A Fragment on Miracles

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

[This fragment is from a manuscript now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and was first published in the Julian Editions, 7.147‑148, in 1930. The fragment bears a close affinity in thought and style to a portion of A Refutation of Deism, the Note in Queen Mab to the line "I will beget a Son"—both of 1813—and to the fragment printed in this text under the title of A Refutation of the Christian Religion. The work is without title in the manuscript. It was probably composed in 1813‑1815—a period in which Shelley was endeavoring to establish his religious ideas on solid ground. For his sources Shelley went to Hume's Essays and to Spinoza's Tractatus, and especially to Paine's The Age of Reason.]

. . . ultimately referable to the First Cause) . . . every event which exceeds one's powers to produce—as if whatever exceeded our own powers was necessarily the effect of Omnipotence. Their argument stands thus: nobody but God can do what I cannot do. But we have no right to suppose a greater cause for an event than one precisely sufficient to produce that event. Supposing also God to be benevolent as well as all powerful, it is not only absurd but impious to impute to his special agency the production of the events called miracles; because if his purpose had been to extirpate error by means of the doctrines recommended by them and contained in the Christian scriptures that purpose has failed and from the nature of things could not but have failed as the Deity must have known beforehand as well as we now learn from history and experience.

I am inclined to think the miracles related in the Bible sprang from the three great sources: of imposture, fabrication, and a heated imagination. But I am open to conviction; and if it can be proved that they were produced by some extraordinary powers inherent in those who exhibited them, I shall [be] willing to admit causes precisely adequate to whatever events can be proved to be historically true. But could it even be proved to me that the Sun actually moved from its place at the command of Joshua, I should no more admit as a consequence that the Author of the Universe had especially enjoined the extirpation of the Canaanites than if the motion of a drop of dew [or] sunshine from a flower had been alleged us as a guarantee of a similar communication. Still less would it persuade me of the truth of the impudent contradictions and stupendously absurd assertions which the teachers of the Christian religion pretend to deduce from the Old and New Testament.

This objection, which was foreseen by Jesus Christ himself and is felt by the teachers of Christianity, has been met by the assertion that the truth of the doctrines must prove the truth of the miracles. This is both uncandid and absurd. What then do we want with the miracles, for if the miracles require the sanction of the truth of the doctrines—that is, these doctrines are the immediate inspiration of God arising from their conformity to what we reasonably concur. How can they communicate to the doctrines that credibility which the miracles need to receive from these doctrines? How can they confer that [quality] which it is necessary, before their genuineness as miracles can be acknowledged, that they should receive from the doctrine whose sole established claim to be divine rests upon that genuineness which thus they can never acquire? Jesus Christ assures us that Christians will be in the greatest danger of being duped by imposters, and recommends them not to be led astray by miracles, but to try them by the doctrines of the performers. This method would serve very well to determine whether those doctrines agreed with his own or not, but could never conduct to any decision as to whether the doctrines were divine or no, or the miracles the works of God. For if the miracle which accompanies the doctrine be not in itself sufficient to authenticate the doctrine, [how should the] doctrine of which every man must judge according to his own reason possibly suffice to authenticate the miracle. And if even in the opinion of a person who should think the doctrine conformable to reason (and many such are to be found in the New Testament) the miracle should require this authentication, the miracle would have been totally superfluous, without import as without purpose, confirming and testifying in favor of nothing, deducting by the support which it would itself demand from that credence which a doctrine agreeable to reason might have otherwise obtained. Surely this pretense is solemn trifling.

A doctrine pretending to be divine, and therefore true, may assert the most extravagant positions, and as there is no test of it except a miracle, of which as it appears it is itself the test, it follows that there can be no test at all. A doctrine pretending to be true may be brought to the test of logic and dialectics which though not infallible often leaves us in a possession of a probability sufficiently strong to assist us in confirming our actions and sentiments to it. But this sort of doctrine only claims precisely that degree of belief which the proof alleged in its establishment will authorize and may from time to time be suspended.


SOURCE: Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “A Fragment on Miracles” (1813-1815), in: Shelley's Prose, edited by David Lee Clark (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1954), pp. 143-144.


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