George Walford: Demystifying Mysticism

One of the many subjects on which almost no ideological work has been done is mysticism. I do not propose to undertake a study of it here. All I want to do is to examine two things sometimes thought to constitute barriers to any objective investigation of the subject.

The first thing to be done by anybody contemplating such a study is to open the mind to the idea that mysticism may be something other than what the mystics hold it to be. This is, of course, a condition of any study that is to be more than the bare accumulation of facts; it is the possibility that we may find things are not as they have been thought to be, that justifies the undertaking. And with mysticism, more than with most objects of study, we must be particularly careful to maintain our freedom of enquiry. This need is produced by the nature of the claims some mystics make for their activity. Those claims, if accepted at face value, would render mysticism immune from the exercise of critical judgement.

The standard English book on the subject is Evelyn Under-hill’s Mysticism. I am using the revised edition of 1930, and it opens with this quotation from Coventry Patmore (which is repeated at the end of the first chapter):

What the world, which truly knows nothing, calls ‘mysticism’ is the science of ultimates… the science of self-evident Reality, which cannot be ‘reasoned about’ because it is the object of pure reason or perception. (Emphases in Underhill).

Mysticism, according to Coventry Patmore, “cannot be reasoned about.” If this is so then the enterprise we are considering collapses at the start, for reasoning about mysticism is precisely what is contemplated. But is it so? Coventry Patmore tells us that mysticism cannot be reasoned about “because it is the object of pure reason or perception,” and in saying that he opens wide the door he is trying to close. He uses “because,” he gives a reason why mysticism cannot be reasoned about and thereby demonstrates that it can be reasoned about.

Coventry Patmore calls mysticism “the science of ultimates.” The concept presents a difficulty he does not seem to recognise: we cannot know that anything is an ultimate until we have, so to speak, looked beyond it to make sure there is nothing there. And if we can do this then there is something there, namely a beyond, so it is not an ultimate. To this the reply is sometimes made that it is only “in the mind” that we can look beyond the alleged ultimate, that there is nothing real beyond it and it is, therefore, a real ultimate. But mystics, of all people, cannot ignore what is “only in the mind.” They claim to deal in absolutes, and if there is anything at all, even emptiness, beyond what is presented to us as the ultimate then it is not absolutely ultimate, not what mystics believe it to be. Whether what is beyond is significant or not is something to be considered; the point I want to make here is that we must not allow the declarations of some mystics, to the effect that there is nothing beyond that of which they speak, or that mysticism cannot be reasoned about, to prevent us investigating for ourselves.

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THIS IS from the film The Poseidon Adventure:

Remember the ship’s upside down.

from Ideological Commentary 11, March 1982.