A History of the Rise and Influence of Rationalism in Europe

The book A History of the Rise and Influence of Rationalism in Europe (2 vols., 1865) is a seminal piece of literature. This well written work helps to provide valuable insights for the modern reader with the backstory on the conversion of Europe from a mystical to a rational society.

This book was written by William Lecky, an Irish-Anglican historian and politician (1838–1903). He greatly succeeded in studying and narrating the complex and evolving web of rationalism, morals, miracles, the supernatural, Catholicism, and Protestantism into a systematic and comprehensive portrait.

His work assists this blog in three different ways. Firstly, it demonstrates why the patristic writings were blotted out of the modern history on the doctrine of tongues. Lecky provided the logic behind this notable absence. (The following article on this blog The Historical Rejection of Patristics and its Legacy covers this in detail.)

Secondly, the book provides some history behind the doctrine of cessation in the protestant movement. He gives some hints as to why this doctrine arose.

Thirdly, he contributes to another interest of this blog and that is with the intersection of faith and mental health. He outlined a period that was consistently engaged in moral and spiritual purity – one which was percieved to bring them safety, health, stability, and protection from the elements. It was the antidote for humanity’s ills. Science was considered tertiary in this struggle for security. The greatest enemy to these four aims was the devil and his army of angels. Society felt that the active pursuit and limitation of the powers of evil would ensure their personal physical, emotional, and spiritual security. This fight against the devil allowed the excess imagination of many to run wild and caused countless executions. This supernatural crusade was especially against women. Many of whom were accused of being witches. Most of these women today would likely be listed with some form of mental illness, but back in this period, there was little concept of such a thing. It is a sad chapter in Western history.

However, this was not always the exclusive approach by the Church. Jean Claude Larchet demonstrates in his book Mental Disorders and Spiritual Healing that at least from the Eastern Christian Church perspective, the treatment of mental health by the institutional church has had some progressive and merciful aspects too.

The reader must keep in mind that the irrational social response to the fear of the unknown cannot be restricted or blamed on the christian faith. It is a problem of the human psyche. Today we wrestle with the same problems of fear. Our world has significantly changed after the events of 9/11. The ever apparent fear of terrorists at the door have weakened citizen rights and has created serious suspicion upon any Muslim or anybody who looks Arab. The United States decision to ban citizens from seven Muslim dominated countries from entering their land underscores this irrationalism. This is but one of many examples. North American society is now driven by an irrational culture of fear in almost all of its decision making.

Many readers will not have the time to soak in Lecky’s voluminous treaty. The following are snippets from his work. The book itself is available at the Online Library of Liberty.

Quotes from A History of the Rise and Influence of Rationalism in Europe

Pg. 27 “There is certainly no change in the history of the last 300 years more striking, or suggestive of more curious enquiries, than that which has taken place in the estimate of the miraculous. At present, nearly all educated men receive an account of a miracle taking place in their own day, with an absolute and even derisive incredulity which dispenses with all examination of the evidence. Although they may be entirely unable to give a satisfactory explanation of some phenomena that have taken place, they never on that account dream of ascribing them to supernatural agency, such an hypothesis being, as they believe, altogether beyond the range of reasonable discussion. Yet, a few centuries ago, there was no solution to which the mind of man turned more readily in every perplexity. A miraculous account was then universally accepted as perfectly credible, probable, and ordinary. There was scarcely a village or a church that had not, at some time, been the scene of supernatural interposition. [Pg. 28] The powers of light and the powers of darkness were regarded as visibly struggling for the mastery. Saintly miracles, supernatural cures, startling judgments, visions, prophecies, and prodigies of every order, attested the activity of the one, while witchcraft and magic, with all their attendant horrors, were the visible manifestations of the other.”

Pg. 32 is in reference to cleansing the nation of perceived evil, and of demons, witchcraft and sorcery, the author goes into great detail showing the innumerable deaths that were caused by this superstitious conflagration.

Pg. 32 “Such was the attitude of the Church of Rome with reference to this subject, but on this ground the Reformers had no conflict with their opponents. The credulity which Luther manifested on all matters connected with diabolical intervention, was amazing, even for his age; and, when speaking of witchcraft, his language was emphatic and unhesitating. ‘I would have no compassion on these witches,’ he exclaimed, ‘I would burn them all!’ In England the establishment of the Reformation was the signal for an immediate outburst of the superstition; and there, as elsewhere its decline was represented by the clergy as the direct consequence and the exact measure of the progress of religious scepticism. In Scotland, where the Reformed ministers exercised greater influence than in any other country, and where the witch trials fell almost entirely into their hands, the persecution was proportionately atrocious.”

Pg. 36 “Indeed, the philosophy of madness is mainly due to Pinel, who wrote long after the superstition had vanished; and even if witchcraft had been treated as a disease, this would not have destroyed the belief that it was Satanic, in an age when all the more startling diseases were deemed supernatural, and when theologians maintained that Satan frequently acted by the employment of natural laws.”

Pg. 37 “It may be stated, I believe, as an invariable truth, that, whenever a religion which rests in a great measure on a system of terrorism, and which paints in dark and forcible colours the misery of men and the power of evil spirits, is intensely realised, it will engender the belief in witchcraft of [pg. 38] magic. The panic which its teachings will create, will overbalance the faculties of multitudes. The awful images of evil spirits of superhuman power, and of untiring malignity, will continually haunt the imagination. They will blend with the illusions of age or sorrow or sickness, and will appear with an especial vividness in the more alarming and unexplained phenomena of nature.”

Pg. 63 “Amid all this strange teaching, there ran, however, one rein of a darker character. The more terrible phenomena of nature were entirely unmoved by exorcisms and sprinklings, and they were invariably attributed to supernatural interposition. In every nation it has been believed, at an early period, that pestilences, famines, comets, rainbows, eclipses, and other rare and startling phenomena, were effected, not by the ordinary sequence of natural laws, but by the direct intervention of spirits. In this manner, the predisposition towards the [Pg. 64] miraculous, which is the characteristic of all semi-civilised nations, has been perpetuated, and the clergy have also frequently identified these phenomena with acts of rebellion against themselves. The old Catholic priests were consuin mate masters of these arts, and every rare natural event was, in the middle ages, an occasion for the most intense terrorism. Thus, in the eighth century, a fearful famine afflicted France, and was generally represented as a consequence of the repugnance which the French people manifested to the payment of tithes. In the ninth century, a total eclipse of the sun struck terror through Europe, and is said to have been one of the causes of the death of a French king.”

Pg. 69 “We find then that, all through the middle ages, most of the crimes that were afterwards collected by the inquisitors in the treatises on witchcraft were known; and that many of them were not unfrequently punished. At the same time the executions, during six centuries, were probably not as numerous as those which often took place during a single decade of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In the twelfth century, however, the subject passed into an entirely new phase. The conception of a witch, as we now conceive it—that is to say, of a woman who had entered into a deliberate compact with Satan, who was endowed with the power of working miracles whenever she pleased, and who was continually transported through the air to the Sabbath, where she paid her homage to the Evil One—first appeared. The [Pg. 70] panic created by the belief advanced at first slowly, but after a time with a fearfully accelerated rapidity. Thousands of victims were sometimes burnt alive in a few years. Every country in Europe was stricken with the wildest panic. Hundreds of the ablest judges were selected for the extirpation of the crime. A vast literature was created on the subject, and it was not until a considerable portion of the eighteenth century had passed away, that the executions finally ceased.”

Pg. 81 “When the belief is confined to the lower class, its existence will be languishing and unprogressive. But when legislators denounce it in [Pg. 82] their laws, and popes in their bulls; when priests inveigh against it in their pulpits, and inquisitors burn thousands at the stake, the imaginations of men will be inflamed, the terror will prove contagious, and the consequent delusions be multiplied.”

Pg. 84 -85 “I know, indeed, few stranger, and at the same time more terrible pictures, than are furnished by the history of witchcraft during the century that preceded and the century that followed the Reformation. Wherever the conflict of opinions was raging among the educated, witchcraft, like an attendant shadow, pursued its course among the ignorant; and Protestants and Catholics vied with each other in the zeal with which they prosecuted it. Never was the power of imagination—that strange faculty which casts the shadow of its images over the whole creation, and combines all the phenomena of life according to its own archetypes—more strikingly evinced. Superstitious and terror-stricken, the minds of men were impelled irresistibly towards the miraculous and the Satanic, and they found them upon every side. The elements of imposture blended so curiously with the elements of delusion, that it is now impossible to separate them. Sometimes an ambitious woman, braving the dangers of her [Pg. 85] act, boldly claimed supernatural power, and the haughtiest and the most courageous cowered humbly at her presence. Sometimes a husband attempted, in the witch courts, to cut the tie which his church had pronounced indissoluble; and numbers of wives have, in consequence, perished at the stake. Sometimes a dexterous criminal availed himself of the panic; and, directing a charge of witchcraft against his accuser, escaped himself with impunity. Sometimes, too, a personal grudge was avenged by the accusation, or a real crime was attributed to sorcery; or a hail-storm, or a strange disease, suggested the presence of a witch. But, for the most part, the trials represent pure and unmingled delusions. The defenders of the belief were able to maintain that multitudes had voluntarily confessed themselves guilty of commerce with the Evil One, and had persisted in their confessions till death. Madness is always peculiarly frequent during great religious or political revolutions; and, in the sixteenth century, all its forms were absorbed in the system of witchcraft, and caught the colour of the prevailing predisposition.”

Pg. 86-87 “It is very difficult for us in the present day to do justice to these works, or to realise the points of view from which they were written. A profound scepticism on all subjects [Pg. 87] connected with the Devil underlies the opinions of almost every educated man, and renders it difficult even to conceive a condition of thought in which that spirit was the object of an intense and realised belief. An anecdote which involves the personal intervention of Satan is now regarded as quite as intrinsically absurd, and unworthy of serious attention, as an anecdote of a fairy or of a sylph. When, therefore, a modern reader turns over the pages of an old treatise on witchcraft, and finds hundreds of such aneedotes related with the gravest assurance, he is often inclined to depreciate very unduly the intellect of an author who represents a condition of thought so unlike his own. The cold indifference to human suffering which these writers display gives an additional bias to his reason; while their extraordinary pedantry, their execrable Latin, and their gross scientific blunders, furnish ample materials for his ridicule. Besides this, Sprenger, who is at once the most celebrated, and, perhaps, the most credulous member of his class, unfortunately for his reputation, made some ambitious excursions into another field, and immortalised himself by a series of etymological blunders, which have been the delight of all succeeding scholars.”

Pg. 102-103 “The foregoing pages will, I trust, be sufficient to elucidate the leading causes upon which witchcraft depended. They will show that it resulted, not from accidental circum stances, individual eccentricities, or even scientific ignorance but from a general predisposition to see Satanic agency in life. It grew from, and it reflected, the prevailing modes of religious thought; and it declined only when those modes were weakened or destroyed. In almost every period of the [Pg. 103] middle ages, there had been a few men who in some degree dissented from the common superstitions; but their opinions were deemed entirely incomprehensible, and they exercised no appreciable influence upon their contemporaries.”

Pg. 114-115 “From the publication of the essays of Montaigne, we may date the influence of that girted and ever enlarging rationalistic school, who gradually effected the destruction of the belief in witchcraft, not by refuting [Pg. 115] or explaining its evidence, but simply by making men more and more sensible of its intrinsic absurdity.”

Pg. 119 “The history of witchcraft in Protestant countries differs so little from its history in Catholic ones, that it is not necessary to dwell upon it at much length. In both cases, a tendency towards the miraculous was the cause of the belief; and the degree of religious terrorism regulated the intensity of the persecution.”

Pg. 157 “Nothing could be more common than for a holy man to be lifted up from the floor in the midst of his devotions, or to be visited by the Virgin or by an angel. There was scarcely a town that could not show some relic that had cured the sick, or some image that had opened and shut its eyes, or bowed it head to an earnest worshipper.”

Pg. 159 “All this has now passed away. It has passed away, not only in lands where Protestantism is triumphant, but also in those where the Roman Catholic faith is still acknowledged, and where the mediæval saints are still venerated.”

Pg. 161 “If these propositions be true—and I scarcely think that any candid person who seriously examines the subject can [Pg. 162] question them—they lead irresistibly to a very important general conclusion. They show that the repugnance of men to believe miraculous narratives is in direct proportion to the progress of civilisation and the diffusion of knowledge.”

Pg. 163 “We find, accordingly, that from the very beginning, Protestantism looked upon [Pg. 164] modern miracles (except those which were comprised under the head of witchcraft) with an aversion and distrust that contrasts remarkably with the unhesitating credulity of its opponents. The history of its sects exhibits, indeed, some alleged miracles, which were, apparently, the result of ignorance or enthusiasm, and a very few which were obvious impositions.”

Pg. 169 “Middleton met it by an attack upon the veracity of the Fathers, which was so eloquent, so uncompromising, and so admirably directed, that all England soon rang with the controversy. He contended that the religious leaders of the fourth century had admitted, eulogised, and habitually acted upon principles that were diametrically opposed, not simply to the aspirations of a transcendent sanctity, but to the dictates of the most common honesty.”

Pg. 171 “If the Fathers were in truth men of the most unbounded credulity and of the laxest veracity; if the sense of the importance of dogmas had, in their minds, completely superseded the sense of rectitude, it was absurd to invest them with this extraordinary veneration. They might still be reverenced as men of undoubted sincerity, and of the noblest heroism; they might still be cited as witnesses to the belief of their time, and as representing the tendencies of its intellect; but their pre-eminent authority had passed away. The landmarks of English theology were removed. The traditions on which it rested were disturbed. It had entered into new conditions, and must be defended by new arguments.”

Pg. 186 “Whatever is lost by Catholicism is gained by Rationalism; wherever the spirit of Rationalism recedes, the spirit of Catholicism advances. Towards the close of the last century France threw off her allegiance to Christianity, endeavoured to efface all the traditions of her past, and proclaimed a new era in the religious history of mankind. She soon repented of her temerity, and retired from a position which she had found untenable. Half the nation became ultramontane Roman Catholics; the other half became indifferent or Rationalist.”

Pg. 194-195 “. . .and the spirit of Rationalism has become the great centre to which the intellect of [Pg. 195] Europe is manifestly tending. If we trace the progress of the movement from its origin to the present day, we find that it has completely altered the whole aspect and complexion of religion. When it began, Christianity was regarded as a system entirely beyond the range and scope of human reason: it was impious to question; it was impious to examine; it was impious to discriminate. On the other hand, it was visibly instinct with the supernatural. Miracles of every order and degree of magnitude were flashing forth incessantly from all its parts. They excited no scepticism and no surprise. The miraculous element pervaded all literature, explained all difficulties, consecrated all doctrines. Every unusual phenomenon was immediately referred to a supernatural agency, not because there was a passion for the improbable, but because such an explanation seemed far more simple and easy of belief than the obscure theories of science. In the present day Christianity is regarded as a system which courts the strictest investigation, and which, among many other functions, was designed to vivify and stimulate all the energies of man. The idea of the miraculous, which a superficial observer might have once deemed its most prominent characteristic, has been driven from almost all its entrenchments, and now quivers faintly and feebly through the mists of eighteen hundred years.”


charlesasullivan

charlesasullivan

Charles Sullivan is a researcher and writer on topics of textual criticism, linguistics, theology, Christian mysticism and philosophy. He also frequently likes to delve into contemporary social and ethical issues from a faith perspective.
charlesasullivan

Latest posts by charlesasullivan (see all)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*