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Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

Spiritualism and Social Duty (S545: 1898)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: An address delivered at the International Congress of Spiritualists in London on 23 June 1898. Printed in the 9 July 1898 number of Light. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S545.htm

    [[p. 334]] Friends and Fellow Spiritualists,--For the last ten years my attention has been given to other subjects than Spiritualism; and less than three years ago, in a new edition of my writings on the subject,1 I have restated my firm conviction as to the reality and importance of our inquiry and the worthlessness of all the arguments of our opponents. I have, therefore, nothing whatever to say to you as to Spiritualism itself. But I will take the present opportunity of laying before you a few observations on what appears to me to be the relation of the beliefs we hold as Spiritualists to that subject which now mainly occupies my thoughts--how to raise the bulk of our people out of that terrible slough of destitution, grinding life-long labour for bare subsistence, and shortened lives, uncheered by any of those refinements of art or enjoyment of Nature which are essential to the development of what is best in humanity. In a work published a few weeks since,2 I have given ample proof that such is, to-day, the condition of a large proportion of our people, notwithstanding an increase of wealth and of wealth-creating power unequalled in the history of the world, and adequate, if properly utilised, to give not only abundance of all necessaries, but comforts, luxuries, and ample leisure to all. On these matters, however, I will now say no more, but will ask your attention to a few remarks on what I consider to be the relation of Spiritualism to Social Duty.

    The old doctrine as to the nature of the future life was based upon the idea of rewards and punishments, which were supposed to be dependent upon dogmatic beliefs and ceremonial observances. The atheist, the agnostic, even the Unitarian, were for centuries held to be certain of future punishment; and, with the unbaptised infant, the Sabbath-breaker, and the abstainer from church-going, were alike condemned to hell-fire. Beliefs and observances were then held to be of the first importance; disposition, conduct, health, and happiness were of no account.

    The new doctrines--founded almost wholly on the teachings of Modern Spiritualism, though now widely accepted, even among non-Spiritualists--are the very reverse of all this. They are based upon the conception of mental and moral continuity; that there are no imposed punishments; that dogmatic beliefs are absolutely unimportant, except so far as they affect our relations with our fellows; and that forms and ceremonies, and the complex observances of most religions, are equally unimportant. On the [[p. 335]] other hand, what are of the most vital importance are motives, with the actions that result from them, and everything that develops and exercises the whole mental, moral, and physical nature, resulting in happy and healthy lives for every human being. The future life will be simply a continuation of the present, under new conditions; and its happiness or misery will be dependent upon how we have developed all that is best in our nature here.

    Under the old theory the soul could be saved by a mere change of beliefs and the performance of certain ceremonial observances. The body was nothing; happiness was nothing; pleasure was often held to be a sin; hence any amount of punishment, torture, and even death were considered justifiable in order to produce this change and save the soul.

    On the new theory it is the body that develops, and to some extent saves, the soul. Disease, pain, and all that shortens and impoverishes life, are injurious to the soul as well as to the body. Not only is a healthy body necessary for a sound mind, but equally so for a fully-developed soul--a soul that is best fitted to commence its new era of development in the spirit world. Inasmuch as we have fully utilised and developed all our faculties--bodily, mental, and spiritual--and have done all in our power to aid others in a similar development, so have we prepared future well-being for ourselves and for them.

    All this is the common knowledge and belief of Spiritualists; and I should not have thought it necessary to restate it, were it not that our creed is often misunderstood and misrepresented by outsiders, and also because it is preliminary to certain conclusions which, I think, logically follow from it, but which are not so generally accepted among us.

    It seems to me that, holding these beliefs as to the future life and what is the proper and only preparation for it, we Spiritualists must feel ourselves bound to work strenuously for such improved social conditions as may render it possible for all to live a full and happy life, for all to develop and utilise the various faculties they possess, and thus be prepared to enter at once on the progressive higher life of the spirit-world. We know that a life of continuous and grinding bodily labour, in order to obtain a bare existence; a life almost necessarily devoid of beauty, of refinement, of communion with Nature; a life without adequate relaxation, and with no opportunity for the higher culture; a life full of temptation and with no cheering hope of a happy and peaceful old age, is as bad for the welfare of the soul as it is for that of the body.

    If the accounts we get of the spirit world have any truth in them, the reclamation and education of the millions of undeveloped or degraded spirits which annually quit this earth, is a sore burden, a source of trouble and sorrow to those more advanced spirits who have charge of them. This burden must, for a long time to come at all events, necessarily be great, on account of the numbers of the less advanced races and peoples still upon the earth; but that we, who call ourselves civilised, who have learnt so much of the secret powers and mysteries of the universe, who by means of those powers could easily provide a decent and rational and happy life for our whole population--that we should send to the spirit world, day by day and year by year, millions of men and women, of children, and of infants, all sent there before their time through want of the necessary means of a healthy life, or by the various diseases and accidents forced upon them by the vile conditions under which alone we give them the opportunity of living at all--this is a disgrace and a crime!

    I firmly believe--and the fact is supported by abundant evidence--that the very poorest class of our great cities, those that live constantly below the margin of poverty, who are without the comforts, the necessaries, and even the decencies of life, are, nevertheless, as a class, quite as good morally, and often as high intellectually, as the middle and upper classes who look down upon them as in every way their inferiors. Their condition, socially and morally, is the work of society; and in so far as they appear worse than others they are made so by society. What should we ourselves have been if we had had no education, no repose, no refined or decent homes, no means of cleanliness, which is not only next to, but is a source of, godliness; surrounded by every kind of temptation, and not unfrequently forced into crime? And a direct consequence of the millions who are compelled to lead such lives are the millions of infants who die prematurely--a slaughter a thousand times worse than that of Herod, going on year by year in our midst; surely their innocent blood cries out against our rulers, against all of us, who choose such rulers; and more especially against us Spiritualists, who know the higher law, if we do not work with all our strength for a radical reform.

    As many of my friends here know, I myself, against all my early prepossessions, have come to believe that some form of Socialism is the only complete remedy for this state of things; and I define Socialism as simply the organisation of labour for the highest common good. Just as the Post Office is organised labour in one department for the benefit of all alike; just as the railways might be organised as a whole for the benefit of the community; just as numbers of vast industries are organised, more especially in America, for the exclusive benefit of rings of capitalists--so all necessary and useful labour might be organised for the benefit of all.

    I ask you to think over this question; and above all things, I ask you to consider the necessity for real and fundamental remedies, not mere palliatives, which have been tried with ever-increasing energy and good-will throughout the century, and have absolutely failed. The evil has grown, just as if no such remedies had been applied at all. Charity has increased enormously, and has failed. Now it is time for us to try Justice.

    A few years since a talented writer3 used, and at once popularised, a new term--'equality of opportunity.' It expresses briefly and forcibly what may be termed the minimum of social justice. The same idea had been urged by other writers, especially by Herbert Spencer in his volume on 'Justice,' when he declared that justice requires every man to receive 'the results of his own nature and consequent actions'--this and this only. Fundamentally, the two ideas are the same, but 'equality of opportunity' is the more simple and intelligible expression of it.

    To Spiritualists, who realise that every child born into this world is a living soul, come here to prepare itself for the higher life of the spirit world, it must appear a crime against that world and against humanity not to see that every such child has the best possible nurture and training, at the very least till it arrives at the adult age and becomes an independent unit of the social organism. And if to each is due the best, then none can have more than the best, and we come thus again to EQUALITY OF OPPORTUNITY.

    Of course, many of you will say, 'This is impossible. How can we possibly give this equality of nurture and education to every child?' I admit that it is difficult--by no means impossible. It must, of course, be brought about gradually; and where there is a will there is a way. As Herbert Spencer said of another matter--the nationalisation of the land--'justice sternly demands that it be done;' and if we, boasting of our civilisation, declare that it cannot be done, then so much the worse for us and for our false civilisation. But it wants only the will. And it is our duty, as Spiritualists, to help to create that will.

    [[p. 336]] But again, you will say, 'Where are the means of doing this? We are already taxed as much as we can bear.' True, we are shamefully over-taxed, but, instead of increasing the taxes, there is a necessary corollary of 'equality of opportunity' which will not only give us ample funds to bring it about, but will at the same time greatly reduce taxation and ultimately abolish it altogether. For, if every child is given equality of opportunity, and every man and woman receives only 'the results of their own nature and consequent actions,' then it is evident that there must be no inequality of inheritance; and to give equality of inheritance, the State, that is, the community, must be the universal inheritor of all wealth. At first, of course, it would only be needful to take surplus wealth above a fixed maximum; and, so far from this being an injury to the heirs of a millionaire, it would be a great benefit; for it is admitted that nothing has so demoralising an effect on the young as the certainty of inheriting great wealth; and examples of this come before us every year and almost every month. This is the real teaching of the parable of Dives and Lazarus; this gives us the true meaning of Christ's saying that a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.

    Now, many who dislike the idea of Socialism--chiefly, I think, through not understanding what it really implies--will perhaps look more favourably on this great principle of 'equality of opportunity,' since it would leave individualism untouched, would in fact render it far more complete and effective than it is now. For our present state of society is not true individualism, because the inequalities of opportunity in early life are so great that often the worst are forced to the top, while many of the best struggle throughout life without a chance of using their highest faculties, or developing the best part of their nature. Even Tennyson, whose mind was of an aristocratic bent, could say--

Plowmen, shepherds, have I found, and more than once, and still could find,
Sons of God and kings of men in utter nobleness of mind;
Truthful, trustful, looking upward to the practised hustings-liar;
So the Higher wields the Lower, while the Lower is the Higher.
Here and there a cotter's babe is royal-born by right divine;
Here and there my lord is lower than his oxen or his swine.
    Equality of opportunity would put all this right; everyone would be able to show what power for good he possessed, and society would be enormously benefited in consequence. At the same time, there would be all the stimulus to be derived from individual effort. The man who could surpass his fellows under such equal and fair conditions would be truly great. Some would achieve honour, some would acquire wealth; but it would be all due to their own 'nature and consequent actions,' and neither the honour nor the wealth would be handed on to individuals who might not be worthy of the one or be able to acquire the other.

    I believe myself that such a perfectly fair competition, in which all started on equal terms socially, would be an admirable training, and would be sure to lead, ultimately, to a voluntary co-operation and organisation of labour which would produce most of the best results of Socialism itself. But whether it would or not, I claim that it embodies a great and true principle--Social Justice; and that it affords the only non-socialistic escape from the horrible social quagmire in which we find ourselves. As Spiritualists we must uphold justice; and equality of opportunity for all is but bare justice. Knowing that the life here is the school for the development of the spirit, we must feel it our duty to see that the nascent spirit in each infant has the fullest and freest opportunity of developing all its faculties and powers under the best conditions we can provide for it. And I have ventured to bring this subject before you because it is the one hope nearest to my heart; and I am sure that if the great and rapidly-increasing body of Spiritualists can be brought to consider it, and to feel that the misery and degradation around them must be and can be got rid of, and that it is especially their business and their duty to help to get rid of it, the great work will soon be taken in hand.

    What we want, above all things, is to educate the people and create a public opinion adequate for the work. In this movement for justice and right, Spiritualists should take the lead, because they, more than any other body, know its vital importance both for this world and the next. The various religious sects are all working, according to their lights, in the social field; but their forces are almost exclusively directed to the alleviation of individual cases of want and misery by means of charity in various forms. But this method has utterly failed even to diminish the mass of human misery everywhere around us, because it deals with symptoms only and leaves the causes untouched. I would not say a word against even this form of charity, for those who see no higher law; but we want more of the true charity of St. Paul--the charity that thinketh no evil, that suffereth long and is kind, that rejoiceth in the truth--not only the lesser and easier charity which feeds the poor out of its superfluity, an action which St. Paul does not allow to be charity at all.

    But let us Spiritualists take higher ground. Let us demand Social Justice. This will be a work worthy of our cause, to which it will give dignity and importance. It will show our fellow-countrymen that we are not mere seekers after signs and wonders, mere interviewers of the lower denizens of the spirit-world; but that our faith, founded on knowledge, has a direct influence on our lives; that it teaches us to work strenuously for the elevation and permanent well-being of all our fellow men. In order to do this our watchword must be--NOT CHARITY ONLY BUT JUSTICE.

*                 *                 *                 *                 *

Editor's Notes

1Miracles and Modern Spiritualism, 3rd ed.
2The Wonderful Century
3Benjamin Kidd (1858-1916), English sociologist and writer

*                 *                 *                 *                 *

Comment by Prof. Martin Fichman, York University, Ontario (pers. commun. 3/00):

Wallace's address, presented at the International Congress of Spiritualists in 1898, is a crucial document in his later career. It demonstrates that although Wallace continued to be a firm adherent to the doctrines of spiritualism, he was now integrating spiritualism into the broader context of his social and political worldview. Having openly declared himself a socialist in 1890 in his essay on "Human Selection" (S427), Wallace now wanted to show the public that the ethical teachings of spiritualism were fully compatible with his socialist political philosophy, as well as other non-socialist causes such as land nationalization. In this essay, Wallace argues that one of the most potent teachings of spiritualism was that all men and women should strive to work for improved social conditions for the mass of humanity in this life, not only for the benefit of the afterlife. It is no accident that Wallace refers in this lecture to his recently published book, The Wonderful Century (S726: 1898). In that book, Wallace presented a devastating critique of late Victorian capitalist society, which he felt was promoting militarism, an ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor in industrializing societies, and an unfettered growth of science and technology that was beginning to threaten environmental and ecological conditions both in Europe and globally. Wallace fully endorsed spiritualism's emphasis that the "higher law" demanded that all people should be guaranteed equality of opportunity and social justice in their lives. Wallace argued eloquently that the spiritualists' commitment to social reform and social duty was an excellent, and necessary, example for truly civilized action at the dawn of the twentieth century--even if one did not accept all of the aspects of full-blown spiritualism. The ideas expressed in this 1898 essay may, indeed, have more relevance today than when Wallace originally presented them.

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