Yverdon 3

Steve Hume


At the start of this  series  of  articles  I  wrote  that  the  title 'Spiritualism & the Establishment' is actually rather misleading. What we are really talking about, of course, is the effect that  mediumship has had upon the, generally negative, established  weight  of  opinion against itself. At the end of the day 'Spiritualism' is only  a  handy verbal peg upon which we hang the phenomena  of  mediumship,  and  the teachings that issue from it, in a modern context. The 'Establishment' is a further convenient  sound  symbol  that  is  used  to  label  the generally accepted wisdom (on any given subject) when we perceive this to have been officially endorsed by the most influential in society.

The reason I feel it necessary to reiterate the foregoing is that, for the next few months, I will be using a different word  at  times  when referring to a 'religion' that has coalesced  around  the  concept  of mediumship.  'Spiritism'  is  the  word  associated  with  mediumistic practice throughout Latin America, particularly  in  Brazil  where  it rivals Catholicism, and the Philippines. However, the influence of one man in particular upon Spiritism may be judged by the  fact  that  the movement  is  also  often  referred  to  in  Brazil  as  'espiritismo kardecista' or 'Kardecism'.

There are many paradoxes in the impact that the Frenchman Allan Kardec (1804-1869) has had upon human affairs. The chief of these is that his work constitutes the only example of a modern appraisal of  mediumship that has had (and continues to have) a truly obvious and major  effect upon a very significant section of human society. In his book  Spirits and   Scientists:  Ideology,  Spiritism   and   Brazilian   Culture, anthropologist David J. Hess even cited evidence which  suggests  that the spirit teachings collected by  Kardec  were  a  major  theoretical influence (Hess almost implies naked plagiarism) on some of  the  most important founders of modern psychology and psychiatry, such as Pierre Janet.[1] Yet, despite this, Kardec remains almost unknown  or  poorly understood by Spiritualists  in Britain; the  most  common,  and  most fatal, error being that he was a medium himself and that the teachings were his own.  Arthur  Findlay  showed  his  own  misunderstanding  by dismissing Kardec in the following terms:-

"In Brazil the extensive movement  there  has  been  directed  by  the writings of the Frenchman, Allan Kardec. He, however,  influenced  the thoughts of his followers more to the doctrine of  reincarnation  than to the belief in  progress  advanced  by  both  American  and  British Spiritualists, and he gave mediumship little consideration."  (italics added)[2]

The fact that a third of the most important volumes of  Kardec's  work was published under the title of "The Medium's  Book"  may  give  some indication as to how wide of the mark Findlay was here. This, together with the fact that Spiritism, like Spiritualism, observes the  concept of  eternal  progress  as  a  central  tenet,  suggests  that  he  was unfamiliar, to say the least, with the Frenchman's work. In fact,  the only major difference between Spiritism and Spiritualism is  that,  in the former case, the 'doctrine' of reincarnation is a central teaching whereas,  with  Spiritualism,  belief   in   reincarnation,   although extremely common, is more generally diffused throughout  the  movement and there are many Spiritualists who reject the concept with  apparent contempt.

However, it is not my intention to fuel the already overheated  debate about the reality or otherwise about  reincarnation.  The  only  thing that I, personally, can say for sure on this matter is  that  I  don't know, and that I find elements of the arguments from both sides of the debate persuasive on the one hand and, sometimes, hopelessly illogical on the other. What I do hope to show, however, is that Kardec's way of looking at spirit communications of a philosophical  nature  may  have the potential to provide a way forward in increasing our understanding on this issue and, perhaps, also of diffusing  some  of  the  acrimony that seems to be provoked  on  both  sides  whenever  the  subject  is raised.

But first, if we wish to gain an understanding of  why  Kardec's  work continues to enjoy such relatively spectacular success, and also placeit in its correct context, we must take a   look  at  his  background. 'Allan Kardec' was the nom de plume adopted by Hippolyte Leon Denizard Rivail under which he published his books  on  Spiritism.  Rivail  was born in Lyon on October 3, 1804  into  a  family  who  had,  for  many generations, been lawyers and magistrates. As a  child  he  showed  anaptitude for the sciences and philosophy and, at the age  of  ten,  he was sent to the Pestalozzi  Institute  in  Yverdun.[3]  This  was  the school  of  the  influential  Swiss  educationalist  Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, whose radically new methods of  teaching  were  attracting pupils from well connected families all over Europe. Hess stresses the importance  of  this  early  event  in  Rivail's  life  in  that   the 'Pestalozzi  method' of teaching was based on the principles  of  the Enlightenment. Students were encouraged to embrace ideals of political and social reform and, therefore, although Rivail remained a Catholic, he adopted the open minded attitude  of  a  Freethinker.  He  came  to believe (to quote Hess) that education was 'the key to harmonizing the relations between rich and poor'.[4] These factors must have played  a major role in making the spirit  teachings that Rivail would encounter later in his life appear so attractive to him. Not only  would  he  be open minded enough not to reject them for religious reasons, but  they would also appear to be confirmation of his egalitarian beliefs  which ran counter to many of the Church's dogmas.

Also, Rivail arrived at the Pestalozzi Institute at a time  of  bitter political in-fighting between the  domineering  administrator,  Joseph Schmid and  Johannes  Niederer,  a  theoretician  who  had  helped  to publicize Pestallozi's ideas. Hess  speculates  that  Rivail  probably learned valuable lessons from both men: from Schmid, the political and administrative skills that would later help him to found and  maintain an international movement; and from Niederer, the  art  of  presenting new   and   controversial   ideas   to   a   skeptical   public    and Establishment.[5] Rivail quickly proved himself to be a  child  genius of rare distinction. The internecine strife at the school  caused  the resignation of 16 of the masters,[6] and,  at  the  age  of  fourteen, Rivail was asked to teach his own classmates.[7] He also became one of Pestallozi's favourite pupils  and  most  ardent  disciples  and  left Yverdun with a degree in  letters  and  science  and  a  doctorate  in medicine.[8]

After leaving the Pestalozzi Institute Rivail settled in Paris and  in 1824 he published his first book. This was based on his own system for teaching mathematics and was reprinted until 1876. The following year, at the age of 21, he opened his own 'First Grade School'  and in  1826 he  opened  another,  'The  Rivail  Technical  Institute'.  He  taught chemistry, physics, mathematics, astronomy,  comparative  anatomy  and rhetoric, and also spoke nine languages...Italian and Spanish fluently [9]. Rivail also submitted proposals for educational   reform  to  the French Legislative Chamber which  were  highly  praised  although  not adopted [10].

In 1832, he married Amelie Gabrielle Boudet, a fine arts  teacher  and writer, but disaster struck in 1835 when huge gambling  debts  accrued by his uncle, who was also his partner, forced the closure of  one  of his schools.[11] However, Rivail began writing a series  of  textbooks on diverse subjects for the French University and also began  to  give free lessons in his own home.[12] By 1848, when the mediumship of  the Fox sisters was creating such a stir in America, he was a  well  known and highly respected educator who could have existed quite comfortably for the rest of his life by living on the proceeds of  his  books.  In 1854 a friend with a shared interest in the phenomena of mesmerism,  a Mr Fortier, told Rivail of the table-turning craze that had,  by  that time, reached France. He would later recall that Fortier told him  how '...not only is a table made to tilt, magnetising it, but it can  also be made to speak.  Ask  it  a  question,  and  it  replies.'  Rivail's response was not untypical of  the  initial  reaction  of  many  other successful nineteenth century academics who  would  later  risk  their reputations by publicly  endorsing  mediumship.  He  replied  'I  will believe it when I see it and when it has been  proved  to  me  that  a table has a brain to think and nerves to feel and that it can become a sleep-walker. Until then, allow me to see nothing in this but a  fable told to provoke sleep.'[13]

Like  many  others  in  America  and  England,  Rivail  assumed   that table-turning was a 'purely material effect' and it was not until  the following year that he allowed himself to be  persuaded  to  attend  a table-turning session  in  the  home  of  one  of  Fortier's  mesmeric subjects, a Mrs Roger.  It  was  here  that  he  first  witnessed  the phenomenon of tables which  'jumped  and  ran  under  conditions  that precluded doubt' and some  'very  imperfect  attempts  at  mediumistic writing on a slate'.[14] But this did no  more  than  arouse  Rivail's natural curiosity and cause him to make a mental note  to  investigate the matter further. He wrote:- 'My ideas were far from being modified, but I saw in those phenomena an effect that  must have had a cause.  I glimpsed beneath the apparent frivolities and entertainment associated with these phenomena something serious, perhaps the  revelation  of  a new law, which I promised myself I would explore.'[15]

Rivail was then introduced to a Mr Baudin who held weekly  seances  at his home. Baudin's two daughters (who, by all  accounts,  were  rather frivolous  and  empty-headed)  were  in   the   habit   of   obtaining communications by use of table-tipping.[16] Normally  the  results  of their experiments were ample confirmation of  the  golden  rule  'like attracts like', but whenever Rivail was present,  the  nature  of  the communications changed completely. The usual stream of banalities  was replaced by philosophy of a 'very grave  and  serious  character'  and Rivail adopted the regular practice of arriving at every meeting armed with a list  of  penetrating  questions for the new communicators. Although English accounts of events during this period  vary  greatly, it is apparent that, at  some  point,  the  planchette  medium  Celina Japhet also became involved in providing answers to his questions.[17]

In the brief  biography  of  Rivail  (given  in  the  preface  of  her definitive English translation  of  his  first  book)  Anna  Blackwell mentions that these sessions provided the basis of Spiritist theory by use of table-tipping, raps and planchette  writing.  However,  when  a group of other investigators who had collected over 50 notebooks  full of communications asked Rivail to arrange them into some sort of order he initially refused.[18] Whether or not this was because he  was  not yet sufficiently enthused about the subject to absorb himself in  such an arduous task is any body's guess, but  he  eventually  changed  his mind. After two years of scrutinizing the communications  he  remarked to his wife:- 'My conversations with the invisible intelligences  have completely revolutionized my ideas and convictions.  The  instructions thus transmitted constitute an entirely  new  theory  of  human  life, duty, and destiny, that appears to me to  be  perfectly  rational  and coherent, admirably lucid and consoling, and intensely interesting.  I have a great mind to publish these conversations in  a  book;  for  it seems to me that what interests me so deeply might very  likely  prove interesting to others.'[19]

When Rivail submitted this idea to the  communicators  they  replied:-'To the book...you will give, as being our work rather than yours, the title of "Le Livre des Espirits" (The Spirits'  Book);  and  you  will publish it, not under your own name, but under  the pseudonym of Allan Kardec ['Kardec' was an old Breton name in his mother's family].  Keep your own name of Rivail for your  own  books  already  published.'[20] Rivail  then  took  on  the  task  of  editing  the  fifty  notebooks, classifying the different types  of communication according  to  their character and the inner consistency of their arguments.  To  these  he added further communications from Japhet and  then,  still  not  being satisfied that the material was sufficiently verified,  submitted  his questions to a number of other mediums.[21] Throughout, he  used  what he called the principle of 'concordance' or 'conformity' by  which  he meant that he accepted as most likely to be  true,  the  answers  that could not only 'resolve all the difficulties of the question',[22] but were also consistent with answers from  other,  independent,  sources. When "The Spirits' Book" eventually appeared on April 18, 1857 it  was so successful that a second edition, augmented with yet more material, was printed the following year and the name  'Alan  Kardec'  became  a household word all over the continent.

The publication  of  "The  Spirits'  Book"  caused  something  such  a sensation in France not  least  because  its  'author'  was  a  sober,respected  intellectual,  but  also  because  it   contained   'spirit communications' that answered  his  questions  in  relation  to  every subject from the internal structure of matter to the  nature  of  God, human ethics, the universe and  the  place  of  humankind  within  it. Indeed, the contents of "The Spirits' Book" was probably not the  sort of stuff that the public had been led to expect  from  the  mediumship craze that had, over the  space  of  only  nine  years,  swept  across America and Europe after being initiated by two children!

However, the ground had already been prepared for  the  acceptance  of the first Kardec book by  the  Mesmerist  Alphonse  Cahagnet  who  had published the first of three volumes of a work  entitled  "Secrets  of the Future Life Unveiled" in 1848.[23] Cahagnet, a  cabinet  maker  by trade,  took  his  information  from   subjects   who,   after   being 'mesmerised', would relay evidential messages from the  Spirit  World. But there was a major difference between Cahagnet  and  Rivail.  Colin Wilson mentions that the former  did  not  believe  in  reincarnation, because his subjects said nothing of the subject,  and  that  he  also looked upon writing mediums with scorn.[24] Rivail, on the other hand, relied heavily, although not totally, upon writing mediums of one sort or another, and he seems to have become convinced  that  reincarnation was a fact. This may have been purely because a high proportion of the spirit personalities who communicated through the many mediums that he consulted, referred to reincarnation and explained  its  operation  in considerable detail. But the  crucial  factor  was  probably  Rivail's method  of  deciding  whether  or  not  a  spirit   statement   of   a philosophical nature was likely to be true. He would write many  years later of his early attempts to explain mediumistic phenomena and  make sense of contradictory statements about spirit life by spirits:-

'I tried to identify the causes of the phenomena by linking the  facts logically, and I did not accept an  explanation  as  valid  unless  it could resolve all the difficulties of the  question  (italics  added). This was the way I had always, from the age  of  fifteen  or  sixteen, proceeded in my investigations...One of my first observations was that the Spirits, being only the souls of men, did not have either absolute wisdom or absolute knowledge; their knowledge was limited to the level of their advancement and  their  opinion  had  only  the  value  of  a personal opinion. Recognizing this fact, from the beginning  saved  me from the serious error of believing in the Spirits' infallibility  and prevented me  from  formulating  premature  theories  based  upon  the opinion of only one or a few Spirits.'[25]

This was, basically, the core of Rivail's approach.  He  required  the spirits' answers to the questions that he posed to  them  to  'resolve all the difficulties of the question' even in  relation  to  morality, ethics and 'divine' justice and he had, apparently, decided  that  the communicators  who  explained  this  in  terms  of  reincarnation  had satisfied this criterion in the most satisfactory way.

I shall  give  a  fuller  account  of  the  Kardec  Spirits'  view  of reincarnation later. For the present it will be  enough  to  say  that they  presented  reincarnation  as  being   essential   to   spiritual progression and that this was to cause much friction between  Rivail's supporters and those of Cahagnet.[26] But, surprisingly, "The Spirits' Book"  actually  devotes  relatively  little   space   to   discussing reincarnation in depth. And,  although  the  influence  of  Cahagnet's earlier work probably did account for much of its initial  success  in France and the rest of Europe, its longer - term  influence  elsewhere must be due to other factors.

David  J.  Hess  attributes  this  to  Rivail's  superb  skill  as   aprofessional educator  that  had  been  developed  at  the  Pestalozzi Institute during his youth. In fact, Hess mentions that "The  Spirits's Book" reads rather like a Pestalozzian textbook.[27]It is certainly the case that the subject matter is presented in such a way that the  vast range of subjects dealt with by the spirits all interrelate with  each other, presenting a united front with no internal contradictions. What "The Spirits' Book" actually represents (or purports to) is a cohesive picture of the entire cosmos that is  centred  around  the  moral  and ethical aspects of spirit life and how these relate to humankind's use of mediumship...all expertly presented  in   one  volume.  In  effect, although Rivail certainly did  not  start  French  Spiritism,  he  had created a central body of teachings that was so ahead of its time that it, almost literally, became Spiritism from that point onwards.


[1] David J. Hess, Spirits and  Scientists:  Ideology,  Spiritism,  and Brazilian Culture (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania University Press, 1991), p.78.

[2] Arthur   Findlay,   The   Way   of   Life   (London:   Headquarters Publishing/Psychic Press Ltd.), p.23.

[3] Janet Duncan, Translator's Preface to  Allan  Kardec's  The  Gospel According  to  Spiritism  (London:  Headquarters  Publishing,   1987), pp.ix-x.

[4] David J. Hess, ibid. , p.71.

[5] David J. Hess, ibid. ,p.70.

[6] David J. Hess, ibid., p.69.

[7] See 3.

[8] Allan Kardec (a), a compilation of short works  entitled  Christian Spiritism (Philadelphia:  Allan  Kardec  Educational  Society,  1985), p.189.

[9] See 3.

[10] Anna  Blackwell,  Translator's  Preface  to  Allan  Kardec's  "The Spirits' Book" (London: Psychic Press, 1975), p.11.

[11] Allan Kardec, (a), p.190.

[12] See 11.

[13] Allan Kardec (a), p.191.

[14] Allan Kardec (a), p.192.

[15] See 14.

[16] Colin Wilson, Afterlife (London: Grafton Books, 1985), pp.99-100.

[17] Details supplied by Janet Duncan to the author.

[18] Allan Kardec (a), p.194.

[19] Anna Blackwell, ibid., p.13.

[20] Anna Blackwell, ibid., pp.13-14.

[21] Allan Kardec (a), p.195.

[22] Allan Kardec (a), p.193.

[23] Colin Wilson, Afterlife (London: Grafton Books, 1987), p.101.

[24] See 1.

[25] Allan Kardec (a), p.193.

[26] See 1.

[27] David J. Hess, ibid., p.71.

Source: The Spiritist Messager, 6th year - Number 20 - distributed: July 1999

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