« ZurückWeiter »
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 fpeculative 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 foon as men leave the contemplation of the arguments, the opinions will immediately be loft 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 abftrufe, it keeps the principles entirely from the knowledge of the vulgar, who are alone liable to corrupt any principle or opinion.
Sect. II. Origin of Polytheisin
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.
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 con
nected 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 contrivanc and execution of one regular plan; yet is this a merely arbitrary supposition, which, even if allowed pois fible, 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 ftatuary. To afcribe any single effect to the combination of several causes, is not surely a natural and obvious suppofition.
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 deftroys what is foftered 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, 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 facrifices, 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 among! mankind.
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 thanksgivings*.
It must necessarily, indeed, be allowed, that, in VOL. II.
order * See NOTE (YY).
order to carry mens 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.
love of truth. That motive is too refined for such grofs apprehensions; and would lead mer. into enquiries concerning 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 neceffaries. Agitated by hopes and fears of this nature, especially the latter, men fcrutinize, 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.
Sect. III. The fame Subject continued. We are placed in this world as in a great theatre, where the true fpings and causes of every event are entirely concealed from us; nor have we either sufficient wisdom to foresee, or power to prevent, thofe ills with which we are continually threatened. We hang in perpetual suspense 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 paslions 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 fo entire a depend
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, mult labour to form fome particular and distinct idea of them. The more they confider these causes themfelves, 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 syitem that gives them some satisfaction.
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 pieases us. Hence the frequency and beauty of the profopopæia in poetry ; where trees, mountains, and streams, are personified, and the inanimate parts of nature acquire sentiment and pasfion. And though these poetical figures and expreffions gain not on the belief, they may serve, at least, to prove a certain tendency in the imagination, without which they could neither be beautiful nor A a 2