Animism, Ancient And Modern

After this metaphysical bath we return invigorated to the world

of concrete experience dear alike to the common-sense thinker

and the modern investigator. Do the facts of life, as ordinarily

presented, or as systematised in reflection, at all point in the

direction of the doctrine of immanent ideas? It will be seen that

this question admits of an affirmative answer. But the term

"idea" must be taken as embracing psychi
existence in its

entirety--that is to say, feeling and will, as well as reason. The

dry bones of reason must be clothed with flesh and blood. The

appeal is to actual experience. Let Walt Whitman give us his.

"Doubtless there comes a time when one feels through his

whole being, and pronouncedly the emotional part, that identity

between himself subjectively and Nature objectively which

Schelling and Fichte are so fond of pressing. How it is I know

not, but I often realise a presence here--in clear moods I am

certain of it, and neither chemistry nor reasoning, nor aesthetics

will give the least explanation."

Walt Whitman mentions Fechner. Here is James's masterly

summary of Fechner's general view in this regard. "The original

sin, according to Fechner, of both our popular and our scientific

thinking, is our inveterate habit of regarding the spiritual not as

the rule but as an exception in the midst of nature. Instead of

believing our life to be fed at the breasts of the greater life, our

individuality to be sustained by the greater individuality, which

must necessarily have more consciousness and more independence

than all that it brings forth, we habitually treat whatever

lies outside of our life as so much slag and ashes of

life only; or if we believe in a Divine Spirit, we fancy him on

the one side as bodiless and nature as soulless on the other.

What comfort or peace, Fechner asks, can come from such a

doctrine? The flowers wither at its breath, the stars turn into

stone; our own body grows unworthy of our spirit and sinks into

a tenement for carnal senses only. The book of nature turns into

a volume on mechanics, in which whatever has life is treated as

a sort of anomaly; a great chasm of separation yawns between

us and all that is higher than ourselves, and God becomes a nest

of thin abstractions."

It is sufficiently well known that primitive man did not indulge

in these "thin" views of nature. He interpreted the events and

changes around him on the analogy of human activities; he

looked upon them as manifestations of living wills. And indeed

how could he do otherwise? For as yet he knew of no mode of

activity other than his own. At first those objects and

happenings were singled out which were of most practical

interest, or which most distinctly forced themselves upon the

attention. The beast of prey which threatened his life, the noisy

brook, the roaring waves, the whisperings and cracklings in the

woods--all argued the presence of life and will. So too with

mountains, avalanches, sun, moon, stars, clouds, caves, fire,

light, dark, life, death. So more especially with the storm which

sweeps across the land, the thunder which shakes the solid

earth, and the lightning which flashes from the one side of

heaven to the other. Such were the phenomena on which his

intellect worked, and in which he discovered all manner of

useful or harmful causal relations. Such were the phenomena

which produced in him emotions of awe and terror, joy and

delight. To all of them he ascribed mental life like unto his own.

Indeed it was only by such a view that he could at all

understand them, or bring himself into living connection with


From these primitive times onward, each century in the history

of civilisation has brought a wider outlook. But the original

tendency to animism has persisted and still persists. It has

behind it an undying impulse. It manifests its vitality, not only

among the uninstructed masses, but in the most select ranks of

scientists and philosophers. And thus it is not too much to say

that the idea of a universal life in nature is as firmly rooted

today as it was in the dawn of man's intellectual development.

The form in which the idea has been presented has changed

with the ages. Mythology succeeded animism, and has in turn

yielded to many curious and vanished theories, polytheistic,

gnostic, pantheistic, and the rest. Now, the belief in distinct

beings behind natural phenomena has virtually disappeared. Not

so the belief in some form of universal life or consciousness--of

which belief representative types will be given directly.

Of the persistence of the mental attitude in the modern child,

Ruskin gives a charming example, in his "Ethics of the Dust."

"One morning after Alice had gone, Dotty was very sad and

restless when she got up; and went about, looking into all the

corners, as if she would find Alice in them, and at last she came

to me, and said, 'Is Alie gone over the great sea?' And I said,

'Yes, she is gone over the great deep sea, but she will come

back again some day.' Then Dotty looked round the room; and I

had just poured some water out into the basin; and Dotty ran to

it, and got up on a chair, and dashed her hand through the water,

again and again; and cried, 'Oh, deep, deep sea! Send little Alice

back to me.'" On this, Ruskin remarks--"The whole heart of

Greek mythology is in that; the idea of a personal being in the

elemental power; of its being moved by prayer; and of its

presence everywhere, making the broken diffusion of the

element sacred." It would seem that Dotty did not definitely

personify the element, but was rather in the animistic stage. The

identifying of the natural element or object with a definite

personality is a further step taken, as Ruskin says, by the Greeks

preeminently. But the beauty and the suggestive quality of the

incident remain, whichever view be taken.

A still more deeply suggestive example is found in Wordsworth's

description of a boyish night adventure of his on Esthwaite

Lake. For it shows the inner workings of a mind impressed

by specially striking natural objects, and by the obscurely

realised powers which they dimly manifest.

"I dipped my oars into the silent lake,

And as I rose upon the stroke my boat

Wont heaving through the waters like a swan;--

When, from behind that craggy steep till then

The horizon's bound, a huge peak, black and huge,

As if with voluntary power instinct

Upreared its head. I struck and struck again;

And, growing still in stature, the grim shape

Towered up between me and the stars, and still,

For so it seemed, with purpose of its own,

And measured motion like a living thing,

Strode after me. With trembling oar I turned,

And through the silent waters made my way

Back to the covert of the willow-tree;

There in her mooring-place I left my bark,

And through the meadows homeward went, in grave

And serious mood. But after I had seen

That spectacle, for many days my brain

Worked with a dim and undetermined sense

Of unknown modes of being."

There we have revealed to us the soul of animism whether

ancient or modern!

The older animism was crude and uncritical. In proportion as

men learnt to reflect upon their experience, it was bound to be

modified, and to submit to reactionary influences. Such was the

case at the very beginning of philosophical and scientific

enquiry--and such was the case also at the opening of the

"modern" era. Speaking generally, it may be said that as

knowledge of natural law extended, the idea of mental activities

in external nature was ousted. Mechanical views of the universe

gradually prevailed, and reached a passing climax in Descartes'

contention that even animals are automata!

"A passing climax"--for worse was to come. Man himself was

to be brought under the remorseless sway of physics interpreted

by mathematics. The _Homme Machine_ idea found stalwart

supporters, and gained many adherents. All forms of animism

seemed to be overwhelmed once for all. The nature-mystic

appeared to be an idle dreamer or a deluded simpleton. Nor is

the course of such exaggerations yet ended. In the pages of the

"Nineteenth Century," Huxley could seriously propound as a

thesis for discussion the question--"Are animals automata?"

And books with such titles as "The Human Machine" have still

considerable circulation.

But just as criticism undermined the immaturities and

exaggerations of the older animism, so is it undermining the

more dangerous arrogance of an exaggerated and soulless

materialism. Speculation is now trending back to a critical

animism, and, enriched by all that physical science has had to

give, is opening out new world-views of transcendent interest.

The nature-mystic is coming into his own again. It must be his

care to keep abreast of thought and discovery, and so avoid that

tendency to exaggeration, and even fanaticism, which has, in

the past, so greatly damaged the cause of Mysticism at large.

The animistic theory is now being propounded thus. Why should

not all transfers of energy, whether in living or non-living

bodies, be accompanied by a "somewhat "that is akin to

man's mental life? The arguments in favour of such a view are

numerous, many-sided, and cumulative. The hypothesis of

evolution gives them keen edge and gathering force. Behind the

cosmic process men feel there must be a creative power, an

animating impulse. The struggle upwards must mean something.

Mechanism is but a mode of working--its Ground is soul, or spirit.

Thus a new day is dawning for a soundly critical animism. It is

realised that to formulate "laws" in accordance with which

certain modes of happening take place is not to pierce to the

heart of things, but to rest on the surface. Mechanism explains

nothing and leaves us poor indeed! Whereas, the universe is a

majestic manifestation of Becoming--of a veritable

development of life.

The line between organic and inorganic is fading more and

more from the minds of investigators. Protoplasm, for instance,

mingles together mechanical, chemical, and vital in a fused

whole, which it passes the wit of man to analyse. The

connection between body and soul is similarly found to defy the

old distinctions between matter and mind. Clearly a universal

life is pulsating in the whole; genuine impulses, not mechanical

stresses and strains, are the causes of the upward sweep into

fuller consciousness and richer complexity of experience. The

old conception of a world soul is achieving a new lease of life,

and is dowering science with the human interest and the mystic

glow it so sorely lacks.