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On Supernatural Powers.
Dr. Barrow, a divine whose piety and eloquence, whose closeness of reasoning and vigour of mind, are above all eulogium,
when extravagant wits and pretenders to wisdom, or to an extraordinary reach in knowledge, shall assert things evidently repugnant to sense and reason, what other means have we to confute them, than making appeal to the common sentiments of mankind? which if they decline, what have we more to do, than to laugh at or pity them? However, surely he needs to have a very strong and very clear reason to show, who dares to withstand the common suffrage of mankind, and to challenge all the world of mistake!"
"We are accustomed to attach much importance to what all men presume." "When any thing appears true to all, we esteem it an argument of truth.". These are the sayings of Steneca, who lived at the acme of Roman refinement, and was the glory of the wisest sect of Philosophy.
"In all things," according to the learned Cicero," the consent of all nations is to be supposed a law of nature.”‡
It would be encroaching too much on the patience of your readers, and occupying too many of your pages, to make other quotations in proof of the authority which the most eminent writers attach to universal consent. Those already made, considering the sources whence they are drawn, are the highest and most respectable to be met with in the annals of literature; and this universal consent so strong, so important in such inquiries, supports all the branches of the question respecting supernatural powers: that particularly which is most ridiculed, that invisible beings (indued with the power of becoming visible) are commissioned or permitted by providence to wander "to and fro in the earth," and that they have frequently appeared and conversed with men, are facts attested by Homer, Hesiod, Ovid, Aristotle, Xenophon, and other ancient writers-facts which Milton, with his usual sublimity of diction, and accuracy of judgment, states, as in the words of Adam, from whom the belief most probably is derived:
Multum dare solemus praesumptioni omnium hominum."
+ Apud nos, veritatis argumentum est aliquid omnibus videri (Epist. 117) Bar row's Theological Works, Edin. 1751, vol. v. p. 184.
Omni in re consensio omnium gentium lex naturæ putanda est. Tusc. Quæst. lib. 1.
On Supernatural Powers.
"Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth
Sole, or responsive to each other's note,
Oft in bands,
While they keep watch, or nightly rounding walk,
With heavenly touch of instrumental sounds
In full harmonic number joined, their songs
Divide the night, and lift our thoughts to Heaven.”*
Whence then, has universal consent originated? How does it happen, that, on any subject all men are agreed, without intercourse with one another, without interest, and without being conscious of this striking coincidence of opinion? It must be, 1st, From instinctive and innate ideas implanted in our nature by the Fountain of all truth; or 2dly, From some suitableness to our common reason, possessed by that in which all men agree; so unaccountable a suitableness that it not only commands coincidence of sentiment when made known, but in the absence of instruction, discovers and conforms to it, and, for both of these reasons, must, in the same manner, be attributed to the great Author of Reason; or, 3dly, From the traditions of our Fathers, which, because testifying the same thing at all times and in every country, can be traced to no other than our comnon parent, who received his knowledge, not from reasoning nor instruction-not from observation nor experience, but directly, intuitively, and unerringly from the Supreme Creator.
From any one of these ways of accounting for universal consent, (and no other account has ever been given) it follows unanswerably, that what all men naturally believe, must be true.
There is no other way of escaping the force of this observation but the common and erroneous one, which leads to the false conclusion that it is only among the ignorant and credulous that the superstitious opinions we allude to find supporters; that they are the darkest ages and most barbarous countries in which they are prevalent; that they fly before the light; and are always dissipated by the approaches of sound reasoning and.
*Paradise Lost, Book iv. v. 677–688..
On Supernatural Powers.
unbiassed judgment. To a certain extent this is true. In the night of ignorance and superstition the most obvious truths are liable to be obscured, and blended with the most fanciful and most unfounded delusions. So far from asserting the absence of all mistake and falsehood on this subject, we esteem it the necessary and natural result of that unavoidable tendency of our nature, to fall into error in every subject wherein we are left to unassisted reason. But it is both most unphilosophical and most untrue to conclude, that such opinions are pure, unmixed error altogether; or to confound deviations from strict truth with absolute falsehood-falsehood not of the deviations only, but even of the unquestionable facts from which the deviations have been made! Such a conclusion is what can be asserted of no superstition, not even the grossest and most ridiculous that we can point to in the whole catalogue of human deceptions.
"Were there no true gems found in nature, we would never be imposed upon by false ones." "If there had never been any real or true coin, there never would have been any false or counterfeit"- -are axioms abundantly trite; but so apposite in the present instance, that I could not forbear quoting them. Unless there were some foundation for the opinion, something undeniably and obviously true, on which the edifice of error might with plausibility be erected, it is impossible on any supposition that can stand examination, to account for the pretensions to super-human power made in every age of the world by designing men; the reports universally prevalent of preternatural events; and the credit which these reports so readily and so easily have obtained.
"That the wiser and more refined sort of men" (says the excellent author I have already quoted)*"highest in parts and improvements, both from study and experience, indeed the flower of every commonwealth, statesmen, lawgivers, judges, and priests, upon so many occasions of great importance, after most deliberate scanning such pretences and reports should so often suffer themselves to be deluded to the extreme injury of particular persons concerned, to the common abusing of mankind, to the hazard of their own reputation in point of wisdom and honesty seems no way reasonable to conceive. In likelihood,
* Barrow, v. 213.
On Supernatural Powers.
rather the whole kind of all these things were they altogether vain and groundless, would upon so frequent and so mature discussion have appeared to be so, and would consequently long since have been discovered, exploded, and thrust out of the
Even if the objection were true, it does not at all invalidate. the force of that argument which, among all sound inquirers, universal consent is admitted to contain. But there is a pride in learning, before which every thing must bend; there is a confidence in human discernment that will brook nothing as too high for it; there is an extravagant idea prevalent among those who reflect not, that man by nature and necessity is blind and ignorant, in adherence to which every thing that our eyes cannot see or our fingers examine, is pronounced the vain phantom of credulity and delusion: and it was this method of judging that in the most illuminated and most philosophizing age the world ever saw, uprooted all the foundations of morality and religion, led to the denial of the eternal distinctions between vice and virtue, that the world had a beginning, or that there exists a God.
But the objection is not true. Those very cities of Greece, Athens, Corinth, and Sparta, that have been pointed out as the glory of the ancients in literature, and arts, and arms; and ́ at the very time when their brilliant career of science was at its most celebrated point, rivalled in their superstitions the most savage tribes of the species; and no fact in history is either better ascertained or more universally admitted, than that the Augustan age itself, was the most slavishly addicted to them, the most pregnant in dreams, and omens, and prodigies.
Neither is it true, that it is the ignorant, the credulous, the unphilosophical alone, who have believed in supernatural agency. Do any of these terms. characterize Cicero,* or Macrobius; Plutarch, Zeno, or Cleanthes, Chrysippus, or Babylonius, Diogones, Antipater, Posidonius, or Aristotle ?+ Are we thus to talk of Plato, Xenophon, and Lycurgus; § of Minos, Teresias, or Strabo; of Ampharaus and Trophonicus;
Cicero de Divinitate, lib..
+Encylop. Edin. Article Dreams.
Leng's Sermons at the Boyle Lecture, 339.
Mato in Min. p. 310. edit. Steph♪
Strabo, lib. xvi. p. 762.
On Supernatural Powers.
of Orpheus, Musæus, and Socrates, * &c. among the ancients, who all have professed belief on this subject? Or are these epithets more applicable to those eminent men among the moderns who have avowed the same sentiments; Dr. Isaac Barrow, Leng, Bishop of Norwich, Dr. Owen, § Glanville, Baxter, Dr. Henry, More, || Junianus Magus, Alexander ab Alexandro, Sanagorius, Dr. Johnson, &c. &c.?
But it is unnecessary to lengthen the catalogue. Enough have been cited to show that the opinions of the vulgar are supported, I might say, sanctioned by men of sound learning and genuine piety, both in ancient and modern times. In the present state of science, a formal treatise on this subject is not to be expected from any man of established literary reputation; but every one must have observed that when any writer, to whose opinions we look with respect, comes in the course of other inquiries to mention popular superstitions, he either gives to them his decided support, or alludes to them in such a manner as to impress his readers with a respect for what has universal opinion in its favour. VETUS.
Glasgow, 10th Oct. 1818.
GENERAL IMPROVEMENT IN VIRTUE
Etas parentum, pejor avis, tulit
From the earliest ages men have always advanced in art and science; and, ever as they emerged from comparative rudeness, have made new improvements, or at least alterations, in their modes of living. But still, as the knowledge of nature increased, and the means of gratifying their corrupted inclinations were multiplied, mankind seem to have sunk, nearly in the same proportion, into grosser immorality. A river of corruption,
Xenophon. Memorabilia ubique.
+ Sermons vol. v. 213, 214. Sermons, (London 1730) 390, 391, 334. Owen on the Spirit, (Glas. 1791) vol. i. 71 Encylop. Article Apparitions.