All the Tall Tales People Tell about Such Things

‘It is perhaps not without reason that we consider credulity and the readiness to be persuaded to be signs of simplicity and ignorance. For once I was taught, I think, that belief is like an impression made upon the mind, and that the softer and less resistant the mind, the easier it is to impress something upon it… The emptier a mind is, and the less counterpoise it has, the more easily it sinks under the weight of the first argument. That is why children, the common people, women and the sick are particularly apt to be led by the ears. But then, on the other hand, it is a stupid presumption to go about despising and condemning as false anything that seems to us improbable; this is a common fault in those who think they have more intelligence than the crowd. I used to be like that once, and if I heard talk of ghosts walking, or prognostications of future events, of enchantments or sorceries, or some other tale that I could not swallow, I would pity the poor people who were taken in by such nonsense. And now I find that I was at least as much to be pitied myself: not that experience has shown me anything that transcends my  former beliefs, though this has not been for lack of curiosity; but reason has taught me that to condemn anything so positively as false and impossible is to claim that our own brains have the privilege of knowing the bounds and limits of God’s will, and of our mother nature’s power.’

Michel de Montaigne, ‘That is folly to measure truth and error by our own capacity’, Essays, translated by J. M. Cohen.

‘The tales told by the common folk are simply astonishing to hear. People of refinement never tell tales of the strange and marvellous. Nevertheless, this does not mean one should necessarily disbelieve the stories of the miraculous power of the gods and buddhas, or legends of their manifesting in earthly form. It is foolish to be credulous of all the tall tales people tell about such things, but there is no point in doubting everything you hear either. As a rule, you should accept such stories at face value, neither believing everything nor ridiculing it all as nonsense.’

Yoshida Kenko, Essays in Idleness, translated by Meredith McKinney.


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