Mysterious Night! when our first parent knew
Thee from report divine, and heard thy name,
Did he not tremble for this lovely frame,
This glorious canopy of light and blue?
Yet ‘neath a curtain of translucent dew,
Bathed in the rays of the great setting flame,
Hesperus with the host of heaven came,
And lo! Creation widened in man’s view.
Who could have thought such darkness lay concealed
Within thy beams, O Sun? or who could find,
Whilst flow’r and leaf and insect stood revealed,
That to such countless orbs thou mad’st us blind!
Why do we then shun Death with anxious strife?
If Light can thus deceive, wherefore not Life?
Viewed from first to last, and all in all, who can deny to the architecture of nature a certain stateliness, or refuse to recognise in it a singular genius at work? However incomplete, however disappointing, however short it come of what idealists demand, his were surely a churlish heart which refused all admiration for a residence in so imperial a style. It is told of the architects of Seville cathedral that they desired to erect a building of such proud dimensions, so marvellously fair that succeeding generations should deem them mad. And allow we may that in the plan of the universe we have, if a folly, a royal folly, so imposing and exalted as to extort astonishment, if not approval, for its towering splendour. May we not praise it, and praise, too, the striving souls or monads, the masons, as we may call them, who in their various tribes and assemblies poured into its age-long construction so eager a will to live, so great a wealth of roving and brooding desire? May we not accept the building as it stands, and count its superb if bizarre magnificence its sufficient justification?
By no means, men and sages not a few have replied. It remains a folly, better never built. The story begins well enough, but look to the event. Before you applaud consider first its cost, its ruinous cost—and we care not whose the project or design—in
Fear, sickness, age, losse, labour, sorrow, strife,
Pain, hunger, cold.
Compute its price in broken hearts. Most assuredly that price has been paid. And next, out of your wisdom expound to us what end, save a barren spectacle, a mere gazing stock, has been served, what object attained by such a universe. More is needed, much more, to win our applause than a showy and figured facade. The shrine you so much admire is an empty shell, gigantic if you please, but purposeless, inane. Within it no statue of a God is to be found, a guardian of the right, or if any God a monarch who can hardly be said to have dealt very handsomely with his subjects. Do not frown upon us as presumptuous and superfluous nonentities. However insignificant, we have our claims. ‘By suffering we buy the right to judge.’ Men ask for nothing from the universe save justice, and they have not obtained it. Had human happiness, such as it is, been equally distributed—and who is ignorant it is not so distributed?—or had ours been an existence free from care, something in defence of the fabric you commend might possibly have been advanced. As things are you will not with all the eloquence of all the silver-tongued orators obtain from the incorruptible jury of humanity a verdict in its favour. Individual, separate, personal existence, the basis of the whole design, has not proved its worth. Nor can it be proved. There is poison in the cup. Your belauded universe, a mountain in labour, has produced in man at best a ridiculous, a dazed, a purblind mouse. Talk no more, good friends, you know it well. Look in your hearts, and read the ineluctable truth—the partnership of living things is but ‘a partnership in all-disastrous fight’.
What answer, if any answer, can be given to this challenging cui bono? To clear the ground, and find a footing in this so great and crucial a debate, it must first be said that existence in itself cannot be thus arraigned. For life no creature ever had, or could have, a distaste. The quarrel, then, where there is a quarrel, can only be with its accompanying and painful conditions. Or rather, perhaps we may agree, not so much even with these as with the presence of another adversary, a more insidious foe, the profound unrest engendered by the apparent aimlessness of life’s journey. To live is by universal consent to travel a rough road. And how can a rough road which leads nowhere be worth the travelling? Mere living, what a profitless performance; mere painful living, what an absurd! Men need an incentive for their efforts. Make, however, the enquiry,
What is there to strive for, live or keep alive for?
and an ominous silence reigns throughout creation. Tell us, say our pessimists, of a goal, however difficult or distant, give us a star to guide our course. But spare us your transparent mockery, and do not require of men to live, suffer and die for no other end than living, suffering and dying. Here is no cause for jubilation, for ‘Hosannahs in the highest’. Existence has been misnamed a boon. ‘Tis a jest carried too far. Your diamond is paste. And what need to summon witnesses for this certain and central truth? It is broad-based on universal experience. It is buttressed by reason. Its force has been admitted by philosophers as well as poets, by simple souls as well as wise. It reverberates through the thoughts of men in all regions and ages. It finds an echo in every human heart. ‘One can go on living’, as said Tolstoy, ‘when one is intoxicated by life; as soon as one is sober it is impossible not to see that it is all a mere fraud… I now see that if I did not kill myself it was due to some dim consciousness of the invalidity of my thoughts. I, my reason, has acknowledged life to be unreasonable. But how can reason, which (for me) is the creator of life, and (in reality) the child of life, deny life? There is something wrong here.’
Yes, there is something wrong. But how sharply and concisely Tolstoy summarises the situation. He has, you observe, a dim consciousness of the invalidity of his thoughts. Where lies the flaw? Not in his logic, but in his unstated premises. The conclusion he draws rests upon an assumption, as well grounded, maybe, as most that fly about the globe. Yet an assumption. What is that assumption? That we are in possession of all the relevant facts to form the judgment, that we know all we need to know to estimate the value of life. Last and chiefest, the included postulate that the skeleton, death, crowns at the last its emptiness with appropriate derision.
Accept this postulate, and to provide any justification for so senseless a pilgrimage, plodding on for the sake of plodding on, circling like a caged animal within its prison bars, would be an undertaking of great if not insuperable magnitude. If any life beyond the present be denied, you need go no further. The world condemns itself. For if, indeed, existence offers any values it can only be to the individual beings who have a share in existence. If there be any good, and if there be any beauty, it is in them and their perceptions of such things. Where else could it be? The rest is but mud and motion. And since if the valuators perish, all values, truth, goodness and the rest, go with them into the everlasting night, no theological or metaphysical twitterings can rebut the demonstrable hollowness of life, its inherent futility. The passing show may have its interest, but how slight and ephemeral, how painful an interest. We are offered, it seems, a sip from the cup of life, which is then for ever withdrawn. No very munificent gift from the exalted and almighty Absolute.
And how wide, how grotesquely wide of the mark are they who indulge in childish and insensitive chatter, babbling of the hope for a future existence as a petty, personal desire, born of selfishness. For what, to put no gloss on things, are the implications of its rejection? The story of humanity becomes the story of a long procession of sufferers, for whose sufferings no justification is offered, of poor souls intellectually and morally confounded, who entered existence blind to any reason for their coming and will leave it blind, who cannot so much as conjecture their origin, or the meaning of their lives, whose elevation above the lower creatures has been their direst misfortune, their ideals an accentuation of their griefs. And the revolt of reason against this happy consummation is labelled selfishness! What kind of selfishness is that which asks no more for oneself than for all men and creatures ever born? Let us have no more of this.
Only, then, on some other postulate can the case for existence be argued with success. If death be the gulf to which the whole creation moves, to what end
All the sublime prerogatives of man?
What use can a caged bird make of its wings? Carlyle speaks somewhere of Southey’s eyes as ‘filled with gloomy bewilderment and incurable sorrow’. He describes the eyes of men condemned, the eyes of all mankind, helpless amid their illusions, lost in a wilderness of woes. Convince the world that all will finally be as if it had never been, and though men were angels they would resent the preposterous proposal, which asks from them spiritual effort when all efforts are in vain. Play with your toys, you may. Construct to pass the time your paste-board paradises, chirp your sovereign remedies for human ills. Distract your thoughts in pursuit of a bubble reputation or soon-fading wreath, forget yourself amid grammars and lexicons, drug your numbered hours with dice, or sport or foolish loves—all will not serve.
Surgit amari aliquid, quod in ipsis floribus angat.
Think, if only for a moment, think. Proclaim to men that ‘Death is the only immortal’, and religion receives its mortal wound. Announce to them that all human history is a mere scramble for wealth or power, all loves and loyalties time’s broken pottery—it is ruin, and every man knows it. Men will not be easily consoled for so much courage, so much endurance, so much faith, so much affection, so much sweetness cast into the void, when they recall the faithful hearts, friendly faces, strong intelligences for ever gone, when they remember the mothers weeping for their children snatched away. And palsied slaves they would be if they accepted these enormities with pious resignation or praised the gods any more. If the world in its scientific wisdom banishes humanity’s larger hope, for all your excellent inventions, your alleviations of discomfort and disease, for all your wise saws and platitudes, the ‘Never, never, never, never, never’ of Lear will make of earth’s pleasures a make-believe, and a sense of suffocation invade all thoughtful breasts. ‘I would not say to Humanity,’ said Madame Akermann, ‘Progress! I would rather say Die! for no progress can ever take from you the miseries of earthly life.’
Whence come our present discontents? Unless I am greatly mistaken, from the collapse of the high-pitched expectations of a regenerated human society. Believe in it if you can, the land of earthly happiness that was to replace the old and now discarded paradise to come. You cannot believe it will be to-morrow, nor in a century, nor in ten. That bubble has burst. And what now is left? Neither the old dream nor the new. And the malady of our age is just the thought that nothing or next to nothing is in truth worth attempting or achieving. And no wonder. How should it be? ‘What gain to watch for an hour the inscrutable pageant, to be summoned out of nothingness into illusion, and evolved but to aspire and to decay?’
If you have not here among men who reflect, however unwilling they are to acknowledge it, if you have not here among those who have heard
More than Olympian thunder on the sea,
the pivot of the human situation, the question upon the answer to which all turns, I know not where to look for it. If in the denial of any renewal of life beyond the grave we do not virtually deny all life’s present values, I know not where to find a more resolute denial of them. Tolstoy, enumerating all his advantages, his health, rank, fame, ‘possessing all that men desire’, asks ‘Is there any meaning in my life, which will not be destroyed by the inevitable death awaiting me?’ The question awaits an answer. It cannot be evaded by any sophistries, this interrogation in which all others are resumed, to which all others lead. For what matter the rest, if it can never be known what was true or false, right or wrong, if no questions of any moment will ever be answered, no justice ever done? ‘If immortality be untrue’, as Buckle wrote, ‘it matters little whether anything else be true or not.’
The thought of death as the only cure for human ills paralyses the mind, and puts reason to flight. It denies the world’s rationality. Not so, you may say, only our beggarly reason’s notion of rationality. Precisely, I answer, or will you out of your kindness inform me where I am to find another and a better understanding, superior to our own. I cannot take the point of view of an insect, a fish or a god. Philosophers and even divines there have been and still are who talk of it, who profess to tell you where this so superior wisdom resides. They have had the good fortune to discover a loftier mind, and to be taken into its confidence. It thinks, they tell us, very differently from our own, and for some inscrutable end has implanted in us another and deceptive reason, which runs clean counter to its wiser and higher intelligence. It would appear to delight in our intellectual and moral confusion, for all we love and cherish is for that sublime understanding a bagatelle.
Cold comfort this. To their chosen god these mystagogues would sacrifice his sentient creatures, even the mercy and justice by these same creatures foolishly supposed to be eminently divine attributes, if by such sacrifices they could preserve the barren and singular existence of a deity, an ugly addition to the world’s Pantheon, that one thinks we could well have spared. For in their sculpture the supreme Being presents a sinister, a Mephis-tophelian countenance. They toil, one fears, in vain, who talk in terms of eloquence of God and the love of God to the assembly of the living, who have suffered at His hands and, having suffered, are about to be extinguished at His decree.
Rational? What could be less rational than that his pen and paper should be more enduring than the saint, that we should have Shakespere’s handwriting but not himself? Raphael’s pictures but not the mind that conceived them? It is then as Spartans we should live and die—who died, but were by death undaunted—and be content to leave a world so foreign, so contrary to our natures as to scorn our humanity and lacerate our affections. Beyond all peradventure it is the thought that death appears to proclaim, the thought of frustration and final unreason at the heart of things, that is itself the root of the pessimist’s despair. The soul must sink when told that human life is mere buffoonery, that the story is without a point, that men must leave the theatre in which they played their sad, incomprehensible parts with their instincts mocked, their understandings unenlightened.
Give them assurance that it is not so, and the scene is changed. The sky brightens, the door is left open for unimagined possibilities, things begin to fall into an intelligible pattern. Man and the universe may yet be reconciled.
If this fail,
The pillared firmament is rottenness,
And earth’s base built on stubble.
Hope is the breath of life, and when hope lies dead the final darkness settles down upon the world. There is, then, no food for surprise that Dante wrote in his Convivio, ‘Of all brutal opinions that is the most foolish, vilest and most pestilent which holds that there is no life after this’, and entombed in his Inferno the philosopher who taught it. Nor do I believe you will find a poet who could he have believed in immortality would have decried it, or who denied a future life for any other reason than despair of its possibility. Hatred of life is bred of this despair.
But can we in reason hold this faith? This, the most remarkable of human beliefs, is no doubt of great antiquity, and comes to us across the ages. Yet how can that help us? Can any satisfying conviction be based upon the mere antiquity of an extravagant fancy? How many idle dreams have been bred by the exuberance of the human imagination? Or can we overlook the horror with which so many philosophies and religions of Eastern origin regard the thought of continued existence, the religions which give to
Dateless oblivion and divine repose,
to everlasting night the preference over the day, which speak of deliverance from the wheel of life as the highest good? Or are these creeds also the children of desperation and the doubtful issue of life’s protracted warfare?
Our interest in the future, how strange it is if we can never hope to see the future. That interest rarely seems to desert us, and in itself appears inexplicable were we not possessed of an intuition which tells us that we shall have a part in it, that in some sense it already belongs to us, that we should bear it continually in mind, since it will be ours. So closely are all human ideals associated with futurity that, in the absence of the faith that man is an immortal being, it seems doubtful whether they could ever have come to birth.
To Wordsworth that faith appeared the very keystone of our affections. ‘I confess with me’, he wrote, ‘the opinion is absolute that, if the impression and sense of death were not thus counterbalanced, such a hollowness would pervade the whole system of things, such a want of correspondence and consistency, a disproportion so astounding between means and ends, that there could be no repose, no joy.’ He speaks the truth in its pure simplicity. Let us take some modern affirmations of the same opinion. ‘Personally to me’, said Malinowski, ‘nothing really matters except the answer to the burning question, “Am I going to live, or shall I vanish as a bubble? What is the aim and issue of this strife and suffering?”’ Here is another. ‘If men’, wrote Sully, ‘are to abandon all hope of a future life, the loss in point of cheering and sustaining influence will be a vast one, and one not to be made good, as far as I can see, by any idea of services to collective humanity.’ And here is yet another. ‘Modern optimism, in my opinion, is doomed’—I quote Lowes Dickinson—‘unless we believe that there is more significance in individual lives than appears upon the surface; that there is a destiny reserved for them more august than any to which they can attain in their life of threescore years and ten.’ These are the sayings of thoughtful men speaking from their hearts. Nor need we add to their testimony. ‘That man’, as Goethe said, ‘is dead even in this life who has no belief in another.’
I do not need to be told that this opinion, even were it universal, adds not a pennyweight to the case for a future existence. Counting heads will not demonstrate a truth, even if they be good heads. One does not decide by vote the distance of a planet from the sun. To what end, then, these citations? They endorse the view, from which, I think, there are not many, and will be fewer, dissenters as the centuries go by. There are more suicides among civilised peoples than among savages. And once the world has reached the reflective stage of full self-consciousness, if then it holds that this earthly life is all, there can be no exit, however long it lasts, from its disquiet, no comfort anywhere. ‘Tis hard to imagine a hopeless world, but men may, perhaps, learn to live if they must, without enthusiasm, to sup lightheartedly with grief, and accustom themselves to the companionship of despair. That, or else seek a way by which to bring the great essay of life, the experiment which has failed, to the earliest and least painful conclusion.
Come now to the vital point. Are there any indications in nature or human nature upon which to found this hope?—the hope that even Schopenhauer could with difficulty forgo, when he wrote, ‘In the furthest depth of our being we are secretly conscious of our share in the inexhaustible spring of eternity, so that we can always hope to find life in it again.’ Many things are hard to believe, and a future life, some say, is quite incredible, and the mere thought of it a sort of madness. But what hinders if we have already found a present? That great philosopher, Bacon, could not to the last believe that the earth revolved around the sun. The facts were too solidly opposed to such a fancy. It was incredible. The diamond appears the acme of stability, it is in fact a whirlpool of furious motions. Who could believe it? What is credible? Only the familiar. When the news of the invention of the telephone was reported to Professor Tait of Edinburgh, he said, ‘It is all humbug, for such a discovery is physically impossible.’ When the Abbé Moigno first showed Edison’s phonograph to the Paris Academy of Sciences all the men of science present declared it impossible to reproduce the human voice by means of a metal disc, and the Abbé was accused, Sir William Barrett tells us, of having a ventriloquist concealed beneath the table. The thing was unbelievable. A future life is, you think, unbelievable? How clear it is that death is death for men as for all living things.
Well, I should myself put the matter rather differently. The present life is incredible, a future credible. ‘Not to be twice-born, but once-born is wonderful.’ To be alive, actually existing, to have emerged from darkness and silence, to be here to-day is certainly incredible. A philosopher friend of mine could never, he told me, bring himself to believe in his own existence. A future life would be a miracle, and you find it difficult to believe in miracles? I, on the contrary, find it easy. They are to be expected. The starry worlds in time and space, the pageant of life, the processes of growth and reproduction, the instincts of animals, the inventiveness of nature, the rising and the setting sun, the affections and passions, the character of thought, of will, intuition, consciousness, these singly and together plunge the human mind into profound amazement to be in their midst. They are all utterly unbelievable, miracles piled upon miracles
To o’ertop old Pelion or the skyish head
Of blue Olympus.
If there be a sceptical star I was born under it, yet I have lived all my days in complete astonishment. What does this fine reason of ours tell me to believe or disbelieve? When you come to me with your explanations of all the world contains I am profoundly interested. Not, indeed, in your explanations, which are, of course, like all others, supremely ridiculous, but in the bright-eyed simplicity of the human mind, and its explanatory prattle. Explain to me, for I am all attention, some of the everyday familiar things; how, for example, a stimulus to a nerve produces a sensation, by what process we recall a name or a fact, ‘how a peacock’s tail builds up a series of perfect eyes out of hundreds of separate feathers, each with its thousands of separate branches.’
Miracles? For my part I see miracles everywhere. I see nothing but works of magic. Miracles are not rare birds. They fly in flocks, they darken the air in their multitudes. So much for miracles. Nature is not natural, but supernatural, delighting in marvels, in confounding us with the astounding and impossible. If, as I have done, you have in your leisure hours accompanied the naturalists in their studies of the lower animals—the very humblest—you will, I think, return with your capacity for believing in magic greatly enlarged, with your powers of astonishment exhausted beyond resuscitation. As well might a moth attempt to understand a man as a man a moth. Or if, as I have also done, you have looked with some attention into the field of human faculty, into its still unexplored resources, into the testimony for the marvels that the submerged portion of our being reveals, you will not, I think, return with less amazement, but if possible in a state of still greater stupefaction. What mean these premonitions and apparitions, levitations and hauntings, these tales of far sight in time and in space, of pre-cognition and retro-cognition, of stigmata and faith cures, of crystal vision and alternating personalities, of dowsing and divining rods, of telepathy and hyperaesthesia, of hypnosis and suggestion—of which, it is said, there are some seven hundred explanatory theories—of monitions and intuitions like those of Socrates and Joan of Arc? They meet you everywhere, in every age, in every literature, in every quarter of the globe. Is it all crazy abracadabra, and is the whole world a madhouse? Do not let us talk of the credible and the incredible until we have looked further into these among many other things; from which, if well understood, a new vision of truth might arise.
For the nature of mind, our own nature, the nature of every thing, of all reality, is here in the balance. We are deceived, indeed, if we fancy that our five senses exhaust the universe, or our present standpoint its many landscapes. In the soul’s unvisited and sleeping parts it holds both faculties and powers not mentioned in the books of the historians, the manuals of the mathematicians or the physiologists. ‘The sensitive soul’, as Hegel wrote, ‘oversteps the conditions of time and space; it beholds things remote, things long past and things to come.’ That we stand in other relations to nature than in our open and familiar intercourse with her through eye and ear, relations of which we are wholly unconscious, is not debatable, it is certain. We are organically supported by motions and processes, as in the eight and sixty octaves of electro-magnetic waves, not to speak of those unknown, undiscernible, untraceable by the most earnest attention. There are things to be seen the eye has not seen, and things to be heard the ear has not heard. Exchange your present senses for others attuned to different wave-lengths and you enter a totally different world, where you might very possibly meet quite different company. Nor is it even certain that it is with the brain we think any more than that it is with the eye we see. You fancy I jest. Not in the least. They are both but instruments, means or media of communication with beings of like nature with ourselves in this particular world. They give us entrance to this only to exclude us from others no less real. ‘To suppose’, wrote that level-headed thinker, John Stuart Mill, ‘that the eye is necessary to sight seems to me the notion of one immersed in matter. What we call our bodily sensations are all in the mind, and would not necessarily or probably cease because the body perishes.’ We are not to assume that what we do not now know will never be known. Till a few years ago the vast reservoir of electric energy in the secret recesses of nature, under, we might say, our very hands, escaped the attention of all the generations of observant men. For the human race it did not exist, yet now it is all in all. ‘The perfect observer’, I quote Sir John Herschell, ‘will have his eyes, as it were, opened, that they may be struck at once with any occurrences which, according to received opinion, ought not to happen, for these are the facts which serve as clues to new discoveries.’
The study to which I refer has nothing to do with spiritualism or with religion. It is simply an enquiry into such occurrences as should not on our present theory of knowledge take place at all. And as Schopenhauer insisted, ‘the phenomena under consideration are incomparably the most important among all the facts presented to us by the whole of experience from a philosophical point of view; so it is the duty of every man of science to get acquainted with them, and to study them thoroughly.’ How many of them, and how many of our divines are, in respect of this study, like the professor of Padua, who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope, lest he might see what he did not wish to see, who dreaded its revelations. But what we prefer, like or dislike, alters nothing in nature. Palatable or unpalatable, we must accept whatever lies in the path of our destiny. And if a tenth, a hundredth part of what competent observers in this field report be true, the castle of our thought may need rebuilding from its foundations. Simple people talk glibly of telepathy, for example; yet if extra-sensory perception alone were established the whole scheme of modern thought crumbles into ruin. It would be nothing short of a scientific revolution. Science and philosophy would be under the necessity, for them a sad necessity, to seek new concepts for the interpretation of reality, to redraw their antiquated map of the human mind, and
Cast their kingdoms old
Into another mould.
‘I would certainly not now say’, wrote Bradley, the author of Appearance and Reality, in 1923, ‘that a future life must be taken as decidedly improbable.’ And again, ‘I should certainly be willing to agree to the possibility of selves which after death would be perceptible by, and recognisable by one another, and would so far have something in the way of a body.’ How interesting that the most modern philosophy should allow that Heraclitus may have been right when he said two thousand years ago, that ‘there await men at death things they have neither looked for nor dreamt of’.
How many modes of existence are there? I cannot tell you, but I should imagine them to be very numerous. And what kind of immortality is at all conceivable? Of all doctrines of a future life palingenesis or rebirth, which carries with it the idea of pre-existence, is by far the most ancient and most widely held, ‘the only system to which’, as said Hume, ‘philosophy can hearken.’ ‘The soul is eternal and migratory, say the Egyptians,’ reports Laertius. In its existence birth and death are events. And though this doctrine has for European thought a strangeness, it is in fact the most natural and easily imagined, since what has been can be again. This belief, taught by Pythagoras, to which Plato and Plotinus were attached, has been held by Christian fathers as well as by many philosophers since the dawn of civilisation. It ‘has made the tour of the world’, and seems, indeed, to be in accordance with nature’s own favourite way of thought, of which she so insistently reminds us, in her rhythms and recurrences, her cycles and revolving seasons. ‘It presents itself’, wrote Schopenhauer, ‘as the natural conviction of man whenever he reflects at all in an unprejudiced manner.’
According to Plato’s theory of reminiscence (ἀνάμνησις), our present knowledge is a recollection of what was learnt or known by the soul in a previous state. You will say, it has no knowledge of its previous lives. But what man remembers every day of his life? And lost memories, as the psychologists will tell you, are recoverable. For the memory appears to be a palimpsest, from which nothing is ever obliterated. If we have forgotten most days and incidents of our present lives it is natural that memories of previous lives should fail us. Yet from infancy every forgotten day and hour has added to our experiences, to our growth and capacity. All that a child was and did, though unremembered, is still a part of him and is knit up into his present nature. Every day and hour had its value and made its contribution to the mind and soul. So it may be with former lives, each of them but a day in our past history. The universe is wide, and life here or elsewhere might on this view be regarded as a self prescription, a venture willed by the soul for some end and through some prompting of its own, to enlarge its experience, learn more of the universe, recover lost friends, or resume a task begun but not fulfilled. The time has not come to close any of the avenues of thought into the mysteries surrounding us, and unless death finally triumph over life, it may never come. There may even be choices open to the souls in their eternal quest for the highest good.
Again it may be that in the realm of Being the soul lives with its memories. Then if we could talk with the dead they could speak of nothing but their recollections, and would have nothing to tell us—as in the stories we have of conversations with them, they have usually in fact nothing to tell us—of their present existence. If it ever became possible to get into touch with them we should presently take it all for granted, and perhaps only historians would disturb the sleeping dead for details of events on earth forgotten, in which they took a professional interest.
In all our speculation we have constantly to remind ourselves of the lock to which we do not possess the key, the true character of time and our relations to time, which have never been determined, and upon which all else hinges, the nature of time and change, of which we are wholly ignorant. To discuss here these profound problems would, indeed, be unprofitable and inconclusive. And all discourse would end did we not assume that our present relations with time will remain what they now are, wherever our destiny may take us. They may, certainly, be very different; but perforce we think and can only think in terms of the experience we have had, or can recall, in terms, that is, of time and space. If they hold here and now, on what grounds can we rest the proposition that they do not hold for beings like ourselves throughout the universe, or are incompatible with existence in some other state? The best we can do, and that not much, is with things as we know them. With a timeless world and with conditions elsewhere prevailing we have no acquaintance. If ignorance can deny nothing, it can assert nothing. We may, on the other hand, be sure that what now exists in our experience is consistent with all that anywhere exists, and can nowhere contradict or render that experience otiose, useless or irrelevant. From what we have we should therefore expect something in relation to what we shall have. If things as they are have not a feature in common with things as they will be, we have no basis for thought at all regarding that future. Nature, one thinks, however greatly what is to come may differ from what has been, will remain the same nature, unless we are to regard all with which we are now familiar as an empty dream. It may be we should; yet, as Leibniz said, ‘a leap from one state to another infinitely different state could not be natural’. The experiences of time and of our present condition could, one feels, only be valuable in an existence not wholly unlike it; and any doctrine which insists upon a totally dissimilar existence, an indescribable spiritual life as a sequel to the present, makes of the present an insoluble enigma. If we are to be so changed as no longer to recognise anything about us, intellect, will, aims or affections, which make us what we are, nothing of our true selves, or of the men and women who have lived, would then remain. ‘Tis hard to imagine a mode of existence, though such no doubt is possible, so unlike the present. Into what banishment, one wonders, would all that meets our present sight be sent? Into what will the suns and stars, the great galaxies be transformed? They are no doubt in process of continual change, and with them we too shall change. Our lives are part of the universe and will last as long, but we must wait for the secrets of the history to come. To say that all is mystery is no more than the truth, but to interpret it as leading to one conclusion rather than another is to deny your premise.
And before we can attain to that final harmony between the universe and ourselves, to which we look forward as the consummation of existence, how much we have to learn about both! In respect of our true natures, of what in truth we are and are capable of becoming, to what heights in knowledge, wisdom, power, the soul can climb, of all this science and philosophy have so far hardly yet spoken. Nor can any boundary be set, any ‘Thus far and no farther’ to the expansion of the mind. In our present life we have acquired at the most the alphabet of this knowledge; and as for the universe, of the modes of existence and happiness of which it permits, of its possibilities as an abode for progressive beings like ourselves, we know less than nothing, and no single life could teach us what they may be. Nor can any reason be advanced why we should not in the end become its masters, mould it to our hearts’ desires, and make of it a home, the natural and happy estate of the immortal spirits to whom it indefeasibly belongs.
Immortality is a word which stands for the stability or permanence of that unique and precious quality we discern in the soul, which, if lost, leaves nothing worth preservation in the world. If you can find in it no such quality its preservation cannot of course interest you, and you can accept the thought of its destruction with equanimity. And in this tranquil acquiescence is thus summed up your opinion of all existence as a worthless misery. You pay life the compliment of regarding it with horror, with hatred and contempt. When upon this issue, then, judgment is given, with it is given also a judgment upon the universe itself. I read some time ago of a Spanish girl in England for the first time. Approaching London in the train she looked out on the sea of houses, factories and chimneys. ‘These people have no view,’ she cried, and burst into tears. To have no view, how sad a lot. A grey mist descends upon the world.
For who would lose,
Though lull of pain, this intellectual being,
These thoughts that wander through eternity,
To perish rather, swallow’d up and lost
In the wide womb of uncreated night,
Devoid of sense and motion?
There is, then, nothing to be hoped for, nothing to be expected and nothing to be done save to await our turn to mount the scaffold and bid farewell to that colossal blunder, the much-ado-about-nothing world—a piece of work whose defence from any human standpoint, if this be all, no advocate dare undertake.
To believe life an irremediable disaster, the heavens and earth an imbecility, is to my way of thinking hard indeed. Since I am not prepared to believe the world a misery-go-round, a torture-chamber, a furnace of senseless affliction; since I am not prepared to believe the fiery, invincible soul a by-blow, a lamentable accident; I prefer to put my trust in the larger vision of the poets. To fortify our minds it is to them we have to return, and yet again return. They alone have understood. ‘It exceeds all imagination to conceive’, wrote Shelley, ‘what would have been the moral condition of the world if the poets had never been born… What were our consolations on this side of the grave, and what were our aspirations beyond it—if poetry did not ascend to bring light and fire from those eternal regions where the owl-winged faculty of calculation dare not ever soar?’ And it is to their inextinguishable sympathy with humanity that they owe their understanding. Not to science or philosophy, but to their pro-founder appreciation of the strange situation in which we find ourselves, to their sense of the pitiful estate of man who, with all the forces of nature proclaiming an alien creed, still holds to his intuitions, who knows and knows well that he cannot support himself otherwise than by clinging—as a sailor clings to his raft in angry seas—to his passion for justice, his trust in the affections of his heart, his love of the lovely, his lonely struggle for the best, however clumsy and mistaken he may be in his present estimates of what is indeed best.
These are the features and faculties in man that the poets love and admire, his endurance, his resolution, his heroisms, his quixotry. Yes, the quixotry, the inexplicable preference, even to his own hurt, for the noble and magnanimous, the high and honourable things. Miracles they are that outmiracle all others if atoms and the void produced these human qualities. It is in the exalted thoughts and still more soaring dreams of ‘that wild swan the soul’, the admirable lunacies, the sudden gleams that illuminate the sombre landscape of human life that the poets find the revelation of the vital truth. They issue no commandments, they censure not, they upbraid not. In the fierce turmoil they are not utterly discouraged. They sympathise with every creature. They know, and yet, mirabile dictu, love the world. Theirs is a postulate, if you like, yet a postulate we must all make, if we are to enter the region of meanings at all, that our natural capacities, our natural instincts are not the casual spindrift of time, but of an earlier birth and longer lineage. As in the darkness, in the organism not yet born, the eye is formed to correspond to things invisible, and thus with confidence anticipates a world to come, so the soul’s faculties, for love, for joy, for admiration, for achievement, correspond to a reality which exists, and is by them foretold. The soul does not provide itself with a passport for an imaginary country, and cannot vibrate to a note unsounded in the universe.
How simple then is our duty—loyalty to life, to the ship’s company and to ourselves, that it may not be through our surrender that the great experiment of existence, whose issue remains in doubt, come to an end in nothingness. ‘We must not obey’, said Aristotle, ‘those who urge us, because we are human and mortal, to think human and mortal thoughts; in so far as we may we should practise immortality, and omit no effort to live in accordance with the best that is in us.’
What a handful of dust is man to think such thoughts! Or is he, perchance, a prince in misfortune, whose speech at times betrays his birth? I like to think that, if men are machines, they are machines of a celestial pattern, which can rise above themselves, and, to the amazement of the watching gods, acquit themselves as men. I like to think that this singular race of indomitable, philosophising, poetical beings, resolute to carry the banner of Becoming to unimaginable heights, may be as interesting to the gods as they to us, and that they will stoop to admit these creatures of promise into their divine society.