Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/January 1886/Editor's Table
A LONDON correspondent of the "Boston Herald" makes the significant and, from our point of view, encouraging statement that, in all the Christmas annuals—and their name is legion—published this season, there is hardly to be found a single ghost-story. Formerly ghost-stories were of all the most attractive; and somehow they were thought to be particularly suited to Christmas-time. Nowadays the ghost is left out in the cold. In this festive season no one invites him in to so much as "warm his toes," to quote the expression of a prominent Democratic politician. Why is this? What has made the change?
The change is due to several causes. If asked to name the most general of these, we should say the growing intelligence of the age. If people don't care to talk or read about ghosts as they once did, it is because they no longer believe or even half believe in them. The world of the living is encroaching more and more upon the world of the dead. In very primitive times men not only believed in ghosts with all their heart and soul, but they attributed to them the same range of activities for good and evil as they attributed to living men. The powers of living men in those days were so limited that it was not paying the ghosts a very inordinate compliment to suppose that they could do as much. But steadily, as the powers of living man increased, as he acquired a more extended control over Nature, the prestige of the ghost, who became more and more conspicuously unable to imitate him, diminished. To-day we leave the ghost out of our reckonings entirely; we neither ask his aid nor strive to avert his malice. When a man is once duly certified as dead, we do not look for any continuance of his personal activity, however great the influence of his character may still be in the world.
The ghost, we fear, has also suffered In popular esteem through being investigated. Modern philosophers have not been afraid of the investigation; they have pushed the ghost hard from age to age, from race to race, from country to country; and their verdict is that, while the ghost-idea has been very potent in the world in past times, and still flourishes in the dark places of the earth, the ghost himself has no estate or effects that it would be worth anybody's while to try to levy upon. The return to the warrant is the disappointing one, nulla bona. The ghost, in all his alleged travels through the centuries, has left no monument. There is not one solid piece of work anywhere extant that can be credited to a ghostly origin. If he ever "materialized," he was careful to "dematerialize" again before any one could got a sample of his beautiful work. But, although the ghost himself does not stand out as a vera causa of anything, the belief in ghosts has affected in the most important manner the whole course of civilization. This fact the philosophers have brought very prominently forward, and in doing so they have presented for examination such an infinite and grotesque variety of ghost-beliefs, and of usages and ceremonies connected therewith, that the very name of ghost, instead of awakening, as formerly, a host of superstitious terrors, is, to-day, far more suggestive of some methodical and not over-exciting treatise on primitive man. In short, the ghost nowadays is more apt to make us yawn than to make us shudder. What wonder, then, that he no longer rules as of yore in Christmas literature, and that his general usefulness for purposes of sensation is about at an end?
We shall, perhaps, be confronted with the present wide-spread belief in spiritualism. Is not the ghost active, it will be asked, in spiritualistic circles? Well, spiritualism itself has, in our opinion, been an agency for discrediting the ghost, or, at least, for narrowing and regulating his heretofore willful activities. The spiritualistic ghost, in a word, has been tamed by the medium. lie no longer goes gliding or skulking about upon his terrifying nocturnal errands; on the contrary, ho comes meekly at the call of his master or mistress, and, the conditions being favorable, utters through the table-leg such harmless platitudes as seem most suited to the average intelligence of the audience. This is a great improvement upon the old plan, according to which every man met his ghost in solitude at the midnight hour, and, with his blood in a state of distressing coagulation, was compelled to listen to some dire prediction of coming doom. All our methods nowadays are more or less scientific, and the comfortable séance may be compared to the beneficent lightning rod, with its many points for draining off the otherwise dangerous electrical accumulations of the atmosphere. Instead of meeting the ghost alone, and encountering the full weight of his supernatural terrors, we meet him in pleasant company, where his force is so dispersed that no one gets more than a proper, moderate, and enjoyable share. At the same time, the ghost that comes and goes at the medium's call, and talks reasonably and mildly through the table-leg, is not, quâ ghost, the equal of his more independent and less calculable predecessor. The ghost has declined, there can be no question about it.
Well, as we hinted at the outset, we part with the ghost without reluctance. We think good Christmas-stories can be written without drawing on senseless and half-affected terrors for their interest. We think that literature in general will be the better for shaking itself free from the baseless delusions of by-gone times of ignorance and savagery. The ghost has done nothing in the world that gives him any claim upon our respect or remembrance, lie was necessary in his day, in the sense that men had no choice but to believe in him; but, now that we have risen to a point of view that renders him totally unnecessary either for theoretical or for practical purposes, we shall do well to lay him finally to rest. We want to concentrate our energies on this world, to develop all that is best in human life, to methodize our knowledge, to strengthen our hold upon all sound moral principles. For these purposes, close study of facts is required. We need to see things as they are, and to refer them to human welfare, taken in its broadest and highest sense, as a central point. As long as the ghost survived, he could override, and too often did override, our practical judgments; and men never felt sure as to how far they could trust the plain dictates of common sense. But, with the decay and disappearance of the ghost, common sense, purified by the scientific method, assumes full control of human life and reigns without a rival. Henceforth we become free and responsible men—free to follow the dictates of reason, and responsible for doing so. We can now give to the rising generation an integral education founded on reason, and can bring home to their minds as never before the salutary conviction that the reign of law is universal and unbroken—that not even a ghost can violate it—in short, that ghosts and all things of which independence of natural law is predicated are mere figments of the untrained imagination. This, we say, is henceforth possible. It remains to make the possible actual, and to impress upon education once for all that character which no sensible man can doubt it is destined to take in the not distant future.