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A
SHORT DISCOURSE
OF
SUPERSTITION.

Clem. Alexandr. in Admon. ad Græc.

Ἀκρότητες ἀμαθίας ἀθεότης καὶ δεισιδαιμονία, ὧν ἐκτὸς μένειν σπουδαστέον. .

Hierocles in Pythag.

Ἡ των προσφερομένων πολυτέλεια, τιμὴ εἰς θεὸν οὐ γίνεται εἰ μὴ μετὰ τοῦ ἐνθέου φρονήματος προσάγοιτο. δῶρα γὰρ καὶ θυηπολἰαι ἀφρόνων, πυρὸς τροφή τὸ δὲ ἔνθεον φρόνημα διαρκῶς ἡδρασμένον συνά πτει χωρεῖν γὰρ ἀνάγκη τὸ ὅμοιον πρὸς τὸ ὅμοιν. .

Lactantius de Vero cultu.

Hic verus est cultus, in quo mens colentis seipsam Deo immaculatam victimam sistit.

Ibid.

Nihil Sancta & singularis illa Majestas aliud ab homine desiderat, quam solam innocentiam: quam siquis obtulerit Deo, satis piè, satis religiosè litavit.

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The Contents of the ensuing Discourse.

The true Notion of Superstition well express'd by Δεισιδαιμονία, i. e. an over-timorous and dreadful apprehension of the Deity.

A false Opinion of the Deity the true Cause and Rise of Superstition.

Superstition is most incident to such as Converse not with the Goodness of God, or are conscious to themselves of their own unlikeness to him.

Right apprehensions of God beget in man a Nobleness and Freedome of Soul.

Superstition, though it looks upon God as an angry Deity, yet it counts him easily pleas'd with flattering Worship.

Apprehensions of a Deity and Guilt meeting together are apt to excite Fear.

Hypocrites to spare their Sins seek out waies to compound with God.

Servile and Superstitious Fear is encreased by Ignorance of the certain Causes of Terrible Effects in Nature, &c. as also by frightful Apparitions of Ghosts and Spectres.

A further Consideration of Superstition as a Composition of Fear and Flattery.

A fuller Definition of Superstition, according to the Sense of the Ancients.

Superstition doth not alwaies appear in the same Form, but passes from one Form to another, and sometimes shrouds it self under Forms seemingly Spiritual and more refined.

Of Superstition.

HAving now done with what we propounded as a Preface to our following Discourses, we should now come to treat of the main Heads and Principles of Religion. But before we doe that, perhaps it may not be amiss to inquire into some of those <26> Anti-Deities that are set up against it, the chief whereof are Atheism and Superstition; which indeed may seeme to comprehend in them all kind of Apostasy and Praevarication from Religion. We shall not be over-curious to pry into such foule and rotten carkasses as these are too narrowly, or to make any subtile Anatomy of them; but rather enquire a litle into the Original and Immediate Causes of them; because it may be they may be nearer of kin then we ordinarily are aware of, while we see their Complexions to be so vastly different the one from the other.

And first of all for Superstition (to lay aside our Vulgar notion of it which much mistakes it) it is the same with that Temper of Mind which the Greeks call Δεισιδαιμονία, (for so Tully frequently translates that word, though not so fitly and emphatically as he hath done some others:) It imports an overtimorous and dreadfull apprehension of the Deity; and therefore with Hesychius Δεισιδαιμονία and φοβοθεία are all one, and Δεισδαίμων is by him expounded ὁ εἰδωλολάτρης, ὁ ἐυσεβὴς, καὶ δειλὸς παρὰ θεοῖς, an Idolater, and also one that is very prompt to[1] worship the Gods, but withall fearfull of them. And therefore the true Cause and Rise of Superstition is indeed nothing else but a false opinion of the Deity, that renders him dreadfull and terrible, as being rigorous and imperious; that which represents him as austere and apt to be angry, but yet impotent, and easy to be appeased again by some flattering devotions, especially if performed with sanctimonious shewes and a solemn sadness of Mind. And I wish that that Picture of God which some Christians have drawn of him, wherein Sowreness and Arbitrariness appear so much, doth not too much resemble it. According to this sense Plutarch hath well defined it in his Book περι <27> ̀ δεισιδαιμονίας in this manner, δόξαν ἐμπαθῆ καὶ δέους ποιητικὴν ὑπόληψιν οὖσαν ἐκταπεινοὺντος καὶ συντρίβοντος τὸν ἄνθρωπον, ὀιόμενον τ' εἶναι θεοὺς, εἶναι δὲ λυπηροὺς καὶ βλαβερὸυς, a strong passionate Opinion, and such a Supposition as is productive of a fear debasing and terrifying a man with the representation of the Gods as grievous and hurtfull to Mankind.

Such men as these converse not with the Goodness of God, and therefore they are apt to attribute their impotent passions and peevishness of Spirit to him. Or it may be because some secret advertisements of their Consciences tell them how unlike they themselves are to God, and how they have provoked him; they are apt to be as much displeased with him as too troublesome to them, as they think he is displeased with them. They are apt to count this Divine Supremacy as but a piece of Tyranny that by its Soveraign Will makes too great encroachments upon their Liberties, and that which will eat up all their Right and Property; and therefore are slavishly afraid of him, τὴν των θεῶν ἀρχήν ὡς τυραννὶδα φοβούμενοι σκυθρωπὴν καὶ ἀπαραίτητον, fearing Heaven's Monarchy as a severe and churlish Tyranny from which they cannot absolve themselves, as the same Author speaks: and therefore he thus discloseth the private whisperings of their minds, ᾅδου τινὲς ἀνοίγονται πύλαι βαθεῖαι, καὶ ποταμοὶ πυρὸς ὁμοῦ καὶ στυγὸς ἀποῤῥῶγες ἀναπετάννυνται, &c. the broad gates of hell are opened, the rivers of fire and Stygian inundations run down as a swelling flood, there is thick darkness crouded together, dreadfull and gastly Sights of Ghosts screeching and howling, Judges and tormentors, deep gulfes and Abysses full of infinite miseries. Thus he. The Prophet Esay gives us this Epitome of their thoughts, chap. 33. The Sinners in Zion are afraid, fearfullness hath surprized the hypocrites: who shall dwell with the devouring <28> fire? who shall dwell with everlasting burnings? Though I should not dislike these dreadful & astonishing thoughts of future torment, which I doubt even good men may have cause to press home upon their own spirits, while they find Ingenuity less active, the more to restrain sinne; yet I think it litle commends God, and as little benefits us, to fetch all this horror & astonishment from the Contemplations of a Deity, which should alwayes be the most serene and lovely: our apprehensions of the Deity should be such as might ennoble our Spirits, and not debase them. A right knowledge of God would beget a freedome & Liberty of Soul within us, and not servility; ἀρετὴς γὰρ ἐλπὶς ὁ Θεός ἐστιν, ουδουλεὶας πρόφασις, as Plutarch hath well observ'd; our thoughts of a Deity should breed in us hopes of Vertue, and not gender to a spirit of bondage.

But that we may pass on. Because this unnaturall resemblance of God as an angry Deity in impure minds, should it blaze too furiously, like the Basilisk would kill with its looks; therefore these Painters use their best arts a little to sweeten it, and render it less unpleasing. And those that fancy God to be most hasty and apt to be displeased, yet are ready also to imagine him so impotently mutable, that his favour may be won again with their uncouth devotions, that he will be taken with their formall praises, and being thirsty after glory and praise & solemn addresses, may, by their pompous furnishing out all these for him, be won to a good liking of them: and thus they represent him to themselves[2] ὡς κολακευόμενον, ἥδεσθαι, καὶ ἀγανακτεῖν ἀμελούμενον. And therefore Superstition will alwaies abound in these things whereby this Deity of their own, made after the similitude of men, may be most gratified, slavishly crouching to it. We will take a view of it in <29> the words of Plutarch, though what refers to the Jews, if it respects more their Rites then their Manners, may seem to contain too hasty a censure of them. Superstition brings in πηλώσεις, καταβορβορωσεις, σαββατισμοὺς, ῥίψεις ἐπὶ πρόσωπον, αἰσχρὰς προκαθίσεις, ἀλλοκοτους προσκυνήσεις, wallowings in the dust, tumblings in the mire, observations of Sabbaths, prosternations, uncouth gestures, & strange rites of worship. Superstition is very apt to think that Heaven may be bribed with such false-hearted devotions; as Porphyrie hath well explain'd it by this, that it is[3] ὑπόληψις τοῦ δεκάζειν δύνασθαι τὸ θεῖον, an apprehension that a man may corrupt and bribe the Deity: which (as he there observes) was the Cause of all those bloudy sacrifices, and of some inhumane ones among the Heathen, men imagining διὰ τῶν θυσιῶν ἐξωνεῖσθαι τὴν ἁμαρτίαν. like him in the Prophet that thought by the fruit of his body and the firstlings of his flock to expiate the sinne of his Soul. Micah 6.

But it may be we may seeme all this while to have made too Tragicall a Description of Superstition; and indeed our Author whom we have all this while had recourse to seemes to have set it forth, as anciently Painters were wont to doe those pieces in which they would demonstrate most their own skill; they would not content themselves with the shape of one Body onely, but borrowed severall parts from severall Bodies as might most fit their design and fill up the picture of that they desired chiefly to represent. Superstition it may be looks not so foul and deformed in every Soul that is dyed with it, as he hath there set it forth, nor doth it every where spread it self alike: this πάθος that shrowds it self under the name of Religion, wil variously discover it self as it is seated in Minds of a various temper, and meets with variety of matter to exercise it self about.

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We shall therefore a little further inquire into it, and what the Judgments of the soberest men anciently were of it; the rather for that a learned Author of our own seems unwilling to own that Notion of it which we have hitherto out of Plutarch and others contended for; who though he hath freed it from that gloss which the late Ages have put upon it, yet he may seem to have too strictly confined it to a Cowardly Worship of the ancient Gentile Dæmons, as if Superstition and Polytheism were indeed the same thing, whereas Polytheism or Dæmon-worship is but one branch of it: which was partly observed by the learned Casaubon in his Notes upon that Chapter of Theophrastus περὶ δεισιδαιμονίας, where it is describ'd to be δειλία πρὸς το δαιμόνιον, which he thus interprets, Theophrastus voce δαιμόνιον & Deos & Dæmones complexus est, & quicquid divinitatis esse particeps malesana putavit antiquitas. And in this sense it was truly observed by Petronius Arbiter, Primus in orbe Deos fecit Timor The whole progeny of the ancient Dæmons, at least in the Minds of the Vulgar, sprung out of Fear, and were supported by it: though notwithstanding, this Fear, when in a Being void of all true sense of Divine goodness, hath not escaped the censure of Superstition in Varro's judgment, whose Maxim it was, as S. Austin tells us, Deum à religioso vereri, à superstitioso timeri: which distinction Servius seems to have made use of in his Comment upon Virgil, Æneid. 6. where the Poet describing the torments of the wicked in hell, he runs out into an Allegorical exposition of all, it may be too much in favour of Lucretius whom he there magnifies. His words are these, Ipse etiam Lucretius dicit per eos super quos jamjam casurus imminet lapis, Superstitiosos <31> significari, qui inaniter semper verentur, & de Diis & Cœlo & locis superioribus malè opinantur; nam Religiosi sunt qui per reverentiam timent.

But that we may the more fully unfold the Nature of this πάθος, and the Effects of it, which are not alwaies of one sort, we shall first premise something concerning the Rise of it.

The Common Notions of a Deity, strongly rooted in Mens Souls, and meeting with the apprehensions of Guiltiness, are very apt to excite this Servile fear: and when men love their own filthy lusts, that they may spare them, they are presently apt to contrive some other waies of appeasing the Deity and compounding with it. Unhallowed minds, that have no inward foundations of true Holiness to fix themselves upon, are easily shaken and tossed from all inward peace and tranquillity: and as the thoughts of some Supreme power above them seize upon them, so they are struck with the lightning thereof into inward affrightments, which are further encreas'd by a vulgar observation of those strange, stupendious and terrifying Effects in Nature, whereof they can give no certain reason, as Earthquakes, Thundrings and Lightnings, blazing Comets and other Meteors of a like Nature, which are apt to terrifie those especially who are already unsetled and chased with an inward sense of guilt, and, as Seneca speaks, inevitabilem metum ut supra nos aliquid timeremus incutiunt. Petronius Arbiter hath well described this business for us, Primus in orbe Deos fecit Timor, ardua cœlo Fulmina cum caderent, discussaque moenia flammis, Atque ictus flagraret Athos From hence it was that the Libri fulgurales of the Romanes, and other such like Volumes of Superstition, <32> swelled so much, and that the pulvinaria Deorum were so often frequented, as will easily appear to any one a litle conversant in Livy, who every where sets forth this Devotion so largely, as if he himself had been too passionately in love with it.

And though as the Events in Nature began sometimes to be found out better by a discovery of their immediate Natural Causes, so some particular pieces of Superstitious Customs were antiquated and grown out of date, (as is well observ'd concerning those Charms and Februations anciently in use upon the appearing of an Eclipse, and some others) yet often affrights and horrours were not so easily abated, while they were unacquainted with the Deity, and with the other mysterious Events in Nature, which begot those Furies & unlucky Empusas, ἀλάστορας καὶ παλαμναίους δαίμονας, in the weak minds of men. To all which we may adde the frequent Spectres and frightfull Apparitions of Ghosts and Mormos: all which extorted such a kind of Worship from them as was most correspondent to such Causes of it. And those Rites and Ceremonies which were begotten by Superstition, were again the unhappy Nurses of it; such as are well described by Plutarch in his De defect. Oracul. Ἑορταὶ καὶ θυσὶαι, ὥσπερ ἡμέραι ἀποφράδες, καὶ σκυθρωπαὶ, ἐν αἷς ὠμφαγίαι, &c. Feasts and Sacrifices, as likewise observations of unlucky and fatall dayes, celebrated with eating of raw things, lacerations, fastings, and howlings, and many times filthy Speeches in their sacred rites, and frantick behaviour.

But as we insinuated before, This Root of Superstition diversely branched forth it self, sometimes into Magick and Exorcismes, other times into Pædanticall Rites and idle observations of Things and Times, as Theophrastus hath largely set them forth in his Tract <33> περὶ δεισιδαιμονίας. in others it displayed itself in inventing as many new Deities as there were severall Causes from whence their affrights proceeded, and finding out many φρικτὰμυστήρια appropriate to them, as supposing they ought to be worshipt cum sacro horrore. And hence it is that we hear of those inhumane and Diabolicall sacrifices called ἀνθρωποθυσιαι, frequent among the old Heathens (as among many others Porphyry in his De abstinentia hath abundantly related) and of those dead mens bones which our Ecclesiastick Writers tell us were found in their Temples at the demolishing of them. Sometimes it would express itself in a prodigall way of sacrificing, for which Ammianus Marcellinus (an heathen Writer, but yet one who seems to have been well pleased with the simplicity and integrity of Christian Religion) taxeth Julian the Emperour for Superstition. Julianus, Superstitiosus magis quam legitimus sacrorum observator, innumeras sine parsimonia pecudes mactans, ut æstimaretur, si revertisset de Parthis, boves jam defuturos: like that Marcus Cæsar, of whom he relates this common proverb, οἱ λευκοὶ Βόες Μάρκῳ τῷ Καίσαρι, ἂν σὺ νικήσῃς, ἡμεῖς ἀπωλόμεθα. Besides many other ways might be named wherein Superstition might occasionally shew it self.

All which may best be understood, if we consider it a little in that Composition of Fear and Flattery which before we intimated: and indeed Flattery is most incident to base and slavish minds; and where the fear and jealousy of a Deity disquiet à wanton dalliance with sin, and disturb the filthy pleasure of Vice, there this fawning and crouching disposition will find out devices to quiet an angry conscience within, and an offended God without, (though as men grow more expert in this cunning, these fears may in some degree abate.) This <34> the ancient Philosophy hath well taken notice of, and therefore well defin'd δεισιδαιμονία by κολακεία, and useth these terms promiscuously. Thus we find Max. Tyrius in his Dissert. 4. concerning the difference between a Friend and a Flatterer. ὁ μὲν εὐσεβὴς, φίλος θεῷ, ὁ δὲ δεισιδαίμων, κόλαξ θεοῦ. καὶ μακάριος ὁ εὐσεβὴς, ὁ φίλος θεοῦ, δυστυχὴς δὲ ὁ δεισιδαίμων. ὁ μὲν θαρσῶν τῇ ἀρετῇ, πρὸσεισι τοῖς θεοῖς ἄνευ δέους. ὁ δὲ ταπεινὸς διὰ μοχθηρίαν, μετὰ πολλοῦ δέους, δύσελπις, καὶ δεδιὼς τοὺς θεοὺς ὥσπερ τοὺς τυράννους. The sense whereof is this, The Pious man is God's friend, the Superstitious is a flatterer of God: and indeed most happy and blest is the condition of the Pious Man, God's friend; but right miserable & sad is the state of the Superstitious. The Pious man, emboldned by a good Conscience and encouraged by the sense of his integrity, comes to God without fear and dread: but the Superstitious being sunk and deprest through the sense of his own wickedness, comes not without much fear, being void of all hope and confidence, and dreading the Gods as so many Tyrants. Thus Plato also sets forth this Superstitious temper, though he mentions it not under that name, but we may know it by a property he gives of it, viz. to collogue with Heaven, Lib. 10. de Legibus; where he distinguisheth of Three kinds of Tempers in reference to the Deity, which he there calls πάθη, which are, Totall Atheism, which he saies never abides with any man till his Old age; and Partial Atheism, which is a Negation of Providence; and a Third, which is a perswasion concerning the Gods ὅτι εὐπαραμύθητοί εἰσι θύμασι καὶ εὐχαῖς, that they are easily wone by sacrifices and prayers, which he after explaines thus, ὅτι παραίτητοι εἰσι τοῖσιν ἀδικοῦσιν, δεχόμενοι δῶρα, &c. that with gifts unjust men may find acceptance with them. And this Discourse of Plato's upon these three kinds of Irreligious πάθη <35> Simplicius seems to have respect to in his Comment upon Epictetus, cap. 38. which treats about Right Opinions in Religion; & there having pursued the two former of them, he thus states the latter, which he calls ἀθείας λόγον as well as the other two, as a conceit θεοὺς παρα τρέπεσθαι δώροις, καὶ ἀναθήμασι, καὶ κερματίου διαδόσεσιν, quòd muneribus & donariis & stipis distributione à sententia deducuntur: such men making account by their devotions to draw the Deity to themselves, and winning the favour of Heaven, to procure such an indulgence to their lusts as no sober man on earth would give them; they in the mean while not considering ὡς μεταμέλειαι, καὶ ἱκετεῖαι, καὶ εὐχαὶ, καὶ τὰ τοιαῦτα, ἀναλογοῦσι τῷ καλῷ, that Repentance, Supplications and Prayers, &c. ought to draw us nearer to God, not God nearer to us; as in a ship, by fastning a Cable to a firm Rock, we intend not to draw the Rock to the Ship, but the Ship to the Rock. Which last passage of his is therefore the more worthy to be taken notice of, as holding out so large an Extent that this Irreligious temper is of, and of how subtil a Nature. This fond and gross dealing with the Deity was that which made the scoffing Lucian so much sport, who in his Treatise De sacrificiis tells a number of stories how the Daemons loved to be feasted, and where and how they were entertained, with such devotions which are rather used Magically as Charms and Spells for such as use them, to defend themselves against those Evils which their own Fears are apt perpetually to muster up, and to endeavour by bribery to purchase Heaven's favour and indulgence, as Juvenal speaks of the[4] Superstitious Ægyptian, Illius lacrymæ mentitaque munera præstant Ut veniam culpæ non abnuat, ansere magno Scilicet & tenui popano corruptus Osiris. <36> Though all this while I would not be understood to condemn too severely all servile fear of God, if it tend to make men avoid true wickedness, but that which settles upon these lees of Formality.

To conclude, Were I to define Superstition more generally according to the ancient sense of it, I would call it Such an apprehension of God in the thoughts of men, as renders him grievous and burdensome to them, and so destroys all free and cheerfull converse with him; begetting in the stead thereof a forc'd and jejune devotion, void of inward Life and Love. It is that which discovers it self Pædantically in the worship of the Deity, in any thing that makes up but onely the Body or outward Vesture of Religion; though there it may make a mighty bluster: and because it comprehends not the true Divine good that ariseth to the Souls of men from an internall frame of Religion, it is therefore apt to think that all it's insipid devotions are as so many Presents offered to the Deity and gratifications of him. How variously Superstition can discover & manifest itself, we have intimated before: To which I shall onely adde this, That we are not so well rid of Superstition, as some imagine when they have expell'd it out of their Churches, expunged it out of their Books and Writings, or cast it out of their Tongues, by making Innovations in names (wherein they sometimes imitate those old Caunii that Herodotus speaks of, who that they might banish all the forrein Gods that had stollen in among them, took their procession through all their Country, beating & scourging the Aire along as they went;) No, for all this, Superstition may enter into our chambers, and creep into our closets, it may twine about our secret Devotions, & actuate our Formes of belief and Orthodox opinions, when it hath no place <37> else to shroud itself or hide its head in; we may think to flatter the Deity by these, and to bribe it with them, when we are grown weary of more pompous solemnities: nay it may mix it self with a seeming Faith in Christ; as I doubt it doth now in too many, who laying aside all sober and serious care of true Piety, think it sufficient to offer up their Saviour, his Active and Passive Righteousness, to a severe and rigid Justice, to make expiation for those sins they can be willing to allow themselves in.

[1] For so that word Εἰσεκὴς must here signifie; if indeed it be not corrupted, and to be read Εὐλαβὴς, a word which some other Lexicographers use in this case.

[2] as Lucian in his De Sacrificiis speaks too truly, though it may be too profanely.

[3] Lib. 2. περὶ ἀποχῆς.

[4] Satyr. 6.

Cite as: John Smith, ‘A Short Discourse of Superstition’, from Select Discourses (1660), pp. 23-37, http://www.cambridge-platonism.divinity.cam.ac.uk/view/texts/diplomatic/Smith1660B-excerpt002, accessed 2020-10-21.