The Theosophical Forum – November 1936

THE IMMORTALITY OF THE SOUL (1) — Cyrus Field Willard

In Freemasonry we see a drama of the soul. Many Grand Lodge jurisdictions require a belief in the immortality of the soul as a prerequisite to the candidate's initiation.

But few Masonic writers have tried to tell what it is and why it is immortal, and not one of such writers, so far as the present scribe knows, has been able to consider it scientifically from the standpoint of present scientific knowledge and reason, rather than that of emotionalism and blind faith.

Therefore, it has seemed wise to take this problem in the same manner as if it were a chemical problem, and give to the average Freemason some idea as to what the soul is and why he should believe in its immortality.

First, we will consider the immortality of the soul (2) as a purely scientific hypothesis. It is as logical and as sound as the nebular hypothesis. Singularly enough, it works somewhat in the same manner, "As above, so below."

Freemasonry has taught it down through the ages, as far back as our knowledge of this and similar organizations goes. Now we begin to see that the wisdom of the ages was not confined to "the laughing philosopher, Democritus," whose atomic theory John Dalton presented to us again. This rather materialistic concept we have adopted and now modified to something still more scientific. Our atom has been resolved into a planetary system, which has a positive central unit like our sun, called a proton, and around which revolve negative electric charges, usually invisible, called electrons, as planets revolve around our sun.

This brings to our mind, if we know of such things, the old hermetic sentences engraved on the Emerald Tablet, which used to seem so senseless and now so full of wisdom, "As above, so below."


With the resolution of the atoms into electrons and protons, the materialistic conception of the universe has disappeared. Radium, showing the change of one element into another, has rehabilitated the reputation of the alchemist, the father of modern chemistry, while the resolution of the atom into its parts has brought once more the hermetic teachings to the front as being respectable enough to be used as working hypotheses.

Matter is indestructible; it may and does change appearance, but always while matter it retains its Trinity: Substance, Energy and Consciousness.

Since matter is indestructible, how much more so is that aggregation of highly specialized Consciousness, the Thinker, which with the Will and the Spark of God, constitutes the Immortal Soul. This soul must have its three phases of Substance, Energy and Consciousness, as it is but refined matter, since God Himself pervades all matter, and "God is everywhere." Subtract Him from the Universe, or its smallest atom, and it would go to pieces. "In Him we live and move and have our being," takes on a new and scientific meaning, from this standpoint, that He is in us and we are in Him. This is what the resolution of the atom into electrons is bringing us up to confront, and which is destroying the anthropomorphic conception of God.

Most persons say "I have a soul," instead of saying boldly and with knowledge, "I am the soul." It is not something that emerges, like the butterfly from its chrysalis, at the time of death. When we hear some one described as "a brave soul" it is the correct characterization if he is to live and struggle through adversity. For it is our struggle and bravery in this life that makes the soul what it is.


This brings up another point. Let us say that a man has struggled up from a little country town where people knew but little, to a degree of knowledge and desire for service that has made his name known the world around in certain scientific and Masonic circles. He has developed a certain character, learned a number of languages made a number of scientific discoveries and attained a desire to help his brethren struggling up the slope of Time. He has had wealth and suffered poverty, been ill and experienced deprivation, so that it seems sweeter to help others than to think of one's self all the time

Is all this development to go for naught? After having learned all these things on earth, is he to take this desire to help those less fortunate in knowledge, to some more fortunate planet where the inhabitants know more than he does and continue to selfishly gorge himself with knowledge, when he already has so much that he wants to help those who have less? Or to some mythical Heaven whose place in space is unknown?

That is the weakness of the logic of the modern teachers of spiritual things, in the opinion of one who looks at these matters from the standpoint of reason.


I remember while still studying logic in the high school, I one Sunday asked my Sunday-school teacher:

"Is the soul immortal?" and she replied, "Yes."

"Well, if it is immortal, it must be eternal," I continued and she answered, "Yes."

"Then if it is eternal, it cannot have had any beginning any more than it can have an end," I persisted, "and in that case, where was it before it came into the body?"

She was puzzled and was unable to reply, finally saying that I had better go and see the minister, which I did and propounded the same questions and got like answers as before.

He said I was all wrong and this was the way it happened: "God creates a soul for every new body, and from that time on it is eternal." I went away thinking that over, and not quite convinced, finally coming back after some days and asking this question: "If God creates a new soul for each body, is not God just as much to blame as the parents, for the child who is born without their being married, or in fact worse, as the body could not live without the soul He furnished the child?"

The only answer I got was the thundered warning: "Young man, if you keep on like that, you'll become an infidel." Which, of course, as he was unable to answer my sincere questions, prompted by my God-given reason, was the only way out for him. I ought also to say that I told him: "If the soul has no ending and lives for ever, it cannot logically have had a beginning, as you cannot think of only one end of a string or a stick."


These puzzling questions stuck in my mind for years and since then I have often thought of what Jesus of Nazareth told Nicodemus: "Ye must be born again," and his assertion that John the Baptist was Elijah who was to be born again.

It made me examine into such matters and when I became interested in scientific matters, I found that the law of conservation of energy required reincarnation. Not only that, but it is a doctrine that is believed in by the great majority of the earth's inhabitants.

Nearly all the western poets, such as Browning, Tennyson, Longfellow, Wordsworth, Paul Hamilton Hayne, Whittier, Bayard Taylor, Landon, T. B. Aldrich, Chas. G. Leland, Maurice Thompson, N. P. Willis, J. T. Trowbridge, James Russell Lowell, T. W. Parsons, Edmund W. Gosse, Dean Alford, Lord Houghton, D. G. Rossetti, Joseph Addison, Philip J. Bailey, Coleridge and Walt Whitman, especially Whitman and Browning, believed in the idea of reincarnation, for poets are seers.

At times in certain emergencies, I have found knowledge welling up within me to meet that emergency which I had not consciously imbibed in any manner before. Others with whom I have talked have had the same experience and have also wondered where they got the knowledge or experience to meet a given crisis.


For a number of years I kept a note-book which was finally lost, that contained the experience of many children who had knowledge of having lived before, and I found that such knowledge was much more common than generally supposed, but that the child after being laughed at, or scolded, would keep such things to himself and as he got older finally forgot the main incidents of what he formerly remembered distinctly. There was a case of a man in humble position in Massachusetts, near Cambridge, who on recovering from a severe illness spoke a language which no one understood until finally a professor from Harvard University said the man was speaking what he termed "Middle Persian."

Character is the memory of past lives.

How often we see children in a family whose characters are totally different from each other. Any mother will tell you that. Often you will find those whose character is entirely different from their parents or any Mendelian strain.

Looking at it from what might be termed a materialistic standpoint (although the writer believes matter and spirit are one) the soul is a bundle of conscious nervous energy, which retains within itself as hydrogen sulfide does its smell, the sublimated memories and knowledge of previous lives.


Pre-existence must be a fact or else annihilation ensues at death. There is no half-way station. Ex nihilo, nihil fit — out of nothing, nothing is made. The child opens its new life with character and attainments derived from previous lives where they have been painfully won. Biogenesis is as true in the spiritual world as in the physical.

Evolution is correct and true — so far as the body is concerned. The various stages of the foetus prove it. But we must also realize that there is the involution of the soul, in the body made ready for it, by which the soul can add the experiences of a new personality, the new "persona" or mask, to the sum total of his treasured traits.

In its passage through earthly personalities the spiritual Self, the real I, the Thinker or immortal soul, accumulates a fund of individual characteristics and attainments which remain as the permanent thread stringing together the separate lives.

Masonry has insisted on belief in the immortality of the soul, but gives no rational explanation of what it is, and why and how it is immortal, that can be accepted by the logical thinking man.


H. J. Whymper, the mountain climber, and, by the way, a good and well known Mason, tells in one of his books of an accident he had in falling from a height and how he seemed to be up in the air like a balloon looking down at his body and seeing (without physical eyes, mind you) his guide bending over him with a silver flask in his hand and how he felt the sensation as though he swallowed a balloon (himself), and he came to and looked up in the face of his guide.

The congeries of refined matter which he felt to be himself, was undoubtedly his soul, his real self, which, on account of its tenuity, rose in the air. It is fair to presume that there is a locus a place somewhere within the attraction of the earth's atmospheric envelope, which acts as a resting place between lives for the weary soul who has gone through a series of hard struggles on earth, and desires time for rest and assimilation of the lessons it has received, until such time as the necessity for being reborn on this planet again asserts its pull.

"No doubt I have died myself, ten thousand times before," said Walt Whitman, and also in his "Facing West from California's Shores," he says: "I a child, very old, towards the house of maternity, the land of migrations, look afar," in speaking of his numerous lives.

It can be truly said that the gradual development of the soul by and in the school of experience demands a vaster arena of action than one earthly life affords. We have hardly learned to live before it is time to die. Some of us are born with aptitude for certain languages, which we learn easily or rather re-learn, as the writer knows by experience.


If it takes ages of time and thousands of lives to form one species of animal from another, as biology teaches, the expansion of human souls from lower to higher natures surely needs many and many a life for that purpose. These we have had. Today in America is being formed from all races what is termed the new Sixth Race. We are now in what is called the Fifth Race and have developed five senses.

When we are raised to the sublime degree of a Master Mason, what are we raised by and what on?

The five points of fellowship are the five senses which we hold in common with our fellows and they constitute our fellowship with our fellow man. If we are brought back to life, it is by the way of being born again, as Nicodemus was told he would have to be, and we are reborn on the five points of fellowship, and the Lost Word is that Spark of Divinity, we, as the Thinker, bring back with us. There is a symbol within a symbol.

It is difficult to speak of these things without overstepping the mark that has been set for us. Hiram Abif is raised in the sign of Leo the lion, which is at the time of St. John the Baptist Day, or Midsummer, the 24th of June (the old Masonic festival) when the Sun, whom Hiram represents, is at his greatest strength and he was slain by the three winter months.

We do not know what the Sun is, as we only see his chromosphere or envelope. Helium was first seen in the sun's spectrum before it was discovered on earth. It may be that the real sun (which we do not see) bears a more intimate relation to our interior spiritual nature and its rarefied matter or spirit, than we have any conception of at the present time. We may not have the instruments yet to detect it and so can but offer hypotheses as to the constitution of this spiritual matter or inner proton of our being.

Our rebirth from a former life may some day be accurately determined by knowledge, which most of us do not yet possess.


But we do see in the lessons of the Third Degree that we are almost told, in so many words, that we have lived before, that our soul, our real self, is immortal and eternal, has had no beginning and will have no end, is, in the last analysis, a spark of the Highest Spiritual Substance which alone is eternal and can "never, never, never die." We come back to earth in justice to ourselves and to those whom we have wronged, to do the things we should do in helping our less fortunate brothers upward to that Spiritual Sun, the true light, "that lighteth every man that cometh into the world."

Any one who is experimenting with matter every day and sees the peculiar things that happen, if he be observing and reflecting, is inclined to believe in consciousness inhering in matter. It is but just to say that the measure of our acquisition of conception from the outer universe resides in the senses, and there is no evidence that these have always been five or will not be, at some time, more numerous.

Therefore we must assume that our present ascending development will introduce us to higher levels, in which the soul shall have more senses and glorious extensions of bodily powers relating thereto. We realize that what begins in time must end in time. Death must be the conclusion if birth is the beginning of the soul.

The idea of immortality demands rebirth and analogy makes it most probable. Science confirms it and the nature of the soul, as I have tried to show, requires it. It alone answers the theological questions of original sin and future punishment, and also explains many mysterious experiences. It alone solves the problem and shows the reason for the apparent injustice and real misery which exist today in the world.


As Emerson said: "We wake and find ourselves on a stair. There are stairs below us which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one which go upward and out of sight."

Plato expressed the idea correctly when he said: "The soul always weaves her garments anew." The nature of the soul requires rebirth, for the conscious soul cannot feel itself to have had any beginnings any more than it can conceive of its annihilation. The sense of persistence overleaps all the interruptions of forgetfulness and sleep.


The eternity of the soul, past and present, leads directly to an innumerable succession of births and deaths, like Walt Whitman said. "Oh, for another chance!" is the inward prayer of many a poor downhearted soul not knowing that Nature's just and compassionate laws provide for it.

An ancient book has said: "Those who are wise in spiritual things grieve neither for the dead nor for the living. I myself never was not, nor thou, nor all the princes of the earth, nor shall we ever hereafter cease to be. As the lord of this mortal frame experienceth therein, infancy, youth and old age, so in future incarnations will it meet the same. One who is confirmed in this belief is not disturbed by anything that may come to pass."

Patanjali says that a knowledge of the occurrences experienced in former lives will arise in him who practises his aphorisms by holding before his mind the trains of self-productive thought, and concentrating upon them.

The philosophy of "innate ideas," or mental heredity, is an admission of earlier lives than the present. One of the best arguments in favor of reincarnation was written by Chevalier Ramsay, the celebrated Mason, who is credited with the origination of many of the Scottish Rite degrees.

Pythagoras remembered his former lives in the persons of the herald Aethalides, Euphorbus the Trojan, Hermotimus of Clazomenae and others, and pointed out in the Temple of Juno at Argos, the shield with which he, as Euphorbus, attacked Patroclus in the war before Troy.

If you will read all that Gould, the historian of Masonry, says about the hermetists, you will see how they harked back to "Our ancient brother Pythagoras," and it will explain why in Freemasonry, which is the heir to the teachings of Pythagoras, we have the concealed teaching of rebirth on the five points of fellowship, the five senses, by which we are raised to a living perpendicular, and of Plato who said, "God geometrizes."


Eternal justice rules the world. But when we view the miseries of mankind, the prosperity of wickedness, the struggles of the deserving, the oppression of the masses, the talents and successes of the fortunate few, we would feel compelled to call the world a sham without any moral law, did we not have this idea of rebirth.

This yields to a majestic satisfaction when one sees that the present life is only one of a great series in which every individual is gradually going the round of experience for a glorious outcome, and that the hedging ills of today are but a consequence of what we did yesterday and a step toward the great things of tomorrow.

The tangled snarls of earthly life are straightened out as a vast and beautiful scheme and the total experience of humanity forms a magnificent tapestry of perfect poetic justice.

In science the crucial test of the merit of any hypothesis is whether it meets all the facts better than any other theory. This the idea of the immortality of the soul and its pre-existence in former lives does, and no other so admirably accounts for the diversity of conditions on earth and refutes the charge of favoritism on the part of the Grand Architect of the Universe. Hierocles said, and many a philosopher, before and since, has agreed with him, "Without this doctrine, it is not possible to justify the ways of God."


It alone solves the problems of life. The fulness of its meaning is majestic beyond appreciation. It shows that every soul, from the lowest animal to the highest archangel, belongs to the infinite family of Being, and is eternal in its conscious essence, perishing only in its temporary disguises; that every act of every creature is followed by inevitable reactions which constitute a perfect law of retribution, and that these souls are intricately interlaced with mutual relationships. The bewildering maze thus becomes a divine harmony. No individual stands alone but trails with him (as Wordsworth beautifully described) the unfinished sequels of an ancestral career and is so bound up with his race that each is responsible for all and all for each.

No one can be saved until all are redeemed. Thus every suffering we endure, apparently for faults not our own, assumes a holy light and a sublime dignity.


In presenting these ideas I have culled from a number of writers, and hence claim but little originality. It has seemed to me that our great army of Masons in the United States, numbering about three million of picked men, who have been going into Masonry without any clear idea as to why, but really as an urge from the Thinker within, based on stirring memories of a former life, are entitled to a knowledge of the soul in whose immortality they are required in many states to believe, as well as in the existence of a Supreme Intelligence, a Grand Architect of the Universe, or God.

Originally this idea of the pre-existence of the soul and its eternity in life after life, was part of the Christian religion. In its early days such fathers of the church as Origen advocated it and it flourished with wholesome influence in that church for 500 years until it was forcibly crushed out by the Council of Constantinople in 551 a. d., to make room for the harsh dogmas which have since darkened that church. It never was met in argument and conquered by reason, but was summarily ousted by the weight of prejudice and the desire of the priesthood to hold the keys of purgatory, heaven and hell, as all priesthoods have ever done. It has been aptly termed the "Lost Chord of Christianity," for it alone makes that religion reasonable and logical in the light of advancing science and knowledge, and brings it back to what Jesus taught.


Scientists today do not care what you believe. "What are the facts?" is now the cry. About sixty-five percent of the people of the United States do not belong to any church or organized religion. This large proportion of our population should not be allowed to drift away from all religion, and it is to them I address my remarks, for a large number of these non-members of churches find that their religious impulses are only fed by the tender, altruistic teachings of Masonry, which inculcates a belief in the One God and the immortality of the soul. To these I have endeavored to give a fitting concept of the dignity of that soul whose immortality our ritual claims to be a fact.

In closing, the writer would like, as one who believes in using the reason with which the Divine Intelligence has endowed him, to quote a celebrated poet, Wordsworth, who gives a very clear presentation of the subject in the following lines:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
     The soul that rises with us, our life's star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
     And cometh from afar.
Not in entire forgetfulness
     And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
     From God who is our home.
Heaven lies about us in our infancy:
Shades of the prison house begin to close
     Upon the growing boy;
But he beholds the light and whence it flows
     He sees it in his joy.
The youth who daily farther from the East
Must travel, still is nature's priest.
     And by the vision splendid
     Is on his way attended.
At length the man perceives it die away
And fade into the light of common day.


1. This article was originally published in Square and Compass (Denver, Colorado), August, 1931, and there credited to "A Research Chemist," and with the following as an introduction: "This article is by a well-known Masonic writer who wishes the message to be considered rather than the personality of the messenger." It is here reprinted as revised by the author and with his permission. — Eds. (return to text)

2. I use the common phrase "immortality of the soul," yet strictly speaking if we accept the characterization of man's nature, as stated by Paul, as being spirit-soul-body, it is rather the spirit, and only the spirit, that we can speak of as immortal — the soul being merely the vehicle for the spirit and its encasement while on earth, just as the body is the encasement of the soul while on earth, and both body and soul growing and changing from life to life.

Also in line with Paul's teaching, if we take the words of Jesus, "Ye are gods," we see that man in essence is not merely spiritual, but godlike, divine; and in the ultimate analysis it is this inner god which is the heart of us, the very essence of us, which alone is immortal. However, in view of the common usage of the words "the immortality of the soul," and with the reservations as just given, I continue to use this phrase. (return to text)

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