Logic Versus Peripatetic
Theosophist, April, 1881
It is hardly the province of our journal to notice the fugitive vagaries of occasional correspondents in daily papers, unless by chance some article happens to contain some useful or very interesting and quite impersonal information. We have held to the good rule till now, and hope to continue. On this principle we would have hardly given any attention to a certain paragraph in the Bombay Gazette (March 16, 1881) signed “your Peripatetic,” and headed “Current Philosophy” were it not for the strong illustration it affords us of that perverse spirit, called “respectable deference to public opinion,” but which “for short” we call hypocrisy. The writer in question throws stones into our garden and, but for our having by this time grown somewhat indifferent to that sort of thing, we might well find in his personalities alone abundant excuse for retorting upon him. But we have a far more serious object in view, and this once the speculative lucubrations of the “current” philosopher will do us better service than his party have perhaps, bargained for. For, for us, “Peripatetic” decidely represents a party. He is the mouth-piece of that majority in our modern-day society which has worked itself out an elaborate policy full of sophistry and paradox, behind which every member clumsily hides his own personal views. The words of their Revelation, “I would thou wert cold or hot” apply to our modern society far better than to the church of the Laodiceans; and knowing their works and that they are “neither cold nor hot,” but like a faithful thermometer follow the changing moral temperature of the day, we will now analyze some of the desultory rhapsodies of the writer on “Current Philosophy.”
When we have done that, he is at liberty to go on chuckling over his pen which traced his rather stale denunciation of the “simplicity” of Mr. __________ and the Simla “Occultists!” “The simplicity” of the gentleman whom the “Peripatetic” names in the Gazette in full—an example of bad breeding we shall surely not follow—being an adjective applied by him to a man of the most acute and remarkable intellect, and one whose ability and talents are universally recognized throughout India and Europe, speaks ill, by the bye, for his own powers of discrimination. When one presumes to sign himself a “Peripatetic,” he ought to honour his classical pseudonyme by at least borrowing some logic for the occasion if he has none himself to spare. Having thus cursorily noticed the poor fling at the Simla “simpletons,” we will now lay before our readers a sample of the logic of that alleged pupil of Aristotle, which “Peripatetic” so paradoxically assumes to be.
Quoting Carlyle’s famous proposition (who may have had such “Peripatetics” in mind) that the population of Great Britain consists of “thirty millions mostly fools,” and having offered by way of self-incense on the altar of patriotism his own postulate that “the intellect of the average Briton is however, certainly higher than the average intellect of general humanity,” the critic proceeds—if we may be forgiven the Americanism—to scalp believers in phenomena. The simplicity of the “Simla occultists,” however, he confesses, “is outdone by the innocence of some ‘titled people’ who, according to the evidence of a witness in the Fletcher trial, ‘will believe anything’—a statement which appears strictly accurate.”
Fletcher and Company, together with two-thirds of the trading professional mediums, we may leave to his tender mercies. Having denounced these for the last six years, we even heartily agree in some respects with the writer; as, for instance, when he deprecates those who “would believe anything.” No one of the over-credulous who recognise so readily in dark séances, in every shadow on the wall or in the medium’s pocket-handkerchief, their “aunt, or uncle, or somebody” has any right to complain if they are regarded as “fools,” though even in such cases, it is far more honourable to be found out to be an honest fool, than a cheating medium. Nor do we blame the writer for laughing at those who so trustingly believe. . . . “that when it pleased the medium to wind up the musical-box, one of this intellectual audience asserted that he felt that virtue had gone out of him, and that this magnetism was winding up the box”: uncharitable though it be, it is yet natural. And were “Peripatetic” to stop his philosophical disquisitions with the just remark. . . . “And yet probably these ‘titled’ fools would be ready enough to talk of the dark superstitions of the benighted Hindoo, or indeed, if they happened to be fervent Protestants, of the superstitions of their Catholic neighbors, while doubtless believing that they themselves were making a scientific investigation,” this review of his “Current Philosophy” need never have seen print. We would not have even noticed the ridiculous blunder he falls into, with so many other critics, in confusing phenomena for which the agency of “disembodied spirits” is claimed, with natural phenomena for which every tithe of supernaturalism is rejected. We might have overlooked his ignorance, as he was, perhaps, never told that natural are the only phenomena Theosophists accept, and the only way they are trying to fathom the mystery; and that their object is precisely to put down every element of superstition or belief in the miraculous or the supernatural, instead of countenancing it as he believes. But what are we to think of a philosopher, an alleged Peripatetic, who after exercising his acute reasoning upon the “folly” of the superstitious beliefs of the spiritualists and the occultists, winds up his arguments with the most unexpected rhetorical sommersault ever made. The proposition which he emits in the same breath seems so preposterously illogical and monstrous, that we can characterize it but in the felicitous words of Southey, viz., as “one of the most untenable that ever was advanced by a perverse, paradoxical intellect.” Listen to him and judge ye, logicians and true disciples of Aristotle: “No, no!” exclaims our philosopher . . . “Religious beliefs which are imbibed with our mother’s milk, and which most around us accept, cannot be regarded as superstitions. It is natural to the human mind to regard doctrines presented to it with the authority of bygone generations as probable and natural. Earnest belief of this nature may not always command our respect, but it must invariably attract our sympathy. The superstitious follies of ‘table-turners’ and ‘spiritists’ of all sorts can only command our hearty contempt. How much exposure will be necessary to teach persons of this sort that secrets of nature which have been hidden from investigators like Newton, Davy, Faraday, and Tyndall are not likely to be opened to them?” And we beg leave to tell him, that he, who does not believe in Spiritualism cannot believe in Christianity, for the very foundation of that faith is the materialisation of their Saviour. A Christian if he has any right at all to attack spiritual phenomena, can do so but on the ground of the dogmas of his religion. He can say—”such manifestations are of the devil”—he dare not say “they are impossible, and do not exist.” For, if spiritualism and occultism are a superstition and a falsehood then is Christianity, the same Christianity with its Mosaic miracles and witches of Endor, its resurrections and materialisation of angels, and hundreds of other spiritual and occult phenomena.
Does “Peripatetic” forget, that while there are many real inquirers among well-known men of science, like Messrs. Wallace, Crookes, Wagner, Butlerof, Zöllner, Hare, Fichte, and Camille Flammarion, who have thoroughly investigated and hence thoroughly believe in the phenomena called “spiritual” till a better name is found, and in some cases are even spiritualists themselves; no Tyndall, no Huxley, no Faraday, no investigator yet since the world was created, has ever been able to prove, let alone one of the religious human dogmas, but even the existence of a God or of the soul?
We are not “Spiritualists,” and, therefore, speak impartially. If religious “earnest belief invariably attracts our sympathy even without commanding our respect,” why should not as earnest a belief in spiritual phenomena—that most consoling, most sacred of all beliefs, hope in the survival of those whom we most loved while on earth—”attract our sympathy” as well? Is it because it is unscientific and that exact science fails to always prove it? But religion is far more unscientific yet. Is belief in the Holy Ghost, we ask, less blind than belief in the “ghosts” of our departed fathers and mothers? Is faith in an abstract and never-to-be-scientifically-proven principle any more “respectable” or worthy of sympathy than that other faith of believers as earnest as Christians are—that the spirits of those whom they loved best on earth, their mothers, children, friends, are ever near them, though their bodies may be gone? Surely we “imbibe with our mother’s milk” as much love for her as for a mythical “Mother of God.” And if one is not to be regarded as a superstition then how far less the other! We think that if Professor Tyndall or Mr. Huxley were forced to choose between belief in the materialisation of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes or Knock, and that of their own mothers in a séance-room, they would rather risk to pass for “fools” in the latter locality. For phenomena, however rarely, have yet more than once been proved real and so announced by men of undoubted authority in science. Phenomena are based upon scientific grounds; on facts pertaining to exact science—upon physiology, pathology, magnetism, all correlating into psychological manifestations. Physical as well as psychological phenomena court experiment and the investigations of science; whereas, supernatural religion dreads and avoids such. The former claims no miracles, no supernaturalism to hang its faith upon, while religion imperatively demands them, and invariably collapses whenever such belief is withdrawn.
Personally, as we said before, we do not believe in the agency of “disembodied spirits” in the physical mediumistic phenomena, but it gives us no right for all that, to dogmatise and try to force others to reject their belief. All that we can say now is, that the last word has not yet been told of these phenomena; and that as theosophists, i.e. searchers after truth who claim no infallibility, we say that the Spiritualists after all may be as right in their way as we think we are right in ours. That no spiritualist has ever believed in “miracles” or supernatural interferences, their immense literature well proves. Can “Peripatetic” say as much of Christian belief? Hear the Bishop of Bombay proclaim publicly his professions of faith: “We,” he says to his clergy, “who by professional honour are bound to maintain and to set forth the supremacy of the supernatural over the natural . . . have staked our very social existence on the reality and the claims of the supernatural. Our dress, our status, our work, the whole of our daily surroundings, are a standing protest to the world of the importance of spiritual things; that they surpass, in our eyes at least, the more aggressive pretensions of what is temporal. We are bound then for our own self-respect to justify what we daily proclaim.” And so is every believer bound to do in whatsoever he may believe, if he be but honest.
But the whole status of modern faith is reflected in these jesuitical words of “Peripatetic.” Belief in the “supernatural” may not command his respect, but he feels obliged to sympathize with it; for it is that of those around him, and considered respectable; in short, it is the bread-and-cheese State religion, and perchance—that of his principles and superiors. And yet for as honest and earnest a belief as spiritualism, he has “but contempt.” Why? Because it is unpopular; because his society people who were forced into such a belief by the evidence of facts hide it from the others, and Nicodemus-like they run to its professors but under the cover of night. It is not fashionable. Religion and spiritualism are in society relatively like peg-drinking and cigarette-smoking. A lady who will not blush to empty in the view of all a tumbler of stiff brandy and soda, will stare, in shocked amazement, at another of her sex smoking an innocent cigarette! Therefore, is it too that the writer in the Gazette who ought to have called himself a “Sophist,” signs himself a “Peripatetic.” He is certainly not a Christian, for were he one, he would never have ventured upon the lapsus calami which makes him confess that Christianity “may not always command our respect”: but still he would pass for one. Such is the tendency of our nineteenth Century that a man of the educated, civilized world, will rather utter the most illogical, absurd sophism than honestly confess his belief either one way or the other! “It is natural,” he finds, “to the human mind to regard doctrines presented to it with the authority of bygone generations as probable and natural.” If this be so, we invite all the Peripatetics, past, present and future, to point out to us a doctrine half as tenacious of life, or more universally believed in by countless “bygone generations,” in every corner of the world, than the faith in “ghosts” and “spirits.” Really and indeed, we prefer a thousand times an honest, abusive, uncompromising bigot to a mild-spoken, sneering hypocrite.