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An essay by A. A. Milne


Title:     Superstition
Author: A. A. Milne [More Titles by Milne]

I have just read a serious column on the prospects for next year. This article consisted of contributions from experts in the various branches of industry (including one from a meteorological expert who, I need hardly tell you, forecasted a wet summer) and ended with a general summing up of the year by Old Moore or one of the minor prophets. Old Moore, I am sorry to say, left me cold.

I should like to believe in astrology, but I cannot. I should like to believe that the heavenly bodies sort themselves into certain positions in order that Zadkiel may be kept in touch with the future; the idea of a star whizzing a million miles out of its path by way of indicating a "sensational divorce case in high life" is extraordinarily massive. But, candidly, I do not believe the stars bother. What the stars are for, what they are like when you get there, I do not know; but a starry night would not be so beautiful if it were simply meant as a warning to some unpleasant financier that Kaffirs were going up. The ordinary man looks at the heavens and thinks what an insignificant atom he is beneath them; the believer in astrology looks up and realizes afresh his overwhelming importance. Perhaps, after all, I am glad I do not believe.

Life must be a very tricky thing for the superstitious. At dinner a night or two ago I happened to say that I had never been in danger of drowning. I am not sure now that it was true, but I still think that it was harmless. However, before I had time to elaborate my theme (whatever it was) I was peremptorily ordered to touch wood. I protested that both my feet were on the polished oak and both my elbows on the polished mahogany (one always knew that some good instinct inspired the pleasant habit of elbows on the table) and that anyhow I did not see the need. However, because one must not argue at dinner I tapped the table two or three times... and now I suppose I am immune. At the same time I should like to know exactly whom I have appeased.

For this must be the idea of the wood-touching superstition, that a malignant spirit dogs one's conversational footsteps, listening eagerly for the complacent word. "I have never had the mumps," you say airily. "Ha, ha!" says the spirit, "haven't you? Just you wait till next Tuesday, my boy." Unconsciously we are crediting Fate with our own human weaknesses. If a man standing on the edge of a pond said aloud, "I have never fallen into a pond in my life," and we happened to be just behind him, the temptation to push him in would be irresistible. Irresistible, that is by us; but it is charitable to assume that Providence can control itself by now.

Of course, nobody really thinks that our good or evil spirits have any particular feeling about wood, that they like it stroked; nobody, I suppose, not even the most superstitious, really thinks that Fate is especially touchy in the matter of salt and ladders. Equally, of course, many people who throw spilt salt over their left shoulders are not superstitious in the least, and are only concerned to display that readiness in the face of any social emergency which is said to be the mark of good manners. But there are certainly many who feel that it is the part of a wise man to propitiate the unknown, to bend before the forces which work for harm; and they pay tribute to Fate by means of these little customs in the hope that they will secure in return an immunity from evil. The tribute is nominal, but it is an acknowledgment all the same.

A proper sense of proportion leaves no room for superstition. A man says, "I have never been in a shipwreck," and becoming nervous touches wood. Why is he nervous? He has this paragraph before his eyes: "Among the deceased was Mr. ----. By a remarkable coincidence this gentleman had been saying only a few days before that he had never been in a shipwreck. Little did he think that his next voyage would falsify his words so tragically." It occurs to him that he has read paragraphs like that again and again. Perhaps he has. Certainly he has never read a paragraph like this: "Among the deceased was Mr. ----. By a remarkable coincidence this gentleman had never made the remark that he had not yet been in a shipwreck." Yet that paragraph could have been written truthfully thousands of times. A sense of proportion would tell you that, if only one side of a case is ever recorded, that side acquires an undue importance. The truth is that Fate does not go out of its way to be dramatic. If you or I had the power of life and death in our hands, we should no doubt arrange some remarkably bright and telling effects. A man who spilt the salt callously would be drowned next week in the Dead Sea, and a couple who married in May would expire simultaneously in the May following. But Fate cannot worry to think out all the clever things that we should think out. It goes about its business solidly and unromantically, and by the ordinary laws of chance it achieves every now and then something startling and romantic. Superstition thrives on the fact that only the accidental dramas are reported.

But there are charms to secure happiness as well as charms to avert evil. In these I am a firm believer. I do not mean that I believe that a horseshoe hung up in the house will bring me good luck; I mean that if anybody does believe this, then the hanging up of his horseshoe will probably bring him good luck. For if you believe that you are going to be lucky, you go about your business with a smile, you take disaster with a smile, you start afresh with a smile. And to do that is to be in the way of happiness.

[The end]
A. A. Milne's essay: Superstition