Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/April 1889/Editor's Table



IT is a somewhat melancholy thing to reflect that, while we have a ministry of truth in the men who, with dispassionate minds, are applying them-selves to discover the laws of nature and the true succession and affiliation of historical phenomena, we have also a ministry of error devoted to opposing, one by one, the conclusions of science, and fostering in the minds of those to whom it is addressed habits of false and inconclusive reasoning. We may quote, as an example of the first, the work of a man like our valued contributor, Dr. Andrew D. White, whose articles on "Demoniacal Possession and Insanity" in recent numbers of this magazine have attracted so much attention. We regret to have to quote as an illustration of the second the recent utterances, on the very same subject, of a man who stands to-day in what but lately was, perhaps, the most progressive pulpit of the whole country, that of Plymouth Church. The Rev. Dr. Lyman Abbott is a man of fine sympathies, of wide culture, and of much moderation of character and judgment. He is a man to whom we should have been disposed to look for steady work in the direction of sound and reasonable views; particularly considering the vantage-ground he occupies as successor to one who, whatever his faults and eccentricities, was ever looking toward the light, and had thoroughly reconciled himself to the leading tenets of modern science. Instead of this, however, we find him accepting to the fullest extent the doctrine of demoniacal possession, and defending it by arguments of the most sophistical character. While the ex-President of Cornell is laboring to banish from men's minds the last vestiges of belief in diabolic agency, the successor of Beecher is handling the devils of ancient narrative with all the tenderness and respect due to the most venerable possessions of the human race. Let us, then, briefly examine what this prominent divine has to say on the topic in question. Dr. Abbott announces the theory that "evil spirits exercise an influence over mankind." He explains later that by "evil spirits" he means "disembodied spirits"; and adds that there is "nothing unnatural" in their exercising the same kind of control over men that masterful characters exercise over others of weaker will. This hypothesis he holds to be not only scriptural, but more consonant than any other with the facts of science. Charles J. Guiteau, of repulsive memory, he considers to have been a man possessed. "What we call the impulses of our lower nature are often," Dr. Abbott is inclined to think, "the whispered suggestions of fiend-like natures, watching for our fall and exultant if they can accomplish it." This view invests our life with "a greater seriousness and solemnity than we are wont to imagine" as attaching to it, and makes us realize how important it is "to resist the first yielding to one who never becomes the possessor of a human soul except by its own gradual and voluntary subjection to his hateful despotism."

We have italicized the last few words of the last sentence for an obvious reason. If any "human soul" has "gradually and voluntarily subjected itself" to evil passions, what need is there to call in the hypothesis of diabolic agency to account for even the worst acts of which the man may be guilty? What says an apostle? "Every man is tempted when he is drawn away of his own lust and enticed." The logical law of parsimony forbids us to suppose anything beyond this. What lusts are, we know; what devils are, we know not, nor have we any means even of certifying ourselves in regard to their existence. Why, then, frame hypotheses beyond all need for them? Moral and physical qualities, there is reason to believe, are inherited. Will Dr. Lyman Abbott, standing in Plymouth pulpit, say: "No, it is a family devil that is inherited; the fiend that tormented the father pursues the son and the grandson"? If he will not say that, if he admits that a given individual may receive by inheritance a certain moral and physical constitution, what difficulty is there in believing that to this source may be traced the deeds which mark for good or for evil that individual's life? Dr. Abbott admits that "we can not demonstrate the influence of an invisible spirit over man"; but neither can we, he proceeds to say, "demonstrate the existence of an ether whose waves produce the phenomena of light." The difference between the two cases, however, is very easily stated. The devils are not required to explain any phenomenon; we can get on perfectly well without that hypothesis: whereas, it was necessary to suppose an ether, in order to render the phenomena of light intelligible, by assimilating them to those of sound, produced, as we have discovered, by the vibrations of another medium. We do not doubt, indeed, that the amiable Brooklyn divine would gladly throw the whole doctrine of devils overboard, as not only useless but hurtful, were it not for the sanction which he understands it to receive from the Scriptures. But if it is to be received on faith, why mar the work of faith by trying to show that it may also be accepted on grounds of reason? Faith is only weakened by such help; and reason, certainly, is not benefited by being put to such forced labor.

Take the case of Guiteau. If he had a devil, why did no one of the hundreds of thousands of orthodox believers throughout the country cast that devil out? What do we read? "These signs shall follow them that believe: in my name shall they cast out devils." Did any one so much as try to cast the devil out of Guiteau? The only utterance we distinctly remember as proceeding from the pulpit at the time was a passionate demand by the eloquent preacher of the Brooklyn Tabernacle for the hanging of Guiteau on a gallows as high as Haman's. If Guiteau really had a devil, it was certainly hard on him that the faith of the Christian world was at so low an ebb that no one cared even to try to relieve him of it. Who knows what an innocent and amiable person he might have become if the uncanny tenant could only have been dislodged? The American nation, however, adopted no such theory. Devil or no devil, they held Guiteau responsible for his crime, and hanged him accordingly.

Dr. Abbott talks of the "gradual and voluntary subjection" of a human soul to the "hateful despotism" of a disembodied fiend. But how does this agree with the New Testament narratives? Are the persons who are there mentioned as having been freed from diabolic possession represented as having deliberately and voluntarily given themselves into the power of the fiends? By no means. They are represented rather as the helpless victims of the Evil One; and when the devils have left them, they are in as sound a moral condition (for aught that is hinted to the contrary) as if they had never been possessed. They are not told to go and sin no more, as was the woman taken in adultery. They are not warned, as Dr. Abbott warns his readers, against putting themselves, of their own free will, in the power of the fiend. Had their subjection to evil been gradual and voluntary, how could their corrupted and debased moral natures have been transformed in a moment by a word addressed not to them, but to the indwelling devils? The fact that on one occasion the devils were gratified by being allowed to enter into a herd of swine would seem to show that personal merit or demerit had nothing to do with their choice of an abode. It is not to be supposed that those particular swine were sinners above all the swine that dwelt on the shores of Gennesaret. If Dr. Abbott will therefore consider the matter candidly, he will see that his theory has the double fault of scandalizing reason and opposing Scripture. Surely it is time that, for men as intelligent and with as liberal instincts as Dr. Abbott, the bands of authority were broken in matters of this kind. What do we want with devils in nineteenth-century thought? Can any honest man say that we need them as a working hypothesis for scientific purposes? Would not such a hypothesis rather prove an obstacle to scientific investigation by drawing attention away from the natural antecedents of crime and insanity? What misery has been wrought by this doctrine in past ages Dr. White has well shown. To-day it is a mere wretched survival from ages of ignorance, and one which a wise man, if he can not afford openly to combat, should at least studiously and conscientiously ignore.


In every-day life no fact is more noticeable than the inability of many persons to do their own thinking, even in matters and upon lines wholly within the range of their intelligence. They will see a point that is suggested to them, and will at once understand its bearing on some matter in hand; but they do not seem to have the faculty or art of raising points for themselves, and consequently their action is not as intelligent as it might be. If given a rule to work by, they will apply it, not only in season but out of season, and will look amazed if one suggests that, under special circumstances, they should have varied their usual procedure. Every employer and overseer of labor knows to what an extent this is the case. It is the exceptional workman who really thinks, and who can therefore be trusted to suit his action to circumstances. And so in nearly every sphere of life; a kind of automatism seems to be the rule, and intelligent self-direction, in the light of present facts, more or less the exception.

One is, therefore, tempted to ask whether, in connection with our systems of education, some gymnastic might not be devised for the special purpose of teaching the rising generation to think. The mere introduction of the natural sciences into school and college courses will not suffice; for, as was shown in a report published in these columns a few years ago, the sciences may be taught with very little intellectual result. What is needed is to form the habit of thought in connection with everything; and, without assuming to speak with authority, we can not help inclining to the opinion that this might be done by presenting every object of thought as something not complete in itself, but as requiring, for its proper comprehension, to be considered in its relations to other things. Nearly every act of stupidity committed in daily life arises from disregarding the relations of things—in other words, treating something or other as if it stood apart, in no kind of dependence on anything else. How many such acts would be avoided by the simple reflection that such and such a thing must have had a cause, or that it is sure to have a consequence! How many, by no more profound or acute exercise of thought than is involved in recognizing that a thing can not both be and not be at the same time! How many, by some simple consideration of time, place, or quantity! How many, by a mere question as to the meaning of a word!

One of the main points in education, therefore, ought to be, as it seems to us, to form the habit of treating everything as the possible subject of a great number of questions, some of which at least must be asked and answered before the thing can be, in any true sense, understood. Habit is everything, and if the habit of asking questions, arranged under certain categories, could once be formed, the victory of intelligence over mental inertia would be secured. It is probable that not a little harm is done in the education of the young by unduly appealing to the sense of wonder. Wonder is essentially a stupid emotion; it certainly is the one that stupid people are most eager to gratify. The object of wonder stands alone, challenging attention as being something out of the ordinary course of things. But just in proportion as wonder is excited is rational inquiry discouraged. People do not want to have the marvelous so explained as to bring it into the category of natural and necessary phenomena. From the days of Anaxagoras, who got into trouble for propounding a physical theory of the sun, down to our own time, men have resented explanations of what they have chosen to consider beyond or above explanation. In lieu of wonder, however, we may very usefully stimulate curiosity; and this may be done in a general way by representing everything as leading us on, if properly considered, to views and truths beyond itself—as having its own "aura," as the physicists sometimes say, of force or influence, and certain related objects with which it maintains constant communication.

The successful teacher will be he who, whatever his subject may be, knows best how to present things in their relations; who deals not with unconnected units, but with the vitally connected parts of some organic system of knowledge; and who himself is penetrated by a sense of the interdependence of the truths or propositions that form the matter of his teaching. It ought to be possible to make all instruction subserve the purpose of stimulating thought, of giving to every mind a free activity of its own. The thinking that is required for an intelligent direction of the ordinary concerns of life is not abstruse thinking; it is, on the contrary, in nine cases out of ten, if not in a much larger proportion still, essentially commonplace thinking. We hear from time to time much foolish disparagement of theory as opposed to practice; but there is just this much foundation for the popular prejudice on the subject, that brilliant theoricians are occasionally apt to overlook the simpler and more ordinary aspects of the matters with which they deal; while plain, plodding men, if intent on business, will at least guard the points that most commonly present themselves, and will thus, in the majority of cases, bring things to a successful issue. Educational effort should be most distinctly bent upon giving every human being the habit of asking questions as a preparation for action. The questions need not in most cases be asked of others: it is often enough to raise and distinctly face them; then the answer comes of itself. We have had too many examinations in which the mind is put to a strain, and too little work of the kind involving no strain, but simply tending to keep the mind in a healthy condition of activity and alertness. At home as well as at school, children should be taught to think the thoughts that are suited to their age and capacity; and the neglect of such thought as is quite within their powers should be treated as a fault. We are confident that when a general effort comes to be made for the specific purpose of awakening intelligence, and when, for the furtherance of this end, we throw away a great quantity of the useless lumber with which we now encumber the minds of the young, the result will be a great development of good sense and practical efficiency.