Philosophy and Living, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 12


i. Conclusions Thus Far

I SHALL begin this chapter with a summary of the positive though tentative conclusions which seem to me to have emerged at one stage or another throughout the course of this book. I shall then give a brief account of two metaphysical problems which I regard as the growing points of metaphysical enquiry to-day. I mean the problems of Time and Mystical Experience.

Our discussion of personal immortality led to the conviction that no such possibility should be allowed to playa guiding part in the conduct of a man's life. Enquiring into the relation of mind and body, we came to no clear conclusion, save the surmise that they must not be regarded as distinct substances. The problem of the external world and the experient led us into deep waters, but left us with a sense of the rich actuality of a universe that was no mere creature of our minds.

Our examination of the nature of reasoning suggested the conclusion that the method of intellectual enquiry was in principle capable of yielding objectively true propositions about unexperienced regions of the world. With some hesitation we rejected the uncompromising view that logical implication was a purely linguistic phenomenon, that it applied only to the analysis of definitions or concepts, and in no sense to the external world. We decided that, in so far as a concept was superficially true of the world, the deeper logical implications of it might reasonably be expected to be true also. But we admitted that there was no necessity in this, even if the initial concept itself was true of the world. The implications could not be more than probably true of the world. As a matter of fact they were often borne out in practice.

In the field of ethics we found that no classical theory was satisfactory, but on the other hand we came to the opinion that radical ethical scepticism was unjustified. In spite of Logical Positivism, we regarded moral experience as affording a sense of objectivity and universality which should not be overlooked in the interest of any theory. We really do experience free activity as good and frustration as bad in the fundamental and indefinable sense.

Examination of the nature of personality led us to think of the individual as a system of capacities of varying degrees of complexity and mental lucidity; and of individuals as differing from one another in sensitivity, discrimination, and integration. We distinguished between the distinctively animal and the distinctively human capacities, and those obscure capacities which seem to lie at the upper reaches of human nature.

In particular, we distinguished between the distinctively animal and the distinctively human modes of social behaviour. Further analysis led us to contrast the herd-mentality (the animal mode) with the individualistic mentality and the will for genuine community. In human society, we decided, individualism mostly dominates, but herd-mentality is always present and sometimes dominant; while the will for genuine community is precarious and rare, though sometimes crucially important. We examined theories of social change, and decided that Economic Determinism was by far the most significant. We saw reason, however, to refrain from setting it up as an absolutely and universally true principle, save in the loosest possible sense.

Passing on to metaphysics, we recognised that the kind of truth which intellect could discover in this sphere was very limited. We had to face the claim that all metaphysical enquiry was necessarily futile because propositions that could not even in theory be verified must be strictly meaningless. In order to judge this claim, we distinguished between "immanent" metaphysics (the attempt to discover by observation and rational analysis the most general characters that are true of anything whatever in the experienced universe, or of the experienced universe as a whole), and "transcendent" metaphysics (the attempt to discover a hidden reality behind experience, and different in kind from it). We decided that immanent metaphysics, though its conclusions must always be suspect, was not in principle impossible. Further, since metaphysical assertions of both types are very common, it seemed desirable to study metaphysics if only in order to be able to expose false metaphysical assumptions and refute false metaphysical theories.

We then attempted a survey of metaphysical theories from Descartes to Whitehead. Descartes' dualism of matter and mind led to Spinoza's monism in which mind and matter are regarded as attributes of a single substance. This in turn led to Leibniz's pluralistic idealism, according to which there is an infinite number of substances, all of them mental, and matter is illusory. Then followed the monistic idealism of Kant and Hegel, in which reality is essentially mental, but is a single, indivisible, quality-less Absolute Spirit. In revulsion from this, came pluralistic and mechanical materialism, in which only the characters studied by physics are real, and reality consists of an infinite number of physical units interacting with one another. On the other hand, Marx's dialectical materialism rejected mechanism. In his view physical categories are not the sole causal characters. Nevertheless, in his view mind has a determinate nature, and all its behaviour is in the long run determined by the dialectical necessities forced upon it by the objective environment, and particularly the social environment. We also examined Bergson's Life Force theory, in which a purposive power controls evolution and human history; in which intellect is essentially falsifying, and the only true knowing is intuitive. For these theories we found little evidence; but we recognised that Bergson was very important as a check upon the extravagant faith in mechanism and rationalism. We then turned to the Emergence theory, in which teleology and consciousness are said to "emerge" in very complex configurations of physical entities. Lack of evidence made it impossible to judge this theory. Finally we examined Whitehead's philosophy, which seeks to harmonise ideas derived from Absolute Idealism, epistemological realism, and biology. This system we found obscure, but full of suggestive ideas.

None of these theories has proved entirely satisfactory, but all have contributed, if only in a negative; manner, to our understanding of the experienced world. A few positive but rather vague conclusions may be offered.

Perhaps we should begin by reminding ourselves that, though abstract thought is capable of yielding important truths about the universe, we have again and again discovered that it involves a characteristic snare. It is all too apt to lead to the hypostatisation of some one kind of factor in the universe and the dismissal of all others as "illusory," or mere "epiphenomena." This procedure has repeatedly led to bad metaphysics. For instance, with regard to the problem of "the one and the many," neither extreme monism nor extreme pluralism can afford us a coherent description of the universe. In fact the universe is both many and one. It is fatal to abstract either its unity or its multiplicity, and hypostatise one of these characters at the expense of the other. Parts cannot be wholly independent of one another, but neither can they be wholly an expression of their relations to one another. However minutely we analyse anything, we shall never be able to show that it consists of certain atomic elements and certain atomic relations. Always the parts will be in principle further analysable into minute wholes consisting of minuter parts which in turn are constituted by their intrinsic relations to other parts. All wholes are infinitely analysable into actual parts; yet all parts are synthetic systems of intrinsic relations.

Another reasonable conclusion is that neither the mental aspect of experience nor the physical aspect should be abstracted and regarded as an all-sufficient concept for understanding the universe. Metaphysically, mentality is as significant as physicality; and vice versa.

Tentatively we may draw another conclusion, of a different type, which involves not only philosophy but science. There seems some reason to believe that purposiveness, which in one manner or another characterises all conscious behaviour, must play a very large part in the universe. When we remember the size of the physical universe and the immensities of the past and the future, we cannot but believe that, scattered among the myriads of stars, there are, or will be, purposeful beings as superior to us as we are to the amoeba. Of these beings we can conceive almost nothing, but from the examination of our own experience we are entitled to draw certain tentative conclusions about them. So far as we know, all conscious beings are essentially active. And when they develop beyond the level of blind impulse, they tend to desire the fulfilment of their particular capacities for action. These capacities, as we have seen, vary in complexity and subtlety. And conscious beings also vary in the degree of the integration of their capacities. That is, some conscious beings are more unified, more highly organised than others. It is reasonable to suppose that, throughout the universe, conscious beings vary immensely both in the richness of their capacities and in the degree of integration of their capacities to form unified systems.

Examination of our own human experience has led us to assert that we do recognise differences of intrinsic worth in human beings. In the last analysis these differences of worth correspond to differences of mental development, differences of richness and integration of knowing-feeling-striving. In fact, we tend to admire most those who are most developed as knowers-feelers-strivers, in fact as persons. It was pointed out that both a subjective and an objective account of this value can be given. We may, I suggest, affirm with some confidence that this admiration for personal development is no mere human whim, but a characteristic implicit in the nature of consciousness, and explicit whenever conscious beings reach a certain degree of development, throughout the universe.

Further, as we have seen, conscious beings that have passed beyond a certain stage of mental development tend to desire fulfilment not only for themselves as individuals, but for some other conscious beings who are personally known to them. Moreover, in intercourse with other and diverse persons, they may find immense enrichment of their own personality. Hence emerges the ideal of personality-in-community. As conscious beings advance in mental growth, they come to recognise that this ideal must embrace not merely their own kin or neighbours, not only their tribe or nation, not only the whole race or species, but all conscious beings whatever, no matter how foreign. It is surely probable that this desire for the fulfilment of personality-in-community plays a very large part in the universe. We must remember, of course, that the particular forms which it may take in different kinds of worlds, up and down the universe, may be utterly alien to our comprehension and appreciation. Or rather, not utterly alien; since, if these arguments are correct, there is an essential underlying kinship and identity in all possible kinds of conscious being.

On the whole it seems more reasonable than unreasonable to believe that the ideal of progress in the direction of ever-increasing personality-in-community is not peculiar to man but is a very general characteristic of conscious beings, and is in some manner deeply rooted in the nature of the universe. It is no fixed goal, but one which at the best of times tends to recede faster than it is approached. For the activity of conscious beings produces novel situations in which new forms of personality and of community emerge, and new, hitherto inconceivable capacities demand expression. By means of intelligence and creative imagination conscious beings can sometimes so manipulate reality in the external world and in themselves that it will manifest entirely new aspects of itself. In my earlier book, Star Maker, I have sketched an imaginary history of the cosmos on these lines.

In our survey of metaphysics in recent centuries we saw that in one form or another this ideal of personality-in-community was affirmed or implicitly accepted by all the great philosophers. Not only was it accepted as a human aim, but in many cases it was given some kind of metaphysical status. This consensus of opinion may well strengthen our conviction.

Such, I suggest, should be our tentative conclusions, thus far. One famous metaphysical problem we have several times encountered, but we have come to no kind of decision about it. The problem of Time must now be briefly considered on its own merits. In our metaphysical survey we came across two very different attitudes to time, represented, for instance, on the one hand by Hegel, for whom the universe is eternally perfect, and time is but a limited aspect of it, and by Bergson, for whom the passage of our experience is absolutely real, and the static is an abstraction. The problem of time is so important that I must devote a special section to it.

ii. Time

Let us begin by noting briefly how we do in fact experience time. We actually perceive changes and movements. The rise of a rocket is not merely remembered in successive moments. We actually see it soaring. On the other hand, when the process is completed, when the rocket has burst into a shower of stars and has disappeared, we remember the vanished past event. In a very fragmentary manner we retain much of our past experience as a system of latent memories. And in addition to our personal memories we have more or less reliable knowledge of other past events. This knowledge is derived from the reports of other persons, from historical, anthropological, geological records, and astronomical observations. Our experience of the future consists, mainly at any rate, of inferences from the present and past. Immediate pre-vision or "second sight" must certainly not be dismissed as too fantastic to be credible. We know of no necessity which renders pre-vision impossible, and there is some fragmentary evidence for it both in waking experience and in dreams. But it would be rash to affirm confidently that it does occur.

Such in brief are the possible forms of our experience of time. It is important to realise that we actually perceive change and motion. If our experience were simply made up of a succession of instantaneous flashes, like the separate pictures of a cinematograph film, each coming into being and vanishing, to give place to the next, we should not perceive motion at all, but only remember that things were different from what they are. For the pictures to be fused into living motion, there must be something persisting from instant to instant to do the fusing.

But, of course, the idea of time as made up of timeless instants, or of space as made up of sizeless points, is false. Instants and points are abstractions from our concrete experience of time and space. Indeed, time and space themselves are abstractions from our concrete experience of the "passage" of spatio-temporal events.

To hypostatise the instant and the point is to let ourselves in for a swarm of false problems, such as the ancient puzzle of the flying arrow. The arrow at a certain instant is said to be actually at a certain point. Its tip is "in" a point. If so, at the instant there is no difference between a moving arrow and a stationary arrow. There is no movement in a point-instant. If so, how does the arrow ever reach the next point? The whole difficulty arises from the mistake of abstracting and hypostatising instants and points. If time were literally composed of timeless instants, laid beside one another, so to speak, it would never get under way at all. All the instants would coincide. And if space were a host of sizeless points, either they would all coincide as one point, or there would after all have to be spaces between them.

During a very short span of time, then, we actually perceive change and motion. This span, which has no clear beginning or end, is called the "specious present," or "now." If a change or motion is too rapid, we do not perceive it at all. The light and dark phases of an electric filament lit by an alternating current are not perceived. On the other hand, equally if a change is too slow, we do not perceive it. For instance, we cannot perceive the movement of the minute hand of a watch. We only remember that it was where it is not. We may conceive a being who could distinguish the strokes of a bee's wing as we distinguish those of a gull's; or again, a being who could perceive the growing of a tree over a century as we might perceive a quick-motion film of its growth. We may conceive a being whose "now" was a single electro-magnetic pulsation; or one who embraced within his "now" a geological epoch, or an astronomical aeon. We may even conceive a being who could both distinguish the single vibration and yet also grasp the whole aeon as "now"; as we distinguish the individual tones of a melody and yet grasp in one act of perception the whole bar. What we can not conceive is a being whose "now" is a timeless instant; or, on the other hand, one whose "now" is eternity. For neither instant nor eternity can accommodate actual "passage."

With regard to memory, we have already had occasion to refer to Bertrand Russell's suggestion that all memory might be sheer illusion. This possibility is based on'; illicit abstraction. If all that is immediately given in experience is an instant, then not only does movement vanish, but the whole past may be regarded as illusion. But perception of movement and change guarantees some sort of past, however different in detail from that retained in our obviously fallible memory.

In considering the philosophy of time we encounter the question whether time constitutes a medium, a matrix, within which events happen, somewhat as toy bricks may be packed in a box in successive layers, or whether time is nothing but a particular kind of relationship between events. I shall not discuss this question in detail. The idea that time is logically prior to events, and that there might be time without events in it, seems to be another product of illicit abstraction. One might as well suppose that parenthood was logically prior to the individuals that become parents, that it was a medium within which individuals assume parental relations.

Time, then, is best regarded as a relationship of events. The same arguments apply to space. What is concrete is events, which consist of characters in spatial and temporal relations with each other. If so, then the modern conception of space as at once boundless and finite becomes intelligible. We are told that a journey in a straight line among the stars would finally bring one round to one's starting-point. This means merely that the possible spatial relations between events form a closed, not an open and infinite series. Similarly if time consists simply of relations of "before" and "after" and "contemporaneous with," there is no reason why the "last" event of the time series should not also immediately precede the "first." Then the whole series would be "circular." This would not mean an endlessly repeated cycle of events, but a single cycle. For there would be no other, "straight-line" time-series of events in which the cycle could be repeated. I mention these possibilities merely to show that our temporal experience is not as simple as we sometimes suppose.

It is impossible to think accurately about time unless we distinguish two very different aspects of it. From the subjective point of view we regard it as consisting essentially of the present event (or "now"), a vaguely remembered or reported past, and an expected future. These three modes of subjective time have very different quality or status. The present is always handing over its character to the immediate past and assuming a new i character.

From the other, the objective point of view, time consists of the series of events which (in the broadest sense) constitute the actual history of the universe. These are arranged in a certain order. Each is related by the relation "after" to the preceding event, and by the relation "before" to the succeeding event. More accurately, history consists of one long continuous event which can be analysed into an indefinite number of abstract constituent events. From this point of view, which we may regard as the "scientific" aspect of time, all the events have similar status. Past, present, and future are irrelevant.

It is tempting to regard the series of events as in itself timeless or eternal, and our experience as a passing along the series, as the beam of a searchlight sweeps over the clouds, illuminating first one and then another feature; or as a stick floating on a river passes stationary objects on the bank. This theory, it is sometimes said, turns time into a purely subjective fact, and therefore an illusion, not a characteristic of reality. But this is a mistake. Even if external events are timeless, the sequence of our illusory mental views of them is a real sequence. The problem of time is merely shifted from the external to the internal sphere of reality. From the scientific point of view, no doubt, the careers of conscious beings are more or less prolonged events in particular situations within the whole tissue of events. The career of a prehistoric man and the career of a future man are just as "real" as one's own present experience. In a certain mood it is impossible not to believe that this is true. But if it is true, change, motion, the passage of time, become illusions.

On the other hand, if we insist on retaining the absolute reality of passage, the past and future must be non-existent. This raises a difficulty. Reality is reduced to a knife-edge of instant-present events, between two vast non-entities, the past and the future. Or is the present not an instant but a small span of time? Then how big a span? To fix on the span of our own specious present is arbitrary.

A special difficulty about the nature of time has been created by modern physics. It has come to seem that time and space are not as distinct as they were thought to be. At any rate their distinction is not as clear as it was. This is not an occasion to discuss the physical theory of relativity, even if I were competent to do so. But a few words must be said about its bearing on the philosophy of time. Briefly, the trouble is apparently that we are no longer entitled to believe in an absolute "simultaneity " of events. There is no precise set of events throughout the universe all of which are simultaneous with one another, and before a subsequent set, and after a preceding set. From one point of view events A and B are contemporaneous, but from another (dependent on the movement of the observer) A may precede B; and from yet another point of view B may precede A. Similarly, distances can no longer be regarded as absolute. And the two sets of variations, temporal and spatial, are interdependent and complementary, in such a manner as to suggest that time and space are in a sense (and only within narrow limits) convertible into one another. What appears from one point of view as an increase of time appears from another point of view as a decrease of space, and vice versa.

All this is very surprising, but we must hold fast to our concrete experience of time and space. In immediate experience the temporal aspect of events is qualitatively different from their spatial aspect. Time and space are "as different as chalk from cheese," nay, much more different. Even if, in astronomical magnitudes they reveal a close interconnection, we must never be deluded into supposing that time is merely a fourth dimension of space.

On the other hand, it is quite conceivable that, to minds of a higher lucidity than ours, what appears to us as the temporal sequence of cosmical events may appear simultaneously "spread out" as a fourth spatial dimension, while a fifth dimension of events, wholly unknown to us, may constitute for those beings a genuine temporal dimension, in which events have passage.

It must be admitted that the impact of modern physics has made the past-present-future aspect of time seem less objective than of old. The universe certainly does consist of a vast system of spatio-temporal events related together in very complex and subtle manners. It is possible that the myriad "searchlights" of individual experiencing minds may travel in many different directions about the system, somewhat as in a four-handed game of Halma the four streams of individual pieces move across the board in four different directions. It is not inconceivable that some beings experience our physical universe "back to front," so that for them the law of entropy is reversed, and energy piles itself up into the stars.

But there is a difficulty in all these possibilities. They make nonsense of free choice. In ordinary life a man feels strongly that he could either do this or that. For instance, he could either plant an acorn in his garden or not. If he does, the universe may contain the career of a particular tree which would otherwise not exist. If freedom is real, the future cannot be predestined.

This consideration has made some philosophers believe that future events are non-existent in a sense in which past events are not non-existent. The past, they hold, is irrevocably what it is, and a part of reality. The present is the "growing-point" of the past. But the future is nothing at all until the course of events (including our own free choices) creates it.

It may be noted that such a view of time excludes pre-vision. If the future does not in any manner exist now, it is impossible to have access to it now. If our choosing creates one future rather than another, the future cannot be seen till it is brought into existence by choice.

If, on the other hand, we abandon the belief in arbitrary free choice this difficulty does not arise. The system of events can then be regarded as fixed eternally. Our choices are therefore predestinate as factors in the system. They are free only in the sense that, and in so far as, they depend only on our own (determinate) nature, and not on the nature of something other than ourselves which compels us against our determinate will.

When we take into account all these conflicting considerations it is very clear that no satisfactory account of time can yet be given. Some aspects of temporal experience point emphatically toward the absolute reality of the "passage" of events, and therefore of the past-present-future distinction. Other aspects point no less emphatically toward equality of status for all spatio-temporal events. In these circumstances some philosophers simply dismiss "passage" as sheer illusion. Others merely ignore the difficulties and insist on its absolute reality.

In accord with my deliberate policy of facing both ways when neither aspect is exclusively satisfactory, I suggest that the most promising way of dealing with the problem is to cling to both sets of facts while frankly admitting that we cannot reconcile them. We may then express our view by saying that in some sense, not yet definable, passage is an objective character, and yet in some sense, not yet definable, events are also supra-temporal, or have an eternal aspect. To this statement we may add the surmise that perhaps the trouble lies much deeper than human philosophy can ever probe. It may be that human mentality itself, the half-developed mode of human immediate experience, does not reveal enough of the nature of time to permit of a logically coherent theory of it. Roughly this is the view of the Absolute Idealists; but they were sometimes inclined to go further and believe that time was merely subjective. This view, as we have seen, is unreasonable.

The conviction that our normal temporal experience, though it has access to an objective character of the universe, is also radically incomplete and incoherent, raises the question whether there is any positive evidence of any more penetrating kind of experience. It leads, in fact, to an intellectual assessment of the claims of the mystics.

iii. Mysticism

Throughout this survey it has been borne in on us that intellectual knowledge, though reliable up to a point, is superficial, piecemeal, and sometimes treacherous; but hitherto we have barely noticed the claim that there is another kind of knowing which is penetrating, comprehensive, and infallible. I shall now briefly consider this claim as it is put forward by the mystics. European philosophy has been mainly intellectualistic in temper; Indian philosophy has been mainly mystical. The great European mystics have been moral leaders, but they have not been philosophers.

I shall consider mysticism only in the most general manner, and shall merely try to show what, in my view, is its relation to philosophy, which we have defined as the love and pursuit of wisdom.

The word "mystical" is used in two very different senses. In the more general sense it applies to any ideas which are not strictly rational but have an element of intuitive guesswork in them. In this sense "mystical" sometimes becomes synonymous with "superstitious." In the stricter sense the word "mystical" applies to a special kind of non-rational experience, in which, it is claimed, the individual attains some degree of illumination or insight into the essential and normally hidden nature of reality. This insight is reported to be not merely a kind of knowing; it is the supreme achievement of knowing-feeling-striving in one all-fulfilling act. The "knowing" aspect of it is said to be not abstract, like intellectual knowing, but concrete, like sense-experience. In fact, in so far as it is knowledge, it is an immediate acquaintance with the hidden essence of a "reality" which is said to lie behind all ordinary and illusory experience.

The reports of the mystics vary greatly, but in spite of their differences they show a remarkable agreement about the general character of the experience. I shall consider only the features which are most general.

The mystic’s starting-point is often a condition of torturing self-contempt or of revulsion from the cruelty and injustice practiced by his fellow men. It is important to recognise that his motives, like most human motives, are very complex. He certainly desires, amongst other things, personal salvation in some sense. Christians conceive this as eternal personal life, but some Indians reject this view. Another and a subtly entangled motive is spontaneous compassion and the desire for the spiritual fulfilment of others. Different from these motives is the self-oblivious admiration for virtue or for the spiritual way of living. In this mood the spiritual way of living is conceived not merely as a means to salvation but as an intrinsic good. Different again is the admiration or adoration or worship of a personal God, or of the universal Spirit, or of something quite indescribable save as the supremely holy object of worship. This may be conceived either in terms of love and tender intimacy or in terms of awe and even terror, or in both of these manners.

The aspirant to mystical experience is generally a highly self-conscious individual, and often highly other-conscious also. He seeks to escape from the bondage of the bodily hungers and of personal self-regard. And he seeks very often, but not always, to free others from this slavery. In Europe he is apt to say that he denies himself in order to save his soul, or find union with his God. In the East he generally longs to annihilate his separate self and lose himself in the universal spirit.

Two different impulses appear among the mystics, often in the same individual. The first is the tendency to withdraw from the world in order to concentrate on self-discipline for the sake of the desired self-mastery and self-transcendence. The other is the tendency to play an active part in the world, to find his self-discipline in heroic social service, to find self-transcendence through absorption in the lives of others. It is claimed that the greatest mystics, at any rate in the West, have been not world-forsakers but world-embracers. In the East too, I understand, it is recognised that the final and most lethal temptation, the final snare of self, which traps many noble spirits when they are well on their way, is the temptation to shun all mundane responsibilities and seek self-annihilation for purely selfish motives.

Mastery over the flesh and the self-regarding passions is sought by various kinds of self-discipline. It often begins with special exercises to acquire voluntary control of bodily functions, such as breathing and blood-circulation. It may include fasting and other forms of asceticism, or actual "mortification of the flesh" by self-torture. It generally involves the religious exercises and ritual characteristic of the individual’s social environment. Good works among his fellow men may also play a large part in it. It may take the form of meditation, in which the individual tries to concentrate his attention upon, or to yield himself in utter passivity to, the spiritualising influence of God, or of the Whole. Or he may seek by introspective meditation to discover hidden imperfections in his own nature, so that he may eradicate them by spiritual discipline.

By such methods the mystics have sought their goal. Each method contains its own peculiar snares. Discipline of the flesh may turn into a perverse lust of self-torture or of spiteful cruelty to others. Every kind of self-denial may produce puritanical harshness. Good works may starve the inner life, and reduce the individual to a kind of charity-dealing robot. Meditation may lead to flight from social responsibility, and self-indulgence in a world of dreams; or to such a habit of self-analysis that the will is paralysed.

Amongst all these snares the traveller’s progress is bound to be fluctuating and slow. Very different experiences are reported by different individuals, but the underlying identity is unmistakable. The story generally includes a phase, sometimes known as "the dark night of the soul," in which all contact with the universal seems to be lost, and the spirit sinks into despair. Subsequently the adventurer struggles out of this slough of despond to find himself nearer to his goal than he expected. Little by little he may gain complete detachment from all worldly desires and be able to meet every issue of fate not merely with stoical resignation but with joyful acceptance. For all things have now come to seem particular manifestations of the universal spirit in which he desires to lose himself.

The final illumination and self-transcendence are of course described very differently by mystics of Eastern and Western culture. All differences, it may be, are differences in the interpretation of experiences that are essentially identical and indescribable. Such, perhaps, is even the seemingly radical difference between those who claim union of the personal self with a personal deity and those who speak of the annihilation of the personal self in the impersonal Whole. We must bear in mind always that any experience that is beatific, and also too subtle for literal description, is likely to be interpreted in terms of the most cherished ideas of the individual’s traditional culture. Consequently, in Christian lands and ages it is almost inevitable that interpretation should conform to the ideals of personal immortality and union with a personal God.

In general the ecstatic experience, which is the mystic’s supreme reward, is said to give profound insight into the essential nature of reality, along with a stammering inability to describe what has been revealed, save in the most metaphorical and paradoxical terms. Sometimes the reality thus revealed is referred to in terms of dread, and even terror, as the divine and ruthless "Other," rightly careless of man and his petty desires. In some cultures, on the other hand, it is said to be the divine, personified Love, which embraces, or gathers up into itself, the spirit of the individual lover of this all-loving God. In other cultures it appears as the impersonal and wholly dispassionate universal spirit, or the underlying reality which constitutes the unity of all things. One point on which there is general agreement is that in the supreme experience time is in some sense transcended. What is discovered is a reality which is eternal.

The effect of mystical experience on the individual’s ordinary life is claimed to be far-reaching. All his conduct is irradiated by memory of his vision. He is able to surmount all troubles with fortitude and joy. He behaves with increased wisdom, sincerity, courage, and devotion to whatever social ideal he has espoused. He is spurred by a new sense of the reality that informs all ordinary phenomenal things. Even sense-perception may reveal unexpected significance to him, significance of the essential nature of the universe. He has an immensely increased capacity for delighting in everything. In particular he may discover an intrinsic worth and lovableness in his fellow human beings, even in those who, in their blindness, pursue evil ends. In short, he becomes a much more sensitive, more practical, more alert, more integrated, more genuinely social personality. Such is the claim.

It is easy to dismiss these contentions as mere delusion. It is easy to point out that alcohol, nitrous oxide, opium and other drugs may induce ecstatic moods and beatific visions remarkably like some aspects of mystical experience. Simple starvation also may cause a striking mental lucidity and exaltation. Most remarkable is the well-attested fact that the onset of an epileptic attack may be accompanied by a conviction of profound insight and beatitude. Such evidence suggests that the mystic merely deludes himself into "projecting" upon the external universe a sense of extreme personal well-being which has been caused in him by nothing more exalted than glandular action in his own body.

Another argument against the objective validity of mystical experience may be derived from modern psychology. It is obvious that the language in which some mystics describe their experience is tinged with sexual metaphor. This vaunted union with the divine may after all be merely a hallucination bred of suppressed sexual craving. Or alternatively it may be a grandiose expression of primitive self-regard, or of the infantile longing for parental care, or for return to the womb, and annihilation.

The cogency of all such arguments is immensely enhanced by the contemporary disposition to regard explanations in terms of scientific concepts as more credible than any other. We have already noted that the supposed metaphysical implications of science are based on the hypostatisation of the physical categories and the dismissal of all others as unreal. But though we must discount this prejudice in favour of the physical, we must not rush to the other extreme of accepting the mystic’s claims uncritically. We must consider whether they can in fact be properly accounted for in terms of familiar concepts. What then must our judgment be? What is the reasonable verdict from the point of view of the plain man who has not himself had any mystical experience?

The mystic can account for the physically-induced seemingly mystical experiences by arguing that of course there is a physical aspect to the process of mastering the flesh, and that some of the phenomena produced during self-discipline may also be produced by purely physical causes. He may go further, and say that these physically-induced experiences really are approximations to the authentic mystical experience, though so oddly caused. In fact, if he has already made up his mind about the validity of mystical experience, he need not be disturbed by the arguments derived from physiology, nor yet by those derived from psychology.

But ought he to have made up his mind? Or rather, ought we, who do not share his experience, to accept his verdict? The main facts to remember are: that a large number of persons in all countries and all ages have claimed mystical experience; that in spite of diversity their reports show on the whole a surprising agreement; that many of them, though certainly not all, have been persons well above the average of intelligence and integrity; that some of them are the world’s greatest saints, moral teachers, religious and socially dynamic leaders; that among ordinary people in most phases of the world’s history though not in our own, the belief in, and the very fragmentary apprehension of, some kind of mystical reality has been a source of strength. It is true, of course, that, like other good things, mystical experience may become a snare. It may be used as an occasion for flight from the responsibilities of this life. Undoubtedly this has often happened. But such withdrawal is emphatically condemned by some of the greatest mystics. It is possible that it occurs only in individuals and in cultural phases of somewhat depressed spiritual vigour.

In view of all these considerations it seems rash to accept the simple materialistic theory that all mystical experience is merely an illusion. It seems on the whole probable that the mystics do have access of some kind to something which is missed in ordinary experience, and may have a supremely invigorating effect on the individual, and therefore on his behaviour.

On the other hand, all intellectual descriptions and interpretations of the mystical experience must be regarded with great suspicion. It is after all very unlikely that human thought and language, which are adapted to much simpler, more commonplace experience, should be able to cope with experience of a very different order. Descriptions and interpretations can be intelligible only to those who have at least some slight immediate acquaintance with the matters described.

The plain man may reasonably feel that this conclusion is both vague and unconvincing. He may say, "You may be right. But the whole thing may be moonshine. I have no personal knowledge of any such experience, and I shall continue to regard the mystic’s claims with grave suspicion."

But has he no personal acquaintance with mystical experience of any kind? Have not very many fairly sensitive people some acquaintance at least with a mystical aspect of normal experience? In our materialistically-obsessed civilisation it is difficult for them to recognise the fact. Perhaps many who have it overlook it. There are many kinds of normal experience which to the sincerely observing mind do seem to reveal an aspect which deserves the name mystical. In these experiences some particular fact is strongly felt to be in some incomprehensible manner significant of the essential nature of the universe. The most obvious example of this kind of experience is perhaps youthful falling in love. Sometimes, but not always, the lover feels very strongly that either love itself or the nature of the loved person gives him a new and penetrating insight. It is easy to dismiss this seemingly mystical aspect as merely a product of uncritical emotion. It is always fatally easy to dismiss unobtrusive facts that do not accord with our theories. Another kind of experience which may have a mystical flavour is the appreciation of "natural beauty," as Wordsworth knew. Less obviously, and less frequently, intellectual exploration may give the same impression, when matters which were obscure suddenly assume a far-reaching pattern. Artistic creation and appreciation are often felt to have a mystical aspect over and above their normal aesthetic character. Most strikingly this is revealed in tragic art. In watching a great play, in which the leading characters present themselves both as unique individuals and as symbols of humanity striving to mould its destiny, we are torn between human sympathy for the individual and acceptance of his tragic fate. The experience is not purely aesthetic; or if it is, then the aesthetic itself has a mystical aspect. We feel that in some obscure way the tissue of fictitious events symbolises a terrible and yet somehow a right characteristic of the universe. It is too easy (to repeat) to explain away this aspect of tragedy, in terms, let us say, of suppressed sadism or some other unwitting craving.

Perhaps the most impressive of all the ways in which the normal person may sometimes gain a hint of mystical experience is in grave personal danger or pain, or distress of any kind, and even in the agony of pity for one who is loved and is suffering. On such occasions one may find oneself strangely divided. The normal self is strained almost to breaking-point by unbearable terror or pain or compassion; and yet, even in the case of compassion, one sees the dread event as a revealing symbol of reality, and as such one accepts it, not merely with resignation but with a sense that even this is involved in the terrible but somehow right nature of the universe. And so, even while one is perhaps behaving with panic terror or horror, one is also, in some strange manner, fundamentally peaceful and glad.

I suggest the following tentative conclusion about this whole subject. In mystical experience, of all sorts from the humblest to the most exalted, the human mind gropingly reaches out to a mode of apprehension very different from all "normal" experience. This kind of apprehension is attained confusedly and precariously by quite a large number of people in the course of normal experiences, though it is seldom recognised as such. A very small number, whose mental development reaches to the extreme limit of human capacity, enjoy a much fuller measure of it, and can know it with much greater clarity and assurance. I suggest further that mystical experience is both one of the most dangerous moral snares and one of the most important sources of moral strength, not only for those who go far in it but also for all normally intelligent and sensitive persons.

But what of the philosophy of mystical experience? How are we to think of it? Is it really a kind of knowledge, a peculiar insight into hidden reality? We may perhaps more truly think of it in a somewhat different manner. In every kind of mystical experience, from that most closely associated with normal experience to that which is described by the great mystics, there occurs some kind of self-discipline and some kind of consequent vision. But the vision, I should say, is not most satisfactorily described as a discovery of hidden reality; it is rather a discovery of a new kind of value or worth or excellence or beauty in the normally experienced world. This rightness (we have no more satisfactory word) was formerly overlooked, and now suddenly confronts the mind. In fact, mystical experience constitutes essentially a new and more awakened way of feeling about the world. But "feeling about" must not be taken to mean a purely subjective attitude. It must mean a subjective attitude which is appropriate, objectively justified by, the real nature of the universe in relation to the real nature of the individual mind.

In this theory of mystical experience there is a very serious difficulty. How can the mystical attitude of delighted acceptance of the universe as perfect be reconciled with the moral attitude which distinguishes between good and bad, right and wrong, and recognises an obligation to struggle for the good against the bad, seeking thus to improve a universe which is regarded as very far from perfect? Plainly there is a logical conflict here, and it is useless to pretend that there is not.

I have argued that moral right and wrong depend on the intuited goodness of the free activity of conscious beings, and particularly on the fulfilling of personality-in-community. It almost seems as though the mystic, and the plain man in his rare half-mystical apprehension, had access to another kind of "good," independent of conscious beings, a "good" which somehow embraced ordinary good and evil, right and wrong. This view, it must be admitted, is both unintelligible and dangerous. It is dangerous because it may lead to a complacent acquiescence in the misfortunes of others, as being "all in the picture," all needed for the perfection of the universe.

On the other hand, it is undoubtedly a psychological fact that, in spite of the seeming logical inconsistency, mystical experience does very often clarify the moral consciousness and strengthen moral behaviour. Gautama Buddha, Socrates, Jesus Christ, Mohammed, and, I believe, Spinoza are outstanding examples. It is not impossible that Lenin, too, though he would have been indignant at the suggestion, owed his strength partly to unrecognised mystical experience.

It may be that at the human level of mental development a satisfactory intellectual solution of this conflict between moral protest and mystical acceptance is impossible. But we may grope toward a solution in the following manner. We may regard the human mind as having two aspects. In the one aspect a man is a finite individual; and his concern, his whole duty, is to champion the cause of personality-in-community in the human world. And this human enterprise is probably one minor theme in the universal enterprise of the advancement of the spirit through personality-in-community in a host of worlds. It may be that at some date in the history of the cosmos this enterprise will be fulfilled in the attainment of the perfection of knowing-feeling-striving through the experience of some cosmical society of worlds. Or perhaps this is too trite a way of conceiving the culmination of the cosmical process. Perhaps the spiritual perfection of the cosmos as a whole involves no such triumph of the enterprise of finite minds, but rather their partial defeat, much as the well-being of a living organism involves all sorts of internal, intra-organic conflicts, strains, and partial defeats. Of this we know nothing. But clearly the human individual in one of his aspects feels called to play a minute part in the great widespread struggle for personality-in-community.

Let us suppose, however, that he has also another aspect, in which he finds precarious contact with the eternal and perfected spirit of the cosmos, and in which his will tends to conform to that spirit, in the sense that he is no longer enslaved to the cravings of the separate self, or even to the service of the ideal of personality-in-community, but is able, so to speak, haltingly to feel all things from the universal point of view. In this mode of experience he recognises intuitively that the cosmos is an overwhelmingly glorious thing, and that all the struggle and defeat and agony of finite minds, no less than their partial triumph, are justified by the perfection of the whole. He realises that it is foolish and impious to demand that the universe shall be moral, or that the universal spirit shall be moral, or that "God" shall be good. These, he feels, do not exist for the sake of morality. On the contrary, morality exists for them.

In some such manner we may try to cope with the seeming logical conflict between the two fundamental religious experiences: between the moral protest, which seeks to alter the universe, and the ecstatic acceptance of the universe, with all its glory and its shame, its joy and its distress, its beauty, and all its squalor.

But if this intellectual reconciliation is unsound, which it may well be, let us never forget that these two experiences do in fact support one another, and that for the wise conduct of practical life both are needed.

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30