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Superstition In The Enlightenment And Romantic Periods

Enlightenment thinkers like David Hume (1711–1776) and Joseph Addison (1672–1719) adapted the "virtue of the mean" model of superstition by defining the opposite extreme not as atheism or irreligion but as enthusiasm or fanaticism. Hume considered the different social consequences of the two extremes. Hume claimed that superstition originated in the fear of the unknown and that people undertook superstitious activities to propitiate unknown forces and thus protect themselves. Superstition sprang from excessive fear, enthusiasm from excessive confidence. However, Hume claimed that superstition was far more dangerous to society than enthusiasm. Superstitious people, afraid to approach the divine directly, handed over authority to priests, whereas enthusiasts refused to admit any intermediary between themselves and God. Superstition encouraged timorousness, and enthusiasm encouraged fearlessness—therefore despotic government and political passivity naturally accompanied superstition. Socially, eighteenth-century thinkers identified superstition with marginalized groups—peoples outside Europe, the European masses, and women, particularly old women.

Some radical Enlightenment philosophers broadened the concept of superstition until it described all organized religions. The entry on superstition in Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary recounted how various Christian and non-Christian sects have accused each other of "superstition." By pointing out that there is no religion that has not been denounced by another as superstition, Voltaire discredited organized religion generally. Both Voltaire and Hume hinted that the inevitable superstition of the masses might not be altogether a bad thing, if it kept them quiescent.

The Romantic era saw a more positive valuation of superstition, part of the reaction against Enlightenment rationalism and the growing interest in "folk" culture. The English poet John Clare (1793–1864) viewed superstition in his country as a remnant of the culture of the Anglo-Saxons and Normans and spoke of it almost rhapsodically. "Superstition lives longer than books; it is engrafted on the human mind till it becomes a part of its existence; and is carried from generation to generation on the stream of eternity, with the proudest of fames, untroubled with the insect encroachments of oblivion which books are infested with" (Clare, p. 301). The human sciences that emerged in the nineteenth century considered superstition and particular superstitions part of their subject matter, and anthropologists and folklorists collected and analyzed them while psychologists sought the root of superstition in the human mind.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Stomium to SwiftsSuperstition - Superstition And The Medieval And Early Modern Catholic Church, Superstition And Its Foes In The Islamic World