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Part II

XVIII: Ourselves

Animula vagula blandula,

Hospes comesque corporis,

Quae nunc abibis in loca

Pallidula, rigida, nudula,

Nec ut soles dabis jocos?

The dying Emperor, Hadrian, to his Soul

Little, winsome, wandering thing,

Bosom friend and guest to-day,

Whither now, my soul, away,

Wan, and cold, and unattended,

All our former frolics ended?

We are, no doubt, of some trifling importance to ourselves, but to attach any importance or significance to mankind at large is difficult. ‘We burn’, said Pascal, ‘to find some firm foundation, some unshakable basis on which we may build the tower which reaches up to infinity.’ We desire, that is, to think nobly of ourselves. But the ship of life is so small and the sea of circumstances so wide, that we are discouraged.

And nature, mother nature does not hasten to her children’s material or spiritual assistance, nor view their efforts with smiling appreciation. She hardly seems to have had us in mind at all, and has made poor provision for our security and comfort. For consider, what Lucretius long ago observed, how small a part of the earth’s surface is fit for human habitation. Insignificant enough to begin with, our planet is, as a dwelling-place, miserably contracted. Stormy oceans nature has provided in plenty, barren mountains, burning sands, long leagues of polar snow and ice. But how little for its inhabitants of salubrious climate or easy ways of life. Mankind has had a hard and harsh row to hoe. Consider, too, the variety of afflictions to which the race is exposed, the inclement seasons, the droughts and floods, the wild beasts and noxious insects, the fevers and pestilences, the frightful prevalence of mental disorders from idiocy to mania, the nauseous physical abnormalities, the part played in its affairs by chance and accident. The lower animals, many of them, are equipped with talents better suited to their conditions of life than we, and are, in a multitude of ways, our superiors. Or survey the infirmities of the human mind and note the failures which attend the efforts of the wisest and the best among men and nations—the cruelties, the surly, bitter tempers, the fault-finding and vituperation, the superstitions and foolery, the intrigues and deceptions, rivalries and envies, the swindling and the villainy, the petty scandals, the absurd pursuits and ambitions, worst of all, perhaps, the outrageous injustices, so that

It seems a story from the world of spirits

When any one obtains that which he merits,

Or any merits that which he obtains.

Our moralists and satirists have in human weaknesses a broad and easy target for their denunciations and derision. But to think well of ourselves, or with such materials to lay, as Pascal desired, the foundations of a tower reaching up to heaven, seems an undertaking rather for a tribe of demi-gods than mortal men. It was born, apparently, the human race, under an unlucky star. And never, I suppose, was there an era in which all things human were viewed by its intellectuals with such burning contempt as in ours, an era in which they so hated and despised the world and all that it contains.

What, if anything, is to be set over against these discouraging features? I can think of nothing but our contemptible selves. Personality comes first. Unless something of celestial origin and value can be discovered in the self or soul the situation is beyond repair, and its amelioration an idle dream. So it is that around the nature of the soul, as around the body of Patroclus in Homer’s Iliad, the battle rages more fiercely than in any other part of the stricken field. It is here the main issue of human destiny is in the balance, and here it will be determined.

Of what importance, then, if any, is the individual self? On that point, in their estimate of it, you have the deepest, the most fundamental divergence between the rival schools of thought. Is it the greatest of values, this assessor or valuator, as it sets up to be, or no greater than the least of values in an undiscriminating universe? In this matter we must take man in the singular, not in the plural number. Upon the destiny of each rests the destiny of all. For you can advance no reason why nature should look more kindly upon human society as a whole than upon the least of its members. They stand or fall together. Measured by nature’s scale they are indistinguishable; in her great balances they weigh alike. Though the race survive the individual, ‘tis only for a season. The greedy waters will in the end suck it down, nor will a ripple on the surface of eternity show where the vessel sank. Of what significance or value, then, we ask, is the individual self? Already, however, we have overshot the mark. To talk of values is premature. Before talking of values, let us be sure the self exists, for if, as we are not infrequently assured, it has in fact no existence, its value is not in question, and further enquiry is spared us.

The modern and shortest way with the soul or self is to deny it outright. Can we suppose—to employ a figure used by Bayle, the French philosopher, in a different setting—can we suppose ‘that a ship might be constructed of such a kind that entirely by itself, without captain or crew, it could sail from place to place for years on end, accommodating itself to varying winds, avoiding shoals, casting and weighing anchor, seeking a haven when necessary, and doing all that a normal ship can?’ Yes, we are told, in the human or animal body we have precisely such a ship, which handles itself admirably without captain or navigator.

You have heard of this curious doctrine, of this psychology which rejects the psyche and retains only the ‘ology’, the science of the self without the self. Its founder was that disconcerting sceptic, Hume. As he was unable to discover the nexus between cause and effect, so with the best will in the world he was unable, he assures us, to find the self. Introspection, he maintained, wholly fails to detect any such entity. It finds, to be sure, perceptions and events taking place within us, but no bond between them, no unifying principle there. The fondly imagined being, the supposed master or navigator of the vessel, never appears. Evidence for his existence there is none. So other and succeeding philosophers have also reported, as, for example, Professor William James. ‘The passing thought is the only thinker that the facts require.’ Such is his categorical declaration. It hardly seems to chime with common sense, but what has philosophy to do with common sense?

Thus, in summary fashion, these great authorities deny and dispose of us, and incidentally of themselves. Where we imagined the ‘I’ or self to be, there is only, they tell us, a series of fleeting impressions, sensations, fancies, pains and pleasures, which succeed each other with amazing rapidity, but without any support, any connection or tie between them, no entity over and above them that as centre or subject thinks, feels or desires. It is then a mirage or hallucination, this notion of the self. Bodies we have, but they are automata, and this ‘I’, with which we fancy ourselves to have some acquaintance, is an illusion. And an interesting and peculiar illusion, which till yesterday successfully played the impostor’s part upon the whole human race, philosophers included. And not only so, but imposed also upon itself, till in the end, after this prodigious feat of deception, it laid a snare for itself and caught itself out. This illusion, the most extraordinary that ever was, discovered itself to be an illusion. The phantom recognised itself as a phantom. So extraordinary, indeed, that we may perhaps say the discovery is of no consequence. An illusion that so successfully apes reality, and does all that reality could be expected to do, is, we may conclude, for all practical purposes sufficient. If with an illusory million of money I think myself a millionaire, am recognised by my neighbours as a Croesus and can purchase all that a Croesus can, what more in reason could anyone ask? If the self, even the philosopher’s self, which has no existence, persuades others and remains persuaded of its own existence, rises each morning after sleep with the same undisturbed conviction, and performs through three score years and ten its apparent duties with efficiency, its true standing in reality may be set aside as irrelevant. Illusion or no, if it continue as it is—ah, there lies the point—if it be permanent, and never awakes to the real situation, it will serve all our needs. Universal and everlasting illusions are indistinguishable from reality. One is reminded of the story of the king who dreamt nightly that he was a beggar, and his captive who dreamt nightly that he was a king. There was little to choose between them.

Hume desired to alarm the pious folk of his day and generation. It amused him. That he was as deeply impressed by his own argument as some of his followers I decline to believe. His was no untutored mind. He was capable of more than he pretends, of the simple reflection, for example, that the hand cannot grasp itself, nor the eye, though the organ of vision, catch sight of itself.

We observed, you remember, that no one has ever seen light. Like the self, light, which brings the whole world into our presence, which makes all else visible, is itself invisible. Do we conclude by parity of reasoning that light also has no existence? Hume requires the subject of the experience to be its own object while it examines other objects—to be at the same time at both ends of the telescope. His effort recalls to us the absent-minded scholar using his spectacles to look for them, or the rustic, in the Spanish proverb, searching the country for the mule upon which he is riding. On this reasoning the existence of the self could only be maintained if it could be detected when idle, when it was doing nothing, neither thinking nor feeling, when it was vacant. When it is busy and occupied it has no time to give you an interview or to be photographed, and unfortunately it is always busy. Each of us, therefore, it appears, has a theatre in his mind, on whose stage the thoughts and feelings are continually dancing, but there is no watcher of the performance, no spectator of their evolutions. One is driven to wonder who in that case knew they were there, or told us about them.

We are asked then to believe that the self is ‘an orchestra without a conductor’. I say nothing of the consequences of this doctrine. Truth, if it be indeed truth, can defy consequences. With speculative theory it is rather different. And you cannot overlook that such a declaration is destructive of all responsibility. If there be no self there can be no responsibility. ‘Without personal identity’, as Bradley said, ‘responsibility is sheer nonsense.’ Passing thoughts cannot be appealed to or denounced. They cannot be called to account, praised or blamed. They cannot even be spoken to.

If Hume convinced others by his polemic against the self, he failed to convince himself. For at a later date, with admirable candour, he wrote, ‘Upon a more strict review of the section concerning personal identity, I find myself involved in such a labyrinth, that I must confess I neither know how to correct my former opinions, nor how to render them consistent… All my hopes vanish, when I come to explain the principles, that unite our successive perceptions in our thought or consciousness. I cannot discover any theory which gives me satisfaction on this head.’ He concludes with the admission that the matter is ‘too hard for my understanding’. If too hard for Hume’s brilliant intelligence, we need feel no surprise that it has proved too hard also for his less acute and penetrating successors.

There are more persuasive lines of attack upon the self than Hume’s, founded upon the now familiar facts of alternation or dissociation of personality, upon the gaps or lapses in the continuity of consciousness during sleep or trance, the interruptions and intermittency to which our sense of personal identity is subject. There are few more interesting studies than that of sleep, so familiar and yet so mysterious, of which so little is known, and few more fascinating or perplexing than that of dual, or multiple personality; but conclusions in this region are difficult to draw and the subject is too vast and intricate for present examination. Beyond doubt there are times in which the sense of self is in abeyance, dormant, latent or suspended. The human soul appears in sleep, in trance, and it may well be similarly at death, to sink into its ground, to cease its activities, to leave the region where alone it can be by us observed and at work. Beyond question the body appears to permit at times of a change of masters, of separate memories, of conflicting wills and purposes. Of all this the future must be left to tell us what to think, to explore the realm of the subconscious and its relation to consciousness.1

It is an open secret that psychology has failed to unseat or dislodge the soul. The beleaguered fortress has not surrendered. The worst psychology can do, as Professor James allowed, is ‘to rob it of its worth’. Its worth or value is now the matter in dispute, whether it be rooted in the universe of being with sufficient firmness to outlast the passing hour, or, like the other appearances by which we are surrounded, will presently vanish into ‘the infinite azure of the past’. ‘We live’, said St. Augustine, ‘beyond the limits of our bodies.’ He touches the vital point. It is widely believed, and no unnatural thought, that the body is the only support of the soul, that the body is, you might say, the knife, and the soul its edge. When the knife is destroyed there can be no more talk of its edge. But analogies are easy and dangerous. If analogies could in a debate administer the coup de grâce, not many arguments would survive. And to identify the soul with its associated body is no more than to revive the old-fashioned materialism and assert a dogma. For the body is an organism, a mechanism which consists of many parts, and no union of these parts can provide it with a presiding consciousness, which is interested in itself, enquires of itself, debates with itself. The self in self-consciousness both is and knows itself to be—being, as it were, two persons in one. Nevertheless, ‘Although a soul’, as wrote Leibniz, ‘may have a body composed of parts, each of which has a soul of its own, the soul or form of the whole is not composed of the souls or forms of the parts.’ Reflect for a moment, and you must allow that the whole, whether it be a machine or a living creature, may enable you to understand the parts, but the parts will never enable you, however deeply studied, to understand the whole. The soul has knowledge of its successive states or phases, a knowledge not coincident with the states themselves; neither is it a member of the procession, nor yet the procession itself. Sequences of states cannot of themselves constitute an individual. Every animal, moreover, like ourselves, acts teologically, that is, with a purpose in its doings. It adjusts itself and adapts itself to the future.

Whose then is that purpose, or what is it that looks forward to the goal in view? The relationship of the self to time and the passage of time wholly differs from that of any mechanism, for which neither past nor future has any significance. Unless, indeed, we form a wholly different conception of matter, endowing it with a nature or qualities unknown to physics, matter, lifeless and inert, has not among its so far discovered gifts the power of learning from past experience; physical movements in the brain cannot give rise to purpose, nor does a machine keep a watchful eye on coming change. If you begin with the parts you will never reach the genius or spirit of the whole. ‘Multiplicity does not contain a reason for unity.’ You can see what the body is, an arrangement of tubes, springs, levers, lungs, heart, muscles. They do not regret lost opportunities, take courage and determine to do better next time. The soul is not individualised by the parts of the organism. It provides, not receives, the unity. And though you may after a fashion account for the body, you cannot account for the ‘I’s’ attachment to that particular body. Why should this be my body, this among the ten thousand times ten thousand others? Why, in short, should we be ourselves? Why should my ego be in existence in this time or age, and not associated with some other body in the past, or a body to come, not yet born? That ‘I’ should be here now, in this region of time is beyond comprehension.

The ‘I’ is the window through which every man that ever was born looks out upon the scene of existence. Flung open at his birth, shuttered at his death, at this window through which no one else can ever look, this untransferable viewpoint, each one of us sits all his life long. A body he may have, but a body without intelligence, without speculation in its eyes, is a mere zero, a thing which can be observed but cannot itself observe. This ‘I’ of ours goes further than the observation of other existences; it can observe its own. And its association with a certain time in a certain place is an impenetrable mystery. That there should be a world is astonishing, but that ‘I’ should belong to it, or to this particular portion of the world, my body, which is in some sense mine as against all others—who will go about to make this clear?

Let us then stand our ground, and look a little further into these strange matters of consciousness and personal identity. For we may with perfect confidence, and without fear of contradiction, affirm many things. We may say, for example, that the self or subject is the only point of departure for any kind of enquiry, even the most philosophical. Apart from a self you cannot find a mind. You assume it in every debate, for it is the condition of all experience, at the base of all knowing and debating, necessary to their very existence. You assume it even when you deny it. If, as the conclusion of a train of reasoning, I reject the self, I am at the same time affirming what I deny in the reasoning of which the self alone is capable. And apart from it there is no such thing as consciousness, which is nowhere else to be found in nature; and without consciousness you could not be aware that there was an argument to ponder or a subject to discuss. We look with suspicion upon our most direct and immediate knowledge, the inner knowledge of ourselves, of all that takes place in our minds and souls. Thoughts, wishes, feelings appear to us pallid, unreal, insubstantial, shadowy nonentities. And we look with confidence upon our outer knowledge of things, of trees, men and houses as certain, quite forgetting that this outer knowledge comes to us by way of and through the avenue of our minds, and that, if our inner knowledge is in doubt, the outer must be still more deeply in doubt, mediated as it is by way of these very thoughts and perceptions of which we are suspicious. When you speak of experience you mean and can only mean the experience of a self, for there is no other kind of experience. When you say that anything appears you can mean nothing but appearance to a subject. Everything is in consciousness or you have no evidence for its existence, and nothing can be asserted that is not in some measure already in consciousness. Even in dreams it surveys the scene, even when the windows of sense are darkened.

There is then no perception of an object in the absence of a subject. A feeling of toothache is someone’s feeling, a desire to eat or drink someone’s desire, the intention to take a walk someone’s intention. One and all these are activities of a self. They do not float about unattached in the void. Abolish the self, and you abolish all thoughts, pleasures, wishes that ever have been, now are, or ever will be. No one will say that there is no such thing as feeling. Yet there is no such thing except in the experience of a sentient subject. If you say it is the body that feels, ask the physiologists in what part of the body the feeling arises. They cannot tell you where it is, divide it into parts or measure its intensity. You, yourself only, can judge of that. Emotions, too, are states of the self and cannot be further analysed.

Or take memory, than which nothing is more inexplicable. When memory raises its head the sciences are dismayed, and fly before it. What is it that remembers, if not the self? You have a history of your own, a private diary, of which no one else can turn a single page, independent of and within the world’s history. No one can recall my memories for me; if I perish my memories are lost for ever, and if I remember a face I saw a year ago, the subject that remembers must surely be the same subject, the continuing self that formerly observed the features now recalled. Who else could it be? What relation has this process to the brain? Of that neither physiology nor psychology can give any intelligible account. Memory has never been localised as a power within the brain, or shown to be associated with any neural process. No examination of the body or brain in health or disease yields any information on this faculty of recollection; no physical theory accounts for it. I look for a moment at a ship upon the sea and then turn away. I can still, however, if I wish, see it in the mind’s eye. Where in the interval has been that picture, where is it now, how do I retain it and recall it, perhaps months later? You may ask, but you will not be answered. The image of the ship has not vanished for ever. I can compare it, when I please, with the image of some other ship I saw years ago.

Of images and their nature, where they reside, or of what they are made, nothing is known. Images are associated with emotions, and the same emotion may recall a former perception or image. Elementary optics will inform you that the reflections of external things are upside down on the retina of the eye. Why, then, do I not see them thus but upright? For the reason that the objects and their retinal images belong to the physical world, the world of space relationships, of what we call real space. But my knowledge or yours is not in that space at all. Knowledge has no spatial relationships. ‘The light’, as Fichte said, ‘is not without me, but within me, and I am myself the light.’ That is, I have in me something not given by sensation. I also am there with my knowledge. There is in the soul a ‘stationary principle’. And this ‘I’, the self or subject, is not a denizen of the space to which the object is confined. ‘We act forwards, but we know backwards.’ And some men seem to bring with them into the world a prodigious amount of knowledge. Where did Pascal as a child acquire his knowledge of mathematics or Mozart his knowledge of music?

The physical world, science maintains, consists simply and solely of vibratory motions. It tells us that the nerves which convey the various sense messages, of sight, touch and hearing, are merely wires, alike and interchangeable. It is not in them, therefore, that the messages of sense are sorted out. The self is the sorter. We are the artists, and the pictures we see could not be found in the brain. They are ours and only ours. If you could take a stroll in the external world, and somehow unassisted by the apparatus of eye and ear look about you, you would find there, so science declares, a complicated web of movements and nothing else but movements, neither shaped nor coloured. As there is nothing in the word circle which has anything in common with or resembles a circle, or in the word fish which resembles a salmon or a whale, there is nothing in an event which has anything in common with or resembles our perception of it. Our nerves convey vibrations and only vibrations, of which we make the pictures we suppose ourselves to see. And the self apart, suppose we could see the cells that enable us to see, we should have that unimaginable state of things—cells looking at themselves.

And meaning, what is that? Have you ever pondered meanings? We talk of the import or meaning of this thing or that, the meaning of a poem, the meaning of a scientific concept, of a political event. Where are these to be found in nature? Only in us. They cannot be exhumed or distilled out of material movements. As well endeavour to extract the skylark’s song out of granite rock, or honey from the salt seas. They are not resident in physical things, or to be expressed in the terminology of the laboratories. Meanings are the exclusive property of conscious selves and continuing selves. ‘Though the universe encompasses me,’ wrote Pascal, ‘by thought I encompass the universe.’ What are we to understand by this? Despite its stupendous immensity, the universe is not aware either of me or of itself. I, in my insignificance, am aware of myself and of the world.

Is it possible, this paradox, this preposterous, unbelievable thing? For it declares that you and I possess a supreme talent denied to the universe. We are awake as nothing else in creation is awake. The most enigmatical, indescribable, undeniable attribute of the self is its awareness. How can such an awakening ever at all or anywhere come about?

Can material things, oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, water, lead, stone, electrons or protons, or any combinations of such things become conscious of themselves? Can the stream rise above its source or the result outsoar its cause? Can carbon recognise itself as carbon, or say ‘Ah, here is hydrogen’? If not, beside them we are as gods, looking down from the Olympian battlements of consciousness upon the senseless nonentities which neither know nor care to know what they are or what they do.

Before you dismiss the self as irrelevant you will do well to ponder this, its aristocratic prerogative, which makes all else by comparison a negligible cipher. For it can neither be explained nor set aside. How we arrived on Olympus, on this height from which all the kingdoms of heaven and earth may be surveyed, I do not profess to tell you. Ask the space-time philosophers, or the physiologists or bio-chemists. Perhaps the brain secretes this magical essence, consciousness, as the liver secretes bile. Ask those who are prepared to explain the process to you, in this or in some other way. You may chance to find, even among philosophers, people who see nothing remarkable about consciousness. For my part I hold that neither intellect nor imagination, neither science nor logic, can cross the threshold of this mystery, nor language lay hold of it. To regard the advent of consciousness, that is, the world’s coming to a knowledge of itself, the awakening of a soul in nature, to take this unexampled over-whelming fact as of course and for granted, as no singular event, or anything out of the way noteworthy or surprising, or again as a thing of accident among other accidents, were for me no easier a thought than the notion of the Himalayas giving way to laughter, or the ocean writing its autobiography. When you begin to suppose such things you make a clown of reason and adorn it with a cap and bells.

Though surrounded by and imbedded in the world, this awareness, this unique appanage or endowment of the individual self, marks its absolute separation from the rest of creation. Through this selfhood of unknown origin we become full citizens of the commonwealth in which all living things have their status. It is I myself, opposing myself to the not-self, affirming and at the same time resisting the whole, in my resolution to be and continue to be what I am, thinking and willing for myself, viewing myself and expressing myself from a standpoint not to be identified with any other throughout the past or present history of the universe, lonely and unrepeatable, it is this I, this breakwater against which the waves of denial burst in vain.

Whatever it be, this entity, this I, this being that cares for truth and beauty, the haughty, exclusive, conscious soul, its sense of personal identity survives all assaults. You may analyse it, with Hume, into a series of disconnected thoughts and feelings, but its unity reasserts itself in reviewing the series into which you have attempted to dissect it. In Hegel’s words, ‘I have many ideas, a wealth of thoughts is in me, and yet I remain, in spite of this variety, one.’ There is then something in us which nature has not given, for she had it not to give. Selfhood is not a contingent entity, but the representative of a metaphysical and necessary principle of the universe, a part of its essential nature, a constituent of reality, nor without it could the Cosmos have attained to recognition, to full consummation or true being. Experiencing souls were a necessity if a universe in any legitimate sense there was to be. Such is the soul’s superlative standing in reality. Beyond logic and reason, its essence ‘tends to existence’, since the world, though it contains many things unnecessary to its continuance, could not without the appreciation of conscious selves have come to life or be what it is. In the absence of these sensitive points, it were of no account, and virtually nothing. It is from this ground that the towering importance of the soul can best be seen and estimated, as the only watch-tower from which creation throughout its circumference and in all its parts and. qualities can be observed and known. In a word, it alone brings everything into view.

Here is a statement beyond dispute, which will bear repetition, upon which too great an emphasis cannot be laid. The knowledge that the world exists, that there is a world at all, rests upon the testimony of individual selves. There is no other evidence than they supply, no other possible evidence than theirs to its being here, there or anywhere. For we must agree that stars, seas and mountains, however conspicuous they seem to us, are not in any way conspicuous to themselves. They do not look around, take note of themselves, or admire themselves. They are incapable of knowing, or awaking to such knowledge, and do not even guess that they are there on view. With the removal, therefore, of conscious selves, were that possible, no witness of any kind that there was in fact a universe, supposing it to be in existence, could be cited or would remain. As a whole and in every particular it is utterly dependent upon the attestation of experiencing individuals. It is reflected in the mirror of the soul and only there. This position no argument can turn, no manoeuvre outflank. It is impregnable.

When you proceed, therefore, as do the naturalists, to explain the self as arising out of the components of the world it reveals, you are saying that the mirror is constructed out of the objects it reflects. You ascribe the origin of consciousness to the elements which it brings to light. You say the knower emerges out of what he knows, the discoverer of the scenery out of the scenery he discovers. And in this case if there were no conscious or observing selves, there would be in effect no scenery, no world; for the world has no knowledge of itself, and could not without selfhood, without the assistance of the watching selves, swim into its own ken.

Those who would account for consciousness by a combination of unthinking particles, who ascribe it to the architectonic atoms, make two assumptions at the outset, and before the argument begins—the first, a material universe existing as they see it wholly apart from existing selves, in its own right, self-supporting and self-sufficient—a universe that idealism refuses to acknowledge: the second, that it contained the power to produce its own spectators, an imposing masterpiece of art, which would do honour to any god, which Zeus himself might envy and desire to fashion. You will say that the objects under its inspection are as necessary to consciousness as consciousness to the objects, since in and for itself it cannot exist. The awareness upon which this stress is laid must be awareness of something. No doubt. But it is the capacity of awareness, not the act, which is in question. How did this capacity come to birth?

Bring all the worlds in their impressive splendour into the presence of a marble statue, and you will wait for an eternity before it becomes conscious that they are there. They have been long—how long?—in their own presence, yet none in that great assembly has by a wink or nod betrayed its existence to the rest. How strange a reticence, how dark must be the secret they are in conspiracy to hide! That the universe became aware of itself by accident—there’s a noteworthy accident, there’s a mad thought for you! If it be true, and true it is, that a thing in any legitimate sense can be said to exist only on the evidence of the experience of a conscious subject, how vain is the attempt to explain consciousness by its own experiences, by its contents, the knowledge of whose very existence you owe to consciousness. How are we to turn round and derive the awareness from the things whose acquaintance we have made and could only have made by means of that awareness? The fallacy involved has been a thousand times exposed, and only philosophers in desperation could, one fancies, overlook it—philosophers whose animosity against the self burns with a brighter flame than the logic they employ.

How does it run, then, the new story of creation, the old materialism in its new guise? It would appear somewhat as follows. In the beginning was Space-time, whatever that may be, and Space-time finding eternity or half an eternity heavy on its hands, said ‘Let there be substantial things’. And with the assistance of the elements, the electro-magnetic energies and the rest of its imaginary progeny, Space-time produced the great galaxies, the host of heaven. There they were in their magnificence, shining, in Aeschylean phrase, like princes in the sky. But lo! after the lapse of infinite ages it somehow dawned upon Space-time that it had toiled in vain, its glorious works remained, alas! unseen, unknown, utterly unnoticed, unrecognised, unaccepted anywhere throughout its imperial immensity. How disappointing, how intolerable a result after so mighty and prolonged a labour! To what end this fabulous wealth, this extravagant expenditure of power without an eye to see and to admire? The emperor, Space-time, found himself without a court, without so much as a single subject in all his wide yet desolate dominions. A deathly, melancholy silence everywhere prevailed. How barren this swelling state, this lordly pomp, without some sort of society, in the absence of a worshipping, applauding circle! So grotesque a situation called for a further and supreme effort, an effort, after untold exertions and experimental essays beyond enumeration, finally successful. Summoning all its resources, and by means of some dark incantation, for the spells employed have never been divulged, conscious selves were in the Space-time laboratories evolved, entities somehow magically constrained to admit the existence of the unknown monarch and his never-heard-of world gave them the desired recognition, the required social standing. Under the magical persuasions of Space-time they took notice of the universe. It was given an audience. It had climbed the ladder and arrived. It was received, though with no warm welcome on the part of some of the more aristocratic entities, and you may now read its name in Debrett.

Such is the new story of creation for philosophical children. If you are interested in heraldry, consult, for the conjectured lineage of this universe, its arms and fabricated quarterings, the appropriate scientific manuals. I read again the other day the older and superseded story in Genesis, and reflected upon the incomparable genius it displayed, the genius of an untutored age. How sanely it accepts the incomprehensible, how nobly it eschews explanations which are no explanations, with what proud intelligence refuses to indulge in an intoxicating drench of words.

These are your opinions, some one may very properly say, and I can name vastly better minds who do not share your doctrine of the soul, who find no difficulty in believing that ‘beings which are conscious are the outcome of those which are not’, that ‘I have consciousness in the same sense as my body has flesh-tint or solidity’, and that ‘I am one thing alongside other things and interacting with them’. I admit your contention. It can, however, easily be met. For my part I can name still greater minds and more distinguished philosophers who decline assent to these propositions. Here is one. ‘Nothing can be more clumsy’, wrote Schopenhauer, ‘than that, after the manner of the materialists, one should blindly take the objective as simply given, in order to derive everything from it without paying any regard to the subjective, through which, however, nay, in which alone the former exists’—‘a philosophy’, he adds, ‘well suited for barbers’ and apothecaries’ apprentices.’ And here is a second: ‘It is of itself so evident’, said Descartes, ‘that it is I who doubt, I who understand, and I who desire, that it is needless to add any explanations in order to make the point still clearer.’

Little is, however, to be gained, I fear, by such ranging of authorities, or pitting them against each other. What appears to one mind axiomatic, clear and certain as the moon and stars in their courses, appears to another a delirious imbecility. To reach agreement by way of argument you must take your departure from common premises. If I hold the soul to be unitary, and see in consciousness a transcendental principle, and you provide for them a plebeian ancestry, believing them spectral effects, or matter in disguise, you seem to me to debase the currency of reason, and I, in your opinion, have thrown logic to the winds. We are like bishops in chess on different colours, and can never meet. If I refuse to derive the mind, which not only presents to us the universe, but creates the whole range of intellectual and spiritual values,

whose faculties can comprehend

The wondrous architecture of the world,

And measure every wandering planet’s course,

Still climbing after knowledge infinite,

if I decline to derive this princely and originating power from the baser elements, or if I ask, why should the world in its purposeless revolutions have taken an upward direction, climbed so steep and difficult a slope, travelled towards a knowledge of itself, and your bland reply is ‘Why not?’—there appears to be nothing left but to bid each other a civil good-bye, to shake hands and part. We differ. I am content to differ. Let us differ.

Every thing ultimate, unique, exceptional—and nothing is more so than the individual soul—is anathema to scientific rationalism, and in consequence unmentionable. Every soul is a living idiosyncrasy, where good none better, where bad none worse; and for a scientific age, in either case, beyond measure exasperating. Not because it changes and yet remains the same; for all changes involve a permanent element that does not alter, as the plant is still the same plant in leaf and in flower. But for other reasons. Not only has this eccentricity an inner and an outer eye; not only does it look back in time and forward into futurity, with joy and sadness; not only does it know itself to be capable of action while it remains at rest, fitted for far-darting excursions throughout the realms of matter and of thought, to which no limits can be assigned; this insubordinate, wandering, ideoplastic anomaly, imperially aloof, solitary, withdrawn, unvisited, impenetrable, which has no counterpart in space or time, no brother among sublunary things, carries with it a train of attendant memories, ideas, emotions, wishes and sympathies that the cyclic seasons, if they run into eternity, cannot repeat, nor revive elsewhere its rich, peculiar, exclusive existence. Despite these its transcendent qualities, or rather because of them; despite the fact that the individual is the maker of history since there are no other doers of deeds than individual souls; none the less the soul is out of favour in our time, not acknowledged in the superior circles, an outcast, a slum-dweller, a beggar on charity. To ‘think nobly of the soul’ is now accounted a symptom of low intelligence. But few of to-day’s opinions will be those of to-morrow, and fewer still of the day after. You may hate life and despise man, but ‘the power of the mouth, the wisdom of the brow, the human comprehension of the eyes, and the outstriking vitality of the creature’ remain to confound you.

If men mistrust rationalism they have reason for their mistrust. Rationalists are much too simple-minded to act as guides or interpreters in this uncanny and incalculable world. And when I am myself in doubt among the philosophers I turn to the consensus of human opinion, to the beliefs of the plain man, that strange, indefinable being, on the surface ridiculous, in the depths profound. If he had words in which to express himself he could tell us things worth knowing even about the greatest matters, even, I think, about the soul. You remember the curious and interesting Old Testament story of Balaam, a man of great reputation in his day, so great that the King of Moab sent for him in extremity. And he saddled his ass and went to meet Balak, King of Moab. And the Lord sent an angel to prevent him, and the angel stood across his path. And Balaam, though a man of high intelligence, did not see the angel of the Lord, but the ass saw him.

  • 1. See Dr. Gustave Geley’s From the Unconscious to the Conscious, and Dr. Carl du Prel’s The Philosophy of Mysticism.
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