Thursday, May 13, 2010

Humility and witches

Humility is one of the most illusive, important, and of course prone-to-hypocrisy attributes of humankind. The story of witch hunts and their trials might illustrate the need for it most starkly. The lesson is simple: just when you think you really know something, that's when you should step back and say ... maybe I should wait a minute. I might be wrong!

Roughly between 1400 and 1700 and beyond, in Europe and the British Isles and of course across the Atlantic in Salem and elsewhere, some of the smartest folks around used scripture, the science of the time, and moral philosophy as they knew it, to work out a really serious justification of and practice for trying witches. After all, not only must their evils to be stopped; their immortal souls were at stake!

(This during the "Renaissance" - the age of Newton, Descartes, etc., etc.).

Using Roman law, the leaders of the era figured out to their satisfaction what legal procedures were necessary, what kinds of evidence were sufficient, and what punishments were just. Was the person just a nasty sort, or was Satan behind it all? This had to be determined. Sure, torture was one of the tools, but often the accused, most often elderly, eccentric women, admitted it all!

If they didn't, an adolescent accuser could throw herself to the floor, shake and tremble and scream that she was being possessed, and that would prove to be enough.

The point, of course, is that these paragons of the community, steeped in scripture and law and morality, knew they were doing the right thing as they put a witch to death.

There are sound reasons why we call certain actions witch-hunts today. Human psychology hasn't changed all that much. On countless issues of the day - religious, political, scientific - we need to exercise humility, step back, and say: wait a minute - despite how smart we are, we might be wrong.

We're pretty good these days at thinking about (heh, heh) witches. But what aren't we so good at?

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