Shelley on the Immortality of the Spirit
The Immortality of the Soul has ever been a subject of primary importance to all philosophers—the last dying efforts of Socrates, noblest of Greece’s sons, as Plato has shown us in the Phaedo, were expended in a discussion on the pros and cons of an argument in favor of a future life. Many of the highest intelligences since his day have been endeavoring to prove this satisfactorily without the aid of theological revelation. All mankind, from sage to peasant, from the most learned Brahmin on the banks of the Ganges to the untutored red Indian beside the Mississippi, has approached the question, “Is there an existence after death?” with the most earnest hopes to solve it as one of the greatest mysteries. Percy Bysshe Shelley devoted a vast amount of energy to the elucidation of this occult, yet overt, truth; and in one place remarks: —
“The desire to be forever as we are; the reluctance to a violent and unexperienced change, which is common to all the animate and inanimate combinations of the universe, is, indeed, the secret persuasion which has (among other reasons) given birth to a belief in a future state.”
Full well he knew, that independent of matter, there was a power, which has been denominated by some, Spirit; by others, simply mind, force, or intelligence; and by metaphysical philosophers, Soul. If he approached the subject logically, as in his essay, “On a Future State,” the ignis fatuus seems to escape him and be lost; if poetically, with the innate voice which speaks within us all, ever present.
After close reasoning in the essay I have referred to, he arrived at the conclusion that even
“if it be proved that the world is ruled by a divine power, no inference can necessarily be drawn from that circumstance in favor of a future state,”
“if a future state be clearly proved, does it follow that it will be a state of punishment or reward?”
Then in extension of the same argument he urges: —
“Sleep suspends many of the faculties of the vital and intellectual principle—drunkenness and disease will either temporarily or permanently derange them. Madness, or idiocy, may utterly extinguish the most excellent and delicate of these powers. In old age the mind gradually withers; and as it grew and strengthened with the body, so does it with the body sink into decrepitude.”
He also considered that: —
“It is probable that what we call thought is not an actual being, but no more than the relation between certain parts of that infinitely varied mass, of which the rest of the universe is composed, and which ceases to exist so soon as those parts change their position with regard to each other. Thus color, and sound, and taste, and odor, exist only relatively.”
Even granted that mind or thought be a part of, or in fact, the soul, then he asks in what manner it could be made a proof of its imperishability, as all that we see or know perishes and is changed.
Here then comes the query, “Have we existed before birth?" A difficult possibility to conceive of individual intelligence and if improvable against the theory of existence after death.
He then winds up the whole by thinking that it is impossible that
“we should continue to exist after death in some mode totally inconceivable to us at present.”
and that only those who desire to be persuaded are persuaded.
This is but a rough outline of some of the principal features of his considerations on soul immortality from a logical basis, and which, after all, only constitute an argument, to which, and the thoughts presented therein, he did not necessarily bind himself. There can be little doubt, independently of what I have quoted, that he did not believe in a future state as popularly accepted. Trelawney asked him on one occasion: “Do you believe in the immortality of the spirit?” Shelley’s answer was unmistakable, “Certainly not; how can I? We know nothing; we have no evidence.”
When we take Shelley from a poetical standpoint, or with the divine truism implanted by the Ain-soph clamoring within, to his intelligence, for expression, how confident he appears of a hereafter, as in the “Adonais,” or in the following extract from an unpublished letter to his father-in-law, William Goodwin, the property of my friend C. W. Frederickson, of New York, one of the most enthusiastic admirers of Shelley, and who has been often known to pay more than the weight in gold for “Shelleyana.”
“With how many garlands we can beautify the tomb. If we begin betimes, we can learn to make the prospect of the grave the most seductive of human visions. By little and little we hive therein all the most pleasing of our dreams. Surely, if any spot in the world be sacred, it is that in which grief ceases, and for which, if the voice within our hearts mock us not witch an everlasting lie, we spring upon the untiring wings of a pangless and seraphic life—those whom we love around us—our nature, universal intelligence, our atmosphere, eternal love.”
How exquisite these remarks and his description of a disembodied spirit:
It must appear impossible to any rational mind, that, with the full evidence before their eyes, materialists can attempt to claim Shelley as endorsing their doctrines, for even in the “Queen Mab,” which has been considered by those not understanding it as a most atheistical poem, he speaks of—
Positive dogmatists are tyrannically endeavoring to crush the belief in a Soul, that All which makes the present life happy on earth, the hope of our heritage in a future state. To them the fact that the race from the dawn of history, and through the ages, has knelt down in abnegation before this inscrutable truth is nothing. This glorious belief evolved from the primaeval Cabala, taught in ancient Egypt, found contemporaneously in India, enunciated by scholarly Kabbis, ever present before the Chaldean and Assyrian Magi, and laid down as axioms in the philosophical schools of Greece and Rome, not only to be discovered a fundamental in the Egyptian, the Hebraistic, the Brahminical, the Buddhistic, the Vedic, but also in all the sacred books of every nation, and handed down and perpetuated to these days as a sacred legacy from the past, by both Mohammed and Christ. This, the great co-mystery of all the ancient mysteries, shall remain ever present through all futurity like “the existing order of the Universe, or rather of the part of it known to us," to use the phraseology of John Stuart Mill. Nations may rise and fall, theologies may flourish and decay, but this glorious and divine inheritance shall never pass away. Let pseudoscientists avail themselves of stale and exploded arguments, and urge that there is no invisible world, and therefore no immortality for man, but honest scientists, like Professor Balfour Stewart, in the “Unseen Universe,” will ever agree with the Illuminati—“in the position assumed by Swedenborg and by the Spiritualists, according to which they look upon the invisible world, not as something absolutely distinct from the visible universe, and absolutely unconnected with it, as is frequently thought to be the case, but rather as a universe that has some bond of union with the present; and like Tyndall, will be obliged, in abject humility, to acknowledge, unlike the initiated occultist, that “when we endeavor to pass from the phenomena of physics to those of thought we meet a problem which transcends any conceivable expansion of the powers we now possess. We may think over the subject again and again—it eludes all intellectual presentation—we stand at length face to face with the incomprehensible."
* Fellow Theos. Society – one of the original Institutors.
- Shelley on the Immortality of the Spirit by Sotheran, Charles, Spiritual Scientist, v. 3, No 6, October 14, 1875, p. 68