War in Olympus
Theosophist, November, 1879
Dark clouds are gathering over the hitherto cold and serene horizon of exact science, which forebode a squall. Already two camps are forming among the votaries of scientific research. One wages war on the other, and hard words are occasionally exchanged. The apple of discord in this case is—Spiritualism. Fresh and illustrious victims are yearly decoyed away from the impregnable strongholds of materialistic negation, and ensnared into examining and testing the alleged spiritual phenomena. And we all know that when a true scientist examines them without prejudice . . . well, he generally ends like Professor Hare, Mr. William Crookes, F.R.S., the great Alfred Russell Wallace, another F.R.S., and so many other eminent men of science—he passes over to the enemy.
We are really curious to know what will be the new theory advanced in the present crisis by the sceptics, and how they will account for such an apostasy of several of their luminaries, as has just occurred. The venerable accusations of non compos mentis, and “dotage” will not bear another refurbishing: the eminent perverts are increasing numerically so fast, that if mental incapacity is charged upon all of them who experimentally satisfy themselves that tables can talk sense, and mediums float through the air, it might augur ill for science; there might soon be none but weakened brains in the learned societies. They may, possibly, for a time find some consolation in accounting for the lodgment of the extraordinary “delusion” in very scholarly heads, upon the theory of atavism—the mysterious law of latent transmission, so much favoured by the modern schools of Darwinian evolutionism especially in Germany, as represented by that thorough-going apostle of “modern struggle for culture,” Ernst-Haeckel, professor at Jena. They may attribute the belief of their colleagues in the phenomena, to certain molecular movements of the cell in the ganglia of their once powerful brains, hereditarily transmitted to them by their ignorant medieval ancestors. Or, again, they may split their ranks, and establishing an imperium in imperio “divide and conquer” still. All this is possible; but time alone will show which of the parties will come off best.
We have been led to these reflections by a row now going on between German and Russian professors—all eminent and illustrious savants. The Teutons and Slavs, in the case under observation. are not fighting according to their nationality but conformably to their respective beliefs and unbeliefs. Having concluded, for the occasion. an offensive as well as a defensive alliance, regardless of race—they have broken up in two camps, one representing the spiritualists, and the other the sceptics. And now war to the knife is declared. Leading one party, are Professors Zöllner, Ulrizzi, and Fichte, Butlerof and Wagner, of the Leipzig, Halle and St. Petersburg Universities; the other follows Professors Wundt, Mendeleyof, and a host of other German and Russian celebrities. Hardly has Zöllner—a most renowned astronomer and physicist—printed his confessions of faith in Dr. Slade’s mediumistic phenomena and set his learned colleagues aghast when Professor Ulrizzi of the Halle University arouses the wrath of the Olympus of science by publishing a pamphlet entitled “The so-called Spiritualism a Scientific Question,” intended as a complete refutation of the arguments of Professor Wundt, of the Leipzig University, against the modem belief, and contained in another pamphlet called by its author “spiritualism—the so-called scientific question.” And now steps in another active combatant, Mr. Butlerof, Professor of Chemistry and Natural Sciences, of St. Petersburg, who narrates his experiments in London, with the medium Williams, and thus rouses up a most ferocious polemic. The humoristical illustrated paper Kladderadatch executes a war-dance, and shouts with joy, while the more serious conservative papers are indignant. Pressed behind their last entrenchments by the cool and uncontrovertible assertions of a most distinguished naturalist, the critics led forward by the St. Petersburg star, Mr. Bourenine, seem desperate, and evidently short of ammunition, since they are reduced to the expedient of trying to rout the enemy with the most remarkable paradoxes. The pro and con of the dispute are too interesting, and our posterity might complain, were the incidents suffered to be left beyond the reach of English and American readers interested in Spiritualism, by remaining confined to the German and Russian newspapers. So, Homer-like, we will follow the combatants and condense this modern Iliad for the benefit of our friends.
After several years of diligent research and investigation of the phenomena, Messrs. Wagner and Butlerof, both distinguished savants and professors in St. Petersburg University, became thoroughly convinced of the reality of the weird manifestations. As a result, both wrote numerous and strong articles in the leading periodicals in defence of the “mischievous epidemic”—as in his moments of “unconscious cerebration” and “prepossession” in favour of his own hobby, Dr. Carpenter calls spiritualism. Both of the above eminent gentlemen, are endowed with those precious qualities, which are the more to be respected as they are so seldom met with among our men of science. These qualities, admitted by their critic himself, Mr. Bourenine, are: (1) a serious and profound conviction that what they defend is true; (2) an unwavering courage in stating at every hazard, before a prejudiced and inimical public that such is their conviction; (3) clearness and consecutiveness in their statements; (4) the serene calmness and impartiality with which they treat the opinions of their opponents; (5) a full and profound acquaintance with the subject under discussion. The combination of the qualities enumerated, adds their critic, “leads us to regard the recent article by Professor Butlerof, Empiricism and Dogmatism in the Domain of Mediumship, as one of those essays whose commending significance cannot be denied and which are sure to strongly impress the readers. Such articles are positively rare in our periodicals; rare because of the originality of the author’s conclusions; and because of the clear, precise, and serious presentation of facts” . . . .
The article so eulogized may be summed up in a few words. We will not stop to enumerate the marvels of spiritual phenomena witnessed by Professor Zöllner with Dr. Slade and defended by Prof. Butlerof, since they are no more marvellous than the latter gentlemen’s personal experience in this direction with Mr. Williams, a medium of London, in 1876. The séances took place in a London hotel in the room occupied by the Honorable Alexandre Aksakof, Russian Imperial Councillor, in which, with the exception of this gentleman, there were but two other persons,—Prof. Butlerof and the medium. Confederacy was thus utterly impossible. And now, what took place under these conditions, which so impressed one of the first scientists of Russia? Simply this: Mr. Williams, the medium, was made to sit with his hands, feet, and even his person tightly bound with cords to his chair, which was placed in a dead-wall corner of the room, behind Mr. Butlerof’s plaid hung across so as to form a screen. Williams soon fell into a kind of lethargic stupor, known among spiritualists as the trance condition, and “spirits” began to appear before the eyes of the investigators. Various voices were heard, and loud sentences, pronounced by the “invisibles,” from every part of the room; things—toilet appurtenances and so forth, began flying in every direction through the air; and finally “John King”—a sort of king of the spooks, who has been famous for years—made his appearance bodily. But we must allow Prof. Butlerof to tell his phenomenal story himself. “We first saw moving”—he writes—”several bright lights in the air, and immediately after that appeared the full figure of ‘John King.’ His apparition is generally preceded by a greenish phosphoric light which, gradually becoming brighter, illuminates more and more, the whole bust of John King. Then it is that those present perceive that the light emanates from some kind of a luminous object held by the ‘spirit.’ The face of a man with a thick black beard becomes clearly distinguishable; the head is enveloped in a white turban. The figure appears outside the cabinet (that is to say, the screened corner where the medium sat), and finally approaches us. We saw it each time for a few seconds; then rapidly waning, the light was extinguished and the figure became invisible to reappear again in a moment or two; then from the surrounding darkness, ‘John’s’ voice is heard proceeding from the spot on which he had appeared mostly, though not always, when he had already disappeared. ‘John’ asked us ‘what can I do for you?’ and Mr. Aksakof requested him to rise up to the ceiling and from there speak to us. In accordance with the wish expressed, the figure suddenly appeared above the table and towered majestically above our heads to the ceiling which became all illuminated with the luminous object held in the spirit’s hand, when ‘John’ was quite under the ceiling he shouted down to us: ‘Will that do?'”
During another séance M. Butlerof asked “John” to approach him quite near, which the “spirit” did, and so gave him the opportunity of seeing clearly “the sparkling, clear eyes of John.” Another spirit, “Peter,” though he never put in a visible appearance during the séances, yet conversed with Messrs. Butlerof and Aksakof, wrote for them on paper furnished by them, and so forth.
Though the learned professor minutely enumerates all the precautions he had taken against possible fraud, the critic is not yet satisfied, and asks, pertinently enough: “Why did not the respectable savant catch ‘John’ in his arms, when the spirit was but at a foot’s distance from him? Again, why did not both Messrs. Aksakof and Butlerof try to get hold of ‘John’s’ legs, when he was mounting to the ceiling? Indeed they ought to have done all this, if they are really so anxious to learn the truth for their own sake, as for that of science, when they struggle to lead on toward the domains of the ‘other world.’ And, had they complied with such a simple and, at the same time, very little scientific test, there would be no more need for them, perhaps, to . . . further explain the scientific importance of the spiritual manifestations.”
That this importance is not exaggerated, and has as much significance for the world of science, as for that of religious thought, is proved by so many philosophical minds speculating upon the modern “delusion.” This is what Fichte, the learned German savant, says of it. “Modern spiritualism chiefly proves the existence of that which, in common parlance, is very vaguely and inaptly termed ‘apparition of spirits.’ If we concede the reality of such apparitions, then they become an undeniable, practical proof of the continuation of our personal, conscious existence (beyond the portals of death). And such a tangible, fully demonstrated fact cannot be otherwise but beneficent in this epoch, which, having fallen into a dreary genial of immortality, thinks, in the proud self-sufficiency of its vast intellect, that it has already happily left behind it every superstition of the kind.” If such a tangible evidence could be really found, and demonstrated to us, beyond any doubt or cavil, reasons Fichte further on,—”if the reality of the continuation of our lives after death were furnished us upon positive proof, in strict accordance with the logical elements of experimental nature sciences, then it would be, indeed, a result with which, owing to its nature and peculiar signification for humanity, no other result to be met with in all the history of civilization could be compared. The old problem about man’s destination upon earth would be thus solved, and consciousness in humanity would be elevated one step. That which, hitherto, could be revealed to man but in the domain of blind faith, presentiment, and passionate hope, would become to him—positive knowledge; he would have acquired the certainty that he was a member of an eternal, a spiritual world, in which he would continue living, and that his temporary existence upon this earth forms but a fractional portion of a future eternal life, and that it is only there that he would be enabled to perceive, and fully comprehend his real destination. Having acquired this profound conviction, mankind would be thoroughly impressed with a new and animating comprehension of life, and its intellectual perceptions opened to an idealism strong with incontrovertible facts. This would prove tantamount to a complete reconstruction of man in relation to his existence as an entity and mission upon earth; it would be, so to say, a ‘new birth.’ Whoever has lost all inner convictions as to his eternal destination, his faith in eternal life, whether the case be that of an isolated individuality, a whole nation, or the representative of a certain epoch, he or it may be regarded as having had uprooted, and to the very core, all sense of that invigorating force which alone lends itself to self-devotion and to progress. Such a man becomes what was inevitable—an egotistical, selfish, sensual being, concerned wholly for his self-preservation. His culture, his enlightenment, and civilization, can serve him but as a help and ornamentation toward that life of sensualism, or, at best, to guard him from all that can harm it.”
Such is the enormous importance attributed by Professor Fichte and Professor Butlerof of Germany and Russia to the spiritual phenomena; and we may say the feeling is more than sincerely echoed in England by Mr. A. R. Wallace, F.R.S. (See his “Miracles and Modern Spiritualism.”)
An influential American scientific journal uses an equally strong language when speaking of the value that a scientific demonstration of the survival of the human soul would have for the world. If spiritualism prove true, it says, “it will become the one grand event of the world’s history; it will give an imperishable lustre of glory to the Nineteenth Century. Its discoverer will have no rival in renown, and his name will be written high above any other. . . . If the pretensions of Spiritualism have a rational foundation, no more important work has been offered to men of science than their verification.” (Scientific American, 1874, as quoted in Olcott’s “People from the Other World,” p. v, Pref.)
And now we will see what the stubborn Russian critic (who seems to be but the mouthpiece of European materialistic science) has to say in response to the unanswerable arguments and logic of Messrs. Fichte and Butlerof. If scepticism has no stronger arguments to oppose to spiritualism but the following original paradox, then we will have to declare it worsted in the dispute. Instead of the beneficial results foretold by Fichte in the case of the final triumph of spiritualism, the critic forecasts quite a different state of things.
“As soon,” he says, “as such scientific methods shall have demonstrated, beyond doubt or cavil, to the general satisfaction, that our world is crammed with souls of men who have preceded us, and whom we will all join in turn; as soon as it shall be proven that these ‘souls of the deceased’ can communicate with mortals, all the earthly physical science of the eminent scholars will vanish like a soap-bubble, and will have lost all its interest for us living men. Why should people care for their proportionately short life upon earth, once that they have the positive assurance and conviction of another life to come after the bodily death; a death which does not in the least preclude conscious relations with the world of the living, or even their post-mortem participation in all its interests? Once, that with the help of science, based on mediumistic experiments and the discoveries of spiritualism, such relations shall have been firmly established, they will naturally become with every day more and more intimate; an extraordinary friendship will ensue between this and the ‘other’ worlds; that other world will begin divulging to this one the most occult mysteries of life and death, and the hitherto most inaccessible laws of the universe—those which now exact the greatest efforts of man’s mental powers. Finally, nothing will remain for us in this temporary world to either do or desire, but to pass away as soon as possible into the world of eternity. No inventions, no observations, no sciences will be any more needed.!! Why should people exercise their brains, for instance, in perfecting the telegraphs, when nothing else will be required but to be on good terms with spirits in order to avail of their services for the instantaneous transmission of thoughts and objects, not only from Europe to America, but even to the moon, if so desired? The following are a few of the results which a communion de facto between this world and the ‘other’, that certain men of science are hoping to establish by the help of spiritualism, will inevitably lead us to: to the complete extinction of all science, and even of the human race, which will be ever rushing onward to a better life. The learned and scholarly phantasists who are so anxious to promote the science of spiritualism, i.e., of a close communication between the two worlds, ought to bear the above in mind.”
To which, the “scholarly phantasists” would be quite warranted in answering that one would have to bring his own mind to the exact measure of microscopic capacity required to elaborate such a theory as this, before he could take it into consideration at all. Is the above meant to be offered as an objection for serious consideration? Strange logic! We are asked to believe that, because these men of science, who now believe in naught but matter, and thus try to fit every phenomenon—even of a mental, and spiritual character,—within the Procrustean bed of their own preconceived hobbies, would find themselves, by the mere strength of circumstances forced, in their turn, to fit these cherished hobbies to truth, however unwelcome, and to facts wherever found—that because of that, science will lose all its charm for humanity. Nay—life itself will become a burden! There are millions upon millions of people who, without believing in spiritualism at all, yet have faith in another and a better world. And were that blind faith to become positive knowledge indeed, it could but better humanity.
Before closing his scathing criticism upon the “credulous men of science,” our reviewer sends one more bomb in their direction, which unfortunately like many other explosive shells misses the culprits and wounds the whole group of their learned colleagues. We translate the missile verbatim, this time for the benefit of all the European and American academicians.
“The eminent professor,” he adds, speaking of Butlerof, and his article, “among other things, makes the most of the strange fact that spiritualism gains with every day more and more converts within the corporation of our great scientists. He enumerates a long list of English and German names among illustrious men of science, who have more or less confessed themselves in favor of the spiritual doctrines. Among these names we find such as are quite authoritative, those of the greatest luminaries of science. Such a fact is, to say the least, very striking, and in any case, lends a great weight to spiritualism. But we have only to ponder coolly over it, to come very easily to the conclusion that it is just among such great men of science that spiritualism is most likely to spread and find ready converts. With all their powerful intellects and gigantic knowledge, our great scholars are firstly men of sedentary habits, and, secondly, they are, with scarcely an exception, men with diseased and shattered nerves, inclined toward an abnormal development of an overstrained brain. Such sedentary men are the easiest to hoodwink; a clever charlatan will make an easier prey of, and bamboozle with far more facility a scholar than an unlearned but practical man. Hallucination will far sooner get hold of persons inclined to nervous receptivity, especially if they once concentrate themselves upon some peculiar ideas, or a favourite hobby. This, I believe, will explain the fact that we see so many men of science enrolling themselves in the army of spiritualists.”
We need not stop to enquire how Messrs. Tyndall, Huxley, Darwin, Herbert Spencer, Lewes, and other eminent scientific and philosophical sceptics, will like such a prospect of rickety ganglionic centres, collective softening of the brain, and the resulting “hallucinations.” The argument is not only an impertinent naiveté, but a literary monstrosity.
We are far from agreeing entirely with the views of Professor Butlerof, or even Mr. Wallace, as to the agencies at work behind the modern phenomena; yet between the extremes of spiritual negation and affirmation, there ought to be a middle ground; only pure philosophy can establish truth upon firm principles; and no philosophy can be complete unless it embraces both physics and metaphysics. Mr. Tyndall, who declares (“Science and Man”) that “Metaphysics will be welcomed when it abandons its pretensions to scientific discovery, and consents to be ranked as a kind of poetry,” opens himself to the criticism of posterity. Meanwhile, he must not regard it as an impertinence if his spiritualistic opponents retort with the answer that “physics will always be welcomed, when it abandons its pretensions to psychological discovery.” The physicists will have to consent to be regarded in a near future as no more than supervisors and analysts of physical results, who have to leave the spiritual causes to those who believe in them. Whatever the issue of the present quarrel, we fear, though, that spiritualism has made its appearance a century too late. Our age is pre-eminently one of extremes. The earnest philosophical, yet reverent doubters are few, and the name for those who rush to the opposite extreme is—Legion. We are the children of our century. Thanks to that same law of atavism, it seems to have inherited from its parent—the eighteenth—century of both Voltaire and Jonathan Edwards—all its extreme scepticism, and, at the same time, religious credulity and bigoted intolerance. Spiritualism is an abnormal and premature outgrowth, standing between the two; and, though it stands right on the high-way to truth, its ill-defined beliefs make it wander on through by-paths which lead to anything but philosophy. Its future depends wholly upon the timely help it can receive from honest science—that science which scorns no truth. It was, perhaps, when thinking of the opponents of the latter, that Alfred de Musset wrote the following magnificent apostrophe:—
Sleepest thou content, Voltaire;
And thy dread smile hovers it still above
Thy fleshless bones . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ?
Thine age they call too young to understand thee
This one should suit thee better—
Thy men are born!
And the huge edifice that, day and night, thy great
Is fallen upon us. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .