Liberty Matters

Credibility and Shifts in Public Opinion


In his article “The European Witch-craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries” (1967), Hugh Trevor-Roper addressed a problem that had engaged the attention of previous historians of witchcraft, namely: Why did arguments against witchcraft apparently convince few readers when proposed during, say, the late 1500s, yet a century later those same arguments were widely accepted as definitive? That puzzle, Trevor-Roper concluded, “is mysterious still.”[65]
Trevor-Roper briefly considered how “nineteenth-century liberal historians” dealt with this problem, only to reject their explanations as overly rationalistic. They viewed the witchcraft controversy as part of the ongoing battle between reason and superstition. “At first,” according to those liberal historians, “it was a losing battle, but at last persistence brought its reward: the tide turned and the battle was won.” Today, however, “such a distinction between ‘reason’ and ‘superstition’ is difficult to maintain,” because it fails to take the relevant social and intellectual conditions of a given historical context into account.[66]
Although Trevor-Roper did not discuss the ideas of W.E.H. Lecky specifically, Lecky’s name is included in his list of liberal, rationalistic historians who supposedly gave simplistic accounts of how important intellectual changes occur over time. Lecky was mentioned because of his lengthy chapter on “Magic and Witchcraft” in History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe, first published in 1861. But Trevor-Roper could not have read Lecky very carefully, for Lecky’s explanation of the decline of belief in witches does not conform to Trevor-Roper’s stereotype; it is far more complex and sophisticated.
Before proceeding, I should explain why I have introduced the topic of witchcraft in a discussion concerned with the spread of classical-liberal ideas. When Lecky and other 19th-century rationalist historians discussed the rise and fall of belief in witches, they typically viewed this issue as part of the broader problem of how public opinion changes, and they applied their reasoning on this topic to a broader range of issues, including dramatic shifts in public opinion about political issues. That broader framework is directly relevant to the topic of this forum. Lecky in particular had some important ideas on this subject that are worthy of our consideration.
Before explaining some particulars of Lecky’s theory of intellectual change, I shall attempt to summarize it in my own words and then apply it to the problem of how public opinion shifted in favor of classical-liberal ideas during the 18th and 19th centuries.
As Lecky saw the matter, we will not take the time and effort to examine a new approach to, say, a political problem unless we first regard that approach as credible. To say that a belief system is credible is not to say that it has been justified; rather, it is merely to say that the belief system is taken seriously enough that significant numbers of people will invest the intellectual labor needed to determine whether or not it can be justified sufficiently to merit acceptance. In this respect there can be no doubt that classical-liberal, or libertarian, ideas have made significant advances over the past 50 years. Although still not part of the intellectual mainstream, libertarian ideas are at least regarded as credible enough to be debated in public forums and defended by serious intellectuals. This is an essential first step in changing public opinion. A belief system that lacks credibility will never gain enough traction to become a serious contender in the court of public opinion.
As Lecky put it in his discussion of Montaigne’s early skepticism about witchcraft, such skepticism did not arise from “any formal examination of evidence” about witchcraft, but “from a deep sense of the antecedent improbability.”[67] Lecky quoted Montaigne as follows:
There are proofs and arguments [for witchcraft] that are founded on experience and facts. I do not pretend to unravel them. I often cut them, as Alexander did the knot. After all, it is setting a high value upon our opinions, to roast men alive on account of them.[68]
Lecky attributed Montaigne’s influence not to any particular arguments but to his pioneering contributions to the spirit of rationalism, that is, to his use of a new standard of credibility when assessing empirical claims.
The vast mass of authority which those writers [sophisticated defenders of witchcraft, such as Bodin] loved to array, and by which they shaped the whole course of their reasoning, is calmly and unhesitatingly discarded. The passion for the miraculous, the absorbing sense of diabolical capacities, have all vanished like a dream. The old theological measure of probability has completely disappeared, and is replaced by a shrewd secular common sense. The statements [i.e., confessions] of the witches were pronounced intrinsically incredible. The dreams of a disordered imagination, or the terrors of the rack, would account for many of them; but even when it is impossible to explain away the evidence, it is quite unnecessary to do so. [My italics.][69]
Consider also the remarkable 1584 book by Reginald Scott, The Discoverie of Witchcraft. According to Lecky, Scott “unmasked the imposture and the delusion of the system with a boldness that no previous writer had approached, and with an ability which few subsequent writers have equaled.” Yet his book “exercised no appreciable influence. Witchcraft depended on general causes, and represented the prevailing modes of religious thought. It was therefore entirely unaffected by the attempted refutation….”[70]
The belief in witchcraft declined, argued Lecky, not because of specific arguments against that belief but rather because of a radical if gradual shift in the prevailing public standard of credibility; naturalistic methods of explanation replaced supernaturalistic methods as the dominant default setting, so to speak. Thereafter arguments in favor of witchcraft, however detailed and backed with empirical evidence, were dismissed out of hand as inherently improbable or impossible. Knowledge claims that lack credibility, as I noted previously, will not be taken seriously enough to merit close examination. And this is largely what we mean when we speak of a change in public opinion. This does not mean that every or even most members of a society will agree on every significant issue. Rather, it means that members of a society will generally agree on which beliefs are credible and which are not.
The application of this viewpoint to the problem of how classical-liberal ideas came to be accepted in the past should be obvious. A general understanding of the basic tenets of classical-liberal ideas, such as spontaneous order, was required, along with a general skepticism about the ability of government planning to accomplish its stated goals. In other words, a shift in the public perception of the fundamental standards of economic and political credibility had to occur. There needed to be a strong and widespread skepticism about the efficacy of government measures and, perhaps even more important, an assumption that most politicians exercised power for their own benefit rather than for some nebulous goal called “the public good.” And these were precisely the arguments that we find in the most influential and successful liberal writers from earlier centuries.
[65.] Hugh Trevor Roper, The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century: Religion, the Reformation, and Social Change. (Originally published : New York, Harper & Row, 1967. Reprinted: Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 2001), 162. </titles/719>.
[66.] Ibid., 163
[67.] W.E.H. Lecky, History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe (New York: George Braziller, 1955), I: 115. Online at the OLL: William Edward Hartpole Lecky, History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe, Revised edition (New York: D. Appleton, 1919). 2 vols. </titles/1871>.
[68.] Ibid., I:111.
[69.] Ibid.
[70.] Ibid., I: 122-23.