Popular Science Monthly/Volume 2/November 1872/Epidemic Delusions
A LECTURE, DELIVERED IN THE HULME TOWN-HALL, MANCHESTER.
OUR subject to-night links itself in such a very decided manner to the subject in which we were engaged last week, and the illustrations which I shall give you are so satisfactorily explained on the scientific principle which I endeavored then to expound to you, that I would spend a very few minutes in just going over some of the points to which I then particularly directed your attention. My object was to show you that, between our Mental operations and our Will, there is something of that kind of relation which exists between a well trained horse and his rider; that the Will—if rightly exercised in early infancy in directing and controlling the mental operations; in directing the attention to the objects to which the intellect should be applied; in controlling and repressing emotional disturbance; restraining the feelings when unduly excited, and putting a check upon the passions—that the will in that respect has the same kind of influence over the mind, or ought to have, as the rider has upon his horse; that the powers and activities of the mind are to a very great degree independent of the will; that the mind will go on of itself without anymore than just the starting of the will, in the same manner as a horse will go on in the direction that it has been accustomed to go with merely the smallest impulse given by the voice, or the hand, or the heel of the rider, and every now and then a very slight check (if it is a well-trained horse) or guidance from the bridle, or from a touch of the spur, and will follow exactly the course that the rider desires, but by its own independent power. And, again, I showed you that as there are occasions on which a horse is best left to itself, so there are occasions when the mind is best left to itself, without the direction and control of the will; in fact, in which the operations of the mind are really disturbed by being continually checked and. guided and pulled up by the action of the will, the result being really less satisfactory than when the mind, previously trained and disciplined in that particular course of activity, is left to itself. I gave you some curious illustrations of this from occurrences which have taken place in Dreaming, or in that form of dreaming which we call Somnambulism: where a legal opinion had been given, or a mathematical problem had been resolved, in the state of sleep-waking; that is to say, the mind being very much in the condition of that of the dreamer, its action being altogether automatic, going on of itself without any direction or control from the will—but the bodily activity obeying the direction of the mind. And then I went on to show you that this activity very often takes place, and works out most important results, even without our being conscious of any operations going on; and that some of these results are the best and most valuable to us in bringing at last to our consciousness, ideas which we have been vainly searching for—as in the case where we have endeavored to remember something that we have not at first been able to retrace, and which has flashed into our minds in a few hours, or it may be a day or two afterward; or, again, when we have been directing our minds to the solution of some problem which we have put aside in a sort of despair, and yet in the course of a little time that solution has presented itself while our minds have either been entirely inactive, as in sleep, or have been directed into some entirely different channel of action.
Now, like the well-trained horse which will go on of itself with the smallest possible guidance, yet still under the complete domination of the rider, and will even find its way home when the rider cannot direct it thither, we find that the human mind sometimes does that which even a well-trained horse will do—that it runs away from the guidance of its directing will. Something startles the horse, something gives it alarm; and it makes a sudden bound, and then, perhaps, sets off at a gallop, and the rider cannot pull it up. This alarm often spreads contagiously, as it were, from one horse to another, as we lately saw in the "stampede" at Aldershot. Or, again, a horse, even if well trained, when he gets a new rider, sometimes, as we say, "tries it on," to see whether the horse or the rider is really the master. I have heard many horsemen say that that is a very familiar experience. When you first go out with a new horse, it may be to a certain degree restive; but if the horse finds that yon keep a tight hand upon him, and that his master knows well how to keep him under control, a little struggling may have to be gone through, and the horse from that time becomes perfectly docile and obedient. But, if, on the other hand, the horse finds that he is the master, even for a short time, no end of trouble is given afterward to the rider in acquiring that power which he desires to possess. Now, that is just the case with our minds; we may follow out the parallel very closely indeed. We find that if our minds once acquire habits—habits of thought, habits of feeling—which are independent of the will, which the will has not kept under adequate regulation, these habits get the better of us; and then we find that it is very difficult indeed to recover that power of self-direction which we have been aiming at, and which the well-trained and well-disciplined mind will make its highest object. So, again, we find that there are states in which, from some defect in the physical condition of the body, or it may be from some great shock which has affected the mind and weakened for a time the power of the will, very slight impulses—just like the slight things that will make a horse shy—will disturb us unduly; and we feel that our emotions are excited in a way that we cannot account for, and we wonder why such a little thing should worry and vex us in the way that it does. Even the best of us know, within our own personal experience, that when we are excessively fatigued in body, or overstrained in mind, our power of self-control is very much weakened; so that particular ideas will take possession of us, and for a time will guide our whole course of thought, in a manner which our sober judgment makes us feel to be very undesirable. What, for instance, is more common than for a person to take offence at something that has been said or done by his most intimate friend, or by some member of his family; merely because he has been jaded or overtasked, and has not the power of bringing to the fair judgment of his common-sense the question whether that offence was really intended, or whether it was a thing he ought not to take any notice of? He broods over this notion, and allows it to influence his judgment; and, if he does not in a day or two rouse himself and master his feelings by throwing it off, it may give rise to a permanent estrangement. We are all of us conscious of states of mind of that kind.
But there are states of mind which lead to very much more serious disorder, arising from the neglect of that primary discipline and culture on which I have laid so much stress. We find that ignorance, and that want of the habit of self-control which very commonly accompanies it, predispose very greatly indeed to the violent excitement of the feelings, and to the possession of the mind by ideas which we regard as essentially absurd; and under these states of excitement of feeling, and the tendency of these dominant ideas to acquire possession of the intellect, the strangest aberrations take place, not only in individuals but in communities; and it is of such that I have especially to speak to-night. We know perfectly well, in our individual experience, that these states tend to produce insanity if they are indulged in, and if the individual does not make an earnest effort to free himself from their influence. But, looking back at the history of the earlier ages, and carrying that survey down to the present time, we have experience in all ages of great masses of people being seized upon by these dominant ideas, accompanied with the excitement of some passion or strong impulse which leads to the most absurd results; and it is of these Epidemic Delusions I have to now speak. The word "epidemic" simply means something that falls upon, as it were, the great mass of the people—a delusion which affects the popular mind. And I believe that I can best introduce the subject to you by showing you how, in certain merely physical conditions, mere bodily states, there is a tendency to the propagation, by what is commonly called imitation, of very strange actions of the nervous system. I suppose there is no one of you who does not know what an hysteric fit means, a kind of fit to which young women are especially subject, but which affects the male sex also. One reason why young women are particularly subject to it is, that in the female the feelings are more easily excited, while the male generally has a less mobile nervous system, his feelings being less easily moved, while he is more influenced by the intellect. These hysteric fits are generally brought on by something that strongly affects the feelings. Now, it often happens that a case of this sort presents itself in a school or nunnery, sometimes in a factory where a number of young women are collected together; one being seized with a fit, others will go off in a fit of a very similar kind. There was an instance a good many years ago in a factory in a country town in Lancashire, in which a young girl was attacked with a violent convulsive fit, brought on by alarm, consequent upon one of her companions, a factory operative, putting a mouse down inside her dress. The girl had a particular antipathy to mice, and the sudden shock threw her into a violent fit. Some of the other girls who were near very soon passed off into a similar fit; and then there got to be a notion that these fits were produced by some emanations from a bale of cotton; and the consequence was that they spread, till scores of the young women were attacked day after day with these violent fits. The medical man who was called in saw at once what the state of things was; he assured them in the first place that this was all nonsense about the cotton; and he brought a remedy, in the second place, which was a very appropriate one under the circumstance—namely, an electrical machine; and lie gave them some good violent shocks, which would do them no harm, assuring them that this would cure them. And cure them it did. There was not another attack afterward. I remember very well that when I was a student at Bristol, there was a ward in the hospital to which it was usual to send young servant-girls; for it was thought undesirable that these girls should be placed in the ward with women of a much lower class, especially the lower class of Irishwomen who inhabited one quarter of Bristol, as I believe there is an Irish quarter in Manchester. These girls were mostly respectable, well-conducted girls, and it was thought better that they should be kept together. Now, the result of this was that, if an hysteric fit took any one of them, the others would follow suit; and I remember perfectly well, when I happened to be a resident pupil, having to go and scold these girls well, threatening them with some very severe infliction. I forget what was threatened, perhaps it would be a shower-bath, for any one who went off into one of these fits. Now, here the cure is effected by a stronger emotion, the emotion of the dread of—we will not call it punishment—but of a curative measure; and this emotion overcame the tendency to what we commonly call imitation. It is the suggestion produced by the sight of one, that brings on the fit in another, where there is the predisposition to it. Now, I believe that in all these cases there is something wrong in the general health or in the nervous system; or the suggestion would not produce such results. Take the common teething-fits of children. We there see an exciting cause in the cutting of the teeth; the pressure of the tooth against the gum being the immediate cause of the production of convulsive action. But it will not do so in the healthy child. I feel sure that in every case where there is a teething-fit, of whatever kind, there is always some unhealthy condition of the nervous system—sometimes from bad food; more commonly from bad air. I have known many instances in which children had fits with every tooth that they cut, yet when sent into the country they had no recurrence of the fit. There must have been some predisposition, some unhealthy condition of the nervous system, to favor the exciting cause, which, acting upon this predisposition, brings out such very unpleasant results.
There are plenty of stories of this kind that I might relate to you. For instance, in nunneries it is not at all uncommon, from the secluded life, and the attention being fixed upon one subject, one particular set of ideas and feelings—the want of a healthy vent, so to speak, for the mental activity—that some particular odd propensity has developed itself. For instance, in one nunnery abroad, many years ago, one of the youngest nuns began to mew like a cat; and all the others, after a time, did the same. In another nunnery one began to bite, and the others were all affected with the propensity to bite. In one of these instances the mania was spreading like wild-fire through Germany, extending from one nunnery to another; and they were obliged to resort to some such severe measures as I have mentioned to drive it out. It was set down in some instances to demoniacal possession, but the devil was very easily exorcised by some pretty strong threat on the part of the medical man. The celebrated physician Boerhaave was called in to a case of that kind in an orphan asylum in Holland, and I think his remedy was a red-hot iron. He heated the poker in the fire, and said that the next girl who fell into one of these fits should be burnt in the arm; this was quite sufficient to stop it. In Scotland at one time there was a great tendency to breaking out into fits of this kind in the churches. This was particularly the case in Shetland; and a very wise minister there told them that the thing could not be permitted, and that the next person who gave way in this manner—as he was quite sure they could control themselves if they pleased—should be taken out and ducked in a pond near. There was no necessity at all to put his threat into execution. Here, you see, the stronger motive is substituted for the weaker one, and the stronger motive is sufficient to induce the individual to put a check upon herself. I have said that it usually happens with the female sex, though sometimes it occurs with young men who have more or less of the same constitutional tendency. What is necessary is to induce a stronger motive, which will call forth the power of self-control which has been previously abandoned.
Now, this tendency, which here shows itself in convulsive movements of the body, will also show itself in what we may call convulsive action of the Mind; that is, in the excitement of violent feelings and even passions, leading to the most extraordinary manifestations of different kinds. The early Christians, you know, practised self-mortification to a very great degree; and considered that these penances were so much scored up to the credit side of their account in heaven; that, in fact, they were earning a title to future salvation by self-mortification. Among other means of self-mortification, they scourged themselves. That was practised by individuals. But in the middle ages this disposition to self-mortification would attack whole communities, especially under the dominant idea that the world was coming to an end. In the middle of the thirteenth century, about 1250, there was this prevalent idea that the world was coming to an end; and whole communities gave themselves up to this self-mortification by whipping themselves. These Flagellants went about in bands with banners, and even music, carrying scourges; and then, at a given signal, every one would strip off the upper garment (men, women, and children joined these bands), and proceed to flog themselves very severely indeed, or to flog each other. This subsided for a time, but it broke out again during and immediately after that terrible plague which is known as the "black death," which devastated Europe in the reign of Edward III., about the year 1340. This black death seems to have been the Eastern plague in a very severe form, which we have not known in this country since the great plague of London in Charles II.'s time, and one or two smaller outbreaks since, but which has now entirely left us. The severity of this plague in Europe was so great that upon a very moderate calculation one in four of the entire population was carried off by it; and in some instances it is said that nine-tenths of the people died of it. You may imagine, therefore, what a terrible infliction it was. And you would have supposed that it would have called forth the better feelings of men and women generally; but it did not. One of the worst features, morally, of that terrible affliction, was the lamentable suspension of all natural feelings which it seemed to induce. When any member of a family was attacked by this plague, every one seemed to desert him, or desert her; the sick were left, to die alone, or merely under the charge of any persons who thought that they would be paid for rendering this service; and the funerals were carried on merely by these paid hirelings in a manner most repulsive to the feelings: and yet the very people who so deserted their relatives would join the bands of flagellants, who paraded about from place to place, and even from country to country—mortifying their flesh in this manner for the purpose of saving their own souls, and, as they said, also making expiation for the great sins which had brought down this terrible visitation. This system of flagellation never gained the same head in this country that it did on the Continent. A band of about 100 came to London about the middle of the reign of Edward III., in the year 1350. They came in the usual style, with banners and even instruments of music, and they paraded the streets of London. At a given signal every one lay down and uncovered the shoulders, excepting the last person, who then flogged every one till he got to the front, where he lay down; and the person last in the rear stood up, and in his turn flogged every one in front of him. Then he went to the front and lay down; and so it went on until the whole number had thus been flogged, each by every one of his fellows. This discipline however, did not approve itself to the good citizens of London, and it is recorded that the band of flagellants returned without having made any converts. Whether the skins of the London citizens were too tender, or whether their good sense prevailed over this religious enthusiasm, we are not informed; at any rate, the flagellants went back very much as they came, and the system never took root in this country; yet for many years it was carried on elsewhere. One very curious instance is given of the manner in which it fastened on the mind that mothers actually scourged their new-born infants before they were baptized, believing that in so doing they were making an offering acceptable to God. Now all this appears to us perfectly absurd. We can scarcely imagine the state of mind that should make any sober, rational persons suppose that this could be an offering acceptable to Almighty God; but it was in accordance with the religious ideas of the time; and for a good while even the Church sanctioned and encouraged it, until at last various moral irregularities grew up, of a kind that made the Pope think it a very undesirable thing, and it was then put down by ecclesiastical authority; yet it was still practised in secret for some time longer, so that it is said that even until the beginning of the last century there were small bands of flagellants in Italy, who used to meet for this self-mortification.
That was one form in which a dominant idea took possession of the mind and led to actions which might be called voluntary, for they were done under this impression, that such self-mortification was an acceptable offering. But there were other cases in which the action of the body seemed to be in a very great degree involuntary, just about as involuntary as an hysteric fit, and yet in which it was performed under a very distinct idea; such was what was called the "Dancing Mania," which followed upon this great plague. This dancing mania seemed in the first instance to seize upon persons who had a tendency to that complaint which we now know as St. Vitus's dance—St. Vitus was, in fact, the patron saint of these dancers. St. Vitus's dance, or chorea, in the moderate form in which we now know it, is simply this, that there is a tendency to jerking movements of the body, these movements sometimes going on independently of all voluntary action, and sometimes accompanying any attempt at voluntary movement; so that the body of a person may be entirely at rest until he desires to execute some ordinary movement, such as lifting his hand to his head to feed himself, or getting up to walk; then, when the impulse is given to execute a voluntary movement, instead of the muscles obeying the will, the movement is complicated (as it were) with violent jerking actions, which show that there is quite an independent activity. The fact is, that stammering is a sort of chorea. We give the name of chorea to this kind of disturbance of the nervous system, and the action of stammering is a limited chorea—chorea limited to the muscles concerned in speech, when the person cannot regulate the muscles so as to bring out the words desired; the very strongest effort of his will cannot make the muscles obey him, but there is a jerking, irregular action every time he attempts to pronounce particular syllables. And the discipline that the stammerer has to undergo in order to cure or alleviate his complaint is just the kind of discipline I have spoken of so frequently—the fixing the attention on the object to be gained, and regularly exercising the nerves and muscles in proceeding from that which they can do to that which they find a difficulty in doing. That is an illustration of the simpler form of this want of definite control over the muscular apparatus, connected with a certain mental excitement; because every one knows that a stammerer is very much affected by the condition of his feelings at the time. If, for example, he is at all excited, or if he apprehends that he shall stammer, that is enough to produce it. I have known persons who never stammered in ordinary conversation, yet when in company with stammerers they could scarcely avoid giving way to it; and even when the subject of stammering was talked about, when the idea was conveyed to their minds, they would begin to hesitate and stutter, unless they put a very strong control upon themselves. It is just in this way, then, only in the most exaggerated form, that these persons were afflicted with what was called the dancing mania. They would allow themselves to be possessed with the idea that they must dance; and this dancing went on, bands going from town to town, and taking in any who would join them. Instances are recorded in which they would go on for twenty-four or thirty-six hours, continually dancing and jumping and exerting themselves in the most violent manner, taking no food all this time, until at last they dropped on the ground almost lifeless; and in fact several persons, it is said, did die from pure exhaustion, and this just because they were possessed with the idea that they must dance. They were drawn in, as it were, by the contagion of example; and, when once they had given way to it, they did not seem to know when to stop. This was kept up by music and by the encouragement and excitement of the crowd around; and it spread among classes of persons who (it might be supposed) would have had more power of self-restraint, and would not have joined such unseemly exhibitions. The extraordinary capacity, as it were, for enduring physical pain, was one of the most curious parts of this condition. They would frequently ask to be struck violently; would sometimes lie down, and beg persons to come and thump and beat them with great force. They seemed to enjoy this.—In another case that I might mention this was shown still more. The case was of a similar type, but was connected more distinctly with the religious idea, and it occurred much more recently. The case was that known in medical history as the Convulsionnaires of St.-Médard. There was a cemetery in Paris in which a great saint had been interred, and some young women visiting his tomb had been thrown into a convulsive attack which propagated itself extensively; and these convulsionnaires spreading the contagion, as it were, into different classes of French society, one being seized after another till the number became very great in all grades. Here, again, one of the most curious things was the delight they seemed to take in what would induce in other persons the most violent physical suffering. There was an organized band of attendants, who went about with clubs, and violently beat them. This was called the grand secours, which was administered to those who were subject to these convulsive attacks. You would suppose that these violent blows with the clubs would do great mischief to the bodies of these people; but they only seemed to allay their suffering.
This, then, is another instance of the mode in which this tendency to strange actions under the dominance of a particular idea will spread through a community. Here you have the direct operation of the perverted mind upon the body. But there are a great many cases in which the perversion shows itself more in the mental state alone, leading to strange aberrations of Mind, and ultimately to very sad results in the condition of society where these things have spread, but not leading to any thing like these convulsive paroxysms. I particularly allude now to the epidemic belief in Witchcraft, which, more or less, formerly prevailed constantly among the mass of the population, but every now and then broke out with great vehemence. This belief in witchcraft comes down to us from very ancient periods; and at the present time it is entertained by the lowest and most ignorant of the population in all parts of the world. We have abundant instances of it still, I am sorry to say, in our own community. We have poor, ignorant servant-girls allowing themselves to be—if I may use such a word—"humbugged" by some designing old woman, who persuades them that she can predict the husbands they are to have, or tell where some article that they have lost is to be found, and who extracts money from them merely as a means of obtaining a living in this irregular way, and I believe at the bottom rather enjoying the cheat. Every now and then we hear of some brutal young farmer who has pretty nearly beaten to death a poor old woman, whom he suspected of causing a murrain among his cattle. This is what we know to exist among the least cultivated of the savage nations at the present time, and always to have existed. But we hope that the progress of rationalism in our own community will, in time, put an end to this, as it has in the middle and upper ranks of society during the last century or century and a half. It is not very long since almost every one believed in the possession of these occult powers by men and women, but especially by old women. This belief has prevailed generally in countries which have been overridden by a gloomy fanaticism in religious matters. I speak of it simply as a matter of history. There is no question at all that this prevailed where the Romish Church was most intolerant, especially in countries where the Inquisition was dominant, and its powers were exerted in such a manner as to repress free thought and the free exercise of feeling; and, again, where strong Calvinism has exercised an influence of exactly the same kind—as in Scotland, a century and a half ago, and in New England, where there was the same kind of religious fanaticism. It is in these communities that belief in witchcraft has been most rife, has extended itself most generally, and has taken possession of the public mind most strongly; and the most terrible results have happened. Now, I will only cite one particular instance, that of New England, in the early part of the last century and the end of the century before. Not very long after the settlement of New England, there was a terrible outbreak of this belief in witchcraft. It began in a family, the children of which were out of health; and certain persons whom they disliked were accused of having bewitched them. Against these persons a great deal of evidence that we should now consider most absurd was brought forward, and they were actually executed: and some of them under torture, or under moral torture for it was not merely physical torture that was applied; in many cases it was the distress and moral torture of being so accused, the dread, even if found not guilty, of being considered outcasts all their lives, or of being a burden to their friends—made confessions which any sober persons would have considered perfectly ridiculous; but, under the dominant idea of the reality of this witchcraft, no one interfered to point out how utterly repugnant to common-sense these confessions were, as well as the testimony that was brought forward. And this spread to such a degree in New England, one person being accused after another, that, at last, even those who considered themselves God's chosen people began to feel, "Our turn may come next;" they then began to think better of it, and so put an end to these accusations, even some who were under sentence being allowed to go free; and to the great surprise of those who were entirely convinced of the truth of these accusations, this epidemic subsided, and witchcraft was not heard of for a long time afterward; so that the belief has never prevailed in New England from that time to the present, excepting among the lowest and most ignorant class. In Scotland, these witch-persecutions attained to a most fearful extent during the seventeenth century. They were introduced into England very much by James I., who came to England possessed by these ideas, and he communicated them to others, and there were a good many witch-persecutions during his reign. After the execution of Charles I., and during the time of the Commonwealth and the Puritans, there were a good many witch-persecutions; but I think, after that, very little more was heard of them. And yet the belief in witchcraft lingered for a considerable time longer. It is said that even Dr. Johnson was accustomed to remark that he did not see that there was any proof of the non-existence of witches; that, though their existence could not be proved, he was not at all satisfied that they did not exist. John Wesley was a most devout believer in witchcraft, and said on one occasion that, if witchcraft was not to be believed, we could not believe in the Bible. So you see that this belief had a very extraordinary hold over the public mind. It was only the most intelligent class, whose minds had been freed from prejudice by general culture, who were really free from it; and that cultivation happily permeated downward, as it were; so that now I should hope there are very few among our intelligent working-class in our great towns—where the general culture is much higher than it is in the agricultural districts—who retain any thing more than the lingering superstition which is to be found even in the very highest circles—as, for instance, not liking to be married on a Friday, or not liking to sit down thirteen at the dinner-table. These are things which even those who consider themselves the very aristocracy of intellect will sometimes confess to, laughing at it all the time, but saying, "It goes against the grain, and I would rather not do it." These, I believe, are only lingering superstitions that will probably pass away in another half century, and we shall hear nothing more of them; the fact being that the tendency to these delusions is being gradually grown out of.
Now, this is the point I would especially dwell upon. To the child-mind nothing is too strange to be believed. The young child knows nothing about the Laws of Nature; it knows no difference between what is conformable to principles, and what, on the other hand, is so strange that an educated man cannot believe it. To the child every new thing that it sees is equally strange; there is none of that power of discrimination that we acquire in the course of our education—the education given to us, and the education that we give ourselves. We gradually, in rising to adult years, grow out of this incapacity to distinguish what is strange from what is normal or ordinary. We gradually come to feel—"Well, I can readily believe that, because it fits in with my general habit of thought; I do not see any thing strange in this, although it is a little unusual." But, on the other hand, there are certain things we feel to be too strange and absurd to be believed; and that feeling we come to especially, when we have endeavored to cultivate our Common-Sense in the manner which I described to you in my last lecture. The higher our common-sense—that is, the general resultant of the whole character and discipline of our minds—the more valuable is the direct judgment that we form by the use of it. And it is the growth of that common-sense, which is the most remarkable feature in the progress of thought during the last century. The discoveries of science; the greater tendency to take rational and sober views of religion; the general habit of referring things to principles; and a number of influences which I cannot stop particularly to describe, have so operated on the public mind, that every generation is raised, I believe, not merely by its own culture, but by the acquired result of the experience of past ages; for I believe that every generation is born, I will not say wiser, but with a greater tendency to wisdom. I feel perfectly satisfied of this, that the child of an educated stock has a much greater power of acquiring knowledge than the child of an uneducated stock; that the child that is the descendant of a race in which high moral ideas have been always kept before the mind, has a much greater tendency to act uprightly than the child that has grown up from a breed that has been living in the gutter for generations past. I do not say that these activities are born with us, but the tendency to them—that is, the aptitude of mind for the acquirement of knowledge, the facility of learning, the disposition to act upon right principles—I believe is, to a very great degree, hereditary. Of course we have lamentable examples to the contrary, but I am speaking of the general average. I am old enough now to look back with some capacity of observation for forty years, and I can see in the progress of society a most marked evidence of the higher general intelligence, the greater aptitude for looking at things as they are, and for not allowing strange, absurd notions to take possession of the mind; while, again, I can trace, even within the last ten years, in a most remarkable manner, the prevalence of a desire to do right things for the right's sake, and not merely because they are politic. And I am quite sure that there is a gradual progress in this respect, which has a most important influence in checking aberrations of the class of which I have spoken.
Still we see these aberrations, and there is one just now which is exciting a good deal of attention—that which you have heard of under the name of "Spiritualism." Now, I look upon the root of this spiritualism to lie in that which is a very natural, and in some respects a wholesome disposition of the kind—a desire to connect ourselves in thought with those whom we have loved and who are gone from us. Nothing is more admirable, more beautiful, in our nature than this longing for the continuance of intercourse with those whom we have loved on earth. It has been felt in all nations and at all times, and we all of us experience it in regard to those to whom we have been most especially attached. But this manifestation of it is one which those who experience this feeling in its greatest purity and its greatest intensity feel to be absurd and contrary to common-sense that the spirits of their departed friends should come and rap upon tables and make chairs dance in the air, and indicate their presence in grotesque methods of this kind. The most curious part of it is that the spirits should obey the directions of the persons with whom they profess to be in communication—that when they say, "Rap once if you mean yes, and rap twice if you mean no," and so on, they should just follow any orders they receive as to the mode in which they will telegraph replies to their questions. It seems to me repugnant to one's common-sense; but the higher manifestations of these spiritual agencies seem to me far more repugnant to common-sense; and that is when persons profess to be able to set all the laws of Nature at defiance; when it is said, for instance, that a human being is lifted bodily up into the air and carried, it may be, two or three miles, and descends through the ceiling of a room. One of the recent statements of this kind, you know, is that a certain very stout and heavy lady was carried a distance of about two miles from her own house, and dropped plump down upon the table round which eleven persons were sitting; she came down through the ceiling, they could not state how, because they were sitting in the dark, and that darkness has a good deal to do with most of these manifestations. Now, let us analyze them a little. I am speaking now of what I will call the genuine phenomena—those which happen to persons who really are honest in their belief. I exclude altogether, and put aside the cases, of which I have seen numbers, in which there is the most transparent trickery, and in which the only wonder is, that any rational persons should allow themselves to be deceived by it.
I have paid a great deal of attention during the last twenty years to this subject, and I can assure you that I have, in many instances, known things most absurd in themselves, and most inconsistent with the facts of the case as seen by myself and other sober-minded witnesses, believed in by persons of very great ability, and, upon all ordinary subjects, of great discrimination. But I account for it by the previous possession of their minds by this dominant idea—the expectation they have been led to form, either by their own earnest desire for this kind of communication, or by the sort of contagious influence to which some minds are especially subject. I say "the earnest desire," for it is a very curious thing that many of those who are the most devout spiritualists are persons who have been themselves previously rather skeptical upon religious matters; and many have said to me that this communication is really the only basis of their belief in the unseen world. Such being the case, I cannot wonder that they cling to it with very strong and earnest feeling. A lady, not undistinguished in the literary world, assured me several years ago that she had been converted by this spiritualism from a state of absolute unbelief in religion; and she assured me, also, that she regarded medical men and scientific men, who endeavored to explain these phenomena upon rational principles, and to expose deception, where deception did occur, as the emissaries of Satan, who so feared that the spread of spiritualism would destroy his power upon earth, that he put it into the minds of medical and scientific men to do all that they could to prevent it. Now that, I assure you, is a fact. That was said to me by a lady of considerable literary ability, and I believe it represents, though rather extravagantly, a state of mind which is very prevalent; the great spread of the intense materialism of our age tending to weaken, and in some instances to destroy, that healthful longing which we all have, I believe, in our innermost nature, for a higher future existence, and which is to my mind one of the most important foundations of our belief in it. We live too much in the present; we think too much of the things of the world as regards our material comfort and enjoyment, instead of thinking of them as they bear upon our own higher nature. I believe that this tendency, which I think is especially noticeable in America—or at least it was a few years ago—from all that I was able to learn, had a great deal to do with the spread of this belief in what is called Spiritualism. The spiritualists assert that in America they are numbered by millions, and that there are very few people of any kind of intellectual culture who have not either openly or secretly given in their adhesion to it. I believe that is a gross exaggeration; still, there can be no doubt, from the number of periodicals they maintain, and the advertisements in them of all kinds of strange things that are done—spirit-drawings made, drawings of deceased friends, and spiritual instruction given of various kinds that there must be a very extended belief in this notion of communication with the unseen world through these "media."
I can only assure you for myself that, having, as I have said, devoted considerable attention to this subject, I have come to the conclusion most decidedly—with, I believe I may say, as little prepossession as most persons, and with every disposition to seek for truth simply—to allow for our knowledge, or I would rather say for our ignorance, a very large margin of many things that are beyond our philosophy with every disposition to accept facts when I could once clearly satisfy myself that they were facts—I have had to come to the conclusion that whenever I have been permitted to employ such tests as I should employ in any scientific investigation, there was either intentional deception on the part of interested persons, or else self-deception on the part of persons who were very sober-minded and rational upon all ordinary affairs of life. Of that self-deception I could give you many very curious illustrations, but the limits of our time will prevent my giving you more than one or two. On one occasion I was assured that, on the evening before, a long dining-table had risen up and stood a foot high in the air, in the house in which I was, and to which I was then admitted for the purpose of seeing some of these manifestations by persons about whose good faith there could be no doubt whatever. I was assured by them—"It was a great pity you were not here last night, for, unfortunately, our principal medium is so exhausted by the efforts she put forth last night that she cannot repeat it." But I was assured, upon the word of three or four who were present, that this table had stood a foot high in the air, and remained suspended for some time, without any hands being near it, or at any rate with nothing supporting it; the hands might be over it. But I came to find, from experiments performed in my presence, that they considered it evidence of the table rising into the air, that it pressed upward against their hands; that they did not rest upon their sense of sight; for I was looking in this instance at the feet of the table, and I saw that the table upon which the hands of the performers were placed, and which was rocking about upon its spreading feet, really never rose into the air at all. It would tilt to one side or to the other side, but one foot was always resting on the ground. And when they declared to me that this table had risen in the air, I said, "I am very sorry to have to contradict you, but I was looking at the feet of the table all the time, and you were not; and I can assert most positively that one of the feet never left the ground. Will you allow me to ask what is your evidence that the table rose into the air?" "Because we felt it pressing upward against our hands." I assure you that was the answer I received; their conclusion that the table rose in the air being grounded on this, that their hands being placed upon the table, they felt, or they believed, that the table was pressing upward against their hands, though I saw all the time that one foot of the table had never left the ground. Now, that is what we call a "subjective sensation;" one of those sensations which arise in our own minds under the influence of an idea. Take, for instance, the very common case—when we sleep in a strange bed, it may be in an inn that is not very clean, and we begin to be a little suspicions of what other inhabitants there may be in that bed; and then we begin to feel a "creepy, crawly" sensation about us, which that idea will at once suggest. Now, those are subjective sensations; those sensations are produced by the mental idea. And so in this case I am perfectly satisfied that a very large number of these spiritual phenomena are simply subjective sensations; that is, that they are the result of expectation on the part of the individual. The sensations are real to them. You know that, when a man has suffered amputation of his leg, he will tell you at first that he feels his toes, that he feels his limb; and, perhaps to the end of his life, every now and then he will have this feeling of the limb moving, or of a pain in it; and yet we know perfectly well that this is simply the result of certain changes in the nerve, to which, of course, there is nothing answering in the limb that was removed. These subjective sensations, then, will be felt by the individuals as realities, and will be presented to others as realities, when, really, they are simply the creation of their own minds, that creation arising out of the expectation which they have themselves formed. These parties believed that the table would rise; and, when they felt the pressure against their hands, they fully believed that the table was rising.
Take the case of Table-turning, which occurred earlier. I dare say many of you remember that epidemic which preceded the spiritualism; in fact, the spiritualism, in some degree, arose out of table-turning. My friend the chairman (Dr. Noble) and I hunted in couples, a good many years ago, with a third friend, the late Sir John Forbes, and we went a great deal into these inquiries; and I very well remember sitting at a table with him, I suppose twenty-five years ago, waiting in solemn expectation for the turning of the table; and the table went round. This was simply the result of one of the party, who was not influenced by the philosophical skepticism that we had on the subject, having a strong belief that the phenomenon would occur; and when he had sat for some time with his hands pressed down upon the table, an involuntary muscular motion, of the kind I mentioned in my last lecture, took place, which sent the table turning. There was nothing to the Physiologist at all difficult in the understanding of this. Prof. Faraday was called upon to explain the table-turning, which many persons set down to electricity; but he was perfectly satisfied that this was a most untrue account of it, and that the explanation was (as, in fact, I had previously myself stated in a lecture at the Royal Institution) that the movements took place in obedience to ideas. Movements of this class are what I call "ideo-motor," or reflex actions of the brain; and the occurrence of these movements in obedience to the idea entertained is the explanation of all the phenomena of table-turning. Prof. Faraday constructed a very simple testing apparatus, merely two boards, one over the other, and confined by elastic hands, but the upper board rolling readily upon a couple of pencils or small rollers; and resting on the lower board was an index, so arranged that a very small motion of this upper board would manifest itself in the movement of the index through a large arc. He went about this investigation in a thoroughly scientific spirit. He first tied together the boards so that they could not move one upon the other, the object being to test whether the mere interposition of the instrument would prevent the action. He had three or four of these indicators prepared, and he put them down on the table so fixed that they would not move. He then put the hands of the table-turners on these; and it was found, as he fully expected, that the interposition of this indicator under their hands did not at all prevent the movement of the table. The hands were resting on the indicator; and when their involuntary pressure was exerted, the friction of the hands upon the indicators, and of the indicators upon the table, carried round the table just as it had done before. Now, if there had been any thing in the construction of the instrument to prevent it, that would not have happened. Then he loosened the upper board and put the index on, so that the smallest motion of the hands upon the board would manifest itself, before it would act on the table, in the movement of the index; and it was found that when the parties looked at the index, and watched its indications, they were pulled up as it were, at the very first involuntary action of their hands, by the knowledge that they were exerting this power, and the table then never went round. One of the strangest parts of this popular delusion was, that even after this complete exposure of it by Faraday, there were a great many persons, including many who were eminently sensible and rational in all the ordinary affairs of life, who said: "Oh, but this has nothing at all to do with it. It is all very well for Prof. Faraday to talk in this manner, but it has nothing at all to do with it. We know that we are not exerting any pressure. His explanation does not at all apply to our case." But then Prof. Faraday's table-turners were equally satisfied that they did not move the table, until the infallible index proved that they did. And if any one of these persons, who know that they did not move the table, were to sit down in the same manner with those indicators, it would have been at once shown that they did move the table. Nothing was more curious than the possession of the minds of sensible men and women by this idea that the tables went round by an action quite independent of their own hands; and not only that, but that really, like the people in the dancing mania, they must follow the table. I have seen sober and sensible people running round with a table, and with their hands placed on it, and asserting that they could not help themselves—that they were obliged to go with the table. Now, this is just simply the same kind of possession by a dominant idea, that possessed the dancing maniacs of the middle ages.
Then the Table-tilting came up. It was found that the table would tilt in obedience to the directions of some spirit, who was in the first instance (I speak now of about twenty years ago) always believed to be an evil spirit. The table-tilting first developed itself in Bath, under the guidance of some clergymen there, who were quite satisfied that the tiltings of the table were due to the presence of evil spirits. And one of these clergymen went farther, and said that it was Satan himself. But it was very curious that the answers obtained by the rappings and tiltings of the tables always followed the notions of the persons who put the questions. These clergymen always got these answers as from evil spirits, or satisfied themselves that they were evil spirits by the answers they got. But, on the other hand, other persons got answers of a very different kind; an innocent girl, for instance, asked the table if it loved her, and the table jumped up and kissed her. A gentleman who put a question to one of these tables got an extremely curious answer, which affords a very remarkable illustration of the principle I was developing to you in the last lecture—the unconscious action of the brain. He had been studying the life of Edward Young, the poet, or at least had been thinking of writing it; and the spirit of Edward Young announced himself one evening, as he was sitting with his sister-in-law—the young lady who asked the table if it loved her. Edward Young announced himself by the raps, spelling out the words in accordance with the directions that the table received. He asked, "Are you Young, the poet?" "Yes." "The author of the 'Night Thoughts?'" "Yes." "If you are, repeat a line of his poetry." And the table spelled out, according to the system of telegraphy which had been agreed upon, this line:
"Man is not formed to question, but adore."
He said, "Is this in the 'Night Thoughts?'" "No." "Where is it?" "J O B." He could not tell what this meant. He went home, bought a copy of Young's works, and found that in the volume containing Young's poems there was a poetical commentary on Job which ended with that line. He was extremely puzzled at this; but two or three weeks afterward he found he had a copy of Young's works in his own library, and was satisfied from marks on it that he had read that poem before. I have no doubt whatever that that line had remained in his mind, that is, in the lower stratum of it; that it had been entirely forgotten by him, as even the possession of Young's poems had been forgotten; but that it had been treasured up as it were in some dark corner of his memory, and had come up in this manner, expressing itself in the action of the table, just as it might have come up in a dream.
These are curious illustrations, then, of the mode in which the minds of individuals act when there is no cheating at all this action of what we call the subjective state of the individual dominating these movements; and I believe that that is really the clew to the interpretation of—the genuine phenomena. On the other hand, there are a great many which we are assured of for instance, this descent of a lady through the ceiling—which are self-delusions, pure mental delusions, resulting from the preconceived idea and the state of expectant attention in which these individuals are. Here are a dozen persons sitting round a table in the dark, with the anticipation of some extraordinary event happening. In another dark séance one young lady thought she would like to have a live lobster brought in, and presently she began to feel some uncomfortable sensations, which she attributed to the presence of this live lobster; and the fact is recorded that two live lobsters were brought in; that is, they appeared in this dark séance—making their presence known, I suppose, by crawling over the persons of the sitters. But that is all we know about it—that they felt something they say they were two live lobsters, but what evidence is there of that?—the séance was a dark one. We are merely told that the young lady thought of a live lobster; she said they had received so many flowers and fruits that she was tired of them, and she thought of two live lobsters; and forthwith it was declared that the live lobsters were present. I certainly should be much more satisfied with the narration, if we were told that they had made a supper off these lobsters after the séance was ended.
Now, it has been my business lately to go rather carefully into the analysis of several of these cases, and to inquire into the mental condition of some of the individuals who have reported the most remarkable occurrences. I cannot—it would not be fair—say all I could say with regard to that mental condition; but I can only say this, that it all fits in perfectly well with the result of my previous studies upon the subject, viz., that there is nothing too strange to be believed by those who have once surrendered their judgment to the extent of accepting as credible things which common-sense tells us are entirely incredible. One gentleman says he glories in not having that scientific incredulity which should lead him to reject any thing incredible merely because it seems incredible. I can only say this, that we might as well go back to the state of childhood at once, the state in which we are utterly incapable of distinguishing the strange from the true. That is a low and imperfect condition of mental development; and all that we call education tends to produce the habit of mind that shall enable us to distinguish the true from the false—actual facts from the creations of our imagination. I do not say that we ought to reject every thing that to us, in the first instance, may seem strange. I could tell you of a number of such things in science within your own experience. How many things there are in the present day that we are perfectly familiar with—the electric telegraph,for instance—which fifty years ago would have been considered perfectly monstrous and incredible. But there we have the rationale. Any person who chooses to study the facts may at once obtain the definite scientific rationale; and these things can all be openly produced and experimented upon, expounded and explained. There is not a single thing we are asked to believe of this kind, that cannot be publicly exhibited. For instance, in this town, last week, I saw a stream of molten iron coming out from a foundery; I did not see on this occasion—but the thing has been done over and over again—that a man has gone and held his naked hand in such a stream of molten iron, and has done it without the least injury; all that is required being, to have his hand moist, and if his hand is dry he has merely to dip it in water, and he may hold his hand for a certain time in that stream of molten iron without receiving any injury whatever. This was exhibited publicly at a meeting of the British Association at Ipswich many years ago, at the foundery of Messrs. Ransome, the well-known agricultural implement makers. It is one of the miracles of science, so to speak; they are perfectly credible to scientific men, because they know the principle upon which it happens, and that principle is familiar to you all—that if you throw a drop of water upon hot iron, the water retains its spherical form, and does not spread upon it and wet it. Vapor is brought to that condition by intense heat, that it forms a sort of film, or atmosphere, between the hand and the hot iron, and for a time that atmosphere is not too hot to be perfectly bearable. There are a number of these miracles of science, then, which we believe, however incredible at first sight they may appear, because they can all be brought to the test of experience, and can be at any time reproduced under the necessary conditions. Houdin, the conjurer, in his very interesting autobiography—a little book I would really recommend to any of you who are interested in the study of the workings of the mind, and it may be had for two shillings—Houdin tells you that he himself tried this experiment after a good deal of persuasion; and he says that the sensation of immersing his hand in this molten metal was like handling liquid velvet. These things, I say, can be exhibited openly—above-board; but these Spiritual phenomena will only come just when certain favorable conditions are present—conditions of this kind, that there is to be no scrutiny—no careful examination by skeptics; that there is to be every disposition to believe, and no manifestation of any incredulity, but the most ready reception of what we are told. I was asked some years ago to go into an investigation of the Davenport Brothers; but then I was told that the whole thing was to be done in the dark, and that I was to join hands and form part of a circle; and I responded to the invitation by saying that in all scientific inquiries I considered the hands and the eyes essential instruments of investigation, and that I could not enter into any inquiry, and give whatever name I possess in science to the result of it, in which I was not allowed freely to use my hands and my eyes. And, wherever I have gone to any of these Spiritual manifestations, and have been bound over not to interfere, I have seen things which, I feel perfectly certain, I could have explained if I had only been allowed to look under the table, for instance, or to place my leg in contact with the leg of the medium. And it has been publicly stated within the last month, that the very medium whom I suspected strongly of cheating on an occasion of this kind, was detected in the very acts which I suspected, but which I was not allowed to examine. I cannot, then, go further into this inquiry at the present time, but I can only ask you to receive my assurance as that of a scientific man, who has for a long course of years been accustomed to investigate the curious class of actions to which I have alluded, and which disguise themselves under different names. A great number of the very things now done, by persons professing to call themselves Spiritualists, were done thirty years ago, or professed to be done, by those who call themselves "Mesmerists;" thus the lifting of the whole body in the air was a thing that was asserted as possible by mesmerists, as is now done by Mr. Home and his followers. These things, I say, crop up now and then, sometimes in one form, sometimes in another; and it is the same general tendency to credulity, to the abnegation of one's common-sense, that marks itself in every one of these epidemics.
Thus, then, we come back to the principle from which we started—that the great object of all education should be to give to the mind that rational direction which shall enable it to form an intelligent and definite judgment upon subjects of this kind, without having to go into any question of formal reasoning upon them. Thus, for example, is it more probable that Mr. Home floated out of one window and in at another, or that Lord Lindsay should have allowed himself to be deceived as to a matter which he admits only occurred by moonlight? That is the question for common-sense. I believe, as I stated just now, that the tendency to the higher culture of the present age will manifest itself in the improvement of the next generation, as well as of our own; and it is in that hope that I have been encouraged on this and other occasions to do what I could for the promotion of that desire for self-culture, of which I see so many hopeful manifestations at the present day. When once a good basis is laid by primary education, I do not see what limit there need be to—I will not say the learning of future generations—but to their wisdom, for wisdom and learning are two very different things. I have known some people of the greatest learning, who had the least amount of wisdom of any persons who have come in my way. Learning, and the use that is made of it, are two very different things. It is the effort to acquire a distinct and definite knowledge of any subject that is worth learning, which has its ultimate effect, as I have said, upon the race, as well as upon the individual.
But there are great differences, as to their effects upon the mind, among different subjects of study; and I have long been of opinion that those studies afford the best discipline, in which the mind is brought into contact with outward realities—a view which has lately been put forth with new force by my friend Canon Kingsley. You know that Canon Kingsley has acquired great reputation as an historian. He held the Professorship of History at the University of Cambridge for many years, and, in fact, has only recently withdrawn from it. Canon Kingsley also early acquired a considerable amount of scientific culture, and he has always been particularly fond of Natural History. Now, he lately said to the working-men of Bristol that he strongly recommended them to cultivate Science, rather than study History; having himself almost withdrawn from the study of history, for this reason, that he found it more and more difficult to satisfy himself about the truth of any past event; while, on the other hand, in the study of science, he felt that we were always approaching nearer to the truth. A few days ago I was looking through a magazine article on the old and disputed question of Mary Queen of Scots, which crops up every now and then. She is once more put upon her trial. Was Mary Queen of Scots a vicious or a virtuous woman? The question will be variously answered by her enemies and by her advocates; and I believe it will crop up to the day of doom, without ever being settled. Now, on the other hand, as we study scientific truth, we gain a certain point, and may feel satisfied we are right up to that point, though there may be something beyond; while the elevation we have gained enables us to look higher still. It is like ascending a mountain; the nearer we get to the top, the clearer and more extensive is the view. I think this is a far better discipline to the mind than that of digging down into the dark depths of the past, in the search for that which we cannot hope ever thoroughly to bring to light. It so happened that only a fortnight ago I had the opportunity of asking another of our great historians, Mr. Froude, what he thought of Canon Kingsley's remark. He said, "I entirely agree with it;" and, in some further conversation I had with him on the subject, I was very much struck with finding how thoroughly his own mind had been led, by the very important and profound researches he has made into our history, to the same conclusion—the difficulty of arriving at absolute truth upon any historical subject. Now, we do hope and believe that there is absolute truth in Science, which, if not at present in our possession, is within our reach; and that, the nearer we are able to approach to it, the clearer will be our habitual perception of the difference between the real and the unreal, the firmer will be our grasp of all the questions that rise in the ordinary course of our lives, and the sounder will be the judgment we form as to great political events and great social changes. Especially will this gain be apparent in our power of resisting the contagious influence of "Mental Epidemics."