Monday, November 16, 2015
The Satanic Spirit By Professor W. H. Hudson 1905
The Satanic Spirit By Professor W. H. Hudson 1905, article in the Agnostic Annual
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We are still occasionally reminded, though far less frequently to-day than even twenty-five years ago, that the impulse which prompts the scientist to probe into the mysteries of life has its origin in impiety, and that God cannot but be displeased at that "pride of the intellect" which finds its gratification in the too curious examination of his methods and aims. A glance back over the history of thought will show the full significance of this tacit association of the spirit of science and the spirit of rebellion against the divine will.
The starting-point of the interpretation of the world offered us by popular theology is, of course, the story of the Fall. Jahveh has placed the new creatures, Adam and Eve, amid the delights of the Garden of Eden, and has given them almost complete control of its resources. Of the fruit of one tree only —the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—he has forbidden them to taste under penalty of his displeasure—"in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die!" Adam himself is apparently willing to accept the limitation thus imposed. But the spirit of evil, in the guise of a serpent (in later times regarded as Satan himself), tempts the woman to disobedience. The divine command is broken, the rebels are driven from paradise, and evil and death come into the world. The implications of this story (which Schopenhauer said alone reconciled him to the Old Testament!) lie upon the surface. Jahveh is jealous of the creatures he has made, fears -lest, by tasting of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, they should become his equals, and does his utmost to keep them in a condition of childish ignorance and dependence. Thus, in the very first chapter of human history as written by theology, piety is identified with intellectual apathy and unqualified acceptance of authority, while the desire to rise out of puerile innocence into a free mental life ia condemned as Bin, and presented as the source "of all our woe."
Another familiar story from early Hebrew mythology—the Deluge-myth—may be joined with this as having the same general meaning. After the flood, the race of men determine to secure themselves against the possible recurrence of such a catastrophe by building a great tower on the plains of Shinar. The wisdom and propriety of such a course is beyond dispute. But it conflicts with Jahveh's purpose, which is still to rear a race of helpless and dependent innocents, for which reason, in his alarm at this sudden manifestation of men's energy and ambition, he confounds their tongues, scatters them over the earth, and thus frustrates their efforts to destroy his authority. Again, as in a grotesque parable, we read of the old conflict between the jealous despot seeking to keep men in impotence and the restless spirit which prompts them to seek a way of their own; again progress is connected with rebellion against the divine will, and is visited by the divine curse. The moral is made clearer by reference to the Chaldean form of the legend in which we are told that the leader of men in their infamous mutiny against heaven was one "the thought of whose heart was evil," and who had "repudiated the father of all the gods."
How widespread was this early view of the impious character of the instincts which make for freedom and intellectual expansion is curiously shown by the fact that, despite their own mental alertness and vigour, it was commonly entertained by the Greeks. Among them, too, as Professor Butcher has said, the popular idea was that the gods were suspicious of men, in whom they saw restless and dangerous rivals; and hence in their mythology the great benefactors of mankind were conspicuous among the victims of divine wrath. The myth of the titan Prometheus, who was punished by the outwitted and angry Zeus for snatching fire from heaven, carrying it down among men, and so enabling them to take the first step on the road of civilisation, clearly embodies the conception of progress as an encroachment upon the divine rights and privileges; while its epilogue, the legend of Pandora, the first woman, catches up and re-emphasises its underlying moral by exhibiting the disastrous results which follow when the spirit of curiosity—the itch to pry into the secrets of the gods—is allowed to have its way. Thus, again, man's desire to know, press forward, realise his possibilities, is traced back to the temper of rebellion; and the forces which lie behind culture, growth, civilisation, are directly associated with the revolt of man, who aspires to learn and conquer, against his heavenly masters, who are determined to keep him ignorant and weak.
I dwell upon these old-world stories because, sharply defining as they do a long-accepted point of view, they illuminate the history of the relations, during many centuries, of theology and science. Considering that history in its broadest outlines, what do we find? That implicit obedience to the heavenly despot, who, like an earthly tyrant, sits uneasily upon his throne, has commonly been proclaimed as reverence, piety, the truly "religious" spirit; while, on the other hand, the truth-seeker's mood of fearless inquiry has been ascribed to Satanic inspiration. Again and again the pioneers of thought, the leaders in the world's great movements forward, have been told that they are tampering with things which God has meant that we should leave alone—that in seeking to open a larger field for human energy they are manifesting a spirit of insubordination against providence, which has wisely set the narrowest limits to our human lot. Thus the scene in the Garden has been repeatedly re-enacted, and man the inquirer, turning with eyes of desire to the Tree of Knowledge, has been reminded that the penalty for tasting of its fruit is death.
I might illustrate this general statement by reference to some of the world's intellectual epoch-makers—Paracelsus, Galileo, Giordano Bruno, Kepler, Darwin—each of whom was informed, in the special language of the time (now of persecution, now of authoritative condemnation, now of simple abuse), that the old Satanic spirit was at work in his heart. But as their stories are familiar to all, I prefer to turn for a moment to the legend-lore of the Middle Ages, and to point out the significance of those "compact myths" which express so picturesquely the ideas of the theological ages in which they evolved. The central idea of these myths is the quest for what is suggestively called " forbidden" knowledge; and the sinfulness of man in seeking such forbidden knowledge—knowledge, that is, which is God's jealously guarded possession—is made evident by the fact that, in his effort to surprise the Creator and capture his secret, the inquirer must have reeourse to diabolic assistance, which he purchases at the price of his own soul.
Of such legends, the best known are those which cluster about the name of Faustus. There can, I imagine, be little doubt that here, to begin with, was an historical personage— probably one of the early enthusiasts for learning; but his true features were so distorted by theological prejudice and vulgar fancy that he was long treated as a sort of type of the blasphemous, miracle-mongering magician, in league with the Prince of Darkness, from whom all his power was derived. The genesis of such a legend-cycle, and its enormous hold upon popular thought, well illustrate the animus of ecclesiasticism, in the days of its almost unchallenged sway, against those who already sought to break the fetters of the mind. The very fact that science then went under the name of the "black art" is enough to show the common point of view in regard to it. Or to turn from what is now pure legend to a case in which we have a basis of historic fact and a large incrustation of myth—the case of Roger Bacon. It is not too much to say that this man was one of the greatest and noblest seekers after truth between the days of Greek philosophy and the Renaissance. His pathetic story tells of life-long devotion to study, of splendid aspirations, of tragic failure. Wealth, ease, place, all that the world commonly holds dear, he sacrificed for the pursuit of knowledge; for forty years he toiled patiently in the face of difficulties which might well have driven him to despair; he made discoveries which have immortalised his name as a pioneer of modern science. And what was his reward? Poverty, obloquy, imprisonment; the sense of having laboured for nothing; and, to crown all, a place in vulgar legend beside the paragon of impiety, Faustus himself.
Did we seek a still further illustration of the attitude of mediaeval theology towards the spirit of inquiry and progress, we might find it by observing the curious way in which God's part and Satan's in the world's affairs were habitually discriminated. For the hand of God was persistently traced in all the disasters of existence, while the direct influence of the Devil was just as persistently detected in all that made for man's expansion and welfare. Plagues, persecutions, wars, earthquakes, famines, were the work of the divine ruler of the universe; but when any fresh step in intellectual progress was taken, it was by
Satan's minions; when any new insight into natural laws was obtained, it was by Satan's help; when any effort was made to apply knowledge to the alleviation of suffering and the relief of man's estate, Satan was at the bottom of it all! When theologians descant upon the blasphemy of science, it seems to me that we have an easy and effective form of retort.
In the notion, still occasionally expressed, that the scientific spirit and the spirit which stimulates us to make the utmost of secular life smack somehow of irreverence and insubordination to the will of God, it is evident, then, that we have a survival, in greatly modified form, of a theory of things practically universal so long as the theological standpoint was maintained, and, with the gradual abandonment of that standpoint, certain to fall into disrepute. That the old feeling does, indeed, to some extent persist we are reminded by sporadic utterances of less enlightened religious teachers here and there. It is not so many years ago, for instance, that the pulpit denounced, still on the ground of impiety, Darwin's researches into the methods of nature, and the use of anaesthetics in surgery. But less and less are we likely, in years to come, to hear of this once common charge against science of being anti-religious in its temper and purpose; less and less are we likely to find the progress of thought associated with Satanic promptings, and referred to diabolical power. Shelley revised the myth of Prometheus to fit the new spirit of his day; Clough, in his version of the story of the Fall, made Adam comfort his weeping wife by proclaiming that the loss of childish innocence was only the first step towards true manhood and self-realisation; Carducci even invoked Satan as the unconquerable hero of liberty and progress. These are but symptoms of a widespread change of thought; and as that change goes further and deeper it will be accompanied by a thorough readjustment of the claims of science and theology in respect of the religious movement of the world. For already men are beginning to see that the spirit of science, and not the spirit of theology, is the true religious spirit; for science teaches the sanctity of fact and the quest of truth for its own sake; labours in the full faith that completer knowledge of the laws and processes of Nature can bring us nothing but gain; and so asserts that, whatever hypothesis we may frame of the ultimate mystery of things, the heart of the universe is sound.
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