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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Immortality the Logical Outcome of Evolution

By John Fiske (1842–1901)

[Born in Hartford, Conn., 1842. Died in Gloucester, Mass., 1901. The Destiny of Man, Viewed in the Light of his Origin. 1884.]

THE VIRTUES of forbearance and self-control are still in a very rudimentary state, and of mutual helpfulness there is far too little among men.

Nevertheless in all these respects some improvement has been made, along with the diminution of warfare, and by the time warfare has not merely ceased from the earth, but has come to be the dimly remembered phantom of a remote past, the development of the sympathetic side of human nature will doubtless become prodigious. The manifestation of selfish and hateful feelings will be more and more sternly repressed by public opinion, and such feelings will become weakened by disuse, while the sympathetic feelings will increase in strength as the sphere for their exercise is enlarged. And thus at length we see what human progress means. It means throwing off the brute-inheritance—gradually throwing it off through ages of struggle that are by and by to make struggle needless. Man is slowly passing from a primitive social state, in which he was little better than a brute, toward an ultimate social state in which his character shall have become so transformed that nothing of the brute can be detected in it. The ape and the tiger in human nature will become extinct. Theology has had much to say about original sin. This original sin is neither more nor less than the brute-inheritance which every man carries with him, and the process of evolution is an advance toward true salvation. Fresh value is thus added to human life. The modern prophet, employing the methods of science, may again proclaim that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Work ye, therefore, early and late, to prepare its coming.

Now, what is this message of the modern prophet but pure Christianity?—not the mass of theological doctrine ingeniously piled up by Justin Martyr and Tertullian and Clement and Athanasius and Augustine, but the real and essential Christianity which came, fraught with good tidings to men, from the very lips of Jesus and Paul! When did St. Paul’s conception of the two men within him that warred against each other, the appetites of our brute nature and the God-given yearning for a higher life—when did this grand conception ever have so much significance as now? When have we ever before held such a clew to the meaning of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount? “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” In the cruel strife of centuries has it not often seemed as if the earth were to be rather the prize of the hardest heart and the strongest fist? To many men these words of Christ have been as foolishness and as a stumbling-block, and the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount have been openly derided as too good for this world. In that wonderful picture of modern life which is the greatest work of one of the great seers of our time, Victor Hugo gives a concrete illustration of the working of Christ’s methods. In the saint-like career of Bishop Myriel, and in the transformation which his example works in the character of the hardened outlaw Jean Valjean, we have a most powerful commentary on the Sermon on the Mount. By some critics who could express their views freely about “Les Misérables” while hesitating to impugn directly the authority of the New Testament, Monseigneur Bienvenu was unsparingly ridiculed as a man of impossible goodness, and as a milksop and fool withal. But I think Victor Hugo understood the capabilities of human nature, and its real dignity, much better than these scoffers. In a low stage of civilization Monseigneur Bienvenu would have had small chance of reaching middle life. Christ himself, we remember, was crucified between two thieves. It is none the less true that when once the degree of civilization is such as to allow this highest type of character, distinguished by its meekness and kindness, to take root and thrive, its methods are incomparable in their potency. The Master knew full well that the time was not yet ripe—that he brought not peace, but a sword. But he preached nevertheless that gospel of great joy which is by and by to be realized by toiling Humanity, and he announced ethical principles fit for the time that is coming. The great originality of his teaching, and the feature that has chiefly given it power in the world, lay in the distinctness with which he conceived a state of society from which every vestige of strife, and the modes of behavior adapted to ages of strife, shall be utterly and forever swept away. Through misery that has seemed unendurable and turmoil that has seemed endless, men have thought on that gracious life and its sublime ideal, and have taken comfort in the sweetly solemn message of peace on earth and good will to men.

I believe that the promise with which I started has now been amply redeemed. I believe it has been fully shown that so far from degrading Humanity, or putting it on a level with the animal world in general, the doctrine of evolution shows us distinctly for the first time how the creation and the perfecting of Man is the goal toward which Nature’s work has been tending from the first. We can now see clearly that our new knowledge enlarges tenfold the significance of human life, and makes it seem more than ever the chief object of Divine care, the consummate fruition of that creative energy which is manifested throughout the knowable universe….

It is not likely that we shall ever succeed in making the immortality of the soul a matter of scientific demonstration, for we lack the requisite data. It must ever remain an affair of religion rather than of science. In other words, it must remain one of that class of questions upon which I may not expect to convince my neighbor, while at the same time I may entertain a reasonable conviction of my own upon the subject. In the domain of cerebral physiology the question might be debated forever without a result. The only thing which cerebral physiology tells us, when studied with the aid of molecular physics, is against the materialist, so far as it goes. It tells us that, during the present life, although thought and feeling are always manifested in connection with a peculiar form of matter, yet by no possibility can thought and feeling be in any sense the products of matter. Nothing could be more grossly unscientific than the famous remark of Cabanis, that the brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile. It is not even correct to say that thought goes on in the brain. What goes on in the brain is an amazingly complex series of molecular movements, with which thought and feeling are in some unknown way correlated, not as effects or as causes, but as concomitants. So much is clear, but cerebral physiology says nothing about another life. Indeed, why should it? The last place in the world to which I should go for information about a state of things in which thought and feeling can exist in the absence of a cerebrum would be cerebral physiology!

The materialistic assumption that there is no such state of things, and that the life of the soul accordingly ends with the life of the body, is perhaps the most colossal instance of baseless assumption that is known to the history of philosophy. No evidence for it can be alleged beyond the familiar fact that during the present life we know Soul only in its association with Body, and therefore cannot discover disembodied soul without dying ourselves. This fact must always prevent us from obtaining direct evidence for the belief in the soul’s survival. But a negative presumption is not created by the absence of proof in cases where, in the nature of things, proof is inaccessible. With his illegitimate hypothesis of annihilation, the materialist transgresses the bounds of experience quite as widely as the poet who sings of the New Jerusalem with its river of life and its streets of gold. Scientifically speaking, there is not a particle of evidence for either view.

But when we desist from the futile attempt to introduce scientific demonstration into a region which confessedly transcends human experience, and when we consider the question upon broad grounds of moral probability, I have no doubt that men will continue in the future, as in the past, to cherish the faith in a life beyond the grave. In past times the disbelief in the soul’s immortality has always accompanied that kind of philosophy which, under whatever name, has regarded Humanity as merely a local incident in an endless and aimless series of cosmical changes. As a general rule, people who have come to take such a view of the position of Man in the universe have ceased to believe in a future life. On the other hand, he who regards Man as the consummate fruition of creative energy, and the chief object of Divine care, is almost irresistibly driven to the belief that the soul’s career is not completed with the present life upon the earth. Difficulties on theory he will naturally expect to meet in many quarters; but these will not weaken his faith, especially when he remembers that upon the alternative view the difficulties are at least as great. We live in a world of mystery, at all events, and there is not a problem in the simplest and most exact departments of science which does not speedily lead us to a transcendental problem that we can neither solve nor elude. A broad common-sense argument has often to be called in, where keen-edged metaphysical analysis has confessed itself baffled.

Now, we have here seen that the doctrine of evolution does not allow us to take the atheistic view of the position of Man. It is true that modern astronomy shows us giant balls of vapor condensing into fiery suns, cooling down into planets fit for the support of life, and at last growing cold and rigid in death, like the moon. And there are indications of a time when systems of dead planets shall fall in upon their central ember that was once a sun, and the whole lifeless mass, thus regaining heat, shall expand into a nebulous cloud like that with which we started, that the work of condensation and evolution may begin over again. These titanic events must doubtless seem to our limited vision like an endless and aimless series of cosmical changes. They disclose no signs of purpose, or even of dramatic tendency; they seem like the weary work of Sisyphos. But on the face of our own planet, where alone we are able to survey the process of evolution in its higher and more complex details, we do find distinct indications of a dramatic tendency, though doubtless not of purpose in the limited human sense. The Darwinian theory, properly understood, replaces as much teleology as it destroys. From the first dawning of life we see all things working together toward one mighty goal, the evolution of the most exalted spiritual qualities which characterize Humanity. The body is cast aside and returns to the dust of which it was made. The earth, so marvellously wrought to man’s uses, will also be cast aside. The day is to come, no doubt, when the heavens shall vanish as a scroll, and the elements be melted with fervent heat. So small is the value which Nature sets upon the perishable forms of matter! The question, then, is reduced to this: are Man’s highest spiritual qualities, into the production of which all this creative energy has gone, to disappear with the rest? Has all this work been done for nothing? Is it all ephemeral, all a bubble that bursts, a vision that fades? Are we to regard the Creator’s work as like that of a child, who builds houses out of blocks, just for the pleasure of knocking them down? For aught that science can tell us, it may be so, but I can see no good reason for believing any such thing. On such a view the riddle of the universe becomes a riddle without a meaning. Why, then, are we any more called upon to throw away our belief in the permanence of the spiritual element in Man than we are called upon to throw away our belief in the constancy of Nature? When questioned as to the ground of our irresistible belief that like causes must always be followed by like effects, Mr. Mill’s answer was that it is the result of an induction coextensive with the whole of our experience; Mr. Spencer’s answer was that it is a postulate which we make in every act of experience; but the authors of the “Unseen Universe,” slightly varying the form of statement, called it a supreme act of faith—the expression of a trust in God, that He will not “put us to permanent intellectual confusion.” Now, the more thoroughly we comprehend that process of evolution by which things have come to be what they are, the more we are likely to feel that to deny the everlasting persistence of the spiritual element in Man is to rob the whole process of its meaning. It goes far toward putting us to permanent intellectual confusion, and I do not see that any one has as yet alleged, or is ever likely to allege, a sufficient reason for our accepting so dire an alternative.

For my own part, therefore, I believe in the immortality of the soul, not in the sense in which I accept the demonstrable truths of science, but as a supreme act of faith in the reasonableness of God’s work. Such a belief, relating to regions quite inaccessible to experience, cannot of course be clothed in terms of definite and tangible meaning. For the experience which alone can give us such terms we must await that solemn day which is to overtake us all. The belief can be most quickly defined by its negation, as the refusal to believe that this world is all. The materialist holds that when you have described the whole universe of phenomena of which we can become cognizant under the conditions of the present life, then the whole story is told. It seems to me, on the contrary, that the whole story is not thus told. I feel the omnipresence of mystery in such wise as to make it far easier for me to adopt the view of Euripides, that what we call death may be but the dawning of true knowledge and of true life. The greatest philosopher of modern times, the master and teacher of all who shall study the process of evolution for many a day to come, holds that the conscious soul is not the product of a collocation of material particles, but is in the deepest sense a divine effluence. According to Mr. Spencer, the divine energy which is manifested throughout the knowable universe is the same energy that wells up in us as consciousness. Speaking for myself, I can see no insuperable difficulty in the notion that at some period in the evolution of Humanity this divine spark may have acquired sufficient concentration and steadiness to survive the wreck of material forms and endure forever. Such a crowning wonder seems to me no more than the fit climax to a creative work that has been ineffably beautiful and marvellous in all its myriad stages.

Only on some such view can the reasonableness of the universe, which still remains far above our finite power of comprehension, maintain its ground. There are some minds inaccessible to the class of considerations here alleged, and perhaps there always will be. But on such grounds, if on no other, the faith in immortality is likely to be shared by all who look upon the genesis of the highest spiritual qualities in Man as the goal of Nature’s creative work. This view has survived the Copernican revolution in science, and it has survived the Darwinian revolution. Nay, if the foregoing exposition be sound, it is Darwinism which has placed Humanity upon a higher pinnacle than ever. The future is lighted for us with the radiant colors of hope. Strife and sorrow shall disappear. Peace and love shall reign supreme. The dream of poets, the lesson of priest and prophet, the inspiration of the great musician, is confirmed in the light of modern knowledge; and as we gird ourselves up for the work of life, we may look forward to the time when in the truest sense the kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdom of Christ, and He shall reign for ever and ever, king of kings and lord of lords.