Item of the Day: Shenstone’s “An Opinion of Ghosts” (1764)

Full Title: The Works in Verse and Prose of William Shenstone, Esq; Most of which were never before printed. In Two Volumes, with Decorations. Vol. II. London: Printed for R. and J. Dodsley in Pall-mall, MDCCLXIV.

AN OPINION OF GHOSTS.

IT is remarkable how much the belief of ghosts and apparitions of persons departed, has lost ground within these fifty years. This may perhaps be explained by the general growth of knowledge; and by the consequent decay of superstition, even in those kingdoms, where it is most essentially interwoven with their religion.

THE same credulity which disposed the mind to believe the miracles of a popish saint, set aside at once the interposition of reason; and produced a fondness for the marvellous, which it was the priest’s advantage to promote.

IT may be natural enough to suppose that a belief of this kind might spread in the days of popish infatuation. A belief, as much supported by ignorance, as the ghosts themselves were indebted to the night.

BUT whence comes it that narratives of this kind have at any time been given, by persons of veracity, of judgment, and of learning? Men neither liable to be deceived themselves, nor to be suspected of an inclination to deceive others, though it were their interest; nor who could be supposed to  have any interest init, even though it were their inclination.

HERE seems a further explanation wanting than what can be drawn from superstition.

I go upon a supposition, that the relations themselves were false. For as to the arguments sometimes used in this case, that had there been no true shilling there had been no counterfeit, it seems wholly a piece of sophistry. The true shilling here, should mean the living person; and the counterfeit resembance, the posthumous figure of him that either strikes our senses, or our imagination.

Supposing no ghost then ever appeared, is it a consequence that no man could ever imagine that they saw the figure of a person deceased? Surely those, who say this, little know the force, the caprice, or the defects of the imagination.

Persons after a debauch of liquor, or under the influence of terror, or in the deliria of a fever, or in a fit of lunacy, or even walking in their sleep, have had their brain as deeply impressed with chimerical representations, as they could possibly have been, had these representations struck their senses.

I have mentioned but a few instances, wherein the brain is primarily affected. Others may be given, perhaps not quite so common, where the stronger passions, either acute or cronical, have impressed their object upon the brain; and this is so lively a manner, as to leave the vissionary no room to doubt of their real presence.

HOW difficult then must it be to undeceive a person as to objects thus imprinted? Imprinted absolutely with the same force as their eyes themselves could have pourtrayed them! And how many persons must there needs be, who could never be undeceived at all!

SOME of these cause might not improbably have given rise to the notion of apparitions: and when the notion had been once promulgated, it had a natural tendency to produce more instances.

THE gloom of spirit, that was so productive of terror, would be naturally productive of apparitions. The event confirmed it.

THE passion of grief for a departed friend, of horror for an murdered enemy, of remorse for a wronged testator, of love for a mistress killed by inconstancy, of gratitude to a wife for long fidelity, of desire to be reconciled to one who dyed at variance, of impatience to vindicate what was falselfy construed, of propensity to consult with an adviser, this is lost. –The more faint as well as the more powerful passions, when bearing relation to a person deceased, have often, I fancy, with concurrent circumstances, been sufficient to exhibit the dead to the living.

BUT, what is more, there seems no other account that is adequate to the case as I have stated it. Allow this, and you have at once a reason, why the most upright may have published a falsehood, and the most judicious, confirmed an absurdity.

Supposing then that apparitions of this kind may have some real use in God’s moral government: Is not any moral purpose, for which they may be employed, as effectually answered on my supposition, as the other? for surely it cannot be of any importance, by what means the brain receives these images. The effect, the conviction, and the resolution consequent, may be just the same in either of the cases.

Such appears, to me at least, to be the true existence of apparitions. . . .

TO conclude. As my hypothesis supposes the chimera to give terror equal to the reality, our best means of avoiding it, is to keep a strict guard over our passions–To avoid intemperance, as we would a charnel-house; and by making frequent appeals to cool reason and common-sense, secure to ourselves the property of a well regulated imagination.

 

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Filed under 1760's, Ghosts, Philosophy, Posted by Caroline Fuchs

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