The want of learning and the want of knowledge concerning the gods, splitting into two separate streams immediately at the source—the one, as if flowing in hard ground, has in unyielding dispositions generated Atheism; the other, as if in moist soil, produces in tender minds its opposite, Superstition. Now all false belief, especially if it be so on this subject, is a distressing thing; but that which is accompanied with passion is most troublesome of all: for every passion is like a stroke productive of inflammation; and just as dislocations of the joints attended with laceration, so perversions of the soul attended with passion, are the more difficult to cure. One man believes Atoms and the Vacuum to be the final causes of the universe—a false supposition this—but one that does not produce a wound, nor a bruise, nor distracting pain. Another man thinks Wealth to be the highest good—this is a fallacy that contains a corrosive poison: it eats into the soul, it excites, it suffers him not to sleep, it brings a swarm of gad flies about him, it drives him down precipices, it chokes him, it takes away all cheerfulness. On the other hand, one man fancies that Virtue and Vice are a body [element]: a disgraceful blunder, perhaps, but not worth crying for or lamenting over: but whatever are such maxims and opinions as this,
“Poor Virtue! Thou wert then a name, but I
and cast aside injustice, the cause of wealth, and intemperance, the real source of all happiness;—these sentiments, indeed, we ought both to pity and be angry with!
Consequently, as regards the subjects of our inquiry, Atheism being an ungrounded opinion that there is nothing essentially happy and incorruptible, appears to bring round the soul into a state of insensibility through a disbelief of the Deity; and its object in not believing in gods is the not being afraid of them: whereas for Superstition (Godfearing), its very name shows it to be an opinion involving passion (feeling), and a conception that engenders fear which humiliates and crushes a man, inasmuch as he believes there are gods, but that they are spiteful and mischievous gods. For the Atheist appears to be one that is insensible to what is Divine; the Superstitious man to be sensible in the wrong way, and thereby perverted. For want of knowledge has produced in the one a disbelief in the Benefactor; whilst in the other case it has superadded the fear that the same Power is a malignant one. Consequently, Atheism is Reason deceived, Superstition a passion arising out of false reasoning.
Ugly indeed are all passions and maladies of the soul, yet there is in some of them, a showiness, a loftiness, and a singularity by reason of their airiness, and they are not by any means, so to speak, destitute of practical energy. For it is the general fault of all the passions, that being impelled by practical tendencies they hang on to, and stimulate the reason: but Fear, being as deficient in courage as it is in reason, has its stupidity accompanied with indolence, perplexity, and helplessness: on which account its faculty of fettering at once and disturbing the soul has been called “terror” and “awe.” Now, of all fears the most incapacitating from action, and the most helpless, is that springing from Superstition. He that goes not on voyages, fears not the sea; nor he that goes not for soldier, war; nor highwaymen, he that stays at home: nor the informer, he who has no money; nor envy, the man in private life; nor earthquakes, he who lives in Gaul; nor lightning, the dweller in Aethiopia. But he who is afraid of the gods, is in fear of everything—the sea, the air, the sky, darkness, light, a call, silence, a dream. Slaves forget their tyrants when they are asleep, slumber lightens the weight of their chains to those in fetters, even inflammations accompanying wounds, and fierce and agonizing ulcers that eat into the flesh quit for a while the sleeping man:—
“Sweet balm of sleep, true medicine for disease,
This, Superstition does not allow one to exclaim, for it is the only thing that makes no truce with sleep, nor grants to the soul then, at least, to repose, and gain a little courage by driving off its burdensome and painful notions about the Deity, but as it were in the realms of the damned, it raises up in the sleep of the superstitious, terrific phantoms, monsters, apparitions, and tortures of all kinds; scaring the miserable soul, it chases it out of the refuge of sleep with spectres: while it is scourged and tormented by its own self, as though by the hand of another; and receives troubles both dreadful and of strange sort; and then, when they wake up, they do not come to their senses, nor laugh at their visionary fears, nor feel glad that nothing of what had so disturbed them was a reality; but after having escaped the visionary illusion that had no harm in it, they cheat themselves over again, waste their money, and vex themselves, by rushing to fortune-tellers and such like impostors, and saying—
“Hath a dream and vision troubled thy brain
and dip thyself in the sea, and pass a day seated on the earth.
“O Greeks, inventors of barbaric woes!”
through your own superstition, such as smearing with mud, wallowing in the mire, Sabbath-keeping, unseemly prostrations on the face, long sittings before the idol, extraordinary gestures of adoration. “To sing with a just mouth” was the advice to lyrists of those who professed to keep up the established rules of music—we, on our part, demand that men pray to the gods with mouths erect and as it should be, and not merely to examine whether the tongue or top of the entrails of the victim be clean and fitting, whilst they distort and pollute their own tongues with absurd titles and foreign invocations, to do shame to, and sin against, the divine and national dignity of religion. But the comic poet has said somewhere with respect to those who overlay their beds with gold or with silver, that sleep is the only thing the gods have given us gratis, “Why, then, dost thou make it too an expensive article to thyself?” It is equally right to say to the superstitious man: “Sleep the gods have bestowed upon us as the balm of troubles, and for refreshment; wherefore dost thou make it a torture-chamber for thyself, hateful and painful, thy wretched soul not being able to make its escape, and take refuge in a second slumber? Heraclitus observes that for men awake there is one and a common world; but of men asleep each one wanders away into a world of his own. But for the superstitious there is no world in common with the rest; for neither when awake does he enjoy the rational world, nor when asleep does he escape from the terrifying one; but his reason is always a-dreaming, he fears even when awake—escape is impossible, so is change of place. Polycrates was a terrible tyrant at Samos, Periander another at Corinth; yet nobody was afraid of them after he had migrated into a free city, democratically governed; but he that dreads the government of the gods as a gloomy and implacable tyranny—whither shall he migrate, where shall he flee, what land shall he find free from gods, what sea? into what part of the earth canst thou creep and hide thyself, poor wretch! and be sure that thou hast escaped from God? Even slaves without hope of manumission are allowed by law to demand to be sold, and to change their master for a milder one; but Superstition allows not of a change of gods, nor is it possible to find a god whom that man shall not fear who is afraid of those of his own country and own family—he that shudders at the Preservers and the Benevolent; he that trembles at and dreads the beings from whom we ask in prayer riches, plenty, peace, concord, the prospering of our works and best actions. And then these very people consider servitude a misfortune, and exclaim:
“A sad misfortune ‘tis to man or maid
But how much more grievous do you hold their case who get masters whom they cannot flee from, cannot get out of their way, cannot pacify! Even slaves have an altar of refuge; even robbers hold many temples to be inviolable; and people fleeing from enemies take courage if they can embrace some idol or shrine—but these are the very things the superstitious man most shudders at, is frightened with, and fears—the very things in which such as dread dangers place their trust! Tear not away the superstitious man from the altar—it is there that he is tortured, and receives the punishment of his offense!
What need is there to speak at length? The appointed limit of Life for all mankind is Death; but to Superstition not even death is the limit—she leaps over the boundaries of Life into the other side, making Fear longer-lived than life, and tacking on to Death the imagination of neverending woes. And when she comes to the end of her troubles, she fancies that she is entering upon others that have no end. Deep below are opened the gates of Hell, rivers of fire, and fountains of Styx are at once disclosed; a fantastic darkness envelopes all, where certain spectral forms flit about, offering frightful sights to the eye, piteous sounds to the ear; also judges seated, and executioners at hand; yawning gulfs and deep places, crammed with all manner of evil things. Thus unhappy Superstition has obtained through death an end of suffering, but has, through its folly, created an expectation of future misery for itself. Atheism is exposed to none of these evils; yet its ignorance is painful, and to be in error and blindness concerning things of such moment is a great misfortune to the soul—just as though it had had put out the brightest and most important of its many eyes, namely, the idea of the Deity; but still (as above remarked) passion, wounds, disturbance, and abjectness do not, as a matter of course, regularly accompany this state of belief. “Music,” says Plato, “the creator of harmony and order, was not given by heaven to man for the purpose of amusement and tickling of the ears, but to disentangle gently, bring round, and restore again to its proper place the turbulence of the soul that has gone astray in the body as regards its revolutions and connections, and has often committed excesses through a deficiency in education and gracefulness, by intemperance and neglect of duty.” “Whomsoever Jove loveth not,” says Pindar, “are disgusted at hearing the voice of the Muses,” for they are exasperated and vexed thereby. In fact, they say that tigers, if a tambourine be sounded over them, become furious, grow mad, and finally tear themselves to pieces. But it is a less evil for them upon whom is come a want of taste for, and insensibility to, the charms of music, by reason of deafness and loss of hearing. Tiresias suffered a misfortune in not seeing his children or his acquaintances; but Athamas suffered a greater one, as did Agave, in seeing them in the shape of lions or stags. And surely it had been better for Hercules in his madness, neither to have seen, or been sensible of their presence, rather than to have treated those most dear to him like so many foes. What then? Does it not seem to you that the state of the Atheists, as compared with that of the superstitious, presents exactly the same sort of difference? The former do not see the gods at all, the latter believe that they exist; the former overlook them; the latter fancy terrible what is benign, tyrannical what is paternal, mischievous what is preservative, savage and bestial that which is pure. And then they believe metal-workers, and sculptors, and wax-modellers, that the gods are of human form; and in such form do they model, and procure, and worship them: and despise philosophers and statesmen when they teach that the majesty of God is coupled with goodness and magnificence, with strength and with protective care for man. The one party, therefore, are possessed with an insensibility to, and a disbelief in, the good things that benefit them; the other party are filled with alarm at, and fear of, the things that benefit them. And to sum up—Atheism is insensibility to what is divine, which shows itself in not understanding what is good; Superstition an over-sensibility, in suspecting the good to be bad. People are afraid of the gods, and fly for refuge to the gods; they flatter them, and they revile them; they make vows to them, and they upbraid them. It is the common lot of mankind not to prosper to the end in all things. “For they are ever young, and free from sickness, unacquainted with all troubles, having escaped the loud-roaring fury of the Acheron,” says Pindar of the gods; but human sufferings and doings are mixed up with chances flowing in different channels for different people. Come, now, and contemplate the Atheist in misfortune, and observe the way in which he behaves (that is, if he be one who practices self-control on other occasions)—how he makes the best of the matter, and supplies himself with consolations and remedies: and if he be impatient and annoyed by his troubles, how he lays all his complaints against Fortune and Chance, and exclaims that nothing goes according to right, and by the dispensation of Providence; but all are borne along confusedly and irrationally, and human affairs are all caprice. Such is not the behavior of the superstitious man: but if the mishap that has befallen him is of the most trifling kind, he sits down building up upon his trouble yet further calamities, grievous, great, and not to be averted; and heaping besides upon himself apprehensions, fears, and suspicions, making the mischief burn with all sorts of weeping and groaning. For it is not man, nor chance, nor occasion, nor himself, but God on whom he lays the blame of all, and from Him he says the heaven-sent stream of calamity comes rushing down upon himself, and that he, not because he is unfortunate, but as being hateful to God, is therefore tormented and punished by the Powers above, and suffers everything according to his deserts, on account of his own misconduct. Now the Atheist, when sick, counts up to himself, and calls to mind his errors, and excesses, and irregularities as to diet, or his over great fatigue, or unaccustomed changes of climate and of place. Again, if he have met with disappointments in political matters, having got into bad odor with the populace, or into ill repute with the upper powers, he examines the mischance as though proceeding from himself, or those about him:
“In what point have I erred; what fault committed
But to the superstitious man, every infirmity of body, every loss of money, or loss of children, every unpleasantness or failure in political matters, are called “plagues from God,” and “assaults of the demon;” consequently, he ventures not to help himself under what has happened, nor to remedy it, nor resist it, lest he should appear to fight against God, and to resist when he is chastised; but, if sick, the physician is pushed away; if in sorrow, the philosopher who comes to advise and comfort him has the door slammed in his face. “Let me alone (says he), my good fellow, to suffer my punishment—impious, accursed as I am, hateful to gods and daemons!” And then, in the case of a man that does not believe there is a God, but who is sick or suffering greatly in some other way, one can wipe away his tears, cut off his hair, remove his bed-clothes; but as for the superstitious man, how can you possibly address him, or in what way can you bring him help? He sits out of doors, wearing sackcloth, or else girded with filthy rags. Oftentimes wallowing quite naked in the mire, he makes confession aloud of his sins of omission and commission, of having eaten or drank this or that, or walked along a way that the genius had forbidden him. And if he come best off, and suffers from a mild form of superstition, he sits at home surrounded with burning incense, besmeared with unguents, “whilst the old women (says Bion) tie round him, and tie to him, like a peg, whatever they please.”
Tiribazus, they tell us, when arrested by the Persians, being a strong man, drew his sword and made a desperate resistance, until those who were seizing him protested and called out that they did so by the king’s order, and then be threw down his weapon and allowed them to tie his hands. Is not this a parallel case? Other men struggle with their misfortunes, and push away their troubles, devising ways of escape for themselves, and means of averting their difficulties. But the superstitious man, by listening to nobody, by saying to himself: “Wretch! all these things dost thou suffer from Providence, and by God’s command,” has cast away all hope, has abandoned himself, fled from and baffled the efforts of those coming to his relief. Many trifling evils Superstition makes into fatal ones. Midas of old, as it appears, being dispirited and panic-struck by certain dreams he had had, was so affected in mind that he sought a voluntary death by drinking bull’s blood. Aristodemus, King of the Messenians, in the war around Ithome, because his dogs howled in a way like the wolves, and furze grew up around his paternal hearthstone, and the diviners were alarmed at the omens, lost all courage and hope through utter terror, and slew himself with his own hand. And perhaps it had been better for Nicias, general of the Athenians, to have got rid of his superstition in the same way as did Midas and Aristodemus rather than to have sat still and allowed himself to be walled up by the enemy, because he was frightened at the shadow of the moon’s eclipse; and finally, together with forty thousand of his men, either butchered or taken alive, to fall into their hands, and perish ingloriously. For the opposing barrier of earth that lay in his way, at a time for making the best use of his legs, was nothing formidable nor frightful, merely because a shadow crept over the moon, but what really was terrible was the darkness of superstition that fell upon him, to confuse and blind the man’s judgment in a state of things the most requiring sound judgment.
“Mark, my Glaucus, how the billows out at sea are heaving high;
The pilot seeing this, offers, it is true, vows to heaven for deliverance, and invokes the Savior Gods, but at the same time he manages the rudder, lowers the yard, and striking his mainsail makes his flight from the loud billowing sea. Hesiod bids the husbandman, before ploughing and sowing, to offer vows to Terrestrial Jove and to chaste Ceres, with “his hand upon the plough tail.” Homer says that Ajax, when about to fight in single combat with Hector, bade the Greeks offer vows to the gods in his behalf, and when they were offering their vows, put on his armor. Agamemnon, too, after he had commanded the Greeks,
“To sharpen well the spear, and brace the shield,”
then begs from Jove:
“Grant me this day to cast down Priam’s city,”
for God is the hope of valor, not the cover for cowardice. But the Jews, it being the Sabbath, seated in their phylacteries, remained still whilst the enemy was laying scaling ladders and occupying the walls, being tied up together, as it were, in one and the same net by Superstition. Such then is Superstition in the circumstances and occasions called unlucky and changeful—but even in agreeable conditions of things it has nowise the advantage over Atheism. Now the pleasantest things of all to men are festivals and banquets at the temples, also ceremonies of initiation, bacchic rites, vows to gods, and adorations of their images. Contemplate well the Atheist on such occasions, as he smiles with an unfeeling and sardonic grin on his face at what is going on; and perhaps scoffs at them in a whisper to his friends, “that the people must be possessed and out of their senses to think that they did such things in honor of gods,” but still he gets no further harm from his opinion. But the superstitious man wishes indeed but is unable to enjoy himself and receive pleasure from these doings:
“With smoking incense is the city filled;
The soul of the superstitious man turns pale under his crown of flowers, is affrighted whilst he sacrifices, offers the vows with a faltering voice, puts incense upon the flame with a trembling hand; and in fine proves futile the maxim of Pythagoras “that we are at our best when walking towards the gods;” for then the superstitious are in their most miserable and worst condition, approaching, as they do, the shrines of gods or chapels as though they were the dens of bears, the holes of dragons, the lurking-places of the monsters of the deep, and on this account I am seized with astonishment at people’s saying that Atheism is impiety, and not saying that Superstition is so, and yet Anaxagoras stood his trial for blasphemy because he said that the sun was a stone; but no one ever called the Cimmerians impious because they think there is no sun at all. What do you say to it? Is the man a criminal that holds there are no gods; and is not he that holds them to be such as the superstitious believe them, is he not possessed with notions infinitely more atrocious? I for my part would much rather have men say of me that there never was a Plutarch at all, nor is now, than to say that Plutarch is a man inconstant, fickle, easily moved to anger, revengeful for trifling provocations, vexed at small things. If when you invite others to dinner, you should omit him, if, in consequence of pressing business, you did not approach his vestibule, or salute him, he will cling to you and eat up your body, or he will seize thy baby and beat it to death; or he will get a wild beast and turn it loose into thy garden, and spoil thy crops for thee. When Timanthes at Athens was singing a hymn to Artemis and calling her “Wild-runner, frantic, mad, infuriated”—Cinesias the song-maker, got up from among the audience and cried, “Mayest thou have a daughter like her!” And truly, similar things, and yet worse, do the superstitious believe about Artemis. “Whether thou art hurrying away from the strangling, whether thou hast rent in pieces the suckling, whether thou hast been midwife to the monster, whether thou art come upon us all stained with gore, whether thou hast been dragged hither from the cross-road for the purpose of fortune-telling, clasping thine arms around the murderer.” Not one whit more decent notions than these will they conceive respecting Apollo, and Juno, and Mars, and Venus—for all these deities do they tremble at and awfully fear. And yet, what abuse like this did Niobe utter about Latona, like to what superstition has made senseless folks say about the goddess, that because she had been insulted, she killed with her arrows for the wretched woman:
“Six daughters, and six sons in blooming youth,”
so insatiable was she with the sufferings of others, and hard to be appeased. But if in reality the goddess were capable of anger, a hater of vice, and annoyed at being ill-spoken of, and did not laugh at human ignorance and stupidity, but were exasperated thereby; in that case she ought to have shot those that invented such lies against her about her cruelty and spitefulness, and who wrote and told such stories. For we condemn the rage of Hecuba as barbarous and bestial, where she says:
“—his inmost heart I will devour,
but the Syrian goddess the superstitious believe, if anyone eats sprats or anchovies, cankers their shin-bones, fills their bodies with ulcers, and withers up their liver. Is it therefore wicked to speak evil things of the gods, but not wicked to think them? Or is it the thought that renders the voice of the blasphemer so offensive? And yet we censure abusive language as an indication of hostility, and those that speak evil of us we regard as enemies, as being treacherous and ill-disposed towards us. But you see what sort of things the superstitious think about the gods—imagining them to be furious, faithless, fickle, revengeful, cruel, covetous; from all which it necessarily follows that the superstitious man both hates and fears the gods: for how can he do otherwise, when he believes that the greatest evils have happened to him through their doing, and will happen to him again? Hating the gods and fearing them, he is their enemy; and though he may reverence and do obeisance, and sacrifice, and keep vigils in their temples, it is not to be wondered at, for people bow down before tyrants and pay court to them, and erect their statues in gold, but hate in silence all the time they are offering sacrifice to them. Hermolaus was physician to Alexander, Pausanias was a guardsman to Philip, Chaereas to Caligula, yet each one of these said to himself, as he followed his lord:—
“Revenge I will, if e’er I get the chance.”
The atheist thinks there are no gods, the superstitious man wishes there were none; but he believes in them in spite of himself, because he is afraid to die, and like as Tantalus seeks to evade the rock suspended over him, so does the latter evade his fear, by the weight of which he is no less oppressed, and would be content with, nay gladly accept the Atheist’s state of mind, as a state of liberty. But as it is, Atheism has nothing in common with Superstition: for the superstitious man, though by inclination Atheist, is yet far too weak-minded to think about the gods what he wishes to think. And again Atheism is in no way responsible for Superstition—whereas Superstition has both supplied the cause for Atheism to come into being, and after it is come, furnished it with an excuse—not, indeed, a just nor a sound one, but yet one not destitute of a certain plausibility; for it was not because they had discovered anything to be found fault with in the heavens, or in the stars, or in the seasons, or in the revolutions of the sun about the earth, the producers of day and night, or anything erroneous or disorderly in the mode of nutrition of living things, or in the growth of plants, that they passed sentence of Atheism upon the Universe; but it was the ridiculous doings and sufferings of Superstition, its impostures, witchcrafts, races in a circle, and beating of timbrels; its impure purifications, and uncleanly cleansings, its barbaric and illegal penances and self-defilement at the holy places, all these things have given occasion to some to say that it were better there should be no gods at all than that there should be any that accepted such worship, that took pleasure in such rites; gods so insolent, so covetous, so irritable. Were it not better for those Gauls and Scythians of old, to have no conception or notion of deities at all, nor acquired knowledge of them, than to believe there were gods that delighted in the blood of slaughtered men, and regarded such as the most perfect sacrifice, and religious ceremony? What an advantage had not it been to the Carthaginians to have taken Criteas or Diagoras for lawgiver from the first, rather than to have offered such victims as they used to offer to Saturn—not, as Empedocles says, when attacking such as sacrificed living things,
“His metamorphosed child the sire himself
but with their eyes open, and knowingly did they sacrifice their own children. Childless persons used to buy infants of the poor, and slaughter them like so many lambs or chickens; the mother stood by, without a tear, without a groan, for should she weep, should she utter a groan, she was deprived of her price, and the child was sacrificed all the same: and the whole place was filled with noise in front of the image, by people sounding pipes and beating timbrels, in order that the sound of any lamentations might not be audible. Did the Typhons reign over us, or the Giants, after driving the gods from their thrones—what other sacrifices than these would they delight in, what other rites would they demand? Amastris, queen of Xerxes, being alarmed at something or other, buried men alive as offerings in her own stead to Hades—that god whom Plato calls “humane, wise and rich, controlling the ghosts by persuasion and by argument, and thence having got the name of Hades (the Pleaser).” Xenophanes, the naturalist, seeing the Egyptians beating their breasts and making lamentations at the festivals, advised them sensibly enough, saying, “If these people are gods, do not lament for them—if mortals do not sacrifice unto them.” But no disease is so full of variations, so changeable in symptoms, so made up out of ideas opposed to, nay, rather, at war with one another, as is the disease called Superstition. We must, therefore, fly from it, but in a safe way, and to our own good—not like those who, running away from the attack of highwaymen, or wild beasts, or a fire, have entangled. themselves in mazes that contain pitfalls as well as precipices: for thus, some people, when running away from Superstition, fall headlong into Atheism, both rugged and obstinate, and leap over that which lies between the two, namely, true Religion.