Night Side of Nature





“Know ye not that ye are the Temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?”

—1 Corinthians, iii. 16.

Most persons are aware that the Greeks and Romans entertained certain notions regarding the state of the soul, or the immortal part of man, after the death of the body, which have been generally held to be purely mythological. Many of them doubtless are so, and of these I am not about to treat; but among their conceptions, there are some which, as they coincide with the opinions of many of the most enlightened persons of the present age, it may be desirable to consider more closely. I allude here particularly to their belief in the tripartite kingdom of the dead. According to this system, there were the Elysian fields, a region in which a certain sort of happiness was enjoyed; and Tartarus, the place of punishment for the wicked; each of which was, comparatively, but thinly inhabited. But there was also a mid-region, peopled with innumerable hosts of wandering and mournful spirits, who, although undergoing no torments, are represented as incessantly bewailing their condition, pining for the life they once enjoyed in the body, longing after the things of the earth, and occupying themselves with the same pursuits and objects as had formerly constituted their business or their pleasure. Old habits are still dear to them, and they can not snap the link that binds them to the earth.

Now, although we can not believe in the existence of Charon, the three-headed dog, or Alecto, the serpent-haired fury, it may be worth while to consider whether the persuasion of the ancients with regard to that which concerns us all so nearly—namely, the destiny that awaits us when we have shaken off this mortal coil—may not have some foundation in truth: whether it might not be a remnant of a tradition transmitted from the earliest inhabitants of the earth, wrested by observation from nature, if not communicated from a higher source: and also whether circumstances of constant recurrence in all ages and in all nations, frequently observed and recorded by persons utterly ignorant of classical lore, and unacquainted, indeed, with the dogmas of any creed but their own, do not, as well as various passages in the Scriptures, afford a striking confirmation of this theory of a future life; while it, on the other hand, offers a natural and convenient explanation of their mystery.

To minds which can admit nothing but what can be explained and demonstrated, an investigation of this sort must appear perfectly idle: for while, on the one hand, the most acute intellect or the most powerful logic can throw little light on the subject, it is, at the same time—though I have a confident hope that this will not always be the case—equally irreducible within the present bounds of science; meanwhile, experience, observation, and intuition, must be our principal if not our only guides. Because, in the seventeenth century, credulity outran reason and discretion; the eighteenth century, by a natural reaction, threw itself into an opposite extreme. Whoever closely observes the signs of the times, will be aware that another change is approaching. The contemptuous skepticism of the last age is yielding to a more humble spirit of inquiry; and there is a large class of persons among the most enlightened of the present, who are beginning to believe that much which they had been taught to reject as fable, has been, in reality, ill-understood truth. Somewhat of the mystery of our own being, and of the mysteries that compass us about, are beginning to loom upon us—as yet, it is true, but obscurely; and, in the endeavor to follow out the clew they offer, we have but a feeble light to guide us. We must grope our way through the dim path before us, ever in danger of being led into error, while we may confidently reckon on being pursued by the shafts of ridicule—that weapon so easy to wield, so potent to the weak, so weak to the wise—which has delayed the births of so many truths, but never stifled one. The pharisaical skepticism which denies without investigation, is quite as perilous, and much more contemptible, than the blind credulity which accepts all that it is taught without inquiry; it is, indeed, but another form of ignorance assuming to be knowledge. And by investigation, I do not mean the hasty, captious, angry notice of an unwelcome fact, that too frequently claims the right of pronouncing on a question; but the slow, modest, pains-taking examination, that is content to wait upon Nature, and humbly follow out her disclosures, however opposed to preconceived theories or mortifying to human pride. If scientific men could but comprehend how they discredit the science they really profess, by their despotic arrogance and exclusive skepticism, they would surely, for the sake of that very science they love, affect more liberality and candor. This reflection, however, naturally suggests another, namely, do they really love science, or is it not too frequently with them but the means to an end? Were the love of science genuine, I suspect it would produce very different fruits to that which we see borne by the tree of knowledge, as it flourishes at present; and this suspicion is exceedingly strengthened by the recollection that, among the numerous students and professors of science I have at different times encountered, the real worshippers and genuine lovers of it, for its own sake, have all been men of the most single, candid, unprejudiced, and inquiring minds, willing to listen to all new suggestions, and investigate all new facts; not bold and self-sufficient, but humble and reverent suitors, aware of their own ignorance and unworthiness, and that they are yet but in the primer of Nature’s works, they do not permit themselves to pronounce upon her disclosures, or set limits to her decrees. They are content to admit that things new and unsuspected may yet be true; that their own knowledge of facts being extremely circumscribed, the systems attempted to be established on such uncertain data, must needs be very imperfect, and frequently altogether erroneous; and that it is therefore their duty, as it ought to be their pleasure, to welcome as a stranger every gleam of light that appears in the horizon, let it loo