Psyche

Psyche  (si ´)—lit. “the soul” (Gr.).—The following beautiful story shows in an allegorical manner how the human soul is purified by misfortunes and prepared for the enjoyment of true and lasting happiness hereafter: Psyche was the youngest and most beautiful of the three daughters of a king, and by her beauty excited the jealousy of Venus. The goddess consequently ordered Cupid to inspire her with love for some utterly unworthy object; but instead of doing this Cupid himself fell in love with her. He accordingly visited her every night, leaving her always at daybreak. Her jealous sisters, however, made her believe that her midnight lover was a monster, and accordingly she one night brought a lamp while Cupid was asleep, and was astonished to behold the lovely god. In her excitement she let fall a drop of hot oil on the shoulder of Cupid, and so awoke him. He blamed her for her mistrust, and fled. In misery Psyche now wandered from temple to temple, inquiring after her lover, and at length came to the palace of Venus. Here she was treated with great severity and compelled to perform hard and menial tasks, which would have overcome her had not Cupid secretly and invisibly sustained her. At length she overcame the jealousy of Venus, and, becoming immortal, was united to Cupid forever. In works of art Psyche is represented as a maiden with the wings of a butterfly.

The Psyche

English poetry and fiction have expressed the inner man far better than British philosophy has defined him. He is a hidden spring, a source of bubbling half-thoughts and characteristic actions, and the philosophers have called him a series of ideas. Ideas are rather his weak point. Idealism, on principle, leaves no room for anything latent; but in a living being, especially in a nice Englishman, what is latent is the chief thing. The vital organs are under the skin and far more complicated, I suspect, than anatomy would lead us to imagine: the case is somewhat as if some giant in remote space should examine the surface of our earth with a glass, measuring its motion round the sun and perhaps round its own axis, but regarding as perfectly inexplicable and unmeaning the coursing of ships, the march of armies and migrations, the change of forests into cornfields, and of cornfields into deserts. So, perhaps, far beyond the reach of any microscope, the politic congregation of atoms within us is busy in its curiously organic and curiously aimless way: sustaining on the whole, until disease or death supervenes, the international peace and commerce of the animal body. How much wireless telegraphy, how many alliances, and how many diplomatic compromises there must be in our system for the human body to live at all! But psychological philosophers, like children, think the whole economy of life the simplest thing in the world: experience, they say, just comes  as it does come; as the boy, asked where he would get the money necessary for all the fine things he said he would do when he was a man, replied, full of empirical wisdom, "Out of my pocket, like papa!" Experience is the paternal pocket of these philosophers; they have not discovered the financial system, the life of the body, which fills that minute and precarious reservoir.

It is not only a stronger glass that the remote giant would need to disclose to him the life of the earth; he would need imagination akin to the human, which such a giant would probably not possess. For suppose anatomy had done its best or its worst, and had completely mapped the machinery of the human automaton; and suppose at the same time the modern dream-readers and diviners had unearthed all a man's infant concupiscences and secret thoughts: there would still be something essential undiscovered. I do not mean that behind the whole physical machinery there would be another material agency, another force or set of events; nor that besides the totality of mental discourse, remembered or unremembered, there would be more thinking elsewhere: the hypothesis is that all that exists in these spheres has been surveyed, and assigned to its place in the evolving system. What has been so far ignored is something on another plane of being altogether, which this automatic life and this mental discourse involve, but do not contain. It is the principle  of both and of their relation; the system of repetitions, correspondences, developments, and ideal unities created by this march of human life in double column. For instance, men are mortal; they are born; they are begotten by sexual fertilization; they have a childhood; their passions and thoughts flow in a certain general order; and there are units in the human world called persons, nations, interests, purposes. I do not refer to the ideas  of these things in the mental discourse of this or that man; but to the groups or cycles of facts designated by these ideas. To perceive these groups or cycles requires a certain type of intelligence: but intelligence does not invent them without cause; it finds  the order which it designates by some word, some metaphor, or some image.

That this order of human life is something natural, and not a fiction of discourse, appears in many ways. The relation of discourse itself to physical life is one proof of it. Mental discourse is the inner luminosity or speech that accompanies dramatic crises in the fortunes of the body; it is not self-generated; it is always the expression  of another event, then occurring in the body, as is a cry of pain; and it is usually, at the same time, a report  of still another event that has already occurred beyond the body, as is a memory or a perception. Feeling and thought are perpetually interrupted and perpetually renewed by something not themselves. Their march, logic, and sanity, no less than their existence, translate into mental language an order proper to material events. A sense of comfort is the symptom of a good digestion; pain expresses a lively discord in the nervous system, and pleasure a lively harmony. When we can scarcely live, because something is stifling us, we hate that thing; and when we breathe more freely because something approaches, we love it. Spirit everywhere expresses the life of nature, and echoes its endeavours; but the animal life which prompts these feelings is itself not arbitrary: it passes through a cycle of changes which are pre-ordained. This predetermined, specific direction of animal life is the key to everything moral; without it no external circumstance could be favourable or unfavourable to us; and spirit within us would have no reason to welcome, to deplore, or to notice anything. What an anomaly it would seem to a free spirit (if there could be such a thing) that it should care particularly for what happens in the body of some animal, or that it should see one set of facts rattier than another, and this in so partial and violent a perspective! But spirit does, and must, do this; and it is an absurd and satanic presumption on its part to profess that it could exist, or be a spirit at all, if it were not the spirit of some body, the voice of some animal heart. To have a station in matter, and to have interests in the material world, are essential to spirit, because spirit is life become articulate, experience focussed in thought and dominated ideally; but experience and life are inconceivable unless an organism with specific capacities and needs finds itself in an environment that stimulates it variously and offers it a conditioned career.

Science as yet has no answer to this most important of all questions, if we wish to understand human nature: namely, How is the body, and how are its senses and passions, determined to develop as they do? We may reply: Because God wills it so; or Because such is the character of the human species; or Because mechanical causes necessitate it. These answers do not increase our scientific understanding in the least; nevertheless they are not wholly vain: for the first tells us that we must be satisfied with ignorance; the second that we must be satisfied with the facts; and the third, which is the most significant, that these facts are analogous in every province of nature. But how dose are these analogies? Mechanism is one habit of matter, and life is another habit of matter; the first we can measure mathematically and forecast accurately, the second we can only express in moral terms, and anticipate vaguely; but that the mechanical habit runs through the vital habit, and conditions it, is made obvious by the dependence of life on food, on time, on temperature, by its routine in health and by its diseases, by its end, and above all by its origin; for it is a habit of matter continuous with other inorganic habits, and (if evolution is true) arising out of them. In any case, life comes from a seed in which it lies apparently dormant and arrested, and from which it is elicited by purely mechanical agencies. On the other hand, the seed reacts on those agencies in a manner as yet inexplicable by what we know of its structure; and its development closely repeats (though perhaps with some spontaneous variation) the phases proper to the species.

To this mysterious but evident predetermination of normal life by the seed the ancients gave the name of soul; but to us the word soul suggests a thinking spirit, or even a disembodied one. It is totally incredible that a thinking spirit should exist in the seed, and should plan and carry out (by what instruments?) the organization of the body; and if so wise and powerful and independent a spirit lay in us from the beginning, or rather long before our birth, how superfluous a labour to beget us at all, and how unkind of it to dangle after it, in addition to its own intelligence, these poor blundering and troubled thoughts of which alone we are aware! Evidently the governing principle in seeds is no soul in this modern sense, no thinking moral being; it is a mysterious habit in matter. Whether this total habit is reducible to minor habits of matter, prevalent in the world at large, is the question debated between mechanical and vitalist psychologists; but it is a stupid controversy. The smallest unit of mechanism is an event as vital, as groundless, and as creative as it is possible for an event to be; it summons fresh essences into existence, which the character of the essences previously embodied in existence by no means implied dialectically. On the other hand, the romantic adventure of life, if it is not a series of miracles and catastrophes observed ex post facto, must be a resultant of simpler habits struggling or conspiring together. However minute, therefore, or however comprehensive the units by which natural processes are described, they are equally vital and equally mechanical, equally free and (for an observer with a sufficient range of vision) equally predictable. On the human scale of observation it is the larger habits of living beings that are most easily observed; and the principle of these habits, transmitted by a seed, I call the Psyche: it is either a complex of more minute habits of matter, or a mastering rhythm imposed upon them by the habit of the species. Many Greek philosophers taught that the Psyche was material; and even Plato, although of course his Psyche might eventually take to thinking, regarded it as primarily a principle of motion, growth, and unconscious government; so that the associations of the word Psyche are not repugnant, as are those of the word soul, to the meaning I wish to give to it: that habit in matter which forms the human body and the human mind.[1]

There is, then, in every man a Psyche, or inherited nucleus of life, which from its dormant seminal condition expands and awakes anew in each generation, becoming the person recognized in history, law, and morals. A man's body is a sort of husk of which his Psyche (itself material) is the kernel; and it is out of the predispositions of this living seed, played upon by circumstances, that his character and his mind are formed. The Psyche's first care is to surround itself with outer organs, like a spider with its web; only these organs remain subject to her central control, and are the medium by which she acts upon outer things, and receives, in her patient labour, the solicitations and rebuffs of fortune. The Psyche, being essentially a way of living, a sort of animated code of hygiene and morals, is a very selective principle: she is perpetually distinguishing—in action, if not in words—between good and bad, right and wrong. Choice is the breath of her nostrils. All the senses, instincts, and passions are her scouts. The further she extends her influence the more she feels how dependent she is on external things, and the more feverishly she tries to modify them, so as to render them more harmonious with her own impulses.

At first, when she was only a vegetative Psyche, she waited in a comparatively peaceful mystical torpor for the rain or the sunshine to foster her, or for the cruel winter or barbarous scythe to cut her down; and she never would have survived at all if breeding had not been her chief preoccupation; but she distributed herself so multitudinously and so fast amongst her children, that she has survived to this day. Later, she found a new means of safety and profit in locomotion; and it was then that she began to perceive distinct objects, to think, and to plan her actions—accomplishments by no means native to her. Like the Chinese, she is just as busy by night as by day. Long before sunrise she is at work in her subterranean kitchen over her pots of stewing herbs, her looms, and her spindles; and with the first dawn, when the first ray of intuition falls through some aperture into those dusky spaces, what does it light up? The secret springs of her life? The aims she is so faithfully but blindly pursuing? Far from it. Intuition, floods of intuition, have been playing for ages upon human life: poets, painters, men of prayer, scrupulous naturalists innumerable, have been intent on their several visions; yet of the origin and of the end of life we know as little as ever. And the reason is this: that intuition is not a material organ of the Psyche, like a hand or an antenna; it is a miraculous child, far more alive than herself, whose only instinct is play, laughter, and brooding meditation. This strange child—who could have been his father?—is a poet; absolutely useless and incomprehensible to his poor mother, and only a new burden on her shoulders, because she can't help feeding and loving him. He sees ; which to her is a mystery, because although she has always acted as if, in some measure, she felt things at a distance, she has never seen and never can see anything. Nor are his senses, for all their vivacity, of any use to her. For what do they reveal to him? Always something irrelevant: a shaft of dusty light across the rafters, a blue flame dancing on the coals, a hum, a babbling of waters, a breath of heat or of coolness, a mortal weariness or a groundless joy—all dream-images, visions of a play world, essences painted on air, such as any poet might invent in idleness. Yet the child cares about them immensely: he is full of sudden tears and of jealous little loves. "Hush, my child," says good mother Psyche, "it's all nonsense." It is not for those fantastic visions that she watches: she knits with her eyes shut, and mutters her same old prayers. She has always groped amidst obstacles like a mole pressing on where the earth is softest. She can tell friends from enemies (not always correctly) by a mysterious instinct within her, and the rhythm, as it were, of their approaching step. She is long-suffering and faithful, like Penelope; but when hard-pressed and at bay she becomes fierce. She is terribly absolute then, blindly bent on vengeance and wild destruction. At other times she can melt and be generous; in her beehive she is not only the congregation of workers, but also the queen. Her stubborn old-womanish temper makes her ordinarily unjust to her best impulses and hypocritical about her worst ones. She is artful but not intelligent, least of all about herself. For this reason she can never understand how she gave birth to such a thankless child. She hardly remembers the warm ray from the sun or from some other celestial source which one day pierced to her heart, and begat there this strange uneasiness, this truant joy, which we call thought. Seeing how quick and observant the brat is, she sometimes sends him on errands; but he loiters terribly on the way, or loses it altogether, forgets what he was sent for, and brings home nothing but strange tales about Long-noses and Helmets-of-gold, whom he says he has encountered. He prefers the poppies to the com, and half the mushrooms he picks are of the poisonous variety; he sometimes insists on setting apart his food for imaginary beings called the dead or the gods; and worst of all, he once ravished and married a fairy, whom he called Truth; and he wished to bring her to live with him at home. At that, good mother Psyche naturally put her foot down. No hussies here! Yet there are moments when she relents, when her worn old hands rest in her lap, when she remembers and wonders, and two cold tears trickle down from her blind eyes. What is the good of all her labour? Has it all been, perhaps, for his sake, that he might live and sing and be happy? Even in her green days, in her cool vegetable economy, there had been waste; she had unwittingly put forth flowers she could not see and diffused a fragrance that eluded her. Now her warmer heart has bred this wilder, this diviner folly: a wanton sweetness shed by her longer travail and a flower of her old age. But he forgets her in his selfishness, and she can never, never understand him.

[1]I beg the learned to notice that the Psyche, as I use the term, is not a material atom but a material system, stretching over both time and space; it is not a monad; it has not the unity proper to consciousness; nor is it a mass of "subconscious," mental discourse. The Psyche may be called a substance in respect to mental and moral phenomena which (I think) are based on modes or processes in matter, not on any material particle taken singly; but the Psyche is not a substance absolutely, since its own substance is matter in a certain arrangement—in other words, body. Matter may be called mind-stuff or psychic substance inasmuch as it can become on occasion the substance of a Psyche, and through the Psyche the basis of mind; but of course not in the sense that matter may be an aggregate of thinking spirits. Mental events may be called psychic when we consider their origin rather than their essence, as certain pleasures are called material, although pleasures, in being, are all equally spiritual. "Psychic phenomena" are crudely material, and "psychical research" has for its object, not spirits in another world, but the habits of matter that produce apparitions.