Front Page Titles (by Subject) essay vii: Dread of Supernatural Powers in the Dark - Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion
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essay vii: Dread of Supernatural Powers in the Dark - Henry Home, Lord Kames, Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion 
Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion, Corrected and Improved, in a Third Edition. Several Essays Added Concerning the Proof of a Deity, Edited and with an Introduction by Mary Catherine Moran (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005).
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Dread of Supernatural Powers in the Dark
A very slight view of human nature is sufficient to convince us, that we were not dropt here by accident. This earth is fitted for man, and man is fitted for inhabiting this earth. By our senses we have an intuitive knowledge of the things that surround us, at least of those things, by which we may be affected. We can discover objects at a distance. We discern them in their connection of cause and effect; and their future operations are laid open, as well as their present. But in this grand apparatus of senses external and internal, by which the secrets of nature are disclosed to us, one seems to be with-held; though in appearance the most useful of all: and that is, a sense to discern what things are noxious, what are friendly. The most poisonous fruits have sometimes the fairest colours; and savage animals partake of beauty with the tame and harmless. And by the most extensive induction it will be found, that man hath no original sense of what is salutary to him, and what is hurtful.
It is natural to inquire why this sense is with-held, when it appears to be the design of nature, to furnish us plentifully with senses for the discovery of useful truths. It is too bold an undertaking in man, to dive in to the secrets of his Maker. We ought to rest contented with the numerous instances we have of good order and good purpose; which must afford us a rational conviction, that good order and good purpose take place universally. At the same time, a rational conjecture may be formed of this matter. We have a conviction, that there is nothing redundant or superfluous in the operations of nature: different means are never afforded us to bring about the same end. Experience, as far as it can go, is given us for acquiring knowledge; and sense only, where experience cannot aid us. Sense is with-held in the present case, because the knowledge of what is harmful, and what beneficial, may be obtained by experience. And this suggests a final cause, not a little interesting. Man by his nature is made for an active life, and his felicity depends greatly on it. To excite activity, we are left to gather knowledge from experience, and sense is only afforded where experience can give us no instruction.
Man then is placed in this world, amidst a great variety of objects, the nature and tendency of which are unknown to him, otherways than by experience. In this situation, he would be in perpetual danger, had he not some faithful monitor to keep him constantly upon the watch against harm. This monitor is the propensity he hath to be afraid of new objects; such especially as have no peculiar beauty to raise desire. A child, to whom all nature is strange, dreads the approach of every object; and even the face of man is frightful to it. The same timidity and suspicion may be observed in travellers, who converse with strangers, and meet with unknown appearances. Upon the first sight of an herb or fruit, we apprehend the worst, and suspect it to be noxious. An unknown animal is immediately conceived to be dangerous. The more rare phaenomena of nature, the causes of which are unknown to the vulgar, never fail to strike them with terror. From this induction it is clear, that we dread unknown objects: they are always surveyed with an emotion of fear, till experience discover them to be harmless.
This dread of unknown objects is thought to be inherent in all sensible beings; but chiefly in the weak and defenceless. The more feeble and delicate the creature is, the more shy and timorous it is observed to be. No creature is by nature more feeble and delicate than man; and this principle is to him of admirable use, to balance the principle of curiosity, which is prevalent in man above all other creatures; and which, indulged without control, would often betray him into fatal accidents.
The dread of unknown objects fires the imagination to magnify their supposed evil qualities. For it is a well-known truth, that passion hath great influence on the imagination. The less we know of a new object, the greater liberty we have to dress it in frightful colours. The object is conceived to have all the dreadful qualities that imagination can invent; and the same terror is raised, as if these qualities were real, not imaginary.
If the new and unknown object have any thing dreadful in its appearance, this circumstance, joined with our natural propensity to dread unknown objects, will raise terror even in the most resolute. If the evils dreaded from such objects, be known neither in quality nor degree; the imagination, being under no restraint, figures the greatest evils, both in kind and magnitude, that can be conceived. If no immediate harm ensue, the mind, by the impulse it hath received, transports itself into futurity, and imagines the strange forms to be presages of direful calamities. Hence it is, that the uncommon phaenomena of nature, such as comets, eclipses, earthquakes, are by the vulgar held as forerunners of dreadful events.
The most common instance of our dread of unknown objects, is the fear that seizes many young persons in the dark; a phaenomen on that has not been clearly accounted for. Light disposeth the mind to chearfulness and consequently to courage. Darkness, by depressing the mind, disposeth it to fear. Any object alarms the mind, when it is already prepared by darkness to receive impressions of fear. An object seen in the dark but obscurely, leaves the heated imagination at liberty to bestow upon it the most dreadful appearance. This phantom of the imagination, conceived as a reality, unhinges the mind, and throws it into a fit of distraction. The imagination, now heated to the highest degree, multiplies the dreadful appearances to the utmost bounds of its conception. The object becomes a spectre, a devil, a hobgoblin, something more terrible than ever was seen or described.
A very few accidents of this kind, having so powerful an effect, are sufficient to introduce an association between darkness and malignant powers. And when once this association is formed, there is no occasion for the appearance of an object to create terror. Frightful ideas croud into the mind, and augment the fear occasioned by darkness. The imagination becomes ungovernable, and converts these ideas into real appearances.
That the terror occasioned by darkness is entirely owing to the imagination, will be evident from a single reflection, that in company no such effect is produced. A companion can afford no security against super-natural powers. But a companion hath the same effect with sunshine to chear the mind, and preserve it from gloominess and despondence. The imagination is kept within bounds, and under due subjection to sense and reason.*
[* ]Buffon, tome 6th of his Natural History, octavo, endeavours to account for the dread of spectres in the dark from the indistinct appearances of objects. A small bush at hand is imagined a great tree placed at a distance, and a fly passing near the eye is imagined a monstrous bird at a great distance. But that author has not adverted, that the dread of spectres is greatest in utter darkness, when no object can be seen either distinctly or confusedly. [Buffon suggests that while reports of specters in the dark are commonly attributed to the imagination, they may refer to actual objects the perception of which is distorted by our inability to judge distance and proportion in the dark. Thus, “the conception of spectres is founded in nature, and, contrary to what philosophers believe, their appearance does not depend solely on imagination.” Georges Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1707–1788), “Du sens de la Vue” (“Of the Sense of Sight”) in De L’Homme, vols. 2 and 3 of Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, 15 vols. (Paris, 1749), vol. 3, pp. 319–20. Published between 1749 and 1804, Buffon’s encyclopedic work covered the natural history of the earth, man, the quadrupeds, birds, and minerals, and eventually reached 44 volumes (with 35 volumes published by 1788, an additional volume in press at the time of Buffon’s death, and 8 volumes prepared by assistants and published in 1804).]