Book: "Psychical Research and Survival"

Author: Prof. James Hyslop

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- Chapter Three -



          THE TERM 'spiritualism' has three rather distinct meanings. Since the time of Immanuel Kant it had almost dropped out of usage, except with that despised class of believers who think they can communicate with the dead. More recently many of the Continental thinkers are reviving the term in its older comprehensive meaning, and also to include a view, that of the modern spiritualists, which they do not hold. But the older meaning of the term, one actually recognized by Kant properly to denote the theory opposed to materialism, was that it denoted the doctrine that man had an immortal soul. It was thus the Christian theory as opposed to Epicurean and other forms of materialism. But the influence of Kant was to abandon the term and to substitute for it idealism. He had contended that we could not prove the existence of a soul or its immortality from any a priori grounds as to its nature, and though he advanced what he called the moral argument for immortality, it has had no specially enthusiastic support. He held that duty demanded of man more than it was possible to realize in his bodily existence, and as virtue should have happiness for its reward, a reward man could not get in this life, he must have an infinite time to realize what the moral law commanded. Otherwise he could not conceive the world to be rational. But Kant seems not to have noticed that he assumed the world to be rational, which is the thing to be proved; and it is quite possible that we cannot suppose it rational until we prove survival after death. Hence the problem would be turned round. It was probably this fact, with the general feeling of his agnostic outcome, from the philosophic point of view, even though it was correct, that made men think there was no satisfactory evidence or proof of immortality. When the philosophic arguments, which had seemed to do such good service, had been resolved into fallacies, it was natural to think that the moral argument was only a disguised philosophical one, and manufactured to satisfy the religious Cerberus. Then, as Kant himself substituted idealism for spiritualism, the opposition became one between theories of knowledge and not theories of things whose nature we did not know. The whole practical outcome of his system was to discourage a positive belief in the existence of a soul, and the term spiritualism even in philosophy fell into desuetude.

Later the term was adopted by certain people to denote the possibility of communicating with the dead. It had all the meaning of the older view, but added what the older and more respectable meaning did not assert-namely, communication with the dead. It was suggested, possibly, by the work of Swedenborg, which Kant had actually studied and rejected for his more philosophical view. But it was some time after this that the term obtained general vogue. Wherever certain types of phenomena occurred, such as apparitions, mediumistic phenomena, genuine or otherwise, a large class of people appealed to them in proof of another life. Idealism was the subject of interest in the great philosophies, but the common people, not being able to master Kanto-Hegelian ambiguities, went off to the vulgar phenomena of mediumship for their evidence, and called their proof and theory by the name of spiritualism. They even succeeded in limiting it to the idea of communication with the dead, and separating it from any of the reigning ideas of philosophy and religion. It was not born and bred in the larger views which had characterized religion, and so got no farther in its meaning than the phenomena that interested its popular votaries. It was intended to be the source of a hope which philosophic agnosticism could not supply.

The third meaning of the term is not found in its use to express a theory of the soul and its survival, but appears in the adjectival form, 'spiritual,' to describe certain modes or attitudes of mind. It is applied differently according to the school which uses it. In this meaning the term was, of course, borrowed from the religious world, where it originally implied or was associated with the doctrine of immortality, and so described the states of mind and beliefs which were supposedly necessary for salvation. When idealistic agnosticism arose, it was retained in that school to denote the things that were more important than a sensuous life, and had no implications of immortality connected with it, while the religious world meant by it states of mind that had no meaning apart from the belief in the existence of God and immortality. The religiously 'spiritual' is a man's attitude of mind toward God and a future life leading to right living. This right living comprehends all that is implied in the term moral or ethical, and includes love, reverence, faith, obedience, all of these having a definite object to which they are directed. God and man are these objects, and the 'spiritual' is more conspicuously an emotional attitude of mind toward them, leading to salvation. But with agnostic idealism, the 'spiritual' is the intellectual and aesthetic, the philosophical and artistic life, as opposed to sensuous gratification alone. It is not necessarily complicated with the belief in the divine or in immortality. It claims to be opposed to materialism, but its materialism, as explained above, is only sensationalism, or what may be called ethical materialism, and is not in the least opposed to metaphysical materialism. As religion had emphasized the higher mental life, whether intellectual, aesthetic' or ethical, the idealistic school took this conception, and appropriated it for its description of duty without involving the things that made it a duty. The 'spiritual,' in the conception of the intellectual and aesthetic man, is compatible only with an economic ideal. It requires an income and leisure for its realization, at least as sought and practised by those who extol it, and the "dull millions that toil foredone at the wheel of labour" have little chance to realize it, save by the fortune which may place them on the necks of their fellows. The intellectual and the aesthetic are valuable, but not at the expense of those who have to pay for it without getting it. The 'spiritual' in this sense is the mark of an aristocracy, itself not wrong where those who suffer from it have no desire to rise above their dead selves, but yet not the ideal of life unless it looks to the social and ethical virtues, which require no income or leisure for their practice, and unless it looks to time for attainment where materialism cuts it short at the grave. The intellectualist's and the aestheticist's 'spiritual' is wanting in all that will inspire, though it is a thing that the great objects of inspiration must stimulate; but it is too closely affiliated with a philosophic conception which, though it calls itself idealistic, is not severed from the fundamental associations of materialism-namely, the ideals of physical knowledge and of art, things necessary both where nothing else can be won, and where all else can be won, but not possible where economic conditions forbid it. It is the ethical, the right attitude of mind toward the Cosmos, or God and his laws, that constitutes the 'spiritual' attainable in any condition of life whatever, that is desired, and only immortality and God can give security against the vicissitudes and corrosive influences of doubt.

This point of view could be called ethical spiritualism, but it has never been dignified with such a name. If it had been, the distinction would be clear between the other uses of the term. They might severally be termed philosophical, scientific, and ethical spiritualism. The first characterized some of the Greek philosophers, and the whole of Christianity after them resorted to metaphysics for its defence. The second characterized the inception of Christianity, when it appealed to real or alleged facts, and became the dominant influence in certain classes of modern times when the philosophic and theological point of view lost power under the influence of scientific materialism. The third meaning represents the dominant practical spirit of Christianity and philosophic idealism, where materialism has had to yield to the ethical ideas of religion while undermining its philosophy. But with the first and third meanings or points of view, we have nothing to do here. It is common spiritualism with which we have to deal, and this can be called scientific only in respect of the appeal to fact, or communication with the dead as proof of survival, instead of to a priori reasoning. It has never been regarded as a scientific attitude of mind, and certainly much of its work since its alleged rise has offered nothing to entitle it to that dignified name. But in so far as its point of view is concerned, it is entitled to such a description of its function. While the philosophical point of view has succumbed to the triumphant spirit of science, psychic research claims sufficient attention to recover for the ordinary spiritualism the right of investigation. Hence it is only this point of view that can receive notice here.

The use of the term spiritualism, then, varies somewhat in different countries and between different men. In America it is not a respectable term among philosophers and psychologists. It obtains the colour of its meaning from association with a despised sect, which has set up a rival propagandism with the Church. In Germany and France it has a philosophic recognition, and to some extent restores the usage which Kant once gave it, but is not associated with the particular ideas of those who make it only a belief in the communication with the dead. It rather combines the first and second meanings with a sceptical temper toward the claim of communication. Professor Flournoy uses 'spiritualism' in the older philosophic sense, and employs 'spiritism' for the scientific conception of communication, though not vet feeling convinced that 'spiritism' his sustained its claims. There is no objection to this use of the term, though it might conduce to better understanding with the English thinking public were this conception of it consistent with its habits. This, however, may be the fault of our deviation from Continental habits of thought, which are truer to philosophic tradition. In this discussion, however, I must remain by the popular conception of the term 'spiritualism' among English-speaking peoples, if only to make clear the approach which we have to make to the problem.

The spiritualists, in the modern sense of the term, trace their origin to the Fox sisters of Hydesville, N.Y. There is no excuse for this view of their history except ignorance of all history. It is unfortunate that the writer of the article on 'Spiritualism' in the ninth and eleventh editions of The Encyclopaedia Britannica perpetuates this delusion, though it is supposedly qualified by the term 'Modern.' It would have been far more intelligent to have traced it to Swedenborg, whose system was confessedly ascribed to communication with the dead, and obtained the serious consideration of Immanuel Kant as well as of a whole sect of people. But even this origin would have ignored far more ancient claims; as, however, these were not known to Swedenborg and his followers, it is right to give him the credit of prior claim to what was Almost a discovery. Spiritualism at least obtained the status of philosophic recognition from such a man, whatever qualifications the scientist has to give his work from the influence of Swedenborg's own mind. There are evidences of other cases exhibiting similar phenomena before his time, and history as well as legend has preserved traces of them during the whole period of the Middle Ages. But not even these times, or times far earlier, originated the phenomena and the belief in communication with the dead.

It was primitive animism that was really the origin of spiritualism, and this represents the religious belief of savages all over the globe at one time. One has only to read Tylor's Primitive Culture to see this. It survived everywhere in the form of 'ancestor worship,' a term which conceals in Western ideas the real nature of the belief. Those, however, who know the beliefs of China and Japan, which are called 'ancestor worship,' find in them nothing but spiritualism pure and simple, modified, of course, by national traditions and practices. But the primitive form which this worship took is found more or less intact among savages to-day who have not come sufficiently in contact with civilization to modify it, and it is connected with such frightful orgies or superstitions that it is hard even to discover its real meaning. Human sacrifices are a relic of it, and in the form of widow-sacrifice it remained long in nations that had abandoned much of their primitive ideas. It is noticeable that all the early great religions, such as Taoism, Buddhism, Brahmanism, and all philosophic systems everywhere, were revolts against these primitive beliefs. They had to compromise with them usually for political safety and in the end modified them, but among common people some form of spiritualism has survived almost every attack; so that it is only ignorance to trace its origin to the Fox sisters. If intelligent people had not scouted the phenomena that occurred in their own families, it would not have been left to the ignorant followers and imitators of the Fox sisters to set up a new gospel from tabletipping and cracking toe-joints. Men will not have intelligent ideas on this matter until they abandon both respect and ridicule for the Fox phenomena. The conceptions with which their followers have surrounded the subject are the great obstacle to the serious consideration of what is really important in psychic research, and science cannot afford to let the ignorant classes pre-empt the view which is to be taken of this research.

It is nevertheless true that the phenomena which have been most emphasized in modern times, and especially during the period of the Fox sisters' performances and a long time afterward, were calculated to give a dubious conception of the problem. They were the alleged levitation of physical objects without contact, tying and untying mysterious knots, alleged escape from impossible cabinets, alleged penetration of matter by matter, and various other alleged physical miracles. These took various forms in every case, each supposed to overcome the difficulties arising in the others. They lent themselves to easy imitation by conjuring, which was usually far superior in appearance to anything that the spiritualists could show, and yet was palpably illusion and publicly avowed as such. Soon after the Fox sisters had created sufficient interest, the conjurer began a course of public exhibitions, and second-rate performers of the same kind duped and mulcted the gullible innocents; until psychic research put an end to it, or at least reduced it in amount and opportunity, so that it no longer enjoys the immunity it once possessed.

We can then hardly attribute the origin of modern spiritualism to an intelligent attack on scepticism on the part of those who excited the first interest in it. But various circumstances combined to attract the attention of those who were not committed to the Church in their views either of religion or immortality. One of the first effects on religious belief of the very principle on which Western society was founded, namely, the idea of liberty, was to emancipate many of the leading minds from its thraldom without removing the interest in a future life on which Christianity rested. This class was willing to look in any direction for consolation and hope when it could not receive assurance from the Church. It was this, and not the peculiarity of the Fox sisters' phenomena, that excited interest. Their vulgar performances would have aroused no enthusiasm but for the intensity of the interest of the human mind in a belief in a future life. They would have been dismissed as less curious even than conjuring but for the all-absorbing influence of what the Church had taught us to expect but could not prove. In the ever-growing success of the scientific method which never relied on faith of any kind but demanded proof in present experience, the reasoning mind would no longer trust authority or faith. It had 'to be shown,' as a Western phrase tersely puts it. The evidence of this is more clearly seen in the books of Judge Edmunds and Andrew Jackson Davis. Their work was surrounded with some respectability at least, whatever other judgment be passed upon it, and so was that of the Rev. Stainton Moses. Intelligence and probity more or less protected them, and the breath of scorn never succeeded in attaching moral reproach to their lives and doctrines. It was otherwise with the Fox sisters. Their reputation and their notoriety were due entirely to the tenacity with which ignorant and unidealistic people defended their phenomena, and to the ease with which they could be attacked by intelligent and respectable people. The life -of one of them at least became so saturated with debauchery, that people with moral ideals could not attach any value publicly to what might have been scientifically genuine. Those spiritualists who have always endeavoured to keep the memory of the Fox phenomena green, have had no sense of humour or of idealism in their devotion. They have been wholly ignorant of the influences which affect mankind when asked to accept a new gospel-namely, some moral idealism of belief and conduct in those that bring the message. It was this that gave Christianity its advantage and its durability. No fault of base living could be discovered in the history and behaviour of its founder. He stood in history as an ideal, and this regardless of all theories about his personality. Not so with the heroes of modern spiritualism among the vulgar classes. It is probable that there were some genuine psychic phenomena connected with the Fox sisters, but history is not going to preserve them. What history and tradition will know best about them is the immoral life associated with the phenomena and the records of real or alleged fraud in which the public of the intelligent sort was more ready to believe than in miracles. There will be no disposition to revise the verdict that has been put upon them, and it would not be possible to do so if we desired. The confession of Margaret Lane Fox, though the circumstances make it worthless, will always remain a fatal obstacle to the hypothesis of anything genuine in her career, and it would have been wiser for spiritualists to have accepted the situation and to have allied their fortunes with something more ethical and ideal. Some of the later heroes of the movement were no better, and it cannot be expected of idealists that they should fall down and worship something less interesting and more illusory than conjuring. The course they have taken has so distorted the meaning of the term by which they denote their belief that intelligent people, at least in the Western continent, hardly dare use it in a favourable sense. Whatever of association it may have with correct method in respect to proof is lost by association with vulgarity and fraud, and even people just rising from uncultured conditions and insisting upon at least aesthetic ideals, would demand that so important a belief as immortality, so long under idealistic auspices, should be surrounded and protected by good taste and morality as well as scientific method.

There is abundant evidence, however, that the phenomena have characterized all ages; the Church was able to keep them in abeyance or in its service during its triumph, and it was only the passing of its power that gave the subject the influence which it possesses to-day. Men are more interested in the future than they are in the past, and this is true without regard to any life beyond the grave. It is the future that absorbs the attention of every man and woman, even when he or she does not believe in immortality. It is only in an aristocratic age that, the past has any special attraction, or if not in an aristocratic age, certainly in an aristocratic mind. The past is given us and we cannot modify it by any act of ours. It is different with the future. We can make that, if we have any assurance of the time in which to make it. All realization that depends on hope and the will makes no reckoning with the past except to ascertain the law of probabilities or the conditions of achievement in the future. It is the fruition of the future we all seek with a thousandfold as passionate an interest as we read history, and the human race cannot be robbed of this instinct without abortive development. It was the appeal to this beyond-the-grave belief that gave Christianity most of its influence, and this heritage was seized by it; apostates when they turned to the claims of spiritualism for protection.

It is quite possible that the Fox sisters and other interested people, including such persons as Judge Edmunds and Andrew Jackson Davis, would have received as little attention as similar types in the Middle Ages, or have been as ruthlessly suppressed, but for the wider and deeper impression that scepticism had made upon the dogmas of religion. As I have already remarked, sceptical minds were and are quite as much interested in human survival as any believer, only they are more careful about their evidence, and have more confidence in scientific methods and results than have either the religious mind or the untrained masses. Just in proportion as this scepticism retained its personal and its moral interest in survival, would it give attention to the claims of the spiritualists, and it was this that got the Fox sisters a hearing beyond the limits of the class to which they belonged, as well as the easier attack to which they were exposed than were men like Judge Edmunds and Davis. The literature of this period is full of books on the subject, both for and against, and many a writer had far better phenomena with which to support his claims, than most of those of the Fox sisters which history will preserve. But either because the facts were harder to refute and explain away, or because materialism was too strong to accept a reaction into supernaturalism, at any rate, the gauntlet was thrown down and the challenge accepted, and scepticism was finally, asked to face the organized effort of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882 to settle the controversy once for all.

Whatever we may think of the spiritualists and of the character of their facts, they were, in respect of method, much nearer science than were their antagonists in religion. They had turned away from tradition and dogma and toward actual experiment in the present for a belief. Whether the hope or endeavour was foolish or not has nothing to do with the spirit of the method. This was the interrogation of the present moment for the determination of belief. Hitherto religion had relied upon the past and its bequest for the fixing of the most important of all beliefs in its own estimation, and scorned all effort of the present to prove what it held as a faith. Spiritualism, on the contrary, insisted that it must find the proof in present human experience or it would join the ranks of the agnostics and materialists. Hence it would have been easy for it to form an alliance with science, at least in respect of the general principle of its method. But it forfeited its opportunity by the fanaticism of its beliefs, which were not less rigid and uncompromising toward strict scientific method than had been the general attitude of religion toward science in its inception. It maintained equal indifference or hostility to the ethical ideals of the Church - without reflecting how much that body had fallen from grace in its use of them - and cultivated as much hatred toward scientific men as they maintained towards it. It did not see that it might divide with science the support of method, and attack it for want of an open mind. But it found in science as much of an enemy as it did in the Church, and had to do what it could between the upper and the nether millstone.

Its assemblies were the hustings for performances which ranged from the ravings of hysterics and deceptions of tricksters to the half-illiterate talks of people who, whatever of idealism they had, were not fit leaders of the intelligent public or even the entertainers of such. They were too slow to expel fraud from their ministers, and never saw that the cause of immortality has little or no importance unless associated with at least some moral idealism in the characters and teachings of their leaders. Twaddle in exhortation will not redeem messages from the dead anywhere except in the laboratory. A public educated in intellectual as well as artistic aesthetics will not be attracted to illiterate teachers in this age, and much less is it going to take its revelations from hysterical or uneducated bawlers, far less from frauds who can claim neither hysteria nor ignorance as apologies for their conduct. It was this fatal situation that prevented spiritualism from invoking the interest of science earlier than it did. It fell to the intelligent agnostic to attack the problem in the face of three enemies, the devotee of tradition and dogma, the scientific materialist, and the despised spiritualists who were neither religious nor scientific..



Notes / Preface / Chapter 1 / Chapter 2 / Chapter 3 / Chapter 4 / Chapter 5 / Chapter 6 / Chapter 7 / Chapter 8 / Chapter 9 / Chapter 10 / Bibliography

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