S. Austin Allibone, comp. Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay. 1880.
As if the natural calamities of life were not sufficient for it, we turn the most indifferent circumstances into misfortunes, and suffer as much from trifling accidents as from real evils. I have known the shooting of a star spoil a nights rest; and have seen a man in love grow pale, and lose his appetite, upon the plucking of a merry-thought. A screech-owl at midnight has alarmed a family more than a band of robbers; nay, the voice of a cricket hath struck more terror than the roaring of a lion. There is nothing so inconsiderable, which may not appear dreadful to an imagination that is filled with omens and prognostics. A rusty nail, or a crooked pin, shoot up into prodigies.
For my own part, I should be very much troubled were I endowed with this divining quality, though it should inform me truly of everything that can befall me. I would not anticipate the relish of any happiness, nor feel the weight of any misery, before it actually arrives.
I know but one way of fortifying my soul against these gloomy presages and terrors of mind, and that is, by securing to myself the friendship and protection of that Being who disposes of events and governs futurity. He sees at one view the whole thread of my existence, not only that part of it which I have already passed through, but that which runs forward into all the depths of eternity. When I lay me down to sleep, I recommend myself to his care; when I awake, I give myself up to his direction. Amidst all the evils that threaten me, I will look up to him for help, and question not but he will either avert them, or turn them to my advantage. Though I know neither the time nor the manner of the death I am to die, I am not at all solicitous about it; because I am sure that he knows them both, and that he will not fail to comfort and support me under them.
The causes of superstition are pleasing and sensual rites and ceremonies; excess of outward and pharisaical holiness; over-great reverence of traditions, which cannot but load the church; the stratagems of prelates for their own ambition and lucre; the favouring too much of good intentions, which openeth the gate to conceits and novelties; the taking an aim at divine matters by human, which cannot but breed mixture of imaginations; and, lastly, barbarous times, especially joined with calamities and disasters.
Superstition without a veil is a deformed thing: there is also a superstition in avoiding superstition, when men think they do best if they go farthest from the superstition; by which means they often take away the good as well as the bad.
The great and capital objects of their worship were taken from Druidism,trees, stones, the elements, and the heavenly bodies. These were their principal devotions, laid the strongest hold upon their minds, and resisted the progress of the Christian religion with the greatest obstinacy: for we find these superstitions forbidden amongst the latest Saxon laws. A worship which stands in need of the memorial of images or books to support it may perish when these are destroyed; but when a superstition is established upon those great objects of Nature which continually solicit the senses, it is extremely difficult to turn the mind from things that in themselves are striking, and that are always present.
But is superstition the greatest of all possible vices? In its possible excess I think it becomes a very great evil. It is, however, a moral subject, and of course admits of all degrees and all modifications. Superstition is the religion of feeble minds; and they must be tolerated in an intermixture of it, in some trifling or some enthusiastic shape or other, else you will deprive weak minds of a resource found necessary to the strongest. The body of all true religion consists, to be sure, in obedience to the will of the Sovereign of the world, in a confidence in His declarations, and in imitation of His perfections. The rest is our own. It may be prejudicial to the great end,it may be auxiliary. Wise men, who, as such, are not admirers (not admirers at least of the munera terræ) are not violently attached to these things, nor do they violently hate them. Wisdom is not the most severe corrector of folly. They are the rival follies which mutually wage so unrelenting a war, and which make so cruel a use of their advantages, as they can happen to engage the immoderate vulgar, on the one side or the other, in their quarrels.
Edmund Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790.
Prudence would be neuter; but if, in the contention between fond attachment and fierce antipathy concerning things in their nature not made to produce such heats, a prudent man were obliged to make a choice of what errors and excesses of enthusiasm he would condemn or bear, perhaps he would think the superstition which builds to be more tolerable than that which demolishes,that which adorns a country than that which deforms it,that which endows, than that which plunders,that which disposes to mistaken beneficence, than that which stimulates to real injustice,that which leads a man to refuse to himself lawful pleasure, than that which snatches from others the scanty subsistence of their self-denial. Such, I think, is very nearly the state of the question between the ancient founders of monkish superstition and the superstition of the pretended philosophers of the hour.
Superstition! that horrid incubus which dwelt in darkness, shunning the light, with all its racks, and poison-chalices, and foul sleeping-draughts, is passing away without return. Religion cannot pass away. The burning of a little straw may hide the stars of the sky; but the stars are there, and will re-appear.
In the revolutions of the human mind exploded opinions are often revived; but an exploded superstition never recovers its credit. The pretension to divine revelation is so august and commanding, that when its falsehood is once discerned, it is covered with all the ignominy of detected imposture; il falls from such a height (to change the figure) that it is inevitably crumbled into atoms.
Enthusiasm is an evil much less to be dreaded than superstition. The latter is a disease of opinion, which may be transmitted with fresh accumulation of error from age to age. It is the spirit of slumber in which whole nations are immersed. Placing religion, which is most foreign to its nature, in depending for acceptance with God on absurd penances or unmeaning ceremonies, it resigns the understanding to ignorance and the heart to insensibility. No generous sentiments, no active virtues, ever issue from superstition.
There is no surer remedy for superstitions and desponding weakness than, first, to govern ourselves by the best improvement of that reason which Providence has given us for a guide; and then, when we have done our parts, to commit all cheerfully, for the rest, to the good pleasure of heaven, with trust and resignation.
Neither is superstition (as it has been defined by a popular though superficial writer) an excess of religion (at least in the ordinary sense of the word excess), as if any one could have too much of true religion, but any misdirection of religious feeling; manifested either in showing religious veneration or regard to objects which deserve none; that is, properly speaking, the worship of false gods; or in the assignment of such a degree or such a kind of religious veneration to any object as that object, though worthy of some reverence, does not deserve; or in the worship of the true God through the medium of improper rites and ceremonies.
Richard Whately: Annot. on Bacons Essay, Of Superstition.