The Idea

The following is excerpted from Arnold Toynbee’s autobiography: Experiences, pp 139–142. According to Minority Association documents, this passage was the inspiration for “the idea” in Toynbee Idea.

Man’s situation is, indeed, paradoxical. Man has a mind that can comprehend infinite time and space, and he has a conscience that can pass moral judgments; yet prima facie it looks as if these spiritual facilities are dependent on their survival on their association with the life of a short-lived physical body. If certain parts of the body have been generated with a lack or an insufficiency of certain physical ingredients, the human beings spiritual faculties never come to flower, or at least never fully; and, if certain parts of a normal person’s body run down before death, the person’s spiritual faculties automatically fail. In any case at death the spiritual faculties disappear from this phenomenal world; and the widely and tenaciously held belief in the immortality of the soul after death is not borne out by any cogent evidence. Moreover, our bodies though ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’, are, in physical terms, specks of dust on the surface of a speck of dust called the Earth which is a satellite of another speck of dust called the Sun; and our sun is a speck of dust in our galaxy, which is a speck of dust in a universe that may be infinite in terms of space-time.

However, the dust of which a human body is composed, quantitatively trivial though it is, is an integral part of the inconceivably vast physical universe; and, when, after death, the body dissolves into its physical elements, these elements themselves are not annihilated. Death has destroyed the organism, that, for a brief time, had succeeded in maintaining itself as a puny counter-universe; but the physical materials of which the dissolved human body was composed at the moment of death have not been destroyed through ceasing to be incorporated temporarily in an organic physical structure. They are continuing to exist as parts of the physical universe, though this no longer in an organic form.

Science has been able to ascertain this, because science’s earliest researches, and its greatest successes so far, have been in the field of reality in its physical aspect. In our own day, science has made a start with the exploration of reality in its psychic aspect as well; but psychological science is still in its infancy, and, though the possibilities, opened up by it, of an increase in knowledge and understanding of the Universe are potentially enormous, it is still too early for us to be able to foresee whether these possibilities are going to be converted into achievements of anything like the same order of magnitude as science’s already accomplished achievements in the physical field. Meanwhile, the study of the spiritual aspect of human nature, on which Western science has embarked only recently, has been pursued, by now, for at least 2500 years, in the Indian practice of contemplation.

Already by the Buddha’s day the school of Indian philosophy to which the Buddha himself was opposed had reported that the essence of a human being’s spiritual aspect is identical with the ultimate spiritual reality behind and beyond the phenomenon of the Universe. If the intuition on which this report is based has penetrated to the truth, this signifies that the spiritual aspect of ahuman being, like his physical aspect, is an integral part of a universe that, in its own dimension may be ‘vast’ (an unavoidable loan-word from our vocabulary for describing physical reality) as the physical universe is; and from this it would seem to follow that, at death, the aspect of a human being that we call his spirit or his soul ceases to be the ephemeral separate personality that it has been during the now dead human being’s lifetime, but continues to exist as the ultimate spiritual reality with which, even in bodily life on Earth, it has never ceased to be identical in the spiritual vision of observers who have had the inward eye to see.

If this is the truth, ‘matter’ and ‘spirit’ may each be infinite in its own dimension; and every human being will be a point at which these two perhaps infinite entities intersect each other. We do not understand what the relation between them is. I suspect that their apparent duality may be an illusion produced by some feature in the structure of our minds that diffracts an indivisible reality into fractions which we do not know how to re-combine.

Human nature presents human minds with a puzzle which they have not yet solved and may never succeed in solving, for all that we can tell. The dichotomy of a human being into ‘soul’ and ‘body‘ is not a datum of experience. No one has ever been, or ever met, a living human soul without a body, though, as I have noted, we do meet living human bodies in which the soul has been virtually extinguished or has never come to flower. The partition of the human personality between two supposedly different and incommensurable orders of being is a mental act of human intellects, and it is a disputable one. Present-day medical and psychological research seems to agree in indicating that a human personality is an indivisible psychosomatic unity. The psychic aspect of its life cannot be properly understood if this is artificially isolated from the physical aspect, nor, conversely, is the physical aspect intelligible in isolation from the psychic aspect. This is not a new discovery; it is a rediscovery of a once widely recognized truth. It is the assumption implied in the stories in the Gospels of acts of healing performed by Jesus. The same assumption is implied in the Christian Church’s belief that Jesus rose from the dead physically as well as spiritually, and that all human beings who have ever lived and died are destined to experience a bodily, as well as spiritual, resurrection on the Day of Judgment. Someone who accepts – as I myself do, taking it on trust – the present-day scientific account of the Universe may find it impossible to believe that a living creature, once dead, can come to life again; but, if he did entertain this belief, he would be thinking more ‘scientifically’ if he thought in the Christian terms of a psychosomatic resurrection than if he thought in the shamanistic terms of a disembodied spirit.

Yet there is evidence that an embodied human spirit can be en rapport with another embodied human spirit by means of psychic communication that does not make use of the physical apparatus of the senses of either of the two persons who are en rapport or of any of the physical media, outside human bodies, that are used in our indisputably physical means of communication such as wireless radio or wire-conducted telephone and telegraph. I myself have been a first-hand witness of numerous successful experiments in communication between Gilbert Murray and his daughter Rosalind, my first wife, in which G.M. described scenes, some from real life and some from the fictitious world of plays and novels, which Rosalind had previously chosen and had described to the other people in the room while G.M was not only out of the room but was far enough away for it to have been impossible for him to have picked up theses messages by even a hypersensitive accentuation of the physical sense of hearing – an accentuation of it to a degree that would surpass any case of which there is any credible record.

This first-hand evidence has convinced me that extra-sensory perception is a reality. Gilbert Murray, who possessed this faculty in an unusually high degree, held that, in varying degrees, it is possessed and is used by all human beings. His view was that, in a conversation, something more passes between the parties than is conveyed by the spoken words. Our words, he suggested, are supplemented, on the fringe, by communication through extra-sensory perception. He also suggested that, before our ancestors acquired the power of articulate speech, which employs the physical apparatus of parts of the human body and the physical medium of waves that we hear as sounds, these speechless pre-men or proto-men had already been able to communicate with each other (as any social animals must be able), and that, at this previous stage, extra-sensory perception, which has since been pushed out by language into the fringe, had been the central means of communication to which cries and gestures were supplementary. If this was true of man’s ancestors before they acquired the power of articulate speech, it must be true, a fortiori, of the social species of non-human animals.

If extra-sensory perception is a proven reality (and I am convinced by first-hand evidence that it is), its existence indicates that a human being may, after all, not be the psychosomatic monolith that he appears to be in the light of present-day medical and psychological research. Human nature is still mysterious, and the mystery extends, beyond human nature, to the whole Universe, in both its spiritual and physical aspect, and to the ultimate reality in and behind and beyond the phenomena.


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