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On Miracles and Modern Spiritualism: An Answer To The Arguments Of Hume, Lecky, And Others, Against Miracles.:
Review Of Mr. Lecky's Assertions About Miracles.
We now come to the modern philosophic objectors, most eminent among whom is Mr. Lecky, author of the History of Rationalism and the History of Morals. In the latter work he has devoted some space to this question, and his clear and well-expressed views may be taken to represent the general opinions and feelings of the educated portion of modern society. He says:—
"The attitude of ordinary educated people towards miracles is not that of doubt, of hesitation, of discontent with the existing evidence, but rather of absolute, derisive, and even unexamining incredulity."
He then goes on to explain why this is so:—
"In certain stages of society, and under the action of certain influences, an accretion of miracles is invariably formed around every prominent person or institution. We can analyse the general causes that have impelled men towards the miraculous; we can show that these causes have never failed to produce the effect; and we can trace the gradual alteration of mental conditions invariably accompanying the decline of the belief.
"When men are destitute of the critical spirit, when the notion of uniform law is yet unborn, and when their imaginations are still incapable of rising to abstract ideas, histories of miracles are always formed and always believed; and they continue to flourish and tomultiply until these conditions are altered. Miracles cease when men cease to believe and expect them. . ."
"We do not say they are impossible, or even that they are not authenticated by as much evidence as many facts we believe. We only say that, in certain states of society, illusions of this kind inevitably appear. ..."
"Sometimes we can discover the precise natural fact which the superstition has misread, but more frequently we can give only a general explanation, enabling us to assign these legends to their place, as the normal expression of a certain stage of knowledge or intellectual power; and this explanation is their refutation."
Now, in these statements and arguments of Mr. Lecky, we find some fallacies hardly less striking than those of Hume. His assertion that in certain stages of society an accretion of miracles is invariably formed round every prominent person or institution, appears to me to be absolutely contradicted by well-known historical facts.
The Church of Rome has ever been the great theatre of miracles, whether ancient or modern. The most prominent person in the Church of Rome is the Pope; the most prominent institution is the Papacy. We should expect, therefore, if Mr. Lecky's statement be correct, that the Popes would be pre-eminently miracle-workers. But the fact is, that with the exception of one or two very early ones, no miracles whatever are recorded of the great majority of the Popes. On the contrary, it has been generally among the very humblest members of the Romish Church, whether clergy or laity, that the power of working miracles has appeared, and which has led to their being canonized as saints.
Again, to take another instance, the most prominent person connected with the reformed churches is Luther. He himself believed in miracles. The whole world in his day believed in miracles; and miracles, though generally of a demoniac character, continued rife in all Protestant churches for many generations after his death; yet there has been no accretion of miracles round this remarkable man.
Nearer to our own day we have Irving, at the head of a church of miracle-workers; and Joe Smith, the founder of the miracle-working Mormons; yet there is not the slightest sign of any tendency to impute any miracles to either of these men, other than those which the latter individual claimed for himself before his sect was established. These very striking facts seem to me to prove that there must be some basis of truth in nearly every alleged miracle, and that the theory of any growth or accretion round prominent individuals is utterly without evidence to support it. It is one of those convenient general statements which sound very plausible and very philosophical, but for which no proof whatever is offered.
Another of Mr. Lecky's statements is, that there is an alteration of mental conditions invariably accompanying the decline of belief. But this "invariable accompaniment" certainly cannot be proved, because the decline of the belief has only occurred once in the history of the world; and, what is still more remarkable, while the mental conditions which accompanied that one decline have continued in force or have even increased in energy and are much more widely diffused, belief has now for twenty years been growing up again. In the highest states of ancient civilisation, both among the Greeks and Romans, the belief existed in full force, and has been testified to by the highest and most intellectual men of every age. The decline which in the last and present centuries has certainly taken place cannot, therefore, be imputed to any general law, since it is but an exceptional instance. *
* The decline of the belief may, however, be due (as a friend has suggested to me) to a real decline in the occurrence of the phenomena which compelled the belief, due to a well-known natural law. It is certain that witches, and the persons subject to their influence, were what are now termed "mediums;" that is, persons of the peculiar organization required for the manifestation of modern spiritual phenomena. For several centuries all persons endowed in almost any degree with these peculiar powers were persecuted as witches, and burnt or destroyed by thousands all over the so-called civilised world. The mediums being destroyed, the production of the phenomena became impossible; added to which the persecution would lead to concealment of all incipient manifestations. Just at this time, too, physical science began to make those rapid strides which have changed the face of the world and induced a frame of mind which led men to look with horror and loathing at the barbarities and absurdities of the witch-persecutors. A century of repose has allowed the human organism to regain its normal powers; and the phenomena which were formerly imputed to the direct agency of Satan, are now looked upon by Spiritualists as, for the most part, the work of invisible intelligences very little better or worse than ourselves.
Again, Mr. Lecky says that the belief in the supernatural only exists "when men are destitute of the critical spirit, and when the notion of uniform law is yet unborn." Mr. Lecky in this matter contradicts himself almost as much as Hume did. One of the greatest advocates for the belief in the supernatural was Glanvil; and this is what Mr. Lecky says of Glanvil:—
"The predominating characteristic of Glanvil's mind was an intense scepticism. He has even been termed by a modern critic the first English writer who has thrown scepticism into a definite form; and if we regard this expression as simply implying a profound distrust of human faculties, the judgment can hardly be denied. And certainly it would be difficult to find a work displaying less of credulity and superstition than the treatise on 'The Vanity of Dogmatising,' afterwards published as Scepsis Scientifica, in which Glanvil expounded his philosophical views. . . . The Sadducismus Tnumphatus is probably the ablest book ever published in defence of the reality of witchcraft. Dr. Henry Moore, the illustrious Boyle, and the scarcely less eminent Cudworth, warmly supported Glanvil; and no writer comparable to these in ability or influence appeared on the other side; yet the scepticism steadily increased."
Again Mr. Lecky thus speaks of Glanvil:—
"It was between the writings of Bacon and Locke that that latitudinarian school was formed which was irradiated by the genius of Taylor, Glanvil, and Hales, and which became the very centre and seedplot of religious liberty."
These are the men and these the mental conditions which are favourable to superstition and delusion!*
* The Rev. Joseph Glanvil, who witnessed some of the extraordinary disturbances at Mr. Mompesson's, and has given a full account of them, and has also collected the evidence for many remarkable cases of supposed witchcraft, was not the credulous fool many who hear that he wrote in favour of the reality of witches will suppose him to have been, but a man of education, talent, and judgment. Mr. Lecky, in his "History of the Eise and Progress of Rationalism in Europe," says of him:—"A divine who in his own day was very famous, and who I venture to think has been surpassed in genius by few of his successors. The works of Glanvil are far less known than they should be." I here give a few extracts from his-"Introduction to the Proof of the Existence of Apparitions, Spirits, and Witches."
"Section IV.—What things the author concedes in this controversy about witches and witchcraft":—
First: He grants that there are "witty and ingenious men "opposed to him in the matter.
Secondly : He admits that some who deny witches are good Christians.
Thirdly: He says, "I allow that the great body of mankind is very credulous, and in this matter, so that they do believe vain impossible things in relation to it. That converse with the Devil and real transmutation of men and women into other creatures are such. That people are apt to impute the extraordinaries of art or nature to witchcraft, and that their credulity is often abused by subtle and designing knaves through these. That there are ten thousand silly, lying stories of witchcraft and apparitions among the vulgar."
Fourthly: "I grant that melancholy and imagination have very great force and beget strange persuasions; and that many stories of witches, and apparitions have been but melancholy fancies."
Fifthly : "I know and yield that there are many strange natural diseases that have odd symptoms, and produce wonderful and astonishing effects beyond the usual course of nature, and that such are sometimes falsely ascribed to witchcraft."
Sixthly : "I own the Popish Inquisitors and other witch-finders have done much wrong, that they have destroyed innocent persons for witches, and that watching and torture hare extorted extraordinary confessions from some that were not guilty."
Seventhly: He acknowledges that of the facts which he affirms to be real many are very strange, uncouth, and improbable, and that we cannot understand them or reconcile them with the commonly received notions of spirits and the future state.
Having made these concessions to his adversaries he demands others in return.
" Section V.—The postulata which the author demands of his adversaries as his just right are, viz.:—
First: That whether witches are or are not is a question of fact.
Secondly: That matter of fact can only be proved by immediate sense or the testimony of others. To endeavour to demonstrate fact by abstract reasoning or speculation is as if a man should prove that Julius Cesar founded the Empire of Rome by algebra or metaphysics.
Thirdly: That Scripture is not all allegory, but generally has a plain, literal, and obvious meaning.
Fourthly: That some human testimonies are credible and certain, viz.:— They may be so circumstantiated as to leave no reason of doubt; for our senses sometimes report truth, and all mankind are not liars, cheats, and knaves—at least they are not all liars when they have no interest to be so.
Fifthly: That which is sufficiently and undeniably proved ought not to be denied because we know not how it can be, that is, because there are difficulties in the conceiving of it; otherwise sense and knowledge is gone as well as faith. For the modus of most things is unknown, and the most obvious in nature have inextricable difficulties in the conceiving of them, as I have shown in my Scepsis Scientifica.
Sixthly: We know scarcely anything of the nature of Spirits and the conditions of the future state."
And he concludes:—" These are my postulata or demands, which I suppose will be thought reasonable, and such as need no more proof."
The evidence adduced by a man who thus philosophically lays down his basis of investigation cannot be despised; and a perusal of Glanvil's works will well repay anyone who takes an interest in this inquiry.
The critical spirit and the notion of uniform law are certainly powerful enough in the present day, yet in every country in the civilised world there are now hundreds and thousands of intelligent men who believe, on the testimonyof their own senses, in phenomena which Mr Lecky and others would term miraculous, and therefore incredible, but which the witnesses maintain to be part of the order of nature. Instead of being, as Mr. Lecky says, an indication of "certain states of society"—" the normal expression of a certain stage of knowledge or intellectual power"—this belief has existed in all states of society, and has accompanied every stage of intellectual power. Socrates, Plutarch, and St. Augustine alike give personal testimony to supernatural facts; this testimony never ceased through the middle ages; the early reformers, Luther and Calvin, throng the ranks of witnesses; all the philosophers, and all the judges of England, down to Sir Matthew Hale, admitted that the evidence for such facts was irrefutable. Many cases have been rigidly investigated by the police authorities of various countries; and, as we have already seen, the miracles at the tomb of the Abbe" Paris, which occurred in the most sceptical period of French history, in the age of Voltaire and the encyclopaedists, were proved by such an array of evidence, and were so open to investigation, that one of the noblemen of that court—convinced of their reality after the closest scrutiny—suffered the martyrdom of imprisonment in the Bastile for insisting upon making them public. And in our own day we have, at the lowest estimate, many millions of believers in modern Spiritualism in all classes of society; so that the belief which Mr Lecky imputes to a certain stage of intellectual culture, only appears, on the contrary, to have all the attributes of universality.