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No. 185 [from The Spectator]
by [?]

Tuesday, October 2, 1711.

‘… Tantaene Animis coelestibus Irae?’

Virg.

There is nothing in which Men more deceive themselves than in what the World calls Zeal. There are so many Passions which hide themselves under it, and so many Mischiefs arising from it, that some have gone so far as to say it would have been for the Benefit of Mankind if it had never been reckoned in the Catalogue of Virtues. It is certain, where it is once Laudable and Prudential, it is an hundred times Criminal and Erroneous; nor can it be otherwise, if we consider that it operates with equal Violence in all Religions, however opposite they may be to one another, and in all the Subdivisions of each Religion in particular.

We are told by some of the Jewish Rabbins, that the first Murder was occasioned by a religious Controversy; and if we had the whole History of Zeal from the Days of Cain to our own Times, we should see it filled with so many Scenes of Slaughter and Bloodshed, as would make a wise Man very careful how he suffers himself to be actuated by such a Principle, when it only regards Matters of Opinion and Speculation.

I would have every Zealous Man examine his Heart thoroughly, and, I believe, he will often find, that what he calls a Zeal for his Religion, is either Pride, Interest, or Ill-nature. [A Man who [1]] differs from another in Opinion, sets himself above him in his own Judgment, and in several Particulars pretends to be the wiser Person. This is a great Provocation to the proud Man, and gives a very keen Edge to what he calls his Zeal. And that this is the Case very often, we may observe from the Behaviour of some of the most zealous for Orthodoxy, who have often great Friendships and Intimacies with vicious immoral Men, provided they do but agree with them in the same Scheme of Belief. The Reason is, Because the vicious Believer gives the Precedency to the virtuous Man, and allows the good Christian to be the worthier Person, at the same time that he cannot come up to his Perfections. This we find exemplified in that trite Passage which we see quoted in almost every System of Ethicks, tho’ upon another Occasion.

‘… Video meliora proboque,
Deteriora sequor …’

(Ov.)

On the contrary, it is certain, if our Zeal were true and genuine, we should be much more angry with a Sinner than a Heretick; since there are several Cases [which [2]] may excuse the latter before his great Judge, but none [which [3]] can excuse the former.

Interest is likewise a great Inflamer, and sets a Man on Persecution under the colour of Zeal. For this Reason we find none are so forward to promote the true Worship by Fire and Sword, as those who find their present Account in it. But I shall extend the Word Interest to a larger Meaning than what is generally given it, as it relates to our Spiritual Safety and Welfare, as well as to our Temporal. A Man is glad to gain Numbers on his Side, as they serve to strengthen him in his private Opinions. Every Proselyte is like a new Argument for the Establishment of his Faith. It makes him believe that his Principles carry Conviction with them, and are the more likely to be true, when he finds they are conformable to the Reason of others, as well as to his own. And that this Temper of Mind deludes a Man very often into an Opinion of his Zeal, may appear from the common Behaviour of the Atheist, who maintains and spreads his Opinions with as much Heat as those who believe they do it only out of Passion for God’s Glory.

Ill-nature is another dreadful Imitator of Zeal. Many a good Man may have a natural Rancour and Malice in his Heart, [which [4]] has been in some measure quelled and subdued by Religion; but if it finds any Pretence of breaking out, which does not seem to him inconsistent with the Duties of a Christian, it throws off all Restraint, and rages in its full Fury. Zeal is therefore a great Ease to a malicious Man, by making him believe he does God Service, whilst he is gratifying the Bent of a perverse revengeful Temper. For this Reason we find, that most of the Massacres and Devastations, [which [5]] have been in the World, have taken their Rise from a furious pretended Zeal.