A Reply to Our Critics
(Our final answer to several objections.)
Theosophist, July, 1881
In the ordinary run of daily life speech may be silver, while “silence is gold.” With the editors of periodicals devoted to some special object “silence” in certain cases amounts to cowardice and false pretences. Such shall not be our case.
We are perfectly aware of the fact that the simple presence of the word “Spiritualism” on the title-page of our journal “causes it to lose in the eyes of materialist and sceptic fifty per cent of its value”—for we are repeatedly told so by many of our best friends, some of whom promise us more popularity, hence an increase of subscribers, would we but take out the “contemptible” term and replace it by some other, synonymous in meaning, but less obnoxious phonetically to the general public. That would be acting under false pretences. The undisturbed presence of the unpopular word will indicate our reply.
That we did not include “Spiritualism” among the other subjects to which our journal is devoted ‘ in the hopes that it should do us good service among the Spiritualists” is proved by the following fact: From the first issue of our Prospectus to the present day, subscribers from “spiritual” quarters have not amounted to four per cent on our subscription list. Yet, to our merriment, we are repeatedly spoken of as “Spiritualists” by the press and our opponents. Whether really ignorant of, or purposely ignoring our views, they tax us with belief in spirits. Not that we would at all object to the appellation—too many far worthier and wiser persons than we firmly believing in “Spirits”—but that would be acting under “false pretences” again. And so we are called a “Spiritualist” by persons who foolishly regard the term as a “brand,” while the orthodox Spiritualists, who are well aware that we attribute their phenomena to quite another agency than spirits, resent our peculiar opinions as an insult to their belief, and in their turn ridicule and oppose us.
This fact alone ought to prove, if anything ever will, that our journal pursues an honest policy. That, established for the one and sole object, namely, for the elucidation of truth, however unpopular, it has remained throughout true to its first principle—that of absolute impartiality. And that as fully answers another charge, viz., that of publishing views of our correspondents with which we often do not concur ourselves. “Your journal teems with articles upholding ridiculous superstitions and absurd ghost-stories,” is the complaint in one letter. “You neglect laying a sufficient stress in your editorials upon the necessity of discriminating between facts and error, and in the selection of the matter furnished by your contributors,” says another. A third one accuses us of not sufficiently rising “from supposed facts to principles, which would prove to our readers in every case the former no better than fictions.” In other words, as we understand it, we are accused of neglecting scientific induction. Our critics may be right, but we also are not altogether wrong. In the face of the many crucial and strictly scientific experiments made by our most eminent savants, it would take a wiser sage than King Solomon himself to decide now between fact and fiction. The query, “What is truth?” is more difficult to answer in the nineteenth than in the first century of our era. The appearance of his “evil genius” to Brutus in the shape of a monstrous human form, which, entering his tent in the darkness and silence of the night, promised to meet him in the plains of Philippi, was a fact to the Roman tyrannicide; it was but a dream to his slaves, who neither saw nor heard anything on that night. The existence of an antipodal continent and the heliocentric system were facts to Columbus and Galileo years before they could actually demonstrate them; yet the existence of America, as that of our present solar system, was as fiercely denied several centuries back as the phenomena of Spiritualism are now. Facts existed in the “pre-scientific past,” and errors are as thick as berries in our scientific present. With whom then is the criterion of truth to be left? Are we to abandon it to the mercy and judgment of a prejudiced society, constantly caught trying to subvert that which it does not understand; ever seeking to transform sham and hypocrisy into synonyms of “propriety” and “respectability”? Or shall we blindly leave it to modern exact science, so-called? But science has neither said her last word nor can her various branches of knowledge rejoice in their qualification of exact but so long as the hypotheses of yesterday are not upset by the discoveries of to-day. “Science is atheistic, phantasmagorical, and always in labour with conjecture. It can never become knowledge per se. Not to know is its climax,” says Prof. A. Wilder, our New York Vice-President, certainly more of a man of science himself than many a scientist better known than he is to the world. Moreover, the learned representatives of the Royal Society have as many cherished hobbies, and are as little free of prejudice and preconception as any other mortals. It is perhaps to religion and her handmaid theology, with her “seventy-times seven” sects, each claiming and none proving its right to the claim of truth, that in our search for it we ought to humbly turn? One of our severe Christian Areopagites actually expresses the fear that “even some of the absurd stories of the Purânas have found favour with The Theosophist.” But let him tell us, Has the Bible any less “absurd ghost-stories” and “ridiculous miracles” in it than the Hindu Purânas and Buddhist Mahâ Jâtaka, or even one of the most “shamefully superstitious publications” of the Spiritualists? (We quote from his letter.) We are afraid in one and all it is but
Faith, fanatic faith, once wedded fast
To some dear falsehood, hugs it to the last . . .
and—we decline accepting anything on faith. In common with most of the periodicals we remind our readers in every number of The Theosophist that its “Editors disclaim responsibility for opinions expressed by contributors,” with some of which they (we) do not agree. And that is all we can do. We never started out in our paper as teachers, but rather as humble and faithful recorders of the innumerable beliefs, creeds, scientific hypotheses, and—even “superstitions” current in the past ages and now more than lingering yet in our own. Never having been a sectarian—i.e., an interested party—we maintain that in the face of the present situation, during that incessant warfare, in which old creeds and new doctrines, conflicting schools and authorities, revivals of blind faith and incessant scientific discoveries, running a race as though for the survival of the fittest, swallow up and mutually destroy and annihilate each other—daring indeed were that man who would assume the task of deciding between them! Who, we ask, in the presence of those most wonderful and most unexpected achievements of our great physicists and chemists would risk to draw the line of demarcation between the possible and the impossible? Where is the honest man who, conversant at all with the latest conclusions of archæology, philology, palæography and especially Assyriology, would undertake to prove the superiority of the religious “superstitions” of the civilized Europeans over those of the “heathen,” and even of the fetish-worshipping savages?
Having said so much, we have made clear, we hope, the reason why, believing no mortal man infallible, nor claiming that privilege for ourselves, we open our columns to the discussion of every view and opinion, provided it is not proved absolutely supernatural. Besides, whenever we make room for “unscientific” contributions it is when these treat upon subjects which lie entirely out of the province of physical science—generally upon questions that the average and dogmatic scientist rejects à priori and without examination, but which the real man of science finds not only possible, but after investigation very often fearlessly proclaims the disputed question as an undeniable fact. In respect to most transcendental subjects the sceptic can no more disprove than the believer prove his point. Fact is the only tribunal we submit to, and recognize it without appeal. And before that tribunal a Tyndall and an ignoramus stand on a perfect par. Alive to the truism that every path may eventually lead to the highway as every river to the ocean, we never reject a contribution simply because we do not believe in the subject it treats upon, or disagree with its conclusions. Contrast alone can enable us to appreciate things at their right value; and unless a judge compares notes and hears both sides he can hardly come to a correct decision. Dum vitant stulti vitia in contraria is our motto; and we seek to walk prudently between the many ditches without rushing into either. For one man to demand from another that he shall believe like himself, whether in a question of religion or science, is supremely unjust and despotic. Besides, it is absurd. For it amounts to exacting that the brains of the convert, his organs of perception, his whole organization, in short, be reconstructed precisely on the model of that of his teacher, and that he shall have the same temperament and mental faculties as the other has. And why not his nose and eyes, in such a case? Mental slavery is the worst of all slaveries. It is a state over which brutal force having no real power, it always denotes either an abject cowardice or a great intellectual weakness.
Among many other charges, we are accused of not sufficiently exercising our editorial right of selection. We beg to differ and contradict the imputation. As every other person blessed with brains instead of calves’ feet jelly in his head we certainly have our opinions upon things in general, and things occult especially, to some of which we hold very firmly. But these being our personal views, and though we have as good a right to them as any, we have none whatever to force them for recognition upon others. We do not believe in the activity of “departed spirits”—others, and among these many of the Fellows of the Theosophical Society, do, and we are bound to respect their opinions so long as they respect ours. To follow every article from a contributor with an Editor’s Note correcting “his erroneous ideas” would amount to turning our strictly impartial journal into a sectarian organ. We decline such an office of “Sir Oracle.”
The Theosophist is a journal of our Society. Each of its Fellows being left absolutely untrammelled in his opinions, and the body representing collectively nearly every creed, nationality and school of philosophy, every member has a right to claim room in the organ of his Society for the defence of his own particular creed and views. Our Society being an absolute and an uncompromising Republic of Conscience, preconception and narrow-mindedness in science and philosophy have no room in it. They are as hateful and as much denounced by us as dogmatism and bigotry in theology; and this we have repeated usque ad nauseam.
Having explained our position, we will close with the following parting words to our sectarian friends and critics. The materialists and sceptics who upbraid us in the name of modern science—the dame who always shakes her head and finger in scorn at everything she has not yet fathomed—we would remind of the suggestive but too mild words of the great Arago: “He is a rash man who outside of pure mathematics pronounces the word ‘impossible.’” And to theology, which under her many orthodox masks throws mud at us from behind every secure corner, we retort by Victor Hugo’s celebrated paradox: “In the name of Religion we protest against all and every religion!”