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Friday, March 31, 2006

the unlucky world part two

(See previous post)

Or so I would think. But Jo Bath and John Newton’s Sensible Proof of Spirits essay makes the story much less straightforward. Bath and Newton show how the ghost became a disputed site in seventeenth century England, taken up by intellectuals like Glanvill and More as part of a larger defense of Christian belief. But it is a mistake to infer that Glanvill and More were defending tradition – for B & N make clear, an old, unsystematic belief in ghosts was changed by their use in the intellectual “game” of defending a Christian order against a perceived threat.

“By the early seventeenth century there were signs that the confessional divide upon this issue was becoming increasingly blurred as scholars and clerics, “reluctant to discard visible spirits altogether,” admitted the possibility of ghostly visitation (Thomas 1971, 705). John Aubrey records that as early as the 1590s, “when [William Twisse] was a School-boy atWinchester, [he] saw the Phantoˆme of a School fellow of his deceased . . . who said to him, I am damn’d. This was the occasion of Dr. Twisse’s Conversion, who had been before that time . . . a very wicked Boy” (Aubrey 1696, 73). Thus he became a puritan divine following the sighting of a ghost, a somewhat unique event on two counts: firstly, as the spirit was the agent of conversion; and, secondly, because it was an encounter with a damned soul. The surety of demonic theories, which had been stated with such force by protestant Reformers in the sixteenth century, began to be questioned in the reign of Charles I. Oxford dons discussed “whether spirits really and substantially appeare, i.e. the ghosts of the deceased”—and these speculations were to provide a foretaste of the intellectual debates that were to follow (Crosfield 1935, 17).

Continued belief that the dead could return is notable in the fact that it was considered worth attempting to make a pact with a friend—that whoever died first should report back from the afterlife. This is notable not only for its view of ghosts as souls of the dead and not demons in human form, but also for the underlying notion that such experiential data might verify post-mortem existence. Aubrey http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext03/8misc10.txt records the appearance of Lord Bacconi to Lord Middleton while he was in the Tower after his capture at Worcester during the Civil War. Such pacts continued after the Restoration, and Joseph Glanvill, among others, recounts how Captain William Dyke was disappointed when his friend, Major George Sydenham, failed to make an arranged rendezvous in Dyke’s garden three nights after his death. Sydenham appeared to Dyke soon afterwards, however, and apologised that he was unable to keep his earlier appointment, thus vindicating the former’s arguments for the immortality of the soul and the existence of God, which they had vigorously debated while both were living. Not all pacts were fulfilled, however: the failure of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester’s friend, Montague, to manifest after death was “a great snare to him during his life” (Burnet 1787, 27).”

Of course, the Earl of Rochester, who wrote the finest poems on fucking in the English language, was a notorious skeptic. But why would skepticism about ghosts lead to skepticism about God? Partly this was due to Glanvill’s chain argument:

“The denial of the existence of spirits was seen as the thin end of a wedge that led ultimately to atheism, an idea that found forceful expression in More’s dictum “No Spirits, No God” (More 1653, 64). This argument was taken up even by moderate Anglicans—Benjamin Camfield wrote that denying the existence of spirits had dangerous consequences: “’tis to be observed, among our modern Atheists and Sadducees especially, that their antipathy and aversion, as to the notion and being of Spirits universally, hath carried them on (and naturally doth so) to the dethroning of God, the Supreme Spirit and the Father of Spirits”(Camfield 1678, 172).

Glanvil similarly spoke of a “chain of connexion,” where disbelief in ghosts and witches—as the lowest and most tangible section of the supernatural chain— ultimately resulted in disbelief in the resurrection and the immortality of the soul. (Glanvill 1681, part IV, 4).”

LI is the more fascinated by this – probably more than the poor reader of this site – as we have just finished reviewing James Morrow’s excellent novel, The Last Witchfinder, for the News and Observer – we hope that PZ has published the review by now – which is one of those alternative history novels a la Neal Stephenson about the legal end of witchcraft. Morrow doesn’t view the burning of witches as an anachronistic and rather charming habit, but as a crime involving flesh, fire and faggots. It has a very sweet and limited energy, unlike, we should say, Stephenson’s Baroque trilogy, which was wedding cake on top of wedding cake.

Well, we poor players have long overstayed our welcome. I’m going to split this up into two posts, Ad Majorum Brevitas Gloriam.

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