Dreams of a Spirit-Seer/Part 2/Chapter 1

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Dreams of a Spirit-Seer
by Immanuel Kant
Part Second
Chapter I.





Sit mihi fas audita loqui.—Virgil.

Philosophy, which on account of its self-conceit exposes itself to all sorts of empty questions, finds itself often in awkward embarrassment in view of certain stories, parts of which it cannot doubt without suffering for it, nor believe without being laughed at. Both difficulties we find to a certain degree united in the current accounts of spirit visions, the first in listening to him who avouches their truth, the second in communicating them to others. In fact, there is no reproach more bitter to the philosopher than that of credulity, and of yielding to common fancies. And as those who know how to appear wise with little effort sneer at all those things which equalise, so to speak, the wise and the ignorant, in being incomprehensible to both of them, it is not astonishing that the apparitions, so frequently asserted, are finding wide acceptance, and yet, before the public, are either denied or hushed up. You may depend upon this much: an Academy of Sciences will never make this matter its prize question. Not that its members are entirely free from any belief in the opinion referred to, but because policy rightly shuts out questions raised either by presumption or vain curiosity. Thus stories of this kind will have at any time only secret believers, while publicly they are rejected by the prevalent fashion of disbelief.

Meanwhile, as this whole question seems to me to be neither important enough nor well enough studied out to be finally pronounced upon, I do not hesitate to relate here some information of the kind mentioned, and to submit it with absolute indifference to the kind or unkind judgment of the reader.

There lives at Stockholm a certain Mr. Swedenborg, a gentleman of comfortable means and independent position. His whole occupation for more than twenty years is, as he himself says, to be in closest intercourse with spirits and deceased souls; to receive news from the other world, and, in exchange, give those who are there tidings from the present; to write big volumes about his discoveries; and to travel at times to London to look after their publication. He is not especially reticent about his secrets, talks freely about them with everybody, seems to be entirely convinced of his pretensions, and all this without any apparent deceit or charlatanry. Just as he, if we may believe him, is the Arch-Spiritseer among all the spiritseers, he certainly is also the Arch-Dreamer among all the dreamers, whether we judge him by the description of those who know him, or by his works. But this will not hinder those who, otherwise, are favourable to influences from spirits, from supposing that there is some truth back of such phantasms. Still, as the credentials of all plenipotentiaries from the other world consist in the proofs48 which, by certain tests, they give of their calling in the present world, I must quote from what is spread abroad to authenticate the extraordinary capacities of the above-mentioned gentleman at least that which, with most people, still finds some credit.

Towards the end of the year 1761, Mr. Swedenborg was called to a princess, whose great intelligence and insight ought to render deception of such a nature impossible. The call was occasioned by the common report about the pretended visions of this man. After some questions which were intended to amuse her with his illusions, the princess dismissed him, after having charged him with a secret mission concerning his communication with spirits. Several days afterwards, Mr. Swedenborg appeared with an answer which was of such a nature as to create in the princess, according to her own confession, the liveliest astonishment, for the answer was true, and at the same time, could not have been given to him by any living human being. This story is drawn from the report sent by an ambassador at the court there, who was present at that time, to another foreign ambassador in Copenhagen; it exactly agreed also with all that special inquiry has been able to learn.

The following stories have no other proof than common report, which is rather doubtful evidence. Madame Marteville, the widow of a Dutch envoy at the Swedish court, was reminded by a goldsmith to pay some arrears due on a silver-service furnished her. The lady, knowing the economy of her deceased husband, was convinced that this debt must have been settled already in his lifetime, but she found no proof whatever among the papers he left. Woman is especially prone to credit the stories of soothsaying, interpretation of dreams, and similar wonderful things. The widow discovered therefore her trouble to Mr. Swedenborg, requesting him to procure from her husband in the other world information about the real facts of the claim—if it were true, as people said of him, that he had intercourse with deceased people. Mr. Swedenborg promised to do it, and, a few days afterwards, reported to the lady in her house, that he had obtained the desired information, and that the requisite receipts were in a hidden partition of a closet which he showed to her, and which, in her opinion, had been entirely emptied. A search was made at once, according to his description, and, together with the secret Dutch correspondence, the receipts were found, making void all claims.

The third story is of a kind of which it must be very easy to completely prove either the truth or the untruth. It was, if I am rightly informed, towards the end of the year 1759, when one afternoon Mr. Swedenborg, coming from England, landed in Gothenburg. The same evening he was invited to meet some company at the house of a resident merchant. After being present a short while he proclaimed, with evident consternation, the news that, just at that moment, a terrible fire was raging in Stockholm, in the Sudermalm. After the lapse of several hours, during which he had from time to time left the company, he reported to them that the fire was checked, and how far it had spread. This wonderful news was noised abroad the same evening, and the next morning was all over the town. Not until two days after did the first report from Stockholm arrive in Gothenburg. It agreed entirely, it is said, with Swedenborg’s visions.49

It will probably be asked what on earth could have moved me to engage in such a contemptible business as that of circulating stories to which a rational man hesitates patiently to listen; nay, that I should even make them the subject of a philosophical investigation. But as the philosophy which we prefixed was equally a tale from the Utopia of metaphysics, I do not see anything unseemly in letting both appear together. Anyhow, why should it be more creditable to be deceived by blind confidence in the pretences of reason than by incautious belief in misleading stories?

The borders of folly and wisdom are marked so indistinctly that one can hardly walk long in the one region without making at times a little digression into the other. But so far as that sense of honour is concerned, which may sometimes be persuaded even against resisting reason, it seems to be a remnant of the old ancestral loyalty which, to be sure, does not exactly fit in with the present state of things, and therefore often becomes folly, yet, on that account, is not to be considered the natural heirloom of stupidity. I leave it, therefore, to the discretion of the reader to reduce the queer story with which I am meddling,—a doubtful mixture of reason and credulity,—into its components, and to make out what are the proportions of both ingredients in my mind. For, seeing that the main point in such a criticism is to preserve proper decorum, I am sufficiently guarded against ridicule by the fact that with this folly, if you want to call it by that name, I am in quite good and numerous company, and this, as Fontenelle believes, is alone sufficient at least to prevent one’s being regarded as unwise. For it always has been, and, probably, always will be the case, that certain nonsensical things are accepted even by rational men, just because they are generally talked about. To that class belong sympathetic healings, the wand, forebodings, the effect of the imagination of pregnant women, the influences of the changing moon upon animals and plants, &c. Yea, a short time ago, the common peasantry made scholars pay them handsomely for so habitually ridiculing their credulity. For, by a good deal of hearsay from children and women, a great many intelligent men were finally persuaded to take a common wolf to be a hyena, although any rational man can easily see that an African beast would not disport itself in the woods of France. The weakness of man’s reason, together with his curiosity, brings it about that, in the beginning, truth and deceit are snatched up promiscuously. But, gradually, the ideas are purified; a small part remains, the rest is thrown away as offal.

He to whom these ghost stories seem to be of importance, if he has money enough and nothing better to do, may, at any rate, make a journey for the sake of more accurate information, just as Artemidor travelled in Asia Minor to satisfy himself about the interpretation of dreams. Posterity of the same turn of mind will be very grateful to him for making it impossible for a second Philostratus to rise after many years, and make out of our Swedenborg a new Apollonius of Tyana, when the hearsay shall have matured to positive proof, and the inconvenient, though highly necessary, examination of eye-witnesses will have become impossible.