The kingdom of shadows is the paradise of dreamers. Here they find an unlimited land, where they can establish dwellings at will. Hypochondriac vapors, children’s stories, and monastic miracles provide them with abundant material.’i
The shadow is not modern. The brilliance of the Enlightenment cannot stand the competition of darkness. Luminosity is now required more and more, in all domains, arts and sciences, and those linked to peat, mire and night.
Should we decide, with disdain, to abandon the night dreamers to their idle dreams, to their vain researches, and devote our days to the light and the useful?
To this ancient question, Kant answered with a curious pamphlet, Dreams of a Man Who Sees Spirits, – Explained by Dreams of Metaphysics.ii
Is a text with such a title even readable today?
A « man who dreams », that is all right. But a « man who sees spirits »!
And « metaphysics »!
Moderns, as we know, do not believe in « spirits », nor in « vision », nor in « metaphysics ».
Most of them are pragmatic, and of an unmoderated materialism.
But some, even among the most realistic, still agree, in front of the factual evidence, to concede the existence of « immaterial » phenomena, and attributable, at the very least, to what can be called « spirit », by some cultural training, due to tradition.
The spirit being only an emanation of the matter, its « essence » is not at all « spiritual ». It presents only a specific phenomenology, that the psychology of the cognition takes care to enlighten, and whose cerebral imageries begin to map the elementary forms.
The modern mind has no essence, nor soul of course, and is only an epiphenomenon, a kind of neuro-synaptic exudation, a material vapor.
And what do we find in this epiphenomenon, this exudation, this vapor?
Memory, will, and reason.
« A mind, [say modern sages], is a being endowed with reason. It is not surprising, then, if one sees spirits; whoever sees a man sees a being endowed with reason. « iii
The modern sees in the spirit nothing less than the soul, certainly, – but nothing less than reason…
When the modern wise man « sees men », then he « sees minds », since he « sees reasonable beings », according to Kant’s acid remark, not without a certain metaphysical irony.
The modern wise man has a good sight, it must be admitted, and much better than that of Kant, who, for his part, makes a sincere admission of his real ignorance in the matter:
« I do not know whether there are spirits; much more, I do not even know what the word spirit means. However, as I have often used it myself, or as I have heard others use it, it is necessary that some meaning be attached to it, whether what is meant by it is a chimera or a reality.
Is the spirit a material phenomenon, an abstruse chimera or an immaterial reality? Or does this word have another meaning?
At least, the spirit has a material place, to organize its appearance, and its action, – the brain, where it sits, like a spider.
« The soul of man has its seat in the brain; it has its seat in an imperceptible place. It feels there like the spider in the center of its web. (…) I confess that I am very inclined to affirm the existence of immaterial natures in the world, and to place my own soul among these beings. But then what a mystery is the union of soul and body? »iv
The mystery is less in the immaterial soul as such than in what one must resign oneself to calling the « union » of the immaterial and the corporeal, a union of which no one, even today, conceives how it takes place, nor how it is even simply possible.
And yet it is possible, since it is enough to observe one’s own consciousness to have confirmation of the phenomenon.
Such a « union » seems to deny the respective essence of the « material » and the « immaterial » and to cancel the necessary distance in which they are confined, by definition, one with respect to the other. This poses a « difficult » problem, unresolved to this day.
And yet, even if we do not see the spirit, we see well that the spirit moves what lacks spirit, precisely. It moves it, but how? And at what precise point does the lever of the spirit start to lift the immense inertia of matter?
Kant proposes an explanation, by plunging the glance of his own spirit in the deepest of the intimate of the matter:
« It seems that a spiritual being is intimately present to the matter with which it is united, and that it acts not on the forces of the elements with which these elements are related to each other, but on the internal principle of their state; for every substance, and even a simple element of matter, must nevertheless have some internal activity as the principle of external action, though I cannot say in what this activity consists. « v
Kant’s idea is that the (immaterial) mind acts on a certain (also immaterial) « internal principle », which governs not matter itself or its elements, but its deepest state, where an « internal activity » is revealed, – and where its undetectable essence lies.
This « inner principle », in so far as it is a « principle », cannot be material.
If it were, it would no longer be a « principle ». And if matter were « without principle », it would be pure chaos, without order or reason.
Materialists will of course retort that matter does not need an « immaterial principle », since it is there, in evidence, in its immanent reality, and that it has done very well without any principle to « exist », simply as such, eternally, for a respectable number of billions of years.
One may retort that matter was not doing much, just before the Big Bang, not knowing then if it was going to be reduced to nothing as soon as it was born, because of the very restrictive conditions set for its real appearance, precisely by virtue of some considerations of « principle », the reason for which the most modern physics still struggles to explain, but of which it enumerates with astonishment the precision of the prerequisites, of which the « universal constants » give some idea.
But what makes these constants exist? What is their essence?
To advance, and to go beyond these quarrels between materialists and idealists, which are too caricatural, and which lead nowhere, it would be necessary to test some other way, more in overhang.
We could suppose the existence of other ways, which would lead, as for them, somewhere… even if it was necessary for that to face the « shadows », the « emptiness » and the « non-existence », – like Aeneas looking for Anchises in the Underworld, with the Sibyl.
« Ibant obscuri sola sub nocte per umbras,
Perque domos Ditis vacuas et inania regna. « vi
(They went, obscure, in the solitary night, through the shadows,
the empty dwellings of the Richvii and the kingdoms without existence).
The ancients, who were not modern, cultivated this ‘secret philosophy’ which opens ways and paths.
The immaterial world of spirits and souls was considered a coherent realm, subsisting by itself, although not existing according to the criteria of the material world, including those of tangible or visible appearance.
All its parts were united by close, reciprocal connections and constant exchanges, without the need for bodies or materials to support them.
Plato explained that at conception, specific spirits descended into this world by adventure, and began to maintain a close commerce with particular bodies, allocated to them according to procedures, some chosen, others ignoredviii.
During the time of life, this time of the ad hoc linking of spirits and bodies, incarnated spirits may have, moreover, other direct, immaterial relations with other spirits (incarnated or not).
This is a conjecture, but it is compatible with the intrinsic logic of the immaterial.
That immaterial spirits have the desire and the possibility to maintain relations with other immaterial spirits – in a way and for reasons that naturally escape both bodily perception and human intelligence, can be explained precisely by their immaterial nature, freed from all the constraints of matter, and possessing its own ends.
In a kind of ideal dream, of which Kant was one of the promoters, one could imagine that all the beings belonging to the immaterial world, all the members of the infinite, unknowable series of the psychic natures, contribute more or less effectively to the great Whole of the Immaterial, this immense society of the spirits, closely united, constantly active, in the heat and the ardor of their bubbling communions, pursuing their own logics, towards ends of which one ignores all, except their putative reality.
Some sparing and much less burning flames, here and there escaped from this great Whole, could, twirling, fleeting, fly away and come down, as if on a commanded mission, in addition to their first destiny, to come and animate and vivify some precise bodies, chosen in the bosom of the matter (matter without that inert, infertile and inanimate).
It is conceivable that life, both material and immaterial, extending from kingdom to kingdom, flexibly changing worlds, inclining from the heights of the spirit to the depths of matter, or conversely, springing from the abyss to the heights, perpetuates and differentiates itself ceaselessly, by the dualism and the conjugation that the existence of two principles allows and favors, a principle of the ‘material’ and a principle of the ‘immaterial’.
It remains to be asked to what extremes this life, with its double principle, can descend or ascend, in order, in both cases, to continue its continuous work of metamorphosis.
To what ends of nature does life extend? When does the cold world of true non-life begin? And what burning, ultra-seraphic plasmas can spirits face?
These are points that may never be elucidated with certainty.
But some have thought they could identify this mythical frontier, at least the one that looms below.
Hermann Boerhaave famously said that « the animal is a plant that has its roots in the stomach »ix.
It is in this organ, certainly essential, that the lines of the great division would be drawn, between the plant and the animal on the one hand, – and the spiritual, on the other hand, which would be only the flower, or the aroma…
There is no clearer example of the contrast with the vision of the Bhagavad Gita. The latter also uses the plant metaphor, but changes its meaning completely.
« Roots above and branches below,
imperishable, the Azvattha [the Fig Tree] is said to be.
The meters [of the Veda] are its leaves,
and he who knows it knows Knowledge [the Veda]. « x
What is this Azvattha, this « fig tree »? What are these roots-up?
The Kaṭha-Upaniṣad takes up the image, unveiling its metaphysics:
« Roots-up, branches-down,
is this eternal fig tree,
it is he who is resplendent, he who is Brahman,
he who is called immortal,
on him all the worlds rest,
no one passes beyond him. « xi
The great Śaṅkara comments:
« The roots are the supreme abode of Viṣṇu. The tree, roots-up, of the empirical world has the unmanifested as its beginning and the inanimate as its end. It is called ‘tree’ (vṛkṣa) because of the act of cutting (vraścana). He is made of many uninterrupted evils, like birth, old age, death and sorrow, at every moment he is different. As soon as its true nature is in sight, it is destroyed like magic, like water in a mirage, an imaginary city in the sky… Its true reality is determined by those who desire to discern reality: its essence is in the roots, it is the supreme brahman. « xii
Through its etymological ‘root’, the figure of the tree embodies the idea of severance. Moreover, the tree never ceases to branch out, both in its roots and in its branches, which represent so many cuts in the continuity of its growth, both above and below.
Likewise, the world never ceases to branch its possibilities, and to grow from above and below.
Śaṅkara’s commentary adds another idea. Truth cannot be approached without generating even more illusions. The more one tries to dispel the shadows that surround it, the illusions that veil it, the more the truth slips away.
However, there is a way for those who wish to go further, deeper, to try to determine this elusive truth. It consists in following the roots of the tree to their very origin. But by following the root bush, one is quickly overwhelmed by the multiplication of the rootlets, and their bifurcations. And all of them, at the end of their myriads of hyphae, point to the void and the shadow… where the supreme brahman stands in its place.
iKant. « A Preface which promises very little for discussion. » In Dreams of a Spirit-Seer. Illustrated by Dreams of Metaphysics. Ed. Swan Sonnenschein. London, 1900, p.37
iiKant. Dreams of a man who sees spirits, – explained by dreams of metaphysics. (1766). Trad. J. Tissot. Ed. Ladrange, Paris, 1863, p.6
ivIbid. p. 14
viVirgil,Aeneid, VI, 268 – 272
viiPluto, god of the Underworld, also bears the Latin name of Dis, a contraction of ditis, « rich ». Pluto, god of the dead, is the richest of all the gods because the number of his subjects is constantly increasing. It is to evoke the same symbol that the Greeks called Pluto the god of the dead (Ploutos, wealth).
viiiCf. the myth of Er. Plato, The Republic, Book X (614 b – 621 d)
ixQuoted by Kant in Dreams of a man who sees spirits, – explained by dreams of metaphysics. (1766). Trad. J. Tissot. Ed. Ladrange, Paris, 1863,
xBhagavad Gîta, 15, 1.