The Career of 'Allan Kardec'
by Steve Hume
This article is one of a number dealing with 'Spiritualism and the Establishment', published in the Ark Review.
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 practise 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 kardecismo' 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 place it in its correct context, we must take a look at his background. 'Allan Kardec' was the nom de plume adopted by Hippolyte Léon 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 an aptitude 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 publicise 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 sceptical 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 scrutinising the communications he remarked to his wife:- 'My conversations with the invisible intelligences have completely revolutionised 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. Recognising 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 a professional educator that had been developed at the Pestalozzi Institute during his youth. In fact, Hess mentions that The Spirits' 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.
The Career of 'Allan Kardec'
by Steve Hume
The book attained a wide readership from all classes of society.28 Some were attracted to the spirits' statements in relation to scientific matters and it is astonishing how few of the spirits' 'scientific' statements appear anachronistic today. In fact, some of the answers to Rivail's questions could be interpreted as being remarkably ahead of their time. One such example was Rivail's question 'Does an absolute void exist in any part of space?' which received the reply:- 'No, there is no void. What appears like a void to you is occupied by matter in a state in which it escapes the action of your senses and of your instruments.'29
This statement (given in the 1850's), to the effect that seemingly empty space is really full of matter, has only received confirmation quite recently by the discovery of what is termed the 'quantum vacuum',30 and was given shortly after the spirits had also casually announced that '...what you term a molecule [or, perhaps, 'particle' or 'atom'] is still very far from being the elementary molecule'.31 This latter scientific fact would not be confirmed until J.J. Thomson discovered the electron almost half a century later. However, The Spirits' Book drew most converts to Spiritism from the ranks of the French working classes,32 perhaps for the simple reason that the spirits had nothing good to say about the inequity that was, and still is, inherent in human society. In fact, the Spiritist attitude towards this may is summed up in the spirits' answer to Rivail's question 'Which amongst the vices, may be regarded as the root of the others?', which received the reply:- 'Selfishness, as we have repeatedly told you; for it is from selfishness that everything evil proceeds. Study all the vices...Combat them as you will, you will never succeed in extirpating them until, attacking the evil in its root, you have destroyed the selfishness which is their cause. Let all your efforts tend towards this end; for selfishness is the veritable social gangrene. Whoever would make, even in his earthly life, some approach towards moral excellence, must root out every selfish feeling from his heart, for selfishness is incompatible with justice, love, and charity; it neutralises every good quality.'33
This meant that the Spiritist ethos became anchored on the central principle of charity, not only in relation to material goods, but also to just about everything else, including the practice of mediumship. But the Kardec spirits also denounced sexism, racism, capital punishment, slavery and every other form of social injustice and prejudice as being contrary to Divine Law; but recommended freedom of thought, freedom of conscience, equality and tolerance. In effect, what was being advocated was a program of social reform, framed within a 'spiritual' context, that was light-years ahead of the pious conservatism of the Catholic Church. The foregoing point also represents what is perhaps the greatest difference between the portrayal of Spirit life given by the Kardec spirits and the account given by others since. Rivail only seems to have been interested in the great moral and scientific concerns of the human race and framed his questions accordingly. So The Spirits' Book contains no mention of Spirit houses etc. that are a familiar feature of the literature of Spiritualism. The subject matter is almost wholly oriented towards the effect that moral behaviour has upon the individual, both on Earth and in the hereafter. Encouraged by the success of The Spirits' Book, Rivail decided to start a monthly journal. Unable to obtain financial backing for this venture he sought the advice of his guides through the mediumship of Miss E. Dufaux and was told that he should fund the journal himself and not worry about the consequences.34 Accordingly, the first issue of La Revue Spirit appeared on January 1 1858 and, as with The Spirits' Book, its success surpassed Rivail's expectations. He also founded The Parisian Society of Psychologic Studies. But his work for Spiritism had only just begun. He published The Mediums' Book in 1861 which dealt solely with the Spirits' views on the development and uses of mediumship itself. For this and the other works that would follow, he used even more mediums than for The Spirits' Book but the employed the same method of presentation i.e., his questions followed by the spirits' answers which were supplemented by his own comments and observations.
Rivail quickly became regarded as the foremost authority on mediumship in France and was held in awe in by the Spiritists in his home town of Lyon, so much so that, in 1862, he had to plead with them not to waste money on honouring him with a lavish banquet as they had done the year before.35 Anna Blackwell mentions that he was constantly visited by those 'of high rank in the social, literary, artistic, and scientific worlds' and he was summoned by the Emperor Napoleon III, several times to answer questions about the doctrines of Spiritism.36 But, of course, the rapid rise of Spiritism did little to endear Rivail, or Spiritists in general, to certain sections of the French Establishment and even some Spiritists who came to resent his influence on the movement. This opposition, particularly from the Church, could hardly have come as any surprise to Rivail, but one would imagine that that from within Spiritism would have been particularly distressing to him. In fact, he had been warned of both, and much else besides, by the spirits in 1856, before he had any idea that he would become such a prominent champion of the Spiritist cause:37 'Terrible hates will be incited against you; implacable enemies will plot your downfall. You will be exposed to calumny and treachery, even from those who seem most dedicated to you. Your best works will be contradicted and banned.'38
The communication was given, appropriately enough as it transpired, by a communicator who called himself the 'Spirit of Truth'. Predictably, the Catholic church, both in France and elsewhere, was particularly eager to discredit both Spiritism and Rivail. David J. Hess, in Spirits and Scientists: Ideology, Spiritism and Brazilian Culture, mentions a number of actions taken by the Church against the new movement which it regarded as being worse than Protestantism.39 Before the publication of The Spirits' Book in 1856, the Holy Office, under Pope Pius IX, had prohibited mediumship and 'other analogous superstitions' as 'heretical, scandalous, and contrary to the honesty of customs'. But in 1861 the Bishop of Barcelona took more direct action. He ordered an auto-da-fe (act of the faith) known as the Edict of Barcelona, against three-hundred Spiritist books, including many by Rivail, that were confiscated and burnt in public.40 However, the Bishop's actions did nothing more than stir up French nationalism and contribute to the further growth of Spiritism in both France and Spain. Hess adds that when the Bishop died nine months afterwards, his repentant spirit manifested through several French mediums begging for Rivail's forgiveness which was, apparently, granted. In France, the dean of the Faculty of Theology of Lyons began public education courses against Spiritism and Mesmerism in 1864 and Spiritism was widely branded as a form of demon worship in writings by clergymen.
Rivail accused the Church of deliberately inciting hatred against Spiritists:- 'From the pulpit, we Spiritists have been called enemies of society and public order...In some places, Spiritists were censured to the point of being persecuted and injured on the streets, while the faithful were forbidden to hire Spiritists and were warned to avoid them as they would avoid the plague. Women were advised to separate from their husbands...Charity has been refused to the needy and workers have lost their livelihoods, just because they were Spiritists. Blind men have even been discharged, against their will, from some hospitals because they would not renounce their beliefs.'41
As with Spiritualism in America and Britain, certain sections of the French scientific establishment also reacted with hostility to the spread of Spiritism. Hess mentions that a Dr Dechambre, a member of the Academy of Medicine, published a critique of the movement in 1859, and also cites reports of insanity, allegedly caused by Spiritism, that had started to circulate by 1863.42 There was even a French equivalent to the theory, which originated in America, that spirit raps were produced by the cracking of the knee and toe joints. The French variation on this theme was presented to the Academy of Medicine by a surgeon, M. Jobert, who attributed the noises to skilful cracking of the short tendon of the muscle of the instep.43 However, in accordance with the spirit prediction just mentioned, Rivail also faced bitter opposition from within Spiritism itself. Writing of the accuracy of the 'Spirit of Truth's' warning eleven years later he complained:- 'The Societe Spirite de Paris (Spiritist Society of Paris) has been a continuous focus of intrigues, devised by those who declared loyalty and friendship to me, but who slandered me in my absence. They said that those who favoured my work were paid by me with money I received from Spiritism.'44 I have already mentioned above that Rivail's endorsement of the doctrine of reincarnation had caused a certain amount of friction with the followers of the mesmerist, Alphonse Cahagnet and it is easy to imagine that the prominence he had achieved so rapidly in the Spiritist movement would excite jealousy in others. After all, few human endeavours, even those supposedly dedicated to 'spiritual' motives, are free from rivalry and controversy. It would appear that, far from being grateful to Rivail for the wider exposure and support that he had gained for Spiritism, some Spiritists resented his influence. It would not be unreasonable to assume that, in Rivail's case, a fair amount of this acrimony was the result of the way in which he viewed mediumship. As we have already seen, he appears to have come to the Spiritist movement as a relatively disinterested outsider with no emotional attachment to any particular idea about the subject. Once he had reached the conclusion that the communications were, indeed, the work of discarnate entities he may therefore have been more suited to judging these objectively than some individual mediums and their followers who, then as now, must have been occasionally prone to what could be termed 'My Guide Knows Better Than Your Guide Syndrome'.
I have given an outline of the way in which Rivail judged the worth of spirit statements of a philosophical nature above. But he also adopted criteria for deciding whether or not a communicator was likely to be the person that they were claiming to be.45 Working according to the famous principle of 'like attracts like' on the basis that every human being has some imperfection in their moral nature, he took it for granted that even the best mediums (especially writing mediums) could, at some point in their careers, fall prey to spirit personalities who would try to lead the medium astray by borrowing some revered name, thus flattering the medium's vanity to gain acceptance for the most ridiculous statements. In cases such as this, where good evidence of identity, as such, might be difficult or impossible to obtain, he recommended that the communication be judged on whether or not the sentiments expressed, and the manner of their expression, were in general accordance with what one would expect from the personality concerned. And, even if this condition was met, he only accepted (at best) the 'moral probability' that the identity was correct.
The Mediums' Book, published in 1861, as the title suggests, is wholly concerned with mediumship itself. It is really a handbook for the development and proper use of the gift that is, ostensibly, written from the communicating spirits' point of view; needless to say these were all claimed to be highly advanced personalities, some well-known, others anonymous. The material for The Mediums' Book, and the others which followed, was drawn largely from automatic writing mediums at Rivail's 'Parisian Society For Psychologic Studies' but it also included the work of others who sent communications from elsewhere in France and abroad.46 As with The Spirits' Book, Rivail claimed to be presenting a view on the various subjects dealt with that could be considered authoritative because it was drawn from a wide variety of independent sources that broadly agreed with each other...a sort of consensus of opinion amongst 'advanced' spirits.
conceivable aspect of every type of mediumship and spirit manifestation
is dealt with in The Mediums' Book (even charlatanism receives a
chapter of its own) but Rivail devoted special space to the effect that
the moral characters and preconceived ideas of mediums themselves may
have upon the ability of spirits to communicate effectively. He
identified twenty-six considerations that should be taken into account
in judging the worth of communications and gave examples of some that
could not reasonably be attributed to the author claimed.47
A good example is the following:- 'Go forward, children, march forward
with elated hearts, full of faith; the road you follow is a beautiful
one...'48 This communication, which continued
in similar platitudinous vein at some length, was signed with the name
'Napoleon', and it drew the following comment from Rivail:-
'If ever there were a grave and serious man, Napoleon, while living, was such an one; his brief and concise style of utterance is known to all, and he must have strangely degenerated since his death, if he could have dictated a communication so verbose and ridiculous as this...'.49
This attitude must surely have offended certain mediums and Spiritist groups who were in the habit of accepting communications such as this at face value. The fact that Rivail referred to such people with barely veiled despair in a chapter on the dangers of Spirit obsession,50 indicates that he was only too aware of the ridicule that they were capable of provoking from ever eager critics. His reference to 'enemies' of Spiritism 'those who pretend to be its friends in order to injure it underhandedly' and the recommendation that Spiritist societies be kept small because 'such persons find it far more easy to pursue their aim of sowing discord in large assemblies than in little groups of which all the members are known to each other',51 also suggests that he was worried that the movement contained people who he considered to be wrongly motivated.
Nonetheless, The Mediums' Book complemented The Spirits' Book perfectly in that it provided a sound guide through the many difficulties that can arise during the practice of mediumship. It would be joined in 1864 by The Gospel According to Spiritism which contained the spirit teachers' comments on the New Testament. This trio of books is regarded by Spiritists as being the cornerstone around which the modern movement has been built. However, Rivail would publish two further major works under the name 'Kardec': Heaven and Hell (1864) which was based upon the spirits' comments about the real nature of these as mental/spiritual states; and Genesis (1867) which showed 'the concordance of the spiritist theory with the discoveries of modern science and with the general tenor of the Mosaic record as explained by spirits'.52 He also published two short treatises entitled 'What is Spiritism' (1859) and 'Spiritism Reduced to its Simplest Expression' (1860) which was a dialogue between Rivail and three critics of Spiritism...'The Critic', 'The Sceptic' and 'The Priest'.
In 1867, with the publication of Genesis, Rivail completed the series of books that today are regarded by the more evangelically minded Spiritists as comprising 'the third revelation' of God to humankind, the first being the teachings of Moses and the second those of Jesus.53 However, Rivail himself would probably have balked at this as he had merely claimed that Spiritism, or the modern explosion of spirit communication, was the third revelation. But, as with almost every other aspect of the 'Kardec' teachings this idea had come not from himself, but from the Spirit communicators, one of whom expressed it most succinctly in The Gospel According to Spiritism:- 'Moses showed humanity the way; Jesus continued this work; Spiritism will finish it.'54Rivail himself wrote of this aspect of Spiritism:-'The Law of the Old Testament was personified in Moses: that of the New Testament in Christ. Spiritism is then the third revelation of God's law. But it is personified by no one because it represents teaching given, not by Man but by the Spirits who are the Voices of Heaven, to all parts of the world through the co-operation of innumerable intermediaries. In a manner of speaking, it is the collective work formed by all the Spirits who bring enlightenment to all mankind by offering the means of understanding their world and the destiny that awaits each individual on their return to the spiritual world.'55
by Steve Hume
I have already mentioned that the Kardec teachers describe the Spirit World and spirit life almost entirely in terms of the effect that personal morals have on the individual in this world and the next. Rivail was not afraid to show both sides of the coin. Heaven and Hell (1864) was not only a description by the spirit teachers of the real nature of these states, it also included communications from recently deceased spirits from all moral classes...from the most evil, to the most blameless and charitable. Each type of personality described their current conditions and how their actions on Earth had contributed to their current joys or sorrows. Contrary to the dogmas of the Catholic church which painted a picture of never ending suffering even for those whose only sin was not to be Catholic, the Spirit communicators maintained that suffering in the next life only lasts until the individual has made the necessary effort to rectify the cause, and that everyone is given an opportunity to achieve this.
Those who have experience in the difficult field of rescue work might be interested in the case of a recently executed murderer... 'a systematic poisoner, a physician who had employed his professional position as a means to the accomplishment of the long tissue of horrible murders for which he had just been executed'. This man, upon manifesting spontaneously at a seance, and despite complaining that 'Light dazzles and pierces, like sharp arrows, the innermost recesses of my being', contemptuously turned away from the help offered by the circle... 'I reject your pity...I ask for nothing...I suffice to myself; and I shall be able to resist this odious light'. Rivail states, however, that this spirit, eventually began to improve, repented and became the author of 'many wise and good communications'.56 Other murderers described a state of confusion and a terror at the prospect of meeting their victims. One who had told how this had actually happened to him described why it caused him such suffering:- Q. 'What do you feel on seeing them?' A. 'Shame and remorse...and I hate them still...They pray that I may expiate my crimes. You cannot imagine what a horrible torture it is to owe everything to those we hate.'57
There were also communications from many other types of spiritual miscreant. Some, although they had committed no evil during their lives, had achieved nothing good either and expressed remorse at this. Others who had been blatantly greedy expressed their desire to give in some way. Conversely, those who had led good lives described their relative happiness and the hope that they may continue to be of service to others in their new life.58 However, the chapter that many Spiritualists would regard as being highly controversial is that in which Spirits describe their 'Terrestrial Expiations', or how they had atoned for past crimes by returning to Earth or reincarnating. One such case involved the spirit of a young servant (a footman) to an acquaintance of Rivail's who had died suddenly whilst on leave. The spirit told Rivail, through a medium, that in a former life he had been the spoilt child of rich parents who had both died leaving him destitute. He had then been taken in by a friend of his father's who had treated him like his own son but of whose kindness he had been ungrateful. To atone for this when they had both reincarnated, he had done so in a position where he could become his former guardian's:- 'I had determined to expiate my former pride by being born, in my new existence, in a servile position; a determination that afforded me the opportunity of proving my gratitude to him who had been my benefactor in my previous incarnation. I even had the opportunity of saving his life. This humble existence has proved very useful to me. I possessed sufficient strength of character to avoid being corrupted by the contact of surroundings that are almost always vicious; and I thank God that I thus earned the happiness I now enjoy.'59 Rivail then asked what the circumstances of the life-saving incident had been and was given an account, given in the book, that was later verified by the boy's former employer.
It is notable, however, that many of the spirits questioned could not remember any former existence (other than that which they had just left) let alone what relevance such may have had on their present circumstances. The Kardec spirits' explanation for failure to remember former lives was that such remembrance was only permitted if and when it should serve some useful purpose and that such memories would usually emerge only gradually, perhaps only after a great period of time. Whatever the ultimate truth regarding reincarnation may be, it remains the case that it is the means by which Spiritists continue to rationalise morality and ethics within a context of 'Divine' 'justice'. It is also the case that rebirth is not only seen as being a mechanism by which we atone for past sins nor is it viewed as 'compulsory'. The Kardec teachers emphasised that reincarnation is usually a matter of conscious choice after an interval in the Spirit World that is as short or long as individual circumstances demand and that it often occurs because a spirit wishes to perform some charitable act for one less fortunate or perform a particular spiritual mission. Therefore it would be quite wrong to assume that everyone who suffers on Earth is being 'punished' for past sins and therefore deserve their suffering. The Spiritist version of the doctrine of reincarnation demands that, even if this were to be the case, those who suffer for this reason must still be treated with compassion.60
As we shall see, it is also the case that Spiritist belief in reincarnation has not led to the justification of social inequity in Brazil (where the movement is a major religion) that one sees in the Hindu caste system of India. On the contrary, it underpins the massive part that Spiritism plays in providing social welfare to the poor in that country and also its contribution to the treatment of mental illness. Hess mentions that it was a particular wish of Rivail's that the medical profession should take notice of the spirits' teachings on insanity,61 which they said was often caused by natural, though uncontrolled, mediumship that had turned into a form of spirit obsession.62 In 1862 and 1863 he devoted a series of articles in Revue Spirite to patients at the asylum of Morzines who he regarded as being victims of this unhappy condition which was sometimes the result of malign spirit personalities exacting revenge on enemies from former existence's who had since reincarnated.63
Unfortunately however, Rivail's own hopes for Spiritism would not be realised in either his own lifetime or his own country. I mentioned earlier the accuracy of the 'Spirit of Truth's' prediction of the opposition that he would face from both the French Establishment and some within in Spiritism. Rivail had also been warned that the strain of leading the movement would have a disastrous effect upon his health and would lead to an early passing. Ten years after the prediction, in 1867, he commented:- 'I have known no peace and more than once I succumbed; under the excess of work, my health has deteriorated and my life has been compromised...Everything predicted in the communication of the Spirit of Truth has come to pass.'64
On March 31 1869 having just finished drawing up the constitution of a society that he intended to carry on his work, Hippolyte Leon Denizard Rivail, better known as 'Allan Kardec' died suddenly from the rupture of an aneurysm of the heart whilst sitting at his desk engaged in the act of tying up a bundle of papers.65 Rivail was buried in the famous cemetery of Montmarte in Paris and his friend the eminent astronomer and psychical researcher, Camille Flammarion spoke at his funeral. Today, his grave is a site of pilgrimage for Spiritists from around the world and there is an annual ceremony of remembrance there that is attended by hundreds. But this adoration comes almost entirely from abroad because after Rivail's passing the Spiritist Movement in France and the rest of Europe underwent a steady decline to the point that, today, it barely exists at all. In 1873, however, four years after Rivail's passing the Society of Spiritist Studies was formed in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.66 It was here that Spiritism would grow steadily until it would eventually come to fulfil the leading role in society that Rivail had envisaged.
Some years ago a friend of mine who had expressed an interest in spirit philosophy borrowed my rather dog-eared copy of The Spirits' Book and then, shortly after returning it, embarked upon a six-month long trip to Latin America. However, for some reason we did not discuss the book before his departure. This chap left the UK thinking that he had just read an extremely obscure, if interesting, work by a forgotten nineteenth-century Frenchman; which, to all intents and purposes, he had, as far as this country is concerned. Upon his return, however, he told me of his surprise upon walking down a street in Brazil to see a rather large building that was adorned with the name 'Kardec'. Thereafter, he found that practically every Brazilian that he met knew of the name and that some had even read The Spirits' Book.
Spiritism has grown steadily in importance in Brazil since it arrived from France, to a point where today it is an integral part of Brazilian life amongst all social classes. The influence of Kardec over the movement can be gauged by the fact that is often referred to as Kardecismo, but this is also to distinguish Spiritism from Umbanda and Candomble,67 two cults that, although they are based on spirit mediumship, have African origins. The writer Guy Lyon Playfair, who lived and worked in Brazil for many years, quoted the results of a public-opinion poll conducted in 1971 by a leading Brazilian magazine in his book The Unknown Power. Whilst 70% of Brazilians declared themselves to be Catholics as opposed to only 11% who claimed to be Spiritists; 68% said they believed Spiritism to be valid, 49% had visited a Spiritist centre, 27% had felt the influence of spirits in their lives, and 15% claimed to have communicated with discarnates. Only 1% of those who claimed to be Catholics were able to state the basic tenets of their religion.68 This led Playfair to suspect that '...many Brazilians were good Catholics on Sunday mornings and good Spiritists the rest of the week...Brazilians profess Catholicism because their fathers did, and Spiritism because it works for them, often transforming their lives.'69
It is the practical work that Spiritism does for Brazilians, particularly for the poor and disadvantaged, that appears to be at the root of the movement's success. This, of course, was the Kardec communicators' prescription for the successful use of mediumship in the widest sense. Despite the fact that the literature of Brazilian Spiritism has been added to by many others, such as Adolfo Bezerra de Menezes (sometimes referred to as the 'Brazilian Kardec') and the key concepts of Kardec have been built upon, the concept of charity remains at the heart of the movement's approach to mediumship. Francisco Candido ('Chico') Xavier is probably the best example of the Spiritist approach to mediumship in action.70 Despite having received only the barest education he has become Brazil's most prolific 'author' who has produced, on average, three books a year since 1932 on such diverse subjects as Spiritist philosophy, literature, history and science. His books have sold many millions, have been translated into many languages, and his name is a household world in his native country. However, 'writer' would probably be a more appropriate term for Chico, because he is an automatic writing medium who claims no credit or money for his prodigious output. He worked as a minor government official until his retirement in 1961 and still lives extremely modestly despite the massive royalties from his books which are all ploughed into helping the poor.
Playfair mentions a huge complex of buildings built by the Sao Paulo State Spiritist Federation (FEESP) called the Casa Transitaria that provides help to poor families and education for children from the slums, and also the Casa Andre Luiz in Guarulhos that gives care to 1,400 retarded children.71 In most large towns and cities in Brazil one will find Spiritist job training centres, orphanages, nurseries, hospitals and even hospices, such as the House of Mary Magdalen near Rio de Janeiro that is devoted to the care of destitute AIDS sufferers.72 I mentioned earlier that there is evidence that the Kardec works were a major influence on certain of the founders of modern psychology and psychiatry and also that Rivail himself was especially keen that Spiritism should play a role in the treatment of mental illness. Hess makes special mention of the 'dozens' of psychiatric hospitals, some of which are part of the state medical system, that are owned and run by Spiritists.73 In these institutions patients receive conventional treatment from professional psychiatrists and psychologists alongside a form of specialised healing, termed 'disobsession', that is usually provided at a nearby Spiritist centre.
short, Spiritism in Brazil is a vibrant religious movement that gives
hope, comfort and inspiration to millions who would otherwise have no
relief from degrees of poverty that bare little comparison to anything
in this country. But this would not be possible to the same degree if
the movement did not enjoy the support of the professional classes and
the upper echelons of society. There are so many Spiritist doctors in
São Paulo alone that they have their own medical association,74
and the general esteem in which the movement is held can be seen by the
fact that there have been three separate issues of postage stamps
baring Rivail's features, the first being in 1957 to celebrate the
hundredth anniversary of The Spirits' Book.75
There was even a solemn ceremony held in the Legislative Chambers of the Federal District of Brasilia on 3rd October 1995 to commemorate Rivail's birth.76 Mr Jorge Cauhy, Representative of the Chamber and Divaldo Franco, a well known medium spoke about Rivail and the importance of Spiritism. Two other politicians told of how Spiritism had helped them personally. This was at the same time that delegates from thirty-four countries gathered in the city for the first World Spiritist Congress.
Incredible though it may seem, the fourth largest country on Earth has embraced, as an integral part of its culture, spirit teachings that were given to a French intellectual less than 10 years after a couple of American children initiated the mediumistic communication that he initially chose to ignore with contempt. The impact that the Kardec teachings continue to have simply has no precedent at all in 'Spiritualism' and is all the more remarkable when one considers that they were collected so soon after the Hydseville rappings. However, of course, this does not mean that every aspect of the Kardec teachings must be regarded as being unquestionably correct in every respect. Hess has observed that some Brazilian Spiritist intellectuals complain about a tendency amongst the more evangelical members of the movement to view the Kardec writings as 'quasi-sacred texts' and instead prefer to regard his works as 'the sometimes flawed but generally true writings of a brilliant nineteenth-century thinker.'77
Rivail's most significant achievement was to develop a systematic method of scrutinising mediumistic communications of a philosophical nature that resulted in a consistent body of teachings to suit all needs. The egalitarian nature of the message conveyed naturally attracted the support of the poor by offering comfort and hope; whereas the scientific aspects of the teachings, especially those which gave explanations for the nature of spirit phenomena, interested the more educated and sceptical, many of whom could have been repelled by anything less so early in the movement's history. The end result was a view of spirit communication that has made considerable inroads into establishment thinking in a country that will doubtless come to play a more central part in world affairs in years to come. It is also a fact that 'Spiritism', which is also popular in Mexico and other Latin American countries, is slowly but steadily establishing footholds elsewhere, particularly in the USA where there are now 40 Spiritist centres under the recently formed Spiritist Council of the USA. How ironic that one of the oldest bodies of post-Hydseville spirit philosophy continues to be the most be the most successful and productive!
The author wishes to thank Janet Duncan of the Allan Kardec Study Group for her help during the preparation of this article.
1David J. Hess, Spirits and Scientists: Ideology, Spiritism, and Brazilian Culture (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania University Press, 1991), p.78.
2Arthur Findlay, The Way of Life (London: Headquarters Publishing/Psychic Press Ltd.), p.23.
3Janet Duncan, Translator's Preface to Allan Kardec's The Gospel According to Spiritism (London: Headquarters Publishing, 1987), pp.ix-x.
4David J. Hess, ibid. , p.71.
5David J. Hess, ibid. ,p.70.
6David J. Hess, ibid., p.69.
8Allan Kardec (a), a compilation of short works entitled Christian Spiritism (Philadelphia: Allan Kardec Educational Society, 1985), p.189.
10Anna Blackwell, Translator's Preface to Allan Kardec's The Spirits' Book (London: Psychic Press, 1975), p.11.
11Allan Kardec, (a), p.190.
13Allan Kardec (a), p.191.
14Allan Kardec (a), p.192.
16Colin Wilson, Afterlife (London: Grafton Books, 1985), pp.99-100.
17Details supplied by Janet Duncan to the author.
18Allan Kardec (a), p.194.
19Anna Blackwell, ibid., p.13.
20Anna Blackwell, ibid., pp.13-14.
21Allan Kardec (a), p.195.
22Allan Kardec (a), p.193.
23Colin Wilson, Afterlife (London: Grafton Books, 1987), p.101.
First Published on the Noah's Ark Website and reproduced here by their kind permission