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An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. (1748)

Sect. X. Of Miracles

David Hume.

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An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

David Hume.

Sect. X. Of Miracles

                             PART I.

  86. There is, in Dr. Tillotson's writings, an argument against the
real presence, which is as concise, and elegant, and strong as any
argument can possibly be supposed against a doctrine, so little worthy
of a serious refutation. It is acknowledged on all hands, says that
learned prelate, that the authority, either of the scripture or of
tradition, is founded merely in the testimony of the apostles, who
were eye-witnesses to those miracles of our Saviour, by which he
proved his divine mission. Our evidence, then, for the truth of the
Christian religion is less than the evidence for the truth of our
senses; because, even in the first authors of our religion, it was
no greater; and it is evident it must diminish in passing from them to
their disciples; nor can any one rest such confidence in their
testimony, as in the immediate object of his senses. But a weaker
evidence can never destroy a stronger; and therefore, were the
doctrine of the real presence ever so clearly revealed in scripture,
it were directly contrary to the rules of just reasoning to give our
assent to it. It contradicts sense, though both the scripture and
tradition, on which it is supposed to be built, carry not such
evidence with them as sense; when they are considered merely as
external evidences, and are not brought home to every one's breast, by
the immediate operation of the Holy Spirit.

  Nothing is so convenient as a decisive argument of this kind,
which must at least silence the most arrogant bigotry and
superstition, and free us from their impertinent solicitations. I
flatter myself, that I have discovered an argument of a like nature,
which, if just, will, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting
check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently, will
be useful as long as the world endures. For so long, I presume, will
the accounts of miracles and prodigies be found in all history, sacred
and profane.

  87. Though experience be our only guide in reasoning concerning
matters of fact; it must be acknowledged, that this guide is not
altogether infallible, but in some cases is apt to lead us into
errors. One, who in our climate, should expect better weather in any
week of June than in one of December, would reason justly, and
conformably to experience; but it is certain, that he may happen, in
the event, to find himself mistaken. However, we may observe, that, in
such a case, he would have no cause to complain of experience; because
it commonly informs us beforehand of the uncertainty, by that
contrariety of events, which we may learn from a diligent observation.
All effects follow not with like certainty from their supposed causes.
Some events are found, in all countries and all ages, to have been
constantly conjoined together: Others are found to have been more
variable, and sometimes to disappoint our expectations; so that, in
our reasonings concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable
degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species
of moral evidence.

  A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence. In
such conclusions as are founded on an infallible experience, he
expects the event with the last degree of assurance, and regards his
past experience as a full proof of the future existence of that event.
In other cases, he proceeds with more caution: He weighs the
opposite experiments: He considers which side is supported by the
greater number of experiments: to that side he inclines, with doubt
and hesitation; and when at last he fixes his judgement, the
evidence exceeds not what we properly call probability. All
probability, then, supposes an opposition of experiments and
observations, where the one side is found to overbalance the other,
and to produce a degree of evidence, proportioned to the
superiority. A hundred instances or experiments on one side, and fifty
on another, afford a doubtful expectation of any event; though a
hundred uniform experiments, with only one that is contradictory,
reasonably beget a pretty strong degree of assurance. In all cases, we
must balance the opposite experiments, where they are opposite, and
deduct the smaller number from the greater, in order to know the exact
force of the superior evidence.

  88. To apply these principles to a particular instance; we may
observe that there is no species of reasoning more common, more
useful, and even necessary to human life, than that which is derived
from the testimony of men, and the reports of eye-witnesses and
spectators. This species of reasoning, perhaps, one may deny to be
founded on the relation of cause and effect. I shall not dispute about
a word. It will be sufficient to observe that our assurance in any
argument of this kind is derived from no other principle than our
observation of the veracity of human testimony, and of the usual
conformity of facts to the reports of witnesses. It being a general
maxim, that no objects have any discoverable connexion together, and
that all the inferences, which we can draw from one to another, are
founded merely on our experience of their constant and regular
conjunction; it is evident that we ought not to make an exception to
this maxim in favour of human testimony, whose connexion with any
event seems, in itself, as little necessary as any other. Were not the
memory tenacious to a certain degree; had not men commonly an
inclination to truth and a principle of probity; were they not
sensible to shame, when detected in a falsehood: Were not these, I
say, discovered by experience to be qualities, inherent in human
nature, we should never repose the least confidence in human
testimony. A man delirious, or noted for falsehood and villany, has no
manner of authority with us.

  And as the evidence, derived from witnesses and human testimony,
is founded on past experience, so it varies with the experience, and
is regarded either as a proof or a probability, according as the
conjunction between any particular kind of report and any kind of
object has been found to be constant or variable. There are a number
of circumstances to be taken into consideration in all judgements of
this kind; and the ultimate standard, by which we determine all
disputes, that may arise concerning them, is always derived from
experience and observation. Where this experience is not entirely
uniform on any side, it is attended with an unavoidable contrariety in
our judgements, and with the same opposition and mutual destruction of
argument as in every other kind of evidence. We frequently hesitate
concerning the reports of others. We balance the opposite
circumstances, which cause any doubt or uncertainty; and when we
discover a superiority on any side, we incline to it; but still with a
diminution of assurance, in proportion to the force of its antagonist.

  89. This contrariety of evidence, in the present case, may be
derived from several different causes; from the opposition of contrary
testimony; from the character or number of the witnesses; from the
manner of their delivering their testimony; or from the union of all
these circumstances. We entertain a suspicion concerning any matter of
fact, when the witnesses contradict each other; when they are but few,
or of a doubtful character; when they have an interest in what they
affirm; when they deliver their testimony with hesitation, or on the
contrary, with too violent asseverations. There are many other
particulars of the same kind, which may diminish or destroy the
force of any argument, derived from human testimony.

  Suppose, for instance, that the fact, which the testimony endeavours
to establish, partakes of the extraordinary and the marvellous; in
that case, the evidence, resulting from the testimony, admits of a
diminution, greater or less, in proportion as the fact is more or less
unusual. The reason why we place any credit in witnesses and
historians, is not derived from any connexion, which we perceive a
priori, between testimony and reality, but because we are accustomed
to find a conformity between them. But when the fact attested is
such a one as has seldom fallen under our observation, here is a
contest of two opposite experiences; of which the one destroys the
other, as far as its force goes, and the superior can only operate
on the mind by the force, which remains. The very same principle of
experience, which gives us a certain degree of assurance in the
testimony of witnesses, gives us also, in this case, another degree of
assurance against the fact, which they endeavour to establish; from
which contradiction there necessarily arises a counterpoize, and
mutual destruction of belief and authority.

  I should not believe such a story were it told me by Cato, was a
proverbial saying in Rome, even during the lifetime of that
philosophical patriot.* The incredibility of a fact, it was allowed,
might invalidate so great an authority.

  * Plutarch, Marcus Cato.

  The Indian prince, who refused to believe the first relations
concerning the effects of frost, reasoned justly; and it naturally
required very strong testimony to engage his assent to facts, that
arose from a state of nature, with which he was unacquainted, and
which bore so little analogy to those events, of which he had had
constant and uniform experience. Though they were not contrary to
his experience, they were not conformable to it.*

  * No Indian, it is evident, could have experience that water did not
freeze in cold climates. This is placing nature in a situation quite
unknown to him; and it is impossible for him to tell a priori what
will result from it. It is making a new experiment, the consequence of
which is always uncertain. One may sometimes conjecture from analogy
what will follow; but still this is but conjecture. And it must be
confessed, that, in the present case of freezing, the event follows
contrary to the rules of analogy, and is such as a rational Indian
would not look for. The operations of cold upon water are not gradual,
according to the degrees of cold; but whenever it comes to the
freezing point, the water passes in a moment, from the utmost
liquidity to perfect hardness. Such an event, therefore, may be
denominated extraordinary, and requires a pretty strong testimony to
render it credible to people in a war climate: But still it is not
miraculous, nor contrary to uniform experience of the course of nature
in cases where all the circumstances are the same. The inhabitants
of Sumatra have always seen water fluid in their own climate, and
the freezing of their rivers ought to be deemed a prodigy: But they
never saw water in Muscovy during the winter; and therefore they
cannot reasonably be positive what would there be the consequence.

  90. But in order to encrease the probability against the testimony
of witnesses, let us suppose, that the fact, which they affirm,
instead of being only marvellous, is really miraculous; and suppose
also, that the testimony considered apart and in itself, amounts to an
entire proof; in that case, there is proof against proof, of which the
strongest must prevail, but still with a diminution of its force, in
proportion to that of its antagonist.

  A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and
unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a
miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any
argument from experience can possibly be imagined. Why is it more than
probable, that all men must die; that lead cannot, of itself, remain
suspended in the air; that fire consumes wood, and is extinguished
by water; unless it be, that these events are found agreeable to the
laws of nature, and there is required a violation of these laws, or in
other words, a miracle to prevent them? Nothing is esteemed a miracle,
if it ever happen in the common course of nature. It is no miracle
that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden:
because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other,
has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle,
that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been
observed in any age or country. There must, therefore, be a uniform
experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would
not merit that appellation. And as a uniform experience amounts to a
proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the
fact, against the existence of any miracle; nor can such a proof be
destroyed, or the miracle rendered credible, but by an opposite proof,
which is superior.*

  * Sometimes an event may not, in itself, seem to be contrary to
the laws of nature, and yet, if it were real, it might, by reason of
some circumstances, be denominated a miracle; because, in fact, it
is contrary to these laws. Thus if a person, claiming a divine
authority, should command a sick person to be well, a healthful man to
fall down dead, the clouds to pour rain, the winds to blow, in
short, should order many natural events, which immediately follow upon
his command; these might justly be esteemed miracles, because they are
really, in this case, contrary to the laws of nature. For if any
suspicion remain, that the event and command concurred by accident,
there is no miracle and no transgression of the laws of nature. If
this suspicion be removed, there is evidently a miracle, and a
transgression of these laws; because nothing can be more contrary to
nature than that the voice or command of a man should have such an
influence. A miracle may be accurately defined, a transgression of a
law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the
interposition of some invisible agent. A miracle may either be
discoverable by men or not. This alters not its nature and essence.
The raising of a house or ship into the air is a visible miracle.
The raising of a feather, when the wind wants ever so little of a
force requisite for that purpose, is as real a miracle, though not
so sensible with regard to us.

  91. The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of
our attention), "That no testimony is sufficient to establish a
miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood
would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to
establish; and even in that case there is a mutual destruction of
arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to
that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior."
When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I
immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that
this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact,
which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle
against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover,
I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the
falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event
which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command
my belief or opinion.

                               PART II.

  92. In the foregoing reasoning we have supposed that the
testimony, upon which a miracle is founded, may possibly amount to
an entire proof, and that the falsehood of that testimony would be a
real prodigy: But it is easy to shew that we have been a great deal
too liberal in our concession, and that there never was a miraculous
event established on so full an evidence.

  For first, there is not to be found, in all history, any miracle
attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned
good-sense, education, and learning, as to secure us against all
delusion in themselves; of such undoubted integrity, as to place
them beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others; of such
credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind, as to have a great
deal to lose in case of their being detected in any falsehood; and
at the same time, attesting facts performed in such a public manner
and in so celebrated a part of the world, as to render the detection
unavoidable: All which circumstances are requisite to give us a full
assurance in the testimony of men.

  93. Secondly. We may observe in human nature a principle which, if
strictly examined, will be found to diminish extremely the
assurance, which we might, from human testimony, have, in any kind
of prodigy. The maxim, by which we commonly conduct ourselves in our
reasonings, is, that the objects, of which we have no experience,
resemble those, of which we have; that what we have found to be most
usual is always most probable; and that where there is an opposition
of arguments, we ought to give the preference to such as are founded
on the greatest number of past observations. But though, in proceeding
by this rule, we readily reject any fact which is unusual and
incredible in an ordinary degree; yet in advancing farther, the mind
observes not always the same rule; but when anything is affirmed
utterly absurd and miraculous, it rather the more readily admits of
such a fact, upon account of that very circumstance, which ought to
destroy all its authority. The passion of surprise and wonder, arising
from miracles, being an agreeable emotion, gives a sensible tendency
towards the belief of those events, from which it is derived. And this
goes so far, that even those who cannot enjoy this pleasure
immediately, nor can believe those miraculous events, of which they
are informed, yet love to partake of the satisfaction at second-hand
or by rebound, and place a pride and delight in exciting the
admiration of others.

  With what greediness are the miraculous accounts of travellers
received, their descriptions of sea and land monsters, their relations
of wonderful adventures, strange men, and uncouth manners? But if
the spirit of religion join itself to the love of wonder, there is
an end of common sense; and human testimony, in these circumstances,
loses all pretensions to authority. A religionist may be an
enthusiast, and imagine he sees what has no reality: he may know his
narrative to be false, and yet persevere in it, with the best
intentions in the world, for the sake of promoting so holy a cause: or
even where this delusion has not place, vanity, excited by so strong a
temptation, operates on him more powerfully than on the rest of
mankind in any other circumstances; and self-interest with equal
force. His auditors may not have, and commonly have not, sufficient
judgement to canvass his evidence: what judgement they have, they
renounce by principle, in these sublime and mysterious subjects: or if
they were ever so willing to employ it, passion and a heated
imagination disturb the regularity of its operations. Their
credulity increases his impudence: and his impudence overpowers
their credulity.

  Eloquence, when at its highest pitch, leaves little room for
reason or reflection; but addressing itself entirely to the fancy or
the affections, captivates the willing hearers, and subdues their
understanding. Happily, this pitch it seldom attains. But what a Tully
or a Demosthenes could scarcely effect over a Roman or Athenian
audience, every Capuchin, every itinerant or stationary teacher can
perform over the generality of mankind, and in a higher degree, by
touching such gross and vulgar passions.

  The many instances of forged miracles, and prophecies, and
supernatural events, which, in all ages, have either been detected
by contrary evidence, or which detect themselves by their absurdity,
prove sufficiently the strong propensity of mankind to the
extraordinary and the marvellous, and ought reasonably to beget a
suspicion against all relations of this kind. This is our natural
way of thinking, even with regard to the most common and most credible
events. For instance: There is no kind of report which rises so
easily, and spreads so quickly, especially in country places and
provincial towns, as those concerning marriages; insomuch that two
young persons of equal condition never see each other twice, but the
whole neighbourhood immediately join them together. The pleasure of
telling a piece of news so interesting, of propagating it, and of
being the first reporters of it, spreads the intelligence. And this is
so well known, that no man of sense gives attention to these
reports, till he find them confirmed by some greater evidence. Do
not the same passions, and others still stronger, incline the
generality of mankind to believe and report, with the greatest
vehemence and assurance, all religious miracles?

  94. Thirdly. It forms a strong presumption against all
supernatural and miraculous relations, that they are observed
chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations; or if a
civilized people has ever given admission to any of them, that
people will be found to have received them from ignorant and barbarous
ancestors, who transmitted them with that inviolable sanction and
authority, which always attend received opinions. When we peruse the
first histories of all nations, we are apt to imagine ourselves
transported into some new world; where the whole frame of nature is
disjointed, and every element performs its operations in a different
manner, from what it does at present. Battles, revolutions,
pestilence, famine and death, are never the effect of those natural
causes, which we experience. Prodigies, omens, oracles, judgements,
quite obscure the few natural events, that are intermingled with them.
But as the former grow thinner every page, in proportion as we advance
nearer the enlightened ages, we soon learn, that there is nothing
mysterious or supernatural in the case, but that all proceeds from the
usual propensity of mankind towards the marvellous, and that, though
this inclination may at intervals receive a check from sense and
learning, it can never be thoroughly extirpated from human nature.

  It is strange, a judicious reader is apt to say, upon the perusal of
these wonderful historians, that such prodigious events never happen
in our days. But it is nothing strange, I hope, that men should lie in
all ages. You must surely have seen instances enough of that
frailty. You have yourself heard many such marvellous relations
started, which, being treated with scorn by all the wise and
judicious, have at last been abandoned even by the vulgar. Be assured,
that those renowned lies, which have spread and flourished to such a
monstrous height, arose from like beginnings; but being sown in a more
proper soil, shot up at last into prodigies almost equal to those
which they relate.

  It was a wise policy in that false prophet, Alexander, who though
now forgotten, was once so famous, to lay the first scene of his
impostures in Paphlagonia, where, as Lucian tells us, the people
were extremely ignorant and stupid, and ready to swallow even the
grossest delusion. People at a distance, who are weak enough to
think the matter at all worth enquiry, have no opportunity of
receiving better information. The stories come magnified to them by
a hundred circumstances. Fools are industrious in propagating the
imposture; while the wise and learned are contented, in general, to
deride its absurdity, without informing themselves of the particular
facts, by which it may be distinctly refuted. And thus the impostor
above mentioned was enabled to proceed, from his ignorant
Paphlagonians, to the enlisting of votaries, even among the Grecian
philosophers, and men of the most eminent rank and distinction in
Rome: nay, could engage the attention of that sage emperor Marcus
Aurelius; so far as to make him trust the success of a military
expedition to his delusive prophecies.

  The advantages are so great, of starting an imposture among an
ignorant people, that, even though the delusion should be too gross to
impose on the generality of them (which, though seldom, is sometimes
the case) it has a much better chance for succeeding in remote
countries, than if the first scene had been laid in a city renowned
for arts and knowledge. The most ignorant and barbarous of these
barbarians carry the report abroad. None of their countrymen have a
large correspondence, or sufficient credit and authority to contradict
and beat down the delusion. Men's inclination to the marvellous has
full opportunity to display itself. And thus a story, which is
universally exploded in the place where it was first started, shall
pass for certain at a thousand miles distance. But had Alexander fixed
his residence at Athens, the philosophers of that renowned mart of
learning had immediately spread, throughout the whole Roman empire,
their sense of the matter; which, being supported by so great
authority, and displayed by all the force of reason and eloquence, had
entirely opened the eyes of mankind. It is true; Lucian, passing by
chance through Paphlagonia, had an opportunity of performing this good
office. But, though much to be wished, it does not always happen, that
every Alexander meets with a Lucian, ready to expose and detect his

  95. I may add as a fourth reason, which diminishes the authority
of prodigies, that there is no testimony for any, even those which
have not been expressly detected, that is not opposed by an infinite
number of witnesses; so that not only the miracle destroys the
credit of testimony, but the testimony destroys itself. To make this
the better understood, let us consider, that, in matters of
religion, whatever is different is contrary; and that it is impossible
the religions of ancient Rome, of Turkey, of Siam, and of China
should, all of them, be established on any solid foundation. Every
miracle, therefore, pretended to have been wrought in any of these
religions (and all of them abound in miracles), as its direct scope is
to establish the particular system to which it is attributed; so has
it the same force, though more indirectly, to overthrow every other
system. In destroying a rival system, it likewise destroys the
credit of those miracles, on which that system was established; so
that all the prodigies of different religions are to be regarded as
contrary facts, and the evidences of these prodigies, whether weak
or strong, as opposite to each other. According to this method of
reasoning, when we believe any miracle of Mahomet or his successors,
we have for our warrant the testimony of a few barbarous Arabians: And
on the other hand, we are to regard the authority of Titus Livius,
Plutarch, Tacitus, and, in short, of all the authors and witnesses,
Grecian, Chinese, and Roman Catholic, who have related any miracle
in their particular religion; I say, we are to regard their
testimony in the same light as if they had mentioned that Mahometan
miracle, and had in express terms contradicted it, with the same
certainty as they have for the miracle they relate. This argument
may appear over subtile and refined; but is not in reality different
from the reasoning of a judge, who supposes that the credit of two
witnesses, maintaining a crime against any one, is destroyed by the
testimony of two others, who affirm him to have been two hundred
leagues distant, at the same instant when the crime is said to have
been committed.

  96. One of the best attested miracles in all profane history, is
that which Tacitus reports of Vespasian, who cured a blind man in
Alexandria, by means of his spittle, and a lame man by the mere
touch of his foot; in obedience to a vision of the god Serapis, who
had enjoined them to have recourse to the Emperor, for these
miraculous cures. The story may be seen in that fine historian;* where
every circumstance seems to add weight to the testimony, and might
be displayed at large with all the force of argument and eloquence, if
any one were now concerned to enforce the evidence of that exploded
and idolatrous superstition. The gravity, solidity, age, and probity
of so great an emperor, who, through the whole course of his life,
conversed in a familiar manner with his friends and courtiers, and
never affected those extraordinary airs of divinity assumed by
Alexander and Demetrius. The historian, a contemporary writer, noted
for candour and veracity, and withal, the greatest and most
penetrating genius, perhaps, of all antiquity; and so free from any
tendency to credulity, that he even lies under the contrary
imputation, of atheism and profaneness: The persons, from whose
authority he related the miracle, of established character for
judgement and veracity, as we may well presume; eye-witnesses of the
fact, and confirming their testimony, after the Flavian family was
despoiled of the empire, and could no longer give any reward, as the
price of a lie. Utrumque, qui interfuere, nunc quoque memorant,
postquam nullum mendacio pretium. To which if we add the public nature
of the facts, as related, it will appear, that no evidence can well be
supposed stronger for so gross and so palpable a falsehood.

  * Histories, iv. 81. Suetonius gives nearly the same account,
Lives of the Caesars (Vespasian).

  There is also a memorable story related by Cardinal de Retz, which
may well deserve our consideration. When that intriguing politician
fled into Spain, to avoid the persecution of his enemies, he passed
through Saragossa, the capital of Aragon, where he was shewn, in the
cathedral, a man, who had served seven years as a doorkeeper, and
was well known to every body in town, that had ever paid his devotions
at that church. He had been seen, for so long a time, wanting a leg;
but recovered that limb by the rubbing of holy oil upon the stump; and
the cardinal assures us that he saw him with two legs. This miracle
was vouched by all the canons of the church; and the whole company
in town were appealed to for a confirmation of the fact; whom the
cardinal found, by their zealous devotion, to be thorough believers of
the miracle. Here the relater was also contemporary to the supposed
prodigy, of an incredulous and libertine character, as well as of
great genius; the miracle of so singular a nature as could scarcely
admit of a counterfeit, and the witnesses very numerous, and all of
them, in a manner, spectators of the fact, to which they gave their
testimony. And what adds mightily to the force of the evidence, and
may double our surprise on this occasion, is, that the cardinal
himself, who relates the story, seems not to give any credit to it,
and consequently cannot be suspected of any concurrence in the holy
fraud. He considered justly, that it was not requisite, in order to
reject a fact of this nature, to be able accurately to disprove the
testimony, and to trace its falsehood, through all the circumstances
of knavery and credulity which produced it. He knew, that, as this was
commonly altogether impossible at any small distance of time and
place; so was it extremely difficult, even where one was immediately
present, by reason of the bigotry, ignorance, cunning, and roguery
of a great part of mankind. He therefore concluded, like a just
reasoner, that such an evidence carried falsehood upon the very face
of it, and that a miracle, supported by any human testimony, was
more properly a subject of derision than of argument.

  There surely never was a greater number of miracles ascribed to
one person, than those, which were lately said to have been wrought in
France upon the tomb of Abbe Paris, the famous Jansenist, with whose
sanctity the people were so long deluded. The curing of the sick,
giving hearing to the deaf, and sight to the blind, were every where
talked of as the usual effects of that holy sepulchre. But what is
more extraordinary; many of the miracles were immediately proved
upon the spot, before judges of unquestioned integrity, attested by
witnesses of credit and distinction, in a learned age, and on the most
eminent theatre that is now in the world. Nor is this all: a
relation of them was published and dispersed every where; nor were the
Jesuits, though a learned body, supported by the civil magistrate, and
determined enemies to those opinions, in whose favour the miracles
were said to have been wrought, ever able distinctly to refute or
detect them. Where shall we find such a number of circumstances,
agreeing to the corroboration of one fact? And what have we to
oppose to such a cloud of witnesses, but the absolute impossibility or
miraculous nature of the events, which they relate? And this surely,
in the eyes of all reasonable people, will alone be regarded as a
sufficient refutation.

  97. Is the consequence just, because some human testimony has the
utmost force and authority in some cases, when it relates the battle
of Philippi or Pharsalia for instance; that therefore all kinds of
testimony must, in all cases, have equal force and authority?
Suppose that the Caesarean and Pompeian factions had, each of them,
claimed the victory in these battles, and that the historians of
each party had uniformly ascribed the advantage to their own side; how
could mankind, at this distance, have been able to determine between
them? The contrariety is equally strong between the miracles related
by Herodotus or Plutarch, and those delivered by Mariana, Bede, or any
monkish historian.

  The wise lend a very academic faith to every report which favours
the passion of the reporter; whether it magnifies his country, his
family, or himself, or in any other way strikes in with his natural
inclinations and propensities. But what greater temptation than to
appear a missionary, a prophet, an ambassador from heaven? Who would
not encounter many dangers and difficulties, in order to attain so
sublime a character? Or if, by the help of vanity and a heated
imagination, a man has first made a convert of himself, and entered
seriously into the delusion I who ever scruples to make use of pious
frauds, in support of so holy and meritorious a cause?

  The smallest spark may here kindle into the greatest flame;
because the materials are always prepared for it. The avidum genus
auricularum,* the gazing populace, receive greedily, without
examination, whatever sooths superstition, and promotes wonder.

  * Lucretius.

  How many stories of this nature have in all ages, been detected
and exploded in their infancy? How many more have been celebrated
for a time, and have afterwards sunk into neglect and oblivion?
Where such reports, therefore, fly about, the solution of the
phenomenon is obvious; and we in conformity to regular experience
and observation, when we account for it by the known and natural
principles of credulity and delusion. And shall we, rather than have a
recourse to so natural a solution, allow of a miraculous violation
of the most established laws of nature?

  I need not mention the difficulty of detecting a falsehood in any
private or even public history, at the place, where it is said to
happen; much more when the scene is removed to ever so small a
distance. Even a court of judicature, with all the authority,
accuracy, and judgement, which they can employ, find themselves
often at a loss to distinguish between truth and falsehood in the most
recent actions. But the matter never comes to any issue, if trusted to
the common method of altercations and debate and flying rumours;
especially when men's passions have taken part on either side.

  In the infancy of new religions, the wise and learned commonly
esteem the matter too inconsiderable to deserve their attention or
regard. And when afterwards they would willingly detect the cheat,
in order to undeceive the deluded multitude, the season is now past,
and the records and witnesses, which might clear up the matter, have
perished beyond recovery.

  No means of detection remain, but those which must be drawn from the
very testimony itself of the reporters: and these, though always
sufficient with the judicious and knowing, are commonly too fine to
fall under the comprehension of the vulgar.

  98. Upon the whole, then, it appears, that no testimony for any kind
of miracle has ever amounted to a probability, much less to a proof;
and that, even supposing it amounted to a proof, it would be opposed
by another proof, derived from the very nature of the fact, which it
would endeavour to establish. It is experience only, which gives
authority to human testimony; and it is the same experience, which
assures us of the laws of nature. When, therefore, these two kinds
of experience are contrary, we have nothing to do but substract the
one from the other, and embrace an opinion, either on one side or
the other, with that assurance which arises from the remainder. But
according to the principle here explained, this substraction, with
regard to all popular religions, amounts to an entire annihilation;
and therefore we may establish it as a maxim, that no human
testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle, and make it a
just foundation for any such system of religion.

  99. I beg the limitations here made may be remarked, when I say,
that a miracle can never be proved, so as to be the foundation of a
system of religion. For I own, that otherwise, there may possibly be
miracles, or violations of the usual course of nature, of such a
kind as to admit of proof from human testimony; though, perhaps, it
will be impossible to find any such in all the records of history.
Thus, suppose all authors, in all languages, agree, that, from the
first of January 1600, there was a total darkness over the whole earth
for eight days: suppose that the tradition of this extraordinary event
is still strong and lively among the people: that all travellers,
who return from foreign countries, bring us accounts of the same
tradition, without the least variation or contradiction: it is
evident, that our present philosophers, instead of doubting the
fact, ought to receive it as certain, and ought to search for the
causes whence it might be derived. The decay, corruption, and
dissolution of nature, is an event rendered probable by so many
analogies, that any phenomenon, which seems to have a tendency towards
that catastrophe, comes within the reach of human testimony, if that
testimony be very extensive and uniform.

  But suppose, that all the historians who treat of England, should
agree, that, on the first of January 1600, Queen Elizabeth died;
that both before and after her death she was seen by her physicians
and the whole court, as is usual with persons of her rank; that her
successor was acknowledged and proclaimed by the parliament; and that,
after being interred a month, she again appeared, resumed the
throne, and governed England for three years: I must confess that I
should be surprised at the concurrence of so many odd circumstances,
but should not have the least inclination to believe so miraculous
an event. I should not doubt of her pretended death, and of those
other public circumstances that followed it: I should only assert it
to have been pretended, and that it neither was, nor possibly could be
real. You would in vain object to me the difficulty, and almost
impossibility of deceiving the world in an affair of such consequence;
the wisdom and solid judgement of that renowned queen; with the little
or no advantage which she could reap from so poor an artifice: All
this might astonish me; but I would still reply, that the knavery
and folly of men are such common phenomena, that I should rather
believe the most extraordinary events to arise from their concurrence,
than admit of so signal a violation of the laws of nature.

  But should this miracle be ascribed to any new system of religion;
men, in all ages, have been so much imposed on by ridiculous stories
of that kind, that this very circumstance would be a full proof of a
cheat, and sufficient, with all men of sense, not only to make them
reject the fact, but even reject it without farther examination.
Though the Being to whom the miracle is ascribed, be, in this case,
Almighty, it does not, upon that account, become a whit more probable;
since it is impossible for us to know the attributes or actions of
such a Being, otherwise than from the experience which we have of
his productions, in the usual course of nature. This still reduces
us to past observation, and obliges us to compare the instances of the
violation of truth in the testimony of men, with those of the
violation of the laws of nature by miracles, in order to judge which
of them is most likely and probable. As the violations of truth are
more common in the testimony concerning religious miracles, than in
that concerning any other matter of fact; this must diminish very much
the authority of the former testimony, and make us form a general
resolution, never to lend any attention to it, with whatever
specious pretence it may be covered.

  Lord Bacon seems to have embraced the same principles of
reasoning. "We ought," says he, "to make a collection or particular
history of all monsters and prodigious births or productions, and in a
word of everything new, rare, and extraordinary in nature. But this
must be done with the most severe scrutiny, lest we depart from truth.
Above all, every relation must be considered as suspicious, which
depends in any degree upon religion, as the prodigies of Livy: And
no less so, everything that is to be found in the writers of natural
magic or alchemy, or such authors, who seem, all of them, to have an
unconquerable appetite for falsehood and fable."*

  * Novum Organum, II, aph. 29.

  100. I am the better pleased with the method of reasoning here
delivered, as I think it may serve to confound those dangerous friends
or disguised enemies to the Christian Religion, who have undertaken to
defend it by the principles of human reason. Our most holy religion is
founded on Faith, not on reason; and it is a sure method of exposing
it to put it to such a trial as it is, by no means, fitted to
endure. To make this more evident, let us examine those miracles,
related in scripture; and not to lose ourselves in too wide a field,
let us confine ourselves to such as we find in the Pentateuch, which
we shall examine, according to the principles of these pretended
Christians, not as the word or testimony of God himself, but as the
production of a mere human writer and historian. Here then we are
first to consider a book, presented to us by a barbarous and
ignorant people, written in an age when they were still more
barbarous, and in all probability long after the facts which it
relates, corroborated by no concurring testimony, and resembling those
fabulous accounts, which every nation gives of its origin. Upon
reading this book, we find it full of prodigies and miracles. It gives
an account of a state of the world and of human nature entirely
different from the present: Of our fall from that state: Of the age of
man, extended to near a thousand years: Of the destruction of the
world by a deluge: Of the arbitrary choice of one people, as the
favourites of heaven; and that people the countrymen of the author: Of
their deliverance from bondage by prodigies the most astonishing
imaginable: I desire anyone to lay his hand upon his heart, and
after a serious consideration declare, whether he thinks that the
falsehood of such a book, supported by such a testimony, would be more
extraordinary and miraculous than all the miracles it relates; which
is, however, necessary to make it be received, according to the
measures of probability above established.

  101. What we have said of miracles may be applied, without any
variation, to prophecies; and indeed, all prophecies are real
miracles, and as such only, can be admitted as proofs of any
revelation. If it did not exceed the capacity of human nature to
foretell future events, it would be absurd to employ any prophecy as
an argument for a divine mission or authority from heaven. So that,
upon the whole, we may conclude, that the Christian Religion not
only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day
cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. Mere reason
is insufficient to convince us of its veracity: And whoever is moved
by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his
own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding,
and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to
custom and experience.

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