THEOSOPHY, Vol. 39, No. 11, September, 1951
(Pages 510-514; Size: 15K)
(Number 11 of an 11-part series)

EXTENSIONS OF EVIDENCE

DESCARTES AND THE SOUL

IN the history of ideas, René Descartes (1596-1650) occupies a distinguished place. He has been called "the father of modern philosophy," and this is true in the sense that science was under the sway of Cartesianism, a revolution started by Descartes, during the whole of last century. Since his day (as Dr. J. H. Randall put it in The Making of the Modern Mind) "Purposes gave way to mathematics, human will and foresight to immutable and inflexible mechanical order." The twentieth century, however, has seen Cartesianism becoming less a dogma, especially, perhaps, in the field of biology, where protoplasm is looked upon, not so much as the physical basis of life, but as the "medium of vital manifestation." Nevertheless, Descartes introduced into mathematics the idea of a variable which was never defined, and which enabled mathematical problems to be investigated without specifying any particular conditions. In philosophy, he made the sharp split between mind and matter, which has influenced so profoundly all subsequent human thought. The change that came over the world following this dualism has been admirably described by E. A. Burtt:

The gloriously romantic universe of Dante and Milton, that set no bounds to the imagination of man as it played over space and time, has now been swept away. Space was identified with the realm of geometry, time with the continuity of number. The world that people had thought themselves living in -- a world rich with colour and sound, redolent with fragrance, filled with gladness, love and beauty, speaking everywhere of purposive harmony and creative ideals -- was crowded now into minute corners in the brains of scattered organic beings. The really important world outside was a world hard, cold, colourless, silent and dead; a world of quantity, a world of mathematically computable motions in mechanical regularity. (The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science, 1932, p. 236.)
It was left to H. P. Blavatsky, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, to restore some other aspects of Descartes' philosophy, long neglected by "this strutting game-cock, modern science." In Isis Unveiled, she referred to the famous Frenchman as "one of the few who believed and dared to say that to occult medicine we shall owe discoveries 'destined to extend the domain of philosophy'" (I, 71), and as "one of the most devoted teachers of the magnetic doctrine and, in a certain sense, even of Alchemy.... The magnet-streams of Mesmer are disguised by him into the Cartesian vortices, and both rest on the same principle" (I, 206-7). In The Secret Doctrine, H. P. Blavatsky particularized. "It is," she wrote, "well known (and also regarded as a fiction now, by those who have ceased to believe in the existence of an immortal principle in man), that Descartes saw in the pineal gland the Seat of the Soul." She added:
Although it is joined to every part of the body, he said, there is one special portion of it in which the Soul exercises its functions more specially than in any other. And, as neither the heart, nor yet the brain could be that "special" locality, he concluded that it was that little gland tied to the brain, yet having an action independent of it, as it could easily be put into a kind of swinging motion "by the animal Spirits which cross the cavities of the skull in every sense." [The "animal spirits" (?) are equivalent to the currents of nerve-auric compound circulation. --H.P.B.] Unscientific as this may appear in our day of exact learning, Descartes was yet far nearer the occult truth than is any Hæckel. For the pineal gland as shown, is far more connected with Soul and Spirit than with the physiological senses of man. (S.D. II, 298.)
On no ground has the plea for an impartial hearing of the doctrines of archaic wisdom met with firmer rejection than on that of the nature of the soul. The churches see their vested interests imperilled unless mankind is led to believe that each soul is newly created and can only be saved by their ministrations. In the sphere of physical science, we find what H. P. Blavatsky called "this stupendous pretension," namely, "that the higher and more perfect the working of the Soul, the more amenable it is to the analysis and explanations of the zoologist and the physiologist alone (Haeckel on 'Cell-Souls and Soul-Cells')." Amid the din aroused by these controversies, H.P.B.'s voice was heard demanding "definite words for definite things." Her Key to Theosophy gives English equivalents of Occult Eastern terms for Higher Self, Spiritual Ego, Higher Ego, and Personal Ego. The fact is that, apart from the language of the esoteric philosophy, and the metaphysics that has found its way into the philosophical schools of antiquity, no adequate expressions exist for determining the true nature of man.

Theosophical students will turn with relief, therefore, to any discussion in modern terms which has the effect of clarifying the meaning of the word "soul." Sir Geoffrey Jefferson, FRS., FRCS., Professor of Neuro-Surgery in Manchester University, has made clear what Descartes meant by "soul." In a radio lecture, he reminded his audience that for us, today, the word has, except in poetry, little but a purely religious meaning; but in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, its connotations were derived from the various uses to which the word anima had been put by the ancients. He spoke of the ambiguity associated with the usage of anima; but, as to this, H. P. Blavatsky pointed out long ago: "Too many of our thinkers do not consider that the numerous changes in language, the allegorical phraseology and evident secretiveness of old Mystic writers, who were generally under an obligation never to divulge the solemn secrets of the sanctuary, might have sadly misled translators and commentators" (Isis I, 37). Sir Geoffrey Jefferson then goes on to say:

Thus there were originally three different souls, the vegetative, the sensitive and the reasoning. It is not possible to translate the vegetative and sensitive souls accurately into physiological language, because the ideas behind them are obsolete. The first implies the quality by which a body is alive, the second (the sensitive) that by which it not only feels but moves, the third (the reason) that by which the individual owning it thinks, and having judgment of events, is responsible for his actions. We come as near as we can to modern paraphrasis by calling these three souls autonomic, reflex, and mental. Now, to Descartes, the word "soul" meant only the third, the reasoning or mental soul, because he was able to get rid of the first two as the result of his mechanical interpretation of bodily actions. (The Listener, July 27, 1950.)
Evidently, "soul" meant mind as understood by most physiologists and psychologists today, as well as an immaterial principle of immortality. Viewing it as a psyche without religious implications, Descartes contended that animals did not have "souls." They were merely machines, requiring nothing more than their own "works" to make them go. In his own words: "There is no need to conceive in it [the animal] another soul, vegetative or sensitive, nor any other principle of movement and of life except the blood and the animal spirits agitated by the heat which burns continually in its breast" -- an obvious echo of what he learnt among his Jesuit friends at his college, Le Fleche. To account for man's particular qualities, which are mental, man was thought of as "a mental animal," a conception which has remained virtually unchanged to the present day, notwithstanding the fact to which H. P. Blavatsky made pointed reference:
It may be objected, perhaps, that instinct cannot be a spiritual gift, because animals possess it in a higher degree than man, and animals have no souls. Such a belief is erroneous and based upon very insecure foundations. It came from the fact that the inner nature of the animal could be fathomed still less than that of man, who is endowed with speech and can display to us his psychological powers. (Isis Unveiled, I, 426-7.)
H.P.B. emphasized the interdependence of all living things:
Descartes denied soul to the animal; Leibnitz endowed, as the Occultists do, "the whole creation with mental life, this being, according to him, capable of infinite gradations." And this, as Merz justly observes, "at once widened the realm of mental life, destroying the contrast of animate and inanimate matter...."
That these matters are still the subject of argument is a tribute to the vitality of the esoteric teachings.

From this dualism of soul or mind and physical body arose Descartes' speculations on the localization of the "soul." Sir Geoffrey Jefferson summarizes the reasons which led Descartes to make the pineal gland the nodal point of Cartesian philosophy:

There was, unhappily, nothing in the gross anatomy of the body that leapt to the eye as the obvious seat of the soul; there was nothing in man's brain that was not recognisably present in a cruder shape in the animal as well. Failing anything thus singular for the soul's lodgment, its place would have to be discovered by argument, and argument ran something like this: its situation should be the most convenient possible for the concentration in small compass of all sensations, because in that way the reasoning soul's judgments could most quickly be passed on what was happening, and decisions made upon them. It would be a neat and elegant solution, like that of a difficult mathematical problem, if it could be shown that the site of man's soul was identical with the central receiving and distributing station of the animal. And that, Descartes thought, was the pineal (ibid).
Undoubtedly, the obsession of Descartes with mathematical solutions accounts for much of this explanation of how the soul and mind are attached to the body. But it is not by any means the whole story. Sir Geoffrey Jefferson remarks that "much had already been written before the seventeenth century about the pineal gland, making its choice by Descartes easier than might be supposed." Before Descartes, the gland was thought to depend on "vaporous animal spirits," meaning the invisible nervous impulses carrying the brain's messages, incoming or outgoing. If it be assumed that the beliefs as to "animal spirits" and the ventricles as their storage place, which formed the accepted theory of Descartes' day, were groundless, Sir Geoffrey counsels us not to be patronizing. "There must be a dozen important things we believe today," he declares, "which are hopelessly wrong, but we are content because we do not know what they are."

We may presume so far to enlighten the eminent neurologist, and those of his colleagues everywhere who think as he does. Among their beliefs which are "hopelessly wrong" are (a) the opinion that "so small an object as the pineal was much too small to carry all the traffic that Descartes directed to it," and (b) the assertion that "the pineal was a regressive and apparently functionless organ in man" (ibid). Mistaken as Descartes was about many things, in this matter of the pineal gland he "was yet far nearer the occult truth than is any Hæckel," or any of the scientific authorities of the day:

It was an active organ, we say, at that stage of evolution when the spiritual element in man reigned supreme over the hardly nascent intellectual and psychic elements. And, as the cycle ran down toward that point when the physiological senses were developed by, and went pari passu with, the growth and consolidation of the physical man, the interminable and complex vicissitudes and tribulations of zoological development, that median "eye" ended by atrophying along with the early spiritual and purely psychic characteristics in man. (S.D. II, 298.)
But here we encroach upon another vast subject, the latent psychical powers in man and the law of causation operating through racial evolution. All this has been dealt with adequately in the recorded teachings of the Messengers of the nineteenth century Theosophical Movement. It will suffice to suggest that modern science, in all its multifarious activity, would do well to widen its horizon by extending its study of man to include his complete heredity, "astrally, spiritually and psychically, as a being who knows, reasons, feels and acts through the body, the astral body, and the soul." This was one of the factors enumerated by William Q. Judge in The Ocean of Theosophy as necessary for the exploration and right understanding of psychical phenomena. Certainly, no discussion of the psyche, or of the function of "animal spirits" (the nerve-aura of occultism), and no investigation of the pineal gland, are likely to have a successful issue if this pedigree be ignored.


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