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Against Mysticism.



I.MYSTICISM, IN THE religious meaning, is the historic title for a special discipline or frame of the soul, through which it seeks to be literally at one with the highest reality of which it knows. The aim is not merely to understand, but to enter into, or become, this First Reality. A man may draw close, in sympathy and intelligence, to the mind of another; or he may see with rapture some crowning truth of science or speculation. But the mystic demands more than this; he wishes to go, by virtue of a faculty beyond reason, higher up the path of knowledge than reason can ever take him; and the last step of his journey is marked by some act of absorption, communion, or ‘vision’. There is a whole dialect for this breakdown of the personality, which in European mysticism is usually thought of as happening during earthly life, and not as leading at once to another state of being.

wmJasPlotinus speaks of ‘contact’; his Cambridge recruit, John Smith the preacher, of ‘knitting a man’s centre, if he have any, unto the centre of divine being’;1 others of animi extensio in Deum; Sir Thomas Browne, in his musical enumeration, of ‘Christian annihilation, ecstasies, exolution, liquefaction, transformation, the kiss of the spouse, gustation of God, and ingression into the divine shadow’;—and these, he says, are a ‘handsome anticipation of heaven’ to any that have been ‘so happy as truly to understand’ them. We ask without delay, whether this aspiration is to be thought of as sane, and its hope as valid? Or is it one of the void, self-defeating impulses of man, resting on some illusion that recurs perhaps for ever? Even so, what light does it throw upon the history and pageant of the human spirit? Or is it not a metaphor, misread into a doctrine, but resting on some facts and needs of human nature which we are bound to discover and state rationally? Will any transformed religion simply dismiss, or must it not reckon with and welcome, mysticism? Such questions are prompted by Professor William James’s book on The Varieties of Religious Experience,2 where new facts are marshalled and some of the vital issues cleared.

The mystic demands…to go, by virtue of a faculty beyond reason, higher up the path of knowledge than reason can ever take him.

The true type and parent-nerve of mysticism seems to be found in the higher Hindu and Buddhist systems. In these, the First Reality is regarded as a bare abstract unity without differences. The pilgrim puts off, husk by husk, the illusion of this motley world and the evil of phenomenal existence, in order at last to be drawn and merged into the One. The hindrance is desire, which is left behind after a long training. ‘If you asked a Hindu, whether priest or peasant,’ says Sir Alfred Lyall,3 ‘what is the ultimate good to be aimed at, he would answer, “Liberation,” by which he means the freedom of the soul from its bondage of union to the body, to anything that has sensation, and its return to the infinite spirit whence it issued.’ The Buddhist philosophy, it is well known, is non-theistic; its nearest equivalent in the West is that of Schopenhauer, who also measures spiritual progress by the extinction of desire and of all the ‘will to live’.4 But he places the goal, not in any experience that involves a breach with the normal process of thought, but in the dismissal of egoism through ascetic practice and sympathy, and in the perception of the pure Ideas or types that are embodied in works of beautiful art. With the Neoplatonists, the last great masters of Greek thinking, the One figures at the apex of their system, lying beyond not only Soul and Mind but Existence itself; and their chief, Plotinus, had rare and short ecstasies in which he attained to union with it. This ‘passion for nonentity’, as it has well been called, lies at the heart of much Western and Christian mysticism, but in disguise. The churches have bred and sheltered many varieties of it, which have all had for their aim and pretension a privileged approach to the Highest. But each creed, by precise contracts and dogmas, is for ever defining its own divinity. The old, foreign, pagan First Reality, which often was not named God at all, and which seems all negatives neither anything, nor everything, nor yet avowedly nothing becomes specified and humanized. Contact with that rarefied entity had been the ideal limit of contemplation. But in such a blank summit-whiteness the Western mystic, whilst ever pressing thither, can hardly breathe, and he halts on many a ridge and platform, which is tinted by our atmosphere and reached by human sounds from the valleys. Notions of love and goodness, drawn from man, are placed to the credit of God, and ‘imputed for righteousness’. And the mystic, when he nears his goal, finds these messengers duly awaiting him. He forgets that he sent them there, and he greets them as though for the first time; he has had few consolations by the way. George Fox became aware, in such a moment, of ‘an infinite ocean of love and goodness’. Sometimes the vision vouches for the truth of pre-existing doctrines: St. Teresa5 was allowed to see how it is that God can exist in three Persons. Or sanction is given to the special theosophy which the mystic, on his intellectual side, has already elaborated, just as the ecstasy of the Neoplatonist had given him, in a state of exalted feeling, a piece of ontology he had thought out as a philosopher of this world. But, typically, the content of the sacred vision is ineffable and unrememberable; there is little left of it afterwards but an overpowering sense that the boundaries of self were lost for the time. To the question, how far this experience is valid for others, or even for the seer after he has quitted it, we can return.

II.GREAT FLOURISHING TIMES of Christian mysticism were the fourteenth, and again the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; from the latter are drawn most of the illustrations given in these stray notes. The Roman faith, so old, so adaptive, and sheltering a thousand types of humanity, has had more time to breed great visionaries than the seceding Churches. But mysticism is plainly closer to the Protestant principle of the direct relationship of the soul to God, and has been more fully trusted by Protestantism, and has there clashed less with dogma and authority. Heppe,6 a learned historian of the Quietism that grew up within the Roman fold, writes from the evangelical point of view, and treats the Catholic mystics as working blindly towards a truth which is alien to their own creed.

Quietism is the most thorough example of mysticism in the West, since it lays fullest stress on the need of passivity in the quest for truth…

Quietism is the most thorough example of mysticism in the West, since it lays fullest stress on the need of passivity in the quest for truth, and often specifies very little the precise truth given in vision. In its well-marked forms, it sprang from the heart of the Roman Church amongst the great Spanish saints of Shakespeare’s time, St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross. These were only the chiefs of a multitude. In the seventeenth century, Quietism grew into a suspected and persecuted heresy. Mme. Guyon,7 in France, and Molinos, the author of the Spiritual Guide, where the system can be seen laid out and formulated, were the best-known victims. Fénelon was hurt in the same contest, which ended in the suppression of the Quietists by the Church. Cut off from these Catholic mystics, but resembling them at many points, are Protestants like Bunyan and Fox; and a little earlier come those others of a more intellectual cast, the Platonists of Cambridge, who go back to the sources. The general lines of later mysticism within the Churches may be fairly studied from these records, though its most passionate expression is perhaps found in the German verse of Angelus Silesius.

geoherbertOur own ‘metaphysical’ poets of the same period were often shepherds or members of the Anglican flock, avoiding the familiarity and bareness of the Protestants and also the amorous intensity of the Latins. Crashaw, who found a home in the old faith, has the headlong rapture of the Spanish dreamers, and the words in his Flaming Heart throb like the light in a jewel. George Herbert lives in his word-play of tender and pious fancies; Henry Vaughan is occupied with the wonder, till then little divined in English poetry, that hangs over common natural things, the flowers and trees; he seeks, by absorption in that, to come nearer to the divine being. Traherne, discovered recently, has more mystical dogma than any others of the generation that came to its end amid an alien age in Norris of Bemerton. The clear-cut pantheism of Traherne keeps him apart from his fellows; he is a kind of English Scheffler,8 with far more poetry, and without the ‘Silesian Angel’s’ tedious jingle of impudent, sham-logical paradox. The conceit, which is a worse fault in some of the meaner mystics than their sensuality, could hardly go further than this:—

Ich weiss, dass ohne mich Gott nicht ein Nu kann leben;
Werd ich zu nicht, er muss von Noth den Geist aufgeben.

But this is nearer to the central nihilistic tenet:—

Wer ist, als wär er nicht und wär er nie geworden:
Der ist (o Seligkeit!) zu lauter Gotte worden.

And so here:

Mensch, wann dich weder Lieb berUhrt, noch Leid verletzt,
So bist du recht in Gott und Gott in dich versetzt.

This is the true Gelassenheit, or tranquillity. Scheffler wrote most of his verse as a Protestant, then went over to Rome, but continued in the same strain—a curious proof of the hospitality of either faith to an outspoken pantheist.

III.BUT SO SUBTLE an essence has often escaped the keeping of the Churches and the poets; it is not confined to the endless companies of pilgrim-souls, each bent on the same journey. Mysticism does not merely appear in these historic organizations. Secular art and letters are full of it; the rudiment of its temper is in all our lives. Whenever we wait for that which is farthest within us; when we are left alone with it, and lie still, and let it play upon us; when we trust it, and say it is the best, or the truth; and when, at last, in flashes or vision, we believe that it comes from without or from above; then, our state of mind is mystical. The essence lies in this state of mind; the subject-matter, the special truth or opinion resulting, is an historic accident. A daily experience may be cited for the double purpose of exhibiting this, and of noting what are the only terms on which discussion may be judged possible.

Whenever we wait for that which is farthest within us; when we are left alone with it, and lie still, and let it play upon us; when we trust it, and say it is the best, or the truth; and when, at last, in flashes or vision, we believe that it comes from without or from above; then, our state of mind is mystical.

Men’s intuitions of one another—‘first impressions’ as we call them—so often false, but also so often confirmed by last impressions, which are the sum of experience, while second thoughts may be warped by theory or foolish tolerance or intolerance, or beguiled by actual intercourse—these judgements seem to tell us, after all, less of what our neighbour is in himself, than of what he is to us. Shall we have anything to say to the newcomer, or will he tend to defeat and obstruct us? The shudder of the virtuous maiden or her confidant in popular melodrama, when the villain comes upon the stage, only parodies a fact. Do not women share most in those perceptions of friend and foe which the animal species have survived by possessing, and is not the breed of our race staked on their sagacity? Is it not known that children have a quicker sense of these things, just as they often have of odours, than we have, and that old men of business act wisely on prejudice? Such messages from the animal sensibilities are no oracle, but the fruit of inherited and swiftly registered thought. They are matter for science, though her methods can hardly catch up to these sensible dial-pointers and alarm-calls of the nerves. And the waiting, the flash that seems neither the work of reason nor of ourselves—though it is actually both—the confidence, the readiness to submit, are all marks of the mystical attitude.

But error! it will be said; error and superstition wait on such a temper. The intuitions may be whim or counterfeit, and the trust in them fatal; the need to correct them is perpetual. Of course—because they are the work of reason. Only reason can go wrong. A mere feeling (if the phrase means anything), can tell us nothing but its own existence. Our intuitions, or swifter processes rooted in the latent reason, and our explicit thinking, are congeners, as the hare and tortoise are both animals. The man of intuitions, therefore, is the first who ought to take the oath to reason. He must not be content with half her gifts. He must regulate his faith by the check of normal experience and evidence. His truth did not come to him from some authority that broke with reason by superior right, but from a manifestation, fallible like any other, of reason. He therefore must accept the jurisdiction of the court of reason. But then the ordinary mystic will not take that oath. His voices are inspired; other truth must give way to them; they are not to be checked by the body of known truth that has accumulated. Such a point of view held good against the old rationalism, which denied any kind of value to the voices themselves, merely saw those aberrations of ‘enthusiasm’9 which they were taken to authorize, allowed in its psychology for nothing but explicit thought, and did not know that mystical intuitions may be the secret and fruitful labour of Thought itself, afterwards to be verified by evidence and reason. The new mystic, if he is to keep any credit at all, must come to terms with the new science. He may learn his path in the darkness, and crave a vision of some ineffable grail or rosy crown of knowledge. But he must see to the cleansing of his own sanctuary, and have his revelations tested, if they are to stand, by the same scrutiny as other forms of truth; otherwise a formidable chapter of history weighs him down. Many examples for the student of madness, crime, and pathology can be gathered from the chronicle of the mystics; the well-known old collection of Görres10 has often been supplemented. False ecstasy, cruel superstitions and crazes, and sexual perversion masking as religion, abound, and insulted nature can hardly be grudged her revenges. In other fields we come upon corruptions of the intellect which are marked by mystical symptoms—the passiveness, the abandonment of mind, the refusal to bear the touch of truth. Many Western theosophists are educated and high-minded. But others are not; to spend time with them or their books is to be present at a scene of vulgarity and mental weakness. Vulgarity—that is the danger of the cheap mystic, who lacks instruction, and sees no need of it, and presumes on a supposed short cut he has found to truth. Of truth, of his truth, he speaks with the familiarity that some people use in speaking of ‘the Lord’. The work of rescuing any promising soul from these quagmires ought to be part of a reasonable educational programme. I do not digress to such matters as spiritualism; much of it stands to the true folklore whence it springs as the sophisticated sister pacing the pavement with her lures stands to the simple peasant, who is left at home and recites a charm to bring her lover.

IV.AMONG THE EDUCATED, indeed, it may now be more necessary to plead for the honest mystics than for science. It is well to notice some of the traits or needs in human nature which they, more sharply than any one else, have revealed. Leaving both theosophy and mere wonderworking  aside, we may see the value of these records to the beginner in the natural history of man. For that is the true attitude; we need be neither initiates nor scorners. On four things at least in human nature the mystics have thrown a powerful searchlight:—

  1. The protest of the soul against the sufficiency of outer forms, of external good behaviour, of works.
  1. The tragical experience, termed the night of the soul by some writers.
  1. The need of trusting the unconscious; the need of passivity in the soul’s progress.
  1. The desire, already noted, for vision or revelation.

All these things, we may well hold, must be regarded in any new reading of religion, for they seem, by all the evidence, chronic phenomena of mind. Any creed or code drawn on naturalistic lines will find those who have experience of the needs above specified facing it as patients face a new physician. I speak of a religion for those that are sick, who are a large proportion. For those that are whole a word will be added at the conclusion. Surely the failure, among the people, of a creed like positivism, on many sides so free, so noble, is due to an imperfect psychology that has waived aside the phenomena disclosed by historic mysticism.

1. The protest against forms and works.

Mystics, unless kept down, are always dissenters. They may obey the rules of their cult, but they win a circle of freedom within it. They do not deny ritual, but they leave it behind. The authority of their hierarchy soon fails to reach the recesses of their experience. The mystic, left more and more alone with the God whom his Church supplies in the first instance, tends to modify Him; and sometimes a strange new theosophy arises, which the Church resents, as in the case of Eckhart.11 All this means that the Church in question has not yet found the right food for certain natures; under its shelter, often amid its distrust, an instinct leads them to find their own nourishment. That is well, for it makes for life, for new self-expression, away from officialism, away from the fixed and revered forms, which have not, as the event shows, expressed everything. Also, the relation of mysticism to morality has been peculiar. Within the Churches it has usually implied an ascetic, sometimes a savage, discipline, as a preparation for the initiate’s journey. And those ideas of supreme goodness and beauty, which already belong to his definition of God, sometimes, as we said, accompany the traveller to the summit of his vision. But it is not essential to him that they should do so. Although many, like St. Teresa, were notable missionaries, still after a certain stage in the journey moral discipline ceases to be prominent, and the aspirant moves in a world ‘on the further side of good and evil’, out of hearing of the distinction between them. His course of ‘contemplation’ is, in some sects, technically distinguished from the lower one of ‘meditation’, which is occupied purely with perfect behaviour. And the theological conception of sin seems to bulk for less among the Roman Quietists than among the Protestants.

And the value of this point of view, the insight it shows into our wants, is evident. What divines call the insufficiency of ‘works’ (however necessary or desirable these may be) the mystic emphasizes keenly. Take a man of middle life, in strong health, with means enough, and the recognized sources of personal happiness:—love, a family, a good record for honour and charitable practice, a business or career to improve, perhaps the hope of becoming notable. Most of his friends still survive; he has few disasters or estrangements behind him, and his share of natural sorrows has not overpowered him. Let him conform without strain to the ruling religion of his climate, practising its forms much as he takes exercise, or let him dissent from it almost as thoughtlessly. There are many such men, who do much of the work of the world; most of them go on to the end in the same way. But one out of a thousand is different. In his nature there is something unawakened, and he becomes discontented. His peace and complacency are vexed; he sees that the supposed sources of happiness are not enough, that works are not enough. He is led to cast back to the unknown springs and hitherto latent needs of his personality. He must come to terms with himself, and see what he is when alone with himself. To have a good conscience about his personal behaviour is not nearly enough. The sense beats in on him that he has lived with illusions. Even if this sense is itself an illusion, it carries him into a new planet of experience. It is idle to ask him to go back; he must go through. There may be an immense review and transmutation of all the spiritual values hitherto accepted as ultimate. This seems to be a first step that is common to various kinds of mysticism. The form that such an experience may take varies widely. Often one of the authorized creeds, especially of the Protestant kind, is there to satisfy the need, and the change is called conversion. The sense of sin, the consciousness of grace, and final assurance after pain, follow. But this familiar history, though it has mystical elements, is not of the extreme mystical type. Its aim is not to win a beatified vision on earth, but to be at peace about a posthumous heaven.

The chronicle of Tolstoy reveals another course. Part of the picture I have just drawn, of a man who becomes dissatisfied with a life that seems quite satisfactory to others, applies to Tolstoy. He, too, works out, as he thinks, a wholly new set of spiritual values; he preaches the insufficiency of the usual code, the need of a change of heart. He is still more akin to the mystic in his aversion to outward forms and institutions, and in his tragic experience, which consists not in outward drama or misfortune, but is enacted wholly within. On the other hand, Tolstoy leaves the path of the mystic abruptly; he does not work for ecstasy, but searches for a new morality to practise. He tries not to get rid of the real world, but to put himself right with it. But the Protestant, the follower of Tolstoy, and the thoroughgoing mystic, have more in common than their discontent with forms and the common objects of endeavour. In various fashion, they all pass through a phase of feeling, in the record of which we may find their second great contribution to our knowledge of human nature.

2. The night of the soul.

The Christian mystics are…the Hamlets of the religious life.

The mystic has known this: and he who has known it has begun to be a mystic. It is a state of darkness and apathy; not always of acute pain, for the very sources of pain, remedial and curative, as well as of joy, seem cut off. It is a state without tears, without ebb and flow, and without passion; a state as of men drawing hard breath under a low, oppressive sky, and pacing round in the sand without seeming goal or progress, or even regress, while strange wings brush their faces without their caring; a tonelessness, in which good things once thought of as a possession unforgettable are only remembered as faint in the distance; a dryness, to use the special term of the mystics themselves; a form of desperate listlessness or accidia, the seventh deadly fault of the old list, figured by Dante12 under the image of persons buried in the slime and sending only bubbles of air to the surface. The Christian mystics are among our authorities on this condition, which they describe with a power comparable to that of the tragedians. They are the Hamlets of the religious life. The experience, so far from being their monopoly, is common to man; and hence their records are valuable; for they show it in an acute isolation, where we can study it as a physiologist studies an isolated nerve in a conscious living creature.

Professor James gives many instances; another maybe added from the merciless and superb St. John of the Cross,13 who earned the name of the ‘Ecstatic Doctor’, and died in 1591. St. John carries an air of iron high breeding into his dealings with the Divine, which contrasts well with the unmannerly or enervate familiarity of many mystics; though he revels like them, after attainment, in the usual interpretation of the Song of Songs. The Ascent of Mount Carmel, a rugged, barefoot climb; the Obscure Night of the Soul; the Flame of Living Love—the titles of his books hint of his severity and intensity. He wrote within the bounds of the faith, and invented no theosophy. Calvin did not try more wholly to quell every spark of personal pride and life in the pilgrim. And yet, for the journey commanded by John of the Cross, how much of will, of pride, of obstinate self, even while self is being effaced, must be really necessary! With a grandeur of method that becomes insane he strips the soul of one layer of humanity after another, until he leaves it at last naked, abstract, and shivering, but ready for the fierce oppression of divine joys. He carries the soul through a triple night of trial. In the Night of the Sense there is the pain of conquering the vices and appetites, less by direct struggle than by stern diversion. In the Night of the Spirit, not without many snares and lapses, the understanding itself is mortified and killed. In the last Night the pain of abolishing the memory and will must be endured. This is a pitch beyond the world-weariness of Hamlet, who may be called John’s spiritual contemporary. The early stages of this journey come nearest to the opiate sorrow of Coleridge, whose ode Dejection is the classical utterance in English on the night of the soul:—

A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,
A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,
Which finds no natural outlet, or relief,
In word, or sigh, or tear.

John of the Cross speaks in the same sense:—

The appetites of sense and spirit are asleep and mortified, without power to savour or relish aught human or divine; the affections of the soul are oppressed and constrained, without power to stir her or to find a stay in anything; the imagination is bound up, without force to speak of anything good; the memory is quenched, and the understanding darkened; likewise the will is dry and fettered, and all the powers are made void; and above all this there is a dense and heavy cloud upon the soul, holding it straitened and as though estranged from God.


3.  The need of escaping from such a state leads all the mystical spirits to see the importance of Passivity and the Unconscious.

Everywhere they are marked by their insight into that which works upon us without our will taking part and which seems to be not ourselves. In your moments of dryness, they say, wait and acquiesce; struggling will only throw you back to a lower ledge. In a modern figure; a man is in a train, and is being carried forward through a tunnel, without knowing that he is advancing, but only feeling that he is in the dark and is doing nothing. It is not his part to try and jump out of the train and run forward. The same idea is put with dignity by John of the Cross:—

In the hour of the drynesses of this night of the sense… the spiritual suffer great pains, not only for the drynesses that they suffer, but for the dread that they have of being lost on this path. They think that the spiritual good has flickered out, and that God hath left them, since they find no stay or relish in anything good. Then they weary themselves, and contrive to find some stay for their faculties on some matter of discourse, after their wont, deeming that when they do not do this or feel themselves at work, they are doing nothing. But they do it not without much disenchantment and inner disgust of their spirit, which was tasting the state of quietness and leisure. And thus, distracting themselves in one wise, they make no way in the other wise; for, by wearing their spirit, they lose the spirit of tranquillity and peace which was theirs. Thus, they are like unto him who should leave the thing that he hath done in order to turn back to it, or to whoso should go out of the city in order to return thither, or, who should give over the chase in order to turn back and renew the chase…. And in this season such men, if there be none to understand them, turn back, quitting the path or slackening, or at least bar themselves from going forward…. This is excused unto them.

Such a brooding and receptive attitude, in bold contrast with the vulgar advice to strive and cry, is more genially commended by Wordsworth in his counsel of wise passiveness:—

Think you, amid this mighty sum
Of things for ever speaking,
That nothing of itself will come,
But we must still be seeking?

But it was the mystics who keenly detected, and perhaps were the first to do so, how essential waiting and acquiescence are in the soul’s life. A fuller psychology tells us that it is ourselves whom we thus consult and suffer to bear our life onward. The perfectly healthy and opulent mind, no doubt, keeps a kind of balance between its active, missionary, energizing part, and its latent reason, which is suffered to speak in due course. But the old mystics are right in marking how we may go wrong by stirring, by fighting, or by hastening. Where, then, do they find the reward of it all?

4. In Vision and Illumination.

We are back where we began, with the close of the mystic’s book, which opened with a plain, undecorated daylight page of commandment and discipline, and then went forward to litanies and agonies, scrolled round with faint figures of undecipherable pain and colours deepening to black. Suddenly, at last, the page is turned, and a song of escape and triumph follows, with dazzling marginal illuminations; there is an attempt to paint the sun, which is impossible. Often this wonderful morning of the mystic arrives just after the ‘great dereliction’, or unpardonable fault. To Bunyan the unlettered, the severed text has a magical value in procuring his release:—

After I had been in this condition some three or four days, as I was sitting by the fire, I suddenly felt this word to sound in my heart, ‘I must go to Jesus.’ At this my former darkness and atheism fled away, and the blessed things of Heaven were set within my view. While I was on this sudden thus overtaken with surprise, Wife, said I, is there ever such a scripture, ‘I must go to Jesus’? She said she could not tell, therefore I sat musing still to see if I could remember such a place. I had not sat above two or three minutes, but that came bolting in upon me, and to an innumerable company of angels, and withal, Hebrews, the twelfth about the Mount Sion, was set before mine eyes. Then with joy I told my wife, Now I know, I know! But that night was a good night to me. I never had but few better.14

Bunyan’s endless adventures before reaching this goal are like those of the more high-born mystics translated into his quick Saxon of the roads. His experience, however, is less ambitious and metaphysical. St. Teresa was allowed ‘to see in one instant how all things are seen and contained in God’, as in one immense transparent diamond. ‘The Lord said these words unto me: She [the soul] unmakes herself, my daughter, to bring herself closer to me. It is no more she that lives, but I.’

The approaches to this indescribable state are variously told by the mystics, always with a fixed confidence in its reality. Two centuries earlier, in the German school, the touch of Nihilism is more strongly felt. The author of the Theologia Germanica verges upon it:—

For if the soul shall rise to such a state, she must be quite pure, wholly stripped, and bare of all images, and be entirely separate from all creatures, and, above all, from herself…. In the heart [of the man who has attained] there is a content, and a quietness, so that he doth not desire to know more or less, to have, to love, to die, to be or not to be, or anything of the kind. . . . A man cannot find satisfaction in God, unless all things are one to him, and one is all, and something and nothing are alike.

So Tauler, yet more frankly:—

[The soul] should be bare of all things, without need of anything, and then it can come to God in his likeness; for nothing unites so much as likeness, and receives its colour so soon. . . . Thus its union becomes so intimate that it does not work its works in the form of a creature, but in its divine form, wherein it is united to God…. Then, while it beholds God and thus becomes much more united to him, the union may become such that God altogether pours himself into it, and draws it so entirely into himself, that it has no longer any distinct perception of virtue and vice, or recognizes any marks by which it knows what itself is.15

Hegel’s account of Nirvana, in his Philosophy of History,16 shows how near these Germans were to the East. ‘In this condition of happiness, virtue or vice is out of the question; for the true blessedness is union with nothingness.’

VI. MANY SUCH ACCOUNTS could be cited of the mystic’s goal and prize. The nearer it is to the pure Oriental type, the less talk is there of goodness, or even of happiness. But in many visionaries this indeterminate state is bathed in organic feelings of joy. Wordsworth’s reports of the hour when ‘Thought was not’, and his experience by Tintern Abbey, are of this kind. And Professor James has gathered reports from a number of persons, many of whom, apparently without any preceding discipline at all, went to the length of having it revealed to them in one instant that this universe is good in essence. Professor James shows that optimism is a frequent feature of the mystical temper. A reason will be offered presently for believing this to be true of an amended, and, if the term may be used, of a rational mysticism. It also seems actually to hold good of many recent visionaries, in the sense that the contents of their vision have been a message of encouragement about the world. On the other hand, in strict logic, as well as in history, optimism is not a necessary ally of mysticism. However it be with Christian initiates, the Buddhist founds his aspiration to Nirvana on the essential evil of life, in which he believes, not as mysteriously revealed, but as a dogma of reasoned truth. He therefore seeks the removal of all bounds that are implied in the terms good and evil, pleasure and pain. And if it is correct to hold this ‘passion for nonentity’ as the distinctive mood of the consistent mystic, then all conclusions as to the nature of the world, for good or evil, which are drawn from the supposed information furnished in vision, cease to win any further credit from that circumstance. For all such conclusions show that the vision in which they seem to come deviates, or declines, from the pure pattern. Mr. Inge,17 a refined Anglican scholar, wishing in some way to legitimate the mystics, has treated pure Quietism and the ‘negative way’ as erratic types. But what, then, is the normal type? It cannot be that which happens to corroborate, as the result of vision, your or my particular doctrine, or theory of the world. To make this point clearer, it is time to come back to the question, Is the mystic revelation valid, and what light does it throw on the needs of the human spirit? The first of these issues, I repeat, can only be argued amongst those who fully admit the tribunal of thought and reason, before which alone it can be heard. On this head three considerations may be urged.

(a) Mysticism proves nothing; it adds nothing to the force of a proof which is not already complete. The thoroughgoing votary doubtless tries all other truth by its conformity with his own revelation. It seems to be nearer to him than anything he has ever known. Newman, in whom there was a deeply mystical element, was as certain of the being of a God as of his own existence; millions of Buddhists, and others, are not. There is no common ground. We therefore cannot argue with such a mind; we can only plead with those who admit our tribunal; who, perhaps, may also have thought that they have had a revelation, but who may now doubt, and wish for assurance; who may say with the poet—

We have played,
We likewise, in that subtle shade.

Revelations differ. St. Teresa’s intuition of the Trinity might as well have been of a Duality, had she been brought up in the appropriate heresy.

And such persons may come to feel that every articulate thought or judgement, which appeared to be given them by vision, was really brought thither, and imputed to vision. Revelations differ. St. Teresa’s intuition of the Trinity might as well have been of a Duality, had she been brought up in the appropriate heresy. The supposed perception of a pervading goodness in the world, experienced by Mr. James’s witnesses, is simply a theory or hope that goodness is thus pervasive, carried up into a rare state of sensation, which is then naïvely taken to prove it. It is conceivable that a man could bring with him into a condition of this kind, and there fully realize, a conviction that the essence of things is evil. Whatever theory of life is true, the point for emphasis is that vision cannot give it more likelihood, or more claim upon us, than it had before, or without. It may be said that the revelations of the mystic are valid for him. De facto, yes, if the mystic is invulnerable to argument even when he has emerged. But de jure? That is just the question.

(b) The state of rapture or ecstasy bears one highly suspicious mark when confronted with some analogous states which are artificially induced without any religious aim or moral discipline, or without any purpose at all except to escape the pain of surgery. We are told that a book has been written, in America, on the ‘anaesthetic revelation’.18 We may wake from the dream of nitrous oxide or chloroform with the well-known sense of an unspeakable secret, so near us, lately won, but hopelessly and painfully lost; our words for which, when we wake, are gibberish so far as they do not merely express ideas which we had before sleeping. Some lines may be quoted, the author of which must have been reading a popular description of Nirvana; no doubt they embody the afterthought, or the reading, rather than the dream itself; but they also express the kind of longing, permanent in human nature, for which mysticism seeks to formulate some satisfaction.


I drank the subtle fire; the engine roared:
The voices long resounded deep and clear.
Pain wrestled long with pleasure; then I soared
In spirit up into the seventh sphere.

I keep its secret, like the moth that flew,
Seeking more life, into the heart of flame.
But first, ere quite submerged by dark, I knew,
In one wild flash, the hands, the window-frame.

Then forward rolled the sea of nothingness;
With my weak arms I beat its billows back;
The voices tinkled far and meaningless;
By delicate degrees the monstrous, black,

Merciful sea of Being without bound
Came; I was one with every drop of it.
Then first I felt that Eastern saw profound:
‘Brother and sister, All and Nothing sit.’

Such death be mine! No memory of joy
Or doing good, and none of sin or woe;
No waking to this finite crude alloy
Of soul and substance in their ceaseless flow.

Professor James seems to imply that in such a state there may be a true revelation, especially from those latent parts of the mind, for which the word ‘subconsciousness’ has been found as a metaphor for their imagined sphere or receptacle. But the nonsense talked at waking suggests that the feeling of the ‘great secret’ lost is akin to hallucination; that there has really been nothing to lose, except a dream-state, which itself is only a mass of waking ideas without their rational co-ordination, and which offers a sham fruition to the passion for nonentity.

(c) It agrees with this point of view, that the alleged fusion with God, or with the First Reality, involves a rupture in the process of thinking. Up to a point, nothing is so systematic as mysticism. Goethe has well called it ‘the scholastic of the heart, the dialectic of the feelings’. But at an arbitrary point the dialectic stops; there is a sudden snap in the chain. The aim is not to comprehend the First Reality, or resemble God morally by purity of will; it is virtually to become God. Professor A. Seth19 has dealt with this aspiration simply and steadily. ‘Mysticism,’ he says, ‘does not distinguish between what is metaphorical and what is susceptible of a literal interpretation.’ Hence, ‘it is prone to taste a relation of ethical harmony’—let us add, emotional and imaginative harmony, since ethics tend to vanish in the visionary state—’as if it were one of substantial identity or chemical fusion; and, taking the sensuous language of religious feeling literally, it bids the individual aim at nothing less than interpenetration of essence’. This criticism answers broadly to that of Hegel, in the passage already quoted, upon the ambition of the Hindu and Buddhist. The generic principle of the former, he says, is ‘Spirit in a state of Dream’. ‘The sensuous matter and content is in each case simply and in the rough taken up, and carried over it into the sphere of the universal and immeasurable.’20 The logical limit of the mystic’s progress, were his hope sound, would be not vision but death, with the dissolution of personality and of the body.

Man, in his desire for the infinite, seems sporadically liable to the supreme illusion that he can merge himself in the supreme reality.

But it is not enough to suspect such mysticism on philosophical grounds; it is philosophical to ask what it tells us about the history of our own nature. Man, in his desire for the infinite, seems sporadically liable to the supreme illusion that he can merge himself in the supreme reality. This is one of the self-defeating impulses in his nature; but it also is entangled with other impulses that may make for his advance. What really justifies the mystic, nay, what actually spurs him on his way, is not the quest for the great illusion—which is only, after all, an imaginative way of stating an ideal term—but the need to express those other powers and cravings, some of which have been noted here. He thinks he is led on by vis a froute; he is really driven by vis a tergo. He wants to get beyond mere outward good behaviour, to shatter old forms which his feeling has outgrown, to put due trust in the latent and salutary powers of his nature, and to find his way through the darker experience of the inward life. And he wants, above all, to aspire; and if he cheats himself with metaphor in his tireless pilgrimage, at least he succeeds in aspiring.

VII. TRYING TO SPEAK of all this, not without some historic and dramatic sympathy, I may end by remarking that one kind of mystical attitude, less dangerous and lonely than those referred to above, has yet to be named. The moral indifference attributed to Pantheism is more a matter of supposed logic than of recorded fact. Such a temper as that of Giordano Bruno or Walt Whitman has ever been allied with a love of the broad and generous life of the world; or, in more technical words, with an inclination not to strip away the manifold of sense and get down to bare unity, as in the paler Eastern systems, but to grasp as much of the manifold as is possible at once, in the light of the One. Even without any Pantheistic doctrine, the better impulse of the mystic may be bent towards breaking down the barrier, not between man and the supposed First Reality, but between man and his fellows, whose reality is less questionable. The ideal limit, which is the total identifying of our personality with that of others, can only be partially approached. But the old Eastern formula, ‘This art thou,’ so often invoked by Schopenhauer21 in his nobly impersonal system of ethics, may be addressed by the mystic to himself in presence not only of human beings, but of the animals; not to speak of the rest of the organic and inorganic world. It is the formula which thins the barrier made between individuals by the selfish will, and it implies a release from the cravings of that will. While the body and the life remain, such a fusion can only be approximate. This old formula does not profess to reveal any new truth in ecstasy, such as that the world is good; it only realizes what is believed already; but life and self-training tend to make the truth effectual. Hence, it stands with a higher authority than the optimistic raptures cited by Professor James. In so far as the aim is achieved, the personality is enriched and disimprisoned.

schopSchopenhauer founds his discipline upon pessimism; logically, it need imply neither pessimism nor optimism; but it is more nearly linked in the actual evolution of man to the latter. It certainly produces a more hopeful and humane temper than the ordinary discipline of the religious mystic, even although many of this class, such as St. Teresa, were, as has been said, practical organizers. We may go to the doctors of the soul for the virulent drugs or soft nepenthes or slow surgeries required for sick humanity. But they give no adequate rule for a life of laborious health, of sanguine and creative energy. The poets of a joyous and victorious cast find the ideal expression for such natures, whom a rush of force and affirmation carries past the reefs on which the others founder. Professor James devotes two chapters22 to describing persons of this type. They are biologically better than their opposites. For they tend to increase the sum of life; and it is the actual survival of mankind that shows them to be nearer the mark, while the isolated mystic, whose scheme of existence often leaves him celibate, is a self-destroying species; although that species at present always recurs, the causes for its origin lying deep in humanity. We must cherish the hope that one day the bitter experience and illusory vision which are at the root of official mysticism may tend to die out, at any rate in the West. The process may be as long as the step from primitive idolatry, and meantime the regular mystics and their dispensaries must hold a regarded place. But science now forces us to think in long periods of time. Translating into the mood of poetry, we may say that we are most truly ourselves, and nearest to truthful vision, when we happen to be one in heart with our kind, or feel that we are borne along as a bubble, whose bursting is a matter of indifference, on the everlasting tide of life and fertility.

OElton_FdoddOliver Elton (1861-1945) attended Oxford (Corpus), taught at Liverpool, and was the author of a number of books on literature and art. This essay was originally published in The Fortnightly Review in September 1904 as “A Note on Mysticism” and was subsequently collected (and annotated) in Modern Studies (1907). Additional citations below added by the present editor are so marked.


  1. John Smith, Select Discourses, Discourse I, ed. 1873. This phrase is given as a rendering of Plotinus’s κέντρον κέντρῳ συνάψας.
  2. The Gifford Lectures, 1901-2 (London, 1903). See especially Lectures XVI and XVII.
  3. Religious Systems of the World, 1905, pp. 120-1, ‘Hinduism’, by Sir A. Lyall: ‘The true goal and purpose of passing through all these worlds and existences is to get finally beyond the power that afflicts men with sensation…. The Hindu thinks it safest to travel beyond all possible vicissitudes of joy and sorrow into a state that is likened to dreamless sleep.’
  4. Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, bk. IV, §§ 67-8; Ergänzungen, ch. Xlvii; Grundlage der Moral, § 18; Parerga und Paralipomena, § 115. These passages give Schopenhauer’s altruistic code; the following ones give his theory of escape from the pressure of the will through the study of art:—Die Welt, &c., bk. III, passim; Ergänzungen, ch. xxxiv; and Parerga, ch. xix. § 205. ‘Das eigentliche Problem der Metaphysik des Schönen lässt sich sehr einfach so ausdrücken: wie ist Wohlgefallen und Freude an einem Gegenstande möglich, ohne irgend eine Beziehung desselben, auffassen, und dass diese Auffassung zu ihrer Bedingung ihr wesentliches Korrelat, das willensfreie Subjekt des Erkennens, d. h. eine reine Intelligenz ohne Absichten und Zwecke, habe.’ Ed. note: In English here.
  5. James, Varieties, p. 411.
  6. H. Heppe, Geschichte der quietistischen Mystik in der katholischen Kirche, Berlin, 1875, p. 2: ‘Aber auch die Mystik des Mittelalters beruhte auf jenem unabweisbaren Drange des evangelisch-angeregten Herzens…. Doch war der Gedanke der Rechtfertigung des gefallenen Menschen durch gläubige Aneignung der verdienten Gerechtigkeit Christi der katholischen Mystik im Allgemeinem fremd.‘ Heppe expounds the Roman mystics faithfully, but finds the ultimate repose of the mystical spirit in the Protestant churches, and has no notion of it as a radical element of secular human nature.
  7. For Madame Guyon and Fénelon, see Prof. L. Crouslé’s elaborate Fénelon et Bossuet, 2 vols., 1894; and Heppe, passim. Miguel de Molinos, Guida Spirituale, 1675: Eng. tr., 1688 and 1699. Molinos merits dispassionate study; there is an interesting notice of his abjuration and fate in Three Letters from Italy (anon., 1688).
  8. Des Angelus Silesius ‘Cherubinischer Wandersmann’ (reprint of 1675 ed.), Jena and Leipzig, ed. Bölsche, 1905, bk. I, Nos. 8, 92, 293. Cp. bk. II, No. 200; III, No. 37 (‘God perishes of anguish, because I do not belong to him’), &c., &c.
  9. See Locke’s famous chapter, ‘Enthusiasm’, in his Essay, bk. IV, ch. xix—the challenge to a hundred battles.
  10. Görres, Die christliche Mystik, 4 vols., 1836-42. I have not seen the modern accounts (named by James, Varieties, p. 406 note) by Ribet and Vallgornera.
  11. ‘Meister’Eckhart, who died about 1327, was the most pagan of all the great mediaeval mystics, engrafted a pantheism, founded by the Inquisition into disavowal, but his work remained.
  12. Inferno, vii. 100-130.
  13. S. Juan de la Cruz: in Bibl. de Autores españoles (Rivadeneyra), vol. xxvii (1853). See Subida del Monte Carmelo, bk. I, ch. iii; bk. III, ch. v, and Noche escura del Alma, bk I, ch. viii.
  14. Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.
  15. Trauler, Sermons, tr. Winkworth, p. 327: 4th S. after Easter.
  16. Hegel, Philosophy of History, Eng. tr. by Sibree, 1861 (Bohn), p. 177.
  17. W. R. Inge, Christian Mysticism (Bampton Lectures, 1899), pp. 19, 20. ‘When Harnack says “Mysticism is nothing else than rationalism applied to a sphere above reason”, he would have done better to say that it is “reason applied to a sphere above rationalism’” (p. 21). Better say, the mystic reasons about irrationals, but refuses to reason about their reality.
  18. The Anæsthetic Revelation and the Gist of Philosophy, Benjamin Paul Blood, New York, 1874. See also William James’s review of Blood’s book in The Atlantic, November 1874.— Ed. note.
  19. Encl. Brit., ed. ix, art. ‘Mysticism’.
  20. See note 16 supra: op. cit., p. 147.
  21. See note 4, supra. Ergänzungen, ch. xlvii: ‘In Folge dieses Egoismus ist unser Aller Grundirrthum dieser, dass wir einander Nicht-Iche sind. Hingegen ist gerecht, edel, menchenfreundlich seyn, nichts Anderes, als meine Metaphysik in Handlugnen übersetzen.’ Schopenhauer then repeats the Brahmanenformel, tat twam asi, “Dies bist Du”‘.
  22. Varieties, Lectures IV and V
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david thurman
david thurman
8 years ago

Wow that was a weird piece. If it was classical music I would say it was some obscure wierd students work.

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