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Hume on the Emotions

1. Introduction

David Hume's (1711-1776) wide-ranging philosophical works discuss the emotions at length, most notably in his Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), which devotes the second of its three books to the passions, as well as in the Dissertation on the Passions (from Four Dissertations 1757), which covers much the same material. Because of Hume's sentimentalist bent, his works on moral philosophy are also important for his understanding of the emotions: these include Book III of the Treatise, on the moral sentiments, and the Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751). Hume's essays, published in various editions during his lifetime, also cover diverse topics related to the emotions, such as “Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion,” “Of Love and Marriage,” “Of Superstition and Enthusiasm” (1741), and “Of the Standard of Taste” (1757). Other texts, such as his autobiographical sketches, and the six volumes of his History of England (1754-62), offer material illustrating Hume's views on the topic. The Treatise, however, contains ample material to serve as a starting point.

2. Terminology

Hume groups the emotions in general among the perceptions of the mind, although they also serve as motivations for acting and even for reasoning. When the word ‘emotion’ itself appears in his writings, however, it seems to mean simply some kind of motion. Instead, Hume uses an array of terms to describe our affective perceptions, especially the ‘passion,’ ‘sentiment’ and ‘taste’ familiar from Shaftesbury and Hutcheson. But Hume provides several new twists. Unlike Hutcheson, he divides passions themselves into calm and violent. Like Hutcheson, however, he seems to take passions to be relatively low-order perceptions, in contrast to the reflective character of sentiments. Although the Treatise is not particularly forthcoming on the use of these terms, the essay “Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion” presents a clear contrast between that “higher and more refined taste,” which is also identified with sentiment, and the violent passions that disturb susceptible souls (Hume 1985 6). Sentiment and taste are calm affective states, susceptible to cultivation, subject to standards and capable of reining in the excesses of overly “delicate,” i.e., violent, passions.

3. Conclusion to Book I of the Treatise

Hume does not merely discuss the emotions theoretically, he narrates the philosophical experience of them in the “Conclusion to this Book” that closes Book I of the Treatise. This section treats the narrator's emotional landscape as a response to his skeptical conclusions about reason, sense-perception, and the self. The narrator feels himself “a strange, uncouth monster,” shunned by society and marooned in a skeptical isolation in which even his views about how to limit his beliefs are unstable (T I.4.7 264). Hume treats this unhappy, skeptical view as a kind of illness, which eventually receives a cure from “nature herself.” The first sign of a return to health is “a splenetic humour” that rejects philosophy (T I.4.7 269). But the conclusion resolves with the narrator replacing his despairing skepticism with a cheerful skepticism that is “diffident of [its] philosophical doubts, as well as of [its] philosophical conviction” (T I.4.7 273). This seems a fruitful approach, for the Treatise goes on for two more Books, philosophizing in a “careless,” i.e., carefree, manner (see Baier 1991 1ff.).

The exact source of the “philosophical melancholy and delirium” in Book I, and just how nature comes to the rescue are matters of much debate. What seems clear is that the cure wrought by nature is a matter of a change of affective state – “the returns of a serious good humour'd disposition” (T I.4.7 270) – rather than the cultivation of any new beliefs or reasoning techniques. This new mood inclines him again to philosophy, and the Treatise proceeds to topics neglected in the first book, particularly the nature of our passions and sentiments and how they fit us for social life. The motivation throughout is affective: pleasure, an “ambition … of contributing to the instruction of mankind” (T I.4.7 271), and above all, curiosity. Although this curiosity is not exactly the same as Descartes's and Malebranche's “wonder,” Hume does declare in the conclusion of Book II that the “first source of all our enquiries” is “curiosity, or that love of truth” (T II.3.10 448). It drives both philosophy and hunting, of which “there cannot be two passions more nearly resembling each other” (T II.3.10 451), although the passion for gambling comes close. The passion for hunting down truth becomes yet stronger when directed at the objects that intrinsically interest us: human nature, particularly the shared passions and sentiments that motivate us and our interactions with other people – in short, the topics of Books II and III of the Treatise.

4. The Classification of the Passions in Book II of the Treatise

The perceptions of the mind divide into two kinds: impressions and ideas (roughly, feeling and thinking): “Those perceptions, which enter with most force and violence, we may name impressions; and under this name I comprehend all our sensations, passions and emotions, as they make their first appearance in the soul. By ideas I mean the faint images of these in thinking and reasoning …” (T I.1.1 1). Hume proposes a scale of vivacity, in which impressions are vivid, ideas are faint, and beliefs (e.g., in the existence of things we do not presently perceive) are somewhere in the middle. But ideas can borrow vivacity from other sources through the principles of association found in the imagination.

Impressions can also be divided into two kinds: impressions of sense (original) and impressions of reflection (secondary). The impressions of sense include all our sensations, as well as perceptions of pleasure and pain; the impressions of reflection include all our passions and sentiments. In Book I.1.2, Hume says that the impressions of sense arise in the soul “originally, from unknown causes” (T I.1.2 7), whereas secondary impressions “proceed from some of these original ones, either immediately or by the interposition of its idea” (T II.1.1 275). Still, Hume considers even secondary impressions to be in some sense “original existences:” they may follow on the heels of a distinct impression (sensory or reflective) or idea, but are not copies of them. On the other hand, impressions can be related associatively through resemblance, and it is the associative constructions they allow that provide structure to our often chaotic thought processes (particularly through “the double relation of impressions and ideas” discussed below).

The passions, then, are impressions of reflection. The Treatise separates this broad categorization into calm and violent passions (although other of Hume's works seem to reserve “passion” for the violent ones). But this “vulgar and specious division” doesn't play much role in the Treatise, and Hume insists that calm passions are not necessarily weak, nor violent ones strong. More important for Hume's purposes is the distinction between direct and indirect passions. Direct passions arise immediately from “good or evil, from plain or pleasure;” indirect passions require the “conjunction of other qualities,” particularly the interposition of an idea (T II.1.1 276). Curiosity, or love of truth falls among the direct passions, which also include desire and aversion, grief and joy, hope and fear, and somewhat oddly, volition. But it is the indirect passions of pride and humility, love and hate that are analyzed first in Book II.

5. The Double Relation of Impressions and Ideas in the Case of Pride

Indirect passions differ from the direct, in part, because of their complicated intentionality. They have objects; they also have causes, which can be further subdivided into the quality that excites the passion and the subject in which it inheres. In the case of pride, the object is self. The cause is the pleasing quality in a subject that is (somehow) related to self. This forms the framework on which Hume builds the “double relation of ideas and impressions” (T II.1.5 286), in which impressions of sense are related to resembling passions, and ideas of the cause are related through various principles of association to the object of the passion. It is the whole structure that seems to characterize the passion, as we may see in the case of pride. The cause of pride has a quality that gives a pleasurable perception, which is found in a subject, the idea of which is related to the idea of self. Consider, for example, the pleasurable passion of pride Mr. Darcy may take in his beautiful estate:

(Mr. Darcy)

The same structure can be found in the other indirect passions of humility, love and hate, as Hume shows in “experiments to confirm this system” (T II.2.2 332), although either the quality of the cause, or the relations the idea of the subject bears will be different for each passion. For instance, that which produces pride when connected to self can produce love in another, as when the beautiful estate excites love in Elizabeth for Mr. Darcy:

Ideas:Mr. Darcy's
—(causation)→Mr. Darcy

Similarly, Elizabeth's dreadful relations may excite humility in Elizabeth and “hate” in Mr. Darcy.

It is worth remarking that Hume begins his discussion of the passions with pride. Its role for Hume may bear comparison to the importance “glory” held for Hobbes, although they are clearly not the same passion. Almost anything that invokes pleasurable impressions can be the cause of pride, within the limitations that the idea of the subject must allow us to build associative connections directing the mind to the idea of self. The idea of self seems, however, to be intrinsically attention-grabbing, which explains why love for another somehow connected to us readily converts into pride, but not vice-versa (so I may readily feel pride when considering my children's many accomplishments, but consideration of my own accomplishments does not tend to provoke love for my children). Against the “monkish” preference for humility, Hume emphasizes that virtue itself can be a just cause of pride, one that becomes all the more powerful as our passions reverberate socially through the mechanism Hume calls “sympathy.”

Perhaps the most curious feature of pride is its indispensable relation to the idea of self. The penultimate chapter of Book I of the Treatise (I.4.6) advances a highly skeptical account of the idea of self, maintaining that we have no such simple idea, but at best the idea of an organized bundle: a “kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations,” but without even “the most distant notion of the place, where these scenes are represented” (T I.4.6 253). Hume seems to find this a distressing thought, but allows that we “must distinguish betwixt personal identity, as it regards our thought or imagination, and as it regards our passions or the concern we take in ourselves” (T I.4.6 253). The introduction of the passion of pride, with its essential focus on self, shortly thereafter may bear this distinction out. Indeed, pride seems both to require reference to an idea of the self, and to buttress whatever meager idea we may already have by directing the mind to an idea of the self outfitted with various pleasurable associations. Hume needs some trick to fortify the idea of the self, because he will rely on our possession of a lively idea of the self, one that will serve as a source of vivacity, for his account of the sympathetic communication of passions.

6. Sympathy and Comparison

Sympathy is not itself a passion; it is not the passion of “pity,” nor of “compassion.” Rather, it is a causal mechanism, whereby we come to feel the passions we suppose others feel. In its simplest form, it starts with an observation of the outward signs of a passion in another (e.g., facial expressions, behavior, talk), from which we form an idea of, indeed a belief in, the existence of some passion. Sympathy vivifies that idea into an impression, that is, a passion, by borrowing from the ever-present, and lively sense of self. We do need some sort of associations between the idea of the other and the idea of self for this transfer of vivacity to work. But they are easy to come by: any sort of relation between another person – contiguity, causation, or even simple resemblance – can grease the associative wheels whereby an idea of another's passion becomes a genuine passion in us.

Hume's account owes a great deal to Malebranche's account of the mechanical communication of passions. But Hume does not assume that sympathy produces exactly the same passion in us as we imagine in another, particularly because the transfer may alter the object of the passion. For instance, sympathy can convert the love and admiration others feel for us into pride; indeed, Hume introduces the mechanism of sympathy to explain our “love of fame,” even in cases when we expect no particular advantage from their actions and take no other interest in their opinions. To be sure, the love of fame still represents a communication of “like to like,” since love and pride are both pleasurable passions. But Hume elaborates on sympathy to show how our affective communications can produce very different kinds of passions (cf., James 2005, Schmitter 2010).

Comparison, a mechanism built on sympathy, produces passions with affective tendencies directly opposed to those we sympathize with in others. It works by invoking another principle, superadded to the operations of sympathy: “that objects appear greater or less by a comparison with others” (T II.2.8 375). If, for instance, we come, through sympathy, to feel the unhappy passion of another, we may feel our own (comparatively) happy non-sympathetic passions all the more strongly. The operations of comparison, thus, work to increase the pleasurable (or painful) passions we feel by letting us feel the contrasting painful (or pleasurable) passions of others (but cf. Postema 2005, Schmitter 2010). Hume uses comparison to explain the possibility of envy, and even more, of malice, a sort of “pity reverst,” involving an “unprovok'd desire of producing evil to another” (T II.2.8 377). This differs from hate and other simpler passions, because the desire is unprovoked by any injury or even a desire to obtain some good for ourselves (other than reaping pleasure from the comparison). In this respect, Hume parts company with everyone from Hobbes to Hutcheson, in recognizing the existence of a seemingly disinterested, anti-social emotion. In general, Hume treats comparison as producing socially destructive passions, while sympathy produces sociable ones, but these do not seem to be the inevitable consequences of each mechanism. And Hume does not seem to assume that the production of like from like is the only, or even the primary, way in which the communication of passions promotes social cohesion.

7. “Reason Is and Ought Only to Be the Slave of the Passions”

One of the most notorious of Hume's views about the passions concerns their relation to our practical reason. Hume locates all our motivations in the passions. Perhaps for this reason, he treats the will in his discussion of the direct passions, identifying it as “the internal impression we feel and are conscious of, when we knowingly give rise to any new motion of our body, or new perception of our mind” (T II.3.1 399). If the will did not determine a person's actions, we would have no way to trace those actions to their springs in character, which is the prerequisite for forming moral judgments.

Hume is particularly concerned with analyzing our practical reasoning, our reasoning about how to act. Passions are the engine for all our deeds: without passions we would lack all motivation, all impulse or drive to act, or even to reason (practically or theoretically). This gives at least one sense in which “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions” (T II.3.3 415). Hume also holds that the passions are not themselves directly subject to rational evaluation. In fact, it seems something of a category mistake to think that they could be either rational or irrational. Passions are impressions – strong and lively perceptions with a certain “feel” and a direction, or impulse. Reasoning, however, is a matter of connecting various ideas in order to come to a belief; it may apply to, or even form, the circumstances under which passions arise. But reason can generate no impulse by itself.

For these reasons, many have attributed to Hume a belief-desire model of practical reasoning, in which our ends are given by passions (desires). On this view, reason is in the business of producing beliefs, but our beliefs are relevant only to the means by which we seek to obtain those ends: they do not determine the ends themselves. So, reason has only an instrumental use. But whatever its other virtues, this model does little to explain why reason “ought to be” the slave of the passions. It also seems inappropriate to reduce passions to desires: passions have a great deal more structure than their attractive or aversive directions, important though those may be. What seems central to Hume's view is the inertness of reason, its inability to generate impulses for the mind (see Millgram 1995). And it is this that drives Hume to adopt a sentimentalist basis for the origins of our “moral distinctions” (T III.1.2).

8. The Sentiments and Artificial Virtues

When Hume turns to our moral “sense” in Book III of the Treatise, he largely abandons talk of passions in favor of “sentiment.” He still takes it that our sense of the morality of an action or character is motivating; for one, it moves us to pursue or avoid the action or person. Like Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, Hume also considers our moral judgments to be directed at the voluntary actions of others, which are rooted in motivating emotions, especially insofar as they represent enduring dispositions, or character. Moral sentiments seem to involve an important element of judgment, but they also bear a close relation to motives for action, and so may be considered a species of passion, broadly understood.

However, Hume's moral psychology also adds important elements to the analysis of the passions we have already seen. Hume divides virtues into the natural and the artificial. Both kinds present puzzles about how they become the objects of sentiments, so that we feel that they impose an “obligation.” But artificial virtues are particularly tricky cases, since we have no natural motivation to approve them. Artificial virtues, such as justice, or the somewhat simpler example of promise-keeping, are neither uncommon, nor arbitrary, but they do rest on an artifice, or social convention. Moreover, however useful (or pleasant), the practices informed by those conventions may be in general, particular instances of the behavior they describe may not be. Keeping a promise, say, to respect a deadline, may not promote anyone's good. The difficulty for Hume is to explain why we nonetheless typically experience pleasurable sentiments directed at instances of promise-keeping, despite the artificial foundation of the practice.

Hume's solution to the puzzle is to invoke sympathy, but “an extensive sympathy,” redirected through general rules and the social convention toward society as a whole. This sympathy in turn requires various kinds of correction, provided by adopting “some steady and general points of view” (T III.3.1 581-2), which Hume illustrates through his version of the transition from the state of nature to full-blown society. In the spirit of Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, he begins by appeal to basic other-directed emotions: it is natural and universal for humans to form families and to feel greater affection for members of their families. But such familial generosity is limited in its scope, and can be as much a source of social conflict as any selfish passion. Realizing the problem, we readily find conventions to correct it – conventions established slowly and without any express ‘covenanting.’ What motivates our behavior in establishing such conventions are precisely the natural passions that generated conflict, including limited generosity, but mediated by a greater insight into how to obtain our ends.

Still, we will not generate the sentiments required by the artificial virtues, until we manage to direct our generous passions beyond their natural bounds, allowing us to approve of the justice or honesty of all sorts of people in all sorts of situations, no matter their connection to us. And this means we must somehow acquire genuine sympathy with the public interest as a whole. To do so, Hume demands that sympathy operate to communicate passions between persons who are not immediately present to each other and that it operate counter-factually, according to general rules. In this way, we learn to sympathize from a general point of view. It is that general point of view that allows us to feel the distinctive sentiments of approbation grounding our moral judgments about virtue, whether artificial or natural. Moral virtues will then turn out to be qualities of behavior and character that are either pleasurable (e.g., kindliness or wit) or useful (e.g., parental care, justice, or promise-keeping) considered from the general point of view.

9. The General Point of View and Standards of Appropriateness for the Sentiments

There is a great deal more to be said about how we construct the general point of view. But what is particularly interesting for our purposes is to consider how it figures as a standard for the experience of sentiments. The general point of view both extends the scope of the sentiments we feel, and corrects them by providing some sense of what we ought to feel. To be sure, we may also feel many uncorrected passions, whether prejudices or innocuous preferences for what is naturally connected to us. But Hume emphasizes that the corrections provided by the general point of view are far-ranging, extending beyond the moral sentiments to the formation of aesthetic taste, and influencing even seemingly straightforward perceptual judgments. The general point of view is not, of course, a standard of rationality; rather, it is a standard of appropriateness. It is that standard that allows us to shape, cultivate and constrain our sentiments in ways that provide the sort of stability and reliability that will form the basis for shared judgment.

It is a matter of controversy, however, whether the general point of view alone provides a genuinely normative standard (see, e.g., Korsgaard 1999). It is clear that it allows sentiments to be coordinated across a society, so that much of what its members feel will be more or less uniform and generally accessible, without the vicissitudes to which the uncorrected and idiosyncratic passions of individuals in peculiar circumstances are subject. But this may simply mean that the general point of view levels out sentiments to what is socially average and widely accepted. Hume does seem to think that we have something more robust than social acceptance as a standard for our sentiments. But it is his musings on our aesthetic judgments that may provide the best example of a genuine standard of taste.

10. The Judgment of Taste

The essay “Of the Standard of Taste” begins by admitting the “de gustibus” principle: there is no disputing taste. In many respects, this simply follows from Hume's sentimentalist approach to aesthetic judgments: like moral judgments, they are based on sense and sentiment, not reason. Nevertheless, we have a real standard for taste, in the taste of a good judge who is in the correct position for judgment. In part, the good judge's ability seems a matter of adopting a general point of view so that the judge is not so prejudiced by peculiarities of her own position as to be incapacitated for judging as ‘one’ generally does. This requirement may disqualify some candidates on completely circumstantial grounds, even those who might make perfectly good judges under other circumstances. Parents, for instance, rarely make good judges of their own children's artworks, even when they are professional art critics.

But the good judge must possess specific qualifications, particularly those of practice and experience in judging. Such experience can help judges to filter out peculiarities of their own position, that is, to adopt the general point of view. But it also seems to afford the judge resources that bear on the judging itself. Particularly important to the good judge is “delicacy” in her discernment. Hume provides an example in the story told by Sancho Panza in Don Quixote of the feats of two of his ancestors in wine-tasting. On being presented with what was universally declared a particularly fine “hogshead” of wine, both approved of it, except that one noted a faint touch of leather and the other a tinge of iron. Their judgments were ridiculed until the hogshead was drained and a key on a leathern thong was found at the bottom, “which justified the verdict of Sancho's kinsmen, and confounded those pretended judges who had condemned them” (Hume 1985 235). The good judge should possess the sort of developed perception that allows her to detect fine differences that may nonetheless be relevant to judgment. This is not sufficient for good judgment, but is required for credibility, and can provide a publicly accessible check.

Hume maintains that “the great resemblance between mental and bodily taste will easily teach us to apply this story” (Hume 1985 235). Presumably, he thinks that sensory qualities such as taste are like moral and aesthetic qualities in that they are secondary, not inherent properties of things, “but belong entirely to the sentiment, internal or external” (Hume 1985 235). But they do supervene on properties of things, those “qualities in objects,” which are fitted by nature to produce the particular feelings. The good judge, then, like the wine-tasters of the story, may possess a developed ability to detect those formal qualities in art works, or to descry whatever properties of people's actions might be relevant to the formation of our moral sentiments. The good judge would then be able to justify her judgment by pointing out salient features of what is being judged that others might miss. A good judge will thus be a good critic and teacher of appropriate taste. And so, the good judge may provide standards that are neither completely independent of the sentiments we are fitted to experience, nor merely hostage to the common run of passions.

11. Influences on Later Authors

Hume's influence on later authors may be most evident in those features of his approach that differ from previous treatments of the emotions and moral sense. Certainly, his account of how our sentiments can be developed historically and socially was important to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and his explanation of the standard in our judgments of taste served as both a model and foil for many later theorists. Adam Smith seems to have taken some of the issues Hume raised about the normative standards for moral judgments particularly seriously in his Theory of the Moral Sentiments (1759). Like Hume, he considers sympathy to provide the engine for such a standard. But on Smith's view, sympathy operates less to communicate the passions we suppose others actually feel than to allow us to imagine what it would be like to be in their place. Sympathy arises from our view of the situation that excites it, and puts us in the position of a spectator on that situation. There are, in fact, a number of such points of view, but they all seem inherently normative, for what the spectator considers is what one ought to feel in the situation, and one form of moral judgment concerns the appropriateness of an agent's response to the situation. Because we can also adopt the stance of a spectator on our own sentiments and actions, we have the resources for evaluating our own emotional reactions; Smith criticizes the moral sense theory of Hutcheson for disallowing the importance, and indeed even the possibility of doing so. Smith's spectator is not exactly the same as Hume's good judge, especially since the sympathetic spectator occupies a normative position independently of constructing a general point of view. But the highly idealized spectator and the sorts of normative checks that can be provided by adopting somewhat different spectator positions can be seen as a response to and development of Hume's analyses of the interactions of our sentiments in creating the general point of view and standards for judgment.



The Reverend Mr. Hume,

Author of Douglas, a Tragedy.

Ded 1

My Dear Sir
It was the practice of the antients to address their compositions only to friends and equals, and to render their dedications monuments of regard and affection, not of servility and flattery. In those days of ingenious and candid liberty, a dedication did honour to the person to whom it was addressed, without degrading the author. If any particular appeared towards the patron, it was at least the partiality of friendship and affection.

Ded 2

Another instance of true liberty, of which antient times can alone afford us an example, is the liberty of thought, which engaged men of letters, however different in their abstract opinions, to maintain a mutual friendship and regard; and never to quarrel about principles, while they agreed in inclinations and manners. Science was often the subject of disputation, never of animosity. Cicero, an academic, addressed his philosophical treatises, sometimes to Brutus, a stoic; sometimes to Atticus, an epicurean.

Ded 3

I have been seized with a strong desire of renewing these laudable practices of antiquity, by addressing the following dissertations to you, my good friend: For such I will ever call and esteem you, notwithstanding the opposition, which prevails between us, with regard to many of our speculative tenets. These differences of opinion I have only found to enliven our conversation; while our common passion for science and letters served as a cement to our friendship. I still admired your genius, even when I imagined, that you lay under the influence of prejudice; and you sometimes told me, that you excused my errors, on account of the candor and sincerity, which, you thought, accompanied them.

Ded 4

But to tell truth, it is less my admiration of your fine genius, which has engaged me to make this address to you, than my esteem of your character and my affection to your person. That generosity of mind which ever accompanies you; that cordiality of friendship, that spirited honour and integrity, have long interested me strongly in your behalf, and have made me desirous, that a monument of our mutual amity should be publicly erected, and, if possible, be preserved to posterity.

Ded 5

I own too, that I have the ambition to be the first who shall in public express his admiration of your noble tragedy of Douglas; one of the most interesting and pathetic pieces, that was ever exhibited on any theatre. Should I give it preference to the Merope of Maffei, and to that of Voltaire, which it resembles in its subject; should I affirm, that it contained more fire and spirit than the former, more tenderness and simplicity than the latter; I might be accused of partiality: And how could I entirely acquit myself, after the professions of friendship, which I have made you? But the unfeigned tears which flowed from every eye, in the numerous representations which were made of it on this theatre; the unparalleled command, which you appeared to have over every affection of the human breast: These are incontestible proofs, that you possess the true theatric genius of Shakespear and Otway, refined from the unhappy barbarism of the one, and licentiousness of the other.

Ded 6

My enemies, you know, and, I own, even sometimes my friends, have reproached me with the love of paradoxes and singular opinions; and I expect to be exposed to the same imputation, on account of the character, which I have here given of your Douglas. I shall be told, no doubt, that I had artfully chosen the only time, when this high esteem of that piece could be regarded as a paradox, to wit, before its publication; and that not being able to contradict in this particular the sentiments of the public, I have, at least, resolved to go before them. But I shall be amply compensated for all these pleasantries, if you accept this testimony of my regard, and believe me to be, with the greatest sincerity,

Dear Sir,

Your most affectionate Friend,

and humble servant,
Edinburgh, 3,
  Jan. 1757.
David Hume.

Bea 32

Bea 33


N Intro.1

As every enquiry, which regards religion, is of the utmost importance, there are two questions in particular, which challenge our attention, to wit, that concerning its foundation in reason, and that concerning its origin in human nature. Happily, the first question, which is the most important, admits of the most obvious, at least, the clearest solution. The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion. But the other question, concerning the origin of religion in human nature, is exposed to some more difficulty. The belief of invisible, intelligent power has been very generally diffused over the human race, in all places and in all ages; but it has neither perhaps been so universal as to admit of no exception, nor has it been, in any degree, uniform in the ideas, which it has suggested. Some nations have been discovered, who entertained no sentiments of Religion, if travellers and historians may be credited; and no two nations, and scarce any two men, have ever agreed precisely in the same sentiments. It would appear, therefore, that this preconception springs not from an original instinct or primary impression of nature, such as gives rise to self-love, affection between the sexes, love of progeny, gratitude, resentment; since every instinct of this kind has been found absolutely universal in all nations and ages, and has always a precise determinate object, which it inflexibly pursues. The first religious principles must be secondary; such as may easily be perverted by various accidents and causes, and whose operation too, in some cases, may, by an extraordinary concurrence of circumstances, be altogether prevented. What those principles are, which give rise to the original belief, and what those accidents and causes are, which direct its operation, is the subject of our present enquiry.

Bea 34

Sect. I.That Polytheism was the primary Religion of Men.

N 1.1

It appears to me, that, if we consider the improvement of human society, from rude beginnings to a state of greater perfection, polytheism or idolatry was, and necessarily must have been, the first and most ancient religion of mankind. This opinion I shall endeavour to confirm by the following arguments.

N 1.2

It is a matter of fact incontestable, that about 1700 years ago all mankind were polytheists. The doubtful and sceptical principles of a few philosophers, or the theism, and that too not entirely pure, of one or two nations, form no objection worth regarding. Behold then the clear testimony of history. The farther we mount up into antiquity, the more do we find mankind plunged into polytheism. No marks, no symptoms of any more perfect religion. The most ancient records of human race still present us with that system as the popular and established creed. The north, the south, the east, the west, give their unanimous testimony to the same fact. What can be opposed to so full an evidence?

N 1.3

As far as writing or history reaches, mankind, in ancient times, appear universally to have been polytheists. Shall we assert, that, in more ancient times, before the knowledge of letters, or the discovery of any art or science, men entertained the principles of pure theism? That is, while they were ignorant and barbarous, they discovered truth: But fell into error, as soon as they acquired learning and politeness.

N 1.4

But in this assertion you not only contradict all appearance of probability, but also our present experience concerning the principles and opinions of barbarous nations. The savage tribes of America, Africa, and Asia are all idolaters. Not a single exception to this rule. Insomuch, that, were a traveller to transport himself into any unknown region; if he found inhabitants cultivated with arts and science, though even upon that supposition there are odds against their being theists, yet could he not safely, till farther inquiry, pronounce any thing on that head: But if he found them ignorant and barbarous, he might beforehand declare them idolaters; and there scarcely is a possibility of his being mistaken.

N 1.5

It seems certain, that, according to the natural progress of human thought, the ignorant multitude must first entertain some groveling and

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familiar notion of superior powers, before they stretch their conception to that perfect Being, who bestowed order on the whole frame of nature. We may as reasonably imagine, that men inhabited palaces before huts and cottages, or studied geometry before agriculture; as assert that the Deity appeared to them a pure spirit, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, before he was apprehended to be a powerful, though limited being, with human passions and appetites, limbs and organs. The mind rises gradually, from inferior to superior: By abstracting from what is imperfect, it forms an idea of perfection: And slowly distinguishing the nobler parts of its own frame from the grosser, it learns to transfer only the former, much elevated and refined, to its divinity. Nothing could disturb this natural progress of thought, but some obvious and invincible argument, which might immediately lead the mind into the pure principles of theism, and make it overleap, at one bound, the vast interval which is interposed between the human and the divine nature. But though I allow, that the order and frame of the universe, when accurately examined, affords such an argument; yet I can never think, that this consideration could have an influence on mankind, when they formed their first rude notions of religion.

N 1.6

The causes of such objects, as are quite familiar to us, never strike our attention or curiosity; and however extraordinary or surprising these objects in themselves, they are passed over, by the raw and ignorant multitude, without much examination or enquiry. Adam, rising at once, in paradise, and in the full perfection of his faculties, would naturally, as represented by Milton, be astonished at the glorious appearances of nature, the heavens, the air, the earth, his own organs and members; and would be led to ask, whence this wonderful scene arose. But a barbarous, necessitous animal (such as a man is on the first origin of society), pressed by such numerous wants and passions, has no leisure to admire the regular face of nature, or make enquiries concerning the cause of those objects, to which from his infancy he has been gradually accustomed. On the contrary, the more regular and uniform, that is, the more perfect nature appears, the more is he familiarized to it, and the less inclined to scrutinize and examine it. A monstrous birth excites his curiosity, and is deemed a prodigy. It alarms him from its novelty; and immediately sets him a trembling, and sacrificing, and praying. But an animal, compleat in all its limbs and organs, is to him an ordinary spectacle, and produces no religious opinion or affection. Ask him, whence that animal arose; he will tell you, from the copulation of its parents. And these, whence? From the copulation of theirs. A few removes satisfy his curiosity, and set the objects at such a distance, that he entirely loses sight of them. Imagine not, that he will so much as start the

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question, whence the first animal; much less, whence the whole system or united fabric of the universe arose. Or, if you start such a question to him, expect not, that he will employ his mind with any anxiety about a subject, so remote, so uninteresting, and which so much exceeds the bounds of his capacity.

N 1.7

But farther, if men were at first led into the belief of one Supreme Being, by reasoning from the frame of nature, they could never possibly leave that belief, in order to embrace polytheism; but the same principles of reason, which at first produced and diffused over mankind, so magnificent an opinion, must be able, with greater facility, to preserve it. The first invention and proof of any doctrine is much more difficult than the supporting and retaining of it.

N 1.8

There is a great difference between historical facts and speculative opinions; nor is the knowledge of the one propagated in the same manner with that of the other. An historical fact, while it passes by oral tradition from eye-witnesses and contemporaries, is disguised in every successive narration, and may at last retain but very small, if any, resemblance of the original truth, on which it was founded. The frail memories of men, their love of exaggeration, their supine carelessness; these principles, if not corrected by books and writing, soon pervert the account of historical events; where argument or reasoning has little or no place, nor can ever recal the truth, which has once escaped those narrations. It is thus the fables of Hercules, Theseus, Bacchus are supposed to have been originally founded in true history, corrupted by tradition. But with regard to speculative opinions, the case is far otherwise. If these opinions be founded on arguments so clear and obvious as to carry conviction with the generality of mankind, the same arguments, which at first diffused the opinions, will still preserve them in their original purity. If the arguments be more abstruse, and more remote from vulgar apprehension, the opinions will always be confined to a few persons; and as soon as men leave the contemplation of the arguments, the opinions will immediately be lost and be buried in oblivion. Whichever side of this dilemma we take, it must appear impossible, that theism could, from reasoning, have been the primary religion of human race, and have afterwards, by its corruption, given birth to polytheism and to all the various superstitions of the heathen world. Reason, when obvious, prevents these corruptions: When abstruse, it keeps the principles entirely from the knowledge of the vulgar, who are alone liable to corrupt any principle or opinion.

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Sect. II.Origin of Polytheism.

N 2.1

If we would, therefore, indulge our curiosity, in enquiring concerning the origin of religion, we must turn our thoughts towards polytheism, the primitive religion of uninstructed mankind.

N 2.2

Were men led into the apprehension of invisible, intelligent power by a contemplation of the works of nature, they could never possibly entertain any conception but of one single being, who bestowed existence and order on this vast machine, and adjusted all its parts, according to one regular plan or connected system. For though, to persons of a certain turn of mind, it may not appear altogether absurd, that several independent beings, endowed with superior wisdom, might conspire in the contrivance and execution of one regular plan; yet is this a merely arbitrary supposition, which, even if allowed possible, must be confessed neither to be supported by probability nor necessity. All things in the universe are evidently of a piece. Every thing is adjusted to every thing. One design prevails throughout the whole. And this uniformity leads the mind to acknowledge one author; because the conception of different authors, without any distinction of attributes or operations, serves only to give perplexity to the imagination, without bestowing any satisfaction on the understanding. The statue of Laocoon, as we learn from Pliny, was the work of three artists: But it is certain, that, were we not told so, we should never have imagined, that a groupe of figures, cut from one stone, and united in one plan, was not the work and contrivance of one statuary. To ascribe any single effect to the combination of several causes, is not surely a natural and obvious supposition.

N 2.3

On the other hand, if, leaving the works of nature, we trace the footsteps of invisible power in the various and contrary events of human life, we are necessarily led into polytheism and to the acknowledgment of several limited and imperfect deities. Storms and tempests ruin what is nourished by the sun. The sun destroys what is fostered by the moisture of dews and rains. War may be favourable to a nation, whom the inclemency of the seasons afflicts with famine. Sickness and pestilence may depopulate a kingdom, amidst the most profuse plenty. The same nation is not, at the same time, equally successful by sea and by land. And a nation, which now triumphs over its enemies, may anon submit to their more prosperous arms. In short,

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the conduct of events, or what we call the plan of a particular providence, is so full of variety and uncertainty, that, if we suppose it immediately ordered by any intelligent beings, we must acknowledge a contrariety in their designs and intentions, a constant combat of opposite powers, and a repentance or change of intention in the same power, from impotence or levity. Each nation has its tutelar deity. Each element is subjected to its invisible power or agent. The province of each god is separate from that of another. Nor are the operations of the same god always certain and invariable. To-day he protects: To-morrow he abandons us. Prayers and sacrifices, rites and ceremonies, well or ill performed, are the sources of his favour or enmity, and produce all the good or ill fortune, which are to be found amongst mankind.

N 2.4

We may conclude, therefore, that, in all nations, which have embraced polytheism, the first ideas of religion arose not from a contemplation of the works of nature, but from a concern with regard to the events of life, and from the incessant hopes and fears, which actuate the human mind. Accordingly, we find, that all idolaters, having separated the provinces of their deities, have recourse to that invisible agent, to whose authority they are immediately subjected, and whose province it is to superintend that course of actions, in which they are, at any time, engaged. Juno is invoked at marriages; Lucina at births. Neptune receives the prayers of seamen; and Mars of warriors. The husbandman cultivates his field under the protection of Ceres; and the merchant acknowledges the authority of Mercury. Each natural event is supposed to be governed by some intelligent agent; and nothing prosperous or adverse can happen in life, which may not be the subject of peculiar prayers or thanksgivings01*.

N 2.5

It must necessarily, indeed, be allowed, that, in order to carry men’s attention beyond the present course of things, or lead them into any inference concerning invisible intelligent power, they must be actuated by some passion, which prompts their thought and reflection; some motive, which urges their first enquiry. But what passion shall we here have recourse to, for explaining an effect of such mighty consequence? Not speculative curiosity surely, or the pure love of truth. That motive is too refined for such gross apprehensions; and would lead men into enquiries concerning

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the frame of nature, a subject too large and comprehensive for their narrow capacities. No passions, therefore, can be supposed to work upon such barbarians, but the ordinary affections of human life; the anxious concern for happiness, the dread of future misery, the terror of death, the thirst of revenge, the appetite for food and other necessaries. Agitated by hopes and fears of this nature, especially the latter, men scrutinize, with a trembling curiosity, the course of future causes, and examine the various and contrary events of human life. And in this disordered scene, with eyes still more disordered and astonished, they see the first obscure traces of divinity.

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Sect. III.The same subject continued.

N 3.1

We are placed in this world, as in a great theatre, where the true springs and causes of every event are entirely concealed from us; nor have we either sufficient wisdom to foresee, or power to prevent those ills, with which we are continually threatened. We hang in perpetual suspence between life and death, health and sickness, plenty and want; which are distributed amongst the human species by secret and unknown causes, whose operation is oft unexpected, and always unaccountable. These unknown causes, then, become the constant object of our hope and fear; and while the passions are kept in perpetual alarm by an anxious expectation of the events, the imagination is equally employed in forming ideas of those powers, on which we have so entire a dependance. Could men anatomize nature, according to the most probable, at least the most intelligible philosophy, they would find, that these causes are nothing but the particular fabric and structure of the minute parts of their own bodies and of external objects; and that, by a regular and constant machinery, all the events are produced, about which they are so much concerned. But this philosophy exceeds the comprehension of the ignorant multitude, who can only conceive the unknown causes in a general and confused manner; though their imagination, perpetually employed on the same subject, must labour to form some particular and distinct idea of them. The more they consider these causes themselves, and the uncertainty of their operation, the less satisfaction do they meet with in their researches; and, however unwilling, they must at last have abandoned so arduous an attempt, were it not for a propensity in human nature, which leads into a system, that gives them some satisfaction.

N 3.2

There is an universal tendency among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer to every object, those qualities, with which they are familiarly acquainted, and of which they are intimately conscious. We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds; and by a natural propensity, if not corrected by experience and reflection, ascribe malice or good-will to every thing, that hurts or pleases us. Hence the frequency and beauty of the prosopopœoeia in poetry; where trees, mountains and streams are personified, and the inanimate parts of nature acquire sentiment and passion. And though these poetical figures and expressions gain not on

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the belief, they may serve, at least, to prove a certain tendency in the imagination, without which they could neither be beautiful nor natural. Nor is a river-god or hamadryad always taken for a mere poetical or imaginary personage; but may sometimes enter into the real creed of the ignorant vulgar; while each grove or field is represented as possessed of a particular genius or invisible power, which inhabits and protects it. Nay, philosophers cannot entirely exempt themselves from this natural frailty; but have oft ascribed to inanimate matter the horror of a vacuum, sympathies, antipathies, and other affections of human nature. The absurdity is not less, while we cast our eyes upwards; and transferring, as is too usual, human passions and infirmities to the deity, represent him as jealous and revengeful, capricious and partial, and, in short, a wicked and foolish man, in every respect but his superior power and authority. No wonder, then, that mankind, being placed in such an absolute ignorance of causes, and being at the same time so anxious concerning their future fortune, should immediately acknowledge a dependence on invisible powers, possessed of sentiment and intelligence. The unknown causes, which continually employ their thought, appearing always in the same aspect, are all apprehended to be of the same kind or species. Nor is it long before we ascribe to them thought and reason and passion, and sometimes even the limbs and figures of men, in order to bring them nearer to a resemblance with ourselves.

N 3.3

In proportion as any man’s course of life is governed by accident, we always find, that he encreases in superstition; as may particularly be observed of gamesters and sailors, who, though, of all mankind, the least capable of serious reflection, abound most in frivolous and superstitious apprehensions. The gods, says Coriolanus in Dionysius02*, have an influence in every affair; but above all, in war; where the event is so uncertain. All human life, especially before the institution of order and good government, being subject to fortuitous accidents; it is natural, that superstition should prevail every where in barbarous ages, and put men on the most earnest enquiry concerning those invisible powers, who dispose of their happiness or misery. Ignorant of astronomy and the anatomy of plants and animals, and too little curious to observe the admirable adjustment of final causes; they remain still unacquainted with a first and supreme creator, and with that infinitely perfect spirit, who alone, by his almighty will, bestowed order on the whole frame of nature. Such a magnificent idea is too big for their narrow conceptions, which can neither observe the beauty of the work, nor comprehend the grandeur of its author. They suppose their deities,

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however potent and invisible, to be nothing but a species of human creatures, perhaps raised from among mankind, and retaining all human passions and appetites, together with corporeal limbs and organs. Such limited beings, though masters of human fate, being, each of them, incapable of extending his influence every where, must be vastly multiplied, in order to answer that variety of events, which happen over the whole face of nature. Thus every place is stored with a crowd of local deities; and thus polytheism has prevailed, and still prevails, among the greatest part of uninstructed mankind03*.

N 3.4

Any of the human affections may lead us into the notion of invisible, intelligent power; hope as well as fear, gratitude as well as affliction: But if we examine our own hearts, or observe what passes around us, we shall find, that men are much oftener thrown on their knees by the melancholy than by the agreeable passions. Prosperity is easily received as our due, and few questions are asked concerning its cause or author. It begets cheerfulness and activity and alacrity and a lively enjoyment of every social and sensual pleasure: And during this state of mind, men have little leisure or inclination to think of the unknown invisible regions. On the other hand, every disastrous accident alarms us, and sets us on enquiries concerning the principles whence it arose: Apprehensions spring up with regard to futurity: And the mind, sunk into diffidence, terror, and melancholy, has recourse to every method of appeasing those secret intelligent powers, on whom our fortune is supposed entirely to depend.

N 3.5

No topic is more usual with all popular divines than to display the advantages of affliction, in bringing men to a due sense of religion; by subduing their confidence and sensuality, which, in times of prosperity, make them forgetful of a divine providence. Nor is this topic confined merely to modern religions. The ancients have also employed it. Fortune has never liberally, without envy, says a Greek historian04*, bestowed an

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unmixed happiness on mankind; but with all her gifts has ever conjoined some disastrous circumstance, in order to chastize men into a reverence for the gods, whom, in a continued course of prosperity, they are apt to neglect and forget.

N 3.6

What age or period of life is the most addicted to superstition? The weakest and most timid. What sex? The same answer must be given. The leaders and examples of every kind of superstition, says Strabo05†, are the women. These excite the men to devotion and supplications, and the observance of religious days. It is rare to meet with one that lives apart from the females, and yet is addicted to such practices. And nothing can, for this reason, be more improbable, than the account given of an order of men among the Getes, who practised celibacy, and were notwithstanding the most religious fanatics. A method of reasoning, which would lead us to entertain a bad idea of the devotion of monks; did we not know by an experience, not so common, perhaps, in Strabo’s days, that one may practise celibacy, and profess chastity; and yet maintain the closest connexions and most entire sympathy with that timorous and pious sex.

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Sect. IV.Deities not considered as creators or formers of the world.

N 4.1

The only point of theology, in which we shall find a consent of mankind almost universal, is, that there is invisible, intelligent power in the world: But whether this power be supreme or subordinate, whether confined to one being, or distributed among several, what attributes, qualities, connexions, or principles of action ought to be ascribed to those beings; concerning all these points, there is the widest difference in the popular systems of theology. Our ancestors in Europe, before the revival of letters, believed, as we do at present, that there was one supreme God, the author of nature, whose power, though in itself uncontroulable, was yet often exerted by the interposition of his angels and subordinate ministers, who executed his sacred purposes. But they also believed, that all nature was full of other invisible powers; fairies, goblins, elves, sprights; beings, stronger and mightier than men, but much inferior to the celestial natures, who surround the throne of God. Now, suppose, that any one, in those ages, had denied the existence of God and of his angels; would not his impiety justly have deserved the appellation of atheism, even though he had still allowed, by some odd capricious reasoning, that the popular stories of elves and fairies were just and well-grounded? The difference, on the one hand, between such a person and a genuine theist is infinitely greater than that, on the other, between him and one that absolutely excludes all invisible intelligent power. And it is a fallacy, merely from the casual resemblance of names, without any conformity of meaning, to rank such opposite opinions under the same denomination.

N 4.2

To any one, who considers justly of the matter, it will appear, that the gods of all polytheists are no better than the elves or fairies of our ancestors, and merit as little any pious worship or veneration. These pretended religionists are really a kind of superstitious atheists, and acknowledge no being, that corresponds to our idea of a deity. No first principle of mind or thought: No supreme government and administration: No divine contrivance or intention in the fabric of the world.

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N 4.3

The Chinese, when06* their prayers are not answered, beat their idols. The deities of the Laplanders are any large stone which they meet with of an extraordinary shape07†. The Egyptian mythologists, in order to account for animal worship, said, that the gods, pursued by the violence of earth-born men, who were their enemies, had formerly been obliged to disguise themselves under the semblance of beasts08‡. The Caunii, a nation in the Lesser Asia, resolving to admit no strange gods among them, regularly, at certain seasons, assembled themselves compleatly armed, beat the air with their lances, and proceeded in that manner to their frontiers; in order, as they said, to expel the foreign deities09ǁ. Not even the immortal gods, said some German nations to Cæaesar, are a match for the Suevi010§.

N 4.4

Many ills, says Dione in Homer to Venus wounded by Diomede, many ills, my daughter, have the gods inflicted on men: And many ills, in return, have men inflicted on the gods011*. We need but open any classic author to meet with these gross representations of the deities; and Longinus012† with reason observes, that such ideas of the divine nature, if literally taken, contain a true atheism.

N 4.5

Some writers013‡ have been surprized, that the impieties of Aristophanes should have been tolerated, nay publicly acted and applauded by the Athenians; a people so superstitious and so jealous of the public religion, that, at that very time, they put Socrates to death for his imagined incredulity. But these writers do not consider, that the ludicrous, familiar images, under which the gods are represented by that comic poet, instead of appearing impious, were the genuine lights in which the ancients conceived their divinities. What conduct can be more criminal or mean, than that of Jupiter in the Amphitrion? Yet that play, which represented his gallante exploits, was supposed so agreeable to him, that it was always acted in Rome by public authority, when the state was threatened with pestilence, famine, or any general calamity014ǁ. The Romans supposed, that, like all old letchers, he would be highly pleased with the recital of his former feats of prowess and vigour, and that no topic was so proper, upon which to flatter his vanity.

N 4.6

The Lacedemonians, says Xenophon015§, always, during war, put up their petitions very early in the morning, in order to be beforehand with their enemies, and, by being the first solicitors, pre-engage the gods in their

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favour. We may gather from Seneca016*, that it was usual, for the votaries in the temples, to make interest with the beadle or sexton, that they might have a seat near the image of the deity, in order to be the best heard in their prayers and applications to him. The Tyrians, when besieged by Alexander, threw chains on the statue of Hercules, to prevent that deity from deserting to the enemy017†. Augustus, having twice lost his fleet by storms, forbad Neptune to be carried in procession along with the other gods; and fancied, that he had sufficiently revenged himself by that expedient018‡. After Germanicus’s death, the people were so enraged at their gods, that they stoned them in their temples; and openly renounced all allegiance to them019ǁ.

N 4.7

To ascribe the origin and fabric of the universe to these imperfect beings never enters into the imagination of any polytheist or idolater. Hesiod, whose writings, with those of Homer, contained the canonical system of the heathens020§; Hesiod, I say, supposes gods and men to have sprung equally from the unknown powers of nature021†. And throughout the whole theogony of that author, Pandora is the only instance of creation or a voluntary production; and she too was formed by the gods merely from despight to Prometheus, who had furnished men with stolen fire from the celestial regions022††. The ancient mythologists, indeed, seem throughout to have rather embraced the idea of generation than that of creation or formation; and to have thence accounted for the origin of this universe.

N 4.8

Ovid, who lived in a learned age, and had been instructed by philosophers in the principles of a divine creation or formation of the world; finding, that such an idea would not agree with the popular mythology, which he delivers, leaves it, in a manner, loose and detached from his system. Quisquis fuit ille Deorum023*? Whichever of the gods it was, says he, that dissipated the chaos, and introduced order into the universe. It could neither be Saturn, he knew, nor Jupiter, nor Neptune, nor any of the received deities of paganism. His theological system had taught him nothing upon that head; and he leaves the matter equally undetermined.

N 4.9

Diodorus Siculus024†, beginning his work with an enumeration of the most reasonable opinions concerning the origin of the world, makes no mention of a deity or intelligent mind; though it is evident from his history, that he was much more prone to superstition than to irreligion.

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And in another passage025‡, talking of the Ichthyophagi, a nation in India, he says, that, there being so great difficulty in accounting for their descent, we must conclude them to be aborigines, without any beginning of their generation, propagating their race from all eternity; as some of the physiologers, in treating of the origin of nature, have justly observed. “But in such subjects as these,” adds the historian, “which exceed all human capacity, it may well happen, that those, who discourse the most, know the least; reaching a specious appearance of truth in their reasonings, while extremely wide of the real truth and matter of fact.”

N 4.10

A strange sentiment in our eyes, to be embraced by a professed and zealous religionist026*! But it was merely by accident, that the question concerning the origin of the world did ever in ancient times enter into religious systems, or was treated of by theologers. The philosophers alone made profession of delivering systems of this kind; and it was pretty late too before these bethought themselves of having recourse to a mind or supreme intelligence, as the first cause of all. So far was it from being esteemed profane in those days to account for the origin of things without a deity, that Thales, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, and others, who embraced that system of cosmogony, past unquestioned; while Anaxagoras, the first undoubted theist among the philosophers, was perhaps the first that ever was accused of atheism027†.

N 4.11

We are told by Sextus Empiricus028‡, that Epicurus, when a boy, reading with his preceptor these verses of Hesiod,

Eldest of beings, chaos first arose;
Next earth, wide-stretch’d, the seat of all:

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the young scholar first betrayed his inquisitive genius, by asking, And chaos whence? But was told by his preceptor, that he must have recourse to the philosophers for a solution of such questions. And from this hint Epicurus left philology and all other studies, in order to betake himself to that science, whence alone he expected satisfaction with regard to these sublime subjects.

N 4.12

The common people were never likely to push their researches so far, or derive from reasoning their systems of religion; when philologers and mythologists, we see, scarcely ever discovered so much penetration. And even the philosophers, who discoursed of such topics, readily assented to the grossest theory, and admitted the joint origin of gods and men from night and chaos; from fire, water, air, or whatever they established to be the ruling element.

N 4.13

Nor was it only on their first origin, that the gods were supposed dependent on the powers of nature. Throughout the whole period of their existence they were subjected to the dominion of fate or destiny. Think of the force of necessity, says Agrippa to the Roman people, that force, to which even the gods must submit029*. And the Younger Pliny030†, agreeably to this way of thinking, tells us, that amidst the darkness, horror, and confusion, which ensued upon the first eruption of Vesuvius, several concluded, that all nature was going to wrack, and that gods and men were perishing in one common ruin.

N 4.14

It is great complaisance, indeed, if we dignify with the name of religion such an imperfect system of theology, and put it on a level with later systems, which are founded on principles more just and more sublime. For my part, I can scarcely allow the principles even of Marcus Aurelius, Plutarch, and some other Stoics and Academics, though much more refined than the pagan superstition, to be worthy of the honourable appellation of theism. For if the mythology of the heathens resemble the ancient European system of spiritual beings, excluding God and angels, and leaving only fairies and sprights; the creed of these philosophers may justly be said to exclude a deity, and to leave only angels and fairies.

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Sect. V.Various Forms of Polytheism: Allegory, Hero-Worship.

N 5.1

But it is chiefly our present business to consider the gross polytheism of the vulgar, and to trace all its various appearances, in the principles of human nature, whence they are derived.

N 5.2

Whoever learns by argument, the existence of invisible intelligent power, must reason from the admirable contrivance of natural objects, and must suppose the world to be the workmanship of that divine being, the original cause of all things. But the vulgar polytheist, so far from admitting that idea, deifies every part of the universe, and conceives all the conspicuous productions of nature, to be themselves so many real divinities. The sun, moon, and stars, are all gods according to his system: Fountains are inhabited by nymphs, and trees by hamadryads: Even monkies, dogs, cats, and other animals often become sacred in his eyes, and strike him with a religious veneration. And thus, however strong men’s propensity to believe invisible, intelligent power in nature, their propensity is equally strong to rest their attention on sensible, visible objects; and in order to reconcile these opposite inclinations, they are led to unite the invisible power with some visible object.

N 5.3

The distribution also of distinct provinces to the several deities is apt to cause some allegory, both physical and moral, to enter into the vulgar systems of polytheism. The god of war will naturally be represented as furious, cruel, and impetuous: The god of poetry as elegant, polite, and amiable: The god of merchandise, especially in early times, as thievish and deceitful. The allegories, supposed in Homer and other mythologists, I allow, have often been so strained, that men of sense are apt entirely to reject them, and to consider them as the production merely of the fancy and conceit of critics and commentators. But that allegory really has place in the heathen mythology is undeniable even on the least reflection. Cupid the son of Venus; the Muses the daughters of Memory; Prometheus, the wise brother, and Epimetheus the foolish; Hygieia or the goddess of health descended from ÆAEsculapius or the god of physic: Who sees not, in these, and in many other instances, the plain traces of allegory? When a god is supposed to preside over any passion, event, or system of actions, it is almost

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unavoidable to give him a genealogy, attributes, and adventures, suitable to his supposed powers and influence; and to carry on that similitude and comparison, which is naturally so agreeable to the mind of man.

N 5.4

Allegories, indeed, entirely perfect, we ought not to expect as the productions of ignorance and superstition; there being no work of genius that requires a nicer hand, or has been more rarely executed with success. That Fear and Terror are the sons of Mars is just; but why by Venus031*? That Harmony is the daughter of Venus is regular; but why by Mars032†? That Sleep is the brother of Death is suitable; but why describe him as enamoured of one of the Graces033‡? And since the ancient mythologists fall into mistakes so gross and palpable, we have no reason surely to expect such refined and long-spun allegories, as some have endeavoured to deduce from their fictions.

N 5.5

Lucretius was plainly seduced by the strong appearance of allegory, which is observable in the pagan fictions. He first addresses himself to Venus as to that generating power, which animates, renews, and beautifies the universe: But is soon betrayed by the mythology into incoherencies, while he prays to that allegorical personage to appease the furies of her lover Mars: An idea not drawn from allegory, but from the popular religion, and which Lucretius, as an Epicurean, could not consistently admit of.

N 5.6

The deities of the vulgar are so little superior to human creatures, that, where men are affected with strong sentiments of veneration or gratitude for any hero or public benefactor, nothing can be more natural than to convert him into a god, and fill the heavens, after this manner, with continual recruits from among mankind. Most of the divinities of the ancient world are supposed to have once been men, and to have been beholden for their apotheosis to the admiration and affection of the people. The real history of their adventures, corrupted by tradition, and elevated by the marvellous, become a plentiful source of fable; especially in passing through the hands of poets, allegorists, and priests, who successively improved upon the wonder and astonishment of the ignorant multitude.

N 5.7

Painters too and sculptors came in for their share of profit in the sacred mysteries; and furnishing men with sensible representations of their divinities, whom they cloathed in human figures, gave great encrease to the public devotion, and determined its object. It was probably for want of these arts in rude and barbarous ages, that men deified plants, animals, and even brute, unorganized matter; and rather than be without a sensible object of worship, affixed divinity to such ungainly forms.

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Could any statuary of Syria, in early times, have formed a just figure of Apollo, the conic stone, Heliogabalus, had never become the object of such profound adoration, and been received as a representation of the solar deity034*.

N 5.8

Stilpo was banished by the council of Areopagus, for affirming that the Minerva in the citadel was no divinity; but the workmanship of Phidias, the sculptor035†. What degree of reason must we expect in the religious belief of the vulgar in other nations; when Athenians and Areopagites could entertain such gross conceptions?

N 5.9

These then are the general principles of polytheism, founded in human nature, and little or nothing dependent on caprice and accident. As the causes, which bestow happiness or misery, are, in general, very little known and very uncertain, our anxious concern endeavours to attain a determinate idea of them; and finds no better expedient than to represent them as intelligent voluntary agents, like ourselves; only somewhat superior in power and wisdom. The limited influence of these agents, and their great proximity to human weakness, introduce the various distribution and division of their authority; and thereby give rise to allegory. The same principles naturally deify mortals, superior in power, courage, or understanding, and produce hero-worship; together with fabulous history and mythological tradition, in all its wild and unaccountable forms. And as an invisible spiritual intelligence is an object too refined for vulgar apprehension, men naturally affix it to some sensible representation; such as either the more conspicuous parts of nature, or the statues, images, and pictures, which a more refined age forms of its divinities.

N 5.10

Almost all idolaters, of whatever age or country, concur in these general principles and conceptions; and even the particular characters and provinces, which they assign to their deities, are not extremely different036*. The Greek and Roman travellers and conquerors, without much difficulty, found their own deities every where; and said, This is Mercury, that Venus; this Mars, that Neptune; by whatever title the strange gods might be denominated. The goddess Hertha of our Saxon ancestors seems to be no other, according to Tacitus037†, than the Mater Tellus of the Romans; and his conjecture was evidently just.

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Sect. VI.Origin of Theism from Polytheism.

N 6.1

The doctrine of one supreme deity, the author of nature, is very ancient, has spread itself over great and populous nations, and among them has been embraced by all ranks and conditions of men: But whoever thinks that it has owed its success to the prevalent force of those invincible reasons, on which it is undoubtedly founded, would show himself little acquainted with the ignorance and stupidity of the people, and their incurable prejudices in favour of their particular superstitions. Even at this day, and in Europe, ask any of the vulgar, why he believes in an omnipotent creator of the world; he will never mention the beauty of final causes, of which he is wholly ignorant: He will not hold out his hand, and bid you contemplate the suppleness and variety of joints in his fingers, their bending all one way, the counterpoise which they receive from the thumb, the softness and fleshy parts of the inside of his hand, with all the other circumstances, which render that member fit for the use, to which it was destined. To these he has been long accustomed; and he beholds them with listlessness and unconcern. He will tell you of the sudden and unexpected death of such a one: The fall and bruise of such another: The excessive drought of this season: The cold and rains of another. These he ascribes to the immediate operation of providence: And such events, as, with good reasoners, are the chief difficulties in admitting a supreme intelligence, are with him the sole arguments for it.

N 6.2

Many theists, even the most zealous and refined, have denied a particular providence, and have asserted, that the Sovereign mind or first principle of all things, having fixed general laws, by which nature is governed, gives free and uninterrupted course to these laws, and disturbs not, at every turn, the settled order of events by particular volitions. From the beautiful connexion, say they, and rigid observance of established rules, we draw the chief argument for theism; and from the same principles are enabled to answer the principal objections against it. But so little is this understood by the generality of mankind, that, wherever they observe any one to ascribe all events to natural causes, and to remove the particular interposition of a deity, they are apt to suspect him of the grossest infidelity. A little philosophy, says lord Bacon, makes men atheists: A great deal reconciles them to

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religion. For men, being taught, by superstitious prejudices, to lay the stress on a wrong place; when that fails them, and they discover, by a little reflection, that the course of nature is regular and uniform, their whole faith totters, and falls to ruin. But being taught, by more reflection, that this very regularity and uniformity is the strongest proof of design and of a supreme intelligence, they return to that belief, which they had deserted; and they are now able to establish it on a firmer and more durable foundation.

N 6.3

Convulsions in nature, disorders, prodigies, miracles, though the most opposite to the plan of a wise superintendent, impress mankind with the strongest sentiments of religion; the causes of events seeming then the most unknown and unaccountable. Madness, fury, rage, and an inflamed imagination, though they sink men nearest to the level of beasts, are, for a like reason, often supposed to be the only dispositions, in which we can have any immediate communication with the Deity.

N 6.4

We may conclude, therefore, upon the whole, that, since the vulgar, in nations, which have embraced the doctrine of theism, still build it upon irrational and superstitious principles, they are never led into that opinion by any process of argument, but by a certain train of thinking, more suitable to their genius and capacity.

N 6.5

It may readily happen, in an idolatrous nation, that though men admit the existence of several limited deities, yet is there some one God, whom, in a particular manner, they make the object of their worship and adoration. They may either suppose, that, in the distribution of power and territory among the gods, their nation was subjected to the jurisdiction of that particular deity; or reducing heavenly objects to the model of things below, they may represent one god as the prince or supreme magistrate of the rest, who, though of the same nature, rules them with an authority, like that which an earthly sovereign exercises over his subjects and vassals. Whether this god, therefore, be considered as their peculiar patron, or as the general sovereign of heaven, his votaries will endeavour, by every art, to insinuate themselves into his favour; and supposing him to be pleased, like themselves, with praise and flattery, there is no eulogy or exaggeration, which will be spared in their addresses to him. In proportion as men’s fears or distresses become more urgent, they still invent new strains of adulation; and even he who outdoes his predecessor in swelling up the titles of his divinity, is sure to be outdone by his successor in newer and more pompous epithets of praise. Thus they proceed; till at last they arrive at infinity itself, beyond which there is no farther progress: And it is well, if, in striving to get farther, and to represent a magnificent simplicity, they run not into inexplicable mystery, and destroy the intelligent nature of their deity, on

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which alone any rational worship or adoration can be founded. While they confine themselves to the notion of a perfect being, the creator of the world, they coincide, by chance, with the principles of reason and true philosophy; though they are guided to that notion, not by reason, of which they are in a great measure incapable, but by the adulation and fears of the most vulgar superstition.

N 6.6

We often find, amongst barbarous nations, and even sometimes amongst civilized, that, when every strain of flattery has been exhausted towards arbitrary princes, when every human quality has been applauded to the utmost; their servile courtiers represent them, at last, as real divinities, and point them out to the people as objects of adoration. How much more natural, therefore, is it, that a limited deity, who at first is supposed only the immediate author of the particular goods and ills in life, should in the end be represented as sovereign maker and modifier of the universe?

N 6.7

Even where this notion of a supreme deity is already established; though it ought naturally to lessen every other worship, and abase every object of reverence, yet if a nation has entertained the opinion of a subordinate tutelar divinity, saint, or angel; their addresses to that being gradually rise upon them, and encroach on the adoration due to their supreme deity. The Virgin Mary, ere checked by the reformation, had proceeded, from being merely a good woman, to usurp many attributes of the Almighty: God and St. Nicholas go hand in hand, in all the prayers and petitions of the Muscovites.

N 6.8

Thus the deity, who, from love, converted himself into a bull, in order to carry off Europa; and who, from ambition, dethroned his father, Saturn, became the Optimus Maximus of the heathens. Thus, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, became the supreme deity or Jehovah of the Jews.

N 6.9

The Jacobins, who denied the immaculate conception, have ever been very unhappy in their doctrine, even though political reasons have kept the Romish church from condemning it. The Cordeliers have run away with all the popularity. But in the fifteenth century, as we learn from Boulainvilliers038*, an ItalianCordelier maintained, that, during the three days, when Christ was interred, the hypostatic union was dissolved, and that his human nature was not a proper object of adoration, during that period. Without the art of divination, one might foretel, that so gross and impious a blasphemy would not fail to be anathematized by the people. It was the occasion of great insults on the part of the Jacobins; who now got some recompence for their misfortunes in the war about the immaculate conception.

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N 6.10

Rather than relinquish this propensity to adulation, religionists, in all ages, have involved themselves in the greatest absurdities and contradictions.

N 6.11

Homer, in one passage, calls Oceanus and Tethys the original parents of all things, conformably to the established mythology and tradition of the Greeks: Yet, in other passages, he could not forbear complimenting Jupiter, the reigning deity, with that magnificent appellation; and accordingly denominates him the father of gods and men. He forgets, that every temple, every street was full of the ancestors, uncles, brothers, and sisters of this Jupiter; who was in reality nothing but an upstart parricide and usurper. A like contradiction is observable in Hesiod; and is so much the less excusable, as his professed intention was to deliver a true genealogy of the gods.

N 6.12

Were there a religion (and we may suspect Mahometanism of this inconsistence) which sometimes painted the Deity in the most sublime colours, as the creator of heaven and earth; sometimes degraded him nearly to a level with human creatures in his powers and faculties; while at the same time it ascribed to him suitable infirmities, passions, and partialities, of the moral kind: That religion, after it was extinct, would also be cited as an instance of those contradictions, which arise from the gross, vulgar, natural conceptions of mankind, opposed to their continual propensity towards flattery and exaggeration. Nothing indeed would prove more strongly the divine origin of any religion, than to find (and happily this is the case with Christianity) that it is free from a contradiction, so incident to human nature.

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Sect.VII.Confirmation of this Doctrine.

N 7.1

It appears certain, that, though the original notions of the vulgar represent the Divinity as a limited being, and consider him only as the particular cause of health or sickness; plenty or want; prosperity or adversity; yet when more magnificent ideas are urged upon them, they esteem it dangerous to refuse their assent. Will you say, that your deity is finite and bounded in his perfections; may be overcome by a greater force; is subject to human passions, pains, and infirmities; has a beginning, and may have an end? This they dare not affirm; but thinking it safest to comply with the higher encomiums, they endeavour, by an affected ravishment and devotion, to ingratiate themselves with him. As a confirmation of this, we may observe, that the assent of the vulgar is, in this case, merely verbal, and that they are incapable of conceiving those sublime qualities, which they seemingly attribute to the Deity. Their real idea of him, notwithstanding their pompous language, is still as poor and frivolous as ever.

N 7.2

That original intelligence, say the Magians, who is the first principle of all things, discovers himself immediately to the mind and understanding alone; but has placed the sun as his image in the visible universe; and when that bright luminary diffuses its beams over the earth and the firmament, it is a faint copy of the glory, which resides in the higher heavens. If you would escape the displeasure of this divine being, you must be careful never to set your bare foot upon the ground, nor spit into a fire, nor throw any water upon it, even though it were consuming a whole city039*. Who can express the perfections of the Almighty? say the Mahometans. Even the noblest of his works, if compared to him, are but dust and rubbish. How much more must human conception fall short of his infinite perfections? His smile and favour renders men for ever happy; and to obtain it for your children, the best method is to cut off from them, while infants, a little bit of skin, about half the breadth of a farthing. Take two bits of cloth040†, say the Roman catholics, about an inch or an inch and a half square, join them by the corners with two strings or pieces of tape about sixteen inches long, throw this over your head, and make one of the bits of cloth lie upon your

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breast, and the other upon your back, keeping them next your skin: There is not a better secret for recommending yourself to that infinite Being, who exists from eternity to eternity.

N 7.3

The Getes, commonly called immortal, from their steady belief of the soul’s immortality, were genuine theists and unitarians. They affirmed Zamolxis, their deity, to be the only true god; and asserted the worship of all other nations to be addressed to mere fictions and chimeras. But were their religious principles any more refined, on account of these magnificent pretensions? Every fifth year they sacrificed a human victim, whom they sent as a messenger to their deity, in order to inform him of their wants and necessities. And when it thundered, they were so provoked, that, in order to return the defiance, they let fly arrows at him, and declined not the combat as unequal. Such at least is the account, which Herodotus gives of the theism of the immortal Getes041‡.

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Sect. VIII.Flux and reflux of polytheism and theism.

N 8.1

It is remarkable, that the principles of religion have a kind of flux and reflux in the human mind, and that men have a natural tendency to rise from idolatry to theism, and to sink again from theism into idolatry. The vulgar, that is, indeed, all mankind, a few excepted, being ignorant and uninstructed, never elevate their contemplation to the heavens, or penetrate by their disquisitions into the secret structure of vegetable or animal bodies; so far as to discover a supreme mind or original providence, which bestowed order on every part of nature. They consider these admirable works in a more confined and selfish view; and finding their own happiness and misery to depend on the secret influence and unforeseen concurrence of external objects, they regard, with perpetual attention, the unknown causes, which govern all these natural events, and distribute pleasure and pain, good and ill, by their powerful, but silent, operation. The unknown causes are still appealed to on every emergence; and in this general appearance or confused image, are the perpetual objects of human hopes and fears, wishes and apprehensions. By degrees, the active imagination of men, uneasy in this abstract conception of objects, about which it is incessantly employed, begins to render them more particular, and to clothe them in shapes more suitable to its natural comprehension. It represents them to be sensible, intelligent beings, like mankind; actuated by love and hatred, and flexible by gifts and entreaties, by prayers and sacrifices. Hence the origin of religion: And hence the origin of idolatry or polytheism.

N 8.2

But the same anxious concern for happiness, which begets the idea of these invisible, intelligent powers, allows not mankind to remain long in the first simple conception of them; as powerful, but limited beings; masters of human fate, but slaves to destiny and the course of nature. Men’s exaggerated praises and compliments still swell their idea upon them; and elevating their deities to the utmost bounds of perfection, at last beget the attributes of unity and infinity, simplicity and spirituality. Such refined ideas, being somewhat disproportioned to vulgar comprehension, remain not long in their original purity; but require to be supported by the notion of inferior mediators or subordinate agents, which interpose between mankind and their supreme deity. These demi-gods or middle beings,

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partaking more of human nature, and being more familiar to us, become the chief objects of devotion, and gradually recal that idolatry, which had been formerly banished by the ardent prayers and panegyrics of timorous and indigent mortals. But as these idolatrous religions fall every day into grosser and more vulgar conceptions, they at last destroy themselves, and, by the vile representations, which they form of their deities, make the tide turn again towards theism. But so great is the propensity, in this alternate revolution of human sentiments, to return back to idolatry, that the utmost precaution is not able effectually to prevent it. And of this, some theists, particularly the Jews and Mahometans, have been sensible; as appears by their banishing all the arts of statuary and painting, and not allowing the representations, even of human figures, to be taken by marble or colours; lest the common infirmity of mankind should thence produce idolatry. The feeble apprehensions of men cannot be satisfied with conceiving their deity as a pure spirit and perfect intelligence; and yet their natural terrors keep them from imputing to him the least shadow of limitation and imperfection. They fluctuate between these opposite sentiments. The same infirmity still drags them downwards, from an omnipotent and spiritual deity, to a limited and corporeal one, and from a corporeal and limited deity to a statue or visible representation. The same endeavour at elevation still pushes them upwards, from the statue or material image to the invisible power; and from the invisible power to an infinitely perfect deity, the creator and sovereign of the universe.

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Sect. IX.Comparison of these Religions, with regard to Persecution and Toleration.

N 9.1

Polytheism or idolatrous worship, being founded entirely in vulgar traditions, is liable to this great inconvenience, that any practice or opinion, however barbarous or corrupted, may be authorized by it; and full scope is given, for knavery to impose on credulity, till morals and humanity be expelled from the religious systems of mankind. At the same time, idolatry is attended with this evident advantage, that, by limiting the powers and functions of its deities, it naturally admits the gods of other sects and nations to a share of divinity, and renders all the various deities, as well as rites, ceremonies, or traditions, compatible with each other042*. Theism is opposite both in its advantages and disadvantages. As that system supposes one sole deity, the perfection of reason and goodness, it should, if justly prosecuted, banish every thing frivolous, unreasonable, or inhuman from religious worship, and set before men the most illustrious example, as well as the most commanding motives, of justice and benevolence. These mighty advantages are not indeed over-balanced (for that is not possible), but somewhat diminished, by inconveniencies, which arise from the vices and prejudices of mankind. While one sole object of devotion is acknowledged, the worship of other deities is regarded as absurd and impious. Nay, this unity of object seems naturally to require the unity of faith and ceremonies, and furnishes designing men with a pretence for representing their adversaries as profane, and the objects of divine as well as human vengeance. For as each sect is positive that its own faith and worship are entirely acceptable to the deity, and as no one can conceive, that the same being should be pleased with different and opposite rites and principles; the several sects fall naturally

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into animosity, and mutually discharge on each other that sacred zeal and rancour, the most furious and implacable of all human passions.

N 9.2

The tolerating spirit of idolaters, both in ancient and modern times, is very obvious to any one, who is the least conversant in the writings of historians or travellers. When the oracle of Delphi was asked, what rites or worship was most acceptable to the gods? Those which are legally established in each city, replied the oracle043*. Even priests, in those ages, could, it seems, allow salvation to those of a different communion. The Romans commonly adopted the gods of the conquered people; and never disputed the attributes of those local and national deities, in whose territories they resided. The religious wars and persecutions of the Egyptian idolaters are indeed an exception to this rule; but are accounted for by ancient authors from reasons singular and remarkable. Different species of animals were the deities of the different sects among the Egyptians; and the deities being in continual war, engaged their votaries in the same contention. The worshippers of dogs could not long remain in peace with the adorers of cats or wolves044*. But where that reason took not place, the Egyptian superstition was not so incompatible as is commonly imagined; since we learn from Herodotus045†, that very large contributions were given by Amasis towards rebuilding the temple of Delphi.

N 9.3

The intolerance of almost all religions, which have maintained the unity of God, is as remarkable as the contrary principle of polytheists. The implacable narrow spirit of the Jews is well known. Mahometanism set out with still more bloody principles; and even to this day, deals out damnation, though not fire and faggot, to all other sects. And if, among Christians, the English and Dutch have embraced the principles of toleration, this singularity has proceeded from the steady resolution of the civil magistrate, in opposition to the continued efforts of priests and bigots.

N 9.4

The disciples of Zoroaster shut the doors of heaven against all but the Magians046‡. Nothing could more obstruct the progress of the Persian conquests, than the furious zeal of that nation against the temples and images of the Greeks. And after the overthrow of that empire we find Alexander, as a polytheist, immediately re-establishing the worship of the Babylonians, which their former princes, as monotheists, had carefully abolished047ǁ. Even the blind and devoted attachment of that conqueror to the Greek superstition hindered not but he himself sacrificed according to the Babylonish rites and ceremonies048§.

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Printed for A. Millar, in the Strand.

N.B. The copytext for the following works is the 1777 edition of the Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects. The dissertations first appeared together in this 1757 collection, and in this order, but the actual text (and in some cases the titles) changed over time, and we follow the later edition here. For more details, see the Read Me page, especially section 6.





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