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vol. 3, p. 2
from Adyar archives of the International Theosophical Society
vol. 3 (1875-1878)


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< Materialism's Last Assault (continued from page 3-1) >

them by hurling at the subject, from your scientific tripod, your missile of dirty words? Is it by such hectoring that you hope to suppress an inconvenient topic? Are we to be a wed, in this last quarter of the nineteenth century, by the “priest’s cast-off garb, dyed to escape detection?” Nay, rather give us back the bigotry of religion, and spare us the bigotry of your “positive science!”


If, as is claimed, there be a “preternatural element” involved in the manifestations, what fact more important could be established? The question of a death-defying principle in man, an invisible body, the continent of his individuality, of his entire self, unimpaired by the wreck of matter or by the transition to another stage of being! Were it a question of the discovery of a beetle, distinguishable from all other known varieties by an additional spot, what respectful heed would be given to it by specialists like yourself, and how patient would they be of all details!

The offence which you charge against the eminent persons I have named and other Spiritualists is, it appears, of the intellect, that faculty which investigates and reasons. The “whoredom” is “intellectual.” If by this you mean anything beyond mere obscene scurrility — if, to borrow the language of your complaint against the theologians, you are not merely “slipping out of the region of courtesy into that of scorn and abuse” — what you would say is that Spiritualism implies a prostitution of the intellect in the desertion of truth for imposture and delusion. Let us see.

The primary question is one of facts. You will hardly contend that the facts, if provable, are not as legitimate a subject of scientific investigation as the facts of chemistry or geology. Contemptuous as have been your expressions, you have not yet had the rashness to say, with Prof. Huxley: “Supposing the phenomena to be genuine, they do not interest me.” Fo... to mention only one of the phenomena, that of the sudden appearance and disappearance of materialized hands, drape... &c., you, a student of matter, cannot seriously say that y... are indifferent to a fact which, if admitted, must reverse ... current notions on the subject.

Prof. Butlerof, the Russian physicist, of the University of St. Petersburg, remarks of the manifestations indicating this fact:

“The recognition of their reality will very soon be the inevitable duty of every honorable observer, and finally, of all humanity. This recognition will destroy many of the present prevailing views: life and science will have to come to terms with it. Our old notions about the essential nature of matter dissolve in the light of the actuality of these facts, and new ideas present themselves of the endless variety of degrees and forms of existence.”

And yet you, in the very breath in which you deplore the illiberality of the clergy toward your own free utterances, do your best to prevent investigation into these stupendous facts of nature by exerting your influence as a man of science to soil the subject with an opprobrious name! You say, too, that Spiritualism is “degrading;” as if even that aspersion ought to deter a brave, earnest seeker from getting at the truth in respect to it! You, sir, who, through one of your German quotations, complain of the “tactics” of your opponents in “treating you contemptuously and trying to disparage you gradually in the public esteem,” resort to the same “tactics” when Spiritualism comes in your way.


I can imagine how exasperating it must be to a physicist of your experience to have certain new facts thrust in his face, which, if accepted, must unsettle confident theories born of years of pursuit of what he has regarded as scientific certainties. A busy man of science like yourself, how can he afford to give his attention to phenomena so subtle and evasive, so baffling and extraordinary, that they require much time and patience in the investigation, and which, if proved, he can classify under no law known to his code; facts for which there is no place in any of the pigeon-holes of his laboratory, and which flatly contradict, or threaten to contradict, some on the laws he has looked on as inviolable?

The impatient contempt with which Faraday, Huxley, yourself, and the Harvard professors have dismissed the transcendent facts of Spiritualism affords a lesson which is likely to be often referred to in the future as a check to those over confident votaries of science who, disregarding Bacon's monition, make their own à priori objections the measure of nature's possibilities. For you are one of those clever professors whom Goethe describes in a passage which you will pardon me for translating, since you let us frequently see how well you could have read it for yourself in the original:

“Most learned Don, I know you by these tokens
What you can feel not, that can no one feel;
What comprehend not, no one comprehend;
What you can't reckon is of no account,
What you can't weigh can no existence have,
What you've not coined, that must be counterfeit.”

Certain phenomena occur, to which the name spiritual is given, simply because they cannot be explained by any known physical laws, and because the intelligent force, from which they are supposed to proceed, declares itself to be a spirit. The establishment of these phenomena, as occurrences recognized by science, is merely a question of time. The question how far and in what sense they are spiritual is likely to remain an open one long after the facts are accepted as proven. Meanwhile how can any man of science, not crazed by prejudice or dwarfed by bigotry, charge it upon day investigator of the facts, or holder of the hypothesis, that he is lending himself intellectually to a “degrading” subject? Can the verification of any fact of Nature be degrading to the honest searcher after truth?

You tell us of certain scientific considerations that will help us to see and feel “what drivellers even men of strenuous intellect may become, through exclusively dwelling and dealing with theological chimeras.” Did it never occur to you what “drivellers” men of strenuous intellect may become through exclusively dwelling and dealing with the chimeras derived from one little group of facts to the exclusion of others, somewhat different in their nature and in the conditions of their verification? Give heed to the familiar wisdom of Arago, where he says: “He who asserts that, outside of the domain of pure mathematics, anything is impossible, lacks prudence.”


Spiritualism can now take care of itself. For the last quarter of a century those who hate and fear it have been comforted almost daily with the assurance that it was at last dead and buried; that some great exposure had taken place which explained its tricks and proved it to be all a fraud. Yet here it is, more irrepressible than ever, though its exposers seem to multiply, and its calumniators call it bad names, such as jugglery, epilepsy, mediomania, and intellectual whoredom. It goes on, not at all affected, it would seem, by all these assaults of anger, malevolence, charlatanry, and pseudo-science. It has survived not only the frauds and misdemeanors of real or spurious mediums — not only the dislike and denunciation of the critical classes, the religious and the cultivated — but what is harder to endure, the help that is harmful, the imprudences of its own friends, and the heresies, credulities and stupidities that would seek a shelter under its name.

Even if it were conclusively proved that two-thirds of those persons believed to be genuine mediums, though subject to human frailties, like Mrs. Holmes, the Eddys, and others, had occasionally, in the absence of supposed spirit-help, resorted to imposture, or that all their manifestations were frauds, it would not impair the force of the great, irresistible body of thoroughly tested facts on which Modern Spiritualism is based.

The thrust at Spiritualism occupies but a line or two of your preface. The rest is devoted to a vindication of your thesis that “matter contains within itself the promise and potency of all terrestrial life.” In your Belfast address you stated this somewhat more broadly, omitting the word terrestrial; and you have since so softened down your materialism with conditions, qualifications, and admissions that no one who has followed you through all your explanations could be surprised any day to hear of your subscribing to the Thirty-nine Articles.

While seeming to repudiate materialism by conceding that there is “an impassable chasm, intellectually, between the physical processes of the brain and the facts of consciousness,” you take away all the force and grace of the concession by saying:

“Were not man’s origin implicated, we should accept without a murmur the derivation of animal and vegetable life from what we call inorganic nature. The conclusion of pure intellect points this way and no other. But this purity is troubled by our interests in this life and by our hopes and fears regarding the world to come.”

This looks very much like a contradiction. After having told us that “the passage from the physics of the brain to the corresponding facts of consciousness is unthinkable,” you would have us suppose that nevertheless “pure intellect,” untroubled by hopes and fears of a world to come, does not at all regard as unthinkable the derivation of animal life, including consciousness, of course, from “inorganic nature,” or its equivalent, matter.


And so, after all, the “impassable chasm” may be easily leaped by an esprit fort! If we will only give up our foolish little hopes and fears about a future life, it will not be so difficult for us to ascribe all our faculties, including consciousness, genius, and love, to matter.

But how can the chasm at once be passable and impassable? This disposition on your part to hedge — to make concessions which, when hard pressed by your clerical assailants, you can fall back on to prove that you are not the atheist they would make you out, while, at other times, you would create the impression that science and “pure intellect” favor your notion that matter is the all-sufficient factor — is manifest through all your argument, both in your present preface and in your Belfast address. No one will suppose you insincere; but, to put the case mildly, does not this almost simultaneous coquetry with opposite opinions indicate a somewhat unguarded and superficial way of treating a great subject?

If any further proof of your fickleness in arguing were needed, it may be found in that passage where you say:

“Nor am I anxious to shut out the idea that the life here spoken of [the ‘life immanent everywhere’] may be but a subordinate part and function of a higher life, as the living, moving blood is subordinate to the living man. I resist no such idea so long as it is not dogmatically imposed.”

Here, with a princely generosity, though not in lucid language, you permit us to entertain the theistic idea. Here you accept a supposition which wholly neutralizes the <... continues on page 3-3 >