Thursday, October 04, 2007

The psychical researcher as classicist

John William Waterhouse, Consulting the Oracle

What whisper from the soul impels a brilliant mind toward studying classical antiquity and psychical research? Did the two great interests of Frederic Myers's life have a common denominator in a metaphysical intuition?

Myers, educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, later taught classics there. He was also one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research, and his book Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death is still in print more than a century later.

His writings on classical culture are hard to come by today, but when I was in London I was able to buy an old copy of Myers's Essays — Classical. The book is dated 1883, and on the flyleaf is handwritten in ink, "L.H. Lucas. Percival Scholarship. Clifton. — July 1885."

The essays in the book are "Greek Oracles," "Virgil," and "Marcus Aurelius Antoninus." The piece on Greek oracles offers the most clues as to Myers's habits of mind and hints at how his interest in psychical phenomena occasionally crossed over with his studies of ancient Greek and Roman civilizations.

Myers reckons that oracles played a major role in the psychological life of the classical world from about 700 B.C. to A.D. 300. Generally, oracle means a location where it was believed that gods or spirits spoke to humans through an entranced person, dreams, or portents. (The term is also used for the person through whom the spirits communicated.) No one knows how many oracles existed in the Mediterranean and Aegean regions, but by some estimates there were hundreds. Only a few were recorded in literature of the times that survives, though. The most renowned were those on the Greek island of Delos and at Delphi, near Mount Parnassus.

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Myers analyzes the evolution of the oracular phenomenon from primitive beginnings akin to shamanism, to a method for summoning the gods that inspired the Attic imagination, to a sophisticated form of mystery religion, to a decline paralleling the growth of skepticism epitomized by Lucretius toward the old religious practices, and finally … a late and suprising revival, nudged by neo-Platonic mysticism.

As a writer, Myers sometimes goes over the side, with "purple" patches of the sort that were popular in his day (e.g., "The Sibyls died in the temples, and the sun-god's island holds the sepulchre of the moon maidens of the northern sky"). But against the occasional excesses, we must count numerous phrases that turn the dried and cracked fragments of antiquity into sparkling monuments.

How can we resist
It was Apollo who warned the Greeks not to make superstition an excuse for cruelty; who testified, by his compassion for human infirmities, for the irresistible heaviness of sleep, for the thoughtlessness of childhood, for the bewilderment of the whirling brain. …
After the great crisis of the Persian war Apollo is at rest. In the tragedians we find him risen high above the attitude of a struggling tribal god. Worshippers surround him, as in the Ion, in the spirit of glad self-dedication and holy service; his priestess speaks as in the opening of the Eumenides, where the settled majesty of godhead breathes through the awful calm.
He describes Orpheus as "the centre of the most aspiring and deepest thoughts of Greece … who walks the earth with a heart that turns continually towards his treasure in a world unseen."

Myers himself was drawn to a world mostly beyond the reach of the sense organs, one which elusively and teasingly makes itself known or felt, then melts away. His interest in the inner meaning of oracles took off from that.

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He writes of "the most celebrated class of oracles, — those in which the prophetess, or more rarely the prophet, gives vent in agitated trance to the words which she is inspired to utter. We encounter here the phenomena of possession, so familiar to us in the Bible, and of which theology still maintains the genuineness, while science would explain them by delirium, hysteria or epilepsy. It was this phenomenon, connected first, as Pausanias tells us, with the Apolline oracles, which gave a wholly new impressiveness to oracular replies. … These oracles of inspiration, — taken in connection with the oracles uttered by visible phantoms, which became prominent at a later era, — maybe considered as marking the highest point of development to which Greek oracles attained."

The ancient world's concept of the powers of the Pythia — the prophetess at the Delphic oracle — varied, Myers noted, from "mere clairaudience to the idea of an absolute possession, which for the time holds the individuality of the prophetess entirely in abeyance." His own views about the meaning of oracles were very probably influenced by his experiences with trance mediumship.

Frederic W.H. Myers

He draws on his wide acquaintance with the classical writers to point out that many of the great thinkers at the dawn of Western civilization recognized what we would now call the paranormal. Hesiod thought that there was "a hierarchy of spiritual beings who fill the unseen world, and can discern and influence our own." Thales defined demons as "spiritual existences, heroes, as the souls of men separated from the body. Pythagoras held much the same view, and … believed that in a certain sense these spirits were occasionally to be seen and felt. Heraclitus held 'that all things were full of souls and spirits,' and Empedocles has described in lines of startling power the wanderings through the universe of a lost and homeless soul."

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Plato, Myers says, "brings these theories into direct connection with our subject by asserting that some of these spirits can read the minds of living men, and are still liable to be grieved by our wrong-doing, while many of them appear to us in sleep by visions, and are made known by voices and oracles, in our health or sickness, and are about us at our dying hour. Some are een visible occasionally in waking reality, and then again disappear, and cause perplexity by their obscure self-manifestation." Such perplexity has never been far from psychical researchers.

Under the Roman Empire, oracles continued to be consulted, but they seem often to have been corrupted and politicized. The Christian Church, once established as the state religion, was notably unenthusiastic about what it was bound to regard as a rival source of truth. But just as the oracular cult was withering, it gained new life with neo-Platonism and died in a spectacular sunset.

Myers traces "the gradual development of the creed known as Orphic, which seems to have begun with making itself master of the ancient mysteries, and only slowly spread through the profane world its doctrine that this life is a purgation, that this body is a sepulchre, and that the Divinity, who surrounds us like an ocean, is the home and hope of the soul."

Porphyry — who was struck by "that single-hearted and endless effort after the union of the soul with God which filled every moment of the life of Plotinus [the most renowned neo-Platonist]" — was the author of what Myers calls "by far the most careful inquiry into the nature of Greek oracles which has come down to us from an age when they existed still."

According to Porphyry, "the oracular or communicating demon or spirit, — we must adopt spirit as the word of wider meaning, — manifests himself in several ways. Sometimes he speaks through the mouth of the entranced 'recipient,' sometimes he shows himself in an immaterial, or even in a material form, apparently according to his own rank in the invisible world. The recipient falls into a state of trance, mixed sometimes with exhausting agitation or struggle, as in the case of the Pythia." If you substitute the word medium for recipient, here is a description of the classic 19th century séance.

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Porphyry also noted that oracles could give dodgy information if the time and circumstances were wrong, and were capable of telling falsehoods. "Porphyry attributes this occasional falsity to some defect in the surrounding conditions," writes Myers, "which confuses the spirit, and prevents him from speaking truly. For on descending into our atmosphere the spirits become subject to the laws and influences which rule mankind, and are not therefore entirely free agents. When a confusion of this kind occurs, the prudent inquirer should defer his researches, — a rule with which inexperienced investigators fail to comply." Porphyry (or Myers) might be issuing a caveat to the overly credulous among modern spiritualists. Myers himself, though he obviously believes that oracles to some extent manifested the deeper dimensions of human consciousness, is hardly willing to accept the legends about them at face value.

For Frederic Myers, the best attitude when thinking about oracles (and all other enigmas of the mind and spirit) was that of Socrates, "in his assertion of a personal and spiritual relation between man and the unseen world, an oracle not without us but within."

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This posting originally appeared in longer form as my article in The Paranormal Review (July 2003), published by the Society for Psychical Research. I thank the Society for allowing me to adapt it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A very enjoyable essay, thanks.