J. Arthur Hill

Friend of Sir Oliver Lodge. Popular writer on spiritualism, religion and psychical research. His books included "Religion and Modern Psychology", "Spiritualism, Its History, Phenomena and Doctrine", "Emerson and his Philosophy", "Man is a Spirit", "New Evidences in Psychical Research" and "Psychical Investigations".

History of the Belief in Survival

 - J. Arthur Hill -

         "IF A man die, shall he live again?" is a question that probably has agitated the minds of thinkers since the dawn of human reason, and we consequently have no historical evidence as to origins. It is likely, however - if we may judge from the beliefs of people of low stages now or recently existing - that there was some belief in a life after death at a very early period. The everyday phenomena of dreams would be enough to suggest it. The dreamer sees people who are dead; and how could he do this if they are not somehow still alive? Also, during sleep he goes and does things elsewhere - chases buffalo, kills his enemy. From this it is only a step to the belief that, when a man dies, something which had left him during sleep but returned when he woke, has now left his body altogether. And then there are the phenomena of trance, which further support the idea of the body not being the whole man. "The Khond priest authenticates his claim to office by remaining from one to fourteen days in a languid dreamy state, caused by one of his souls being away in the divine presence."(1) "The Turanian shaman lies in lethargy while his soul departs to bring hidden wisdom from the land of spirits."(2) Perhaps these medicine-men are sometimes lazy but artful individuals, who claim occult powers in order to avoid work; but this can hardly apply to poor Hermotimos, "whose prophetic soul went out from time to time to visit distant regions," till at last his wife, becoming somewhat impatient of these absences, "burnt the lifeless body on the funeral pile, and when the poor soul came back, there was no longer a dwelling for it to animate."(3) It can hardly be doubted that there would be a certain amount of abnormality of this kind; trance, epileptiform seizures, and what not, as well as unconsciousness due to wounds - a blow on the head knocking the soul temporarily out of the body - and these phenomena would corroborate those of ordinary sleep, suggesting that some part of the person "went away," though enough of him remained to keep his heart and lungs more or less going, and thus to prevent him from being quite dead.

(1) Tylor's Primitive Culture, p. 396.
(2) Loc. cit.
(3) Loc. cit.

From this there would grow up a crude metaphysical psychology. Man would be divided into parts, differing in number according to the views of the primitive psychologist, viz. the medicine-man or priest. The Fijians distinguish between a man's "dark spirit" or shadow, which goes to Hades, and his "light spirit," or reflection in water or a mirror, which stays near where he dies. The Egyptians distinguished between ba, akh, ka, khaba (soul, mind, existence, shade), and Rabbinical tradition recognises "bodily, spiritual, and celestial souls," imperfectly corresponding to the Greek psyche, pneuma, nous. Even as early as Homer, there was a distinction between the eidolon and the real spirit, for though the eidolon of Herakles was in Hades, the real Herakles was present with the gods(3). A later Roman poet psychologises thus: "The earth conceals the flesh: the shade flits round the tomb; the underworld receives the image; the spirit seeks the stars."(4) It is impossible to form any equated classification of these various conceptions. Later on, when a more definite boundary-line was drawn between what we call objective and subjective, this savage psychology would become simplified, and one body and one soul would suffice at least for the psychology of the "plain man."

(3) The earliest Babylonian ideas seem to have been similar.
(4) "Bis duo sunt homini, manes, caro, spiritus, umbra:
Quatuor haec loci bis duo suscipiunt.
Terra tegit carmen, tumulum circumvolat umbra,
Manes Orcus habet, spiritus astra petit."

As reason developed, and as it occupied itself more and more with outward things, the subjective element dropped into the background, and dreams (formerly as "real" as waking experience) became "unreal." As a natural consequence of experience unconnected with the external world being regarded as unreal, the external world became regarded as the only thing that was real; and the belief in a surviving soul became moribund. "How dieth the wise man? As the fool." "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." "All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again." In spite of chap. iii. 21 and xii. 1, 7, 14, etc., the Preacher is mostly a pessimist and materialist; and he probably voices the Jewish belief over a long stretch of time. Sheol was as vague a place as the early Greek Hades, a place in which dim shadows flitted aimlessly about, pale eidola of their former selves, half-conscious or unconscious. "The dead know not anything." There was no general conception of a continuation of full life, still less of a life on a still richer and higher plane of experience than the earthly one. Achilles would "rather till the ground than live in pale Elysium," and Virgil draws a similar picture in the sixth Æneid, in spite of the higher conceptions which Socrates and Plato had reached, as shown in the Apology and the Phædo.

As a matter of, fact, however, we know regrettably little about the beliefs of the people on these matters, in the later days of majestic Rome. We know all about what gods they worshipped, what sacrifices they offered, and we know that in a general way the gods were interested in morality, and would punish offences in their own department. But as to whether the people had much sense of sin, and what they thought about the soul's fortunes in the future, we know next to nothing.

It has, however, been argued by Mr Andrew Lang that there was a considerable hell-belief, and a consequent spiritual terror. The famous poem of Lueretius, De Rerum Natura, was written against religion, with the aim of freeing men's minds from the paralysing dread of future punishment. Apparently the torments of Sisyphus and Tantalus, though treated as old-wives' fables by Socrates and his friends, had remained and accreted in the minds of the people. In ancient funereal art, in Etruria and Attica, we see the semblances of the dead lying at endless feasts, or receiving sacrifices of food and wine (as in Egypt) from their descendants. But in the descriptions by Pausanias and others of certain old wall-paintings we hear of the torments of the wicked, of the demons that torture them, and, above all, of the great chief fiend, coloured like a carrion fly. "To judge from Lucretius, although so little remains to us of this creed, yet it had a very strong hold of the minds of people, in the century before Christ. Perhaps the belief was reinforced by the teaching of Socrates, who in the vision of Er, in the Republic, brings back, in a myth, the old popular faith in a Purgatorio, if not in an Inferno."(5)

(5) Lang's Letters on Literature, p. 90.

There is probably something in this, though Mr Lang perhaps goes too far when he says that "it follows that the Romans, at least, must have been haunted by a constant dread of judgment to come, from which, but for the testimony of Lucretius and his manifest sincerity, we might have believed them free." It is dangerous to argue from such slender data. If there had been this degree of dread, we should hear more of ascetic practices for soul-saving, such as take a prominent place in Christian times. And it seems certain that no such teaching entered into the authoritative religion of the state. Cicero, in De Senectute and Tusc. Quaest., considers two possible alternatives - extinction and a happy future life. If there had been much hell-belief, even among the plebs, the garrulous old senator would have been likely to mention it. Instead, he exactly echoes Plato and Socrates. Seneca does the same (Consol. ad Polyb., xxvii.). It therefore seems improbable that there was any universal and vividly realised conception of after-death suffering among the Romans. This is the opinion of Gibbon, among others (Decline and Fall, xv.).(6)

(6) Jusserand holds that the Celtic races had a definite belief in a very full kind of future life (History of the English People), but the evidence does not seem very convincing.

In the farther East the tendency seems to have been steadily towards extinction of personality. Theism was pantheism, and the human soul slips back into the Shining Sea, rejoins the primal Fire of which it is an out-flung ray. This absorption is desired as well as believed in, and it is a moot point whether it is not the higher notion, morally speaking, because of its unselfish readiness to renounce; though it seems unsatisfactory by involving the giving up of a rational scheme of things. For, without personal continuity, and a squaring up of earthly wrongs, we cannot see how the whole thing can be just and reasonable.

With Christianity came in a more definite and more universal belief in survival of the full personality. True, Plato and others had taught it, in an academic way; but Jesus brought immortality to light in a more convincing fashion, by actual phenomenal evidence - evidence, at least, that was impressive. Whatever the actual bed-rock of fact was - and this we shall never know - it certainly was believed that Jesus, after being dead, reappeared, ate, walked, talked with, and was touched by His disciples; in short, was still alive, still Himself, though generally imperceptible to bodily senses. The belief has naturally faded with the rise of modern methods of thought, partly because the evidence is remote and is below our more critical standards, and partly because no such phenomena enter into the experience of the average human being. And, along with this fading, and following on the objective tendency towards a "naturalistic" and mechanical explanation of existence, the belief in survival generally has become more rare and more dim. When held, the belief is a matter of instinct, as with Goethe; a feeling of the impossibility of our non-existence, because we feel so very much alive at present, and to some extent, perhaps, due to our inability to conceive of a universe which does not include ourselves as onlookers and factors.

Largely, also, it has been a matter of poetry. Dante and Milton have been more influential than thousands of theologians and preachers. It is one more proof of the small part that Reason plays in shaping opinion. A lady recently told me that Mr Joseph Hocking's Zillah did more to convince her of clairvoyance than anything she bad ever read or experienced before. Yet this lady had had fairly good evidence of a psychical-research kind, in her own experience, through a psychic friend! Dramatic fiction, by appealing to the "feeling" side, can change the creedal attitude apparently more easily than does any amount of reasoning or even experience, if the latter is of prosaic kind. It is a "humblin' sicht," as the old lady said of her photograph. We are only partially rational creatures.

After Milton, the most potent force in shaping after-death beliefs was undoubtedly Emanuel Swedenborg. With him came in a new eschatology., Milton had foreshadowed it:

"What if Earth
Be but t' shadow of Heaven, and things therein,
Each to the other like more than on earth is thought?

But Swedenborg was the first to systematise the belief in an earth-like after-world. He started from a basis of experience, and established a continuity between this world and the next. No doubt he hardly reached the conception of continuing progress, for the supporting doctrine of evolution had not yet arrived; he apparently had eternal hells, of various kinds, as Emerson regretfully points out ("Swedenborg: The Mystic" in Essays on Representative Men). But he certainly broke away from the static idea previously prevalent. He himself was a man of immense energy - his works constitute a library, and his other labours as mineralouist and assessor were no doubt considerable - and he would naturally be unable to tolerate the idea of a lazy heaven which is nothing but a long holiday, sprinkled with harp-playing and psalm-singing. Like Blasco in The Spanish Gypsy, he would think that

"solid men 
Used to much business, might be ill at ease 
Not liking play."

Anyhow, his "beyond" is a place of activity, not of quiescence.

The descendants of Swedenborg are the spiritualists; and, though I do not accept the label for myself, it seems to me that the spiritualist at his best has the strongest position of any religious thinker at present extant. All systems of thought must start from experience, and, to be useful, must keep pretty close to experience - not the experience of a mystic, which cannot be communicated, and must therefore fail to be influential except among a limited number of impressionable people, but the experience which is objective and external, and which can become a universal possession, in greater or less degree. This spiritualism does. Intellectually, it bases its inferences on observed phenomena; phenomena daily observed - so it alleges - not phenomena which occurred two thousand years ago in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire, and then suddenly ceased, without even causing enough stir to be noted by any contemporary historian(7). The spiritualists claim that their phenomena happen now, and can be observed by anyone who will take the trouble and have the necessary patience. As Sidgwick said, it is a scandal to science that these assertions should have been neglected, for the people who make them are not all of them hysterical and ignorant - they include Fellows of the Royal Society, doctors, business men, conjurers, and indeed all classes except the dogmatic people who know what can or cannot happen, without investigating.

(7) The passage in Josephus is a forgery. There are hardly a dozen allusions to Christianity in the pagan writers before Constantine (died 337 A.D.). The truth about Christian origins is thus rendered unattainable.

As to the spiritualists beliefs, they are an improvement on Swedenborg. They do not include his horrible hells with their material descriptions, though the fact of punishment for sins is insisted on no less strongly. Or, rather, instead of being punishment for sins, the after-death suffering is looked on more as a further disciplinary stage in the soul's culture. As O. W. Holmes put it, life is a school, and we move up from class to class; there still is discipline, and painful discipline, but it becomes less and less as we rise, our character becoming modified and adjusted to the scheme. The university undergraduate no longer needs the cane or birch of his younger days. Also he sees better, as he rises, the necessity and the sense of his earlier discipline, which at times had seemed incomprehensibly harsh and undeserved. So with the evolving spirit. Looking back, it will see the reasonableness of its disciplinary pains. And what of its ultimate destination? - it may be asked. The answer is that the question is uncalled for. It is enough for us to see the next step or the next few steps. Why push further? Ultimates and finalities are out of our reach. Perhaps we may hold as a pious opinion that in the end we may drop our personality and be received back into the Divine Glory, if that is any consolation to us. It seems to be so, to some folks. For me, it is unnecessary, if not unmeaning; and the most sensible spiritualist, as it seems to me, is he who declines to go beyond inferences from the phenomena inferences which at least carry him over the gulf of death, and into a country much like the present one, though somewhat better.

Morally, of course, spiritualism has an equally strong case. It is greatly superior to any system which allows the future condition to depend on the opinions, beliefs, or other separate psychological states (consciousness of being "saved," etc.) which people experience here. These latter systems give no moral stimulus. In fact, they operate the other way. If I know that I do not "believe," and shall consequently be damned whether my conduct is good or bad - as our old minister assured me - I may just as well have a roaring good time while I am here; and if I believed this, that is what I should tend to do. So far as I was logical and rational, I should consider nothing except my own gratification. And the "elect" would do the same, if they were logical, for they are elect anyhow(8).

(8) This would be the tendency. I am not forgetting what I have already said about acts not being entirely "rational."

And Evangelicalism is not much better than Calvinism in this respect. It allows salvation to depend on a psychological fact, a fact which is not under the control of the will. "Believe and be saved!" says Dr Torrey or Mr Evan Roberts. Have these people ever considered how they themselves would feel, if the same formula were presented for their acceptance, by a Mohammedan? For, to the latter, Dr Torrey and Mr Roberts are infidels. Yet they would doubtless reply to the missionary of Islam, either that they could not believe in Mahomet as the chief Prophet of God, or that they would not, because they knew better. The simple "could not" would be the truer answer, as every psychologist knows; but, even waiving this, it is clear that the Mohammedan and the non-Christian of any kind can make the same reply to the Christian as our evangelists would make to the Moslem.

For me, personally, the true answer is certainly "cannot." I cannot believe that my eternal future - if I have one - is to depend entirely on what opinions I may hold concerning the reality or the interpretation of certain alleged facts of history. My inability to "believe" is a part of the total result of my character and experience, like the other parts. It is constitutional - is in my blood and my bones. I could easily adduce "reasons" why I should not believe, but I know well that this is the wrong way about, for I do not disbelieve because of the reasons, I hunt up the reasons because I disbelieve.

To return for a moment to the idea of continuity and similarity between the two worlds, which is so good a feature of modern spiritualism. The truth of this idea may be argued for in another way, as follows.

One of the chief lessons of history is humility. For a thousand years after the beginning of our era - and of course during all previous historical time, except perhaps for a few great minds - the general belief was that the earth is the centre and most important place in the universe. The sun, moon, and stars are there for man's convenience. From this conception followed a crowd of superstitions which occupy a conspicuous place in the belief of every early civilisation. The advance of knowledge, however, has at every step run counter to this view, and has accordingly been distasteful to human egoism. Copernicus struck the first great blow at man's overweening conceit, by making the earth move round the sun, instead of being in stately repose, waited on by revolving "great lights"; and soon it was shown by modern astronomy that our world is but a speck of dust in the scale of creation. Said Tennyson, after looking through Lockyer's telescope at the star-cluster in Perseus: "One doesn't think much of the county families after that! "Astronomy enormously widened the universe, and lessened man's notion of his own relative size and importance. He thought he lived in a smallish house, specially built for him, and pretty well known to him except for a few odd corners; astronomy taught him that he occupies a few tiny rooms in the basement of a palace of unknown extent, built by an unknown architect for unknown purposes. Something is going on in the other rooms - possibly something much more important than anything we can conceive - but what it is we do not know, nor whether such beings as ourselves are anywhere else existent. Dr A. R. Wallace thinks not, and as far as physical structure goes he is probably right; but it is likely that there may be a whole hierarchy of unknown intelligences existing and working in those other rooms (planets, stars, etc.), though functioning through bodies very different from ours.

Then, once more with dignity, damaging effect, came Darwin with his proof of biological evolution. Man is of one blood with all the living creatures of the earth; not a glorious separate creation, as the conceited egoists think, who wish to kick down the ladder by which they have climbed - to disown their poor relations, great-uncles and cousins once or twice removed, the anthropoid offshoots, namely, of the central stock which has produced man. This is perhaps natural vanity, but the natural man must be subdued. Science is bringing him to his senses; regenerating him; giving him grace - the desirable grace of humility. The lesson is hard to learn, as well as being distasteful. Formerly the pupils burnt the teachers, as the easiest way out of an unpleasant situation (Bruno, Vanini). Modern taste deprecates such measures, but has its own way of penalising, as Huxley and his cohorts knew. Still, there is an acceleration of pace, for the teacher is now recognised as such, almost as soon as he is dead. Darwin, the terror of religious apologists in 1860, was buried in Westminster Abbey only twenty-two years later.

And now comes the turn of the spiritual world. Physical science has altered the prevailing conception of the physical world; psychical science is altering the prevailing conceptions of the spiritual world. And, to the orthodox, the change is similarly disquieting. Instead of a sudden heaven of bliss eternal, immediately the saint's soul is out of his body, psychical facts as well as physical analogies are pointing to a less sudden transition and to a continuance of evolution on the other side. We are none of us bad enough for hell, none of us good enough for heaven; is it not then sensible to suppose, on ethical as well as on other grounds, that development will continue, and, with development, discipline? It is an unpleasant thought, no doubt, to the "unco' guid" who think they deserve heaven straightway; but their very thought proves their need of a lesson in modesty and humility:

"No sudden heaven, nor sudden hell, for man,
But through the will of One who knows and rules -
And utter knowledge is but utter love
Æonian Evolution, swift or slow,
Thro' all the Spheres - an ever opening height, 
An ever lessening earth."
Tennyson, The Ring.


The article above first appeared in "Religion and Modern Psychology" (1911, William Rider and Son) by J. Arthur Hill.


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