Taking Superstition Seriously

CASE 5:  Popular Belief in Ancient China

When people today learn about works like the Daybook, it’s easy for them to draw faulty conclusions. One could imagine, for instance, someone thinking:

1. THOSE people were really superstitious, unlike us!

But this would be to suggest that works like the Daybook no longer exist. Yet, as pointed out under Global Context, almanacs can be found in both Europe and Asia, or even in the U.S., to this very day. And then there are the astrology advice columns found in most newspapers on a daily basis. Such practices testify to the widespread human need to assuage, confirm, or modify those hopes and fears that make up a large part of our mental life. Things like astrology columns in newspapers offer people a guide that may be comforting, even if people don’t take them too seriously. Generally it is when people follow such guidelines literally that one speaks of superstition.

The other side of this coin is the notion that the critique of astrology that we find among Enlightenment authors such as Voltaire is uniquely modern. This, too, doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Criticism of practices such as those found in the Daybook appears in China as early as the first century CE. Indeed Wang Chong’s (27-97 CE) Assessing Theories devotes several chapters to exposing the contradictions inherent in popular beliefs at that time. The philosophical basis for Wang’s critique was the theory that nature operates “naturally,” that is, independently of spiritual agency. In China this theory appears around the fourth century BCE. So it is important not to take the Daybook as representative of a Chinese “mentality.” Rather it marks one spot on a spectrum of practices ranging from highly sophisticated philosophy to village-level religion. It is the insight the Daybook offers into the latter that makes it so precious and rare!

Finally, one could imagine a modern reader might think:

2. It’s ONLY superstition so it isn’t important.

From the perspective of a historian, this view also seems misguided. Good historians take all belief systems seriously because they offer an important window onto the lives of people whose basic desires and fears were not all that different from yours or mine. As this case study shows, the Daybook can tell us much about the state of medical knowledge, religious ideas, mathematics, astronomy, science, and so on. Indeed the Daybook seems to be predicated on some assumptions essential for the development of science, such as the notion that the world operates according to fixed principles, that those principles can be known and quantified, that every effect has a specific cause, and so on. Because of this, the assumptions fundamental to the Daybook raise basic philosophical questions pertinent to the problem of divination generally. A critical understanding of such apparently “superstitious” works requires that we consider these philosophical problems.

Go to the next section of CRITICAL ASSESSMENT: Determinism and Other Problems with Divination


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