Monsters   /   Spring 2020   /    Notes And Comments

The Soul in Itself

Gustav Theodor Fechner’s soul neither defies naturalism nor depends on revelation.

Nicholas Cannariato

Fechner’s On Life after Death.

The soul exists. That’s what it does. It doesn’t need traditional religion or occultist speculation to justify, let alone explain, its existence. The soul can simply be a thing-in-itself, free from purpose or the need to be redeemed or maintained or isolated for study. We often talk about the soul simply as the nonmaterial and thus mysterious aspect of our being, something we feel but can’t point to—or what is silent and constant, enclosed in our mortal coil. It’s also entirely possible that there’s no nonmaterial part of our being, and whatever intangible dimension of ourselves we feel or think we feel is just, as yet, unexplained by science. Or maybe we do have souls, but they die with the body. Given such speculative uncertainty, the closest approach to the soul for many without recourse to religious reassurance is “consciousness,” though this may amount to no more than replacing one word with another.

But if one wishes to give form to spirit, as well as cast off the yoke of moralism and dogma, the work of Gustav Theodor Fechner (1801–87), a nineteenth-century German physicist, philosopher, and psychologist, may be one place to begin. His work may have even more traction now, in a time of declining religious affiliation, when many people (the so-called nones) seek replacements for more dogmatic versions of spiritual reality but resist succumbing to mere hedonism or nihilism. A concept of the soul that neither defies naturalism nor depends on revelation or dogmatic authority is thus more appealing than ever.

Fechner’s Little Book of Life after Death (1836) is a modestly sized yet ambitious treatise on the immortality of the soul. (His later Zend-Avesta: On the Things of Heaven and the Hereafter [1851] continues his thinking on the soul and related matters.) Available to the English-speaking world largely because of Mary C. Wadsworth’s 1904 translation (with a short introduction by William James, who praised its “daylight view” of the world “as inwardly alive and consciously animated”), the book presents the soul as something real and immortal, not just a philosophical construct. It treats the soul monistically, essentially dissolving the long-lived and very tired mind/body dichotomy. Fechner collapses dichotomies of God and human, material and spiritual, consciousness and matter, to create a unified tapestry of seeming immanent and transcendent reality.

Fechner begins his Little Book by framing life as a progression of stages. The first stage is gestation. The second is life itself, in which the senses orient people toward the world around them and, ideally, the spiritual permeating it. The third stage is, for lack of a better term, the afterlife, life after seeming death. Like many traditional religious believers, Fechner sees this world as a preparation for the world to come, although for him this next world is also really this world, just out of focus.

Addressing the connection between human experience and nature, Fechner argues that a bond exists between the two. He calls it “the spiritual limbs of the man, which he exercises during life while still bound to a spiritual body, to an organism full of unsatisfied, up-reaching powers and activities, the consciousness of which still lies outside of him, though inseparably interwoven with his present existence, yet, only in abandoning this, can he recognize it as his own.” Don’t believe only in what you see. Believe also in what animates you.

If all this talk about immortality seems a little romantic, a little far-fetched, even delusional, Fechner anticipated that. “This ideal survival,” he writes, “seems indeed to us only an abstraction, and the continued influence of the soul of the dead in the living an empty fancy. But it only appears so to us because we have no power to perceive in [the dead] spirits in the third stage, to comprehend a permanent existence.” To illustrate, Fechner relates the influence of souls through a metaphor:

Although the undulating circle which a sinking stone leaves behind it in the water creates, by its contact, a new circle around every rock which still projects above the surface, it still retains in itself a connected circumference which stirs and carries all within its reach; but the rocks are only aware of the breaking of the perfect line. We are just ignorant objects, only that we, unlike fixed rocks, even while still in life, shed about us a continuous flow of influence, which extends itself not only around others but within them.

So to properly understand Fechner’s concept of the soul, one must dispense with the false dichotomy of body and mind. For him, there’s no inside and outside so much as there is one existence, a kind of manifest being, that is ostensibly individuated as it remains purely general. But in the procession of life, thoughts and feelings and perceptions add up within people and position them to move on to the third stage of life as a soul recognizable to itself and to others as a soul.

All this transcendental harmony is not a given upon someone’s death. Fechner discusses how one must cultivate one’s being in order to attain a lasting afterlife. He’s not explicitly administrative or moralistic, however. His notion of divinity is not of the punitive, authoritarian kind. Rather, divine union is predicated on comprehension of, rather than submission to, divinity. He asserts that “the comprehension of the higher thought of advanced souls means therefore their growth through this thought into greater spiritual organisms, and as all individual ideas have their root in the universal, so at least will all souls, in fellowship with the highest, be absorbed into the divine.”

One of the harder to swallow but still understandable aspects of Fechner’s notion of the afterlife is the idea that the soul must have some duration on earth in order to endure. He holds that “if a man had spent and ended his life on a desert island without ever having come in contact with another human life, he would have firmly retained his inner existence, awaiting future development, which in this world he could not without the intercourse with others.” He adds that “if on the other hand a child had lived but a moment, it could not die again in eternity.” For him, the soul develops awareness of itself and its unity with the greater world only in duration. For Fechner, a baby who loses its life loses eternity.

Chilling, maybe even hardhearted, but consistent. For Fechner, an individual can die, pass from the second stage to the third stage, and then somehow, bereft of mortal bondage, retain individual consciousness for eternity—something a baby would not yet have. For many, this idea will also rightly reek of self-consolation in the face of mortality. This time, though, Fechner answers a question—Can the soul be integrated yet unique?—with a question:

Ask first, how [the soul] can preserve its unity in the smaller expanse of the body, of which the larger one is the only continuation. Is, then, your body, is your brain, a point, or is there a central spot within as the seat of the soul? No. As it is now the nature of the soul to maintain the limited composite of your body, so in the future will it be to unite the greater composite of the greater body. The divine spirit knits together.

Admittedly, this notion of the soul still seems a little too clever. Don’t worry about it, Fechner essentially says. One can have it both ways. You are eternity; eternity is you. No inconsistency that can’t be justified as paradox to see here. It seems that what one still needs in order to believe his decidedly independent notion of the soul is faith. Yet, Fechner having come this far, somehow the issue of faith has not meaningfully come up. Fear not: In the Little Book, there is a place for faith, and he saves his strongest emphasis on it for the end.

“Healthy faith,” he writes, “is based upon the fundamentals and limits itself to the highest point of view of normal life, of which it forms a part.” For the life to come, one must wait and see and look past the apparent limitations of phenomenal existence. To those who say they’ll believe it when they see it, Fechner might riposte: You will only believe it when you see it if you see it before you believe it. Even Fechner’s enlightened conception requires faith, a kind of refined seeing.

Such rarified vision requires one to see beyond what one merely sees. The phenomenal world is reduced by the senses to make sense to the senses. In reality, a sound ends, but sound is ongoing. A stone hits the water and the ripples go out. When the ripples reach the shore, they keep going; they only appear to stop at the sand. The soul likewise exists in itself in the moment, and in the world. Each is unending, yet one and the same.