Project Canterbury

The Unseen World; Communications with It, Real or Imaginary

By John Mason Neale

London: Joseph Masters, 1853.

Night VI. Of the alleged uselessness of apparitions, and of their possibility

Theodora. Just look out into the solemn loveliness of this evening. One cannot wonder that men's minds should [121/122] be disposed to receive any intelligence from the world of spirits, at a time when their own world looks so spiritual itself.

Sophron. It is odd that with so much less light the contrast between moonlight and moon-shade should be so much more striking than the similar contrast by day. Such a violent opposition of tints would in broad daylight be monstrous.

Eupeithes. I never saw a more striking contrast than once in crossing the mountains by moonlight. We were winding up a pass, one side of the ravine being in the deepest shade. Foremost of our party rode a lady, in a white habit, mounted on a white horse. When she reached the top of the zigzag which we were ascending, she came out into the full moonshine, and the effect of that single horse and rider glaring with a snow-white brightness against the black sky, and amidst the wild mountain scenery, was indescribable.

Sophron. The shadows of the contorted arms of trees in winter are most curious, and, I doubt not, have given rise to many and many a tale of haunted lanes; the very spots where such apparitions seem most useless.

Eupeithes. I fear we must put off this discussion for to-night; I hear a somewhat untimely visitor.

Sophron. Not so: it is my friend Scepticus, a most determined disbeliever in such relations as those we have been dwelling on. I told him the subject of our discussion, and invited him to join us in it.

Eusebia. We shall then hear somewhat on the other side of the question, I presume.

Sophron. Welcome, good Scepticus! We are still, you see, on the same subject. Sit down, now, and give us the advantage of your remarks.

Scepticus. Well, I have no objection. Pray, on what: branch are you dwelling to-night?

Eupeithes. On the question whether any argument can be drawn against the credibility of such tales from the uselessness and apparent impossibility of some. We are on the point of agreeing that an apparition, the use of which is; not to be discovered, is not in itself one whit more improbable than such as have an extreme and manifest utility.

Scepticus. If such exist. If you are determined to [122/123] believe everything for which you have a certain amount of testimony, I can give it you for some tales which I am sure you, or any other man possessed of common sense, would reject as absurd.

Eupeithes. To what tales do you refer?

Scepticus. Why, for example, that of the butler, in Ireland, who had been like to be carried away by fiends. He was sent, so Glanville says, by his master to buy cards. He fell in with a company sitting at a banquet in a field through which he passed; they invited him to sit down with them; one among them warned him, "Do nothing which these people ask you." He refused any refreshments; and the whole scene vanished. That night, continues the narrator, the friendly individual among the company came to the bedside of the butler, and warned him not to stir out of doors, for that if he did, he would inevitably be carried away. He kept within till evening, but then, having stepped into the garden, while several persons were standing by him, a rope was thrown round his waist, he was pulled off with incredible speed, and only stopped by accidentally meeting with a man on horseback, who laid hold of one end of the rope, and had a smart blow given him for his pains. Here you begin to get the testimony of three or four persons, besides that of the original actor. But this is not all. The Earl of Orrery hearing of this, sent for the man to his house; he slept there, and told that nobleman on the following morning that the spectre had again been with him, and had assured him that on that day he would infallibly be carried away, and that no efforts could save him. On this, two bishops were sent for; and several strong men commissioned to keep with the butler all day. Nothing happened till towards evening, and then the unfortunate butler was observed to rise up in the air, as if about to be bodily carried away. On this, one or two of the stoutest fellows in the company endeavoured to press him down with their own weight, but to no purpose; he was whirled about at the top of the room, in which attitude you may see him represented in the frontispiece to Glanville's book. After some time, he was let down, and so escaped. Heard ever man so monstrous a tale? And yet your worthy ghost believers of the seventeenth century believed this as firmly [123/124] as any other; and besides a good number of inferior witnesses, the Earl of Orrery is quoted as having seen this person carried up by invisible hands into the air.

Sophron. You have forgotten one material passage in this story; namely, that the party chiefly concerned in it was subject to fits. This effectually quashes all his evidence; nor do I find any great degree of proof for the rest of the tale. If the Earl of Orrery, or any other person of unblemished reputation, had assured me that he had seen a man supernaturally lifted off his feet and carried to the roof, I could not venture to disbelieve him, unless I knew him to be a man of weak intellect. So, if Glanville had told me, or left it in writing, (which comes pretty much to the same thing,) that he had been assured, by Lord Orrery of his having seen it, I could hardly have failed to credit him( making all due allowances for the intermediate link. But you will notice that, confessedly, the tale comes at third or fourth hand; which is one serious objection, because, by a comparatively trifling exaggeration, a most miraculous story may be resolved into an every-day occurrence. So there is one objection. But a stronger one to my mind is, that this account seems really opposed to all idea of a superintending , Providence. If evil spirits carry off, at their will, those that have offended them, and are to be resisted in the same way of physical force as a human enemy, God's superintending government seems quite put out of the question. There .does not appear, according to the tale, to have been any other idea of opposing the ghostly enemies of this man, than by mustering a large body of friends: prayer and other spiritual weapons are left out of the question. The whole thing corporealizes our notions of spirit, and weakens our belief in Providence.

Scepticus. Now you are doing the very thing that believers in such tales will not allow to be done--finding an à priori reason for disbelieving testimony.

Sophron. I did not say that there were no a priori reasons which would justify you in rejecting such stories as those on which we have been dwelling. Anything, for example, which directly impugns any article of faith is at once to be rejected; and the more nearly it approaches to this, or seems to approach to it, with, the more caution is it to [124/125] be received. This tale appears, to say the least, to be in opposition to, what we know concerning God's Providence. Still, it may be very possible that it only appears to be so; therefore, if it have a sufficient degree of testimony, I am not unwilling to receive it. But I do not find such degree in the account as given; I do find some suspicious circumstances connected with it; and therefore, while I am not justified in saying that it could not have been, I am justified in concluding that I do not believe that it was.

Scepticus. Do you mean, then, to say, that the same weight of evidence which would induce you to believe the commonest and most every-day occurrence, would warrant your crediting any tale of an apparition?

Sophron. Undoubtedly not. The more at variance with the usual course of God's Providence be the tale, surely the more testimony it needs to render it credible. It is but the carrying out an every-day principle. I have a servant, on whose word I know little dependance is to be placed. He calls me in the morning, and I inquire what kind of day it is. He answers, "Fine," and I implicitly believe him. The weakest kind of testimony is sufficient for so very trivial and likely a fact. But if the same servant were to assure me that he had that morning seen a mock sun, I should have very great doubts of his veracity, though the thing asserted were in itself unimportant. And if he were to assure me that he had been visited by a spirit on the preceding night, which spirit had given him a message for me, I should not dream of acting on that message, unless I could find some concurrent testimony to its credibility. But if two honest, unimaginative men came to me, and professed to be entrusted by a ghost with a message on which I was to act, I do not see on what principle I could disbelieve them, unless the nature of the message were such that I had some reasonable grounds to suspect collusion; as, if I were desired to do something for the benefit of my informants. But further, if these men gave me a token, such as they could not of their own unassisted knowledge have become acquainted with, in proof of their words, should I not be guilty of folly in disbelieving them? And further, if, as in the case of the death of the Duke of Buckingham, the event verified the prediction, should I not be mad to deny that [125/126] that prediction came from a supernatural source? Are you prepared to say that apparitions are impossible? Because, if you can prove that, of course all argument from testimony is at an end.

Scepticus. All things are, of course, possible to Omnipotence; but I hold the thing to partake very much of the nature of an impossibility.

Sophron. Almost impossible and quite impossible are as far apart as light and darkness; but, not to urge that, whereon do you ground your abstract idea of the very excessive improbability of such appearances?

Scepticus. I think the writers on the other side have shown their appreciation of it. Dr. Henry More, in his Enchiridion, where he is writing on the true-nature and essence of spirit, with a view to prove the possibility of apparitions, is compelled to argue that spirits are material. His whole philosophy on this matter was staked on that point; and, in his annotations on various relations of apparitions, he takes care to dwell on "the easy percribration of spirits through porous bodies," and the like topics.

Sophron. I might answer you in your own way, that your friends, his opponents, were guilty of glaring absurdities in their opposing arguments. "What say you to the Nullibists, who, even affirming that there were such things as spirits, nevertheless, following Des Cartes, asserted that they could, not, being immaterial, be said to exist any where--that spirits, in short, exist nowhere? What say you to the Holenmerians, who affirm that spirits are not only, as a whole, in the whole place occupied by them, as all matter is, but, as a whole, in every part and point of the whole? nay, and who make it their very definition of spirit, that the whole must be in the whole, and the whole in each part of the whole also? No; all that these discussions prove is our ignorance of the subject: they will never convince any one either for or against the possibility of apparitions.

Scepticus. It seems to me that--though that is not the strongest argument--it is very doubtful whether physical senses, like ours, could see a spirit.

Eupeithes. What say you, then, to all the instances in Holy Scripture to the contrary? more especially to that where the young man, at the prayer of Elisha, had his eyes [126/127] opened to behold the chariots of fire and horses of fire that surrounded the city?

Scepticus. I say that, in those instances, the, eyes of individuals were miraculously opened to behold those supernatural appearances. That is a very different thing from such tales as are now in vogue. In them a spirit is usually represented as appearing when it pleases, where it pleases, and to whom it pleases; as if the mere fact of presenting itself to a man made it also visible to him.

Eupeithes. On the contrary, where such is the case, I should agree with you on the point. In all those instances in which ghosts have appeared, God must be considered as having supernaturally enabled the objects of their visitation to behold them. The miracle is rather in the person seeing than in the thing seen.

Scepticus. But then again, those appearances in Scripture are confined to the visits of angels. These, we know, are ministering spirits, and might be supposed to appear on messages whether of love or rebuke; but of the spirits of departed men we are not told as much, nor have we any instance of a similar thing.

Sophron. That, with your favour, is a great deal more than can be asserted. How can you tell that the spirits of the departed just may not be sometimes meant under the title of angels in the Old Testament? But whether they may be or not, we have the one instance of Samuel raised by the witch of Endor, which is a host in itself.

Scepticus. No one can reasonably assert that that apparition was in reality the soul of Samuel: it was simply the illusion of an evil spirit.

Sophron. On the contrary, the whole tenor of the story most manifestly shows that it was Samuel. The enchantress plainly was astonished at what she saw. She expected, probably, to behold some spirit in the shape of Samuel; but when "the old man covered with a mantle came up," she perceived that it was something more than she had looked for. She stood in need of Saul's comfort: a marvellous thing, if she were only pursuing her usual craft! This completely destroys the objection, that enchantments can have no power over the souls of the just. Of course they cannot; nor heed any one say that they had here.

[128] Scepticus. You will allow thus much--that Samuel, if it were really he, could not appear without the command of God.

Sophron. Or His permission.

Scepticus. Well; His command or His permission. And would that command or that permission have been given in answer to a wicked endeavour on the part of Saul? See what this would come to: Saul sought, in the usual and appointed ways, for the direction of God; no answer was returned; he then employed a method expressly and absolutely forbidden, and in itself a capital crime, and at once obtained a reply.

Sophron. And in that reply his own punishment. But what more astonishing in the fact that an answer was returned when impiously sought, which had been denied when endeavoured after in the appointed manner, than there is in the fact that, when Ahaziah sent to consult Baalzebub, God returned him an answer by the mouth of His prophet? And the case was the same with Balaam. When he was endeavouring to discover some means of cursing Israel effectually, God met him, and put a word in his mouth.

Scepticus. But the tenor of what this apparition said makes against you. "Why hast thou disquieted me," it asked, "to bring me up?" Therefore, here is an express proof that it was not the spirit of him whom it personated? because we are all agreed that witchcraft, which undoubtedly existed in the Mosaic dispensation, could not have any, effect over the happiness of the Blessed.

Sophron. Nor is there reason to look on these words as any thing more than figurative--as a representation to human faculties of what is above them. "Why hast thou; given me the trouble of coming up?" You might just as well build an argument on the words "coming up;" which would be manifestly absurd.

Scepticus. He says again, "To-morrow shalt thou and thy sons be with me." Now, in the first place, the battle of Gilboa did not take place on the morrow; and, in the second, Saul, at its conclusion, was certainly not with Samuel, but in "his own place."

Sophron. As to the word "to-morrow," that must taken with the same latitude which we allow to the [128/129] expressions "for ever," &c, in Holy Scripture; and as to being "with me," what meaning so natural as--thou shall be in the state of the dead in another world?

Scepticus. Still, whatever may be decided about this relation, it is not of very much importance to the present inquiry, because it occurred in the Jewish theocracy, and there is no arguing from that, in a matter of this kind, to the Christian dispensation. In the New Testament we find hardly a hint of the possibility of departed souls re-appearing; though many, I willingly grant you, of the appearances of angels.

Sophron. When our LORD appeared to the disciples as they were on the sea, they were terrified in the thought that they had seen a spirit. He never rebuked them for this thought; He simply assured them that they were mistaken in the fact, not that they imagined an impossibility. "It Is I: be not afraid." And still more remarkably in another instance. After His resurrection, "they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit." How did He answer? "Handle Me and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see Me have;" which seems quite to show the possibility of their seeing a spirit. And I can Understand nothing else by the persuasion of the Church of Jerusalem, when S. Peter was loosed out of prison,--"then said they, It is his angel"--than their belief that it was his ghost. No; I think the New Testament is more express even than the Old, on the possibility of such apparitions. In the former we have one solitary instance, and that in-stance not unattended with objections and difficulties; in the latter, we have two virtual admissions of our LORD Himself, that the appearance of spirits is a possible thing.

Scepticus. You are fond of building on one argument, which, considered quietly, has no weight at all. People call the seeing a ghost the effect of imagination. Not so, say the advocates on your side the question, because if one person may fancy such an apparition, two at the same time, And in the same place, certainly would not. On the contrary, my own belief is, that if one person took such a fancy ' into his head, it would be contagious. You know that in the great Plague, a whole crowd asseverated that they beheld; & ghost, which one fanatic pointed out.

[130] Sophron. True. But it was pointed out to them first. They did not simultaneously fancy it. That is what I assert, in a case of mere fancy, to be impossible. In the greater part of those instances, where a spirit has appeared to two persons at the same time, both have become sensible of its presence in the same identical moment; not one pointed it out to the other. Though, were an instance of this last to be produced, it would determine nothing definite against that apparition, because such was the case with Saul and the witch of Endor. The enchantress, it is manifest from the story, perceived it before the monarch. But this argument of yours about fancy, never possessing any great weight, is most unphilosophical of all, where you have to imagine a curious coincidence of the fancy and the thing fancied; as when, at the moment of his death, the dying man appears to a friend at a distance.

Scepticus. But the difficulty of verifying such stories! The impossibility of verifying them at first hand!

Sophron. Of course, if a man does not endeavour to verify them, we cannot expect to find them verified. It is no difficult thing to do, with respect to modern stories; and as regards ancient accounts, several of them are re ported with a degree of testimony that would be amply sufficient to establish the most important piece of history. Such is that relation of the Banshee seen by Lady Fanshawe; of the appearance of the ghost of Sir George Villiers to Parker; such, also, in recent times, the tale we yet have to relate of the fate of Booty.

Scepticus. Consider the moral consequences of such; a belief: what cowards it tends to make men; how superstitious--how unfit for the ordinary concerns of life.

Sophron. Nay; confess yourself, which would be more terrified of the two at a real apparition; the man who had always believed such an event possible, though unlikely; or he that had regarded it as absolutely impossible? It would be all the difference between an army that came prepared on an expected enemy, and one which fell into an unlooked for ambush. And one thing I take to be worthy of relation? I never yet heard of a spectre that was said to have appeared, when he by whom it was seen had been talking or thinking of such matters; that is, when he was in the [130/131] state of mind, which, according to you, would be most likely to produce such imaginations. I say never: for I do not think an obscure story of an apparition, which was said to have presented itself on board the Victory to the officers, when they had been discussing such matters, to have been more than (what was so very likely on board any ship, and still more on board a ship not in active service) a trick.

Scepticus. Well, seeing is believing. When I see a ghost, I shall believe that others may have done so.

Sophron. Why, to be consistent, you ought not to believe it a whit the more then. If others had fancied such things, so may you; and therefore such fancy would be no ground for any change in your views. But seriously, the state of mind that will not believe except on sight, is a most unhappy one......

Scepticus. On this subject, I fear it will never alter. Nevertheless, I shall be glad, if you will allow me, to attend a renewal of this discussion.

Eusebia. Have we, then, sufficiently considered the argument of uselessness? for, it does seem to me that unbelievers have a right to rely on it, and to argue that, if God ever breaks through the established laws of nature, it might reasonably be expected that it would be to some good end.

Eupeithes. You have first to prove that a seemingly useless apparition may not be sent for a very good end, although we may not be able to know it. I might urge that any thing which, tends to convince us of the nearness of our connection, with the invisible world has a manifestly good end, only you would reply that such stories are seldom believed, and therefore cannot produce such conviction. Yet they may do so in the persons immediately concerned; and that is something. On the whole, I would rather say that we know far too little to decide whether any given supernatural appearance is useless or not; and there are cases 'where some that have seemed useless, and indeed absurd, have afterwards been proved very much the contrary. I will read you one of these from a lately published book. "A gentleman was returning to his house at Evesham, (I think,) one summer evening in the late twilight. When a short distance from the town, he saw, on the opposite side of the road, a friend whom he well knew to have been for some [131/132] years dead. Excessively terrified, he quickened his pace; the figure did the same: he walked slowly; the apparition followed his example. So the pair kept on, till they were almost in the town, when the gentleman in question saw two ill-looking fellows crouching down at the side of a hedge, and heard one of them say to the other, 'It won't do, Tom; there are two of them.' Shortly after passing these men, the apparition vanished. Some time subsequently, it was discovered that the two men had formed a design of robbing, on that particular evening, the gentleman in question, and were only restrained from doing it by the belief that he was accompanied by a friend."

Theodora, Mr. Dendy thus beautifully tells another story of the same kind. "I remember, as I was roaming over the wild region of Snowdonia,.....the Welsh guide was looking down in deep thought on Llyn Guinant; and, with a tear in his eye, he told us a pathetic story of two young pedestrians, who were benighted among the mountains in their ascent from Beddgellert. They had parted company in the gloom of the evening, and each was alone in ' a desert. On a sudden, the voice of one of them was distinctly heard by the other, in the direction of the gorge which bounds the pass of Llanberris, as if encouraging him to proceed. The wanderer followed its sound, and at length escaped from this labyrinth of rocks, and arrived safely at Capel Curig. In the morning, his friend's body was found lying far behind the spot where the phantom voice was first heard, and away from the course of their route. Was this .... a solemn instance of friendship after death, as if the phantom had been endued with supernatural power, and became the guardian angel of his friend?"

Sophron. I can give you two stories, which, taken together, will produce a similar conclusion. There was a house in Cambridge, in S. Andrew's Street, where for many days and nights together the bells rang almost incessantly, no cause being assignable, and continued to do so even when the ropes were cut. Of course, in an University, this was set down to some folly among the young men; but, though every possible endeavour was made to find out the cause, it never could be discovered. The disturbance finally ceased if I have been rightly informed--on the last day of the year. [132/133] Now, the facts of this story no one can deny; but that the instrumentality was supernatural, I for a long time fairly disbelieved: partly on account of the superior ease with which such a freak might be performed in Cambridge, as compared with any other town; partly on account of the uselessness of the visitation. At present I could not speak so decidedly; for, though my first argument remains as strong as ever, my second has been cut away from me by the following story:--in a lone part of the country, but not so very far from London, were two gentlemen's houses at a short distance from each other; besides these two, there were none very close. The gentleman and lady who owned the better of the two, were professedly, if not Atheists, any how Deists. They had invited several friends to dinner one evening, and the lady was sitting in her drawing-room that afternoon, when she was annoyed by the constant ringing of a bell in the kitchen. She rang, and inquired what was the matter. The servant replied that they did not know who was ringing; but first one bell, and then another, and then two or three together were pulled. The mistress, of course, grew angry at what she thought an impertinent answer; but as the noise continued, she was obliged to examine into the matter for herself, and she found the servant's answer perfectly correct. The bells were ringing, and no one could tell why or how. A trick was suspected, and the bell-wires were cut: still the bells went on. The lady became alarmed, and her husband thought the circumstance curious; and as the guests were now beginning to arrive, it was mentioned to them. And, indeed, it was almost necessarily talked of, for the disturbance continued all dinner time and all the evening; and when her friends were going away, the lady tad worked herself into such a state of agitation, as to request one or two of them to stay. They consented; still the bells rang on, nor did they cease till about midnight: after which they were quiet. Nothing remarkable happened in that house, but in the neighbouring one there was a robbery, and murder was committed. Now was not this interference, if supernatural, useless?

Theodora. Why, if that be all the story, it would certainly seem so; at all events it was useless where it occurred.

Sophron. Well, that was all the story for some time. [133/134] At length, the robbers who had broken into the other house were taken up, tried, and condemned. They then confessed that it had been their intention to have broken into that of which I have been telling you, where the plate was much more valuable; but that there was such an unaccountable ringing of bells, and (as they heard) so many visitors, that; they preferred making an attempt on the other. Whatever you may think, the lady and gentleman in question were so thoroughly convinced that they had been the subjects of a miraculous interposition of Providence, as to renounce Deism, and thenceforward to live like good Christians.

Eusebia. Well, that is the happiest termination we have yet heard. But you do not mean to say that there are many tales of apparitions, of which you could not, by any possibility, discover or imagine the use?

Sophron. Certainly not: nay, I rather draw an argument the other way from the fact. If the visitations of all spirits were attended with an apparent use, it would be natural to conclude, in many of them, that the use suggested; the device of the ghost. Again, on the other hand, if no such apparitions had any use, I confess it might be brought forward as an argument against the theory, from seeming to show the want of any connection of an overruling Providence with such appearances.

Eusebia. But is it not considered one fair test of a miracle, whether it is of any utility or not?

Sophron. It has been so considered: but by whom? By men who, like Douglas, rested their defence of Scripture miracles well nigh on the destruction of all others. Not that even then they could secure their point. Look at the miracle of Elisha, when he caused the iron to swim. Was not that (to use the almost profane language of such writers) an useless miracle? Granting that the man who lost the axe-head were poor, as the fact of his having borrowed it has been supposed--I know not with what justice--to prove, is it to be imagined that none of the sons of the prophet possessed money enough to purchase another axe, or charity sufficient to help a brother in distress? Again, when our LORD was required to pay His share of the temple tribute, we know that the Apostles had a common bag, cannot but believe that so small a sum might have been [134/135] from that. But it pleased Him rather to work a miracle, and cause a fish to bring the piece, in his mouth.

Eupeithes. There is also good evidence for some most useless apparitions. That which was seen by Philip, second Earl of Chesterfield, is as well authenticated as most. When he, one morning in 1632, woke, and saw a spectre, with a black face, but with long white clothes, stand by his bedside, his thoughts immediately turned to his wife, Anne, daughter to the Earl of Northumberland, then staying with her father at Naworth. He went thither: being, at the time, about forty miles off. As he entered the house, he met a man-servant, with a letter from his wife, in which she requested his immediate return: for that, at the same hour of the same morning, she had seen the same spectre.

Sophron. I believe, as you say, that this tale is very well authenticated; and it certainly seems useless. If you make, however, utility the ground of your belief, you may be amply satisfied. You all know the story of the sentinel at Windsor Castle, whose life was saved by the clock of S. Paul's striking thirteen instead of twelve. Something of the same kind occurred in a house near Woolwich, with the family in which I am acquainted. They were to give a large dinner party one evening; and, as they were known to have a great deal of plate, a gang of thieves in the neighbourhood chose that night as a fit time for an attempt on the house. The servants would be tired; the silver, probably, less care-fully put away; and any casual noise more likely to be accounted for. Accordingly, one of the number secreted himself in a closet, with the understanding that when the clock struck two, he was to come out, and to open the front door. The party went on; the visitors left one by one; and by half-past twelve the family were in their rooms. The butler was going to bed just at one o'clock, when the hall clock struck TWO. At the same moment, he heard a closet door open, and footsteps along the passage. He went out directly, saw the robber, collared him, called for help, and secured him. The scheme was thus discovered: the man had believed it an hour later than it really was, in consequence of the clock's having struck two instead of one.

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