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Our Thought World

WE are all of us absolute monarchs and govern each an empire compared with which old Rome or the modern Greater Britain are, in their extent, as a country parish. Every man's house, we say, is his castle ; but his mind is a world. It is hardly an extravagance of Jean Paul Richter's that " a new universe is created every time a child is born." All our life is a thinking. According to the quality of our thought is the quality of our being. Our humdrum and bourgeois age has dulled its taste for real pleasure. It might take lessons from those old Greek philosophers who, instead of blocking themselves with expensive arrangements, reduced their physical wants to a minimum in order to enjoy, day by day, untrammelled, the luxury of their own thoughts. For, as they had discovered, our thought world is our real world. It should surely be our first consideration to explore this realm, of which we so strangely find ourselves in possession ; to trace its boundaries, to under-stand its laws, to unearth its hid treasures, to investigate the Beyond of which it gives such wonderful hints.

We have just said that our thought world is our real world, and it may be worth while. at the beginning to show that the statement is more than a phrase. Some of us have a confused enough notion of reality. Nothing, for instance, seems more certain to us than the solid "outside of things," with which we are constantly in contact. Dogmas and doctrines may be illusion, but the earth we tread on, the wall we run against, the cloud that rains on us, the sun that shines, are, at any rate, a piece of solid fact which nobody can dispute. This "solid fact" of the visible and touchable, say some aggressive disputants, is indeed all we do know. The invisibles about which metaphysicians and theologians discourse are mere doctrinal ghosts. When we talk of the things we see and handle we at least know where we are.

Yet a moment's reflection should show us the shallowness of this view. The outside world is nothing to us but a series of thoughts. Our mind really constructs it for us. We talk of the world's colours, its scents, its sounds, but there would be no such things as colours, scents, or sounds apart from a mind which can be affected in these particular ways. The fact of one set of vibrations producing in us a sensation we call "sound," and another set a sensation we call " sight," is a mystery first and most of all of the perceiving mind. That the external world can be in any sense the same thing as the image of it formed in our brain, is a notion which the crudest thinker, as soon as the problem is fairly before him, must dismiss as impossible. That the " something outside " which affects us in these myriad ways is a reality, and that our relations with it are truly represented by the reports of our senses, is a thing of which we have and can have no logical proof. The world's very first demand of us-to believe, namely, that it is such a world as our thought presents is a sheer act of faith.

That things are thus with us, that our thought world, far more than any external, is the one we know, will appear more plainly when we consider the mental laws and the way they work in constructing our world for us.

Have we ever considered what happens when we "see " an object, say, a boat moving on a river? Light rays, propagated by vibrations of inconceivable velocity, falling upon the retina have produced there an image. Upon this retina-picture the mind now begins its marvellous work. By one act it gathers all the colour and form impressions it has received into a single unity ; by another act it classifies this unity, separating its individual qualities from its common ones, and by virtue of these latter placing the object into the category called "boat " ; another act gives to the boat's motion a cause, either the action of rowers, or perhaps of a steam propeller. Vastly more are the mental actions and laws concerned than these, but enough are here to show that our boat on the river, as known at least to us, is a work, a very large proportion of which belongs to our own brain. The sense perception; the acts by which we unify and classify it ; the placing of it in space and time ; and that strange last act by which we are irresistibly led to attribute its motion to a cause, are all the products, not so much of the material object as of the marvellous laws within us. The external world, before it reaches us, has

we see, become a manufactured article, and the machinery is in ourselves. The wonder of it all and the awe of it grow upon us as we realise that these laws are none of our making; they were here, we perceive, in all the minds that were before us ; are in all the minds around us ; and the very world itself is built and framed in accordance with them.

Indeed, from whatever aspect we view this inner kingdom of ours, the mystery of it deepens. What are called clever people are apt to be vain sometimes of their mental achievements. They would be less so if they remembered that most of these achievements are carried on by a power that, while within them, is yet outside their own will and even their own consciousness. Our thought world carries on its operations largely without consulting us. The real creator in us is the Unconscious. In that abysmal depth, lying somewhere beneath our formulated thought, the operations are going on which, by-and-by, emerge on our view as completed ideas. Every thinker, for instance, knows precisely the experience which Stevenson thus hits off about his own work: " Unconscious thought, there is the only method; macerate your subject, let it boil slow, then take the lid off and look in and there your stuff is, good or bad." An excellent prescription for the young writer, but the very terms of it show that, instead of having been the performers ourselves, we are mainly spectators, waiting on the operations of another, who in mysterious ways and in obscure depths beneath the surface, is doing the thinking for us. "Is this my idea P " we say as it flashes into our mind. Why, no one is more surprised at it than ourselves. It is as much ours as the sunshine reflected on our lens. The illuminated lens is ours, but the light has travelled from afar.

But the fact that our thought world is, to so large an extent, worked for us rather than by as, must not blind us as to our share in the operations. Over a large part of its surface our will reigns supreme, and can make of it either a desolation or a paradise. Our thoughts are our companions, which we cannot get rid of. We may shake off every other society, but not this. It is the merest common-sense, therefore, to make it as good as possible. But there is no royal road. A man may buy his way nowadays into all manner of social circles, but his coin is not current in this domain.

Nor will rank serve. The son of Louis XIV., the Dauphin, had for instructors Bossuet and Huet. The one wrote for him "The Discourse cm Universal History" ; the other edited for him " The Delphine Classics." After he had outgrown his schooldays the object of these cares never touched a book, and about the only thing recorded of him is that he was fond of killing weasels in a barn. The lad was heir to a throne, and this was his inner empire ! Of all the waste that goes on in our extravagant world the waste of our thought possibilities is the worst. Lords of this inner realm, we might stretch its boundaries till they touch the illimitable; could make every inch of its surface rich with flower and fruit ; could populate it with the noblest minds; could open it to highest inspirations, to the very breath and prospect of the Infinite. Instead, most of us are content to run up a log hut on its border, to scratch its surface for a few kitchen vegetables, and to leave the rest as barren as Sahara.

With a well-tended thought world all his own, no man need call himself poor or fettered. Moneybags may voyage in his yacht to southern seas and be very much bored over the business.

The worker at his bench, if he know his inner privilege, can voyage to fairer realms and feel no fatigue. Let no man think his taskwork a, monotony, though it be pin-making, or trench-digging, while his mind-realm is his own. There, as he hammers or digs, he may call up what scenery or what action he wills. It is here that thought life surpasses experience. In experience we take what comes, the rough with the smooth. In our inner world we can choose. And surely this is enough to give zest to the commonest career that, at will, we can live over again our choicest moments, recall those elect days when we touched life's best, and make our whole interior radiant with that reflected glory.

There are innumerable aspects of this theme which we pass over in order to touch, in closing, one on which the modern mind is painfully exercised ; the question, that is, of our thought world as related to a future life. Readers of Schopenhauer will remember how, in pursuit of his favourite doctrine of the priority and predominance of the will, both in man and the world, he seeks to belittle the intellect. Our consciousness, he declares, is the mere product and parasite of the brain ; grows with it, decays with it, dies with it. It is the old argument of the Epicureans, which their great poet Lucretius has expressed with unsurpassable force. But it all rests upon a fallacy which a schoolboy ought to perceive. For when we propose to make reason depend upon a brain we must extend our reference, and make the Universal Reason, the mind we discern everywhere at work in the cosmos, dependent upon a brain also; " which," as the logic books say, is absurd." True psychology is coming more and more to realise that the thought world within us uses the brain as an instrument rather than as a cause. The instrument is no more the creator of the thought than Beethoven's piano was the creator of his music. The instrument might wear out, but the music can be reproduced elsewhere.

The truer and higher our mind life becomes the more sure are we that our mind is fed, not by brain activities merely, but more, and chiefly, by Another Mind whose celestial ray streams into ours, and in whose Immortal Life we live. The fine thought of Plutarch concerning the daimon or guardian spirit of Socrates, that it was " the influence of a superior intelligence and a diviner soul operating on the soul of Socrates " can be taken as true of all the nobler thought life. Our bodies may wear out and our brains ; but the thought world which lies behind them is, as we have seen, a realm of its own, with laws of its own. By no possibility, as Tyndall himself confessed, can we find the nexus between muscular and nerve energy and a state of consciousness. They are a world apart. Death, which divides the two, destroys neither the one nor the other. An ancient word still expresses as much as we know. " Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was ; and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it."

( Originally Published 1903 )

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