Although commonly rejected throughout Europe and America, reincarnation is unreservedly accepted by the majority of mankind at the present day, as in all the past centuries. From the dawn of history it has prevailed among the largest part of humanity with an unshaken intensity of conviction. Over all the mightiest Eastern nations it has held permanent sway. The ancient civilization of Egypt, whose grandeur cannot be overestimated, was built upon this as a fundamental truth, and taught it as a precious secret to Pythagoras, Aristotle, Plato, Plotinus and Ovid, who scattered it through their nations. It is the keynote of Plato’s philosophy, being stated or implied very frequently in his dialogues. “Soul is older than body,” he says. “Souls are continually born over again from Hades into this life.” In his view all knowledge is reminiscence. To search and learn is simply to revive the images of what the soul saw in its pre-existent state in the world of realities. The swarming millions of India also have made this thought the foundation of their enormous achievements in government, architecture, philosophy and poetry. It was a cardinal element in the religion of the Persian Magi. Alexander the Great gazed in amazement on the self-immolation by fire to which it inspired the Gymnosophists. Caesar found its tenets propagated among the Gauls. The circle of metempsychosis was an essential principle of the Druid faith and as such was impressed upon our forefathers the Celts, the Gauls and the Britons. It is claimed that the people held this doctrine so vitally that they wept around the new born infant and smiled upon death—for the beginning and end of an earthly life were to them the imprisonment and release of a soul, which must undergo repeated probations to remove its earthly impurities for final ascent into a succession of higher spheres. The Bardic triads of the Welsh are replete with this thought, and a Welsh antiquary insists that an ancient emigration from Wales to India conveyed it to the Brahmins. In the old civilizations of Peru and Mexico it prevailed universally. In the mysteries of Greece, Rome and Britain the ceremonial rites enacted this great truth with peculiar impressiveness for initiates. The Jews generally adopted it from the Babylonian captivity. John the Baptist was a second Elias. Jesus was commonly thought to be a reappearance of John the Baptist or of one of the old prophets. The Talmud, the Kabbala and the writings of Philo are full of the same teaching. Some of the late Rabbins assert many entertaining things concerning the repeated births of the most noted persons of their nation. This idea played an important part in the thought of Origen and several other leaders among the early Church Fathers. It was a main portion of the creed of the Gnostics and Manichaeans. In the middle ages the sects of the Cathari, the Bogomiles and many scholastics advocated it. It has cropped out spontaneously in many Western theologians. The elder English Divines do not hesitate to inculcate pre-existence in their sermons. The Roman Catholic Purgatory seems to be a makeshift improvised to take its place.
Men of profoundly metaphysical genius like Scotus, Kant, Leibnitz, Lessing, Schopenhauer, Schlegel and the younger Fichte have upheld reincarnation. Scientists like Flammarion have earnestly believed it. Theological leaders like Julius Muller, Dorner, H. Ernesti Ruckert and Edward Beecher have maintained it. In exalted intuitional natures like Boehme and Swedenborg its hold is apparent. Most of the mystics bathe in it. Of course the long line of Platonists from Socrates down to Emerson have no doubt of it. Even amid the predominance of materialistic influences in Christendom it has a considerable following. Traces of it are found among the aborigines of North and South America and in many barbaric tribes. At this time it reigns without any sign of decrepitude over the Burmese, Chinese, Japanese, Tartar, Tibetan, and East Indian nations, including at least 750,000,000 of mankind and nearly two-thirds of the race. Throughout the East it is the great central thought. It is no mere superstition of the ignorant masses. It is the chief principle of Hindu metaphysics,—the basis of all their inspired books. Such a hoary philosophy, upheld by the venerable authority of ages, ruling from the beginning of time the bulk of the world’s thought, is certainly worthy of the profoundest respect and study.
But the Western fondness for democracy does not hold in the domain of thought. The fact that the majority of the race has agreed upon reincarnation is no argument for it to an Occidental thinker. The conceit of modern progress has no more respect for ancient ideas than for the forgotten civilizations of old, even though in many essentials they anticipated or outstripped all that we boast of. Therefore we propose to treat this subject mainly from a Western standpoint, showing,
I. Some reasons which may assure us of the truth of reincarnation.
II. The most interesting poetical expressions of this idea in our own tongue.
I.—Western Evidences of Reincarnation
The old Saxon chronicler, Bede, records that at a banquet given by King Edwin of Northumbria to his nobles, a discussion arose as to how they should receive the Christian missionary Paulinus who had just arrived from the continent. Some urged the sufficiency of their own Druid and Norse religions and advised the death of the invading heretic. Others were in favor of hearing his message. At length the King asked the opinion of his oldest counsellor. The sage arose and said “O King and Lords. You all did remark the swallow which entered this festal hall to escape the chilling winds without, fluttering near the fire for a few moments and then vanishing through the opposite window. Such is the life of man, whence it came and whither it goes none can tell. Therefore if this new religion brings light upon so great a mystery, it must be diviner than ours and should be welcomed.” The old man’s advice was adopted.
We are in the position of those old ancestors of ours. The religion of the churches, called Christianity, is to many earnest souls a dry husk. The germinant kernel of truth as it came from the founder of Christianity, when it is discovered under all its barren wrappings is indeed sufficient to feed us with the bread of life. It answers all the practical needs of most people even with the husks. But it leaves some vital questions unanswered which impel us to desire something more than Jesus taught—not for mere curiosity but as food for larger growth. The divine law which promises to fill every vacuum, and to gratify at last every aspiration has not left us without means of grasping a portion of these grander truths, by independent methods.
The commonest idea of the soul throughout Christendom seems to be that it is created specially for birth on this world and after its lifetime here it goes to a permanent spiritual realm of infinite continuance. This is a very comfortable belief derived from the appearances of things, and those holding it may very properly say “My view agrees with the phenomena and if you think differently the burden of proof rests upon you.” We accept this responsibility. But a careful observer knows that the true explanation of facts as a rule is very different from the appearance. Ptolemy thought he could account for all the heavenly motions on his geocentric theory and his teachings were at once received by his contemporaries. But the painful studies of Copernicus and Galileo had to wait a century before they were accepted, although they introduced an astronomy of immeasurably nobler scale. Is it not a relic of the old confidence in appearances to consider the orbits of human souls as limited to our little view of them?
There are six arguments for Reincarnation which seem conclusive.
1. That the idea of immortality demands it.
2. That analogy makes it the most probable.
3. That science confirms it.
4. That the nature of the soul requires it.
5. That it explains many mysterious experiences.
6. That it alone solves the problem of injustice and misery which broods over our world.
1. Immortality demands it.
Only the positivists and some allied schools of thought, comprising a very small proportion of Christendom doubt the immortality of the soul. But a conscious existence after death has no better proof than a pre-natal existence. It is an old declaration that what begins in time must end in time. We have no right to say that the soul is eternal on one side of its earthly period without being so on the other. Far more rational is the view of certain scientists who, believing that the soul originates with this life, also declare that it ends with this life. That is the logical outcome of their premise. If the soul sprang into existence specially for this life, why should it continue afterward? It is precisely as probable from all the grounds of reason that death is the conclusion of the soul as that birth is the beginning of it. On the contrary all the indications of immortality point as unfailingly to an eternity preceding this existence: the love of prolonged life, the analogy of nature, the prevailing belief of the most spiritual minds, the permanence of the ego principle, the inconceivability of annihilation or of creation from nothing, the promise of an extension of the present career, the injustice of any other thought.
All the probabilities upon which the assurance of the soul’s immortality rests, confirm the idea that it has an eternal existence in the past as well as in the future. What the origin of the soul may have been does not affect this subject, further than that it antedates the present life. Whether it be a spark from God himself, or a divine emanation, or a cluster of independent energies, its eternal destiny compels the inference that it is uncreated and indestructible. Moreover, it is unthinkable that from an infinite history it enters this world for its first physical experience and then shoots off to an endless spiritual existence. The deduction is rather that it assumed many forms before it appeared as we now see it and is bound to pass through many coming lives before it will be rounded into the full orb of perfection and reach its ultimate goal.
2. The argument from analogy is especially strong.
The universal spectacle of incarnated life indicates that this is the eternal scheme everywhere, the variety of souls finding in the variety of circumstances an everlasting series of adventures in appropriate forms. For many centuries in the literature of nations a standard simile of the soul surviving its earthly decay has been drawn from the transformation of the caterpillar into the butterfly. This world is the grub state. The body is the chrysalis of the soul. But the caterpillar came from a former life, in the egg. The violent energy of the present condition argues a previous stage leading up to it. It is contended with great force of analogy that death is but another and higher birth. This life is a groping embryo plane implying a more exalted one. Mysterious intimations reach us from a diviner sphere,
“Like hints and echoes of the world
To spirits folded in the womb.”
But the same indications argue that birth is the death of an earlier existence. Even the embryo life necessitates a preparatory one preceding it. So complete a structure must have a foundation. So swift a momentum must have travelled far. As Emerson observes “We wake and find ourselves on a stair. There are other stairs below us which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight.”
The grand order of creation is everywhere proclaiming, as the universal word, “change”. Nothing is destroyed but all is passing from one existence to another. Not an atom but is shifting in lively procession from its present condition to a different form, running a ceaseless cycle through mineral, vegetable and animal existence, though never losing its individuality, however diverse its apparent alterations. Not a creature but is constantly progressing to something else. The tadpole becomes a fish, the fish a frog, and some of the frogs have turned to birds.
“There is a spirit in all things that live
Which hints at patient change from kind to kind
And yet no words its mystic sense can give
Strange as a dream of radiance to the blind.”
Evolution has remoulded the thought of Christendom, expanding our conception of physiology, astronomy and history. The more it is studied the more universal is found its application. It seems to be the secret of God’s working. Now that we know the evolution of the body, it is time that we learned the evolution of the soul. The biologist shows that each of us physically before birth runs through all the phases of animal life—polyp, fish, reptile, dog, ape and man—as a brief synopsis of how the ages have prepared our tenements. The preponderance of special animal traits in us is due, he says to the emphasis of those particular stages of our physical growth. So in infancy does the soul move through an unconscious series of existences, recapitulating its long line of descent, until it is fastened in maturity. And why is it not true that our soul traits are the relics of former activities?
3. Furthermore, the idea that the soul is specially created for introduction into this world is antagonistic to all the principles of science. All nature proceeds on the strictest economical methods. Nothing is either lost or added. There is no creation or destruction. Whatever appears to spring suddenly into existence is derived from sufficient cause—although as unseen as the vapor currents which feed the clouds.
Physiologists contend that the wondrous human organism could not have grown up out of mere matter but implies a pre-existent spiritual idea which grouped around itself the organic conditions of physical existence and constrained the material elements to follow its plan. This dynamic agent—or the soul—must have existed independent of the body before the receptacle was prepared. The German scientists Muller and Stahle, have especially illustrated in physiology this idea of a pre-existent soul monad.
The common resurrection idea makes immortality an arbitrary stroke of God at the end of the earthly drama. But science allows no such exceptional miracle. It recognizes rather the universality of resurrection throughout all nature. We have no experience whatever of the resurrection taught by theologians; but we constantly see new appearances of souls in fresh bodies. These cannot have darted into their first existence as we behold them. From the hidden regions of some previous existence they must have come.
4. A much more weighty and penetrative argument is that the nature of the soul requires reincarnation. The conscious soul cannot feel itself to have had any beginning any more than it can conceive of annihilation. The sense of persistence overwhelms all the interruptions of forgetfulness and sleep, and all the obstacles of matter. This incessant self-assurance suggests the idea of the soul being independent of the changing body, its temporary prison. Then follows the conception that as the soul has once appeared in human form so it may reappear in many others. The eternity of the soul past and present leads directly to an everlasting succession of births and deaths, disembodiments and reembodiments.
The identity of the soul surely does not consist in a remembrance of all its past. We are always forgetting ourselves and waking again to recognition. But the sense of individuality bridges all the gaps. In the same way it seems as if our present existence were a somnambulent condition into which we have drowsed from our earlier life, oblivious of most of that former activity, and from which we may after a while be roused into wakefulness.
The study of infancy shows that the mental furniture with which we begin this life presupposes a former experience. The moral character of children, especially the existence of evil in them long before it could have been implanted by the present existence has forced many acute observers to assume that the human spirit had made choice of evil in a pre-natal sphere.
The unsatisfied physical inclinations of a soul are indestructible and require a series of physical existences to work themselves out. And the irrepressible eagerness for all the range of experience necessitates a course of reincarnations which shall accomplish that result.
5. Reincarnation explains many curious experiences. Most of us have known the touches of feeling and thought that seem to be reminders of forgotten things. Sometimes as dim dreams of old scenes, sometimes as vivid lightning flashes in the darkness recalling distant occurrences, sometimes with unutterable depth of meaning. It appears as if Nature’s opiate which ushered us into this arena had been so diluted that it did not quite efface the old memories, and reason struggles to decipher the vestiges of a former state. Almost everyone has felt the sense of great age. Thinking of some unwonted subject often an impression seizes us that somewhere, long ago, we have had these reflections before. Learning a fact, meeting a face for the first time, we are puzzled with an obscure assurance that it is familiar. Travelling newly in strange places we are sometimes haunted with a consciousness of having been there before. Music is specially apt to guide us into mystic depths where we are startled with the flashing reminiscences of unspeakable verities which we have felt or seen ages since. Efforts of thought reveal the half-obliterated inscriptions on the tablets of memory, passing before the vision in a weird procession. Everyone has some such experiences. Most of them are blurred and obscure. But some are so remarkably distinct that those who undergo them are convinced that their sensations are actual recollections of events and places in former lives. It is even possible for certain persons to trace quite fully and clearly a part of their by-gone history prior to this life.
Sir Walter Scott was so impressed by these experiences that they led him to a belief in pre-existence. He writes (in “Guy Mannering”), “How often do we find ourselves in society which we have never before met, and yet feel impressed with a mysterious and ill defined consciousness, that neither the scene nor the speakers nor the subject are entirely new; nay feel as if we could anticipate that part of the conversation which has not yet taken place.” Bulwer Lytton describes it as “that strange kind of inner and spiritual memory which often recalls to us places and persons we have never seen before and which Platonists would resolve to be the unquenched and struggling consciousness of a former life.” Explicit occurrences of this class are found in the narratives of Hawthorne, Coleridge, DeQuincy and many other writers. A striking instance appears in a little memoir of the late Wm. Hone, the Parodist, upon whom the experience made such a profound effect that it roused him from thirty years of materialistic atheism to a conviction of the soul’s independence of matter. Being called in business to a house in a part of London entirely new to him, he kept noticing that he had never been that way before. “I was shown” he says, “into a room to wait. On looking around, to my astonishment everything appeared perfectly familiar to me: I seemed to recognize every object. I said to myself, what is this? I was never here before and yet I have seen all this, and if so there is a very peculiar knot in the shutter.” He opened the shutter and there was the knot.
A writer of reputation mentions the following instance: A friend’s child of four years was observed by her elder sister to be talking to herself about matters of which she could not be supposed to know anything. “Why, Winnie,” exclaimed the elder sister, Louisa, “What do you know about that? All that happened before you were born!” “I would have you know, Louisa, that I grew old in heaven before I was born!” Similar anecdotes might be produced in great number.
Objectors ascribe these enigmas to a jumble of associations producing a blurred vision like the drunkard’s experience of seeing double, a discordant remembrance, snatches of forgotten dreams—or to the double structure of the brain. In one of the lobes, they say, the thought flashes a moment in advance of the other and the second half of the thinking machine regards the first impression as a memory of something long distant. But this explanation is unsatisfactory as it fails to account for the wonderful vividness of some of these impressions in well balanced minds, or the long trains of thought which come independent of any companions, or the prophetic glimpses which anticipate actual occurrences. Far more credible is it that each soul is a palimpsest inscribed again and again with one story upon another and whenever the all-wise Author is ready to write a grander page on us He washes off the old ink and pens his latest word. But some of us can trace here and there letters of the former manuscript not yet effaced.
6. The strongest support of this theory is its happy solution of the problem of moral inequality and injustice and evil which otherwise overwhelms us as we survey the world. The seeming chaos is marvellously set in order by the idea of soul-wandering. Many a sublime intellect has been so oppressed with the topsy-turviness of things here as to cry out “There is no God. All is blind chance.” An exclusive view of the miseries of mankind, the prosperity of wickedness, the struggles of the deserving, the oppression of the masses, or on the other hand, the talents and successes and happiness of the fortunate few, compels one to call the world a sham without any moral law to regulate it. But that consideration yields to a majestic satisfaction when one is assured that the present life is only one of a grand series in which every individual is gradually going the round of infinite experience for a glorious outcome,—that the hedging ills of to-day are a consequence of what we did yesterday and a step toward the great things of to-morrow. Thus the tangled snarls of earthly phenomena are straitened out as a vast and beautiful scheme, and the total experience of humanity forms a magnificent tapestry of perfect poetic justice.
The crucial test of any hypothesis is whether it meets all the facts better than any other theory. No other view so admirably accounts for the diversity or conditions on earth, and refutes the charge of a favoritism on the part of Providence. Hierocles said, and many a philosopher before and since has agreed with him, “Without the doctrine of metempsychosis it is not possible to justify the ways of God.” Some of the theologians have found the idea of pre-existence necessary to a reasonable explanation of the world, although it is considered foreign to the Bible. Over thirty years ago Dr. Edward Beecher published “The Conflict of Ages,” in which the main argument is this thought. He demonstrates that the facts of sin and depravity compel the acceptance of this doctrine to exonerate God from the charge of maliciousness. His book caused a lively controversy and was soon followed by “The Concord of the Ages” in which he answers the objections and strengthens his position. The same truth is taught by Dr. Julius Muller, a German theologian of prodigious influence among the clergy. Another prominent leader of theological thought, Dr. Dorner, sustains it.
But, it is asked, why do we not remember something definitely of our previous lives, if we have really been through them?
It has been shown that there are traces of recollection. The reason of no universal conviction from this ground is that the change into the present career was so violent and so radical as to scatter all the details and leave only the net spiritual result. As Plotinus said “Body is the true river of Lethe; for souls plunged into it forget all.” The real soul life is so distinct from the material plane that we have difficulty in recalling many experiences of this life—especially when an abrupt departure from old associations severs the connecting links. Who retains all of his childhood’s life? And has anyone a memory of that most wonderful epoch—infancy? Our present forgetfulness is no disproof of the actuality of past lives. Every night we lose all knowledge of what has gone before, but daily we awaken to a recollection of the whole series of days and nights. So in one life we may forget or dream and in another recover the whole thread of experience from the beginning—or the substance of it. In the cases of decrepit old age we often see the spirits of strong men divested of all memory of their life’s experience and returning to a second infancy—in a foretaste of their entrance upon the next existence.
We conclude, therefore, that Reincarnation is necessitated by immortality, that analogy teaches it, that science upholds it, that the nature of the soul needs it, that many strange sensations support it, and that it alone grandly solves the problem of life. The fullness of its meaning is majestic beyond appreciation, for it shows that every soul from the lowest animal to the highest archangel belongs to the infinite family of God and is eternal in its conscious essence, perishing only in its temporary disguises; that every act of every creature is followed by infallible reactions which constitute a perfect law of retribution; and that these souls are intricately interlaced with mutual relationships. The bewildering maze thus becomes a divine harmony. No individual stands alone, but trails with him the unfinished sequels of an ancestral career, and is so bound up with his race that each is responsible for all and all for each. No one can be wholly saved until all are redeemed. Every suffering we endure apparently for faults not our own assumes a holy light and a sublime dignity. This thought removes the littleness of petty selfish affairs and confirms in us the vastest hopes for mankind.
In this connection the following extracts from distinguished writers are specially interesting:—
Schopenhauer, the German Philosopher, writes (in “The World as Will and Idea”): “The fresh existence is paid for by the old age and death of a worn out existence which has perished, but which contained the indestructible seeds out of which this new existence has arisen. They are one being.”
The doctrine of metempsychosis springs from the earliest and noblest ages of the human race and has always been spread abroad in the earth as the belief of the great majority of mankind—as the teaching of all religions excepting that of the Jews and the two which have proceeded from it. The belief in this truth presents itself as the natural conviction of man wherever he reflects at all in an unprejudiced manner; where it is not found it must have been displaced by positive religious doctrine from another source. It is obvious to everyone who hears of it for the first time. See how earnestly Lessing defends it (in the last seven paragraphs of his ‘Erziehung des Mennschengeschlechts’).
Lichtenberg also says: ‘I cannot get rid of the thought that I died before I was born!’ Even the skeptical Hume says in his radical essay on immortality: ‘The metempsychosis is therefore the only system of this kind that philosophy can hearken to.’
What resists this belief is Judaism and its two descendants (Christianity and Mohammedanism) because they teach the creation of man out of nothing. Yet how difficult it has been to link the conception of future immortality to this is shown by the fact that most of the old heretics believed in reincarnation—Simonites, Manicheans, Basilidians, Valentinians, Marcionists and Gnostics. Tertullian and Justinian inform us that “even the Jews themselves have in part fallen into it.”
From a letter written by that curious genius William Blake (the artist) to his friend John Flaxman (the sculptor); (see Scoones’ English Letters, p. 361):
“In my brain are studies and chambers filled with books and pictures of old which I wrote and painted in ages of eternity before my mortal life; and these works are the delight and study of archangels.
“You, O dear Flaxman, are a sublime archangel, my friend and companion from eternity. I look back into the regions of reminiscence and behold our ancient days before this earth appeared and its vegetative mortality to my mortal vegetated eyes. I see our houses of eternity which can never be separated, though our mortal vehicles should stand at the remotest corners of heaven from each other.”
The novelist Bulwer thus expresses his opinion of this truth:
“Eternity may be but an endless series of those migrations which men call deaths, abandonments of home after home, even to fairer scenes and loftier heights. Age after age the spirit may shift its tent, fated not to rest in the dull Elysian of the heathen, but carrying with it evermore its two elements, activity and desire.”
One of Emerson’s earliest essays (“THE METHOD OF NATURE“) contains this paragraph:
“We cannot describe the natural history of the soul, but we know that it is divine. I cannot tell if these wonderful qualities which house to-day in this mortal frame, shall ever re-assemble in equal activity in a similar frame, or whether they have before had a natural history like that of this body you see before you; but this one thing I know, that these qualities did not now begin to exist, can not be sick with my sickness nor buried in my grave; but that they circulate through the Universe: before the world was, they were. Nothing can bar them out, or shut them in, but they penetrate the ocean and land, space and time, form and essence, and hold the key to universal nature.”
Edgar A. Poe writes (in “EUREKA“):
“We walk about, amid the destinies of our world existence, accompanied by dim, but ever present memories of a Destiny more vast—very distant in the by-gone time and infinitely awful.
“We live out a youth peculiarly haunted by such dreams, yet never mistaking them for dreams. As memories we know them. During our youth the distinctness is too clear to deceive us even for a moment. But the doubt of manhood dispels these feelings as illusions.”
The second portion of our study will be—Reincarnation in the Light of our own Poets.