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Mysticism, by Evelyn Underhill, [1911], at

II. Mysticism and Vitalism

We glanced, at the beginning of this inquiry, at the universes which result from the various forms of credulity practised by the materialist, the idealist, and the sceptic. We saw the mystic denying by word and act the validity of the foundations on which those universes are built: substituting his living experience for their conceptual schemes. But there is another way of seeing reality or, more correctly, one aspect of reality. This scheme of things possesses the merit of accepting and harmonizing many different forms of experience; even those supreme experiences and intuitions peculiar to the mystics. The first distinct contribution of the twentieth century to man’s quest of the Real, it entered the philosophic arena from several different directions; penetrating and modifying current conceptions not only of philosophy but of religion, science, art and practical life. It was applied by Driesch  22 and other biologists in the sphere of organic life. Bergson,  23 starting from psychology, developed its intellectual and metaphysical implications; whilst Rudolph Eucken  24 constructed from, or beside it, a philosophy of the Spirit, of man’s relations to the Real. p. 27

In all these we find the same principle; the principle of a free spontaneous and creative life as the essence of Reality. Not law but aliveness, incalculable and indomitable, is their subject-matter: not human logic, but actual living experience is their criterion of truth. Vitalists, whether the sphere of their explorations be biology, psychology or ethics, see the whole Cosmos, the physical and spiritual worlds, as instinct with initiative and spontaneity: as above all things free. For them, nature, though conditioned by the matter with which she works, is stronger than her chains. Pushing out from within, ever seeking expression, she buds and breaks forth into original creation.  25 The iron “laws” of the determinists are merely her observed habits, not her fetters: and man, seeing nature in the terms of “cause and effect,” has been the dupe of his own limitations and prejudices.

Bergson, Nietzsche, Eucken, differing in their opinion as to life’s meaning, are alike in this vision: in the stress which they lay on the supreme importance and value of life—a great Cosmic life transcending and including our own. This is materialism inside out: for here what we call the universe is presented as an expression of life, not life as an expression or by-product of the universe. The strange passionate philosophy of Nietzsche is really built upon an intense belief in this supernal nature and value of Life, Action and Strength: and spoilt by the one-sided individualism which prevented him from holding a just balance between the great and significant life of the Ego and the greater and more significant life of the All.

Obviously, the merit of vitalistic philosophy lies in its ability to satisfy so many different thinkers, starting from such diverse points in our common experience. On the phenomenal side it can accept and transfigure the statements of physical science. In its metaphysical aspect it leaves place for those ontological speculations which seem to take their rise in psychology. It is friendly to those who demand an important place for moral and spiritual activity in the universe. Finally—though here we must be content with deduction rather than declaration—it leaves in the hands of the mystics that power of attaining to Absolute Reality which they have always claimed: shows them as the true possessors of freedom, the torch-bearers of the race.

Did it acknowledge its ancestors with that reverence which is their due, Vitalism would identify itself with the mystic philosopher, p. 28 Heracleitus; who, in the fifth century B.C., introduced its central idea to the European world  26 : for his “Logos” or Energizing Fire is but another symbol for that free and living Spirit of Becoming, that indwelling creative power, which Vitalism acknowledges as the very soul or immanent reality of things. It is in essence both a Hellenic and a Christian system of thought. In its view of the proper function of the intellect it has some unexpected affinities with Aristotle, and after him with St. Thomas Aquinas; regarding it as a departmental affair, not the organ of ultimate knowledge. Its theory of knowledge is close to that of the mystics: or would be, if those gazers on reality had interested themselves in any psychological theory of their own experiences.

A philosophy which can harmonize such diverse elements as these, and make its influence felt in so many fields of thought, may be useful in our present attempt towards an understanding of mysticism: for it illustrates certain aspects of perceived reality which other systems ignore. It has the further recommendation of involving not a mere diagram of metaphysical possibilities, but a genuine theory of knowledge. Its scope includes psychology as well as philosophy: the consideration, not only of the nature of Reality but also of the self’s power of knowing it—the machinery of contact between the mind and the flux of things. Thus it has an inclusive quality lacking in the tidy ring-fenced systems of other schools of thought. It has no edges, and if it be true to itself should have no negations. It is a vision, not a map.

The primary difference between Vitalism and the classic philosophic schools is this. Its focal point is not Being but Becoming.  27 Translated into Platonic language, not the changeless One, the Absolute, transcending all succession, but rather His energizing Thought—the Son, the Creative Logos—is the supreme reality which it proposes as accessible to human consciousness.

“All things,” said Heracleitus, “are in a state of flux.” “Everything happens through strife.” “Reality is a condition of unrest.”  28 Such is also the opinion of Bergson and Alexander; who, agreeing in this with the conclusions of physical science, look upon the Real as dynamic rather than static, as becoming rather than being p. 29 perfect, and invite us to see in Time—the precession or flux of things—the very stuff of reality—

“From the fixed lull of Heaven she saw
Time like a pulse shake fierce
Through all the worlds”—  29

said Rossetti of the Blessed Damozel. So Bergson, while ignoring if he does not deny the existence of the “fixed lull,” the still Eternity, the point of rest, finds everywhere the pulse of Time, the vast unending storm of life and love. Reality, says Bergson, is pure creative Life; a definition which excludes those ideas of perfection and finality involved in the idealist’s concept of Pure Being as the Absolute and Unchanging One.  30 This life, as he sees it, is fed from within rather than upheld from without. It evolves by means of its own inherent and spontaneous creative power. The biologist’s Nature “so careful of the type”; the theologian’s Creator transcending His universe, and “holding all things in the hollow of His hand”: these are gone, and in their place we have a universe teeming with free individuals, each self-creative, each evolving eternally, yet towards no term.

Here, then, the deep instinct of the human mind that there must be a unity, an orderly plan in the universe, that the strung-along beads of experience do really form a rosary, though it be one which we cannot repeat, is deliberately thwarted. Creation, Activity, Movement; this, says Vitalism, rather than any merely apparent law and order, any wholeness, is the essential quality of the Realms the Real: and life is an eternal Becoming, a ceaseless changefulness. At its highest it may be conceived as “the universe flowering into deity,”  31 As the Hermetic philosophers found in the principle of analogy, “Quod inferius sicut quod superius,”  32 the Key of Creation, so we are invited to see in that uninterrupted change which is the condition of our normal consciousness, a true image, a microcosm of the living universe as a part of which that consciousness has been evolved.

If we accept this theory, we must then impute to life in its fullness—the huge, many levelled, many coloured life, the innumerable worlds which escape the rhythm of our senses; not merely that patch of physical life which those senses perceive—a divinity, a greatness of destiny far beyond that with which it is credited by those who hold to a physico-chemical theory of the p. 30 universe. We must perceive in it, as some mystics have done, “the beating of the Heart of God”; and agree with Heracleitus that “there is but one wisdom, to understand the knowledge by which all things are steered through the All.”  33 Union with reality—apprehension of it—will upon this hypothesis be union with life at its most intense point: in its most dynamic aspect. It will be a deliberate harmony set up with the Logos which that same philosopher described as “man’s most constant companion.” Ergo, says the mystic, union with a Personal and Conscious spiritual existence, immanent in the world—one form, one half of the union which I have always sought, since this is clearly life in its highest manifestation. Beauty, Goodness, Splendour, Love, all those shining words which exhilarate the soul, are but the names of aspects or qualities picked out by human intuition as characteristic of this intense and eternal Life in which is the life of men.

How, then, may we knew this Life, this creative and original soul of things, in which we are bathed; in which, as in a river, swept along? Not, says Bergson bluntly, by any intellectual means. The mind which thinks it knows Reality because it has made a diagram of Reality, is merely the dupe of its own categories. The intellect is a specialized aspect of the self, a form of consciousness: but specialized for very different purposes than those of metaphysical speculation. Life has evolved it in the interests of life; has made it capable of dealing with “solids,” with concrete things. With these it is at home. Outside of them it becomes dazed, uncertain of itself; for it is no longer doing its natural work, which is to help life, not to know it. In the interests of experience, and in order to grasp perceptions, the intellect breaks up experience, which is in reality a continuous stream, an incessant process of change and response with no separate parts, into purely conventional “moments,” “periods,” or psychic “states.” It picks out from the flow of reality those bits which are significant for human life; which “interest” it, catch its attention. From these it makes up a mechanical world in which it dwells, and which seems quite real until it is subjected to criticism. It does, says Bergson, the work of a cinematograph: takes snapshots of something which is always moving, and by means of these successive static representations—none of which are real, because Life, the object photographed, never was at rest—it recreates a picture of life, of motion. This rather jerky representation of divine harmony, from which innumerable moments are left out, is useful for practical purposes: but it is not reality, because it is not alive.  34 p. 31

This “real world,” then, is the result of your selective activity, and the nature of your selection is largely outside your control. Your cinematograph machine goes at a certain pace, takes its snapshots at certain intervals. Anything which goes too quickly for these intervals, it either fails to catch, or merges with preceding and succeeding movements to form a picture with which it can deal. Thus we treat, for instance, the storm of vibrations which we convert into “sound” and “light.” Slacken or accelerate its clock-time, change its rhythmic activity, and at once you take a different series of snapshots, and have as a result a different picture of the world. Thanks to the time at which the normal human machine is set, it registers for us what we call, in our simple way, “the natural world.” A slight accession of humility or common sense might teach us that a better title would be “ our natural world.”

Let human consciousness change or transcend its rhythm, and any other aspect of any other world may be ours as a result. Hence the mystics’ claim that in their ecstasies they change the conditions of consciousness, and apprehend a deeper reality which is unrelated to human speech, cannot be dismissed as unreasonable. Do not then confuse that surface-consciousness which man has trained to be an organ of utility and nothing more—and which therefore can only deal adequately with the “given” world of sense—with that mysterious something in you, that ground of personality, inarticulate but inextinguishable, by which you are aware that a greater truth exists. This truth, whose neighbourhood you feel, and for which you long, is Life. You are in it all the while, “like a fish in the sea, like a bird in the air,” as St. Mechthild of Hackborn said many centuries ago.  35

Give yourself, then, to this divine and infinite life, this mysterious Cosmic activity in which you are immersed, of which you are born. Trust it. Let it surge in on you. Cast off, as the mystics are always begging you to do, the fetters of the senses, the “remora of desire”; and making your interests identical with those of the All, rise to freedom, to that spontaneous, creative life which, inherent in every individual self, is our share of the life of the Universe. You are yourself vital —a free centre of energy—did you but know it. You can move to higher levels, to greater reality, truer self-fulfilment, if you will. Though you be, as Plato said, like an oyster in your shell, you can open that shell to the living waters without, draw from the “Immortal Vitality.” Thus only—by contact with the real—shall you know reality. Cot ad cot loquitur.

The Indian mystics declare substantially the same truth when they say that the illusion of finitude is only to be escaped by p. 32 relapsing into the substantial and universal life, abolishing individuality. So too, by a deliberate self-abandonment to that which Plato calls the “saving madness” of ecstasy, did the initiates of Dionysus “draw near to God.” So their Christian cousins assert that “self-surrender” is the only way: that they must die to live, must lose to find: that knowing implies being: that the method and secret which they have always practiced consists merely in a meek and loving union—the synthesis of passion and self-sacrifice—with that divine and unseparated life, that larger consciousness in which the soul is grounded, and which they hold to be an aspect of the life of God. In their hours of contemplation, they deliberately empty themselves of the false images of the intellect, neglect the cinematograph of sense. Then only are they capable of transcending the merely intellectual levels of consciousness, and perceiving that Reality which “hath no image.”

“Pilgrimage to the place of the wise,” said Jalalu ‘ddin, “is to find escape from the flame of separation.” It is the mystics’ secret in a nutshell. “When I stand empty in God’s will and empty of God’s will and of all His works and of God Himself,” cries Eckhart with his usual violence of language, “then am I above all creatures and am neither God nor creature, but I am what I was and evermore shall be.”  36 He attains, that is to say, by this escape from a narrow selfhood, not to identity with God—that were only conceivable upon a basis of pantheism—but to an identity with his own substantial life, and through it with the life of a real and living universe; in symbolic language, with “the thought of the Divine Mind” whereby union with that Mind in the essence or ground of the soul becomes possible. The first great message of Vitalistic philosophy is then seen to be—Cease to identify your intellect and your self: a primary lesson which none who purpose the study of mysticism may neglect. Become at least aware of, if you cannot “know,” the larger, truer self: that root and depth of spirit, as St. François de Sales calls it, from which intellect and feeling grow as fingers from the palm of the hand—that free creative self which constitutes your true life, as distinguished from the scrap of consciousness which is its servant.

How then, asks the small consciously-seeking personality of the normal man, am I to become aware of this, my larger self, and of the free, eternal, spiritual life which it lives?

Here philosophy, emerging from the water-tight compartment in which metaphysics have lived too long retired, calls in psychology; and tells us that in intuition, in a bold reliance on contact between the totality of the self and the external world—perhaps too in those strange states of lucidity which accompany p. 33 great emotion and defy analysis—lies the normal man’s best chance of attaining, as it were, a swift and sidelong knowledge of this real. Smothered in daily life by the fretful activities of our surface-mind, reality emerges in our great moments; and, seeing ourselves in its radiance, we know, for good or evil, what we are. “We are not pure intellects . . . around our conceptional and logical thought there remains a vague, nebulous Somewhat, the substance at whose expense the luminous nucleus we call the intellect is formed.”  37 In this aura, this diffused sensitiveness, we are asked to find man’s medium of communication with the Universal Life.

Such fragmentary, dim and unverifiable perceptions of the Real, however, such “excursions into the Absolute,” cannot be looked upon as a satisfaction of man’s hunger for Truth. He does not want to peep, but to live. Hence he cannot be satisfied with anything less than a total and permanent adjustment of his being to the greater life of reality. This alone can resolve the disharmonies between the self and the world, and give meaning and value to human life.  38 The possibility of this adjustment—of union between man’s life and that “independent spiritual life” which is the stuff of reality—is the theme alike of mysticism and of Eucken’s spiritual vitalism or Activistic Philosophy.  39 Reality, says Eucken, is an independent spiritual world, unconditioned by the apparent world of sense. To know it and to live in it is man’s true destiny. His point of contact with it is personality: the inward fount of his being: his heart, not his head. Man is real, and in the deepest sense alive, in virtue of this free personal life-principle within him; but he is bound and blinded by the ties set up between his surface-intelligence and the sense-world. The struggle for reality must be a struggle on man’s part to transcend the sense-world, escape its bondage. He must renounce it, and be “re-born” to a higher level of consciousness; shifting his centre of interest from the natural to the spiritual plane. According to the thoroughness with which he does this, will be the amount of real life he enjoys. The initial break with the “world,” the refusal to spend one’s life communing with one’s own cinematograph picture, is essential p. 34 if the freedom of the infinite is to be attained. We are amphibious creatures: our life moves upon two levels at once—the natural and the spiritual. The key to the puzzle of man lies in the fact that he is “the meeting point of various stages of Reality.”  40 All his difficulties and triumphs are grounded in this. The whole question for him is, which world shall be central for him—the real, vital, all-embracing life we call spirit, or the lower life of sense? Shall “Existence,” the superficial obvious thing, or “Substance,” the underlying verity, be his home? Shall he remain the slave of the senses with their habits and customs, or rise to a plane of consciousness, of heroic endeavour, in which—participating in the life of spirit—he knows reality because he is real?

The mystics, one and all, have answered this question in the same sense, and proved in their own experience that the premises of “Activism” are true. This application of the vitalistic idea to the transcendental world, does in fact fit the observed facts of mysticism far more closely even than it fits the observed facts of man’s ordinary mental life.

(1) The primary break with the sense-world. (2) The “new” birth and development of the spiritual consciousness on high levels—in Eucken’s eyes an essential factor in the attainment of reality. (3) That ever closer and deeper dependence on and appropriation of the fullness of the Divine Life; a conscious participation, and active union with the infinite and eternal. These three imperatives, as we shall see later, form an exact description of the psychological process through which the mystics pass. If then this transcendence is the highest destiny of the race, mysticism becomes the crown of man’s ascent towards Reality; the orderly completion of the universal plan.

The mystics show us this independent spiritual life, this fruition of the Absolute, enjoyed with a fullness to which others cannot attain. They are the heroic examples of the life of spirit; as the great artists, the great discoverers, are the heroic examples of the life of beauty and the life of truth. Directly participating, like all artists, in the Divine Life, they are usually persons of great vitality: but this vitality expresses itself in unusual forms, hard of understanding for ordinary men. When we see a picture or a poem, hear a musical composition, we accept it as an expression of life, an earnest of the power which brought it forth. But the deep contemplations of the great mystic, his visionary reconstructions of reality, and the fragments of them which he is able to report, do not seem to us—as they are—the equivalents, or more often the superiors of the artistic and scientific achievements of other great men. p. 35

Mysticism, then, offers us the history, as old as civilization, of a race of adventurers who have carried to its term the process of a deliberate and active return to the divine fount of things. They have surrendered themselves to the life-movement of the universe, hence have lived with an intenser life than other men can ever know; have transcended the “sense-world” in order to live on high levels the spiritual life. Therefore they witness to all that our latent spiritual consciousness, which shows itself in the “hunger for the Absolute,” can be made to mean to us if we develop it; and have in this respect a unique importance for the race. It is the mystics, too, who have perfected that method of intuition, that knowledge by union, the existence of which philosophy has been driven to acknowledge. But where the metaphysician obtains at best a sidelong glance at that Being “unchanging yet elusive,” whom he has so often defined but never discovered, the artist a brief and dazzling vision of the Beauty which is Truth, they gaze with confidence into the very eyes of the Beloved.

The mystics, again, are, by their very constitution, acutely conscious of the free and active “World of Becoming,” the Divine Immanence and its travail. It is in them and they are in it: or, as they put it in their blunt theological way, “the Spirit of God is within you.” But they are not satisfied with this statement and this knowledge; and here it is that they part company with vitalism. It is, they think, but half a truth. To know Reality in this way, to know it in its dynamic aspect, enter into “the great life of the All”: this is indeed, in the last resort, to know it supremely from the point of view of man—to liberate from selfhood the human consciousness—but it is not to know it from the point of view of God. There are planes of being beyond this; countries dark to the intellect, deeps into which only the very greatest contemplatives have looked. These, coming forth, have declared with Ruysbroeck that “God according to the Persons is Eternal Work, but according to the Essence and Its perpetual stillness He is Eternal Rest.”  41

The full spiritual consciousness of the true mystic is developed not in one, but in two apparently opposite but really complementary directions:—

“. . . io vidi
Ambo le corte del ciel manifeste.”  42

On the one hand he is intensely aware of, and knows himself to be at one with that active World of Becoming, that immanent Life, from which his own life takes its rise. Hence, though he has broken p. 36 for ever with the bondage of the senses, he perceives in every manifestation of life a sacramental meaning; a loveliness, a wonder, a heightened significance, which is hidden from other men. He may, with St. Francis, call the Sun and the Moon, Water and Fire, his brothers and his sisters: or receive, with Blake, the message of the trees. Because of his cultivation of disinterested love, because his outlook is not conditioned by “the exclusive action of the will-to-live,” he has attained the power of communion with the living reality of the universe; and in this respect can truly say that he finds “God in all and all in God.” Thus, the skilled spiritual vision of Lady Julian, transcending the limitations of human perception, entering into harmony with a larger world whose rhythms cannot be received by common men, saw the all-enfolding Divine Life, the mesh of reality. “For as the body is clad in the cloth,” she said, “and the flesh in the skin and the bones in the flesh and the heart in the whole, so are we, soul and body, clad in the Goodness of God and enclosed. Yea, and more homely: for all these may waste and wear away, but the Goodness of God is ever whole.”  43 Many mystical poets and pantheistic mystics never pass beyond this degree of lucidity.

On the other hand, the full mystic consciousness also attains to what is, I think, its really characteristic quality. It develops the power of apprehending the Absolute, Pure Being, the utterly Transcendent: or, as its possessor would say, can experience “passive union with God.” This all-round expansion of consciousness, with its dual power of knowing by communion the temporal and eternal, immanent and transcendent aspects of reality—the life of the All, vivid, flowing and changing, and the changeless, conditionless life of the One—is the peculiar mark, the ultimo sigillo of the great mystic, and must never be forgotten in studying his life and work.

As the ordinary man is the meeting-place between two stages of reality—the sense-world and the world of spiritual life—so the mystic, standing head and shoulders above ordinary men, is again the meeting-place between two orders. Or, if you like it better, he is able to perceive and react to reality under two modes. On the one hand he knows, and rests in, the eternal world of Pure Being, the “Sea Pacific” of the Godhead, indubitably present to him in his ecstasies, attained by him in the union of love. On the other, he knows—and works in—that “stormy sea,” the vital World of Becoming which is the expression of Its will. “Illuminated men,” says Ruysbroeck, “are caught up, above the reason, into naked vision. There the Divine Unity dwells and calls them. Hence their bare vision, cleansed and free, penetrates the activity p. 37 of all created things, and pursues it to search it out even to its height.”  44

Though philosophy has striven since thought began—and striven in vain—to resolve the paradox of Being and Becoming, of Eternity and Time, she has failed strangely enough to perceive that a certain type of personality has substituted experience for her guesses at truth; and achieved its solution, not by the dubious processes of thought, but by direct perception. To the great mystic the “problem of the Absolute” presents itself in terms of life, not in terms of dialectic. He solves it in terms of life: by a change or growth of consciousness which—thanks to his peculiar genius—enables him to apprehend that two-fold Vision of Reality which eludes the perceptive powers of other men. It is extraordinary that this fact of experience a central fact for the understanding of the contemplative type—has received so little attention from writers upon mysticism. As we proceed with our inquiry, its importance, its far-reaching implications in the domains of psychology, of theology, of action, will become more and more evident. It provides the reason why the mystics could never accept the diagram of the Vitalists or Evolutionists as a complete statement of the nature of Reality. “Whatever be the limits of your knowledge, we know”—they would say—“that the world has another aspect than this: the aspect which is present to the Mind of God.” “Tranquillity according to His essence, activity according to His nature: perfect stillness, perfect fecundity,”  45 says Ruysbroeck again, this is the two-fold character of the Absolute. That which to us is action, to Him, they declare, is rest, “His very peace and stillness coming from the brimming fullness of His infinite life.”  46 That which to us is Many, to that Transcendent Knower is One. Our World of Becoming rests on the bosom of that Pure Being which has ever been the final Object of man’s quest: the “river in which we cannot bathe twice” is the stormy flood of life flowing toward that divine sea. “How glorious,” says the Voice of the Eternal to St. Catherine of Siena, “is that soul which has indeed been able to pass from the stormy ocean to Me, the Sea Pacific, and in that Sea, which is Myself, to fill the pitcher of her heart.”  47

The evolution of the mystic consciousness, then, brings its possessors to this transcendent point of view: their secret is this unity in diversity, this stillness in strife. Here they are in harmony with Heracleitus rather than with his modern interpreters. That p. 38 most mystical of philosophers discerned a hidden unity beneath the battle, transcending all created opposites, and taught his disciples that “Having hearkened not unto me but unto the Logos, it is wise to confess that all things are one.”  48 This is the secret at which the idealists’ and concept of Pure Being has tried, so timidly, to hint: and which the Vitalists’ more intimate, more actual concept of Becoming has tried, so unnecessarily, to destroy. We shall see the glorious raiment in which the Christian mystics deck it when we come to consider their theological map of the quest.

If it be objected—and this objection has been made by advocates of each school of thought—that the existence of the idealists’ and mystics’ “Absolute” is utterly inconsistent with the deeply alive, striving life which the Vitalists identify with reality, I reply that both concepts at bottom are but symbols of realities which the human mind can never reach: and that the idea of stillness, unity and peace is and has ever been humanity’s best translation of its intuition of the achieved Perfection of God. “‘In the midst of silence a hidden word was spoken to me.’ Where is this Silence, and where is the place in which this word is spoken? It is in the purest that the soul can produce, in her noblest part, in the Ground, even the Being of the Soul.”  49 So Eckhart: and here he does but subscribe to a universal tradition. The mystics have always insisted that “Be still, be still, and know ” is the condition of man’s purest and most direct apprehensions of reality: that he experiences in quiet the truest and deepest activity: and Christianity when she formulated her philosophy made haste to adopt and express this paradox.

“Quid es ergo, Deus meus?” said St. Augustine, and gave an answer in which the vision of the mystic, the genius of the philosopher, combined to hint something at least of the paradox of intimacy and majesty in that all-embracing, all-transcending One. “Summe, optime, potentissime, omnipotentissime, misericordissime et justissime, secretissime et presentissime, pulcherrime et fortissime; stabilis et incomprehensibilis; immutabilis, mutans omnia. Numquam novus, nunquam vetus. . . . Semper agens, semper quietus: colligens et non egens: portans et implens et protegens; creans et nutriens et perficiens: quaerens cum nihil desit tibi. . . . Quid dicimus, Deus meus, vita mea, dulcedo mea sancta? Aut quid dicit aliquis, cum de te dicit?”  50 p. 39

It has been said that “Whatever we may do, our hunger for the Absolute will never cease.” This hunger—that innate craving for, and intuition of, a final Unity, an unchanging good—will go on, however heartily we may feed on those fashionable systems which offer us a dynamic or empirical universe. If, now, we admit in all living creatures—as Vitalists must do—an instinct of self-preservation, a free directive force which may be trusted and which makes for life: is it just to deny such an instinct to the human soul? The “entelechy” of the Vitalists, the “hidden steersman,” drives the phenomenal world on and up. What about that other sure instinct embedded in the race, breaking out again and again, which drives the spirit on and up; spurs it eternally towards an end which it feels to be definite yet cannot define? Shall we distrust this instinct for the Absolute, as living and ineradicable as any other of our powers, merely because philosophy finds it difficult to accommodate and to describe?

“We must,” says Plato in the “Timaeus,” “make a distinction of the two great forms of being, and ask, ‘What is that which Is and has no Becoming, and what is that which is always becoming and never Is?’“  51 Without necessarily subscribing to the Platonic answer to this question, we may surely acknowledge that the question itself is sound and worth asking; that it expresses a perennial demand of human nature; and that the analogy of man’s other instincts and cravings assures us that these his fundamental demands always indicate the existence of a supply.  52 The great defect of Vitalism, considered as a system, is that it only answers half the question; the half which Absolute Idealism disdained to answer at all.

We have seen that the mystical experience, the fullest all-round experience in regard to the transcendental world which humanity has attained, declares that there are two aspects, two planes of discoverable Reality. We have seen also that hints of these two planes—often clear statements concerning them—abound in mystical literature of the personal first-hand type.  53 Pure Being, p. 40 says Boutroux in the course of his exposition of Boehme,  54 has two characteristic manifestations. It shows itself to us as Power, by means of strife, of the struggle and opposition of its own qualities. But it shows itself to us as Reality, in harmonizing and reconciling within itself these discordant opposites.

Its manifestation as Power, then, is for us in the dynamic World of Becoming, amidst the thud and surge of that life which is compounded of paradox, of good and evil, joy and sorrow, life and death. Here, Boehme declares that the Absolute God is voluntarily self-revealing. But each revelation has as its condition the appearance of its opposite: light can only be recognized at the price of knowing darkness, life needs death, love needs wrath. Hence if Pure Being—the Good, Beautiful and True—is to reveal itself, it must do so by evoking and opposing its contrary: as in the Hegelian dialectic no idea is complete without its negative. Such a revelation by strife, however, is rightly felt by man to be incomplete. Absolute Reality, the Player whose sublime music is expressed at the cost of this everlasting friction between bow and lyre, is present, it is true, in His music. But He is best known in that “light behind,” that unity where all these opposites are lifted up into harmony, into a higher synthesis; and the melody is perceived, not as a difficult progress of sound, but as a whole.

We have, then, ( a ) The achieved Reality which the Greeks, and every one after them, meant by that seemingly chill abstraction which they called Pure Being: that Absolute One, unconditioned and undiscoverable, in Whom all is resumed. In the undifferentiated Godhead of Eckhart, the Transcendent Father of orthodox Christian theology, we see the mind’s attempt to conceive that “wholly other” Reality, unchanging yet changer of all. It is the great contribution of the mystics to humanity’s knowledge of the real that they find in this Absolute, in defiance of the metaphysicians, a personal object of love, the goal of their quest, a “Living One who lives first and lives perfectly, and Who, touching me, the inferior, derivative life, can cause me to live by Him and for His sake”  55 .

( b ) But, contradicting the nihilism of Eastern contemplatives, they see also a reality in the dynamic side of things: in the seething pot of appearance. They are aware of an eternal Becoming, a striving, free, evolving life; not merely as a shadow-show, but as an implicit of their Cosmos felt also in the travail of their own souls—God’s manifestation or showing, in which He is immanent, in which His Spirit truly works and strives. It is in this plane of p. 41 reality that all individual life is immersed: this is the stream which set out from the Heart of God and “turns again home.”

The mystic knows his task to be the attainment of Being, Eternal Life, union with the One, the “return to the Father’s heart”: for the parable of the Prodigal Son is to him the history of the universe. This union is to be attained, first by cooperation in that Life which bears him up, in which he is immersed. He must become conscious of this “great life of the All,” merge himself in it, if he would find his way back whence he came. Vae soli . Hence there are really two distinct acts of “divine union,” two distinct kinds of illumination involved in the Mystic Way: the dual character of the spiritual consciousness brings a dual responsibility in its train. First, there is the union with Life, with the World of Becoming: and parallel with it, the illumination by which the mystic “gazes upon a more veritable world.” Secondly, there is the union with Being, with the One: and that final, ineffable illumination of pure love which is called the “knowledge of God.” It is through the development of the third factor, the free, creative “spirit,” the scrap of Absolute Life which is the ground of his soul, that the mystic can (a) conceive and (b) accomplish these transcendent acts. Only Being can know Being: we “behold that which we are, and are that which we behold.” But there is a spark in man’s soul, say the mystics, which is real—which in fact is—and by its cultivation we may know reality. “Thus,” says Von Hügel “a real succession, real efforts, and the continuous sense of limitation and inadequacy are the very means in and through which man apprehends increasingly (if only he thus loves and wills) the contrasting yet sustaining Simultaneity, Spontaneity, Infinity, and pure action of the Eternal Life of God.”  56

Over and over again—as Being and Becoming, as Eternity and Time, as Transcendence and Immanence, Reality and Appearance, the One and the Many—these two dominant ideas, demands, imperious instincts of man’s self will reappear; the warp and woof of his completed universe. On the one hand is his intuition of a remote, unchanging Somewhat calling him: on the other there is his longing for and as clear intuition of an intimate, adorable Somewhat, companioning him. Man’s true Real, his only adequate God, must be great enough to embrace this sublime paradox, to take up these apparent negations into a higher synthesis. Neither the utter transcendence of extreme Absolutism, nor the utter immanence of the Vitalists will do. Both these, taken alone, are declared by the mystics to be incomplete. They conceive that Absolute Being who is the goal of their quest as manifesting Himself in a World of Becoming: working in it, at one with it p. 42 yet though semper agens, also semper quietus .The Divine spirit which they know to be immanent in the heart and in the universe comes forth from and returns to the Transcendent One; and this division of persons in unity of substance completes the “Eternal Circle, from Goodness, through Goodness, to Goodness.”

Absolute Being and Becoming, the All and the One, are found to be alike inadequate to their definition of this discovered Real; the “triple star of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.” Speaking always from experience—the most complete experience achieved by man—they assure us of an Absolute which overpasses and includes the Absolute of philosophy, far transcends that Cosmic life which it fills and sustains, and is best defined in terms of Transcendent Personality; which because of its unspeakable richness and of the poverty of human speech, they have sometimes been driven to define only by negations. At once static and dynamic, above life and in it, “all love yet all law,” eternal in essence though working in time, this vision resolves the contraries which tease those who study it from without, and swallows up whilst it kindles to life all the partial interpretations of metaphysics and of science.

Here then stands the mystic. By the help of two types of philosophy, eked out by the resources of symbolic expression and suggestion, he has contrived to tell us something of his vision and his claim. Confronted by that vision—that sublime intuition of eternity—we may surely ask, indeed are bound to ask, “What is the machinery by which this self, akin to the imprisoned and sense-fed self of our daily experience, has contrived to slip its fetters and rise to those levels of spiritual perception on which alone such vision can be possible to man? How has it brought within the field of consciousness those deep intuitions which fringe upon Absolute Life; how developed powers by which it is enabled to arrive at this amazing, this superhuman concept of the nature of Reality?” Psychology will do something, perhaps, to help us to an answer to this question; and it is her evidence which we must examine next. But for the fullest and most satisfying answer we must go to the mystics; and they reply to our questions, when we ask them, in the direct and uncompromising terms of action, not in the refined and elusive periods of speculative thought.

“Come with us,” they say to the bewildered and entangled self, craving for finality and peace, “and we will show you a way out that shall not only be an issue from your prison, but also a pathway to your Home. True, you are immersed, fold upon fold, in the World of Becoming; worse, you are besieged on all sides by the persistent illusions of sense. But you too are a child of the Absolute. You bear within you the earnest of your inheritance. At the apex of p. 43 your spirit there is a little door, so high up that only by hard climbing can you reach it. There the Object of your craving stands and knocks; thence came those persistent messages—faint echoes from the Truth eternally hammering at your gates—which disturbed the comfortable life of sense. Come up then by this pathway, to those higher levels of reality to which, in virtue of the eternal spark in you, you belong. Leave your ignoble ease, your clever prattle, your absurd attempts to solve the apparent contradictions of a Whole too great for your useful little mind to grasp. Trust your deep instincts: use your latent powers. Appropriate that divine, creative life which is the very substance of your being. Remake yourself in its interest, if you would know its beauty and its truth. You can only behold that which you are. Only the Real can know Reality.”


THE changed philosophic outlook since this chapter was first written, eighteen years ago, has now given to it a somewhat old-fashioned air. The ideas of Bergson and Eucken no longer occupy the intellectual foreground. Were I now writing it for the first time, my examples would be chosen from other philosophers, and especially from those who are bringing back into modern thought the critical realism of the scholastics. But the position which is here defended—that a limited dualism, a “Two-step philosophy,” is the only type of metaphysic adequate to the facts of mystical experience remains in my own mind as true as before. Now that mysticism enjoys the patronage of many pious monists and philosophic naturalists, this view seems more than ever in need of strong and definite statement.

p. 44



“The Science and Philosophy of Organism,” Gifford Lectures. 1907-8.


“Les Données Immédiates de la Conscience” (1889), “Matière et Mémoire” (1896), “L’Evolution Créatrice” (1907).


“Der Kampf um einen geistigen Lebensinhalt” (1896), “Der Sinn und Wert den Lebens” (1908), &c. See Bibliography.


The researches of Driesch ( op. cit .) and of de Pries (“The Mutation Theory,” 1910) have done much to establish the truth of this contention upon the scientific plane. Now particularly Driesch’s account of the spontaneous responsive changes in the embryo sea-urchin, and de Vries’ extraordinary description of the escaped stock of evening primrose, varying now this way, now that, “as if swayed by a restless internal tide.”


The debt to Heracleitus is acknowledged by Schiller. See “Studies in Humanism,” pp. 39, 40.


See, for the substance of this and the following pages, the works of Henri Bergson already mentioned. I am here also much indebted to the personal help of my friend “William Scott Palmer,” whose interpretations have done much towards familiarizing English readers with Bergson’s philosophy; and to Prof. Willdon Carr’s paper on “Bergson’s Theory of Knowledge, read before the Aristotelian Society, December 1908.


Heracleitus, Fragments, 46, 84.


First edition, canto x.


E.g. St. Augustine’s “That alone is truly real whichabides unchanged” (Conf., bk. vii. cap. 10), and among modern thinkers F. von Hügel: “An absolute Abidingness, pure Simultaneity, Eternity, in God . . . stand out, in man’s deepest consciousness, with even painful contrast, against all mere Succession, all sheer flux and change.” (“Eternal Life,” p. 365.)


S. Alexander, “Space, Time and Deity,” vol. ii, p. 410.


See below, Pt. I. Cap. VII.


Heracleitus, op. cit .


On the complete and undivided nature of our experience in its wholeness,” and the sad work our analytic brains make of it when they come to pull it to pieces, Bradley has some valuable contributory remarks in ho “Oxford Lectures on Poetry,” p. 15.


“Liber Specialis Gratiae,” I. ii. cap. xxvi.


Meister Eckhart, Pred. lxxxvii.


Willdon Carr, op. cit .


“It seems as if man could never escape from himself, and yet, when shut in to the monotony of his own sphere, he is overwhelmed with a sense of emptiness. The only remedy here is radically to alter the conception of man himself, to distinguish within him the narrower and the larger life, the life that is straitened and finite and can never transcend itself, and an infinite life through which he enjoys communion with the immensity and the truth of the universe. Can man rise to this spiritual level? On the possibility of his doing so rests all our hope of supplying any meaning or value to life” (“Der Sinn und Wert des Lebens,” p. 81).


The essentials of Eucken’s teaching will be found conveniently summarized in “Der Sinn und Wert des Lebens.”


“Der Sinn und Wert den Lebens,” p. 121.


“De Septem Gradibus Amoral” cap. xiv.


Par. xxx. 95.


“Revelations of Divine Love.” cap. vi.


Ruysbroeck, “Samuel,” cap. viii.


Ibid., “De Vera Contemplatione,” cap. xii.


Von Hügel, “The Mystical Element of Religion,” vol. ii. p. 132.


St. Catherine of Siena, Dialogo, cap. lxxxix.


Heracleitus, op. cit .


Meister Eckhart, Pred. i.


Aug. Conf., bk. i. cap. iv. “What art Thou, then, my God? . . . Highest, best, most potent [ i.e. , dynamic], most omnipotent [ i.e, transcendent], most merciful and most just, most deeply hid and yet most near. Fairest, yet strongest: steadfast, yet unseizable; unchangeable yet changing all things: never new, yet never old. . . . Ever busy, yet ever at rest; gathering yet needing not: bearing, filling, guarding: creating, nourishing and perfecting; seeking though Thou hast no wants. . . . What can I say, my God, my life, my holy joy? or what can any say who speaks of Thee?” Compare the strikingly similar Sufi definition of the Nature of God, as given in Palmer’s “Oriental Mysticism,” pp. 22,23. “First and last, End and Limit of all things, incomparable and unchangeable, always near yet always far,” &c. This probably owes something to Platonic influence.


“Timaeus,” § 27.


“A natural craving,” said Aquinas, “cannot be in vain.” Philosophy is creeping back to this “mediaeval’ point of view. Compare “Summa Contra Gentiles,” I. ii. cap. lxxix.


Compare Dante’s vision in Par. xxx., where he sees Reality first as the streaming River of Light, the flux of things; and then, when his sight has been purged, as achieved Perfection, the Sempiternal Rose.


E. Boutroux, “Le Philosophe Allemand, Jacob Boehme.” p. 18.


F. von Hügel: “Eternal Life, p. 385.


Op. Cit ., p. 387.

Next: III. Mysticism and Psychology