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No. IX. On the Belief of Supernatural Beings. « Nec me solum ratio ac disputatio impulit ut ita crede
rem; sed nobilitas etiam summorum philosophorum et auctoritas."
CIC, DE SENECT.
TO THE RUMINATOR. Sir, In the course of your deep speculations on men and things; in the varied reflections of a poetic as well as philosophic mind, you must sometimes probably have thought on what will be, as well as on that which has been. Some of your ruminations no doubt have turned on subjects of higher and more lasting importance than political, and, of course, temporary concerns; than the far more engaging pursuits of philosophy, or even of that divine art, which, beyond all others, ensures the immortality of this world.*
Speculations of this nature have indeed engaged the attention of the wise and learned in every age; and, perhaps, in exact proportion to the excellency of those mental faculties, by which they felt a consciousness of excelling the brute creation, attended by an inward assurance that it was therefore improbable that they should cease, like them, to exist. Hence (not to allude at all to the inestimable advantages of that Revelation which has brought life and immortality to light” through the gospel) the most interesting inquiries of those who have thought deeply and abstrusely, have been directed to the nature of that future state, of which almost every sage, in every period of the world, has asserted the probability, if not the certainty.
* Witness the assertion of Horace, that bis fame would last as long as the Vestal Virgin should offer sacrifice on the Capitol. The Pagan Priest, the Vestal Virgin have served for centuries, only
• To point a moral or adorn a tale," and the Capitol itself, the residence of the contemptible representative of the Conscript Fathers, the Senator of Rome, “ stat magni nominis umbra ;” but the poet's lays still survive and shine with undiminished splendour, after the lapse of eighteen hundred years.
For this reason, perhaps, it is, that in all ages the belief of supernatural beings, or appearances, seems to have prevailed; the persuasion of something, neither defined nor understood, forming, as it were, a link, a connexion, or bond of union, between this world and the next.* Modern philosophers, indeed, cut the gordian knot at once, by denying the truth of every relation that tends to establish such belief; without deigning to inquire or scrutinize, they assume the impossibility of them as an incontrovertible axiom, and scorn to use any other argument but that powerful, though somewhat uncivil one, ad stultitiam. The ancients did not so; but they, perhaps, erred as much on the other side, by receiving indifferently, as true, all sorts of idle stories, however improbable or ill supported.
I was led into these reflections by reading an account of the most ancient apparition mentioned either in history or poetry, which is told in these words: “ When deep sleep falleth upon men, fear came upon me, and trembling, which made all
my bones to shake. Then a spirit passed before my face, the hair of my flesh stood up. It stood still, but I could not discern the form thereof: an image was before mine eyes, there was silence, and I heard a voice."*
* If it be said that this idea loses ground in proportion to the spreading of civilization, still it keeps pace exactly with religion ; a lukewarmness, or indifference towards which, is also found unfortunately to increase as soon as civilization degenerates into luxury, towards which it makes a continual and sometimes rapid progress.
There are not, perhaps, many instances of relations delivered in language more truly sublime as well as poetic. The fear and trembling of limbs, and horror of something unknown, which was the forerunner of the spectre; the dark veil of impenetrable mystery thrown over the form of the appearance; the undefined outline of the vision which was before his eyes; and the dread silence which preceded its speech, are an assemblage of images hardly surpassed by any writer in a more polished age.
But with the language in which the story is clothed, we have, at present, no concern; it is only brought as a proof of the very early belief of the reality of supernatural appearances: and this persuasion seems so rooted in the mind of man, that Dr. Johnson even ventured to assert, that, though all argument is against it, all belief is for it. But pace tanti viri, that expression, so often quoted, does not properly apply to the case. The question is not whether all the popular tales of absurd fear and superstition be true; whether ghosts meet the trembling wanderer in every lone church-yard; whether forsaken maidens leave their graves to terrify their inconstant and conscience-smitten swains; and misers return
* Job. iv. 13, &c. This book was written, in the opinion of the most learned commentators, before the Israelites came out of Egypt; consequently many ages before any other records, but those which are to be found in the same volume.
to the upper regions to brood over concealed treasures, or point out the spot where they have buried them; but whether there are, or not, multitudes of “ ministring angels"* who execute the commands of the Almighty on earth : and whether these may not at times be permitted to assume bodily shapes, for purposes consistent with his general government of his creatures, though not always perhaps obvious to our limited understandings.
If it be said that there are no accounts of such visions in ancient or modern history so authenticated as to leave no room for doubt concerning them, it may be replied, that in both there are relations of this kind, as well attested as most other historical facts which are generally believed.+ If it be affirmed, that no adequate consequences have ever been produced by such supernatural appearances; that no example is on record of misfortune having been prevented by them, or of the wicked having been persuaded or terrified into virtue; this is begging the question, and taking that for granted which remains to be proved. Though we may know what has been the consequence when such warnings have been slighted, we cannot possibly tell what might have happened had they not been attended to, nor how often they may have had an influence on the
* Hebrews i. 13. Milton and Young are not quoted as authorities, lest it should be said that they wrote as poets, and not as philosophers.
+ Such, for instance, as the appearance of his evil genius to Brutus; of Sir George Villiers, previous to the murder of the Duke of Buckingham ; of the vision which announced his approaching death to Thomas, Lord Lyttelton, and many others which might be enumerated.
conduct; for the altered intention in this case can be known only to the person who had originally formed it. And, indeed, he alone who made the heart can judge of the alteration of it; and the impressive circumstance of a warning, which he thinks out of the common course of human events, may have produced in the mind of the person who has experienced it, a conviction salutary to himself and beneficial to others, though the effect may not have been so sudden as to be noticed by the world.*
We should be careful therefore not to affirm too rashly, either that such things are not, or that they are useless. In the bounded state of our present faculties, many events in this world may be brought about by an agency of which we have as yet no conception. For my own part, such an idea, instead of being terrific, is rather delightful. I know that such things cannot happen but by the permission of the Father and Creator of all; and, if they ever do, it is a still more convincing and affecting proof of his tender care of his creatures. It is a sort of approximation to a better world; and the idea that such superior beings are appointed to watch over us, seems to give us an additional safety in this. I am, &c. &c.
ART. DCCIX. No. X. How far genius, when properly exerted,
brings its own reward with it.
Hor. It is a subject of curious meditation, to consider * See the remarkable occurrence in the last century, known by the name of Colonel Gardiner's conversion.