Note: A Lecture delivered at the Royal Institution, London, 1867.
Having accepted the very great honour of being allowed to deliver here two lectures, I have chosen as my subject Superstition and Science. It is with Superstition that this first lecture will deal.
The subject seems to me especially fit for a clergyman; for he should, more than other men, be able to avoid trenching on two subjects rightly excluded from this Institution; namely, Theology– that is, the knowledge of God; and Religion–that is, the knowledge of Duty. If he knows, as he should, what is Theology, and what is Religion, then he should best know what is not Theology, and what is not Religion.
For my own part, I entreat you at the outset to keep in mind that these lectures treat of matters entirely physical; which have in reality, and ought to have in our minds, no more to do with Theology and Religion than the proposition that theft is wrong, has to do with the proposition that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles.
It is necessary to premise this, because many are of opinion that superstition is a corruption of religion; and though they would agree that as such, “corruptio optimi pessima,” yet they would look on religion as the state of spiritual health, and superstition as one of spiritual disease.
Others again, holding the same notion, but not considering that “corruptio optimi pessima,” have been in all ages somewhat inclined to be merciful to superstition, as a child of reverence; as a mere accidental misdirection of one of the noblest and most wholesome faculties of man.
This is not the place wherein to argue with either of these parties: and I shall simply say that superstition seems to me altogether a physical affection, as thoroughly material and corporeal as those of eating or sleeping, remembering or dreaming.
After this, it will be necessary to define superstition, in order to have some tolerably clear understanding of what we are talking about. I beg leave to define it as–Fear of the unknown.
Johnson, who was no dialectician, and, moreover, superstitious enough himself, gives eight different definitions of the word; which is equivalent to confessing his inability to define it at all:
“1. Unnecessary fear or scruples in religion; observance of unnecessary and uncommanded rites or practices; religion without morality.
“2. False religion; reverence of beings not proper objects of reverence; false worship.
” 3. Over nicety; exactness too scrupulous.”
Eight meanings; which, on the principle that eight eighths, or indeed eight hundred, do not make one whole, may be considered as no definition. His first thought, as often happens, is the best– “Unnecessary fear.” But after that he wanders. The root-meaning of the word is still to seek. But, indeed, the popular meaning, thanks to popular common sense, will generally be found to contain in itself the root-meaning.
Let us go back to the Latin word Superstitio. Cicero says that the superstitious element consists in “a certain empty dread of the gods”–a purely physical affection, if you will remember three things:
1. That dread is in itself a physical affection.
2. That the gods who were dreaded were, with the vulgar, who alone dreaded them, merely impersonations of the powers of nature.
3. That it was physical injury which these gods were expected to inflict.
But he himself agrees with this theory of mine; for he says shortly after, that not only philosophers, but even the ancient Romans, had separated superstition from religion; and that the word was first applied to those who prayed all day ut liberi sui sibi superstites essent, might survive them. On the etymology no one will depend who knows the remarkable absence of any etymological instinct in the ancients, in consequence of their weak grasp of that sound inductive method which has created modern criticism. But if it be correct, it is a natural and pathetic form for superstition to take in the minds of men who saw their children fade and die; probably the greater number of them beneath diseases which mankind could neither comprehend nor cure.