June 26, 2021

1. William James and the
Society for Psychical Research

I read a lively essay by William James, “What Psychical Research Has Accomplished.” James discusses the activities of the Society for Psychical Research, and he also discusses the occult in general. The Society was founded in 1882, and is still going. James was President of the Society in 1894, Henri Bergson in 1913, and E. R. Dodds in 1960.

I enjoyed James’ essay, not only for its content, but also because James writes excellent prose. He says that “the very words ‘psychical research’” awaken “loathing” in scientific people. I used the same word, long before I read James; I said, “academics avoid the occult, and regard it with a mixture of fear and loathing.” The occult is as unpopular with academics as it is popular with leading philosophers and novelists.

One department that rejects psychic phenomena without a hearing is Psychology. Psychology is only comfortable with what can be seen and touched and counted. James speaks of, “the great induction of psychology that all our knowledge comes by the use of our eyes and ears and other senses.” James says that “the mass of phenomena generally called mystical” are treated with “contemptuous scientific disregard.... Physiology will have nothing to do with them. Orthodox psychology turns its back upon them. Medicine sweeps them out; or, at most, when in an anecdotal vein, records a few of them as ‘effects of the imagination.’”

James speaks of the orthodox scholarly belief that reports of psychic phenomena “must be fallacious.” Without investigating these phenomena, the scholar presumes they’re false. But these phenomena are infinite in number, and come from every corner of human history.

The phenomena are there [James writes], lying broadcast over the surface of history. No matter where you open its pages, you find things recorded under the name of divinations, inspirations, demoniacal possessions, apparitions, trances, ecstasies, miraculous healings and... occult powers possessed by peculiar individuals over persons and things in their neighborhood. We suppose that ‘mediumship’ originated in Rochester, N. Y., and animal magnetism with Mesmer; but once look behind the pages of official history, in personal memoirs, legal documents, and popular narratives and books of anecdote, and you will find that there never was a time when these things were not reported.

James’ biographer, Robert Richardson, says that James,

objected to the over-eager dismissal of the subject by eminent scientists, and he was equally critical of the over-eager credulousness of the spiritualists. About the “phenomena” themselves he was non-committal. “It is certain,” he wrote, “that, if once admitted, they [the spirit phenomena] must make a great revolution in our conception of the physical universe.” This question would interest him off and on for the rest of his life.

James deserves credit for grasping that the occult can profoundly affect our view of the world.

James had a certain aversion for the term “supernatural.” Richardson writes,

James’s fundamental view of psychic phenomena was at this time much like that of William Chambers, author of the proto-evolutionist Vestiges of Creation. Chambers wrote in the late 1860s to Alfred Russel Wallace: “My idea is that the term ‘supernatural’ is a gross mistake. We have only to enlarge our conception of the natural and all will be right.”

James notes that our unconscious can keep time surprisingly well, and wake us at an appointed time, like an alarm clock:

During sleep, many persons have something in them which measures the flight of time better than the waking self does. It wakes them at a pre-appointed hour.... It may produce an hallucination — as in a lady who informs me that at the instant of waking she has a vision of her watch-face with the hands pointing (as she has often verified) to the exact time. It may be the feeling that some physiological period has elapsed; but, whatever it is, it is subconscious.

Dostoyevsky noticed this phenomenon, and wrote, “I know how to wake up when I want to. I go to bed saying ‘seven o’clock,’ and I wake up at seven o’clock, ‘ten o’clock’ and I wake up at ten o’clock.”1

In an earlier issue, I discussed James’ friend Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce argued that strong reasoning is a cable, not a chain, a cable made up of innumerable wires. Each of these wires or arguments is small, but together they make a strong cable, a strong case. I wrote,

Peirce argued that sound reasoning is more like a cable than a chain. Sound reasoning relies on “the multitude and variety of its arguments.” It’s like “a cable whose fibers,” soever “slender, are sufficiently numerous and intimately connected.”

Instead of using the cable/chain analogy, James uses the fagot/chain analogy (“fagot” meaning a bundle of sticks). A “fagot case” is a case where the arguments

were independent of one another, and came from different quarters. Now, the evidence for telepathy, weak and strong, taken just as it comes, forms a fagot and not a chain. No one item cites the content of another item as part of its own proof. But taken together the items have a certain general consistency; there is a method in their madness, so to speak. So each of them adds presumptive value to the lot.2

Even if many examples of psychic power are fake, the argument is strong if one example is genuine.

If I may employ the language of the professional logic-shop, a universal proposition can be made untrue by a particular instance. If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black, you must not seek to show that no crows are; it is enough if you prove one single crow to be white. My own white crow is Mrs. Piper. In the trances of this medium, I cannot resist the conviction that knowledge appears which she has never gained by the ordinary waking use of her eyes and ears and wits.

What the source of this knowledge may be I know not, and have not the glimmer of an explanatory suggestion to make; but from admitting the fact of such knowledge I can see no escape. So when I turn to the rest of the evidence, ghosts and all, I cannot carry with me the irreversibly negative bias of the ‘rigorously scientific’ mind, with its presumption as to what the true order of nature ought to be. I feel as if, though the evidence be flimsy in spots, it may nevertheless collectively carry heavy weight.

If you become receptive to one aspect of the occult — telepathy, for example — then you’re likely to become receptive to the occult in general. You’ve seen the rational-scientific worldview break down, you begin to see the world differently. As James puts it,

One’s reaction on hearsay testimony is always determined by one’s own experience. Most men who have once convinced themselves, by what seems to them a careful examination, that any one species of the supernatural exists, begin to relax their vigilance as to evidence, and throw the doors of their minds more or less wide open to the supernatural along its whole extent.

So if our experience makes us believe in one type of occult phenomenon, we’ll probably become receptive to other types of occult phenomenon. And if we want to build an argument in favor of the occult, we should start with the simplest, most common type of occult phenomenon, then try to extend that phenomenon. As James says, “science always takes a known kind of phenomenon, and tries to extend its range.”

If you’re receptive to the occult, James says, the Society’s reports make dull reading: “The minute work over insignificant cases and quiddling discussion of ‘evidential values,’ of which the Society’s reports are full, seems insufferably tedious. And it is so; few species of literature are more truly dull than reports of phantasms.”

There’s a wide gulf, James says, between the hard-headed skeptics who presume the occult is false, and those who presume it’s true (one thinks of the gulf in our time between Democrats and Republicans). The Society for Psychical Research hoped to bridge this gulf by taking a rigorous, scientific approach to psychic phenomena. James says, “He who will pay attention to facts of the sort dear to mystics, while reflecting upon them in academic-scientific ways, will be in the best possible position to help philosophy.”2B

James leaves no doubt about his own position; he rejects the orthodox view of nature, the rational-scientific view:

It is a miserable thing for a question of truth to be confined to mere presumption and counter-presumption, with no decisive thunderbolt of fact to clear the baffling darkness.... For me the thunderbolt has fallen, and the orthodox belief has not merely had its presumption weakened, but the truth itself of the belief is decisively overthrown.

Today we seem to be no closer to resolving this question; the debate rages on, both sides are completely convinced that truth is on their side. I think that this debate, like the Shakespeare debate, will eventually be resolved, and truth will eventually triumph, but it won’t happen quickly. “If there is anything which human history demonstrates,” James writes, “it is the extreme slowness with which the ordinary academic and critical mind acknowledges facts to exist which present themselves as wild facts, with no stall or pigeon-hole, or as facts which threaten to break up the accepted system.”

In James’ view, the Society for Psychical Research promotes the unity of mankind, and links the present generation to past generations. The rational-scientific worldview has created

a violent breach with the ways of thinking that have played the greatest part in human history. Religious thinking, ethical thinking, poetical thinking, teleological, emotional, sentimental thinking, what one might call the personal view of life to distinguish it from the impersonal and mechanical, and the romantic view of life to distinguish it from the rationalistic view, have been, and even still are, outside of well-drilled scientific circles, the dominant forms of thought.

Isn’t the world more interesting, and more hospitable, if our will and our feelings can mold reality? Isn’t the world-as-organism more exciting than the world-as-machine? Isn’t what James calls the “personal” and “romantic” view more interesting than the mechanical and rationalistic? Of course, a philosopher should favor the mechanical view if it’s true, but we have every reason to believe that it isn’t true; its popularity is due to the fact that it can be grasped by the intellect, and it doesn’t require a re-arrangement of our mental furniture. One of the most important questions in philosophy is, Can a philosophy conduce to ecstasy? Can a philosophy make one love life and the world? What James calls the personal and romantic philosophy has a far better chance of achieving this than the mechanical view.

Most people alive today, like most people in earlier epochs, are receptive to the occult. If we’re receptive to the occult, we bring people together, and we bring generations together. James says that the Society has “restored continuity to history. It has shown some reasonable basis for the most superstitious aberrations of the foretime. It has bridged the chasm, healed the hideous rift that science, taken in a certain narrow way, has shot into the human world.”

In James’ view, the facts of the occult have smashed orthodox science, and it’s necessary to rebuild science.

We all, scientists and non-scientists, live on some inclined plane of credulity. The plane tips one way in one man, another way in another; and may he whose plane tips in no way be the first to cast a stone! As a matter of fact, the trances I speak of have broken down for my own mind the limits of the admitted order of nature. Science, so far as science denies such exceptional occurrences, lies prostrate in the dust for me; and the most urgent intellectual need which I feel at present is that science be built up again in a form in which such things may have a positive place. Science, like life, feeds on its own decay. New facts burst old rules; then newly divined conceptions bind old and new together into a reconciling law.

Note how James uses images to enliven his prose: the inclined plane, casting a stone, lying prostrate in the dust, etc.

James points out that some scientists are so rigorous that they become unscientific, they become partisans:

The rigorously scientific mind may, in truth, easily overshoot the mark. Science means, first of all, a certain dispassionate method. To suppose that it means a certain set of results that one should pin one’s faith upon and hug forever is sadly to mistake its genius, and degrades the scientific body to the status of a sect.3

When I wrote about my father, I said that I heard him call my name twice at the time he was dying. My experience matches that of Heinrich Mann; some 35 years ago, I wrote about Mann in my book of aphorisms:

Feelings can be communicated between people who aren’t near each other; the mind can traverse space. This occurs with special frequency between members of the same family. Heinrich Mann heard his sister, Carla, call to him before she committed suicide, though she was in Germany and he was in Italy. “I was strolling,” said Mann, “all was still; then I was called; from the house, I thought. So little prepared was I, that in the first moment it did not occur to me: no one here calls me by my given name.”

This is the sort of experience that we find in the books and journals of the Society for Psychical Research. James tells how the Society sent a questionnaire to 25,000 people, asking them whether “they had ever heard a voice, seen a form, or felt a touch which no material presence could account for.” The Society was scrupulous about collecting data, they probably wouldn’t accept my account of being called by my father; they only want information from people “in good health and awake.” They’d probably say that I was asleep, or on the verge of sleep.

My experience, and Mann’s experience, are what the Society calls “veridical,” that is, a vision, voice, or touch “coinciding with some calamity happening to the person who appeared.”4 As Aristotle said, the soul is most active just before death. The most convincing evidence for the occult is your own experience. When your experience matches someone else’s, as mine matches Mann’s, then you’ll have more confidence in your experience, and you’ll begin to feel that you’re on the track of an important truth. When such experiences match the conclusions of researchers, such as the researchers at James’ Society, then your confidence will increase still further.

The most fundamental property of the universe, in my view, is connectedness, and this connectedness is often occult. Your own experience is the best window into the inner workings of the universe, the essential nature of the universe. The best way to understand the universe is to pay attention to your own experience. And the best foundation for a new religion is a new philosophy that emphasizes connectedness, that sees the universe as mysterious and spiritual, an organism rather than a machine.

2. Plato’s State Religion

In the last issue, I discussed the Greek Enlightenment, and the dangers that arise when traditional beliefs are undermined, when the “Inherited Conglomerate” is questioned. Plato understood these dangers, so he devised a state in which belief was fixed and unalterable, in which orthodoxy was maintained by a “Nocturnal Council” that had the power of life and death.5 Plato’s state would have no “growing pains” because it would have no growth, no spiritual growth. Plato aimed to

Plato sketches this state in his last dialogue, Laws. One might compare Plato’s state to the Catholic Church, and his “Nocturnal Council” to the Inquisition. Or one might compare the Greek Enlightenment to the Reformation, and Plato’s philosophy to the Counter-Reformation. Or one might compare Plato’s state to a modern totalitarian state in which any deviation from orthodoxy is punishable by death. Plato’s state was “a completely ‘closed’ society, to be ruled by... custom and religious law.”6

Plato’s effort to stamp out freedom is so extreme that it would make an excellent subject for a comedy, though Plato meant it seriously.

The principal thing [Plato writes] is that none, man or woman, should ever be without an officer set over him, and that none should get the mental habit of taking any step, whether in earnest or in jest, on his individual responsibility: in peace as in war he must live always with his eye on his superior officer, following his lead and guided by him in his smallest actions... in a word, we must train the mind not even to consider acting as an individual or know how to do it.7

Some people might say, “Why read such drivel? Does Plato even deserve to be considered a philosopher, much less a great philosopher? We know where this totalitarianism leads, we know that Plato’s ‘officers’ and ‘guardians’ will abuse their power. Such nonsense isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.”

But Plato wasn’t trying to do away with religious belief, as the Communists did, he was trying to stabilize it. Since we’ve seen what happens when religious belief breaks down, since we’ve seen the excesses of totalitarianism, we should understand the value of a stable belief system, and we should be somewhat sympathetic to Plato’s attempt. How many people today cling to traditional religion (Christianity or Judaism or Islam) because they want to believe in something, because they’re unwilling to endure “growing pains”! Furthermore, we shouldn’t focus entirely on Plato’s weaknesses; every writer who ever wrote will be condemned if we focus on his weaknesses. Plato’s strengths are at least as conspicuous as his weaknesses.

Dodds begins his chapter with a quote from a Muslim sage, Al Ghazali: “There is no hope in returning to a traditional faith after it has once been abandoned, since the essential condition in the holder of a traditional faith is that he should not know he is a traditionalist.” All over the world, people subscribe to traditional faiths, monotheistic religions, without really believing in them, without believing in them deeply and passionately, without believing in them as people did when these religions were young and strong and cutting-edge, when these religions were rising not falling, when they represented spiritual growth not stale tradition.

But can we blame these traditionalists for clinging to obsolete faiths when we see the danger of believing in nothing, when we see the difficulty of moving to a new worldview? Can we blame Plato for trying to fix belief permanently? Plato understood that if the human soul has a moral foundation, society benefits. If this foundation disintegrates, society is in turmoil. The best way to build a solid moral foundation is with a belief-system. Actions flow from beliefs. The belief-system must be solid and strong, Plato argued; it must never be questioned or undermined. I’m reminded of the old Chinese custom of binding a young woman’s foot so that it can’t grow.

Plato is reacting to the turmoil that he has seen in Greek city-states during his long life. As Dodds says, “There is the bitter recognition of human worthlessness which was forced upon him by his experience of contemporary Athens and Syracuse.”8 Plato felt that the individual couldn’t be given freedom, so Plato went to the other extreme, and opted for total tyranny.

But the key question is not, How does the political system function? The key question is, does the individual soul have a moral foundation? If this foundation is solid, things will go well regardless of the political system. Without this foundation, no political or legal system can save society from turmoil. So Plato’s main concern is with the soul, the moral foundation. His political theories are means-to-an-end, means to the health of the soul. If the soul is healthy, if the individual has a moral foundation, he will act responsibly regardless of law, regardless of police.8B

How did Plato propose to build this moral foundation? What beliefs, in his view, conduce to a strong moral foundation? What were the main tenets of his state religion?

  1. Gods exist
  2. These gods are interested in mankind
  3. These gods can’t be bribed9

One might say that the future course of Western civilization is contained in these three propositions. Christianity is based on the first two. Luther and other reformers insisted on the third proposition. Since the moral foundation is based on belief in God, when belief in God crumbles in the 20th century, all hell breaks loose.

It’s risky to base your society on these propositions because it’s notoriously difficult to prove the existence of gods, and even more difficult to prove that the gods care about man. And if people stop believing, what will happen to their morality, their sense of right and wrong? Can you really force people to believe, force them with legislation and police?

When Plato speaks of gods, is he referring to the usual Greek gods — “gods of Olympus, gods of the city, gods of the underworld, local daemons and heroes”?10 Or did Plato have a different conception of divinity, one more akin to ours? Dodds thinks that Plato wanted the people to worship the usual Greek gods, but Plato felt that the usual gods aren’t the true gods, “the cult of such gods has no rational basis, either empirical or metaphysical.... The supreme god of Plato’s personal faith was, I take it, a very different sort of being, one whom ‘it is hard to find and impossible to describe to the masses.’”11 So Plato is basing his state on gods, but he has only a fuzzy idea of these gods, and he thinks it’s impossible to convey this fuzzy idea to the populace.

But Plato had a solution to the problem of fuzz. Plato thought that the best approach was to worship the sun, moon, and stars. They were visible, and they could be adored by both the intellectual and the “man on the street.” But he didn’t want to completely break with tradition, so he advocated

a joint cult of Apollo and the sun-god Helios.... This joint cult — in place of the expected cult of Zeus — expresses the union of old and new, Apollo standing for the traditionalism of the masses, and Helios for the new ‘natural religion’ of the philosophers; it is Plato’s last desperate attempt to build a bridge between the intellectuals and the people, and thereby save the unity of Greek belief and of Greek culture.12

It is indeed, as Dodds says, a “desperate” attempt, and an unsuccessful attempt. A worldview should develop naturally, it can’t be manufactured; it should be the natural product of our intellectual probing and our psychological needs.

Apollo was worshipped at Delphi, and Delphi is important in Plato’s state religion. Delphi was the Vatican of Plato’s church, Delphi organized worship and sacrifice. Plato was wary of ritual and sacrifice, he was uncomfortable with bribing gods. He felt that “traveling priests” could mislead a city and undermine morality. But he couldn’t completely break with the traditions of ritual and sacrifice, so he wanted Delphi to organize things.

He saw in Delphi [Dodds writes] a great conservative force which could be harnessed to the task of stabilizing the Greek religious tradition and checking both the spread of materialism and the growth of aberrant tendencies within the tradition itself. Hence his insistence, both in the Republic and in the Laws, that the authority of Delphi is to be absolute in all religious matters.13

Dodds has a special fondness for a Platonic dialogue called Protagoras. This dialogue resurrects the great age, the period preceding the catastrophe of the Peloponnesian War, the period when Athens was in the ascendant. Though Plato didn’t experience this age himself, he was raised in its after-glow, he was influenced by it. As Dodds puts it,

Plato’s life, like his thought, all but bridges the wide gulf between the death of Pericles [in 429 BC] and the acceptance of Macedonian hegemony [i.e., the conquest of Greece by King Philip of Macedon around 338 BC]. Though it is probable that all his writings belong to the fourth century, [Plato’s] personality and outlook were molded in the fifth, and his earlier dialogues are still bathed in the remembered light of a vanished social world. The best example is to my mind the Protagoras, whose action is set in the golden years before the Great War; in its optimism, its genial worldliness, its frank utilitarianism, and its Socrates who is still no more than life-size, it seems to be an essentially faithful reproduction of the past.14

What does Dodds mean by “frank utilitarianism”? He means that, in early dialogues like Protagoras, “good” means “useful, conducing to happiness.” In later dialogues, on the other hand, “good” took on a metaphysical meaning, and came to resemble the holy, the godly, True Being.

In his last dialogue, Laws, Plato returns to this early utilitarianism. In Laws, Plato is trying to mold the populace, and he thinks that the populace will respond to utility. They will be honest if Plato can convince them that “honesty is the best policy,” honesty will bring them happiness. Dodds says,

The common man wants to be happy; but Plato, who is legislating for him, wants him to be good. Plato therefore labors to persuade him that goodness and happiness go together. That this is true, Plato happens to believe; but did he not believe it, he would still pretend it true, as being “the most salutary lie that was ever told.”15

For the average person, “an intelligent hedonism provides the best practicable guide to a satisfactory life.” Pure hedonism might say, “If you feel like smoking, smoke.” But intelligent hedonism, the hedonism of Socrates and Plato, would say, “If you feel like smoking, remind yourself that it will bring you suffering in the future. Add up the pains and pleasures, before you decide whether to smoke. Don’t just think about the immediate present, take a long-term perspective.”

Socrates taught that virtue is knowledge, that people don’t knowingly choose evil, that we should be guided by reason, and that an unexamined life is not worth living. Just as a good carpenter or a good farmer needs knowledge, so too a good person needs knowledge. But Plato eventually decided that the average person can’t live by reason alone, he must be molded by “edifying myths and bracing ethical slogans.”

And even the elite are sometimes moved by emotion, sometimes have inner conflicts. Dodds says that “Plato’s growing recognition of the importance of affective elements carried him beyond the limits of fifth-century rationalism.”16 At the end of his life, Plato’s position on human nature reminds us of Freud’s view that the super-ego is often at odds with the id. Plato’s view of inner conflict is “one of the most startlingly modern things in Platonic philosophy.”17

Plato’s view of human nature also reminds us of Freud’s view that our animal drives can be sublimated into loftier pursuits, Eros can be sublimated into the pursuit of beauty and truth. Eros alone, in Plato’s view, can link our lower nature and our higher nature, our animal drives with our divine self. But while celebrating Eros and instinct, Plato still tried to preserve the concept of a sovereign Reason.

The passions are no longer seen as an infection of extraneous origin, but as a necessary part of the life of the mind as we know it, and even as a source of energy, like Freud’s libido, which can be “canalized” either towards sensuous or towards intellectual activity.... Plato in fact comes very close here to the Freudian concept of libido and sublimation. But he never, as it seems to me, fully integrated this line of thought with the rest of his philosophy; had he done so, the notion of the intellect as a self-sufficient entity independent of the body might have been imperiled, and Plato was not going to risk that.18

A decisive event in Plato’s development was his trip to “West Greece,” where he came into contact with Pythagorean theories. These Pythagorean theories were, in turn, influenced by Asia’s shaman tradition, as we saw in a recent issue. Dodds speaks of Plato’s

personal contact with the Pythagoreans of West Greece when he visited them about 390. If I am right in my tentative guess about the historical antecedents of the Pythagorean movement, Plato in effect cross-fertilized the tradition of Greek rationalism with magico-religious ideas whose remoter origins belong to the northern shamanistic culture.19

Dodds notes the similarities between Plato’s philosophy and shamanism:

Reincarnation survives unchanged. The shaman’s trance, his deliberate detachment of the occult self from the body, has become that practice of mental withdrawal and concentration which purifies the rational soul.... The occult knowledge which the shaman acquires in trance has become a vision of metaphysical truth; his “recollection” of past earthly lives has become a “recollection” of bodiless Forms which is made the basis of a new epistemology.... Finally, we shall perhaps understand better Plato’s much-criticized “Guardians” if we think of them as a new kind of rationalized shamans.20

So Plato started out as a disciple of Socrates, then was influenced by Pythagoreanism/shamanism, then was influenced by political turmoil. We can summarize these stages thus:

  1. As a young man, Plato subscribes to Socrates’ theory that virtue is knowledge. This theory “saw moral error as a kind of mistake in perspective.”21
  2. After being exposed to Pythagorean ideas, Plato decides that the soul can be detached from the body. Without this detachment, the soul will be polluted by the body. In his Phaedo, Plato says that “only when by death or by self-discipline the rational self is purged of ‘the folly of the body’ can it resume its true nature which is divine and sinless.”22
  3. Later Plato took a more realistic view, and decided that even the elite aren’t entirely rational: “As soon as he turned from the occult self to the empirical man, he found himself driven to recognize an irrational factor within the mind itself, and thus to think of moral evil in terms of psychological conflict (stasis).”23

Plato’s thoughts on inner conflict make him a harbinger of Freud, as his thoughts on the immortal soul make him a harbinger of Christianity.

Dodds says that Plato never completely abandoned the rationalism of his youth:

As the nephew of Charmides and kinsman of Critias, no less than as one of Socrates’ young men, [Plato] was the child of the Enlightenment. He grew up in a social circle which not only took pride in settling all questions before the bar of reason, but had the habit of interpreting all human behavior in terms of rational self-interest, and the belief that ‘virtue,’ arete, consisted essentially in a technique of rational living. That pride, that habit, and that belief remained with Plato to the end; the framework of his thought never ceased to be rationalist.24

The Socratic faith in reason was shaken by the disasters that befell Athens during Plato’s lifetime. Instead of focusing on rational self-interest, Plato began to focus on the soul and on God. Plato said that man is God’s property, that man should be “abject” before God, that God is “the measure of all things.”25 In short, Plato became a proto-Christian.

Plato was influenced, as we saw earlier, by Pythagoreans. Dodds writes, “I agree with the opinion of the majority of scholars that what put Plato in the way of [developing] a new transcendental psychology was his personal contact with the Pythagoreans of West Greece when he visited them about 390 BC.”26 And the Pythagoreans, in turn, were influenced by shamanism. So the chain of influence is

shamanism ==> Pythagoreanism ==> Plato ==> Christianity

Plato combined the detachable soul of shamanism with the rational psyche of Socrates. This was a new combination, a blend of East and West, and it had considerable impact on Western civilization. Perhaps today’s philosophers will also attempt to combine East and West.

© L. James Hammond 2021
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1. The Possessed, II, i, 5 back
2. Peirce’s cable analogy is better than the fagot analogy. The fagot analogy doesn’t originate with James, it originates with Edmund Gurney, an active member of the Society for Psychical Research, and the co-author of the two-volume work, Phantasms of the Living (1886). Peirce didn’t view Phantasms as a strong cable, he described its examples as “worthless” anecdotes.

James said that Gurney had “exquisite artistic instincts, and his massive volume on ‘The Power of Sound’ was, when it appeared, the most important work on aesthetics in the English language. [Gurney] had also the tenderest heart and a mind of rare metaphysical power, as his volumes of essays, ‘Tertium Quid,’ will prove to any reader.”

Gurney died at age 40 under mysterious circumstances; some people believe he committed suicide.

James also praises Frederic W. H. Myers, another co-author of Phantasms. James says that Myers is “already well known as one of the most brilliant of English essayists.” Myers compared our ordinary conscious mind to “the visible part of the solar spectrum; the total consciousness is like that spectrum prolonged by the inclusion of the ultra-red and ultra-violet rays. In the psychic spectrum the ‘ultra’ parts may embrace a far wider range, both of physiological and of psychical activity, than is open to our ordinary consciousness and memory.”

James praised Myers’ book Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death (1903). Aldous Huxley was also a fan of this book. back

2B. E. R. Dodds, who served as president of the Society for Psychical Research in 1960, said that the purpose of the Society was not to prove the occult but to do away with it: “Occultism [is] to be distinguished from the modern discipline of psychical research, which attempts to eliminate occultism by subjecting supposedly ‘occult’ phenomena to rational scrutiny and thus either establishing their subjective character or integrating them with the general body of scientific knowledge.”(The Greeks and the Irrational, ch. 8, p. 265, footnote 76) back
3. One thinks of Stratfordians pinning their faith on the Stratford theory, and hugging it forever. back
4. Sometimes the voice isn’t the voice of someone near death, it’s a voice warning you that you’re near death. James mentions the case of “a youth sitting in a wagon under a shed, who suddenly hears his dead mother’s voice say, ‘Stephen, get away from here quick!’ and jumps out just in time to see the shed-roof fall.” back
5. See F. M. Cornford, The Unwritten Philosophy, p. 66 back
6. E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational, Ch. 7, p. 216. Dodds says, “Plato perceived more clearly than anyone else the dangers inherent in the decay of an Inherited Conglomerate, [and] in his final testament to the world he put forward proposals of great interest for stabilizing the position by means of a counter-reformation.”(p. 207) back
7. Dodds, p. 229, footnote 44 back
8. p. 216. Cornford compares Plato’s government to Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. Both Plato’s government and the Inquisitor relieve mankind of “that intolerable burden of freedom.” back
8B. What appalled Solzhenitsyn about the U.S. wasn’t the laws or the law-enforcement, but rather the lack of any internal restraint, any conscience. “The center of your democracy and of your culture is left without electric power for a few hours only, and all of a sudden crowds of American citizens start looting and creating havoc.”(Harvard Commencement Address, 1978) back
9. See p. 219 back
10. p. 220 back
11. p. 220 back
12. p. 221 back
13. p. 223. Dodds writes, “In the field of religion, as in that of morals, the great enemy which had to be fought was antinomian individualism; and [Plato] looked to Delphi to organize the defense.”(p. 222) back
14. p. 208 back
15. Dodds, pp. 211, 212, quoting Plato’s Laws back
16. p. 212. Aristotle’s school, the Peripatetic School, felt that Plato had gone beyond Socrates: “Plato’s recognition of an irrational element in the soul was seen in the Peripatetic School to mark an important advance beyond the intellectualism of Socrates.”(footnote 30) back
17. Dodds p. 227, footnote 24, quoting Grube. Dodds says that, in the Timaeus, Plato describes an opposition between the immortal soul and the mortal soul, an opposition between “the transcendent rational self” and the carnal self. “For Plato the human personality has virtually broken in two,” a wide gulf has opened up “between Plato’s vision of man as he might be and his estimate of man as he is.” back
18. pp. 213, 218, 219. So Plato clung to the notion of the intellect as “a self-sufficient entity.” But the average person didn’t listen to the intellect, the average person was “on the verge of becoming subhuman,” and in his next incarnation, he might become a donkey, a wolf, a bee, or an ant.(p. 215)

Though he appreciated the importance of Eros, Plato occasionally lapsed into the atomistic nonsense of Democritus. Plato offered “an explanation of erotic attraction in mechanistic terms — suggested, perhaps, by Empedocles or Democritus — by postulating physical ‘emanations’ from the eye of the beloved which are eventually reflected back upon their author.”(p. 231)

Dodds says, “I suspect that, had Plato lived today, he would have been profoundly interested in the new depth-psychology, but appalled by the tendency to reduce the human reason to an instrument for rationalizing unconscious impulses.”(p. 218) I suspect that Schopenhauer and Nietzsche would also have been “profoundly interested in the new depth-psychology.” Like Plato, Schopenhauer tried to keep intellect sovereign; Schopenhauer thought that intellect could deny the Will and achieve holiness. For Nietzsche, on the other hand, there was no denying the will, intellect/reason wasn’t sovereign. Schopenhauer lauded Plato as “divine”; Nietzsche was more ambivalent about Plato, and believed that Plato was decadent. back

19. p. 209 back
20. p. 210. Plato’s Laws includes “elaborate and unusual regulations” for the funerals of the elite, the Guardians, just as Pythagoreans had a “special funeral ritual,” and Siberian shamans today have a special funeral ritual.(p. 226, footnote 9) back
21. p. 212 back
22. pp. 212, 213 back
23. p. 213. Dodds says that “in the dialogues of his middle period, preoccupied as he then was with exceptional natures and their exceptional possibilities, [Plato] shows scant interest in the psychology of the ordinary man.... In his later work [Plato] dismissed the philosopher-kings as an impossible dream,” and fell back “on the rule of Law as a second-best.”(p. 211) Plato moved away from the ideal of the pure philosopher who feels neither pleasure nor pain, who is “a spectator of all time and all existence.”(p. 211) He decided that “we are anchored in the life of feeling which is part of our humanity.” back
24. p. 208. One sign of Plato’s rationalism is that he never fully accepted the wisdom of seers and poets. In his “rating of lives,” seers and poets “are placed in the fifth and sixth classes respectively, below even the businessman and the athlete.”(footnote 56) For Plato, knowledge is an “affair of the intellect, which can justify its beliefs by rational argument. To the intuitions both of the seer and of the poet he consistently refused the title of knowledge, not because he thought them necessarily groundless, but because their grounds could not be produced.”(p. 217) back
25. p. 215. If you think that life is hard, Plato says, remember that the cosmos doesn’t exist for you, you exist for the cosmos. This view “became one of the commonplaces of Stoicism,”(footnote 78) it “marks the transition from the classical to the Hellenistic outlook.”(p. 221) We live in the cosmos as mice live in a big mansion.(footnote 78, citing Cicero) back
26. p. 209 back