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An essay by James Runciman

Behind The Veil

Title:     Behind The Veil
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

"Men of all castes, if they fulfil their assigned duties, enjoy in heaven the highest imperishable bliss. Afterwards, when a man who has fulfilled his duties returns to this world, he obtains, by virtue of a remainder of merit, birth in a distinguished family, beauty of form, beauty of complexion, strength, aptitude for learning, wisdom, wealth, and the gift of fulfilling the laws of his caste or order. Therefore in both worlds he dwells in happiness, rolling like a wheel from one world to the other." Thus the Brahmans have settled the problem of the life that follows the life on earth. Those strange and subtle men seem to have reasoned themselves into a belief in dreams, and they speak with cool confidence, as though they were describing scenes as vivid and material as are the crowds in a bazaar. There is no hesitation for them; they describe the features of the future existence with the dry minuteness of a broker's catalogue. The Wheel of Life rolls, and far above the weary cycle of souls Buddha rests in an attitude of benediction; he alone has achieved Nirvana--he alone is aloof from gods and men. The yearning for immortality has in the case of the Brahman passed into certainty, and he describes his heavens and his hells as though the All-wise had placed no dim veil between this world and the world beyond. Most arithmetically minute are all the Brahman's pictures, and he never stops to hint at a doubt. His hells are twenty-two in number, each applying a new variety of physical and moral pain. We men of the West smile at the grotesque dogmatism of the Orientals; and yet we have no right to smile. In our way we are as keen about the great question as the Brahmans are, and for us the problem of problems may be stated in few words--"Is there a future life?" All our philosophy, all our laws, all our hopes and fears are concerned with that paralyzing question, and we differ from the Hindoo only in that we affect an extravagant uncertainty, while he sincerely professes an absolute certainty. The cultured Western man pretends to dismiss the problem with a shrug; he labels himself as an agnostic or by some other vague definition, and he is fond of proclaiming his idea that he knows and can know nothing. That is a pretence. When the philosopher says that he does not know and does not care what his future may be, he speaks insincerely; he means that he cannot prove by experiment the fact of a future life--or, as Mr. Ruskin puts it, "he declares that he never found God in a bottle"--but deep down in his soul there is a knowledge that influences his lightest action. The man of science, the "advanced thinker," or whatever he likes to call himself, proves to us by his ceaseless protestations of doubt and unbelief that he is incessantly pondering the one subject which he would fain have us fancy he ignores. At heart he is in full sympathy with the Brahman, with the rude Indian, with the impassioned English Methodist, with all who cannot shake off the mystic belief in a life that shall go on behind the veil. When the pagan emperor spoke to his own parting soul, he asked the piercing question that our sceptic must needs put, whether he like it or no--

Soul of me, floating and flitting and fond,
Thou and this body were life-mates together!
Wilt thou be gone now--and whither?
Pallid and naked and cold,
Not to laugh or be glad as of old!

Theology of any description is far out of my path, but I have the wish and the right to talk gravely about the subject that dwarfs all others. A logician who tries to scoff away any faith I count as almost criminal. Mockery is the fume of little hearts, and the worst and craziest of mockers is the one who grins in presence of a mystery that strikes wise and deep-hearted men with a solemn fear which has in it nothing ignoble. I would as lief play circus pranks by a mother's deathbed as try to find flippant arguments to disturb a sincere faith.

First, then, let us know what the uncompromising iconoclasts have to tell about the universal belief in immortality. They have a very pretentious line of reasoning, which I may summarise thus. Life appeared on earth not less than three hundred thousand years ago. First of all our planet hung in the form of vapour, and drifted with millions of other similar clouds through space; then the vapour became liquid; then the globular form was assumed, and the flying ball began to rotate round the great attracting body. We cannot tell how living forms first came on earth; for they could not arise by spontaneous generation, in spite of all that Dr. Bastian may say. Of the coming of life we can say nothing--rather an odd admission, by-the-way, for gentlemen who are so sure of most things--but we know that some low organism did appear--and there is an end of that matter. No two organisms can possibly be exactly alike; and the process of differentiation began in the very shrine. The centuries passed, and living organisms became more and more complex; the slowly-cooling ball of the earth was covered with greenery, but no flower was to be seen. Then insects were attracted by brightly-coloured leaves; then flowers and insects acted and reacted on each other. But there is no need to trace every mark on the scale. It is enough to say that infinitely-diversified forms of life branched off from central stocks, and the process of variation went on steadily. Last of all, in a strange environment, a certain small upright creature appeared. He was not much superior in development to the anthropoid apes that we now know--in fact, there is less difference between an orang and a Bosjesman than there is between the primitive man and the modern Caucasian man. This creature, hairy and brown as a squirrel, stunted in stature, skinny of limb, was our immediate progenitor. So say the confident scientific men. The owner of the queer ape-like skull found at Neanderthal belonged to a race that was ultimately to develop into Shakespeares and Newtons and Napoleons. In all the enormous series that had its first term in the primeval ooze and its last term in man, one supreme motive had actuated every individual. The desire of life, growing more intense with each new development, was the main influence that secured continuance of life. The beings that had the desire of life scantily developed were overcome in the struggle for existence by those in whom the desire of life was strong. Thus in man, after countless generations, the wish for life had become the master-power holding dominion over the body. As the various branches of the human race moved upward, the passionate love of life grew so strong that no individual could bear to think of resigning this pleasing anxious being and proceeding to fall into dumb forgetfulness. Men saw their comrades stricken by some dark force that they could not understand. The strong limbs grew lax first, and then hopelessly stiff; the bright eye was dulled; and it soon became necessary to hide the inanimate thing under the soil. It was impossible for those who had the quick blood flowing in their veins to believe that a time would come when feeling would be known no more. This fierce clinging to life had at last its natural outcome. Men found that at night, when the quicksilver current of sleep ran through their veins and their bodies were quiescent, they had none the less thoughts as of life. The body lay still; but something in alliance with the body gave them impressions of vivid waking vigour and action. Men fancied that they fought, hunted, loved, hated; and yet all the time their limbs were quiet. What could it be that forced the slumbering man to believe himself to be in full activity? It must be some invisible essence independent of the bones and muscles. Therefore when a man died it followed that the body which was buried must have parted permanently from the mystic "something" that caused dreams. That mystic "something" therefore lived on after the death of the body. The bodily organs were mere accidental encumbrances; the real "man" was the viewless creature that had the visions of the night. The body might go; but the thing which by and by was named "soul" was imperishable.

I can see the drift of foggy argument. The writer means to say that the belief in immortality sprang up because the wish was father to the thought. Men longed to live, and thus they persuaded themselves that they would live; and, one refinement after another having been added to the vague-minded savage's animal yearning, we have the elaborate system of theology and the reverential faith that guide the lives of civilized human entities. Very pretty! Then the literary critic steps in and shows how the belief in immortality has been enlarged and elaborated since the days of Saul, the son of Kish. When the witch of Endor saw gods ascending from the earth, she was only anticipating the experience of sorcerers who ply their trade in the islands of the Pacific. Professor Huxley admires the awful description of Saul's meeting with the witch; but the Professor shows that the South Sea islanders also see gods ascending out of the earth, and he thinks that the Eastern natives in Saul's day encouraged a form of ancestor-worship. The literary critic says ancestor-worship is one of the great branches of the religion of mankind. Its principles are not difficult to understand, for they plainly keep up the social relations of the living world. The dead ancestor, now passed into a deity, goes on protecting his family and receiving suit and service from them as of old. The dead chief still watches over his own tribe, still holds his authority by helping friends and harming enemies, still rewards the right and sharply punishes the wrong. That, then, was the kind of worship prevalent in the time of Saul, and the gods were only the ancestors of the living. Well, this may be admirable as science, but, as I summarized the long argument, I felt as though something must give way.

Then we are told that our sacred book, the Old Testament, contains no reference to the future life--rather ignores the notion, in fact. It appears that, when Job wrote about the spirit that passed before him and caused all the hair of his flesh to stand up, he meant an enemy, or a goat, or something of that species. Moreover, when it is asserted that Enoch "was not, for God took him," no reference is made to Enoch's future existence. The whole of the thesis regarding the Shadow Land has been built up little by little, just as our infinitely perfect bodily organization has been gradually formed. It took at least thirty thousand years to evolve the crystalline lens of the human eye, and it required many thousands of years to evolve from the crude savagery of the early Jews the elaborate theories of the modern Buddhists, Islamites, and Christians.

Certainly this same evolution has much to answer for. I utterly fail to see how a wish can give rise to a belief that comes before the wish is framed in the mind. More than this, I know that, even when human beings crave extinction most--when the prospect of eternal sleep is more than sweet, when the bare thought of continued existence is a horror--the belief in, or rather the knowledge of, immortality is still there, and the wretch who would fain perish knows that he cannot.

As for the mathematically-minded thinkers, I must give them up. They say, "Here are two objects of consciousness whose existence can be verified; one we choose to call the body, the other we call the soul or mind or spirit, or what you will. The soul may be called a 'function' of the body, or the body may be called a 'function' of the soul--at any rate, they vary together. The tiniest change in the body causes a corresponding change in the soul. As the body alters from the days when the little ducts begin to feed the bones with lime up to the days when the bones are brittle and the muscles wither away, so does the soul alter. The infant's soul is different from the boy's, the boy's from the adolescent man's, the young man's from the middle-aged man's, and so on to the end. Now, since every change in the body, no matter how infinitesimally small, is followed by a corresponding change in the soul, then it is plain that, when the body becomes extinct, its 'function,' the soul, must also become extinct."

This is even more appalling than the reasoning of the biologist. But is there not a little flaw somewhere? We take a branch from a privet-hedge and shake it; some tiny eggs fall down. In time a large ugly caterpillar comes from each egg; but, according to the mathematical men, the caterpillar does not exist, since the egg has become naught. Good! The caterpillar wraps itself in a winding thread, and we have an egg-shaped lump which lies as still as a pebble. Then presently from that bundle of thread there comes a glorious winged creature which flies away, leaving certain ragged odds and ends. But surely the bundle of threads and the moth were as much connected as the body and the soul? Logically, then, the moth does not exist after the cocoon is gone, any more than the soul exists after the body is gone! I feel very unscientific indeed as we put forth this proposition, and yet perhaps some simple folk will follow me.

God will not let the soul die; it is a force that must act throughout the eternity before us, as it acted throughout the eternity that preceded our coming on earth. No physical force ever dies--each force merely changes its form or direction. Heat becomes motion, motion is transformed into heat, but the force still exists. It is not possible then that the soul of man--the subtlest, strongest force of all--should ever be extinguished. Every analogy that we can see, every fact of science that we can understand, tells us that the essence which each of us calls "I" must exist for ever as it has existed from eternity. Let us think of a sweet change that shall merely divest us of the husk of the body, even as the moth is divested of the husk of the caterpillar. Space will be as nothing to the soul--can we not even now transport ourselves in an instant beyond the sun? We can see with the soul's eye the surface of the stars, we know what they are made of, we can weigh them, and we can prove that our observation is rigidly accurate even though millions of miles lie between us and the object which we describe so confidently. When the body is gone, the soul will be more free to traverse space than it is even now.

_February, 1888._

[The end]
James Runciman's essay: Behind The Veil