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Historian and Freethinker
W E H Lecky
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When men have appreciated the countless differences which the exercise of that judgment must necessarily produce, when they have estimated the intrinsic fallibility of their reason, and the degree in which it is distorted by the will, when, above all, they have acquired that love of truth which a constant appeal to private judgment at last produces, they will never dream that guilt can be associated with an honest conclusion, or that one class of arguments should be stifled by authority.
The period of Catholic ascendancy was on the whole one of the most deplorable in the history of the human mind.... The spirit that shrinks from enquiry as sinful and deems a state of doubt a state of guilt, is the most enduring disease that can afflict the mind of man. Not till the education of Europe passed from the monasteries to the universities, not till Mohammedan science, and clasical free thought, and industrial independence broke the sceptre of the Church, did the intellectual revival of Europe begin.
The religion of one age is often the poetry of the next. Around every living and operative faith there lies a region of allegory and of imagination into which opinions frequently pass, and in which they long retain a transfigured and idealised existence after their natural life has died away. They are, as it were, deflected. They no longer tell directly and forcibly upon human actions. They no longer produce terror, inspire hopes, awake passions, or mould the characters of men; yet they still exercise a kind of reflex influence, and form part of the ornamental culture of the age. They are turned into allegories. They are interpreted in a non-natural sense. They are invested with a fanciful, poetic, but most attractive garb. They follow instead of controlling the current of thought, and being transformed by far-fetched and ingenious explanations, they become the embellishments of systems of belief that are wholly irreconcilable with their original tendencies. The gods of heathenism were thus translated
from the sphere of religion to the sphere of poetry. The grotesque legends and the harsh doctrines of a superstitious faith are so explained away, that they appear graceful myths foreshadowing and illustrating the conceptions of a brighter day. For a time they flicker upon the horizon with a softly beautiful light that enchants the poet, and lends a charm to the new system with which they are made to blend; but at last this too fades away. Religious ideas die like the sun; their last rays, possessing little heat, are expended in creating beauty.
It is, indeed, marvellous that science should ever have revived amid the fearful obstacles theologians cast in her way. Together with a system of biblical interpretation so stringent, and at the same time so capricious, that it infallibly came into collision with every discovery that was not in accordance with the unaided judgments of the senses, and therefore with the familiar expressions of the Jewish writers, everything was done to cultivate a habit of thought the direct opposite of the habits of science. The constant exaltation of blind faith, the countless miracles, the childish legends, all produced a condition of besotted ignorance, of grovelling and trembling credulity, that can scarcely be paralleled except among the most degraded barbarians. Innovation of every kind was regarded as a crime; superior knowledge excited only terror and suspicion. If it was shown in speculation, it was called heresy. If it was shown in the study of nature, it was called magic. The dignity of the Popedom was
unable to save Gerbert from the reputation of a magician, and the magnificent labours of Roger Bacon were repaid by fourteen years of imprisonment, and many others of less severe but unremitting persecution. Added to all this, the overwhelming importance attached to theology diverted to it all those intellects which in another condition of society would have been employed in the investigations of science. When Lord Bacon was drawing his great chart of the field of knowledge, his attention was forcibly drawn to the torpor of the middle ages. That the mind of man should so long have remained tranced and numbed, seemed, at first sight, an objection to his theories, a contradiction to his high estimate of human faculties. But his answer was prompt and decisive. A theological system had lain like an incubus upon Christendom, and to its influence, more than to any other single cause, the universal paralysis is to be ascribed.
When it began, Christianity was regarded as a system entirely beyond the range and scope of human reason; it was impious to question; it was impious to examine; it was impious to discriminate. On the other hand, it was visibly instinct with the supernatural. Miracles of every order and degree of magnitude were flashing forth incessantly from all its parts.
When the Church obtained the direction of the civil power, she soon modified or abandoned the tolerant maxims she had formerly inculcated; and, in the course of a few years, restrictive laws were enacted, both against the Jews and against the heretics.
The task of the Christian emperors in combating magic was, in truth, one of the most difficult that can be conceived; and all the penalties that Roman barbarity could devise, were unable to destroy practices which were the natural consequence of the prevailing credulity. As long as men believed that they could easily ascertain the future, it was quite certain that curiosity would at length overpower fear. As long as they believed that a few simple rites could baffle their enemies, and enable them to achieve their most cherished desires, they would most unquestionably continue to practise them. Priests might fulminate their anathemas, and emperors multiply their penalties; but scepticism, and not terrorism, was the one corrective for the evil. This scepticism was nowhere to be found. The populace never questioned for a moment the efficacy of magic.
Faith always presented to the mind the idea of an abnormal intellectual condition, of the subversion or suspension of the critical faculties. It sometimes comprised more than this, but it always included this. It was the opposite of doubt and of the spirit of doubt. What irreverent men called credulity, reverent men called faith; and although one word was more respectful than the other, yet the two words were with most men strictly synonymous.
Vast tribes of savages, who had always been idolaters, who were perfectly incapable, from their low state of civilisation, of forming any but anthropomorphic conceptions of the Deity, or of concentrating their attention steadily on any invisible object, and who for the most part were converted not by individual persuasion but by the commands of their chiefs, embraced Christianity in such multitudes that their habits of mind soon became the dominating habits of the Church. From this time the tendency to idolatry was irresistible. The old images were worshipped under new names, and one of the most prominent aspects of the Apostolical teaching was in practice ignored.
Almost all Europe, for many centuries, was inundated with blood, which was shed at the direct instigation or with the full approval of the ecclesiastical authorities.
And when we read the nature of these tortures, which were worthy of an oriental imagination when we remember that they were inflicted, for the most part, on old and feeble and half-doting women, it is difficult to repress a feeling of the deepest abhorrence for those men who caused and who encouraged them.... The contemplation of such scenes as these is one of the most painful duties that can devolve upon the historian; but it is one from which he must not shrink, if he would form a just estimate of the past. There are opinions that may be traced from age to age by footsteps of blood; and the intensity of the suffering they caused is a measure of the intensity with which they were realised. Scotch witchcraft was but the result of Scotch Puritanism, and it faithfully reflected the character of its parent.
The doctrine of a material hell in its effect was to chill and deaden the sympathies, predispose men to inflict suffering, and to retard the march of civilization.
Take away the moral argument: persuade men that when ascribing to the Deity justice and mercy they are speaking of qualities generically distinct from those which exist among mankind -- qualities which we are altogether unable to conceive, and which may be compatible with acts that men would term grossly unjust and unmerciful: tell them that guilt may be entirely unconnected with a personal act, that millions of infants may be called into existence for a moment to be precipitated into a place of torment, that vast nations may live and die, and then be raised again to endure a never-ending punishment, because they did not believe in a religion of which they had never heard, or because a crime was committed thousands of years before they were in existence: convince them that all this is part of a transcendentally perfect and righteous moral scheme, and there is no imaginable abyss to which such a doctrine will not lead. You will have blotted out those fundamental notions of right and wrong which
the Creator has engraven upon every heart; you will have extinguished the lamp of conscience; you will have taught men to stifle the inner voice as a lying witness, and to esteem it virtuous to disobey it. But even this does not represent the full extent of the evil.
Whenever the clergy were at the elbow of the civil arm, no matter whether they were Catholic or Protestant, persecution was the result.
Terror is everywhere the beginning of religion.
All history shows that, in exact proportion as nations advance in civilisation, the accounts of miracles taking place among them become rarer and rarer, until at last they entirely cease.
Nothing, indeed, could be more unlike the tone of the [Patristic] Fathers, than the cold, passionless, and prudential theology of the eighteenth century; a theology which regarded Christianity as an admirable auxiliary to the police force, and a principle of decorum and of cohesion in society, but which carefully banished from it all enthusiasm, veiled or attenuated all its mysteries, and virtually reduced it to an authoritative system of moral philosophy.
Making every allowance for the errors of the most extreme fallibility, the history of Catholicism would on this hypothesis represent an amount of imposture probably unequaled in the annals of the human race.
[Middleton] contended that the religious leaders of the fourth century had admitted, eulogised, and habitually acted upon principles that were diametrically opposed, not simply to the aspirations of a transcendent sanctity, but to the dictates of the most common honesty. He showed that they had applauded falsehood, that they had practised the most wholesale forgery, that they had habitually and grossly falsified history, that they had adopted to the fullest extent the system of pious frauds, and that they continually employed them to stimulate the devotion of the people.
Fierce invectives against women form a conspicuous and grotesque portion of the writings of the Church fathers.
All over Europe the organs that represent dogmatic interests are in permanent opposition to the progressive tendencies around them, and are rapidly sinking into contempt. In every country in which a strong political life is manifested, the secularisation of politics is the consequence. Each stage of that movement has been initiated and effected by those who are most indifferent to dogmatic theology, and each has been opposed by those who are most occupied with theology.
On the Continent, every attempt to substitute a lighter punishment for death was fiercely denounced as a direct violation of the Divine law. Indeed, some persons went so far as to question the lawfulness of strangling the witch before she was burnt. Her crime, they said, was treason against the Almighty, and therefore to punish it by any but the most agonizing deaths was an act of disrespect to Him. Besides, the penalty in the Levitical code was stoning, and stoning had been pronounced by the Jewish theologians to be a still more painful death than the stake.
The essence of that spirit [the rationalistic spirit applied to religion] is to interpret the articles of special creeds by the principles of universal religion -- by the wants, the aspirations, and the moral sentiments which seem inherent in human nature. It leads men, in other words, to judge what is true and what is good, not by the teachings of tradition, but by the light of reason and of conscience; and where it has not produced an avowed change of creed. It has at least produced a change of realisations. Doctrines which shock our sense of right have been allowed gradually to become obsolete, or if they are brought forward they are stated in language which is so colourless and ambiguous, and with so many qualifications and exceptions, that their original force is almost lost.... Men have come instinctively and almost unconsciously to judge all doctrines by their intuitive sense of right, and to reject or explain away or throw into the background those that will not bear the test, no matter
how imposing may be the authority that authenticates them. This method of judgment, which was once very rare, has now become very general.... When the peace of the Church has long been undisturbed, and when the minds of men are not directed with very strong interest to dogmatic questions, conscience will act insensibly upon the belief, obscuring or effacing its true character. Men will instinctively endeavour to explain it away, or to dilute its force, or to diminish its prominence. But when the agitation of controversy has brought the doctrine vividly before the mind, and when the enthusiasm of the contest has silenced the revolt of conscience, theology will be developed more and more in the same direction, till the very outlines of natural religion are obliterated.
We may not lay much stress on such isolated instances of depravity as that of Pope John XXII, who was condemned, among many other crimes, for incest and adultery; or the abbot-elect of St Augustine, at Canterbury, who in 1171 was found, on investigation, to have seventeen illegitimate children in a single village; or an abbot of St Pelayo, in Spain, who in 1130 was proved to have kept no less than seventy concubines; or Henry III, bishop of Liege, who was deposed in 1274 for having sixty-five illegitimate children; but it is impossible to resist the evidence of a long chain of Councils and ecclesiastical writers, who conspire in depicting far greater evils than simple concubinage.... The writers of the middle ages are full of accounts of nunneries that were like brothels, of the vast multitude of infanticides within their walls, and of that inveterate prevalence of incest among the clergy, which rendered it necessary again and again to issue the most stringent enactments that priests should not
be permitted to live with their mothers or sisters.
The Subtle Fulmination of the Encircled Sea
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