The Summons to Reason



ARE people poor because they are ignorant, or ignorant because they are poor? It is a question that divides political philosophers between conservatives stressing heredity (inborn inequalities of mental capacity) and reformers relying on environment (the power of education and opportunity). In societies knowledge grows, and superstition wanes, with the increase and distribution of wealth. And yet even in a widely prosperous country—and especially among the harassed poor and the idle rich—thought has to live in a jungle of superstitions: astrology, numerology, palmistry, portents, the evil eye, witches, goblins, ghosts, demons, incantations, exorcisms, dream interpretations, oracles, miracles, quackery, and occult qualities, curative or injurious, in minerals, plants, and animals. Consider, then, the intellectual miasma poisoning the roots and wilting the flowers of science in a people whose wealth is scant or centered in a few. To the poor in body and mind superstition is a treasured element in the poetry of life, gilding dull days with exciting marvels, and redeeming misery with magic powers and mystic hopes.

Sir Thomas Browne, in 1646, required 652 pages to list and briefly treat the superstitions current in his day.1 Nearly all these occultisms flourished among the Britons under Elizabeth and the early Stuarts. In 1597 King James VI published an authoritativeDemonologie, which is one of the horrors of literature. He ascribed to witches the power to haunt houses, to make men and women love or hate, to transfer disease from one person to another, to kill by roasting a wax effigy, and to raise devastating storms; and he advocated the death penalty for all witches and magicians, and even for their customers.2 When a tempest nearly wrecked him on his return from Denmark with his bride, he caused four suspects to be tortured into confessing that they had plotted to destroy him by magic means; and one of them, John Fain, after the most barbarous torments, was burned to death (1590).3

In this matter the Kirk agreed with the King, and lay magistrates lenient to witches were threatened with excommunication.4 Between 1560 and 1600 some eight thousand women were burned as witches in a Scotland having hardly a million souls.5 In England the belief in witchcraft was almost universal; learned physicians like William Harvey and Sir Thomas Browne shared it; the hardheaded Elizabeth allowed her laws of 1562 to make witchcraft a capital crime; eighty-one women were executed for it in her reign.6James moderated his fanaticism after passing from VI to I; he insisted on fair trials of the accused, exposed false confessions and accusations, and saved the lives of five women charged by a hysterical boy.7 The hunt nearly ceased after Charles I, but it was resumed, and reached its height, under the rule of the Long Parliament, when in two years (1645–47) two hundred “witches” were consumed.8

One voice, amid the fury, appealed to reason. Reginald Scot, an Englishman despite his name, published at London in 1584 The Discouerie of Witchcraft, second only to Johann Wier’s De praestigiis daemonum (Basel, 1564) in the dangerous attempt to moderate the sadistic superstition. Scot described the “witches” as poor old women who could harm no one; even if Satan did work through them they were rather to be pitied than to be burned; and to ascribe miracles to these crones was an insult to the miracles of Christ. He exposed the awful tortures that made witchcraft confessions worthless, the lax irregularity and injustice of trial procedure, the incredibilities gulped down by judges and inquisitors. The book had no effect.

In this atmosphere science tried to grow.

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