Abstract: Allan Kardec was one of the pioneers of psychical research. This “interview” with him is based on his several books. Except for words in brackets inserted to provide a transition or flow, the words are his. The questions have been tailored to fit the answers.
The spiritualism epidemic ignited by the so-called “Rochester Knockings” in the United States during March 1848 reached France in 1850. According to French historian Ernest Bersot, people sat around tables for hours in anxious expectation of hearing from the spirits. During the winter, there was no other social occupation or topic. The Catholic Church condemned it, but few paid attention.
Allan Kardec, Esq.
It was in 1854, at the age of 50, that Hippolyte Léon Dénizarth Rivail (October 3, 1804 to March 31, 1869), a French educator, scientist, and philosopher began investigating mediumship. He adopted the nom de plume of Allan Kardec when he began writing about his findings. (He is hereinafter referred to as Kardec.)
Born in Lyons to a distinguished family, Kardec was educated at the Institute of Pestalozzi at Yverdun. He had intended to enter the legal profession, as had his father and grandfather, but in 1828 he purchased a school for boys and devoted himself to education. In 1830, at age 25, he began giving gratuitous lectures to the public on chemistry, physics, comparative anatomy, and astronomy. Under his given name, he authored a number of works aimed at improving education in the public school of France, including A Plan for the Improvement of Public Instruction and A Classical Grammar of the French Tongue.
“Foreseeing the vast importance to science and religion of such an extension of the field of human observation, he entered at once upon a careful investigation of the phenomena,” Anna Blackwell, who translated Kardec’s works from French to English, explained Kardec’s interest in mediumship in the preface to Le Livre des Espirits (The Spirits’ Book), published in 1857.
Blackwell, who lived in England, further explained that a friend of Kardec’s had two teen-aged daughters who were mediums. Most of the messages coming through the two young ladies, the Boudin sisters, was frivolous or mundane, but when Kardec was present the messages became serious and profound. When Kardec inquired as to the cause of the change in disposition, he was informed that “spirits of a much higher order than those who habitually communicated through the two young mediums came expressly for him, and would continue to do so, in order to enable him to fulfill an important religious mission.”
Among the enlightened spirits purportedly communicating with Kardec were John the Evangelist, St. Augustine, St. Vincent De Paul, St. Louis, “The Spirit of Truth,” Socrates, Plato, Fénélon, Franklin, and Swedenborg.
Kardec would meet with one or both of the mediums a couple of evenings every week and put questions to the spirits. According to Blackwell, the information received by Kardec was well beyond the comprehension of the two mediums and “they were as little capable of appreciating it as of inventing [it].”
Kardec approached his investigation scientifically, searching for mechanistic explanations. He explained that the earliest manifestations of intelligence were made by the legs of tables moving up and down a given number of times to reply “yes” or “no” to questions asked. Fuller replies were later obtained by a number of tilts or raps corresponding to the number of each letter of the alphabet, so that words and sentences began to be produced in reply to questions. But more rapid responses were later received with the planchette, a basket with a pencil centered in and moved by the same occult power that moved the tables and gave the raps. It was a form of “direct writing,” the spirits delivering messages by means of the pencil with no human hand holding the instrument.
The sessions with the Boudin sisters went on for nearly two years before Kardec decided to put the messages in book form. His spirit instructors sanctioned the publication and Kardec was told by them that he should adopt the name Allan Kardec, apparently an old British name in his mother’s family, although another explanation is that it was his name in a prior existence.
The first publication of The Spirits’ Book contained only information gleaned from the spirits communicating through the two sisters, but a revised edition, the one remaining in circulation, includes messages from other spirits through other mediums. According to Blackwell, the book “sold with great rapidity, making converts not in France only, but all over the Continent, and rendering the name of Allan Kardec a household word…”
Kardec called the philosophy coming from the spirits Spiritism. While the body of knowledge Kardec was developing was similar to what in England and the United States was developing as Spiritualism, Spiritism was more unified, and, unlike much of Spiritualism, embraced reincarnation. Its basic tenet is that we are immortals souls continually evolving through higher and higher realms of existence.
Kardec continued communicating with spirits until his death at age 64. He also wrote The Gospel – Explained by the Spiritist Doctrine, The Medium’s Book, Heaven and Hell, and Genesis.
Sir, your research seems to have been more concerned with learning higher truths than with proving that spirits are actually communicating.
“Spiritism consists of two parts: one of these, the experimental, deals with the subject of the manifestations in general; the other, the philosophic, deals with the class of manifestations denoting intelligence. Whoever has only observed the former is in the position of one whose knowledge of physics, limited to experiments of an amusing nature, does not extend to the fundamental principles of that science. Spiritist philosophy consists of teachings imparted by spirits, and the knowledge thus conveyed is of a character far too serious to be mastered without serious and persevering attention.”
What did you find evidential in your investigation?
“When the spirit who manifest himself is that of some one personally known to us, of a relative or friend, for instance, and especially if of one who has been dead but a short time, it is generally found that his language is perfectly in keeping with what we know of his character; thus furnishing a strong presumption of his identity, which is placed almost beyond reach of doubt when the spirit speaks of private affairs, and refers to family matters known only to the party to whom he addresses himself. A son could hardly be mistaken as to the language of his father and mother, nor parents as to that of their child. Most striking incidents often occur in evocations of this intimate kind – things of a nature to convince the most incredulous. The most skeptical are often astounded by the unexpected revelations thus made to them.”
There were some pretty famous names among those who communicated with you. How do you know they are who they say they are?
“As for inferior spirits who assume honored names, they soon betray themselves by the character of their language and statements. If someone, for instance, calling himself Fénélon gave utterances to remarks at variance with common sense or morality, his imposture would at once become evident; but if the thoughts expressed by him were always noble, consistent, and of the elevation worthy of Fénélon, there would be no reason to doubt his identity, for otherwise we should have to admit that a spirit whose communication inculcate only goodness would knowingly be guilty of falsehood. Experience shows us that spirits of the same degree, of the same character, and animated by the same sentiments, are united in groups and families; but the number of spirits is incalculable, and we are so far from knowing them all, that the names of the immense majority of them are necessarily unknown to us.”
Do the higher spirits retain their names?
“In proportion as spirits are purified and elevated in the hierarchy, the distinctive characters of their personality are, in some sort, obliterated in the uniformity of perfections, and yet they do not the less preserve their individuality. This is the case with the superior and with the pure spirits. In this condition, the name they had on earth , in one of their thousand ephemeral corporeal existences, is quite an insignificant thing. Let us remark again that spirits are attracted to each other by the similarity of their qualities, and that they thus form sympathetic groups or families.”
But I recall reading that some of those claiming to be persons well-known to history are not really who they claim to be, and yet they are not impostors. Would you mind explaining?
“Again, if we consider the immense number of spirits who, since the beginning of time, have reached the highest rank, and compare them with the very restricted number of men who have left a great name on the earth, it will be understood that, among the superior spirits who can communicate, the greater part must have no name for us. But as names are necessary to us to fix our ideas, they can take that of any known personage whose nature is best identified with their own; thus our guardian angels most often make themselves known under the name of one of the saints we venerate, and generally under his name for whom we have most sympathy. It thus follows that if a person’s guardian angel gives his name as St. Peter, for instance, there is no actual proof that it is the apostle of that name. It may be he, or it may be an entirely unknown spirit belonging to the family of spirits of which St. Peter makes a part.”
It sounds like what is called the “Group Soul,” one in which individuality is retained.
“[Perhaps]. The superior spirits form, so to say, a collective whole whose individualities are, with few exceptions, totally unknown to us. The matter of interest to us is not their person but their teachings. Now if this teaching be good, it matters little whether he who gives it calls himself Peter or Paul. We judge by his quality and not by his signature. If a wine is bad, the trade-mark will not make it better. It is otherwise with private communications, because it is the individual, his very person, that interests us, and it is right that, in this case, we should be particular to assure ourselves that the spirit who comes at our call is really he whom we wish.”
As you may have heard, the Toronto Society for Psychical Research decided in 1972 to invent an imaginary spirit, to whom they gave the name “Philip” and invented his life history. It wasn’t long before Philip began responding to their questions by table raps. There are many who feel this case supports the Super ESP theory. How can it otherwise be explained?
“Invoke a stone and it will answer you. There is always a crowd of spirits ready to speak for anything….If you invoke a myth, or an allegorical personage, it will answer; that is, it will be answered for, and the spirit who would present himself would take its character and appearance. One day, a person took a fancy to invoke Tartufe, and Tartufe came immediately; still more, he talked of Orgon, of Elmire, of Damis, and of Valire, of whom he gave news; as to himself, he counterfeited the hypocrite with as much art as if Tartufe had been a real personage. Afterward, he said he was the spirit of an actor who had played the character. Trifling spirits always profit by the inexperience of interrogators, but they take good care never to address those who they know are enlightened enough to discover their impostures, and who would give no credit to their stories.”
Why is it that some of the messages received are sometimes in conflict with each other? For example, we have some spirits saying reincarnation exists and others saying it doesn’t or they know nothing about it?
“Spirits differing very widely from one another as regards their knowledge and morality, it is evident that the same question may receive from them very different answers, according to the rank at which they have arrived; exactly as would be the case if it were propounded alternately to a man of science, an ignoramus, and a mischievous wag. The important point is to know who the spirit is to whom we are addressing our question.”
The Church warns against spirit communication because of the inferior spirits you have mentioned. How do you respond to that?
“It is an incontestable fact that there are among them bad, crafty, and profoundly hypocritical spirits, and against these we must be on guard; but because we meet in the world with bad men, is it a reason for withdrawing ourselves from society? God has given us reason and judgment to appreciate spirits as well as men.”
Would you mind explaining a little about the various table phenomena?
“We have seen the table moved, raised, and strike blows under the influence of one or of several medium. The first intelligent effect that was remarked was to see these movements obey the word of command; thus, without changing its place, the table would rise alternately on the designated foot, then, in coming down, strike a required number of blows, answering a question. At other times, the table, without personal contact, would walk across the room, going to the right or to the left, forward or backward, executing divers movements, at the order of the assistants. It is very evident that we set aside all supposition of fraud, that we admit the perfect loyalty of the assistants, proved by their honor and perfect disinterestedness.”
Weren’t there times when the table would rise well above the floor?
“[Yes,]…though this requires considerable mediumistic power, it is entirely detached from the floor, and maintained in equilibrium in space, without support; sometimes rising to the ceiling, so that persons may pass under it, then descending slowly, balancing itself like a sheet of paper; or it sometimes falls violently to the ground, and is broken, which proves very decisively that it is from no optical illusion.”
What about raps?
“[Yes, it is] another phenomenon very often produced, according to the nature of the medium, is that or raps in the very tissue of the wood, without movement of the table; these raps, sometimes very weak, at other times very strong, are heard as well in the other furniture of the room, against the walls and the ceiling. ..When they take place in the table, they produce in it a vibration very perceptible to the fingers, and very distinct when the ear is applied to it.”
It has been said that rapping spirits are very low-level spirits. Is that true?
“All spirits, good or bad, may use it, the same as the other methods. It is the elevations of the thoughts that characterize superior spirits, and not the instrument they use to transmit them; doubtless they prefer the most convenient, and, above all, the most rapid means, but, in default of pencil and paper, they do not disdain to use the ordinary talking table; and the proof is that some of the most sublime things have been obtained in this way. We ourselves do not use it; not that we despise it, but simply because, as a phenomenon, it has taught us all we can know; it can add nothing to our convictions, and the extent of the communications we receive requires a rapidity incompatible with typtology. Thus, all spirits who rap are not rapping spirits; the name should be reserved for those who may be called rappers by profession, and who, by the aid of this means, are pleased in amusing a circle, or vexing them by their importunity. On their part, spiritual things may sometimes be received, but never anything very profound. It would be a waste of time to ask them any scientific or philosophic questions. Their ignorance and inferiority have justly won for them the title given to them by other spirits – that of the clowns or mountebanks of the world of spirits. Let us add that, which they very often act on their own account, they are also often used by superior spirits, when these desire to produce material effects.”
Your books talk about “familiar spirits” and “sympathetic spirits.” What is the difference?
“Familiar spirits attach themselves to certain persons for a longer or shorter period in order to be useful to them within the limits of their possibilities; they are generally well-intentioned , but sometimes rather backward, and even frivolous. They busy themselves with the everyday details of human life; and only set by order, or with the permission of the spirit guardians.
“Sympathetic spirits are those who are drawn to us by personal affection and by a similarity of tastes in good or in evil. The duration of their relationship with us is almost always dependent on circumstances.
“[Let me also mention that] an evil genius is an imperfect or wicked spirit who attaches himself to a man for the purpose of perverting him, but he acts on his own motion and not in virtue of a mission. His tenacity is proportionate to the more or less easy access accorded to him. A man is always free to listen to the suggestion of an evil genius, or to repel them.”
As I understand it, you moved from table tilting or turning and raps on the table to the planchette. Would you explain that?
“[Of course.] The first communications of this kind were by adjusting a pencil to the foot of the table, held lightly on a sheet of paper. The table, moved by the influence of the medium, began to trace characters, then words and phrases. This process was successively simplified by using little tables, the size of the hand, made expressly, then baskets, card-baskets, and afterward simple planchettes. The writing was as flowing, rapid, and easy, as with the hand, but it was afterward found that these objects were only appendices, pencil-holders, with which they could dispense by themselves holding the pencil: the hand, carried along by an involuntary movement, wrote under the impulse given by the spirit, and without the concurrence of the will or thought of the medium. From henceforward, the communications from beyond the tomb had no more limits than correspondence between the living.”
I know you are referring to the automatic writing form of mediumship. What if a medium knows only French and a non-French speaking spirit wants to communicate?
“The foreign spirit doubtless understands all languages, as languages are expressions of thought, and as the spirit understands by thought; but to render this thought he needs an instrument; this instrument is the medium. The soul of the medium who receives the foreign communication can transmit it only by the organs of his body; and these organs cannot have the same flexibility for an unknown language which they have for the one familiar to them. A medium who knows only French might, incidentally, give an answer in English, for instance, should it please the spirit to do so; but spirits who already find the human language too slow, considering the rapidity of thought – thought they abridge as much as they can – are impatient of the mechanical resistance they experience; this is why they do not always do it. This is also the reason a novice medium, who writes laboriously and slowly, even in his own language, usually obtains but very brief and undeveloped answers; so the spirits recommend that only simple questions be asked through him. For those of higher bearing it needs a formed medium who offers no mechanical difficulty to the spirit. We would not take for our reader a scholar who spells. A good workman does not to use poor implements.
“Let us add another consideration of great gravity in what concerns foreign languages. Trials of this kind are always made from curiosity and for experiment, and nothing is more antipathetic to the spirits than the trials to which persons endeavor to subject them. The superior spirits never lend themselves to it, and leave as soon as this is begun.”
Such an attitude certainly doesn’t help convince non-believers.
“To that the spirits answer, ‘Our cause has no need of those who have so much pride as to consider themselves indispensable; we call to us those whom we wish, and they are often the least and most humble. Did Jesus perform the miracles demanded of him by the scribes, and what men did he use to revolutionize the world? If you desire to be convinced, you have other means than by tricks; begin first by submitting yourselves; it is not in order that the scholar should impose his will upon his teacher’.”
I’ve heard that physical manifestations are produced by lower-level spirits, not higher ones. Is that correct?
“It has been said that the density of the perispirit (spirit body), if one so may express it, varies according to the state of the worlds; it appears that it varies also in the same world according to individuals. Among the morally advanced spirits, it is more subtle, and approximates to that of the elevated spirits. Among the inferior spirits, on the contrary, it approximates to matter, which is the reason these spirits of low state preserve so long the illusions of the terrestrial life; they think and act as if they were still living; they have the same desires, and we might almost say the same sensuality. This coarseness of the perispirit, giving to it more affinity with matter, makes the inferior spirits more fitted for physical manifestations…The perispirit, being to the spirit what the body is to man, and its density being according to the degree of inferiority of the spirit, it takes the place of muscular force; that is to say, gives him, over the fluids necessary for manifestations, a greater power than those whose nature is more ethereal. If an elevated spirit desires to produce such effects, he does what delicate people amongst us do; he has it done by a spirit of the trade.”
So many of the physical manifestations seem nonsensical.
“The physical manifestations have for their motive to call our attention to something, and to convince us of the presence of a power superior to man. We have said, also, that the elevated spirits are not engaged in these kinds of manifestations; they employ inferior spirits to produce them, as we employ servants for coarse work, and that with the motive we have indicated. This end once attained, the material manifestation ceases, because it is no longer necessary.”
What actually takes place in the materialization of a spirit?
“When the spirit appears to us, he puts his perispirit into the state necessary to render him visible; but for that his will alone is not sufficient, for the modification of the perispirit is effected by his combination with the fluid (ectoplasm) of the medium; but this combination is not always possible, which explains why the visibility of spirits is not general. It is not enough that the spirit desires to be seen; it is not enough that a person desires to see him; it is necessary that the two fluids may combine, that there should be between them (spirit and medium) a kind of affinity; perhaps also, that the emission of the person’s fluid should be sufficiently abundant to effect the transformation of the perispirit; and probably still other conditions, to us unknown; it is also necessary that the spirit should have permission to make himself visible to the person, which is not always granted, or granted only under certain conditions, for reasons we cannot always appreciate.”
What determines how the spirits present themselves?
“Being able to take all appearances, the spirit presents himself under that by which he could be most readily recognized, if such is his desire. Thus, although, as a spirit, he has no corporeal infirmity, he will show himself disabled, lame, humpbacked, wounded, with scars, if that is necessary to establish his identity.”
What about clothing?
“As to the costume, it is ordinarily composed of a drapery ending in long, floating folds, or with hair in flowing, graceful curls, the appearance of spirits who have preserved nothing of terrestrial things; but the common spirits, those whom one has known, usually wear the costume of the latter part of their life. They have often the attributes characteristic of their elevation, as an aureole, or wings for those who may be considered as angels, while others have those which recall their terrestrial occupations. Thus, a warrior might appear in his armor, a savant with his books, an assassin with a poniard, etc. The superior spirits have a beautiful countenance, noble and serene; the more inferior something ferocious and brutal, and sometimes still bear the traces of the crimes they have committed or the punishments they have endured. The question of costume and of all these accessory objects is, perhaps, what most astonishes.”
Can a living person bi-locate himself?
“The spirit of a living person isolated from the body can appear the same as that of a dead person, and have all the appearance of reality; and further, for the same causes that we have explained, it can acquire a momentary tangibility. It is this phenomenon called bi-corporeity that has given individuals whose simultaneous presence has been verified in two different places.”
You mentioned the case of St. Alphonse de Liquori, who was canonized because he was seen in two places at the same time. You invoked St. Alphonse for an explanation. Would you mind relating what he had to say?
“[Certainly. I will here provide his own words]: ‘Man, when he is completely dematerialized by his virtue, when he has elevated his soul toward God, can appear in two places at once, and in this way. The incarnated spirit, feeling sleep come, can ask God to transport him to some especial place. His spirit or his soul, as you would call it, then leaves his body, followed by a [part of his perispirit], and leaves the unclean matter in a state bordering on death. I say bordering on death because there remains in the body a tie which attaches the perispirit and the soul to matter, and this tie cannot be defined. The body appears then in the place desired.’
“The soul does not divide itself in the literal sense of the word; it radiates on different sides, and thus can be manifested on several points without being divided; the same as a light, which can be reflected simultaneously in several glasses.”
There is much evidence of survival of consciousness but it falls short of absolute proof. Have the spirits told you why they can’t give absolute proof?
“If the certainty of a future life had been permitted man before his mental vision was prepared for such a prospect, he would have been dazzled thereby, and the seductions of such a certainty, too clearly seen, would have led him to neglect the present life, his diligent use of which is the condition of his physical and moral advancement.”
What, then, is the point of studying mediums and exploring the prospect of a future life?
“In proportion as man arrives at a true comprehension of the future state, his fear of death diminishes; but as, at the same time, he also comprehends more clearly the uses of the earthly life; he awaits its ending calmly, without impatience or regret. The certainty of a future life gives another direction to his thoughts, another aim to his activities. Before acquiring this certainty, he labored only for the things of the present life; having acquired this certainty, he labors for the life to come, yet without neglecting the duties and interests of his present life, because he knows that the character of his future will be decided by the use he will have made of his present existence.”
Thank you, Sir, for your comments. Any parting thoughts?
“[Yes]. We have questioned many thousands of spirits having belonged to every class of society. We have studied them at every period of their spirit-life, from the instant of their quitting the body. We have followed them step by step in that life beyond the grave, with a view to ascertaining the changes that should take place in their ideas and sensations; and this examination – in which it has not always been the most commonplace spirits that have furnished us the least valuable subjects of study – has invariably shown us, on the one hand, that the suffering of spirits are the direct result of the misconduct of which they have to undergo the consequences, and, on the other hand, that their new existence is the source of ineffable happiness for those who have followed the right road. From which it follows that those who suffer do so because they have so willed it, and have only themselves to thank for their suffering, in the other world, as in this one.”