Page images

Answer to Vetus on Supernatural Powers.

dangers which every where surround us. He will guide and direct the future events of our lives in such a manner as will prove by happy experience, to be the most conducive to our good, and the most consistent with the scheme of our happiness both here and hereafter.




"Or is my sense deceived, or my soul in a dream?"


In nothing, Mr. Editor, has the human mind erred more egregiously than in what regards a belief in Supernatural Powers. At one time, labouring under the tyranny of superstition, it has miserably fallen a prey to the monsters of its own creating. At another, having seen the absurdity of many of the terrors by which it has been beset, it naturally endeavours to shake off the whole, and is not satisfied till it finds, or fancies itself safe amid the high and flinty rocks of infidelity. Thus, scarcely has a complete century past since the popular belief in this, as in other countries, was strongly favourable to the existence of beings of a nature superior to ours, sensibly and often visibly employed in retarding or promoting the interests of men. But now, the public sentiment in regard to such subjects, having changed its tendency, continues to vibrate fast and far towards an oposite extreme: and already, persons of almost every description, strong in the mail of incredulity, and mounting up, and exulting over the ruins of ancient opinion, begin to trample even truth itself; and boldly bid defiance to all the " powers of a world to come."

[ocr errors]

This, Sir, is a subject of considerable importance; and therefore, I am happy to see it has called forth the exertions of VETUS, and of old MORRIS of Kirkton; the one, seemingly a believer in all the mysteries of Supernatural Powers—and the ather, a firm and resolute adversary to Imaginary Beings, of every description. These two in the third and fourth Numbers

Answer to Vetus on Supernatural Powers.

of your Mirror, hold each a conspicuous place. The former having arisen over the littleness of learned scepticism, and mounting far above the clouds of modern prejudice, has waved his magic wand, and now looks, with satisfaction, on the wondrous fabric of a Creed, which, as a rallying post for Dreams, and Omens, and Prodigies, he has erected on the unnumbered pillars of human opinion; and piled its ambitious aud gloomy summit up into the highest heaven:--and the latter, with laudable contempt for misapplied authority, has endeavoured to overthrow the whole system of "terror and delusion"; and actually succeeded, to a certain extent, in crushing it under foot. The subject of Vetus, however, is far more comprehensive than Mungo seens to be aware of; and cannot be met with a sweeping negative, without drawing consequences after it, which I am certain your honest friend would shudder to contemplate. His proper field, in fact, had he confined himself to it, lies altogether beyond that which his well-meaning adversary has attacked: and his chief, indeed I may say his only error of consequence, consists in his not having accurately defined, either in its outset, or during the conduct of his essay, the limit which separates the one from the other. It is, however, an error of no small impor tance, that an essay professedly on Supernatural Powers should stoop to defend the whole class of opinions usually styled superstitions."


Does your learned Correspondent, therefore, really and seriously imagine, that the spirits of departed individuals, or any invisible created beings whatever, are now permitted at their will, to assume visible forms that they may " wander to and fro in the earth," and assist or annoy the human race? in a word, does he mean to advocate a single one of those absurd opinions which arise from the blackness of ignorance, the very excrescences of a disordered imagination, and are justly and properly denounced in the long list of "lying wonders?" If he does, I have only to refer him for a satisfactory answer to what Mungo has written, with this short reply, that neither argument nor authority can ever establish a rational belief in that which is seen to disagree with the light of revelation, and carries, besides, its own confutation along with it: and to press forward the names of respectable authors in support of such idle fancies, is only, in my estimation, to adopt the shortest method possible, to render both them and their writings suspected,

Answer to Vetus on Supernatural Powers.

But I should be sorry to think so meanly of his judgment as to suppose VETUS capable of intending such things. He surely means to defend, not "the whole class of opinions usually styled," but only such as are falsely styled, "Superstitions;" and if this limitation is granted, a proper definition of his sub ject would enable us to discover a great deal of truth in his reasoning. As the universal of popular belief, however, seems to be treated of in its whole extent, it unfortunately happens, that the force of his argument bears equally strong on the errors, even the most ridiculous, it includes; and therefore, instead of supporting what is true, it is altogether lost under a dismal cloud of endless absurdities.

In general, as to the authority of pagan and superstitious: writers relative to omens and actual apparitions, &c. since in most cases we are by no means satisfied that the pretended witnesses. were not themselves deceived, I am not disposed to yield to it any thing like implicit submission. Let them have been as powerful as you please in all the departments of knowledge properly within their reach; and let them have acquired the utmost skill in distinguishing between truth and falsehood, in as far as things subject to human discretion are concerned, yet in regard to things confessedly beyond the sphere of mortality, excepting. only in the judgment required on the fidelity of witnesses, their little superiority is altogether lost in the immense distance and magnitude of the objects in question. Nay, when such writers, with all their credulity about them, presume to apply their accustomed scrutiny to matters of pure revelation, they are almost certain to err, and bring back a report not a bit more credible than that of the simplest individual of a sound and healthy constitution, who has been compelled to believe through the nat-ural sources of information which the supreme Creator has bestowed upon: him. All their reports, therefore, of whatever kind they be, do in fact prove very little more than what is contained. in the following direct appeal, so beautifully and forcibly expres sed: "I do not," says VETUS, "fear contradiction when I say, that there is not one of my readers who is completely free from what are called superstitious feelings. Even when natural impressions are blunted by long habits of desperate or criminal adventure; even when all the powers of the mind are steeled by the principles of a sceptical philosophy--even when a mistakenpiety, and erroneous deductions from what revelation teaches,

Answer to Vetus on Supernatural Powers.

have associated something wrong with holding this belief—I will not be contradicted when I say, that there is not one, however assisted by these or other circumstances, who, amid the darkness of midnight and the awfulness of solitude, does not feel, on the waste heath, or on the scene of murder, or near the receptacle of the dead, such impressions of unaccountable terror as awaken all his doubts, and triumph over all his professions of unbelief and incredulity." Now, all this is truth incontrovertible. But what does it prove? Not surely that any of those fearful absurdities which, in such circumstances are ever ready to arise, and have actually arisen in the terrified, guilty imagination, and passed into belief, are really true. But it does prove, and that most forcibly too, that there is a universal propensity to credit the existence of powers superior to human; and this propensity being innate, affords a strong presumption that such beings somehow or other do exist, and are permitted or commissioned to hold invisible intercourse with ourselves: or, in other words, that man is naturally a religious being, connected in some mysterious way with another world-fitted to receive impressions from supernatural agency, and to be deterred from evil and incited to good by the power of such impressions, aiding and enforcing the dictates of original conscience.

I am inclined to think, therefore, that natural imbecillity under this, and the power of conscience working on the fears of a guilty mind, is the very cause of those numberless follies that have always made up the black amount of popular superstitions. Why, for instance, is the man of solitary reflection, wrapt up in the sublimity of thought, so often, by the least noise, startled from his reverie, and made to feel a coldness creeping along his nerves, as if the voice of a spirit had spoken to him from the grave? Why again, is it, that the watchful attendant on a sickbed, imposed on by the silence and solemnity of the scene, starts at every unexpected motion, and trembles at every appearance, as if each were the commissioned herald of approaching death? And why, I would ask, does the lonely traveller on the Alpine waste view, with such absorbing interest, each dusky object that attracts his notice through the glimmering twilight, and eagerly turns aside into another path to avoid he knows not what? Why, but that, in such circumstances, the turbulence of worldly passion has been hushed; and the mind, driven from its covert, feels, with unusual acuteness, the rebukes of conscience, and the

Answer to Vetus on Supernatural Powers

unsteadiness of its earthly tenure; but, at the same time, mistaking the source of its uneasiness, gives a sort of half-confessed reality to the phantoms that are supposed to impress it from without.

[ocr errors]

Still, however, I would not be understood as wishing to support the general negative proposition that meets the whole affirmative defended by VETUS. I will not assert, because I do not believe, that all the opinions usually styled superstitions,' are pure, unmixed error altogether.' All that I want is only to guard against those many deviations from strict truth,' which constitute by far the greatest part of every system of popular superstition and to caution your essayist, as well as his readers, not to confound such absurd and senseless deviations, with the important and unquestionable facts from which they have been made. These facts, whatever they may be, if resting on proper evidence, have, strictly speaking, nothing to do with superstition, any farther at least, than as, through ignorance or deceit, they have been abused to serve as a foundation on which its horrid delusions might be erected.

But, though I admit that certain appearances and events, not to be accounted for on the supposition of mere natural causes, have really taken place, I will not pretend to characterise, much less to enumerate such facts. Nor would I advise Vetus to attempt it. Neither he nor I know how, with sufficient accuracy, to distinguish what is strictly true from what is altogether false, in the numberless reports that have come down to us of ancient or even of mere modern apparitions, &c. This much, however, we need not hesitate to affirm, viz. that the greatest part, out of all proportion, is absolute fiction. And this being the case, I cannot see how it should be deemed philosophically correct to fix upon any one of them, even the most authentic, and say in what respects, and to what precise extent it is true, so as to make it the basis of any definite reasoning on the subject. At all events, since we are now sure that miraculous communication with the other world has long ago ceased, were a jury of names every way as respectable as Cicero, or Macrobius, Plutarch, Zeno, or Cleanthes; Crysippus, or Babylonius; Diogenes, Antipater, Posidonius, or Aristotle, &c.; even with such a man as the mighty Johnson at their head, to return us, at the present day, an unanimous verdict against some restless spirit for stealing into this world to the

« PreviousContinue »