Such facts as these inevitably raise the question, What is the nature and source of superstition? If people of high education, and large sections of the shrewdest and most business-like nation in the world, give way to it, can it be a folly? If so, on what grounds are the mass of mankind entitled, even called upon, to regard it in that light? Considering the success of Messrs. Home and Forster on this side of the Atlantic, and the still greater success of their brethren on the other side, what right has any one to denounce their practices as impostures, and the belief in them as folly? If, on the other hand, Mr. Home is not a mere charlatan, if he really is in connection with the spiritual world, and is bonâ fide able to open a communication with it, what right have we to object to the wise women and planet-rulers? If at the command of a well-dressed and well-mannered American, chairs and tables will skip like rams, and ottomans like young sheep, why may not a gipsy be telling the literal truth when she persuades a servant-girl that by burying forty sovereigns of her master's in an old flower-pot in the corner of the garden she may secure the advent of a husband in the shape of a young nobleman, owning half the country, and driving up to the door in a gilt coach, drawn by six cream-coloured horses? The one fact is not a bit less like our previous experience than the other; nor does the circumstance that the American looks like a conventional gentleman, whilst the gipsy is a mere picturesque vagabond, make any real difference in their relative credibility. Some imaginations may incline to the supposition that disembodied spirits favour the swell-mob; others may find it easier to believe that they prefer the pickpocket of common life: the substantial difficulty is in admitting their existence and interference at all in our affairs. When this is once overcome, it is comparatively easy to submit to the authority of the particular person-whom they select as the channel of their revelations.
These observations suggest the questions — Whether sensible men usually apply the word Superstition correctly, and are justified in the contempt which they express for the opinions and practices which they describe by that name; and whether, if they are, the prevalence of superstition amongst sensible and educated people can be explained?
It is impossible to give any precise definition of the sense in which the word Superstition is generally used, inasmuch as its signification varies; but the commonest usage of the word is to denote a belief in the direct interference in the ordinary course of events of reasonable creatures other than men and women, unless a belief in such interferences forms part of a religion which the person using the word affirms to be true. Thus Christians would not call a belief in the miracles recorded in Scripture a superstition, because they believe Christianity to be true, and a belief in the truth of these miracles to be a part of it; but Protestants would call a belief in the miracle of the blood of Januarius a superstition, because they believe the system of which it forms a part to be false. This account of the meaning of the word Superstition may appear, at first sight, not to account for its application to such beliefs as a belief in omens, dreams, lucky and unlucky days, or words and the like; but, upon consideration, the connection between them will become apparent. All such beliefs spring from the same root—the notion that some person belonging to a different sphere of creation from ourselves affixes an arbitrary value to some circumstance which would otherwise be (in the etymological sense of the word) insignificant or unmeaning. For instance, the notion that a sudden impression on the mind that something will happen is a proof that it will happen, can be justified only on the theory (by which it is in point of fact almost always suggested) that some being, friendly or otherwise, has taken this mode of giving information beforehand.
If this meaning is attached to the word Superstition, are those who use it justified in treating with contempt the practices and opinions which it denotes? They usually display their contempt for them by refusing to inquire further into the truth of any opinion, or the propriety of any practice, which they find to involve such a belief; and the question is, whether or not this conduct is wise. It may be desirable, in the first place, to notice shortly the arguments of those who think that it is not. Boswell attributes to Johnson the assertion that all argument is opposed to a belief in apparitions, and that all experience is in its favour; and it may be, and often is said, if experience, on which all our belief ultimately reposes, is in favour of an opinion, why are we to reject it? Are we to shut our minds against every opinion which is startling or unpopular? If so, how can we justify any of the great changes of opinion which have taken place in modern times with so much general advantage? Has not almost every department of life and knowledge been improved and enlarged by changes of which some, at least, were based upon propositions at first sight more startling than those which are involved in the belief that other races of intelligent beings beside our own take part occasionally in human affairs? Is it not the more rational course to keep our minds open to conviction, and not to decide peremptorily that a whole class of assertions is untrue, when, for aught we know to the contrary, they may turn out to contain truths of the greatest importance? This is the most plausible and rational form in which a defender of superstitions can embody his protest against the verdict which the common sense of mankind has passed upon his cause.
Of course the first and most obvious answer to it is, that it is false in fact; that experience is not in favour of the opinions in question; and that the facts alleged as proof that it is are untrue. This answer is probably true, and certainly relevant; but it is one which few people are entitled to give, for the simple reason that they have never examined, and never intend to examine, the alleged facts propounded by the advocates of superstition. They do not derive their incredulity from experience, but receive the allegations which would go to make up experience with incredulity. They disbelieve the assertion that a picture of the 'Virgin winked, or that Mr. Home flew round the ceiling of the room, not because they are dissatisfied with the evidence, but because they are previously determined that no evidence whatever shall convince them of the fact; and the question is whether this conduct is reasonable, and if so, upon what grounds. The question is by no means an easy one, though, perhaps, there is no better test of the specific difference between those who are and those who are not men of sense, than the degree of energy and real conviction with which it is answered in the affirmative. It is of the highest importance that every reasonable man should utterly repudiate superstition in all its forms, and though most people are willing enough to do so in practice, notwithstanding the sneaking kindness which is occasionally betrayed for it, comparatively few are acquainted with the reasons on which their repudiation of it must stand. It is, therefore, worth while to draw out into shape the arguments by which the half-instinctive judgment on the subject, usually given so emphatically, may be defended.
It is curious to observe how few people act upon the principle that the formation of their opinions is a matter of practical importance, and that like other practical undertakings it ought to be conducted with a view to existing circumstances. It is an all but universal error to confound together the two distinct questions, "What ought I to believe on this subject?" and, "What is the truth on this subject?" and probably nine tenths of the mistakes which are made in life may be traced to this confusion. It is no doubt perfectly true that we can never get beyond our own opinions, and that from the very nature of the world in which we live they, and nothing else, must always be the guides of our conduct in reference to every subject whatever. If we determine to follow the directions of a guide whom we suppose to be infallible (which is probably the nearest approach to an abdication of our own personality that we can make), we are still guided by our own opinion that our guide is infallible; and the only difference is, that we are less frequently reminded of the existence of our intellect than we should be if we used it more frequently or with greater independence. It is also perfectly true that an immensely wide and various experience proves that to believe what is true is the only way to be happy or successful, and that a belief in falsehood, whatever it be—a false religion, a false system of law and medicine, or a false view of the spelling-book or the multiplication-table—sooner or later leads to nothing but confusion, loss, and vexation.
From these two principles, which, though self-evident when stated, are constantly overlooked, it is easy to infer that the question, " What ought I to believe?" is identical with the question, "What is true?" but the inference is hasty and incorrect. The "I" who is to believe, is in all cases a person placed under the strictest and most inexorable limitations in a thousand different ways. We are limited in regard to time, space, period, country, intellectual capacity, and a thousand other things; and these general limitations affect all our undertakings in some way or other, but none more than the formation of our opinions. If we were free from all the restrictions which the narrow circles of life impose upon us, it would probably be perfectly true that nothing but truth in all its integrity ought to be the object of our opinions. We should believe about everything whatever that which was true, and our thoughts would correspond precisely with that which excited them. Limited and confined as we are, this is impossible. We are tied down to certain parts of truth and to certain modes of arriving at it. There are endless subjects on which we are altogether ignorant. There are, in all probability, ways of obtaining knowledge which lie altogether beyond our experience. In proportion, therefore, to the degree in which we estimate the importance of truth, we shall be strict in constructing our opinions by the means which experience points out as being those by which the largest proportion of important truth is obtained. Moreover, when we have formed our opinions as carefully as we can, the same considerations will induce us to be tenacious in retaining them, and indisposed to lay them aside, unless the same sort of considerations which led us to form leads us to change them. By the supposition we look upon them as partial and incomplete, but they are all we have—they have been obtained by the best means which we construct. When acting upon them, we are still, it may be, travelling in the dark; but we are at least travelling upon consistent and intelligible principles, and in a more or less definite direction; but if they are cast aside, everything is gone; we are no longer thinking, but guessing; we are vagabonds, and not travellers.
What, then, is the mode in which, experience being the test, we are most likely to acquire a maximum of truth? This differs in different cases. In some instances the common opinion of those amongst whom we live is the best guide we can have. This, for example, is the case in regard to simple facts of general notoriety in which people have no motive to deceive. Suppose, for example, a man wishes to know the way from Harrow to London, or vice versa. If a number of different people all agree in pointing out a particular road, the probability that they are telling the truth is so great that any one would act upon it without hesitation, if his life depended on his being correct. So the fact that scores of people agree that the specific collection of streets and houses in which they are living constitute the city of Oxford, would be the best possible proof that that town really was Oxford, and no other. There are other points on which special professional knowledge is the best evidence which can be obtained. For example, if a man is ill, he goes to a doctor; if he is served with a writ, he goes to a lawyer; if he wants to build a house, he goes to an architect. This is because certain departments of knowledge have been collected, as it were, into particular receptacles, with the contents of which only a certain number of people, set apart for that purpose, are familiar. The degree of deference which is paid to the members of a particular profession, in their own art, and the degree of respect which is due to the opinion of individual members of the profession, vary according to the standing of the profession itself, and according to the impression made by the individual member of it on the person who consults him. For example, three hundred years ago a man of sense would probably have paid infinitely less respect to the opinion of a medical man than he would give in the present day, and even now he would attribute greater authority to surgical than to medical opinions.
Between the common knowledge which is the property of all the world, and the scientific knowledge which is the exclusive possession of a special class set apart for the purpose, lies a large province, in which it is infinitely more difficult to say what guide a man ought to choose who wishes to believe a maximum of truth and a minimum of error. How ought we, for example, keeping this object in view, to form our opinions in politics, in matters of honour and morality, in matters which concern the conduct of life, in short, in everything which is neither matter of notoriety nor matter of science; and how are we to form our opinion as to what is and what is not matter of notoriety or of science? To answer this question completely would be to write a treatise on all human knowledge. Probably it will never be answered completely, but every one who cares to do so may, if he pleases, obtain answers on detached parts of the subject. The principal interest of the inquiry into the way in which a wise man would regulate his thoughts on superstition arises from the fact that it furnishes an excellent illustration of the way in which such opinions ought to be formed.
What, then, are the reasons on which a wise man would reject as incredible, and without inquiry into the facts, all supernatural stories? In the first place, he would consider what department of knowledge they belonged to, and what was the best evidence as to matters included in that department. This is a necessary preliminary to submitting them to the test which is appropriate to the class to which they belong. To what class, then, might supernatural stories be referred? This will depend on a question of great importance, which can only be glanced at here in the most transient manner. They may or may not be connected with a recognized religion; and as this is or is not the case they will belong to different classes. First, suppose that they are. In this case their credit will depend on two circumstances, the degree of credit due to the religion with which they are connected, and the degree and mode in which they are connected with it. The question how men ought to be guided in forming their religious opinions, is infinitely too wide and solemn for these pages; but assuming that a man has some religious convictions, and has been led, no matter how, to believe in the truth of some religious doctrines, he no doubt has introduced a supernatural element into his belief, and he must not shrink from believing in the truth of particular facts shown to be connected in principle with his religious belief, and supported by positive evidence. No one would say that a theist was superstitious who entertained the question whether in fact the miraculous incidents of the Christian creed had taken place. It would be unfair, on the other hand, to say that an atheist was incredulous-if he refused to discuss the subject, on the ground that his atheism rendered it immaterial to him whether or not certain strange events happened long ago. This distinction is old and well recognized, and forms the basis of Paley's answer to Hume's Essay on Miracles. So a Protestant might fairly refuse to enter upon the question of the truth, in point of fact, of Roman Catholic miracles, because he denies the principles on which they are affirmed to be credible; but it would be otherwise with a Roman Catholic, unless, indeed, he thought that his creed had no connection with them, and did not in any way depend upon or refer to them.
Suppose, however, that—as usually happens—the supernatural stories in question have no connection with any religion whatever, to what department of opinion does belief or disbelief of them belong in that case? It does not belong to the department of opinions respecting notorious facts, for it is of the essence of such stories that they should be strange and almost unexampled; nor do they belong to the department of science, for no one has ever claimed to reduce them to order and system. They are mere unconnected matters of fact. The fact that a ghost appeared to a man and said Good-morning is, if true, a fact standing as much by itself as the fact that on a particular bush there is a prodigious gooseberry, or that the Countess of Desmond had 365 children; and it may be asked whether there are any general rules at all about belief in matters of fact —whether it is not universally true that our belief in matters of fact depends exclusively upon the evidence of our own senses, or the evidence which other people give us as to the impressions made on their senses. This question is important, and the answer to it is far from being generally well understood; indeed it involves several important and intricate considerations.
The statement that any alleged fact is incredible, and that a wise man ought to refuse to hear evidence in favour of it, may appear at first sight inconsistent with the theory that all our knowledge is derived from experience, and it would be so if the proposition were laid down without any qualification as to time, place, and person. It is perfectly consistent with the doctrine that the great mass of mankind, including every one who is not willing to devote his life to a special study of the subject, ought, in order to obtain the maximum of truth attainable by them, to reject as incredible, without further inquiry, every story involving supernatural agency. No doubt experience, or evidence—which is only another word for the same thing—might prove anything. It might prove that two and two make five. Suppose, for example, that every one who ever went to China said that in China two and two made five; suppose that all books written upon the subject constantly asserted and assumed the same thing; suppose that numbers of Chinese calculations and accounts were produced which all proceeded on that principle; and suppose, lastly, that a man whose attention had been attracted by these strange circumstances went to China, learned the language, travelled all over the country, mixed with the people in every relation of life, and found in every instance that two and two did make five, and that if he assumed that they made four, he was involved in exactly the same sort of inextricable confusion as he would be involved in in other parts of the world by assuming that they made five. Suppose that whenever he put two pair of shoes on the ground there were five shoes; that whenever he considered two pairs of corners of a square table, five corners were brought under his contemplation; that, in a word, the result to his mind of bringing together two pairs of things of any kind always was to give him the impression, not of four, but of five. If every one else always did the same, he could not possibly resist the conclusion that in China two and two made five, though elsewhere they made four.
The question what evidence might prove is one thing, what it has proved is quite another. We believe that two and two make four, and should utterly disregard the evidence of any man who said that on a particular occasion they made five; not because no evidence could show that they made five, but because a mass of evidence has proved that they make four—evidence which is pressed upon us at every moment of our lives, which is confirmed and reinforced as often as we see the corners of a sheet of paper, or meet four men in the street. The truth is, that experience is something more than the recollection of an infinite multiplicity of facts. It is a set of unconscious generalizations founded on particular facts which pass from our recollection, and leave behind them the conclusions which we have drawn standing by their own weight, as an arch stands on its own principles after the removal of the centering on which it was raised. It is the aggregate of these general conclusions of which our experience is really composed, and we are right in putting infinitely more confidence in them than in any particular statement of fact, because they rest on an infinitely wider basis, and are corroborated by millions of circumstances, each of which we have tested by them with satisfactory results.
It may be asked how a general conclusion can be in any way brought into comparison with the statement of a particular fact, and whether to oppose a general conclusion to a fact is not to fall into the error of opposing the superstructure to the foundation? This is an extremely plausible objection, but in reality it is not well founded, or rather it does not apply to the subject under consideration. No one would admit that he opposed a general conclusion to a fact. Of course if there be any one fact really inconsistent with any general conclusion whatever, that conclusion must be untrue. What may be fairly done is to oppose, not a general conclusion to a particular fact, but one conclusion to another; and every statement of fact, nay, in strictness, almost every word that we use, involves an inference, and in contradicting any statement made to us, we may contradict either the theory which it assumes, or the fact which it alleges. For example, when a man says, "I see a tree," he lays down several different theories, each of which is the result of much experience. The word "I" embodies an inference—the inference which we all draw from the facts of our own memory and consciousness that there is a specific individual answering to that designation, and distinct from the successive thoughts and sensations which he feels and remembers. The word "tree" embodies the inference that there is a specific individual thing which gives unity to the different phenomena of shape, colour, &c. which impress our senses. Each of these theories is commonly accepted, and believed, because it enables us to understand a vast mass of experience which is constantly passing before us. So that when a man says, "I see a tree," he asserts several indisputable theories, but only one particular fact—namely, that certain familiar impressions are made on his sense of sight, closely resembling other impressions made on the senses of other people. Hence if we deny the truth of his statement in general, we are always supposed to deny the matter of fact which he asserts, and not the theories which he assumes. Suppose, however, that he said, "I saw a ghost:" he appears to be stating a fact; but, in fact, he is drawing an inference, and an inference founded upon a theory which he would find it exceedingly hard to support. He asserts in effect that there are a class of beings called ghosts; that these beings are or may be capable of being seen; that certain impressions were made on his sense of sight, and that these impressions were produced by one of the beings so called. The only matter of fact which he states in all this is, that certain impressions were made on his sense of sight. The rest is all theory; and when the general conclusion that there are no ghosts is opposed to his specific assertion that he saw one, it is opposed, not to the matter of fact which he states, but to the theory in support of which he alleges it. Thus the opposition is not between theory and fact, but between a theory built upon innumerable facts and a theory built on a single one.
This is the true explanation of the general condemnation of supernatural stories, of which the advocates of superstition are apt to complain as of an injustice. The fact is, that our knowledge is composed almost exclusively of theories, so familiar and so closely interwoven with our very thoughts, and with language, which is the only vehicle of our thoughts, that we are apt to overlook the fact that they are theories, and to suppose that they are facts. Thus an alleged fact may properly be considered incredible, and put on one side without examination of the particular evidence adduced in support of it, if the tacit theories on which the allegation is based are themselves opposed to those which other parts of our experience have tacitly established. When a man denies the truth of a ghost story without examining it, what he means to say is something of this sort: "Without dissecting your statement in such a manner as to show how much of it states matter of fact and how much states matter of theory, and without saying whether I believe so much of it as states facts, or whether I agree with any, and which part of your theories, I assert that the statement contains theories inconsistent with other theories of my own, resting on a wider basis; and, therefore, I disbelieve the statement as you make it."
If it be asked what the theories are which are inconsistent with a belief that rational beings other than men and women do interfere with the common course of events, in the same or a similar manner to that in which men and women interfere with them, the answer is, that nearly every theory that we have does so—theories on which we act with unhesitating confidence on occasions of the most tremendous importance. Suppose a man missed a £10 note from his desk, and suppose that he knew that the desk had not been moved from the position in which it was placed when the note was safe, would he not feel perfectly certain that some one must have taken the note? If he found it in another person's pocket, would not he conclude, and would not any jury conclude, that that person had stolen it, unless he could give some account of it? No one in any practical matter would hesitate to say the note could not get out of one man's purse into another's unless some one had put it there. Yet this inference depends entirely on the suppositions that the note cannot move itself, and that no other rational beings, except men and women can, or at all events do, move desks from place to place. If a man knows a secret, does any one doubt that either he found it out, or some one who knew told him? Would any one in common life, and for any practical purpose, entertain for a single instant the supposition that he was told of it by a ghost, either of the original white sheet and fiery eye denomination, or of the less picturesque rapping species? No jury would hesitate for a moment to hang a man upon a doubt whether ghosts might not have interfered with the evidence. No reasonable creature would allow such a consideration to suspend his judgment for a single instant in any important matter which he might have to transact.
Once admit the interference of supernatural agents and all these inferences are vitiated, for people cannot consistently play fast and loose with such a belief. They cannot play with their opinions, and introduce ghosts into their intellectual furniture, for the sake of explaining a few odd stories which are of no real importance, and then exclude them from their calculations in all the other affairs of life. The true position of supernatural incidents, philosophically considered, is simply that of odd stories. They prove nothing whatever; and if they were more numerous and better authenticated than they are, they never would prove anything, until they were found to point to some general conceptions by the help of which some considerable part of the every-day facts of life could be explained and conveniently classified. Supernatural incidents fall between two stools. Either they violate that course of nature and chain of incident from the classified descriptions of which all our knowledge is derived— and in that case they cannot be described by any terms which we can use, and are therefore incredible,—or else they form part of it, and then they are not supernatural. Our minds are framed to understand, and our language is fitted to describe, a certain set of things. We may heap up words about other matters which do not fall within our range, but they come to nothing. Such phrases must be either awkward ways of describing familiar things, or else they must refer to matters of which we are ignorant; and in either case they are not proper objects of belief.
A question nearly connected with that of belief in supernatural incidents is belief in mere strange stories. Suppose a man were to say, I know nothing of ghosts or rapping spirits, but I assert that I saw a chair, which I have used for many years, rise from the floor without being touched, stand on the table, and gesticulate with its arms and legs like a man making a speech. At the same time I heard a voice which appeared to me to proceed from a particular spot in the back of the chair and which delivered an argument about the education controversy. This took place on three successive nights in a house completely empty, and at a distance from any other building, all the doors and windows being carefully fastened. Such a statement would, no doubt, consist entirely of allegations of fact, and would involve no other theories than those in which all mankind would agree with the person who made it. If, therefore, it were contradicted at all, the fact, and not the theories assumed by the narrator, would be disputed. Suppose that the statement were made by a considerable number—four or five—of perfectly sane and credible people, all speaking under the most tremendous sanctions and against the strongest private interest, leading them to deny what they affirmed; on what principle ought their assertion to be dealt with? Ought it to be believed or not? That, in point of fact, it would be widely believed, is pretty certain. It is difficult to exaggerate the degree in which people are conscious of the narrow range of their own experience, or of the weakness of the grasp with which they hold their opinions. The great majority of the world set hardly any store at all on their opinions, and are only too glad to find any one who will stir up their imaginations by telling them an extraordinary story. What people ought to think under such circumstances is another question, nor is it so trifling a one, or so merely a matter of curiosity as it may possibly appear to be at first sight. The illustration is intentionally made as broad and staring as possible, in order to raise the question, what is the dead weight, so to speak, of human testimony? How much improbability will it overcome when it is entitled to as much credit as mere direct assertion can deserve? This is a question which often occurs in a less startling shape in practical life. Suppose, for example, this case. A husband and wife deeply attached to each other, and never having been known to quarrel, are walking on the edge of a cliff; the wife falls down and is killed. A man at once gives the husband in charge for murder, and swears he saw him push her over. Suppose both the witness and the accused to be men of irreproachable character, and that, from circumstances, the witness could not be mistaken, so that the question is between murder and perjury, and that under circumstances making the guilt worse than ordinary murder. Such questions are extremely difficult, and the first difficulty in dealing with them is to discover any principle on which they can be made to depend. It is commonly said that they present the case of a balance of opposite improbabilities. It is improbable that six credible witnesses should lie against their own interests, and it is also improbable that a chair should move and speak. It is improbable that an affectionate husband should murder his wife without a motive, and it is equally improbable that a man of excellent character should try to murder an utter stranger equally without a motive, and in a manner most painful and inconvenient to himself. These improbabilities, it is said, must be weighed, and the least weighty must be believed. The plausibility of such proposals conceals the fact that they are really useless. The improbabilities cannot be reduced to a common measure, so that one can be said to be greater than the other. To do so, is to try to measure the distance from one o'clock to London Bridge.
Such questions are, in their own department, like extreme cases in morality. Loyalty, it is said, is a duty; but there are cases in which men ought to rebel. Truth is a duty, but there may be cases in which men ought to lie. If this is true, it is because morality exists for the purpose of producing general happiness, and because, in some particular instances, general happiness is promoted by a direct calculation of the effects of a particular action, and not by referring it to general rules. In precisely the same way extreme cases, like those just put, carry us back to the ultimate nature and grounds of belief. Why do we believe anything at all? Because belief is essential to action; and because a desire to act in some way or other is one of the ultimate facts of our nature, beyond which we cannot go. But why do we believe one thing rather than another, and especially truth rather than falsehood? Because experience shows us that believing the truth produces every sort of benefit, whilst believing falsehoods produces nothing but confusion, perplexity, and discomfort. If people found it as convenient to believe that twice two made five, as that it makes four, as many people would believe the one as the other. Hence the ultimate reason for believing what is true is, that experience shows that it is beneficial to do so. In all ordinary cases truth ought to be the sole object of our belief, because an enormously wide experience proves that it is wise and beneficial in the end, and, with regard to the happiness of the world at large, and to the general course of events, to follow truth under all circumstances, and at the expense of any conceivable amount of sacrifice and present discomfort. In cases, however, where we cannot discover the truth, we must revert to first principles, and believe that branch of the alternative presented to us which, upon the whole, it seems most desirable that we should believe. In the supposed case of the murder, for example, a jury would probably do well to acquit, on the ground that it would be a less evil to hurt the feelings of an honest witness and let a crime go unpunished, than to hang an innocent man. Whether the wife's family ought to take the same view, would depend entirely on the question of the nature of their relations to the widower. They might say—We will not run the risk of countenancing the murderer of our daughter or sister, we will do him no harm, and bear him no malice, but we will never see him again. On the other hand, they might say—We have trusted and loved this man, his children are, in a great measure, dependent on our care and tenderness; we will acquit him in our own minds, and view him with pity and kindness as the victim of a fearful calamity. Either of these courses they might take, on the express ground that the truth of the matter was entirely doubtful, without going so far as to assert that his guilt in the one case, or his innocence in the other, was established to their satisfaction.
In the case of mere marvels reported on good authority, the presumption is always in favour of not believing. It would be a real calamity to believe that a chair walked and talked, unless it really did; and it could do but little harm not to believe it if it did, for it is impossible to say what such an occurrence would prove, supposing it true. As to the credit of the witnesses, it is to be observed that not to believe a story is one thing, to disbelieve those who tell it is another. Belief is a state of mind; and we hear millions of assertions which do not throw our minds into a state of belief. Though we do not exactly disbelieve them, we do not believe that which they assert. The way in which we listen to the conversation of a man who is more or less of a liar is an instance of this. Such a man says, "I lent so-and-so £20." If the man has no particular reason for lying on that occasion, we do not trouble ourselves to determine in our own minds that his story is a lie, but still we do not believe the story. It was once said of a notorious liar,—"If he told me it was raining, I should look out of the window." That is, I should not at once conclude that it was not raining—I should not believe he had lied; but, on the other hand, I should not believe that what he said was true, till I saw it for myself. Take away the opportunity for verification, and this exactly describes the state of mind in which a reasonable man ought to be placed by credible witnesses telling an incredible story. "The gentleman says he would not have believed it unless he had seen it, and no more will I." The whole subject of supernatural stories may be summed up in one phrase: In so far as they are strange, they ought not to be believed; in so far as they are supernatural, they ought to be disbelieved.
Cornhill Magazine, May 1862.