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HEREDITY AND PREEXISTENCE
THE law of heredity which insists that the descendants shall suffer by the faults and profit by the virtues of their ancestors comprises truths that are no longer disputed. They shine forth, visible to the eyes of all. The child of a drunkard will bear the burden of his father's vice all his life long, from the day of his birth to that of his death, in body and in mind. One might say that by this irrefutable example nature had intended ostentatiously to affirm and manifest the implacable character of her law, as though to make us understand that she takes no account whatever of our conceptions of justice and injustice and that she acts on an unvarying principle in all the obscure circumstances in which we cannot follow the inextricable windings of her will. This example, if we had no other, would be enough to brand that inhuman will with infamy. There is no law more repugnant to our reason, to our sense of responsibility, nor one which does a deeper injury to our trust in the universe and the unknown spirit that rules it. Of all life's injustices, this is the most glaring and the least comprehensible. For most of the others we find excuses or explanations ; but, when we remember that a new-born child, a child which did not ask to be born, is, from the moment of inhaling its first breath of air, smitten with irremediable insolvency, with a ferocious, irrevocable sentence and with evils which it will drag to the grave, it seems to us that not one of the most hateful tyrants that history has cursed would have dared to do what nature does quietly every day.
But do we really bear the burden of the errors of the dead? In the first place, is it quite certain that the dead are really dead and no longer dwell within us? It is a fact that we continue them, that we are the durable part of what they were. We cannot deny that we are still subject to their influence, that we reproduce their features and their characters, that we represent them almost entirely, that they continue to live and to act in us; it is therefore very natural that they also should continue to bear the consequences of an action or a way of living which their departure has not interrupted.
"But," you may say, "I had no part in this action, this habit, this vice for which 1 am paying to-day. I was not consulted; I had no opportunity of uttering a protest, of checking my father, or my grandfather, as he went to his ruin down the fatal precipice. I was not born; I did not yet exist!"
How do you know? May there not be a fundamental mistake in the idea of heredity as we conceive it? At one end of the beam of those scales which we accuse of injustice hangs heredity, but the other is borne down by something different, which we have never taken into account, for it has not yet a name, something which is the antithesis of heredity, which cleaves into the future instead of emerging from the past and which we might call preexistence or prenatality.
Even as our dead still live in us, so we have already lived in them. There is no reason to believe that the future, which is full of life, is less active and less potent than the past, which is full of the dead. Instead of descending, should we not rather ascend the course of the years to discover the source of our actions?
We know not in what fashion those already dwell in us who shall be born of us, down to the last generation; but that they do dwell in us is certain. Whatever the number of our descendants, in the sequence of the ages, whatever the transformations which the elements, climates, countries and centuries may cause them to undergo, they will keep intact, through all vicissitudes, the principle of life which they have derived from us. They have not obtained it elsewhere or they could not be what they are. They have really issued from us; and, if they have issued from us, it is because they were in us from the first. What were they doing within us, all these innumerable, accumulated lives? Is it permissible to suppose that they were absolutely inactive? Then what were their functions, what their power? What divided them from us? When did we begin, where did they end? At what point did their thoughts and their desires mingle with ours?
"How could they think and act in us," you ask, "having as yet no brain?"
True; but they had ours. The dead too are without a brain; nevertheless no one will deny that they continue to think and act in us. This brain of which we are so proud is not the source but the condenser of thought and will. Like the Leyden jar or the Ruhmkorff coil, it exists, it is animated only so long as the electric fluid of life passes through it or resides in it. It does not produce this fluid, it collects it; what matters is not its convolutions, which may be compared with the windings of an induction-coil, but the life that flows through it; and what can this life be, if it be not the sum of all the existences which are accumulated within us, which are not extinguished at our death, which begin before our birth and which continue us, forwards, and backwards, into the infinity of time?
Writers of essays and novels have at times endeavoured to represent these diverse lives which we harbour within us; and each of us, if he question himself sincerely and profoundly, will discover in himself two or three clearly-defined types, which have nothing in common but the body in which they reside, which rarely agree among themselves, which are incessantly striving to gain the upper hand and which put up with one another as best they can, in order to go through an existence whose aggregate forms our ego. This ego will be good or bad, remarkable or insignificant, more or less generous or selfish, calm or uneasy, pacific or pugnacious, heroic or pusillanimous, hesitating or decided and enterprising, brutal or refined, crafty or loyal, active or idle, chaste or lascivious, modest or vainglorious, proud or obsequious, unreliable or steadfast, according to the authority which the type that captures the best positions of the heart or brain is able to assume over the others. But, even in the life that appears the most stable, the most homogeneous, the best-balanced, this authority will never be final or undisputed. The dominant type will find itself forever disputed, attacked, thwarted, disturbed, circumvented, harassed, tempted, deceived, betrayed and sometimes cunningly dethroned by one of the rival or subordinate types which it failed to distrust or which it did not watch narrowly enough. We behold unexpected coalitions, fantastic compromises, regrettable defections, fierce competitions, incessant intrigues and positive revolutions, especially at the critical periods and at each moment of important happenings; and all this prodigious inward tragedy does not cease for an instant until the hour of death.
But, once again, why seek only in the past and among our ancestors for the actors in this drama which is the essential drama of humanity? What justification have we for supposing that the dead alone play all the parts? Why should those from whom we have issued possess more influence than those who will issue from us? The first are remote from our bodily selves, they are separated from us by unfathomable mysteries and their survival may perhaps be called in question; the others inhabit our flesh and their existence is incontestable: We have just seen that the argument deduced from the absence of any brain is not invincible.
"But," you will perhaps go on to say, "how do you suppose that, when they have not yet lived, they can possess habits, virtues and vices, preferences and experience, in a word, all that constitutes a character and cannot be acquired save by contact with life?"
But the same objection could be raised, in most cases, with regard to our ancestors. Generally speaking, when we issued from them, they were still young; they were not yet what they became and what we shall become after them. They had not yet adopted the habits, the ways of thinking or feeling, or cultivated the virtues or the vices which are reproduced in us. The stubborn little mediocrity whom we all feel within us, frugal, cautious and shabby in his dealings, was still perhaps a prodigal, high-spirited and reckless youth; the rake was still perhaps chaste, the thief had never stolen and the murderer may have had a horror of bloodshed. All this is almost equally immaterial and equally potential in both cases; the only present points at issue are the amorphous tendencies and forces whereon the brain which we receive from these and pass on to those bestows a form.
It is therefore very possible that the little mediocrity, the rake, the thief or the murderer, far from being dead, are not yet born and are taking as active a part as our ancestors in the agitations and sometimes in the conduct of our existence. This is what the most ancient and the most venerable religions of humanity always foresaw or revealed, receiving it perhaps on the authority of an unknown and loftier source; and of these religions Christianity, with its dogma of original sin, is but an imperfect echo. Even to-day, more than six hundred millions of human beings believe in the preexistence of the soul, in successive lives and in reincarnation. In the eyes of these religions, the little mediocrity who begot us several centuries ago is the same who, a little less paltry, a little less narrow, improved by his previous life and his passage through the mysteries of death, is awaiting within us the moment of rebirth and who, while waiting, shares our instincts, our feelings and our thoughts. He does not wait in solitude; he is but one life in the host of lives which have preceded us and which come back to live in us again; and all these past and future lives form the sum total of our own.
We will not here discuss this doctrine of successive lives and of the expiatory and purifying reincarnation, which is the noblest and, up to now, the only acceptable explanation of nature's injustices that has been discovered. In the present state of our knowledge, it can be only a magnificent theory or a statement impossible of proof. Let us not forsake the indisputable ground on which heredity and preexistence have their being. Heredity is an acquired fact, an experimental truth; preexistence is a logical necessity. It is not indeed possible to conceive that what will be born of us does not already exist within us in fact, in principle, in the germ, in essence or in potentiality; and, from the moment of its existence in a fashion probably more spiritual than material, it is far less surprising that it should be more or less responsible for thoughts and actions to which it could not be wholly a stranger.
In any case, heredity, which
is incontestable, and preexistence, which is necessary, remind us yet once
again that each of us is not a single being, isolated, permanent, hermetically
sealed, independent of others and separated from all things in time and space,
but a porous vase dipping into the infinite; a sort of cross-roads, where all
the paths of the past, the present and the future meet; an inn beside the
eternal highways, where all the lives which make up our own foregather for a
few days' sojourn. We believe ourselves dead when they leave the inn; and we
fancy that they too have perished. It is more likely that this is not so at
all. They are merely quitting the ruined hostel to install themselves in a new
and more habitable house. They carry with them their debts and their
obligations; they remove to their new abode their instincts, their habits,
their ideals, their passions also, their merits and their faults, their
acquisitions and their memories. The house is different, but the guests are the
same; and the old life will resume its course in the new dwelling and will be
perhaps a little nobler, perhaps a little fairer, perhaps filled with a little