The Theosophical Forum – August 1938


Now, as in the past, communication with the dead, or spirit-return, has engaged the attention of a great number of people; but in spite of the studies carried on for years by many investigators, including the Society for Psychical Research, very little progress has been made towards satisfactory explanations of the various phenomena so faithfully observed and recorded. Why is this? A study of a recent book, Personality Survives Death, (1) by Lady Florence Barrett, wife of the late Sir William Barrett of the Royal College of Science in Dublin, gives an opportunity of throwing the light of Theosophy upon some typical problems in spirit-return.

The book consists mainly of "communications purporting to be from the late Sir William Barrett," say the publishers, quoting Lady Barrett, who edits the book and who contributes a prefatory article as well as brief explanatory notes throughout. There is a foreword by Canon J. E. Campbell, D. D., a close friend of Sir William Barrett for many years, giving the history of Sir William's connexion with Psychical Research. (2) But of paramount interest in relation to our later study of the book is a paper by the then living Sir William Barrett himself on "The Deeper Issues of Psychical Research," reprinted from the Contemporary Review of February, 1918. It is characterized by the breadth of mind, brilliance of exposition, and high ethical power that would naturally be expected from an F. R. S. who was for forty years Professor of Physics in the Dublin Royal College of Science, who was an associate of such eminent scientists as Sir William Crookes and Sir Oliver Lodge, and whose scholarly researches in his own scientific field made him famous in the world of science.

With this word of introduction, it will be profitable now to take up the book itself in some detail. We might begin with citations from Sir William's paper above mentioned. He says (p. xxxv):

From the confused memories of their earthly life, which constitute the bulk of communications that purport to come from the discarnate, it may be that some of these messages also proceed from a sleeping or semiconscious dreaming state of the deceased person. If this be so, it would explain the common objection to the trivial and scrappy communications from the unseen, and that they are so often only fragmentary reminiscences of life on earth.

On page xxxvii we find Sir William referring to the "strong objection" of both the Christian and the Jewish Churches "to any attempt to lift even a corner of the veil that hides the unseen world from us," and he cites the Biblical prohibition of necromancy as one cause of this repugnance.

Psychical enquiry in early ages would . . . have produced a state of intellectual and moral confusion. Weariness and perplexity would have resulted, faith in the orderly government of the world would have been shaken, and the dictates of reason might have been supplanted by giving heed to an oracle.

Sir William remarks that these warnings are applicable today, and that

the ignorant and foolish . . . need to be warned off a region which may prove such a treacherous quicksand.

Theosophists may agree with the above statements of Sir William, but are not likely to agree with him fully when he goes on to say: "But contempt and condemnation of the whole subject are as mischievous as credulity and lack of common sense," for they are convinced that it is better to leave psychic matters entirely alone than to attempt development of psychic powers without sufficient knowledge and proper guidance, or from any motives whatsoever except those which are wholly unselfish and altruistic.

Theosophy maintains that the phenomena so stoutly sworn to by the Spiritualists and others are in great measure genuine; it is the explanations and interpretations of such phenomena that are absent or misleading, showing the lack of understanding of inner worlds and their workings. Sir William in life showed clear perception when he said: "The psychical order, it is true, is not the spiritual order . . ." and urged the possibility that "the mind of the percipient [of psychic visions] may be laid open to psychical invasion of a lower order. The cases of "possession" narrated in the gospels, and known in all parts of the ancient and modern world, cannot, in every case, be explained away by hysteria or epilepsy, but are often, I believe, genuine instances of telergy, the influence of an extraneous spirit, whether incarnate or discarnate, on the organism of the sufferer." All true, according to the teachings of Theosophy. And, we are bound to say, in a book avowedly published to give evidences of the genuineness of phenomenal spiritistic communication the inclusion of the strong warnings against the dangers of this pursuit and the emphasis placed on the limits of its usefulness cannot be too highly commended. These dangers and limitations are, at least in part, known to most Spiritualists and deeply regretted by them.

After reading this able address by the living Sir William Barrett, one might wish, out of respect for him, to have been spared the recital of the messages purporting to have come from him in the discarnate state; but these spirit messages are in so many ways typical, and again, so many people are interested in psychic phenomena and in communicating with the departed, that we are constrained to proceed — it being our strong hope that our comments will not wound the feelings of anyone.

Lady Barrett was already a believer in the possibility of "spirit-return," and she cherishes a fond hope that her testimony in regard to these communications from another world may be of some weight with others. In their intimate description of personal details known only to her, these messages gave what seemed to her conclusive evidence that they were actually from the gloriously liberated spirit of her deceased husband. She tries throughout the book to persuade the reader of this, and we cannot mistake her sincerity.

Like most of the spirit-messages that have come to our attention, these communications are chiefly of a trivial and personal nature; though there is also contained in many of them religious and philosophical matter echoing the highly ethical ideas so prominent in Sir William's writings during his life, and strongly believed in by his wife. But these lack the fresh creative drive of living thought, and bear the evidence of being simply automatisms the basis for which was set by the powerful thought-force of the thinker during life. They are of a somewhat feeble nature which compares unfavorably with the able writings of the brilliant scientific discoverer that Sir William Barrett really was. Is such a "come-down" in store for us after death?

Notwithstanding any claims to the contrary, we are forced to the Theosophical explanation that the higher part, the spiritual part, had passed on to other and higher realms, and only the disintegrating shell or vehicle remained in the astral light to be attracted by the strong thoughts of the living and temporarily galvanized into a more or less faithful semblance of living mental activity. Is it right even to try to force the dead back to earth and keep them earth-bound? — even though the entities (whatever they are) themselves seek association with living humans. This thought, of the wrong done to the departed by trying to draw them back to earth, has not been given much attention by modern Spiritualists, though it was strongly held by the ancients.

Again, it is a matter of common experience that the spiritistic messages of the dead, spoken through mediums to the living, are often instead a return to the living recipient of his own thinking, unintentionally impressed upon or picked up by the "spirit" or the medium. Sir William's messages on healing to his living physician wife are evidently of this so familiar type. Throughout the body of the book we find intuitions — "hunches" — clairvoyance even, which are not uncommon faculties of the living, attributed to impressions received from the dead. This latter is a usual assumption among Spiritualists. This writer was taught that idea in early childhood but has never found any evidence or warrant for it save that the "spirits" claim the credit, as they also do for most of the good in human life. But this claim is belied by the character of the messages received from them. The considerable variety of genuine phenomena produced, and claimed as due to the departed, cannot be accounted for by any one such explanation, however gratifying that explanation may seem to certain of the bereaved, who evidently have not considered all of the implications. The subject-matter generally contained in "spirit messages" is easily explained by a little knowledge of the evidences and phenomena of thought-transference, clairvoyance at a distance, astral records, elementals, and the fading mental or other shell left behind in the "earth's sphere" by the ascending spiritual self. To some it would seem better that death should end all than that it should bring the liberated spirit of man down to the plane of trifling astral magic and earth-bound interests.

As already noted, the book in hand seems to recognise the weaknesses of spiritism and the dangers with which its pursuit is fraught — weaknesses and dangers with which the discriminating investigator is confronted at every turn. Sir William, the deceased in this case, is made to say that spirits have great difficulty in communicating with earth — that in doing so they cannot bring all their intelligence with them. The explanation is necessitated by the disappointing character of his own messages. Again, there is the claim of the supposed Sir William that he has not infrequent personal interviews with God Himself. His frequent statements that he and other spirits are speedily progressing to higher and undefiled planes out of touch with the earth, cannot be reconciled with his still more constant theme, that he is hovering about his living wife and his former dwellings, and is approving this, that, and the other of her household arrangements and personal activities. What a superlative hell it would be, to remain impotent and unseen in our old haunts, yet reading every concealed thought of the living! Is there no rest for those who have passed on? — we are moved to ask.

The present writer is very far from wishing to deal with this subject in a spirit of severity, but he feels that because of the importance of the issues involved those issues should receive friendly discussion and some important facts should be sympathetically but clearly stated.

How much more comforting than the concept above set forth is the teaching of Theosophy: that after death we leave off the gross and unlovely qualities that as earthly human beings we all have, and enter upon a needed rest — a prolonged separation from the anxieties and burdens of this world — a rest which does not separate us from the spirit of those we love any more than sleep separates us from our loved companions.

After all, is it the earthly qualities that we love in our fellows? Or is it the shining spirit with which, if we truly love, our own higher part is indissolubly linked? The best and only sure proof that we can have of any worthwhile survival after our earthly death is to be found in rising to and living in that higher, permanent, truly spiritual part of ourselves which knows no death. In other words: to live in the spiritual will be to know the ever-living spirit. Rising above that which dies one finds proofs of the continuance of spiritual life. Such proofs are open to us at all times.


1. Personality Survives Death. Messages from Sir William Barrett, Edited by his wife. Longmans, Green & Co., 1937. 204 pp. Pr. $2.50. (return to text)

2. In various places in the introductory matter, the book speaks in high praise of the English Society for Psychical Research, of which Sir William was one of the founders, and of which he and his wife and their associates were ardent members. Let us remark here that when that Society shall have definitely withdrawn its unprovable and disproven calumnies against H. P. Blavatsky contained in the old Hodgson Report (which is regretted by the Society's membership) Theosophists generally and countless others will have a higher respect for that Society's sense of fairness. (return to text)

Theosophical University Press Online Edition