Savage and Modern Superstition

“Anyone who has once penetrated into the imaginary world of primitive men, and knows something of the state of fear in which people may live when they believe in taboos, unavoidable curses, and active jujus, can no longer doubt that it is our duty to endeavor to liberate them from these superstitions.”

“Cannot much in the mentality of modern man that gives us ground for reflection be explicable by the fact that he no longer discriminates between the real and the artificial.”  

   Albert Schweitzer, African Notebook  (1939) [1]

The human mind makes a superstition when it treats the imaginary as real.  The work of the imagination may be conscious or unconscious, but the essence of superstition is that the mind treats a work of man as if it were a work of God.  This is why an important variety of superstition is the idol, and why the God of the Israel was so forceful in his condemnation of these “graven images.”

“Ye shall make you no idols nor graven image, neither rear you up a standing image, neither shall ye set up any image of stone in your land, to bow down unto it: for I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 26: 1)

The etymology of the word superstition remains controversial, but it’s root meaning is that which stands (stare) above (super).  This suggests either a “standing image,” such as a statue that has been “set up,” or an “image” that looms over people, filling their minds with awe or fear, and making them “bow down.”  We should understand this bowing down to include all acts that yield to the imaginary power of the image.  We should understand it to particularly include imaginary fears, such as the primitive fear of contact with that which is taboo, of being cursed by a witch, and of acting without the protection and aid of supernatural juju.

It appears that these primitive fears arise naturally in the human imagination because men are small and the world is a frightening place. They are most pronounced in the lifeworld of savages, where they are cultivated by the fetichists, or “witch-doctors,” but vestiges of these primitive fears still haunt the minds of modern men.  We would be ashamed to call it taboo, but many of us avoid objects, acts, or persons, out of a vague sense that contact would bring us “bad luck.”  We may not fear that a witch has cursed us, but many of us explain our disappointments and misfortunes as the work of some bitch (witch) or bastard (sorcerer) who “has it in for us.”  We may not, like the savages in Schweitzer’s African Notebook, hope to obtain supernatural power by murdering a man and carrying one of his bones on our body, but many of us—perhaps all of us—are in the market for talismans and more-or-less magical aids to our power.[2]

* * * * *

As Schweitzer observes in my second epigraph, modern man has added a new type of superstition to this natural, and therefore incorrigible, substrate of savage superstition.  A savage honors his primitive superstitions because he believes that they are real; a modern man honors his modern superstitions although, and in many cases because, he knows that they are false.

The superstitions of a modern man are the fictitious works of imagination that he is so eager, so avid, so greedy to consume.  They are the “graven images” before which he may not bow down, but before or with which he most certainly sits down, for hours and hours, and hours.

Modern men marvel that savages can bow down to a graven image that they truly think is a god.  Schweitzer tells us that savages marvel that modern men can sit for hours before a graven image that they know is nothing more than graven image.   And Schweitzer agrees with the savages.  Modern man’s love of fiction is at bottom a love of lies.  The savage may cherish many false notions, but he is our superior insofar has he has not learned to relish being told that which is not.

So Schweitzer says :

“From the moment when man gets beyond the naïve idea that every picture must be a reproduction of reality, he finds himself on a line of progress with hidden dangers.”

Here are the hidden dangers.  Savage superstition treats the imaginary as real.  Modern superstition treats the real as imaginary.  Savage superstition treats fictions as if they were true.  Modern superstition treats truths as if they were fiction.  It is far from clear which of these is more insane.

I am not sure I fully understand Schweitzer’s specific against modern superstition, but this is what he says:

“He can only follow it unharmed when in place of the irretrievable, lost, natural ingenuousness he acquires the higher, spiritual simplicity.  All true civilization consists in our attaining that deepest simplicity which is the highest wisdom.”[3]

If spiritual simplicity means anything, it means the absence of a desire for, or pretense of, spiritual sophistication.  Thus the hidden dangers of the modern superstition of universal unreality are greatest for a man who who has already fallen victim to the fiction that he his, himself, spiritually speaking, better, wiser, and more knowing, than just about everyone else.   The hidden danger of modern superstition is, in other words, greatest for a man who believes that he himself is a god.

[1]) Albert Schweitzer, African Notebook, trans. C.E.B. Russell (1939; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1958), pp. 88, 40.

[2]) “All great works of magic can only be effected by the sacrifice of a human life.  What a number of people used to be murdered in this country because hunters wanted a powerful juju for their elephant hunting!  In all the big fetiches which I have seen because they have been given up by Christians, there has always been a piece of human skull.”  Schweitzer, African Notebook, p. 66.

[3]) Schweitzer, African Notebook, p. 40.

2 thoughts on “Savage and Modern Superstition

  1. “The human mind makes a superstition when it treats the imaginary as real.”

    Let me suggest an alternative. Superstition is an explanation (I would like to write, but hesitate to write, tentative explanation) of physical phenomena (in William James’s sense of the term), partly alloyed by a rooting in sensual stimuli and partly in unmitigated belief.

    Many treat the imaginary as real. The moon is made of green cheese. Yet this is not a superstition. Rather, an erroneous interpretation of material existence.

    • We can certainly use the word as a synonym for “old wive’s tale,” but I still think the idolized object deserves a name of its own. Men do have false beliefs about causality, and that is interesting, but men also have false beliefs about the sacred, and that is interesting in another way.


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