Incerti autoris apuid. Aul. Gell.
A man should be religious, not superstitious.
IT is of the last importance to season the passions of a child with devotion, which seldom dies in a mind that has received an early tincture of it. Though it may seem extinguished for a while by the cares of the world, the heats of youth, or the allurements of vice, it generally breaks out, and discovers itself again, as soon as discretion, consideration, age, or misfortunes, have brought the man to himself. The fire may be covered and overlaid, but cannot be entirely quenched or smothered.
A state of temperance, sobriety, and justice, without devotion, is a cold, lifeless, insipid condition of virtue; and is rather to be stiled philosophy than religion. Devotion opens the mind to great conceptions, and fills it with more sublime ideas than any that are to be met with in the most exalted science, and at the same time warms and agitates the soul more than sensual pleasure.
It has been observed by some writers, that man is more distinguished from the animal world by devotion than by reason, as several brute creatures discover their actions something like a faint glimmering of reason, though they betray, in no single circumstance of their behaviour, any thing that bears the least affinity to devotion. It is certain, the propensity of the mind to religious worship, the natural tendency of the soul to fly to some superior Being for succour in dangers and distresses, the gratitude to an invisible Superintendent, which arises in us upon receiving any extraordinary and unexpected good fortune, the acts of love and admiration with which the thought of men are so wonderfully transported, meditating upon the divine perfections, and the universal concurrence of all the nations under heaven in the great article of adoration, plainly shew that devotion or, religious worship must be the effect of a tradition from some first founder of mankind, or that it is conformable to the natural light of reason, or that it proceeds from an instinct implanted in the soul itself. For my part, I look upon all these to be the concurrent causes; but which ever of them shall be assigned as the principle of divine worship, it manifestly points to a Supreme Being as the first author of it.
I may take same other opportunity of considering those particular forms and methods of devotion which are taught us by Christianity; but shall here observe into what errors even this divine principle may sometimes lead us, when it is not moderated by that right reason which was given us as the guide of all our actions.
The two great errors into which a mistaken devotion may betray us are enthusiasm and superitition.
There is not a more melancholy object than a man who has his head turned with religious enthusiasm. A person that is crazed, though with pride or malice, is a sight very mortifying to human nature; but when the distemper arises from any indiscreet fervours of devotion, or too intense an application of the mind to its mistaken duties, it deserves our compassion in a more particular manner. We may however learn this lesson from it, that since devotion itself (which one would be apt to think could not be too warm) may disorder the mind, unless its heats are tempered with caution and prudence, we should be particularly careful to keep our reason as cool as possible, and to guard ourselves in all parts of life against the influence of passion, imagination, and stitution.
Devotion, when it does not lie under the check of reason, is very apt to degenerate into enthusiasm. When the mind finds herself very much inflamed with her devotions, she is too much inclined to think they are not of her own kindling, but blown up with something divine within her. If she indulges this thought too far, and humours the growing passion, she at last flings herself into imaginary raptures and ecstacies; and when once she fancies herself under the influence of a divine impulse, it is no wonder if she slights human ordinances, and refuses to comply with any established form of religion, as thinking herself directed by a much superior guide.
As enthusiasm is a kind of excess in devotion, superstition is the excess not only of devotion, but of religion in general according to an old Heathen saying, quoted by Aulus Gellius, Religentem esse oportet, religiosum nefas; A man should be religious, not superstitious; for, as the author tells us, Nigidius observed upon this passage, that the Latin words which terminate in ofus, generally imply vicious characters, and the having of any quality to an excess.
An enthusiast in religion is like an obstinate clown, a superstitious man like an insipid courtier. Enthusiasm has something in it of madness, superstition of folly. Most of the sects that fall short of the church of England have in them strong tinctures of enthusiasm, as the Roman Catholic Religion is one huge overgrown body of childish and idle superstitions.
The Roman Catholic church seems indeed irrecoverably lost in this particular. If an absurd dress or behaviour be introduced in the world, it will soon be found out and discarded: on the contrary, a habit or ceremony, though never so ridiculous, which has taken sanctuary in the church, sticks in it for ever. A Gothic bishop perhaps thought it proper to repeat such a form in such particular shoes or slippers: another fancied it would be very decent if such a part of public devotions were performed with a mitre on his head, and a crosier in his hand: to this a brother Vandal, as wise as the others, adds an antic dress, which he conceived would allude very very aptly to such and such mysteries, till by degrees the whole office has degenerated into an empty show.
Their successors see the vanity and inconvenience of these ceremonies; but instead of reforming, perhaps add others which they think more significant, and which take possession in the same manner, and are never to be driven out after they have been once admitted. I have seen the Pope officiate at St. Peter's, where, for two hours together, he was busied in putting on or off his different accoutrements, according to the different, parts he was to act in them.
Nothing is so glorious in the eyes of mankind, and ornamental to human nature, setting aside the infinite advantages which arise from it, as a strong, steady, masculine piety; but enthusiasm and superstition are the weaknesses of human reason, that expose us to the scorn and derision of infidels, and sink us even below the beasts that perish.
Idolatry may be looked upon as another error arising from mistaken devotion; but because reflections on that subject would be of no use to an English reader, I shall not enlarge upon it.
Omnibus in terris, quae sunt a Godibus usque
Juv. Sat.10. l.1.
Look round the habitable world, how few
Snow their own good; or, knowing it, pursue!
IN my last Saturday's paper I laid down some thoughts upon devotion in general, and shall here shew what were the notions of the most refined Heathens on this subject, as they are represented in Plato's dialogue upon prayer, entitled, Alcibiades the second, which doubtless gave occasion to Juvenal's tenth satire, and to the second satire of Persius; as the last of these authors has almost transcribed the preceding dialogue, entitled, Alcibiades the first, in his fourth satire.
The speakers in this dialogue upon prayer are Socrates and Alcibiades, and the substance of it (when drawn together out of the intricacies and digressions) as follows:
Socrates meeting his pupil Alcibiades, as he was going to his devotions, and observing his eyes to be fixed upon the earth with great seriousness and attention, tells him, that he had reason to be thoughtful on that occasion, since it was possible for a man to bring down evils upon himself, by his own prayers, and that those things which the gods send him in answer to his petitions might turn to his destruction this, says he, may not only happen when a man prays for what he knows is mischievous in its own nature, as Oedipus implored the gods to sow dissension between his sons, but when he prays for what he believes would be for his good, and against what he believes would be to his detriment. This the philosopher shews must necessarily happen among us, since most men are blinded with ignorance, prejudice, or passion, which hinder them from feeing such things as are really beneficial to them. For an instance, he asks Alcibiades, whether he would not be thoroughly pleased and satisfied if that God to whom he was going to address himself, should promise to make him the sovereign of the whole earth! Alcibadies answers, that he should doubtless look upon such a promise as the greatest favour that could be bestowed upon him. Socrates then asks him, if after receiving this great favour he would be contented to lose his life? or if he would receive it though he was sure he should make an ill use of it? To both which questions Alcibiades answers in the negative. Socrates then shews him, from the examples of others, how these might probably be the effect of such a blessing. He then adds, that other reputed pieces of good fortune, as that of having a son, or procuring the highest post in a government, are subject to the like fatal consequences; which nevertheless, says he, men ardently desire, and would not fail to pray for, if they thought their prayers might be effectual for the obtaining of them.
Having established this great point, that all the most apparent blessings in this life are obnoxious to such dreadfull consequences, and that no man knows what in its events would prove to him a blessing or a curse, he teaches Alcibiades after what manner he ought to pray.
In the first place, he recommends to him, as the model of his devotions, a short prayer, which a Greek poet composed for the use of his friends, in the following words; "O Jupiter! give us those things which are good for us: whether they are such things as we pray for, or such things as we do not pray for; and remove from us those things which are hurtful, though they are such things as we pray for."
In the second place, that his disciple may ask such things as are expedient for him, he shews him that it is absolutely neccessary to apply himself to the study of true wisdom, and to the knowledge of that which is his chief good, and the most suitable to the excellency of his nature. In the third and last place, he informs him, that the best methods he could make use of to draw down blessings upon himself, and to render his prayers acceptable, would be to live in a constant practice of his duty towards the gods, and towards men. Under this head he very much recommends a form of prayer the Lacedemonians made use of, in which they petition the gods, "to give them all good things, so long as they were virtuous." Under this head likewise he gives a very remarkable account of an oracle to the following purpose.
When the Athenians, in the war with the Lacedemonians received many defeats both by sea and land, they sent a message to the Oracle of Jupiter Ammon, to ask the reason why they who erected so many temples to the gods, and adorned them with such costly offerings; why they who had instituted so many festivals, and accompanied them with such pomps and ceremonies; in short, why they who had slain so many hecatombs at their altars, should be less successful than the Lacedemonians, who fell so short of them in all these particulars. To this, says he, the oracle made the following reply; "I am better pleased with the prayer of the Lacedemonians than with all the oblations of the Greeks." As this prayer implied and encouraged virtue in those who made it; the philosopher proceeds to shew how the most vicious man might be devout, so far as victims could make him, but that his offerings were regarded by the gods as bribes, and his petitions as blasphemies. He likewise quotes on this occasion two verses out of Homer, in which the poet says, that the scent of the Trojan sacrifices was carried up to heaven by the winds; but that it was not acceptable to the gods, who were displeased with Priam and all his people.
The conclusion of this dialogue is very remarkable. Socrates having deterred Alcibiades from the prayers and sacrifice he was going to offer by setting forth the above mentioned difficulties of performing that duty as he ought, adds there words, "We must therefore wait till such time as we may learn how we ought to behave ourselves towards the gods and towards men." But when will that time come, says Alcibiades, and who is it will instruct us? For I would fain see this man whoever he is. It is one, says Socrates, who takes care of you; but as Homer tells us, that Minerva removed the mist from Diomedes' eyes, that he might plainly discover both gods and men; so the darkness that hangs upon your mind must be removed, before you are able to discern what is good and what is evil. Let him remove from my mind, says Alcibiades, the darkness, and what else he pleases; I am determined to refuse nothing he shall order me, whoever he is, so that I may become the better man by it. The remaining part of this dialogue is very obscure: there is something in it that would make us think Socrates hinted at himself, when he spoke of this Divine Teacher who was to come into the world; did he not own, that he himself was in this respect as much at a loss, and in as great distress as the rest of mankind.
Some learned men look upon this conclusion as a prediction of our Saviour, or at least that Socrates, like the High Priest, prophecied unknowingly, and pointed at that Divine Teacher who was to come into the world some ages after him. However that may be, we find that this great philosopher saw by the light of reason it, that it was suitable to the goodness of the divine Nature, to send a person into the world who should instruct mankind in the duties of religion, and, in particular, teach them how to pray.
Whoever reads this abstract of Plato's discourse on prayer, will I believe, naturally make this reflection, that the great founder of our religion, as well by his own example, as in the form of prayer which he taught his disciples, did not only keep up to those rules which the light of nature had suggested to this great philosopher, but instructed his disciples in the whole extent of this duty, as well as of all others. He directed them to the proper object of adoration, and taught them according to the third rule above mentioned, to apply themselves to him in their closets, without shew and ostentation; and to worship him in spirit and in truth. As the Lacedemonians in their form of prayer implored the gods in general, to give them all good things so long as they were virtuous, we ask in particular "that our offences may be forgiven us as we forgive those of others." If we look into the second rule which Socrates has prescribed, namely, that we should apply ourselves to the knowledge of such things as are best for us, this too is explained at large in the doctrines of the gospel, where we are taught in several instances to regard those things as curses, which appear as blessings in the eye of the world; and on the contrary, to esteem those things as blessings, which to the generality of mankind appear as curses. Thus, in the form which is prescribed to us, we only pray for that happiness which is our chief good, and the great end of our existence, when we petition the Supreme Being for "the coming of his kingdom," being solicitous for no other temporal blessing but our daily sustenance. On the other side, we pray against nothing but sin, and against evil in general, leaving it with Omniscience to determine what is really such. If we look into the first of Socrates' rules of prayer, in which he recommends the abovementioned form of the ancient poet, we find that form not only comprehended, but very much improved in the petition, wherein we pray to the Supreme Being that "his will may be done:" which is of the same force with that form which our Saviour used, when he prayed against the most ignominious of deaths; "nevertheless not my will but thine be done." This comprehensive petition is the most humble, as well as the most prudent, that can be offered up from the creature to its Creator, as it supposes the Supreme Being wills nothing but what is for our good, and that he knows better than ourselves what is so.
-- Nequeo monstrare, et sentio tantum.
Juv. Sat.7. I 56.
'Tis what I only feel, but can't express.
IF there were no other consequence of it, but barely that human creatures on this day assemble themselves before their Creator, without regard to theiThus humble, and thus great, is the man who is moved by piety, and exalted by devotion. But behold this recommended by the masterly hand of a great divine who I have heretofore made bold with.
"It is such a pleasure as can never cloy or overwork the mind; a delight that grows and improves under thought and reflexion, and while it exercises, does also endear itself to the mind. All pleasures that affect the body must needs weary, because they transport; and all transportation is a violence; and no violence can be lasting, but determines upon the falling of the spirits, which are not able to keep up that height of motion that the pleasure of the senses raises them to. And therefore how inevitably does an immoderate laughter end in a sigh, which is only nature's recovering itself after a force done to it; but the religious pleasure of a well-disposed mind moves gently, and therefore constantly. It does not effect by rapture and extasy, but is like the pleasure of health, greater and stronger than those that call up the senses with grosser and more affecting impressions. No man's body is as strong as his appetites; but Heaven has corrected the boundlessness of his voluptuous desires by stinting his strengths and contracting his capacities. -- The pleasure of the religious man is an easy and a portable pleasure, such an one as he carries about in his bosom, without alarming either the eye or the envy of the world. A man putting all his pleasures into this one, is like a traveller putting all his goods into one jewel; the value is the same, and the convenience greater."