The pagan supernatural in the Scottish Enlightenment
in The supernatural in early modern Scotland
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Classical pagan visions of the supernatural world excited Scottish intellectuals throughout the eighteenth century. The pagans’ oracles, gods and conceptions of the afterlife were debating points in defining appropriate attitudes towards the supernatural. Oracles were initially ascribed to demonic spirits, but, later in the century, naturalistic theories arose attributing oracular powers to human imposture instead. This contributed to the declining respectability of supernatural explanations, furthering the banishment of demons from scholarly accounts of events in the natural world.

However, pagan beliefs in divine power and the afterlife continued to engage the Scottish literati throughout the century, and remained central to the religious debates of the Enlightenment. Here we see no shift from ‘supernatural’ to ‘natural’ explanation, but the deployment of incorrect pagan supernaturalism to vindicate correct Christian supernaturalism. The superstitious polytheism of the pagan masses proved that the supernatural assistance of divine revelation offered Christians a distinct advantage in reaching an accurate understanding of the supernatural world. Pagan religion thus demonstrated the virtues of revealed religion over the rational religion of the deists or the irreligion of the atheists. Debate continued over the question of whether it was possible for pagans to discover the fundamental principles of Christian supernaturalism through the natural powers of the human mind. Overall, Scottish analyses of paganism reveal that a commitment to Christian supernaturalism remained a vital force in the intellectual life of the Scottish Enlightenment.

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