Wednesday, September 28, 2005

On a Question about Superstition and Enthusiasm in Hume

How happens it then...if vulgar superstition be so salutary to society, that all history abounds so much with accounts of its pernicious consequences on public affairs?

Factions, civil wars, persecutions, subversions of government, oppression, slavery; these are the dismal consequences which always attend its prevalency over the minds of men.

If the religious spirit be ever mentioned in any historical narration, we are sure to meet afterwards with a detail of the miseries which attend it. And no period of time can be happier or more prosperous, than those in which it is never regarded or heard of.


[Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part XII.]

This passage, which recently made a showing at the Leiter Reports, reminded me of a question (not relevant to the discussion at LR but to the passage itself) that I was considering not too long ago in the context of reading the sections on James I and Charles I in Hume's A History of England, namely, what, exactly Hume's concept of superstition is. It is very clear that in almost all cases in which he is using it he is using it as a technical or quasi-technical term; he also never clearly defines it. It was common at the time among establishment Christians to make a sharp distinction between two extremes of religion: priestcraft (or superstition) and enthusiasm. I have previously (quite a long time ago) noted an example of this in Hume's fellow Scotsman, George Campbell, and puzzled over the best way to characterize the distinction. I think that the best way to see the distinction in the case of establishment Christians is to think in terms of mediation of revelation. Thus:

Priestcraft (superstition): Divine revelation is mediated through an institutional hierarchy (paradigmatic example: Catholic Church).

Enthusiasm (in adjectival instances, 'visionary' is often used as a synonym): Divine revelation is mediated through the individual's mental events(paradigmatic examples: Quakers and revivalists like the Methodists).

This distinction forms the backbone of establishment Protestantism. Members of the Church of England and the Church of Scotland would argue that they constituted the rational media via between Catholic superstition (with its excessive rigidity) and Methodist enthusiasm (with its anarchy).

This isn't Hume's distinction, although it often maps on a bit. It's actually difficult to see how Hume makes his distinction work. The clearest attempt to distinguish the two occurs in Hume's essay on Superstition and Enthusiasm. On superstition:

The mind of man is subject to certain unaccountable terrors and apprehensions, proceeding either from the unhappy situation of private or public affairs, from ill health, from a gloomy and melancholy disposition, or from the concurrence of all these circumstances. In such a state of mind, infinite unknown evils are dreaded from unknown agents; and where real objects of terror are wanting, the soul, active to its own prejudice, and fostering its predominant inclination, finds imaginary ones, to whose power and malevolence it sets no limits. As these enemies are entirely invisible and unknown, the methods taken to appease them are equally unaccountable, and consist in ceremonies, observances, mortifications, sacrifices, presents, or in any practice, however absurd or frivolous, which either folly or knavery recommends to a blind and terrified credulity. Weakness, fear, melancholy, together with ignorance, are, therefore, the true sources of SUPERSTITION.

And on enthusiasm:

But the mind of man is also subject to an unaccountable elevation and presumption, arising from prosperous success, from luxuriant health, from strong spirits, or from a bold and confident disposition. In such a state of mind, the imagination swells with great but confused conceptions, to which no sublunary beauties or enjoyments can correspond. Every thing mortal and perishable vanishes as unworthy of attention. And a full range is given to the fancy in the invisible regions or world of spirits, where the soul is at liberty to indulge itself in every imagination, which may best suit its present taste and disposition. Hence arise raptures, transports, and surprising flights of fancy; and confidence and presumption still encreasing, these raptures (rapes), being altogether unaccountable, and seeming quite beyond the reach of our ordinary faculties, are attributed to the immediate inspiration of that Divine Being, who is the object of devotion. In a little time, the inspired person comes to regard himself as a distinguished favourite of the Divinity; and when this frenzy once takes place, which is the summit of enthusiasm, every whimsy is consecrated: Human reason, and even morality are rejected as fallacious guides: And the fanatic madman delivers himself over, blindly, and without reserve, to the supposed illapses of the spirit, and to inspiration from above. Hope, pride, presumption, a warm imagination, together with ignorance, are, therefore, the true sources of enthusiasm.


This psychological genealogy appears to be Hume's most common understanding. Superstition is not identical to priestcraft, but is its source; superstition is favorable to priestcraft. Enthusiasm, on the contrary, tends to throw off all external authority. Because of this, while Hume regards them both as a species of false religion, he is always very clear about what he sees as the sharp difference in they way they operate in society. Enthusiasm has the most violent and destructive immediate effects on society; however, it is unable to last, and inevitably ebbs. Superstition, on the other hand, has very few destructive short-term effects; however, it inevitably begins to tyrannize in the long run. Further, enthusiasm is very favorable to civil liberty, whereas superstition is very unfavorable to it.

All well and good. In itself this would leave no puzzles. But Hume's use of the distinction is very odd. It can be admitted that in every case (as Hume himself notes) there is a mixture of both; but there are oddities in Hume's own deployment. He seems to want the distinction not merely to identify a psychological aberration but a social phenomenon, and it isn't actually clear that he can have both. Thus he makes the odd claim that the Jansenists were enthusiasts and the Molinists superstitious -- odd, because despite the greater popularity of the former, there is precious little difference in religion between the two groups, and those could just as easily be characterized as due to a greater superstition among the Jansenists (who, after all, saw themselves as the traditionalists). He commits himself to claiming that, setting aside the Quakers, the Calvinists are the most enthusiastic of the English sectaries; his reason is not psychological but social: their church structure involves the least dependence on priests. But it is hard to square this with what Hume would undoubtedly consider the gloomy religion of the Calvinists, and it is difficult to see how the essay on Superstition and Enthusiasm can be interpreted in a way that is consistent with A History of England, where the enthusiasts are always inspired by gloom and melancholy.

So that's the intriguing question about the distinction that I mentioned before: Is there a consistent use of the distinction across Hume's works, or are the Essays inconsistent with the History; if the former, what is this consistent use; and, if the latter, is there a principled reason for the inconsistency (as we know there is in Hume's changing his analysis of Whigs and Tories between writing the History and writing the Essay), or is it a case of random drift?

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