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Custom and Myth

Page: 80

The end of the polemic against the primitiveness of fetichism deals with the question, ‘Whence comes the supernatural predicate of the fetich?’ If a negro tells us his fetich is a god, whence got he the idea of ‘god’? Many obvious answers occur. Mr. Müller says, speaking of the Indians (p. 205): ‘The concept of gods was no doubt growing up while men were assuming a more and more definite attitude towards these semi-tangible and intangible objects’—trees, rivers, hills, the sky, the sun, and so on, which he thinks suggested and developed, by aid of a kind of awe, the religious feeling of the infinite. We too would say that, among people who adore fetiches and ghosts, the concept of gods no doubt silently grew up, as men assumed a more and more definite attitude towards the tangible and intangible objects they held sacred. Again, negroes have had the idea of god imported among them by Christians and Islamites, so that, even if they did not climb (as De Brosses grants that many of them do) to purer religious ideas unaided, these ideas are now familiar to them, and may well be used by them, when they have to explain a fetich to a European. Mr. Max Müller explains the origin of religion by a term (‘the Infinite ‘) which, he admits, the early people would not have comprehended. The negro, if he tells a white man that a fetich is a god, transposes terms in the same unscientific way. Mr. Müller asks, ‘How do these people, when they have picked up their stone or their shell, pick up, at the same time, the concepts of a supernatural power, of spirit, of god, and of worship paid to some unseen being?’ But who says that men picked up these ideas at the same time? These ideas were evolved by a long, slow, complicated process. It is not at all impossible that the idea of a kind of ‘luck’ attached to this or that object, was evolved by dint of meditating on a mere series of lucky accidents. Such or such a man, having found such an object, succeeded in hunting, fishing, or war. By degrees, similar objects might be believed to command success. Thus burglars carry bits of coal in their pockets, ‘for luck.’ This random way of connecting causes and effects which have really no inter-relation, is a common error of early reasoning. Mr. Max Müller says that ‘this process of reasoning is far more in accordance with modern thought’; if so, modern thought has little to be proud of. Herodotus, however, describes the process of thought as consecrated by custom among the Egyptians. But there are many other practical ways in which the idea of supernatural power is attached to fetiches. Some fetich-stones have a superficial resemblance to other objects, and thus (on the magical system of reasoning) are thought to influence these objects. Others, again, are pointed out as worthy of regard in dreams or by the ghosts of the dead. {230} To hold these views of the origin of the supernatural predicate of fetiches is not ‘to take for granted that every human being was miraculously endowed with the concept of what forms the predicate of every fetich.’

Thus we need not be convinced by Mr. Max Müller that fetichism (though it necessarily has its antecedents in the human mind) is ‘a corruption of religion.’ It still appears to be one of the most primitive steps towards the idea of the supernatural.

What, then, is the subjective element of religion in man? How has he become capable of conceiving of the supernatural? What outward objects first awoke that dormant faculty in his breast? Mr. Max Müller answers, that man has ‘the faculty of apprehending the infinite’—that by dint of this faculty he is capable of religion, and that sensible objects, ‘tangible, semi-tangible, intangible,’ first roused the faculty to religious activity, at least among the natives of India. He means, however, by the ‘infinite’ which savages apprehend, not our metaphysical conception of the infinite, but the mere impression that there is ‘something beyond.’ ‘Every thing of which his senses cannot perceive a limit, is to a primitive savage or to any man in an early stage of intellectual activity unlimited or infinite? Thus, in all experience, the idea of ‘a beyond’ is forced on men. If Mr. Max Müller would adhere to this theory, then we should suppose him to mean (what we hold to be more or less true) that savage religion, like savage science, is merely a fanciful explanation of what lies beyond the horizon of experience. For example, if the Australians mentioned by Mr. Max Müller believe in a being who created the world, a being whom they do not worship, and to whom they pay no regard (for, indeed, he has become ‘decrepit’), their theory is scientific, not religious. They have looked for the causes of things, and are no more religious (in so doing) than Newton was when he worked out his theory of gravitation. The term ‘infinite’ is wrongly applied, because it is a term of advanced thought used in explanation of the ideas of men who, Mr. Max Müller says, were incapable of conceiving the meaning of such a concept. Again, it is wrongly applied, because it has some modern religious associations, which are covertly and fallaciously introduced to explain the supposed emotions of early men. Thus, Mr. Müller says (p. 177)—he is giving his account of the material things that awoke the religious faculty—‘the mere sight of the torrent or the stream would have been enough to call forth in the hearts of the early dwellers on the earth . . . a feeling that they were surrounded on all sides by powers invisible, infinite, or divine.’ Here, if I understand Mr. Müller, ‘infinite’ is used in our modern sense. The question is, How did men ever come to believe in powers infinite, invisible, divine? If Mr. Müller’s words mean anything, they mean that a dormant feeling that there were such existences lay in the breast of man, and was wakened into active and conscious life, by the sight of a torrent or a stream. How, to use Mr. Müller’s own manner, did these people, when they saw a stream, have mentally, at the same time, ‘a feeling of infinite powers?’ If this is not the expression of a theory of ‘innate religion’ (a theory which Mr. Müller disclaims), it is capable of being mistaken for that doctrine by even a careful reader. The feeling of ‘powers infinite, invisible, divine,’ must be in the heart, or the mere sight of a river could not call it forth. How did the feeling get into the heart? That is the question. The ordinary anthropologist distinguishes a multitude of causes, a variety of processes, which shade into each other and gradually produce the belief in powers invisible, infinite, and divine. What tribe is unacquainted with dreams, visions, magic, the apparitions of the dead? Add to these the slow action of thought, the conjectural inferences, the guesses of crude metaphysics, the theories of isolated men of religious and speculative genius. By all these and other forces manifold, that emotion of awe in presence of the hills, the stars, the sea, is developed. Mr. Max Müller cuts the matter shorter. The early inhabitants of earth saw a river, and the ‘mere sight’ of the torrent called forth the feelings which (to us) seem to demand ages of the operation of causes disregarded by Mr. Müller in his account of the origin of Indian religion.

The mainspring of Mr. Müller’s doctrine is his theory about ‘apprehending the infinite.’ Early religion, or at least that of India, was, in his view, the extension of an idea of Vastness, a disinterested emotion of awe. {233a} Elsewhere, we think, early religion has been a development of ideas of Force, an interested search, not for something wide and far and hard to conceive, but for something practically strong for good and evil. Mr. Müller (taking no count in this place of fetiches, ghosts, dreams and magic) explains that the sense of ‘wonderment’ was wakened by objects only semi-tangible, trees, which are taller than we are, ‘whose roots are beyond our reach, and which have a kind of life in them.’ ‘We are dealing with a quartenary, it may be a tertiary troglodyte,’ says Mr. Müller. If a tertiary troglodyte was like a modern Andaman Islander, a Kaneka, a Dieyrie, would he stand and meditate in awe on the fact that a tree was taller than he, or had ‘a kind of life,’ ‘an unknown and unknowable, yet undeniable something’? {233b} Why, this is the sentiment of modern Germany, and perhaps of the Indian sages of a cultivated period! A troglodyte would look for a ‘possum in the tree, he would tap the trunk for honey, he would poke about in the bark after grubs, or he would worship anything odd in the branches. Is Mr. Müller not unconsciously transporting a kind of modern malady of thought into the midst of people who wanted to find a dinner, and who might worship a tree if it had a grotesque shape, that, for them, had a magical meaning, or if boilyas lived in its boughs, but whose practical way of dealing with the problem of its life was to burn it round the stem, chop the charred wood with stone axes, and use the bark, branches, and leaves as they happened to come handy?

Mr. Müller has a long list of semi-tangible objects ‘overwhelming and overawing,’ like the tree. There are mountains, where ‘even a stout heart shivers before the real presence of the infinite’; there are rivers, those instruments of so sudden a religious awakening; there is earth. These supply the material for semi-deities. Then come sky, stars, dawn, sun, and moon: ‘in these we have the germs of what, hereafter, we shall have to call by the name of deities.’


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