Introduction xviii by fear. In Latin, “superstition” is literally a “standing over.” Scholars are divided about the origin of the Latin term, but it may refer to the idea of superstition as an “old” thing remaining from earlier and presumably less enlightened times. Contempt for supersti- tion did not prevent the Greeks and Romans from many practices we would define as “superstitious.” Rome, in particular, was by our standards a superstitious culture, with numerous divination practices drawing on indigenous, Etruscan, and Greek traditions. Roman diviners examined the entrails of sacrifices, observed the flight of birds, and interpreted the meaning of lightning bolts. Not only individual lives but decisions made in the interests of the Roman people also were governed by superstitions as arbitrary as the value given to whether the sacred chickens ate on the eve of a battle. However, Rome did not lack skeptics including the orator and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BCE), author of an influen- tial attack on divination, On Divination. Plutarch of Chaeronea (c. 46 CE–c. 119 CE), a Greek philosopher living under the Roman Empire, was one of the most influ- ential ancient writers on superstition. He defined it as an extreme in the field of belief. Many Greeks, including the philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE), defined virtue as lying between extremes, just as courage lay between cowardice and foolhardiness. Plu- tarch defined superstition as one bad extreme in religion, atheism being the other, and decorous worship of the gods, true “reli- gion,” lying in the middle. His essay on superstition is devoted to demonstrating that it is even worse than atheism, a system of false beliefs about the universe that does not produce the fear and terror felt by super- stitious people. To believe that the gods cause evil and pain is to insult them far more than the atheist’s claim that they do not exist. Since the gods and their power were everywhere in the universe, to fear them was far worse than to fear any partic- ular thing. A person who feared the ocean could live far inland, but a person who feared the gods had literally nowhere to run or to hide. Even sleep, which offered peace from other fears, only tormented the super- stitious person with evil dreams. The slave could even hope to escape a cruel master, but where could the gods be escaped? Even death offered no hope—Plutarch identified the fear of suffering after death as supersti- tious. Disasters caused by superstition were public as well as individual. The Athenian general Nicias (c. 470–413 BCE), by his superstitious inaction during a lunar eclipse, brought disaster not only to himself but also to the army of forty thousand men he led. Like many Greeks and Romans, Plu- tarch disliked Judaism and identified Jew- ish observance of the Sabbath as superstitious. It is not known what he thought of Christianity, which goes entirely unmentioned in his voluminous surviving writings, but the later pagan opponents of the new cult claimed that it too was super- stitious. Christians turned this around and claimed that the cults of the pagan gods, “idol worship,” were superstitious. The Latin philosopher and bishop Augustine of Hippo (354–430), the most influential theo- logian of the Latin West, defined both “idolatry” and divination as superstitious, effectively relegating all pagan religion to the category of superstition. This was reflected in the law of the Christian Roman Empire, which increasingly defined, and condemned, non-Christian religion as superstition. The Christian church, in its never-ceasing struggles against those beliefs it defined as superstition, would fre- quently ascribe them to the corrupting influence of paganism, whether classically
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