What is Spiritism?

Allan Kardec

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A Visitor - I must tell you, sir, that my reason refuses to accept the reality of the strange phenomena attributed to spirits, which I am convinced exist only in the imagination. However, one would have to bow down before the evidence and that is what I will do if presented with uncontestable proof. Hence, not wanting to impose, I have come to ask for your kind permission to watch just one or two experiments in order to be convinced if possible.

Allan Kardec - Well, if your reason refuses to accept what we consider to be established facts, it is because you believe it to be superior to the reason of all other persons who do not share your opinion. I have no doubts about your worthiness, nor would I claim that my own intelligence is greater than yours. So, let's accept the fact that I am in the wrong - since your reason says that I am — and therefore there is nothing more to be said on the matter.

Visitor —Nevertheless, I am widely recognized as an opponent of your ideas, and if you were to convince me, it would be a miracle eminently favorable to your cause.

A.K. - I'm sorry, sir, but I don't have the gift of performing miracles. Do you really think that one or two sessions would be enough to convince you? That indeed would be a tour de force. It took more than a year of study for me to become convinced, which goes to show that if I now am, it was not done thoughtlessly. Besides, I don't offer public sessions and it seems that you may be mistaken about the purpose of our meetings, since we do not perform experiments in order to satisfy people's curiosity.

Visitor - So you do not try to win converts?

A.K. - Why would I want to win you over as convert if you do not want to become one? I can't make anyone believe. When I meet individuals who sincerely desire to learn, and who give me the honor of asking for explanations, it is my pleasure and duty to respond to them within the limits of my knowledge. However, as for opponents who, like yourself, are set in their ways, I do not make any effort to dissuade them because I can find plenty of persons who are willing to be convinced. I don't have to waste my time on those who are not. Conviction will inevitably come sooner or later, and the most disbelieving will be swept along by the current. For now, a few more or a few less adherents will not tip the scales. That is why you will never see me worrying about attracting to our ideas those who, like yourself, have such good reasons to keep their distance from them.

Visitor - Nevertheless, there could be more interest in convincing me than you might think. Would you allow me to explain myself honestly and promise me that you won't be offended? These are my thoughts on the matter itself and not the person I'm addressing. I can respect the person without having to share his opinion.

A.K. - Spiritism has taught me to place little value on the petty susceptibilities of self-esteem, and not to feel offended by mere words. If your statements overstep the limits of civility and propriety, I will conclude that you are an impolite person, that's all. As for myself, I prefer to leave others in their errors instead of sharing in them. So, from that alone you can see that Spiritism is good for something.

As I have already stated, I have no intention of making you share my opinion. I respect yours if it is sincere, just as I want you to respect mine. Because you treat Spiritism as a hollow dream, you must have said to yourself on your way here: "I'm going to see a lunatic." Admit it frankly, I won't be upset. That all Spiritists are crazy is an established thing. Fine, then! Since you regard this as a mental illness, I would feel guilty in transmitting it to you, and I'm surprised that with such a thought in mind you would seek to acquire a conviction that would place you amongst lunatics. If you were persuaded beforehand that you cannot be convinced, your effort is futile since its only objective is curiosity. So I ask of you, let's be brief, because I don't have time to waste on pointless conversations.

Visitor - But a person can be mistaken and deluded without being crazy because of it.

A.K. - To put it plainly, you are saying, like so many others, that Spiritism is a fad whose time will pass. But you must agree that a fad, which has taken only a few years to win millions of adherents in every country, which includes learned individuals of every order amongst its followers, and which is spreading especially amongst the educated classes, is a peculiar mania that is worthy of a little examination.

Visitor - True, I do have my own ideas on the matter; however, they are not so unyielding that I wouldn't be willing to sacrifice them to the evidence. That is why I said that you might have a certain interest in convincing me. I must confess that I plan to publish a book, in which I propose to demonstrate ex professo what I regard as an error. The book would have a far-reaching impact and deal a blow to the Spirits, but if I were to be convinced otherwise, I won't publish it.

A.K. - I would feel awful if I were to deprive you of the profits from a book that must be so far-reaching. Besides, I have no interest in keeping you from publishing it; on the contrary, I hope it will be well-received, because it will serve to publicize and advertise us. When something is attacked, attention is drawn to it; there are a lot of people who like to see its pros and cons, and criticism makes it known to those who hadn't even thought about it. That is why often, and without meaning to, publicity ends up benefiting those it was meant to harm. Moreover, the issue of spirits is so interesting and arouses so much curiosity that it is enough to merely draw attention to it and people will want to examine it more profoundly.

Visitor - So, in your opinion, criticism is useless and public opinion doesn't count for anything?

A.K. - I don't regard criticism as an expression of public opinion, but as a personal opinion that may be mistaken. Look at history and you will see how many masterpieces were criticized when they first appeared; but that did not keep them from being masterpieces. When something is bad, all the praise in the world will not make it good. If Spiritism is an error, it willfall by itself; if it is a truth, all the diatribes in the world will not render it a lie. Your book will be a personal appraisal from your own point of view - true public opinion will decide whether or not you are right. Thus, people will want to examine the matter for themselves, and if they realize that you were wrong, your book will be ridiculed like the one published not too long ago against the theories on the circulation of the blood, on vaccine, etc.

But I have forgotten that you are going to treat the issue ex professo, which means that you have studied it from every angle; that you have seen all there is to see and have read everything that has been written on the matter; that you have analyzed and compared all the different opinions; that you were in the best position to observe for yourself; that you have dedicated your waking hours to the subject for years; in other words, that you have neglected nothing to arrive at the truth. I must believe that you have done so if you are a trustworthy person, because only one who has done all those things has the right to say that he speaks with full knowledge of the facts.

What would you think of someone who claimed to be a critic of a literary work but who had no knowledge of literature, or of a painting but who had never studied art? It's only logical that critics must understand, not superficially but in depth, what they are discussing; otherwise, their opinion is worthless. To disprove a calculation, one must oppose it with another calculation, but in order to do so one must know how to calculate. Critics must not limit themselves to saying that a certain thing is good or bad. They must justify their opinion with a clear and categorical demonstration based on the very principles of art or science. How can they do so if they do not know what such principles are? Could you evaluate the qualities or defects of a machine if you didn't know anything about mechanics? No, you couldn't. Well then! Since you know nothing about Spiritism, your opinion would be no more valuable than your opinion about that machine. At each step you would, be caught in your ignorance, because those who have studied Spiritism would see right away that you are not knowledgeable on the matter, which would lead them to conclude either that you are not serious or that you are acting in bad faith. In either case, you would be exposing yourself to being disavowed, which would hardly be flattering to your self-esteem.

Visitor — It is precisely to avoid such a pitfall that I have come to ask you to allow me to watch a few experiments.

A.K. - And. you. think that that would be enough for you to be able to speak exprofessoabout Spiritism? How could you comprehend such experiments - let alone judge them - if you haven't studied the principles upon which they are based? How could you rightly or wrongly evaluate the result of metallurgical experiments, for instance, ifyou don't even know the fundamentals of metallurgy? Allow me to say that your plan is exactly the same as if, in spite of knowing neither mathematics nor astronomy, you were to say to one of the members of the Observatory: "Sir, I would like to write a book on astronomy, and what is more, I would like to prove that your theory is wrong. But since I don't know the first thing about the science, I need you to let me look through your telescope once or twice. That should be enough for me to know as much about it as you do."

It is only by extension that the verb to critique becomes synonymous with the verb to censure. In its proper meaning and according to its etymology, the term to critique means to judge, to appraise; hence, a critique may be approving or disapproving. To critique a book is not necessarily to condemn it. Those who undertake the job should do so without any preconceived ideas. But if they have already condemned the book in their minds before having even opened it, their appraisal cannot be impartial.

Such is the case with the majority of those who have spoken about Spiritism. They formed an opinion based solely on the name, and they proceeded like a judge who has passed sentence without having taken the time to study the documentary evidence. The result was that their judgment was incorrect, and instead of being persuasive, they aroused scorn. As for those who seriously studied the subject, most changed their mind, and a good number of adversaries became adherents once they realized it was something different from what they had thought.

Visitor - You speak of the appraisal of books in general. Do you really think it is materially possible for journalists to read and study everything that passes through their hands, especially if it deals with new theories that require their in-depth verification? That would be like requiring printers to read all the books that leave their presses.

A.K. - In light of such judicious reasoning I have nothing to answer, except that, if one does not have the time to do something conscientiously, one should not get involved with it, and that it is better to do only one thing well than ten things badly.

Visitor - Please don't think that I arrived at my opinion lightly. I have seen tables turn and produce raps; I have seen persons who were supposedly writing under the influence of spirits. Nevertheless, I'm convinced that charlatanism, was involved.

A.K. - And how much did you pay?

Visitor - Why, nothing, of course.

A.K. -Well, they must have been an odd breed of charlatans and they will give a new meaning to the word. Until now, no one has ever seen a charlatan who wasn't in it for the money. If some mischievous hoaxer happened to want to entertain himself once, would it follow that other persons were in association with him? Moreover, what would they hope to gain by being accomplices to a hoax? To amuse people, you. will say. I will admit that someone might pull a hoax once, but if a hoax goes on for months and even years, I would say that it is the hoaxer who is being duped. Would someone sit tediously at a table for hours on end for the sheer pleasure of making others believe in something he or she knows to be false? The pleasure would not be worth the effort.

Before concluding that something is a fraud, we must first ask ourselves what might be gained from such deceit. You will agree that there are situations that exclude all suspicion of fraud and that there are individuals whose character alone is a guarantee of honesty.

It would be a different matter if it involved speculation, because the attraction of profit is a bad advisor. However, even if we were to accept the fact that in such a case a fraudulent operation might be entirely possible, it would prove nothing against the reality of the principle, because anything can be misused. Just because there are persons who sell adulterated wines, that doesn't mean that there is no such thing as pure wine. Spiritism is no more responsible for those who misuse its name and exploit it than medical science is responsible for the charlatans who sell their snake oils or religion for the clergy who abuse their ministry.

Due to its newness and its very nature, Spiritism may lend itself to abuses. However, it has provided the means of recognizing them by clearly defining its true character and by refusing to have anything to do with those who exploit it or divert it from its exclusively moral objective in order to make it a trade, an instrument of divination or pointless experimentation.

Since Spiritism sets its owns boundaries, determines what it says and what it doesn't say, what it can and what it cannot do, what attributes it does or doesn't entail, and what it accepts and what it rejects, the error lies with those who, not having put forth the effort to study it, judge it by appearances, and because they have met entertainers employing the name Spiritist in order to attract passers-by, they gravely state, "This is what Spiritism is." In the end, upon whom does ridicule fall? Not upon the entertainers, who are only performing their act, nor upon Spiritism, whose written doctrine belies such assertions. It falls upon convinced critics, who either talk about what they do not know, or who consciously twist the truth. Those who attribute to Spiritism what is contrary to its very essence do so either out of ignorance or deliberately. As for the former, it is thoughtlessness; as for the latter, it is bad faith. In the latter case, they resemble certain historians, who, in the interest of a party or an opinion, twist the historical facts. A party always discredits itself by employing such means, and will fail to reach its objective.

Please take note of the fact that I don't mean that critics must necessarily approve of our ideas, even after having studied them. We in no way reproach those who do not think as we do. What is obvious to us might not be to everybody else. People judge matters from their own point of view, and not all draw the same conclusions from the most obvious facts. For example, if a painter puts a white horse in his painting, someone might very well say that the horse produces a bad effect, that a black one would have been more suitable. It would be an error, however, to state that the horse is white when it is black - which is exactly what most of our adversaries do.

To sum it all up, people are perfectly free to approve of or criticize the principles of Spiritism, to deduce the good or bad consequences from them as they please; however, conscience imposes a duty on every trustworthy critic not to state the opposite of what Spiritism is. Thus, the first requirement of being a critic is not to talk about things one knows nothing about.

Visitor - Could we go back to the moving and talking tables? Mightn't they have been rigged beforehand?

A.K. - It's the same question of good faith, and I have already answered it. The second that fraud is demonstrated, I will be the first to admit it to you. If you can point out confirmed incidents of fraud, charlatanism, exploitation or abuse of trust, I will deliver them to your whip, and I'll tell you right now that I'll not take up their defense, since real Spiritism is the first to repudiate them. Pointing out such abuses helps to prevent them and renders a service to Spiritism. But to generalize such accusations, to cast over a large number of respectable individuals the reproof that only a few isolated individuals deserve is an abuse of a different sort - it is slander.

Even if we were to suppose that the tables had been rigged, there would have to be a sufficiently ingenious mechanism to make them produce such varied movements and noises. But why hasn't anyone found out who the skillful manufacturer is that builds them? He should be enjoying great fame by now since his devices are scattered all over the five continents. We also must agree that his technique is highly ingenious since it can be successfully adapted to the first table at hand without any exterior traces. Why is it that from Tertullian ' - who spoke of turning and talking tables - down to the present, no one has ever seen or described such a mechanism? Visitor - You are mistaken. A well-known surgeon has discovered that when certain individuals contract a tendon in their leg, they can produce a noise similar to what you attribute to the tables, from which he concluded that your mediums entertain themselves at the expense of others' gullibility.

A.K. - Well, if it's the tendon that crackles, then it's not the table that has been rigged. Since everyone explains this so-called fraud in their own way, that in itself is the most obvious proof that neither they nor anyone else knows the true cause.

I respect the erudition of this learned surgeon; however there are a number of problems with applying his theory to the talking tables. First, until now, this ability has been regarded as exceptional and has been seen as pathological, and it's remarkable that it has suddenly become so common. Second, one would have to have a profound desire to deceive to warrant crackling one's tendon for two or three hours straight because it produces nothing but pain and fatigue. Third, I can't see how the tendon makes contact with the doors and walls in which raps have been heard. Fourth and finally, the crackling tendon would have to be endowed with the marvelous ability of moving a heavy table, lifting it and keeping it suspended in the air without any point of support, and then finally smashing it back onto the floor. Certainly, no one could have dreamed that this tendon had so many abilities!

Did the celebrated surgeon of whom you are speaking study the phenomenon of typtology in those who produce it? No. He observed an abnormal physiological condition in a few individuals who had never even concerned themselves with rapping tables. After having drawn a certain analogy between this condition and the effect produced by the tables, he didn't bother with a more in- depth examination, and using all the authority of his knowledge, he concluded that all who cause tables to talk must possess the ability to crack the short peroneal tendon, and that they are nothing more than tricksters, whether they are princes or artisans, and whether they receive payment or not. Did he at least study the phenomenon of typtology in all its expressions? Did he check to see if every one of the typtological effects could be produced by means of this crackling tendon? If he had, he would have been convinced of the insufficiency of his approach. But that didn't keep him from proclaiming his discovery to the Institute. For a scholar, he really expounded quite a serious conclusion! And what has become of him? I must confess that if I had to have surgery, I would be very hesitant to entrust myself to this practitioner because I would be afraid that he hadn't diagnosed my problem with any more precision than he did in this case.

Since his opinion is one of the authorities upon which you want to support your attack against Spiritism, it gives me a good idea of the strength of your other arguments, if they have not been drawn from a more reliable source.

Visitor - Nonetheless, you can see that the turning table fad has passed; it was all the rage for a while, but nowadays no one cares about it anymore. Why not, if it has to do with such a serious matter?

A.K. - Because the turning tables led to something even more serious; they led to an entire science, an entire philosophical doctrine, which is of much greater interest for thinking individuals. When they no longer had any more to learn by watching tables turn, they were no longer concerned about them. For frivolous persons, who do not delve more deeply into anything, they were a pastime, a game that they put aside once they had had enough. Such individuals are not taken into account by science. The time of curiosity had its day; the time of observation followed. Spiritism has thus entered the realm of serious individuals, who do not entertain themselves with it but seek enlightenment. Moreover, persons who regard it as a serious matter do not lend themselves to any experiment out of mere curiosity, and even less to persons who would approach it with hostile thoughts. Since they do not amuse themselves, they do not try to amuse others; I count myself among them.

Visitor - Even so, nothing is as convincing as experimentation, even if at first its purpose is mere curiosity. If you operate solely in the presence of persons who are already convinced, allow me to say that you are preaching to the converted.

A.K. - It is one thing to be convinced and another to be willing to be convinced. I address the latter, and not those who think they are humiliating their reason by coming to hear about what they call reveries; I concern myself very little with these. As for those who say they have a sincere desire to be enlightened, the best way they can prove it is by demonstrating perseverance. They can be recognized by other signs besides the desire to watch one or two experimental sessions: they are willing to work seriously.

Conviction is acquired only over time, through continual observation and special attention. Spirit phenomena differ essentially from those displayed in the exact sciences: they cannot be produced at will; we must seize them when they occur. Only by observing them a great deal and for a long time can we discover a drove of proofs that are not apparent at first glance, especially if we are not familiar with the conditions in which they might occur, and even more so when we come with a biased attitude. For diligent and thoughtful observers, the proofs abound: for them, a word, an apparently insignificant incident, may be a ray of light, a confirmation. For superficial and one-tirne observers, for the simply curious, such incidents are nothing. That is why I do not lend myself to experiments without plausible results.

Visitor - But everything must start somewhere, after all. As for beginners, who are blank, slates, who have not seen anything but who want to be enlightened, what can they do if you do not provide the means?

A.K. - I make a big distinction between the disbeliever out of ignorance and the systematic disbeliever. Whenever I see individuals with a favorable disposition, it takes me very little to enlighten them. However, there are individuals whose desire to learn is only a pretense. They are a waste of time because if they do not immediately find what they seem to be looking for and what would perhaps displease them if they did find it, the little they do see isn't enough to erase their prejudices. It's a futile endeavor because they draw the wrong conclusions and make it an object of ridicule.

I will say to someone who truly wants to learn: "One cannot take a course in experimental Spiritism as if it were a course in physics and chemistry, because spirit phenomena cannot be produced at will, and the intelligences that are their agents often thwart all our expectations. What you might see by chance without presenting continuity or any necessary connection will be of little understanding to you. So learn the theory first; read and ponder the literature that deals with this science. That is where you can learn the principles; you'll find a description of all the phenomena and you'll understand their plausibility by the explanation that is provided and by the accounts of a large number of spontaneous phenomena, which you yourself might have witnessed without knowing it, and which will come back to your memory. You will brace yourself against all the problems that might surface, and you will thus form a preliminary moral conviction. Then, when the circumstances arise to observe or act by yourself, you'll understand them unhampered by the order in which the phenomena occur because nothing will be strange to you,"

That, sir, is what I advise all who say they want to learn, and by their response it is easy to tell if they are motivated by something other than mere curiosity.

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