YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

September 28, 2009

Common readers dangerous to the body politic

Filed under: 1 — clarelspark @ 11:46 pm
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The British philosopher David Hume is better known today for his materialist philosophy than for his once-popular History of England. Here are some passages from his account of 16th century England: that ordinary people might read biblical texts for themselves struck fear in the upper classes. Hume lets us know what was radical about the Reformation and the threat it posed to Order. Organic conservatives proclaimed that we should not believe our lying eyes, nor should we dispute the meaning of texts with our betters:

David Hume History of England vol.3 Boston, 1856.

 pp.221-222: Hume describing the debates aroused by the proposal to disseminate a corrected version of the Tindal translation of the Bible during the reign of Henry VIII.

      The friends of the reformation asserted, that nothing could be more absurd than to conceal, in an unknown tongue, the word of God itself, and thus to counteract the will of Heaven, which, for the purpose of universal salvation, had published that salutary doctrine to all nations: that if this practice were not very absurd, the artifice at least was very gross, and proved a consciousness, that the glosses and and traditions of the clergy stood in direct opposition to the original text, dictated by supreme intelligence: that it was now necessary for the people, so long abused by interested pretensions, to see with their own eyes, and to examine whether the claims of the ecclesiastics were founded on that charter which was on all hands acknowledged to be derived from Heaven: and that, as a spirit of research and curiousity was happily revived, and men were more obliged to make a choice among the contending doctrines of different sects, the proper materials for decision, and above all, the Holy Scriptures, should be set before them; and the revealed will of God, which the change of language had somewhat obscured, be again, by their means, revealed to mankind.

      The favorites of the ancient religion maintained on the other hand, that the pretence of making the people see with their own eyes was a mere cheat, and was itself a very gross artifice, by which the new preachers hoped to obtain the guidance of them, and to seduce them from those pastors whom the laws, whom the ancient establishments, whom Heaven itself, had appointed for their spiritual direction: that the people were by their very ignorance, their stupidity, their necessary avocations, totally unqualified to choose their own principles; and it was a mockery to set materials before them, of which they could not possibly make any proper use: that even in the affairs of common life, and in their temporal concerns, which lay more within the compass of human reason, the laws had in a great measure deprived them of their right of private judgment, and had, happily for their own and the public interest, regulated their conduct and behavior: that theological questions were placed far beyond the sphere of vulgar comprehension; and ecclesiastics themselves, though assisted by all the advantages of education, erudition, and an assiduous study of the sciences, could not be fully assured of a just decision, except by the promise made them in Scripture, that God would be ever present with his church, and that the gates of hell should not prevail against her: that the gross errors adopted by the wisest heathens, proved how unfit men were to grope their own way through this profound darkness; nor would the Scriptures, if trusted to every man’s judgment, be able to remedy; on the contrary they would much augment those fatal illusions: that sacred writ itself was involved in so much obscurity, gave rise to so many difficulties, containing so many appearing contradictions, that it was the most dangerous weapon that could be intrusted into the hands of the ignorant and giddy multitude: that the poetical style in which a great part of it was composed, at the same time that it occasioned uncertainty in the sense, by its multiplied tropes and figures, was sufficient to kindle the zeal of fanaticism, and thereby throw civil society into the most furious combustion: that a thousand sects must arise, which would pretend, each of them, to derive its tenets from the Scripture; and would be able, by specious arguments, or even without specious arguments, to seduce silly women and ignorant mechanics into a belief of the most monstrous principles: and that, if ever this disorder, dangerous to the magistrate himself, received a remedy, it must be from the tacit acquiescence of the people in some new authority; and it was evidently better, without further contest or inquiry, to adhere peaceably to ancient, and therefore the more secure establishments. [221-222].

     The king [Henry VIII] made in person a speech to the parliament on proroguing them; in which, after thanking them for their loving attachment to him, which, he said, equalled what was ever paid to their ancestors by any king of England, he complained of their dissensions, disputes, and animosities in religion. He told them that the several pulpits were become a kind of batteries against each other; and that one preacher called another a heretic and Anabaptist, which was retaliated by the opprobrious appellations of Papist and hypocrite: that he had permitted his people the use of the Scriptures, not in order to furnish them with materials for disputing and railing, but that he might enable them to inform their consciences and instruct their children and families: that it grieved his heart to find how that precious jewel was prostituted, by being introduced into the conversation of every alehouse and tavern, and employed as a pretence for decrying the spiritual and legal pastors: and that he was sorry to observe, that the word of God, while it was the object of so much anxious speculation, had very little influence on their practice; and that, though an imaginary knowledge so much abounded, charity was daily going to decay. The king gave good advice; but his own example, by encouraging speculation and dispute, was ill fitted to promote that peaceable submission of opinion which he recommended. [in year 1545, p.298]. 

 [Hume on persecution during reign of Queen Mary:]

      The practice of persecution, said the defender’s of Pole’s opinion, is the scandal of all religion; and the theological animosity, so fierce and violent, far from being an argument of men’s conviction in their opposite sects, is a certain proof that they have never reached any serious persuasion with regard to those remote and sublime subjects. Even those who are the most impatient of contradiction in other controversies, are mild and moderate in comparison of polemical divines; and wherever a man’s knowledge and experience give him a perfect assurance in his own opinion, he regards with contempt, rather than anger, the opposition and mistakes of others. But while men zealously maintain what they neither clearly comprehend nor entirely believe, they are shaken in their imagined faith by the opposite persuasion, or even doubts, of other men; and vent on their antagonists that impatience which is the natural result of so disagreeable a state of the understanding. They then easily embrace any pretence for representing opponents as impious and profane; and if they can also find a color for connecting this violence with the interests of civil government, they can no longer be restrained from giving uncontrolled scope to vengeance and resentment. But surely never enterprise was more unfortunate than that of founding persecution upon policy, or endeavoring, for the sake of peace, to settle an entire uniformity of opinion in questions which, of all others, are least subjected to the criterion of human reason. The universal and uncontradicted prevalence of one opinion in religious subjects can be owing, at first, to the stupid ignorance alone and barbarism of the people, who never indulge themselves in any speculation or inquiry; and there is no expedient for maintaining that uniformity so fondly sought after, but by banishing forever all curiosity, and all improvement in science and cultivation. It may not indeed appear difficult to check, by a steady severity, the first beginnings of controversy; but besides that this policy exposes forever the people to all the abject terrors of superstition, and the magistrate to the endless encroachment of ecclesiastics, it also renders men so delicate that they can never endure to hear of opposition; and they will some time pay dearly for that false tranquillity in which they have been so long indulged. As healthful bodies are ruined by too nice a regimen, and are thereby rendered incapable of bearing the unavoidable incidents of human life, a people who were never allowed to imagine that their principles could be contested fly out into the most outrageous violence when any event (and such events are common) produces a faction among their clergy, and gives rise to any difference in tenet or opinion. But whatever may be said in favor of suppressing, by persecution, the first beginnings of heresy, no solid argument can be alleged for extending severity towards multitudes, or endeavoring, by capital punishments, to extirpate an opinion which has diffused itself among men of every rank and station. Besides the extreme barbarity of such an attempt, it commonly proves ineffectual to the purpose intended, and serves only to make men more obstinate in their persuasion, and to increase the number of their proselytes. The melancholy with which the fear of death, torture, and persecution inspires the sectaries, is the proper disposition for fostering religious zeal: the prospect of eternal rewards, when brought near, overpowers the dread of temporal punishments: the glory of martyrdom stimulates all the more furious zealots, especially the leaders and preachers: where a violent animosity is excited by oppression, men naturally pass from hating the persons of their tyrants to a more violent abhorrence of their doctrines: and the spectators, moved with pity towards the supposed martyrs, are easily seduced to embrace those principles which can inspire men with a constancy that appears almost supernatural. Open the door to toleration, mutual hatred relaxes among the sectaries; their attachment to their particular modes of religion decays; the common occupations and pleasures of life succeed to the acrimony of disputation; and the same man who, in other circumstances, would have braved flames and tortures, is induced to change his sect from the smallest prospect of favor and advancement, or even from the frivolous hope of becoming more fashionable in his principles. If any exception can be admitted to this maxim of toleration, it will only be where a theology altogether new, nowise connected with the ancient religion of the state, is imported from foreign countries, and may easily, at one blow, be eradicated, without leaving the seeds of future innovation. But as this exception would imply some apology for the ancient pagan persecutions, or for the extirpation of Christianity in China and Japan, it ought surely, on account of this detested consequence, to be rather buried in eternal silence and oblivion.

     Though these arguments appear entirely satisfactory, yet such is the subtlety of human wit, that Gardiner and the other enemies to toleration were not reduced to silence; and they still found topics on which to maintain the controversy. The doctrine, said they, of liberty and conscience, is founded on the most flagrant impiety, and supposes such an indifference in all religions, such an obscurity in theological doctrines, as to render the church and magistrate incapable of distinguishing with certainty the dictates of Heaven from the mere fictions of human imagination. If the Divinity reveals principles to mankind, he will surely give a criterion by which they may be ascertained; and a prince who knowingly allows these principles to be perverted or adulterated, is infinitely more criminal than if he gave permission for the vending of poison, under the shape of food, to all his subjects. Persecution may, indeed, seem better calculated to make hypocrites than converts; but experience teaches us, that the habits of hypocrisy often turn into reality; and the children, at least, ignorant of the dissimulation of their parents, may happily be educated in more orthodox tenets. It is absurd, in opposition to considerations of such unspeakable importance, to plead the temporal and frivolous interests of civil society; and if matters be thoroughly examined, even that topic will not appear so universally certain in favor of toleration as by some it is represented. When sects arise whose fundamental principle on all sides is to execrate, and abhor, and extirpate each other, what choice has the magistrate left but to take part, and by rendering one sect entirely prevalent, restore, at least for a time, the public tranquillity? The political body, being here sickly, must not be treated as if it were in a state of sound health; and an affected neutrality in the prince, or even a cool preference, may serve only to encourage the hopes of all the sects, and keep alive their animosity. The Protestants, far from tolerating the religion of their ancestors, regard it as an impious and detestable idolatry; and during the late minority, when they were entirely masters, they enacted very severe, though not capital, punishments against the exercise of all Catholic worship, and even against such as barely abstained from their profane rites and sacraments. Nor are instances wanting of their endeavors to secure an imagined orthodoxy by the most rigorous executions: Calvin has burned Servetus at Geneva; Cranmer brought Arians and Anabaptists to the stake; and if persecution of any kind be admitted, the most bloody and violent will surely be allowed the most justifiable, as the most effectual. Imprisonments, fines, confiscations, whippings, serve only to irritate the sects, without disabling them from resistance: but the stake, the wheel, and the gibbet must soon terminate in the extirpation of banishment of all the heretics inclined to give disturbance, and in the entire silence and submission of the rest. [416-419].

 [Cranmer is burned at the stake by the Catholic Queen Mary, but uncompromised and united to his principles:] It is pretended, that after his body was consumed, his heart was found entire and untouched among the ashes; an event which, as it was then the emblem of his constancy, was fondly believed by the zealous Protestants. [434].

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