Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
On Enthusiasm
By Lord Shaftesbury (1671–1713)
From A Letter concerning Enthusiasm

THUS, my Lord, there are many panics in mankind, besides merely that of fear. And thus is religion also panic, when enthusiasm of any kind gets up, as oft, on melancholy occasions it will; for vapours naturally rise, and in bad times especially, when the spirits of men are low, as either in public calamities, or during the unwholesomeness of air or diet, or when convulsions happen in nature, storms, earthquakes, or other amazing prodigies: at this season the panic must needs run high, and the magistrate of necessity give way to it. For, to apply a serious remedy, and bring the sword, or fasces, as a cure, must make the case more melancholy, and increase the very cause of the distemper. To forbid men’s natural fears, and to endeavour the overpowering them by other fears, must needs be a most unnatural method. The magistrate, if he be any artist, should have a gentler hand, and instead of caustics, incisions, and amputations, should be using the softest balms, and, with a kind sympathy, entering into the concern of the people, and taking, as it were, their passion upon him, should, when he has soothed and satisfied it, endeavour, by cheerful ways, to divert and heal it.
  This was ancient policy: and hence, as a notable author of our nation expresses it, it is necessary a people should have a public leading in Religion. For to deny the magistrate a worship, or take away a National Church, is as mere enthusiasm as the notion which sets up persecution. For why should there not be public walks as well as private gardens? Why not public libraries as well as private education and home-tutors? But to prescribe bounds to fancy and speculation, to regulate men’s apprehensions, and religious beliefs or fears, to suppress by violence the natural passion of enthusiasm, or to endeavour to ascertain it, or reduce it to one species, or bring it under any one modification, is in truth no better sense, nor derives a better character, than what the comedian declares of the like project in the affair of love.
                                “Nihilo plus agas
Quam si des operam, ut cum ratione insanias.” 1
  Not only the visionaries and enthusiasts of all kinds were tolerated, your lordship knows, by the ancients, but, on the other side, philosophy had as free a course, and was permitted as a balance against superstition; and whilst some sects, such as the Pythagorean and latter Platonic, joined in with the superstition and enthusiasm of the times, the Epicurean, the Academic, and others, were allowed to use all the force of wit and raillery against it. And thus matters were happily balanced. Reason had fair play; learning and science flourished. Wonderful was the harmony and temper which arose from all these contrarieties. Thus superstition and enthusiasm were mildly treated, and being left alone, they never rose to that degree as to occasion bloodshed, wars, persecutions, and devastations in the world. But a new sort of policy, which extends itself to another world, and considers the future lives and happiness of men rather than the present, has made us leap the bounds of natural humanity, and out of a supernatural charity, has taught us the way of plaguing one another most devoutly. It has raised an antipathy which no temporal interest could ever do, and entailed upon us a mutual hatred to all eternity; and now uniformity in opinion (a hopeful project!) is looked upon as the only expedient against this evil. The saving of souls is now the heroic passion of exalted spirits, and is become in a manner the chief care of the magistrate, and the very end of government itself.  3
  If magistracy should vouchsafe to interpose thus much in other sciences I am afraid we should have as bad logic, as bad mathematics, and in every kind as bad philosophy, as we often have divinity in countries where a precise orthodoxy is settled by law. It is a hard matter for a government to settle wit. If it does but keep us sober and honest, it is likely we shall have as much ability in our spiritual as in our temporal affairs; and if we can but be trusted, we shall have wit enough to save ourselves, when no prejudice lies in the way. But if honesty and wit be insufficient for this saving work, it is in vain for the magistrate to meddle with it, since, if he be ever so virtuous or wise, he may be as soon mistaken as another man. I am sure the only way to save men’s sense or preserve wit at all in the world, is to give liberty to wit. Now wit can never have its liberty, where the freedom of raillery is taken away; for against serious extravagancies and splenetic humours, there is no other remedy than this.  4
  We have indeed full power over all other modifications of spleen. We may treat other enthusiasms as we please. We may ridicule love or gallantry, or knight-errantry, to the utmost: and we find that, in the latter days of wit, the humour of this kind, which was once so prevalent, is pretty well declined. The Crusades, the rescuing of Holy Lands, and such devout gallantries, are in less request than formerly. But if something of this militant religion, something of this soul-rescuing spirit and saint-errantry prevails still, we need not wonder, when we consider in how solemn a manner we treat this distemper, and how preposterously we go about to cure enthusiasm.  5
  I can hardly forbear fancying, that if we had a sort of inquisition, or formal court of judicature, with grave officers and judges, erected to restrain poetical license, and in general to suppress that fancy and humour of versification, but in particular that most extravagant passion of love, as it is set out by poets, in its heathenish dress of Venuses and Cupids; if the poets, as ringleaders and teachers of this heresy, were, under grievous penalties, forbid to enchant the people by the vein of rhyming; and if the people, on the other side, were, under proportionable penalties, forbid to hearken to any such charm, or lend their attention to any love tale, so much as in a play, a novel, or a ballad, we might perhaps see a new Arcadia rising out of this heavy persecution: old people and young would be seized with a versifying spirit: we should have field-conventicles of lovers and poets: forests would be filled with romantic shepherds and shepherdesses, and rocks resound with echoes of hymns and praises offered to the powers of love. We might indeed have a fair chance, by this management, to bring back the whole train of heathen gods, and set our cold northern island burning with as many altars to Venus and Apollo as were formerly in Cyprus, Delos, or any of those warmer Grecian climates.  6
Note 1. Nihilo plus agas, etc.  You would do no more than if you were to spend your labour, with the object of being mad on rational principles. [back]

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