AFTER THE foregoing chapter on the subject in general, it may be interesting to consider a few illustrative cases showing how the various types of mind regard the subject. The most striking thing is probably the extent of the diversity. In fact, the more a psychologist studies mental facts as near at hand as possible, the more he is struck with the differences among minds, not only in the domain under discussion at present, but in others as well. We are apt to think, somehow, that though our bodies are recognisably different from each other, our minds are all essentially alike or similar. As to this survival question, Dr Schiller remarks that "the answers exhibited an astounding variety of sentiment, far greater than anything we had expected, prepared though we were for a good deal. In reading them, one could not help wondering how persons, whose sentiments were so radically different, yet managed to live together in the same world, and felt assured that a real and literal uniformity of belief, the idol to which bigots and fanatics have offered such inhuman sacrifices, was rendered impossible by the psychological constitution of human nature itself."(1)
(1) Proceedings, S.P.R., xvii. p. 436.
The following answer to the questionnaire seems to me a very typical specimen:
Yes, if agreeable.
IIa. Certainly not. IIb. Yes. IIc. Too complicated.
III. Too lazy to think it out.
IV. Not at all.
V. Never thought about it.
VI. Now that attention is called to it, would like to know.
Remarks: A stupid and useless inquiry.
Racy and frank, certainly - two excellent qualities! Another answerer, typical of many suffering mortals, says: "My feelings fluctuate too much (to allow of definite answers);
when I am unhappy I long for annihilation, when I am stronger and happier I would prefer to live after death."
This represents my own position. At all times, I should prefer annihilation to a life such as I have had here; but I am fully aware that my life
- fortunately for mankind - has not been a typical one. Though less full of suffering than some that I have known, it has nevertheless contained a much more than average amount (invalidism beginning at twenty-five, and still continuing after thirteen years), and my sentiments are influenced accordingly. At no time, therefore, do I experience any dread or horror at the thought of annihilation; and there are times when I hope and long for it as Myers did for its contrary.
"Sleepe after toyle, port after stormie seas,
Ease after warre, death after life, does greatly please."(2)
(2) Spenser, Faerie Queene.
Was it not Victor Hugo who, with characteristic French love of life and hatred of dismal things, spoke of man as being "condemned to death, with a sort of indefinite reprieve"? With me it is the other way round. I think man is condemned to life, which is commuted into death. If the latter is really death, really a cessation of individual consciousness, the commutation amounts to a free pardon; though, as already indicated in Chapter III., the annihilation would leave somebody or something under the charge of cruelty and injustice. If a single human being suffers more than he deserves - and few would maintain that no such being exists, in spite of Job's "comforters" - it is impossible to "justify the ways of God to men" on a this - life basis. Nevertheless I repeat that I do often long for extinction. In times of comparative well-being I have a mild desire for survival, if some such state as the one prevailing could be guaranteed; but the desire for survival is never as strong in the good times, as the desire for annihilation is in the bad ones. Here I may perhaps add - though my own assertion is not evidence - that I am not a morbid or melancholy person. I maintain a steady level of cheerfulness, which my friends often remark on, envying me my calm and cheery temperament; and I keep myself busy with literary work, as antidote to possible brooding. Also I am blessed with a sense of humour which saves me from absurd and useless lamentation. My sentiments, then, are probably on the bright side; I think most people with my life would be much more given to the blues.
Perhaps one reason why I feel no distaste for extinction is the fact that extinction is very much preferable to the fate which my early religious teaching indicated would be mine. Oliver Wendell Holmes said he could never quite get from under the shadow of the old orthodox hell, and I am to some extent in similar case. As with the Autocrat, my reason rejects the idea; but it was so hammered into me in the defenceless period of my early youth, that I cannot
quite get away from it. Mme. de Stael did not believe in ghosts, but she was afraid of them all the same - a bit of very true psychology. And perhaps there is just a glimmer of something which is not exactly belief, but which is a dim notion that, anything being possible, there is just an off-chance that the thing feared - ghosts or hell as the case may be - may turn out to be true. And certainly I was assured many thousands of times that if I would not or could not give my intellectual assent to evangelical doctrines, I should burn in hell for ever. Naturally, I prefer extinction to such a fate as that; and when I contemplate even the possibility of such an existence, I long for the certainty of annihilation:(1)
(3) Dr Johnson probably had this feeling, for he had a great few of death. A few months before he died he said: As I cannot be sure that I have fulfilled the conditions on which salvation is granted, I am afraid I may be one of those who shall be damned." Of the case of Cowper, also Christina Rossetti (see
Contemporary Review, March 1911, article "Christina Rossetti," by Ford Madox Hueffer).
"For I think," says Socrates, "that if any one, having selected a night, in which he slept so soundly as not to have had a dream, and having compared this night with all the other nights and days of his life, should be required on consideration to say how many days and nights he had passed better and more pleasantly than this night throughout his life, I think that not only a private person, but even the great king himself would find them easy to number in comparison with other days and nights. If, therefore, death is a thing of this kind, I say it is a gain; for thus all futurity appears to be nothing more than one night." -
If, then, I am charged with morbidity or
one-sidedness, I shelter myself behind the great name of him, who has been regarded as the wisest of mankind and as the very type of sanity and mental burliness. I might also quote Lucretius, who similarly was no weakling:
"For as we knew no hurt of old, in ages when the Carthaginian thronged against us in war, and the world
was shaken with the shock of fight, and dubious hung the empire over all things mortal by sea and land, even so careless, so unmoved, shall we remain, in days when we shall no more exist, when the bond of body and soul that makes our life is broken. Then naught shall move us, nor wake a single sense, not though earth with sea be mingled, and sea with sky."
Perhaps Lucretius was longing for the certainty of extinction because of the sombre hell-teaching which Mr Lang thinks must have been prevalent. There is little or no evidence for any such teaching in the Roman religion of that day, though the supposition certainly would explain the eager longing of the poet whom some have placed above Virgil. But the longing, the life-weariness, may have been temperamental. We find the same thing in people who have no belief in hell, or who, believing in it, have no fear of it, believing themselves saved. It is curious, for example, to find this life-weariness in so robust and so successful a soul as Martin Luther. One would have expected to find him ready to live on indefinitely. Yet it is on record that he described himself as utterly weary of life; and when, dining one day with the Electress Dowager, she said to him: "Doctor, I wish that you may live forty years to come," he replied: "Madam, rather than live forty years more, I would give up my chance of Paradise."(4)
(4) James, Varieties of Religious Experience, pp. 137, 138.
Turning, however, from mere life-weariness to the sentiment regarding extinction or absorption at death rather than continued personal spiritual life, we are reminded of Shelley, concerning whom the greatest poet of the latter part of the nineteenth century writes as follows:
"One thing prevents
Adonais from being ideally perfect: its lack of Christian hope. Yet we remember well the writer of a popular memoir of Keats proposing as the best consolation for the mind pained by this sad record' Shelley's inexpressibly sad exposition of Pantheistic immortality:
'He is a portion of that loveliness
Which once he made more lovely, etc.'
What utter desolation can it be that discerns comfort in this hope, whose wan countenance is as the countenance of a despair? Nay, was not indeed
wanhope the Saxon for despair? What deepest depth of agony is it that finds consolation in this immortality: an immortality which thrusts you into death, the maw of Nature, that your dissolved elements may circulate through her veins." -
Shelley, pp. 62, 63.
Apparently Thompson had little or none of Shelley's life-weariness, but it is possible that the foregoing may exaggerate his clinging to personality, for it was written originally for the -
Dublin Review (Catholic), and Thompson might probably be apt to say what he knew he ought as a good Catholic to say, rather than what he honestly thought in his deepest self. A young poet is not the best hand at introspection.
But hear another poet - Swinburne in one of his finest productions, The Garden of Proserpine:
From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.
Then star nor sun shall waken,
Nor any change of light;
Nor sound of waters shaken,
Nor any sound or sight;
Nor wintry leaves nor vernal,
Nor days nor things diurnal;
Only the sleep eternal
In an eternal night."
On the other hand, another poet, John Addington Symonds, in his early days could not forgo his hopes of future life; he knew "we are not in the scale of saurians and mastodons. We cannot perish like them." But as he grew older and wiser, he lost this lust of personality, and was willing to let the poor self go; yes, more than willing, even anxious and hungering for such absorption. To Henry Sidgwick he wrote in 1887:
"... Had you gained the proof [of survival, by psychical research methods] this result would have enormously aggravated the troubles of my life, by cutting off the possibility of resumption into the personal unconscious which our present incertitude leaves open to my sanguine hope."
"Until that immortality of the individual is irrefragably demonstrated, the sweet, the immeasurably precious hope of ending with this life the ache and languor of existence, remains open to burdened human personalities."
Symonds hoped for extinction. Sidgwick apparently hoped for survival, though without much eagerness, and with very little belief. It seems to have been chiefly on ethical grounds that he endorsed Browning's position as stated in
God whose power made man and made man's wants, and made, to meet those wants,
Heaven and earth which, through the body, prove the spirit's ministrants,
Excellently all, - did He lack power or was the will in fault
When He let blue heaven be shrouded o'er by vapours of the vault,
Gay earth drop her garlands shrivelled at the first infecting breath
Of the serpent pains which herald, swarming in, the dragon death?
Only grant my soul may carry high through death her cup unspilled,
Brimming though it be with knowledge, life's loss drop by drop distilled,
I shall boast it mine-the balsam, bless each kindly wrench that wrung
From life's tree its inmost virtue, tapped the root whence pleasure sprung,
Barked the bole, and broke the bough, and bruised the berry, left all grace
Ashes in death's stern alembic, loosed elixir in its place
So I hope - no more than hope, but hope - no less than hope, because
I can fathom, by no plumb-line sunk in life's apparent laws,
How I may in any instance fix where change should meetly fall,
Nor involve, by one revisal, abrogation of them all:
- Which again involves as utter change in life thus law-released,
Whence the good of goodness vanished when the ill of evil ceased.
Whereas, life and laws apparent reinstated, - all we know,
All we know not, - O'er our heaven again cloud closes until, lo -
Hope the arrowy, just as constant, comes to pierce its gloom, compelled
By a power and by a purpose which, if no one else beheld,
I behold in life, so-hope!
Browning's hope seems to have been based on, or rather to have been the outcome of, his robust optimism and will to live. He was blessed with splendid physical health, and hardly knew what it was to be ill; he had little or no struggle in the way of earning a living, for he was fortunately not dependent on his earnings. Consequently, he missed many experiences; experiences which we would all very gladly miss, of suffering and struggle, but which nevertheless bring their lesson. The man who has lived a smooth and easy life is like the child, playing happily, with unwrinkled brow, unconscious of large tracts of human experience. The Browning type of man always strikes me like that. He lives the life of thought and aesthetics, in a more or less languorous and Paterish or A. C. Bensonish "golden glow" of afternoon suns on lawns "seen from a college window" or from Casa Guidi, and has little conception of the
grim side of life - the sweat and struggle of the huge majority of the human race. A politician, eldest son of a duke, speaking at a political meeting in St George's Hall, Bradford, not long ago, said: "Now let us consider the case of a poor man with, say, £5000 a year." Laughter and murmurs warned the noble Earl that he had blundered. "Well, say £2000," he amended: evidently this was the very squalidest degree of poverty that was conceivable to him. Then a man in the gallery shouted the adequate reply. "Why, mister," he said, "I've only eighteen bob a week!"
Some of our optimists are in the position of the Earl. Life to them is all beer and skittles. No wonder they want a continuance on the other side of death(5). But with those who, like Sidgwick, have less robust health and have seen sorrow, and can better estimate the suffering out there in the world, the hope becomes more chastened; becomes indeed more of an intellectual affair, because without it the Scheme of Things seems so utterly wrong. And with men like Symonds, who have tasted the bitterness of thwarted ambitions and long ill-health, the hope of extinction often replaces the hope of survival. As already indicated, my own feelings are almost identical with Symonds's.
(5) E.g., Myers says in a letter to his mother: 'My own happiness has grown and deepened till one doubts whether it can be good for one to drink such deep and continuous draughts of it." No wonder he wanted to "survive."
Feeling thus, I am naturally impelled to make out a case for the feeling, though somewhat amused by the perception that I am thus impelled. There is no necessity to show that our feelings are "right"; there is even a certain absurdity in it. We feel thus or thus, and no more is needed to be said. But the old habit of justifying ourselves is still strong upon us; we give "reasons" for our beliefs, pretending that the latter are based on the former, whereas it is the other way round - we find Ourselves believing this or that, and then we hunt
up plausible "reasons" to make the belief look respectable. And it is somewhat thus with feelings. But I cannot resist the temptation!
I consider, then, the hope of extinction a higher ethical feeling than the hope of personal immortality, not only because it is the result of a riper experience of life, but because it is less selfish. Roughly speaking, the best moral thought of the historical ages has agreed that unselfishness is the Ideal. Die to live; renounce thyself. The saints e.g. Francis - renounced the comforts of this world, taking poverty to be their bride, but they did it as a good investment. They expected, like Paul, a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory in heaven, in return for a few years' physical inconvenience here; as the Apostles expected to sit on their twelve thrones, judging the twelve of tribes of Israel, as payment for their short service here below. Similarly with the martyrs. It was selfishness, but of an enlightened and more farseeing kind. They were willing to suffer in the immediate present, in order to gain a future of eternal happiness. Anybody would do it, if he believed in the happiness being a sure thing. The difficulty is to believe strongly enough that "the far-off interest of tears" will really be paid. It takes a strong faith to enable us to "reach a hand through Time" far enough to grasp the interest. The saints and martyrs could do it. They had faith. But they were making an investment. They were not
giving. In other words, their actions were not unselfish.
In the case of Symonds, taking him as a type, the ethical attitude is nobler. He has overcome the lust of personality, is content to renounce
himself. Ibsen, in Peer Gynt, is probably mainly satirising Norse weaknesses, but there are other interpretations, more or less intended; and the dismay of Peer, when the Button Moulder proposed to melt him up again in the casting-ladle, is a true presentment of the average Christian sentiment:
"I won't be deprived of one doit of my Self ... this casting-ladle business, this Gynt cessation - it stirs up my innermost soul in revolt!"
Is not Symonds's attitude nobler and more truly Christian than this feverish clinging to self? But, on the other hand, it may be said that he was selfish also, because he wanted to get away from suffering. Well, perhaps so. But I think it is hardly possible to call that selfish, or to blame anyone for it. The positive hankering after happiness is surely a very different thing from the hope of being freed from a heavy burden. If both are selfish, it will at least be admitted that the latter is of a very pardonable kind.
Willingness to renounce personality, then, is noble, or at least is morally higher than the selfish grasp at continued happiness. But, I repeat, such extinction cannot be seen as right and just so long as the earth-life brings undeserved suffering to a single human soul. If we are to hold an optimistic and rational scheme of things, personal survival must be a part, of it.
article above first appeared in "Religion and Modern Psychology"
(1911, William Rider and Son) by J.