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The acts, motives, and feelings of the lower order of animals are declared by Bayle to be one of the profoundest mysteries that ever exercise the mind of man. The mystery of their lives, - what is it? The mystery of their deaths, - what is that, too? Do they live wholly in the present, and never know any life beyond ? or is there for them, as well as for ourselves, an after-life of immortality? No doubt the suggestion of an immortality for the brute world may seem to some a very foolish idea, and to others a very profane infringement on our own blessed inheritance. About the beginning of the serenteenth century, Sennertus of Germany was accused of blasphemy and impiety for teaching that the souls of beasts are immaterial, which was supposed to be the same thing as teaching that they are no less immortal than the souls of men ; and in the same age Descartes felt himself bound to deny them an immaterial principle, and to adopt the theory of their being mere machines, in order that the interests of virtue might not be injured by the belief in their immortality. In view, however, of what Mr. Darwin has recently suggested to us in his “ Origin of Species,” that perhaps all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form into which life was first breathed, there is but little consolation to be derived from the doctrine that the animals that may have been our progenitors, some thousands or millions of years ago, were only machines; or that our cousins, the birds and snails, the lobsters and spiders, the tadpoles and sponges of the present day, are machines still; and under this phase of the subject opening upon us, the odd feeling of jealousy about letting our humble fellow-creatures approach us and share with us our own inheritance of immortality, because, forsooth, their faculties and attainments do not seem to us respectable enough for such company, quite gives place to a desire to advocate the cause of our silent companions. Even before Mr. Darwin discovered to us that we have this strange interest in the matter, Hume thought he found in the fact that the souls of animals are allowed to be mortal, a very strong argument against our own immortality; the analogy from the one to the other being, in his opinion, very strong, on account of the near resemblance their souls bear to our own. The philosophers disagree : one class, assuming that the soul of the brute is of the same nature as that of man, from the mortality of the brute infer the mortality of man; another class, starting with the same assumption, have inferred the immortality of the brute from the immortality of man; while still another class have sought to escape the sad dilemma to which the former are brought, and to serve the cause of virtue and religion, by solemnly resolving that brutes are mere machines. Surely Sydney Smith rightly declared that “the weakest and most absurd arguments ever used against religion have been the attempts to compare brutes to men; and the weakest answer to these arguments have been the jealousies which men have exhibited of brutes."
It may be that we write of one of those “mysteries which Heaven will not have earth to know”; but it seems that, with all the strange contradictions that have come of it in the past, it may be made to assume a definite form, though it remain a mystery still; and it may lead us to some interesting byways of human thought, and call up in our own minds meditations to strengthen and confirm our own hopes for the future.
Although the doctrine of immortality is now generally taught, both by religion and by philosophy, in such a form as to place the lower orders of animals beyond the pale of hope, the first form in which the great thought of an immortal existence shaped itself in the human mind seems to have included all the tribes of animate being. Each earthly creature, whether man or bird or insect, was regarded as only one link in the chain of conditions that made up the great cycle of the soul's pilgrimage in its going forth from God and its return to him. To those men of old spoke that same voice from within that to us now speaks of the “great immortality.” But how could there be an individual existence apart from sense and organized life? The soul was always conceived as connected with a body, and so an immortality for the body must somehow be discovered. It hardly answered the demands of the case, that the body might be embalmed and laid away under vast pyramids ; for though the semblance of the body might be preserved for years, and centuries even, it was apparent that the soul was not there the while. And so metempsycho
sis was adopted as at once meeting the mind's conviction of a future existence, and its conception of life as dependent upon a physical organization. At the foundation of this doctrine was the mystical belief that every individual soul is a part of the soul of the world, — the universal energy.
“ For God goes forth, and spreads throughout the whole
Dwell in high heaven, and star the ethereal way.” The spiritual nature of the animal was thought not only to have no end, but to have had no beginning. For a time it is separated from the universal soul and united to a material frame, and then, returning to its former state, its bodily existence is almost forgotten, or perhaps wholly lost in oblivion. How far the spirit was supposed to maintain its individuality in its migrations from one body to another, or in its return to the source from whence it sprung, it is not easy to make out very definitely from any of the systems taught. But whatever may have been thought of its separate existence after its return to the Fountain of spirits, it would seem that in its transmigrations it must have been supposed to preserve its identity, however dimmed its consciousness of the past. It is related that Empedocles pretended to know that he had been at different times a boy, a girl, a plant, and a fish. Even in these days, when the old doctrine of metempsychosis is not held in very high repute, we are sometimes surprised by the awakening of what seems to be an inner memory of things never seen, and are half tempted to believe that we have lived before our birth into this present, — that we have a dim consciousness of a former life. At such times we are ready to accept the doctrine of the Platonists, that
“ Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The soul that rises in us, our life's star,
And cometh from afar."
soul was a tenet for which there are many plausible reasons, and against which there is nothing considerable to be alleged ; being a key, he said, for some main mysteries of Providence which no other can so handsomely unlock. Hume was no Platonist, yet he declares, that, reasoning from the common course of nature, without supposing any new interposition of the Supreme Cause, which, he says, ought always to be excluded from philosophy, what is incorruptible must also be ingenerable, and therefore, if the soul be immortal, it existed before our birth; and now, in the middle of the nineteenth century, a doctrine of pre-existence, somewhat different indeed from that which Plato taught in the Academy, has been revived by the Mormons of the desert; and in the Christian Church, Dr. Edward Beecher has adopted a like hypothesis, as an explanation of the origin of evil.
The doctrine of metempsychosis is said to have been introduced into Greece by Pythagoras, who borrowed it of the Egyptians. He defined the soul to be a monad, self-moved and one; and though he distinguished man from brutes by bis possessing the three elements of reason, intelligence, and passion, while they have only the last two, this was not inconsistent with his doctrine of transmigration, for it was still the one soul, whether it manifested the three aspects or only the two. Plato, following Pythagoras, taught that the soul exists without beginning and without end. Once it journeyed with the gods in celestial regions, where eternal truth was unveiled before it, and it looked face to face upon existence itself. In these journeyings, the soul is compared to a chariot with a pair of winged horses and a driver. By the unskilfulness of the driver, the soul becomes unable to follow the gods as they journey toward the summit of the vault of heaven, seeking nourishment from the contemplation of the parts beyond the heavens where is the seat of real existence; and failing thus to see these realities, the soul is deprived of its proper food, whereby it is made light and carried aloft, loses its wings, and, falling to the earth, enters into and animates some body. It never enters, at the first generation, into the body of a brute animal, but, according to the truth it has seen, into the body of a man of higher or lower degree. It never returns to its pristine state in less than ten thousand years, unless it be the soul of one who philosophizes with sincerity. Such a one, after three periods of one thousand years each, having chosen thrice in succession this kind of life, recovers its wings in the three-thousandth year and departs. The others, at the termination of their first life, are judged according to the life which they led here, and either sent under the earth for punishment, or elevated to a place in heaven. In either case, they are called back on the thousandth year to choose a new life. Then a human soul passes into the body of a beast, and that of a beast, if it has ever been human, passes again into the body of a man.
This is the poetry of Plato's philosophy. He found in these views his best arguments for a wise and virtuous life. The soul, disregarding the things of this fleeting present, and occupying itself with reminiscences of that former state when it saw knowledge itself, and temperance, and justice, might lift itself to a higher sphere; or by constant contemplation of naught but the material phenomena of the present moment, it might shrivel into something less than itself, and become a beast. Why should it not be a law of this ascent and descent, that the soul should take at its rebirth the form of such a being as its inward nature bears the likeness of? Why should it not abide in the condition of a bear, or a snake, or a peacock, if that be the form that corresponds to the quality of mind to which it has reduced itself ? Plato and the later Pythagoreans thought there was such a law of harmony in these transmigrations. And this, too, was the Oriental way of looking at the matter. The laws of Menu declare, that from the actions of men proceed their various transmigrations. According to the sin to be expiated, the soul shall assume some human condition, or the form of some bird or beast, or even be made to pass a thousand successive lives in the bodies of as many spiders.
In view of this doctrine, that there is a correspondence between the soul's ethical qualities and the form which it assumes, these lines of Spenser may have a new meaning for us:
“ So every spirit, as it is more pure,
And hath in it the more of heavenly light,