Bacon's Essays: Of Superstition

goblinOf Supersition is my new candidate for worst essay. Francis Bacon emphatically did not approve of superstition and he makes that clear enough, but there isn’t a single good quote in the whole piece. It feels lackluster. We might chalk it up to a bad day — all writers have them — but for the fact that he noodled over these essays for years before publishing the first round and brought out two revised editions in his own lifetime.

One odd thing about this essay is that it presents a weak defense of atheism, which Bacon blasted pretty thoroughly in last month’s essay. Now he says, “Atheism leaves a man to sense, to philosophy, to natural piety, to laws, to reputation all which may be guides to an outward moral virtue, though religion were not [if religion did not exist]; but superstition dismounts all these, and erecteth an absolute monarchy, in the minds of men.”

Sense, philosophy, piety (respect), laws, and moral virtue – what else do you need?

The OED defines superstition as “A religious belief, ceremony, or practice considered to be irrational, unfounded, or based on fear or ignorance.” That’s where Bacon is going with it. I tend to think of superstition as that subliminal or non-rational sense of connectedness among things and events that most people seem to experience at least in some areas some of the time. Most of don’t really believe leaving our car windows open will cause it to rain, but even very rational persons will, at least jokingly, draw lines between such obvious temptings of fate and their inevitable smackdowns.


Ancient rituals

Bacon is focused on wrong religion and considers superstition to be an aspect of foolishness. He lists several causes of superstitions (numbers inserted by me). (1) “[P]leasing and sensual rites and ceremonies; (2) excess of outward and pharisaical holiness; (3) overgreat reverence of traditions, which cannot but load the church; (4) the stratagems of prelates, for their own ambition and lucre; (5) the favoring too much of good intentions, which openeth the gate to conceits and novelties; (6) the taking an aim at divine matters, by human, which cannot but breed mixture of imaginations: and, lastly, (7) barbarous times, especially joined with calamities and disasters.”

The first four of these are criticisms of the Catholic church. Bacon was reared by a Calvinist mother, remember, for whom proper religion required study and amendment of the inner man, not fancy altar cloths and incense and endless, meaningless rituals.

I don’t understand (5). Maybe it means we should value deeds over intentions. That sounds Calvinistic to me. You can’t go to confession and say, “Sorry; I meant well,” and just get a slap on the wrist.

(6) has to do with his defense of science, I think. We humans can and should study everything on earth, but leave heaven to God. Don’t bicker about how many angels there are and what they can or cannot do. I have not idea what “mixture of imaginations” might mean. It sounds like the goal of the modern visual artist.

kahoutekBarbarous times, calamities, and disasters, definitely bring out all the superstitions. Anyone out there remember Kahoutek and the end of the world? That would have been 1973, y’all, except it turned out to be just another comet.

The Children of God people posted flyers all over the country proclaiming the end of the world. I forget why it was supposed to be so terrible but it was huge. Bigger than Y2K, which was another non-apocalypse. If you live long enough, you get through lots of ends of the world.


Although a lot of people, me included, started leaving our car windows open during the terrible drought of 2011, when the great state of Texas caught on fire.


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