Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
The Human Soul
By Frederic Henry Hedge (18051890)
[Born in Cambridge, Mass., 1805. Died there, 1890. Ways of the Spirit, and Other Essays. 1877.]
ALL conscious being springs from a root unknown. Of all life the origin is lost to itself in blank unconsciousness. We reach back with our recollection and find no beginning of existence. Who of us knows anything except by report of the first two years of earthly life? Who remembers the time when he first said I, or thought I? We began to exist for others before we began to exist for ourselves. Our experience is not co-extensive with our being, our memory does not comprehend it. We bear not the root, but the root us.
What is that root? We call it soul. Our soul, we call it: properly speaking it is not ours, but we are its. It is not a part of us, but we are a part of it. It is not one article in an inventory of articles which together make up our individuality, but the root of that individuality. It is larger than we are and older than we are,that is, than our conscious self. The conscious self does not begin until some time after the birth of the individual. It is not aboriginal, but a product,as it were, the blossoming of an individuality. We may suppose countless souls which never bear this product, which never blossom into self. And the soul which does so blossom exists before that blossom unfolds.
How long before, it is impossible to say; whether the birth, for example, of a human individual is the souls beginning to be; whether a new soul is furnished to each new body, or the body given to a pre-existing soul. It is a question on which theology throws no light, and which psychology but faintly illustrates. But so far as that faint illustration reaches, it favors the supposition of pre-existence. That supposition seems best to match the supposed continued existence of the soul hereafter. Whatever had a beginning in time, it should seem, must end in time. The eternal destination which faith ascribes to the soul presupposes an eternal origin. On the other hand, if the pre-existence of the soul were assured, it would carry the assurance of immortality.
An obvious objection, and one often urged against this hypothesis, is the absence of any recollection of a previous life. If the soul existed before its union with this present organization, why does it never recall any circumstance, scene, or experience of its former state? There have been those who professed to remember a past existence; but without regarding those pretended reminiscences, or regarding them only as illusions, I answer that the previous existence may not have been a conscious existence. In that case there would have been no recorded experience, and consequently nothing to recall. But suppose a conscious existence antecedent to the present, the soul could not preserve the record of a former organization. The new organization with its new entries must necessarily efface the record of the old. For memory depends on continuity of association. When the thread of that continuity is broken, the knowledge of the past is gone. If, in a state of unconsciousness, one were taken entirely out of his present surroundings; if, falling asleep in one set of circumstances, like Christopher Sly in the play, he were to wake in another, were to wake to entirely new conditions; especially, if during that sleep his body were to undergo a change,he would lose on waking all knowledge of his former life for want of a connecting link between it and the new. And this, according to the supposition, is precisely what has happened to the soul at birth. The birth into the present was the death of the old,a sleep and a forgetting. The soul went to sleep in one body, it woke in a new. The sleep is a gulf of oblivion between the two.
And a happy thing, if the soul pre-existed, it is for us that we remember nothing of its former life. The memory of a past existence would be a drag on the present, engrossing our attention much to the prejudice of this lifes interests and claims. The backward-looking soul would dwell in the past instead of the present, and miss the best uses of life.
But though on the supposition of a former existence the soul would not be likely to preserve the record of that existence, it would nevertheless retain the effect. It would not, on assuming its present conditions, be as though it had never before been. Its past experiences would essentially modify it; it would take a character from its former state. If a moral and intelligent being, it would bring into the world of its present destination certain tendencies and dispositions, the growth of a previous life. And thus the moral law and the moral nature of the soul would assert themselves with retributions transcending the limits of a single existence, and reaching on from life to life of the pilgrim soul .
Of the spiritual, disembodied state, which by some is supposed to succeed this present, I can form no conception. A new and bodily organism I hold to be an essential part of the souls destination. Whether the soul in that new organization will retain the memories which belong to this, is a question I am well content to leave as I find it, involved in impenetrable night. I cannot feel it to be essential to the question of immortality. I cannot feel that the fact of identity is involved in that of memory, that the soul which does not identify its being with a foregone existence is no longer the same. The soul is the same; but what it produces, the conscious life that, springs from that root, is not the same. The former life has left traces which remain, which essentially modify the soul. Those traces, those modifications, are important; but that the acts and experiences which have wrought them should be recalled, that the soul should be able to recount to itself the story of its past existences, appears to me a matter of little moment. If the health and growth of the moral nature require those memories, they will be vouchsafed; and that is all we can venture to prophesy about it.
Another question immediately connected with the memory of a former existence is one which affection persistently asks of all the oracles,whether dear friends who were parted by death shall meet again. To this the answer is still the same: if the souls well-being requires it, Heaven will grant it. If when the soul wakes to new existence it shall find in itself distinct impressions of a previous life, and among those impressions the image of any dear friend who has gone before, and shall long to recover the object of that affection, to bind again what death had severed; and if the friend so sought shall also experience a like reminiscence and reciprocal longings,then I can suppose that the two, thus mutually drawn, shall find one another and renew their bond. I can suppose that love stronger than death may revoke the separation of death, and give like to like. Souls that belong to each other by all their affinities and all their yearnings, one would say, must sooner or later unite. And yet it is equally supposable, and I confess in my view more likely, that the coming together of the two so inclined shall be without recognition of identity and without recollection of foregone union. Who knows if the love which in this world draws with mutual and irresistible attraction two kindred and predestined hearts, be not an unconscious renewal of an old pre-natal bond?
But these are matters we may trustingly leavewhere indeed, whether trustingly or not, we must leave themwith the infinite Love which embraces all our loves, and the infinite Wisdom which comprehends all our needs; assured that the Father of the house whose mansions are many, and the Father of spirits whose goal is one, will find the right place and connections and nurture for every soul he has caused to be; that in the eternities the thing desired will arrive at last; that seeking and finding are divinely evened. Let us rest in the thought that life must be richer than all our experience, nay, than our fondest dream.