A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Of Miracles

An attentive reader may remember that in my first posting I mentioned that although I don’t believe in ghosts, I am still afraid of them. Thus, it should not be too surprising to find out that, despite being an inveterate rationalist, I do enjoy playing with my Ouija board. Usually, not much comes of this activity, witty and intelligent conversation being as rare among the living as it is among the dead.

There has of late, however, been a fascinating exception. I have been in contact with someone who subscribes his missives to me from The Beyond as “Joseph Darlington, Esq., of Darlington Close, Horton-cum-Studley, Oxfordshire.” As of yet, I know little about him except that he is descended of a family with a long pedigree stretching back to the Conquest. He is a country squire who has served his time at Oxford, without taking a degree, followed by a stint at one of the Inns of Court for his obligatory training in the laws. In other words, he has exactly as much education as is seemly for a man of his social rank and no more. Mr. Darlington has desired me to post one of his letters, for the edification of my readers. I will do so, but with the caveat that he expresses some attitudes which are no longer acceptable today (vide his remarks on “wild savages”). There are two things I should make clear about this unusual correspondence. First, as you may judge from the date, Mr. Darlington writes to me from the eighteenth century. Second, and unusually for a Ouija board contact, Mr. Darlington is not yet dead. Thus, I seem to have opened a portal to the past. In any case, without more ado, here is the Hon. Joseph Darlington, Esquire.

* * *

March 9, 1755

I have of late been reading Mr. HUME on Miracles. This ingenious Gentleman defines a Miracle thus: “A Miracle,” says he, “is a Transgression of a Law of Nature by a particular Volition of the Deity, or by the Interposition of some invisible Agent.” Now, as much as this Description rings true, I am afraid that I must quibble with this great Author on a small Point. When the wild Savage performs his Rain Dance, and Rain follows, assuming that there is anything to this beyond bare Coincidence, we must call this a Miracle. And yet, no ironclad Law of Nature hath been broken, for Rain is no violation of Nature’s Laws, even were it to occur in a Desart. What is unusual about such an Event’s occurring lies rather in the Notion that Nature should listen to the barbarous Importunings and wild Gesturings of a naked Savage.

Therefore, I should rather define a Miracle thus: A Miracle is a publick Gesture of some supernatural Being, communicated through Nature to Man, or in Response to the Importuning of Man, the exemplary Character of which often, but not necessarily, requires some Law of Nature to be violated.

Livy gives us the story of the Brothers ROMULUS and REMUS at the Foundation of Rome. After some fraternal Falling-out about the situation of the new Foundation, they decided to settle the matter by Augury. Romulus set himself upon the Palatine Mount, while Remus took to the Aventine. They there awaited the augural Omens. Remus was the first to receive a Sign, spotting six Vultures in his Vicinity. This was followed by Romulus, who, from his Vantage, saw twelve. A fresh Dispute erupted between them, which amounted to this: Remus claimed the Victory by having received his Omen first. However, Romulus claimed the Victory by virtue of having sighted more Birds than his Brother. Put case: which Brother has the better Suit? First, note that the Flight of Birds is no violation of any Law of Nature. Second, it should be noted that, were it not for long established augural Custom, we shou’d even be unclear as to whether Birds are to be taken as an adverse Sign or a Sign Affirmatory. It any case, the Lesson to be learned is that a supernatural Gesture, in the form of a Miracle, must always be of ambivalent Signification, as Monsieur BAYLE hath well observ’d in his Miscellaneous Reflexions Occasion’d by a Comet.

One more example Should make this Point clear. In his Aeneis, Vergil has VENUS transform the Trojans’ ships into Sea Nymphs, in order to inspire her son Aeneas. Thus, the Trojans take it as a Sign of divine Favour. However, the Rutulian TURNUS sees it differently (I use here Mr. DRYDEN’s excellent Translation, IX.155-159):

These Monsters for the Trojans Fate are meant,
And are by
Jove for black Presages sent.
He takes the Cowards last Relief away...

Such a divine Gesture can have Meaning for us only if we already seek such a Meaning, and whatever Meaning we seek, we are bound to find in the Gesture or Miracle. If Turnus and his Men had been very afeard and doubtful of Victory, they might have seen the Event as a Sign in Aeneas’ favour and fled. In short, a Storm is but a Storm, unless it take place on the Eve of a great Battle, in which Case it is a Miracle. And even here it always Presages the Victory of the Victor, and the Vanquishing of the Vanquished.

Later in the same Book, Vergil gives us the words of NISUS, which make an apt Ending to this my Essay: Nisus ait: dine hunc ardorem mentibus addunt, Euryale, an sua cuique deus fit dira cupido,

Then Nisus, thus: Or do the Gods inspire
This warmth,
Euryalus, or make we Gods of our Desire?

I am, Sir,
your most humble,
most obedient Servant,

Jos. Darlington, Esq.
Darlington Close
Horton-cum-Studley, Oxfordshire

* * *

In a sense, Nisus and Mr. Darlington are correct. For example, I don’t know if the latter’s messages truly come to me from the past, or whether they are simply a figment of my overheated imagination. But whichever be the case, I shall communicate any further messages from my new acquaintance to my readers.


  1. There is a very funny passage with a ouija board in the 3rd volume of Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time, a book I think you'd enjoy immensely.

  2. Well then, I shall endeavour to read it.