculous stories of the fathers, rested on no evidence at all.
Pari passu with this, there was no doubt going on a process which Mr. Lecky, like so many other writers, describes as the growth of the conception of government by law as opposed to government by miracle; and this, it is said, rendered miracles antecedently improbable. Such phrases are liable 'to great objection, inasmuch as they tend to involve an exceedingly simple matter in useless, and therefore, injurious obscurity. If we examine carefully the meaning of such phrases they will appear to amount to no more than, that men have found out by experience and observation the explanation of many things which at first sight appeared strange to them, and that they thus got to expect that by appropriate means they would be able to find out the explanation of other strange things. Moreover, the habit of being kept waiting for an explanation accustomed them to the belief that, whether they could find them out or not, such explanations existed somewhere. The habit of looking for explanations, and the hope of finding them, do not differ generically from other habits and other hopes founded on and gratified by experience. To call them a conception of government by Jaw as opposed to government by miracle, is to give a sonorous mysterious name to an exceedingly simple thing.
There is nothing in Mr. Lecky's whole chapter which appears to us in any way inconsistent with a very much simpler view of the subject than the one which he has put forward. This view is, that as experience came to be recognized as the true source of all knowledge, men came to believe, not that there were no immaterial agents, but that immaterial agents were fewer than they had formerly been supposed to be, and that their actions were not capricious and fantastic, but regular. When the thoroughly untrustworthy character of the old miraculous literature was once detected, the belief in angels, devils, witches, fairies, elves, and ghosts, except in so far as it might be merely traditional, would become a question of fact; but if there had been real evidence in its favour, there was not only no reason why that evidence should not be believed, but there strong reason why it should be believed. Popular prejudice and prepossession were in favour of the belief. The love of strangeness and excitement natural to human nature pleaded powerfully in its favour, and we may therefore say, with regard to these matters, as with regard to witches, that the fact of the rapid decline and fall of the belief affords the strongest possible proof that there was an absence of evidence in its favour. If miraculous agency—that is, spiritual agency other than the agency of human beings, interfering in individual cases with the established course of nature—had been a part of the economy of human affairs, there could be no possible reason why this should not be observed, registered, and believed. An improved acquaintance with the principles of evidence strengthens the proof of truth as it destroys the arguments in favour of falsehood. Hence the feet that when the true theory of evidence was discovered the belief in miracles gradually faded away, proves not a bias in the human mind, nor the growth of a spirit of rationalism, nor an alteration in the measure of probability, but simply the fact that, upon stricter examination than had formerly been given, there turned out to be no such evidence in favour of the things formerly believed as would warrant reasonable men in believing them.
The most characteristic part of Mr. Lecky's chapter on this subject, and the part which throws most light on the whole turn of his mind is his doctrine about the essential enmity between religious rationalism in the technical sense of the word, and a belief in miracles. ‘The central conception of rationalism,’ he says, ‘is the elevation of the conscience into a position of supreme authority as the religious organ, a verifying faculty discriminating between falsehood and error.' He does not say so in so many words, but the tendency of his remarks is to teach that if conscience is put in this position it will of necessity tend to discredit and overthrow any external source of religious belief. Men who believe conscience to be their guide towards religious truth will not be content, nor, indeed, be able, consistently with their principle, to admit that an external guide, such as a messenger specially intrusted with miraculous powers, can overrule their consciences; and thus they will have a motive for denying the existence of such a guide independently of all evidence on the subject.
As to this we assert, first, that the principle in question is not the 'central conception of rationalism,' and next, that whether it is so or not, it is not true. To say that rationalism implies a belief in what in the seventeenth century would have been called a 'private spirit,' an internal guide able to direct every individual man with infallible authority upon all fundamental matters, is to cut off from the class of rationalists at least one half, and probably much more than half, of the ablest and most consistent defenders of the prerogatives of reason. Locke, and all his school in England and France, are cut off from the title of rationalists by this theory; the same hard fate would overtake Chillingworth and Jeremy Taylor, for none of them put conscience in this position. The school which reduces knowledge to generalized experience, morals to utility, and theology to a question of fact, is surely entitled to notice at the hands of a historian of rationalism, and no members of this school can ever consistently refuse to listen to any one who asserts, on grounds sufficiently plausible to deserve attention, that he has a special message from God to man. Paley, and other writers of the same school, were consistent disciples of Locke; and though it is perfectly true that their influence has greatly diminished, that is due not to the subversion of their principles, but to the rigid examination of the particular arguments on which they relied. An a priori objection to miracles, a belief that they cannot exist, and that no evidence could prove them, involves a belief that what is called a law of nature is a real thing, having an independent existence of its own, and being something more than a rule which particular people have found useful in the hypothetical prediction of future events. A man who takes this view of natural laws, naturally looks upon miracles as something in the nature of mutinies or contradictions. A man to whom a law of nature is merely a rule of calculation, has no objection to miracles as such. His calculations are always based on the hypothesis that no new antecedent is introduced. If such an antecedent is introduced, his rule does not apply to the particular case; but it is none the worse for that.
As to the truth of the doctrine that conscience is the test of theological truth, we differ widely from Mr. Lecky. His advocacy of it is one of the most characteristic features of his book. It fits in perfectly with the slight importance which lie attaches to evidence and specific argument, and with the value which he sets upon general impressions and states of mind. To us no doctrine can appear more unsatisfactory. To evolve theological truth, or, indeed, the truth of any matter of fact whatever, out of conscience, appears to us like evolving from it the well-known camel. Evidence may be imagined which would prove that the devil was God, and that habitual wickedness of the most revolting kind was our highest wisdom. Evidence may be imagined which would prove that there was no future life, and therefore no other sanction to morality than this world supplies. There are in fact no assignable limits to the possible powers of evidence. Conscience, on the other hand, has nothing whatever to do with deciding what facts exist. Whatever may be its nature and origin, its one function is that of praising or blaming the facts which reason shows to exist. How can this power of praise and blame involve the power of asserting the existence of this or that state of things? How can the fact that conscience approves of benevolence prove that there exists a benevolent God? or the fact that conscience views the doctrine of eternal punishments as immoral prove that it is untrue? To ascribe such functions to conscience is in substance to depose reason from its natural authority, and to make sentiment not merely the material on which we reason (which no doubt it always must be), but a substitute for reason itself.
It is because and in so far as this error runs through the whole of these chapters in one form or another that we dissent from them, but we have been obliged to express this dissent in a way which might lead to the inference that our practical difference with Mr. Lecky was greater than it really is. The process by which witchcraft and ecclesiastical miracles fell into disrepute was, we believe, an intellectual one, that is to say, if there had not been an intellectual justification for the result arrived at, that result would not have taken place; but though this may be quite true, it does not by any means follow that the beliefs in question were not upheld by their real or supposed connexion with collateral subjects, or that their fall was not closely connected with, and to a great extent caused by, the gradual refutation of other analogous beliefs. These, however, fell under a similar process, and thus we come back to reasoning at last as the great motive power in the progress of opinion. We are not quite sure how for Mr. Lecky would deny this. Indeed, we are not sure that he means to say more than that no opinion stands or falls alone, but that all are closely connected, so that political, religious, and scientific opinions all react upon each other. This is perfectly true; but it is so obvious that we can hardly believe that it is all that Mr. Lecky means, yet we find a difficulty in ascribing to him any other true meaning. If his doctrine about the measure of probability and the rationalistic bias of the human mind means only that the progress of opinion in different subjects follows the same course, and that such progress in one subject helps on analogous processes in all others, our criticisms fall to the ground. We withstand him only in so far as he asserts or implies that the opinions taken up by men in general with reference to the subjects discussed in his two first chapters, were not adopted mediately or immediately upon intellectual grounds, and are not capable of being justified by legitimate arguments.
Controversy is of necessity lengthy, and we have therefore devoted to a statement of our differences with Mr. Lecky an amount of space which hardly leaves us room to do justice to that much larger and more important part of his book with which we cordially agree; subject, nevertheless, to certain criticisms upon particular points which might be made, if it were possible to exhaust the subject. We do not think that the language chosen by Mr. Lecky to describe his views altogether happy. It might be much simpler and more pointed than it is. The thoughts which it contains might be expressed in very common words, and without a certain quasi-philosophical varnish with which every part of it is at present encumbered. Renouncing the attempt to criticise in detail Mr. Lecky's statements and theories, we will try to give shortly, and in our own words, the result of his arguments.
Their general purport is to show in detail, and with a great deal of well-chosen specific illustration, the gradual progress of doubt with respect to many parts of the theology which was in earlier times received throughout Europe with unquestioning submission, and the practical effects which the gradual admission of these doubts has produced on the state of Europe. This is illustrated by reference to three great subjects, persecution, politics, and political economy. The general effect of these chapters, viewed as an argument against the theological •view of life, is striking and powerful in the extreme; and we do not think that it admits of an answer at the hands of any one who admits that the general diffusion of orderly, solid, well-regulated happiness and prosperity is a good thing.
The first subject treated by Mr. Lecky is that of Religious Persecution. It is, he observes, the natural and inevitable consequence of a full belief, not only accepted by the understanding but fully impressed upon the imagination, of the doctrine of eternal damnation, coupled with the further doctrine that erroneous religious belief is the road to hell. He discusses at great length, and with many illustrations, the growth of this doctrine, and the way in which it gradually formed a tremendous type of character, a type in which the elementary notions of benevolence had been elaborately stifled, or at best maimed. There grew up a conception of God as a fundamentally cruel being, who not only punished men with frightful unrelenting severity after death, but who did so upon technical principles which had no relation, or only an occasional relation, to their moral virtues or demerits. All mankind were to be damned eternally who were out of the pale of the Church, and all unbaptized infants. These theories being authoritatively preached and forced upon the minds of men by every engine of power and influence throughout the whole Christian world for many centuries, naturally produced horrible effects. Teach men this view, says Mr. Lecky, and 'you will have blotted out those fundamental notions of right and wrong which the Creator has engraven upon every heart; you will have extinguished the lamp of conscience; you will have taught men to stifle the inner voice as a lying witness and to esteem it virtuous to disobey it." As we should put it, you will have given men the notion that God wills that the greatest happiness of the few is intimately connected with the greatest misery of the many; you will .have made conscience hang out false lights, and have taught the inner voice to advise men to resort to any means, no matter how horrible or deceitful, to avert the tremendous consequences which a certain technical criminality would otherwise involve. In a word, you will have set up as the ideal object of all human devotion, a being who has indeed enjoined man to be merciful, loving, and obedient, but who has set him an example of passion and cruelty exercised at the dictates of an inscrutable caprice, which itself is made an object of worship. Put such deadly poison as this at the core of human life, and the ordinary motives of morality break down. Its rules cease to apply, and the most revolting cruelties and the vilest impostures of the worst ages, the extermination of the Albigenses, the persecutions of Alva, the Spanish Inquisition, fraudulent miracles, and lying legends, are the natural results.
When this fearful doctrine is once fairly embraced it simply breaks down morality. To save men from torture, perpetual in duration and infinite in degree, everything was •considered justifiable. Nay, we may boldly say that everything was rightly considered justifiable. A man who would not tell a lie to save his own life, may be noble and heroic; but a man who would not tell a lie to protect his wife and daughters from the insults of a parcel of ferocious and licentious robbers, would be a subject of great contempt; and in the same way, if the extreme doctrine of exclusive salvation were firmly believed, pious frauds became a duty. In a passage which we have already quoted for another purpose, Mr. Lecky describes the growth of these lies which, as he truly says, blotted out 'the very sense of truth and the very love of truth.' "We do not remember to have seen in any other writer so forcible an explanation of the hideous immorality, or rather of the utter incompatibility with all morality, in the long run of the doctrine of exclusive salvation and of eternal damnation. The human mind is not so constituted as to support it. If fully believed with the imagination as well as the reason, it would have converted the world into a monastery or a madhouse. It would have prevented every one possessed of the ordinary feelings of humanity from propagating the miserable species to which he unhappily belonged. It would have made every woman bless the barren womb and the paps that never gave Buck; it would have forced every man to extend nominal Christianity by every resource of force and fraud at his disposal; and it would have laid the whole world in abject grovelling slavery at the feet of the priesthood. The fact that the world went on and that human passions continued to play even with intensified power, proves that it was not really believed, at least not always, or by every body. It had, however, force enough to do a degree of liana which it is hardly possible to estimate. Wars, massacres, judicial executions, numbered by tens of thousands and aggravated by every conceivable circumstance of horror; systematic hypocrisy enforced upon thousands; the sullen sense of degradation and subjection to contemptible tyrants burnt into the very souls of millions; the fiercest controversies, the most bitter international hatreds that the world has ever seen, spread over centuries, and rendering impossible all extensive improvements in the arts of life; such were the consequences of religious persecution, which itself was the fruit of the doctrines of eternal punishment and the exclusive salvation of the orthodox, whoever they might be.
Mr. Lecky weighs against each other the Roman Catholic and Protestant persecutions, and appears to incline to the opinion that though the Roman Catholic persecutions were infinitely the most extensive, the most bloody, and the most systematic, the Protestant persecutions were less excusable. Both, no doubt, were as bad as bad could be, but this appears a doubtful theory. We must remember that the different national churches, for instance the Church of England, by no means acknowledged themselves to be, as Mr. Lecky says, 'Churches of yesterday.' The case of the Protestants was that they were the true original Christian Church, freed from the corruptions which had been introduced in the course of ages, and restored to their ancient rights. Admit, according to the claim made for the Church of England, that the Church and the nation were identical; that the Papal power was a mere usurpation; that the king, parliament, and convocation were the proper legislature of the Church; and that heresy was an awful sin and crime, and there is nothing inconsistent or irrational in the persecutions which followed. Once admit that a heretic is to be burnt, and it becomes necessary for every ruler to define heresy, just as every ruler defines theft. No one exclaims against an army of rebels for putting down a mutiny in their own ranks by military law; and whether the reformers were right or wrong in claiming the right of Church government for themselves, to the exclusion of the Pope, it is impossible to suggest any reason why, if they were to possess it, they should not possess along with it its ordinary incidents.
The cause which gradually brought about the decline of persecution was a decline in the force of theological belief, which having been originally accepted as the highest form of truth, and its absolute measure, came by degrees to be seen to be a matter of probability, and to be ascertainable, so far as it can be discovered at all, only by the common modes of examination and reasoning. It is, indeed, as plain as any proposition can be that scepticism and nothing else justifies toleration. Men are perfectly tolerant only when they are quite sure that reason is the only guide to religious truth, and that tho understandings of different people exercised in good faith lead them to different conclusions; not because truth is divided, but because the organs by which men apprehend it are of very different degrees of power, and because the evidence within their reach varies indefinitely.
Mr. Lecky describes the different steps by which this belief grew up, and exhibits, we think very happily, the great variety of the causes to which it is to be attributed. All these causes, however, were distinctly intellectual and rested on arguments as precise and definite as any which could be alleged on any subject. It was discovered, for example, in connexion with all sorts of subjects, that honest men arrived at different opinions. All religious controversy showed that every system, set up either by Protestants or Roman Catholics, was capable of being reduced to the position of a set of more or less probable conjectures, which had to be embraced principally for practical reasons and ins spite of objections which could not really be answered. This experience repeated again and again from every quarter, and in all departments of knowledge, taught men" that there might be such a thing as honest error. The growth of physical philosophy taught them that honest error was the road to> truth. These two experiences put together supplied a demonstration of the conclusion that to punish the possession of any opinion might involve the punishment of truth, and must involve the obstruction of what experience shows to be at least one of the roads by which truth is approached. Surely this is an intellectual proof if ever there was one; and though it is true that the successive discoveries of which it existed generated a general habit of mind, and created a certain measure of probability, it would surely be hardly possible to give a clearer illustration of the truth that habits of mind and measures of probability are themselves the creatures of the reason.
From the subject of toleration, Mr. Lecky passes to politics. He shows how, during the infancy of Christianity, passive submission to authority in all cases whatever was universally inculcated by all Christian teachers, as one of the most prominent moral doctrines of their religion. He says that 'they exaggerated their principle; but such exaggeration was absolutely essential, and to its efficacy.' If fully carried out, the inquiry which these remarks suggest would be in the highest degree curious and instructive. Mr. Lecky contents himself with a short notice of it, and passes on to a review of the splendid position which, on the fall of the empire, the Church of Rome contrived for a short time to assume, and by which it was in reality constituted the absolute sovereign of [the human race, ruling even the most powerful sovereigns by the operation of the spiritual sanction. He shows in a very interesting way how this extreme view of the' authority of the popes induced the Jesuits to attack the authority of civil governments, and to suggest through the medium of scholastic argument much of that distorted liberalism which is characteristic both of their politics and of their theology. Mr. Lecky's account of the early Jesuit writings on this topic is one of the most interesting passages in his whole book. He goes on to trace in detail the effect of the Reformation on political theories, and follows out the slow growth of the theories now generally accepted, showing how they gradually undermined, and at last completely overthrew, the old conception of society as an organisation divinely instituted and requiring, and entitled to, passive obedience from its subjects. The French Revolution, and the general establishment of liberal principles which have followed it in many parts of Europe, and especially their strong practical recognition in England, were the fullest and most vigorous assertions of the secular view of political affairs.
From politics, Mr. Lecky goes on to the history of industry. He shows how the ecclesiastical doctrine of the sinfulness of usury has been gradually exploded; how the whole science of political economy grew up upon a purely secular basis, and depended upon principles to which the old views of theology were radically opposed;' and how the Church view of the immorality of public amusements, and especially of theatrical exhibitions, was gradually laid on one side. He insists at very great length upon these and some other topics, and manages by the help of well-chosen details to make his inquiries extremely interesting as well as instructive. We have not room to follow him at length into these various subjects; bat the general impression which the book leaves, and no doubt must have been intended to leave on the mind, admits of no doubt at all. The result of the whole book, and of each separate part of it, is to show that for many centuries past all real knowledge upon all important subjects has been won by degrees in the teeth of ecclesiastical resistance, and that these victories have not been isolated, but connected together in the closest manner and spread over the whole field of human affairs at once. The belief in witches, the belief in magic, the belief in miracles, the political influence of the Church, the habit of persecution, the ecclesiastical theory of trade and amusement—he might have added the scholastic conception of knowledge and the ecclesiastical view of morals—all hung together, and all gradually declined for analogous reasons. The only addition which we should feel inclined to make to this general statement, and which Mr. Lecky appears to us to have omitted is, that in each individual case the ecclesiastical view of the case was actually refuted by good and appropriate reasons, as well as by the general vein of sentiment which so many analogous defeats naturally tended to produce.
Fraser’s Magazine, November 1865.