The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 12
Præcipuum Naturæ bonum, Mors.—Pliny
Præcipuum Naturæ bonum, Mors.—Pliny.
But how account for the fact that the idea of the immaterial soul, as distinct from the body and surviving it, has been conceived by all the people of the earth, by even the most barbarous tribes—otherwise than by assuming it to be an intuition—a divinely-implanted intuition of the human mind?
For the sake of argument, grant for a moment that, in point of fact, the soul is but an unreal figment; still, I think, a little consideration will show you that the idea must, nevertheless, have arisen, necessarily and naturally, in the minds of men everywhere. The illusions of the senses, the hallucinations resulting from abnormal and distempered conditions of the brain and nervous system, would inevitably have given birth to it. If an uneducated man, suffering from fever, has the sensation of seeing his dead friend or foe standing by his couch—of seeing him as distinctly as ever he saw him in life, and of hearing, perhaps, his voice and his words—must not the conviction at once be borne in upon him, that after dissolution of the body man still continues to exist in some indefinable condition? In his physiological ignorance to what other conclusion could he come? Then he relates his experiences and communicates his convictions to others; others corroborate them from their own similar experiences; the idea spreads, the dogma follows. On this dream-land basis has been reared the whole superstructure of the doctrine of a future life; what other foundation for it can you suggest? there is not only no proof, no evidence, but there can be none. All knowledge comes to us through the material organs of our senses, and by the reflections we make on what they teach us. It is impossible that any intimations of the immaterial should penetrate us through the portals of our material organs.
You know, they who are still in subjection to the Christian delusion, and the belief in divine messages and inspired papers, very generally admit, or assert, that the hope of eternal life depends wholly on the word of the Nazarene Jew. I think the opinion is common among them that he was the first to enunciate the doctrine; though, of course, it existed among many nations, or all nations, hundreds of years, perhaps thousands of years, before the date of the earliest Christian papers, which in this respect, did but emphasize popular opinions. Singularly enough, the old Hebrew scriptures contain nothing of the doctrine, but on the contrary, in many places, seem opposed to it. Still, there must have been some such idea among the old Hebrews, as among all other peoples in the world, for it springs naturally out of human infirmities. If you concede immortal souls to man, on what grounds can you refuse them to the ape, the dog, the horse, etc.? Do we differ from them in anything but our finer physical organisation and ampler development of brain?
There is the distinction that we have reason and they have not—is there? But I know you don't believe in that old-fashioned ignorant argument. Of course it is not true in its statement; the lower animals have their reasoning faculties as we have ours, but ours are transcendent in the ratio of our finer organisation and our ampler brain; there is no radical distinction, but only page 23 difference in degree. Have you ever heard any plausible answers to many questions such as this?—when a man is so far drowned that, unassisted, he would never move again, but, after an hour, or perhaps two, is restored to life by artificial means, what becomes of the soul in the interval of state which was virtually death? is the immortal soul, too, asphyxiated, or where is it? why can't it report, on return to the body?
No doubt the prospect of immortality is very gratifying to human pride and human tenacity of life, and very consolatory to the bereaved is the hope of meeting again the lost loved ones. But, before all things, the truth! Pleasant or unpleasant, give us the truth! Away with shams and unrealities and figments, however flattering they be! But let us inquire whether, upon the whole, the expectation of eternal life really makes mankind happier; does its consolation outweigh its oppression—the oppression it lays upon all our lives—of vague dread, distrust and avulsion? Were it possible to poll the real sentiments of mankind, do you think many would be found (besides a few enthusiasts and the impassioned by recent bereavement) who would not gladly forego their hope to get quit of their dread? who would not choose, had they free choice, rather to lie as the tree lies than chance a futurity of some undefinable, inconceivable mode of existence? Ask all your intimate friends, who are not too much encrusted with whitechokerism and Philistinism, to give you a conscientious answer, and they will reply, After life's fitful fever, let us lie as the tree lies! Why not? How can we really feel otherwise? How can we breathing terrestrials, children of our dear loveable and beloved mother earth, conceive of any existence away from her in the slightest degree desirable? Without our warm bodies, our passions, our appetites, our adventures—our struggles, or even our perils—without wooing, and marrying, and children, and home, and home-affections—without earth, ocean, air, and all their vicissitudes—without mountain and valley, and sea and cities—without loving, and eating and drinking, and riding and sailing? No! Better a thousand times to lie as the tree lies, than to exist sundered from all the surroundings we know and love. Remember the story of the old English farmer, whom, dying, the parson endeavoured to cheer with word-pictures of the joys and glories of heaven. "Ah! parson," said he, "all that you say about heaven is very fine and very true, no doubt—but, after all. Old England for my money!" That is the natural human sentiment—our dear earth or nothing—life as we know it, or nihility and dreamless peace! Pax vobiscum!
There is, upon the whole, an incompatibility between earthly happiness and the hope-with-fear of immortality. May not this incompatibility be in some measure a sign of its unveracity? But that is metaphysical moonshine to be taken for what it is worth. But let us also further inquire whether it would be for the advantage of mankind that the doctrine of a Future State should be true.
"Divines" are perfectly correct in maintaining that there is no logical via media between accepting what they call Revelation on the one hand and the abandonment of the dogma of the Immortality of the Soul on the other. Certainly there are no natural reasons (that are not merely fanciful) in favor of that theory—all natural reasons are emphatically opposed to it. If we accept it at all, it must be on the basis of the so-called Revelation. Now what does this Revelation teach us? That we are lost, degraded, ruined creatures, born into the world and living in the world under a divine curse. As the grave is the ultimate receptacle destined for the human body, so a place of endless and unspeakable torment is the natural receptacle destined for the human soul. If this be true, then the wildest imaginings of the most savage creeds are as sunlight compared with the horrors of our situation. Yet a gleam of light (it is but a gleam) is suffered to penetrate to this our dreary prison, in which we are penned up like so many cattle waiting for the shambles. In virtue of a mysterious transaction in Judea, a certain number of persons will be "saved," that is to say, will not only be rescued from the general fate, but will exchange it for a condition of endless happiness. These Scriptures lay it down very clearly that the number of the saved will be extremely small, and that a vast page 24 majority of us are destined by the Creator (of the theologians) to a fate at which imagination stands aghast.
Now, it is certainly not for the advantage of mankind that the great bulk of us should be thus doomed to eternal perdition, while only a few spiritual Aristocrats are nominated for eternal bliss. Therefore, it would not be to our advantage that, standing on the only possible basis on which it can stand, the doctrine of a future state should be true.—Q.E.D.
Even to wish it to be true is abominable. A sainted man, confident of his own election, wishing it to be true must be a monster of inhuman selfishness. For he wishes for his own eternal happiness bound up with the inevitable corollary of the eternal misery of nearly all the rest of our race. How he expects to be infinitely happy in the endless contemplation of the endless torments of the other billions of billions, including many of his own blood-relations, is hard to explain. Certainly some of us poor carnal unspiritual terrestrials are incapable of conceiving so grand a sublimity of cynical egotism.
Yet the "Divines" will upon us to hasten to embrace their "Revelation," seeing that the only other alternative is a "cold heart-withering negation too fearful to be contemplated!" Rather should the human heart expand with joy, and the human face glow with kindly gladness at having found sure relief from the crushing incubus of their accursed figments. For my part, I hope I am, above all else, a philanthropist, and I would do anything, sacrifice anything to help, taut soit pen, to bless my fellow men with the blessing of the "cold negation."
Death has lost all its terrors when we know it to be nothing but Cessation—nothing but the extinction of the Ego with the dissolution of the organism.
"That which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no pre-eminence above a beast."—Eccles. III. 19.
Often have I thought how true an emblem of organic life is the great whirlwind-dust-column we frequently see solemnly stalking across the vast and arid Australian plains! Each is a specialised and individualised manifestation of force; each has a corpus constituted of particles which, ever as it marches, it assimilates and discards: a body, whose constituents are ever changing, upheld by a force preserving its identity and individuality. After a little while, the special differentiation of force ceases; the force flows away into the universal, and the dust falls back to the dust; the organisation has vanished—the column and the man have ceased for evermore!
Mind is but the product of organisation. Thought but the music of the organism swept by the current of impressions, as the Aeolian harp by the wind.
Can we reckon up the whole theory of moral philosophy, and of the nature of the moral sentiments and conscience, within the compass of a page or two? Why not? Does the attempt seem presumptuous? No need that it should; the whole matter is one of the extremest commonsense simplicity, which has only been confounded by the admission into the question of the ever confounding element of supernatural ism—of phantasms and of spiritual moonshine.
Single copies of the tomes that have been written on this subject, would freight a ship worthy to be one of the fleet which would be required to carry all the works on theology. That last mass of verbiage—what a subject for melancholy contemplation! All utterly inane and valueless, except as waste paper or manure for the fields! What hundreds of thousands of fine intellects—naturally fine, but distorted by superstition—have earnestly and fervently wasted all the bright days of their poor lives, and all the energies of their good brains, in endeavouring to
"distinguish and divide,
Hairs betwixt South and South-west-side!"
The hairs, alas! not being real and substantial hairs, but merely the shadowy etchings of dreams.
The moral law, as conceived by man, is purely subjective, relative to his own welfare; there is nothing in it mysterious, spiritual or divine; it is built on the material basis of self-preservation—on the well-being of self, or of our race. We call all moral actions in which the principle involved is such, according to our judgment, as to tend to promote the well-being of mankind, good or virtuous—all moral actions springing from a principle, as we judge, of an opposite character, bad or vicious. This is the concise but perfect definition of virtue and vice, of good and evil, as seen from the human standpoint; this is the formula by which the merit or demerit of all moral actions is tested. The desire of approbation, of being praised and liked by our fellows, and the desire of being respected and feared by our enemies, contained the first germs, the sufficing roots of all the moral feelings. Not a jot is there of the miraculous in conscience, or the so-called moral sense—that sense which seems to tell us instantaneously, without need of appeal to reason, that this action is good, that action vicious. Much the sacerdotalists and superstitionists have made of this faculty of quick discrimination between good and evil, parading it ever as a divinely-implanted intuition. Long and wordy has been the battle between the intuitionists and the derivativists (such are the hard words the metaphysicians use). But now we may safely regard the intuitive school as become merely an historical memorandum, or if it still anywhere survive, it is only in the fusty regions of priestly and senile old-fogeyism.
That so-called instinctive sense is derived partly from infantile impressions and partly from inherited memory. Just as the wonderful habits of the animals—usually vaguely called instinctive—are but due to the inherited remembrances of the experiences of millions of ancestral generations; so the human brain, subjected, generation after generation, to certain vivid moral impressions, acquires a modification which becomes hereditarily transmittable.
Other cerebral impressions there are, which plainly become hereditary—notably, proneness to superstition, and an abnormal facility of accepting particular forms of superstition, which, though primâ facie absurd and incredible, have nevertheless been believed in by along train of unenlightened ancestry. This instantaneously-acting moral sense is, among the children of an average-orderly and not uncivilised ancestry, a generally safe guide. But in other cases it is so unreliable, so varying, so grotesque, and so obviously subjective to human conditions and environments, that it is marvellous how any could have deemed it a divinely-implanted rule of conduct. It does not tell the young bandit-born that it is wrong to pillage and murder the people—only that cowardice and treachery to the band are heinous crimes. It tells the American Indian that it is meritorious and praiseworthy to tomahawk and scalp all who belong to other tribes than his own, and to torture his prisoners—that cowardice and treachery, within or against his tribe, are the only crimes. It does not tell the Hindoo that it is wrong to burn widows, nor a Thug that there is any moral delinquency in strangling the non-Thugs—nor priests that it is not good to burn those whose doxy is not their doxy. But one might fill volumes with instances of the diverse and perverse teachings of the "innate moral sense"—while among the children of the hereditary criminal classes, it is simply non-existent, a fact which makes the reclamation of them so difficult.
Educated intellect is the only trustworthy arbiter of right and wrong. It is for the Reason, cultivated and experienced, to decide whether any given class of moral actions is of such a nature as to be beneficial or prejudicial to man. Nor does she give uncertain responses; very clear she makes it, that if we would that this our world should be for us a habitable and not unhappy abode, our rule of life must be perfect probity, honesty and honour, truthfulness and trustworthiness; kindly, gentle, cheerful, sympathetic consideration for others; courage and vigour in the resistance and page 26 suppression of evil; and sternness, tempered by mercy, in dealing with evil-doers.
And though the rules of intersexual ethics are naturally, allowably conventional and shifting, varying with time, place, social states and circumstances, yet one unmistakeable law governs through every phase—to refrain from any act likely to be productive of misery to others.*
I don't think we educated sons of educated fathers and forefathers sufficiently realise the enormous mental disparity between ourselves and the uneducated descendants of forefathers from the beginning of things uneducated.
It requires some thoughtful study, much inquiry, questioning and probing to arrive at any just conception of their to-us-strange mental incapacity and impotence—of their lack of all the higher intellectual powers, especially of the logical faculty, and of the capability of discriminating between the probable and the improbable, the possible and the impossible, the natural and the preternatural.
The reasoning level of the average uneducated adult so descended, is probably scarcely as high as yours and mine was at seven or eight.
What a huge pity it seems to be that this important fact of the mental ineptitude of the unimproved is so generally overlooked, or insufficiently appreciated—when we consider that it has always been exclusively among such that every religion has first arisen! It was only poor twilight-blinking creatures of that sort before whom Joe Smith, Mahomet, Jesus, and Moses appeared.
Of people in that chrysalitic mental stage, the observations, the inferences, opinions and reports, are simply valueless—of no importance whatever. They can't understand what they see and hear, nor correctly report what they fancy they see and hear.
When we were children of seven or eight years, had some individual appeared to us of commanding stature, of singularly majestic and heroic presence, of unusual melodiousness of voice (as we know Joe Smith was, and may assume the others were), and had he asserted himself to be the Prophet, or the Son of God, or God himself, should we not probably have implicitly believed him, if left to ourselves, with none more enlightened around us? Just so; and not a whit wiser were the other first converts.
I know, of my own knowledge, of whole races of people whose mental development is yet in so rudimental a stage, that not unfrequently they lack the power of distinguishing between their own dreams and actual events.
When, in some far out-lying parts of Australia, I was first thrown into association with the aborigines, I was much surprised at the utter disregard with which reports made by them to us were often received by the old hands among us. "Why," I would say, "don't you hear what these blacks report?" "Oh," the reply would be, "we knows 'em! what they says goes in at one ear and out at t' other with us—they are such infernal liars!" "But," I would remonstrate, "they can have no possible interest in palming this story off on us, if it is false." "That says nothing," an old-hand would answer, "nobody can tell why, or how, they invent their lying yarns—seems page 27 to me they somehows believes 'em theirselves—you see, sir, they are not quite the same as human beings, and no one can make out their ways."
One time, some of the blacks belonging to the station, friendly and under protection, came to me to report a terrible event that had just occurred at a station about forty miles away, at which there were three white men. Two of them, they said, had been surprised and murdered by bush-blacks, and the third was defending himself inside the slab-hut and had shot many of the assailants—many details were added. "We could not learn from them exactly how they had heard all this, but were not surprised at that, knowing that there were bush-telegraphs, about whom they did not wish us to know anything, between our quiet station-blacks and others who were out in the bush and inclined to be hostile. On the strength of this narration, three of us rode over to the beleaguered station. There was not the slightest foundation for the report—no disturbance whatever had occurred!
On my return, I investigated the origin of the fable as closely as I could, and came to the conclusion that a woman in the camp had dreamt it, and given it out as fact to the others, who had implicitly accepted it.
Often afterwards, comparing notes on this subject with other experienced bushmen, I found they all agreed that such cases were common.
Lately I read in the papers of an expedition which, somewhere in South Australia, had been sent four hundred miles out to some place in the desert, where the blacks reported there were white men with large herds of cattle. Of course, when they got there, there was no sign that hoof had pressed the ground since the ground was formed. Had those South Australians known the niggers as well as I do, they would not have troubled themselves. So with all the aboriginals' reports about Leichhardt—utterly valueless.
It never necessarily follows, in these cases,' that the natives are wilfully lying, or that they don't really believe what they say, but the origin of their belief may always be in some dream. Their waking and mental states get jumbled up, and what anyone among them positively affirms, all the rest will believe, no proof required.
Think you, that the barbarous Hebrews, of Mosaic times, were not like these people—just about in the same mental stage? Or that the Jew paupers who were Christ's witnesses were any better?
For my part, of the three lots, I would soonest believe our own niggers, just because they are extant, and not dead two or three thousand years ago.
"Insomnia vana valete."