Idealism and Materialism—A Reflection

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Szerző: Howard Phillips Lovecraft • Év: 1919

Human thought, with its infinite varieties, intensities, aspects, and collisions, is per-haps the most amusing yet discouraging spectacle on our terraqueous globe. It is amusing because of its contradictions, and because of the pompousness with which its possessors try to analyse dogmatically an utterly unknown and unknowable cosmos in which all mankind forms but a transient, negligible atom; it is discouraging because it can never from its very nature attain that ideal degree of unanimity which would make its tremendous energy available for the improvement of the race. The thoughts of men, moulded by an innumerable diversity of circumstances, will always conflict. Groups may coincide in certain ideas long enough to found a few definite intellectual institutions; but men thinking together in one subject differ in others, so that even the strongest of such institutions carries within itself the seed of its ultimate downfall. Conflict is the one inescapable certainty of life; mental conflict which invariably becomes physical and martial when the intellectual breach attains sufficient width and the opposing minds are divided into factions of suitable proportions. Followers of the “world brotherhood” and “universal peace” delusion would do well to remember this scientific truth, grounded on the basic psychological nature of man, before deciding to continue in their always absurd and often disastrous course.

Most decided and obvious of all the eternal conflicts of human thought is that between the reason and the imagination; between the real and the material, and the ideal or spiritual. In every age each of these principals has had its champions; and so basic and vital are the problems involved, that the conflict has exceeded all others in bitterness and universality. Each side, having its own method of approach, is impervious to the attacks of the other; hence it is unlikely that anything resembling agreement will ever be reached. Only the impartial, objective, dispassionate observer can form a just verdict of the dispute; and so few are these observers, that their influence can never be great.

Man, slowly coming into existence as an efflorescence of some simian stock, originally knew nothing beyond the concrete and the immediate. Formerly guided by reflex action or instinct, his evolving brain was an absolute blank regarding everything beyond those simple matters of defence, shelter, and food-procuring whose exigencies had brought it into being. As this primal brain developed along the path of the original impelling force, its intrinsic strength and activity outstripped the material which it had to feed upon. Since no sources of information were in existence to supply it, its dawning curiosity perforce became inventive; and the phenomena of Nature began to be interpreted in such simple terms as a nascent race could devise and comprehend. The sun was good. Men were comfortable when it was present, uncomfortable when it was absent. Therefore men should act toward the sun as they might act toward a chieftain or pack-leader who was able to confer and withdraw favours. Leaders give favours when people praise them or give them presents. Therefore the sun should be praised and propitiated with presents. And so were born the imaginative conceptions of deity, worship, and sacrifice. A new and wholly illusory system of thought had arisen—the spiritual.

The development of an ideal world of imagination, overlying and trying to explain the real world of Nature, was rapid. Since to the untutored mind the conception of impersonal action is impossible, every natural phenomenon was invested with purpose and personality. If lightning struck the earth, it was wilfully hurled by an unseen being in the sky. If a river flowed toward the sea, it was because some unseen being willfully propelled it. And since men understood no sources of action but themselves, these unseen creatures of imagination were endowed with human forms, despite their more than human powers. So rose the awesome race of anthropomorphic gods, destined to exert so long a sway over their creators. Parallel illusions were almost innumerable. Observing that his welfare depended on conformity to that fixed course of atomic, molecular, and mass interaction which we now call the laws Of Nature, primitive man devised the notion of divine government, with the qualities of spiritual right and wrong. Right and wrong indeed existed as actualities in the shape of conformity and nonconformity to Nature; but our first thinking ancestors could conceive of no law save personal will, so deemed themselves the slaves of some celestial tyrant or tyrants of human shape and unlimited authority. Phases of this idea originated the monotheistic religions. Then came the illusion of justice. Observing that exchange is the natural basis of human relations, and that favours are most frequently granted to those who give favours, man’s imagination extended the local principle to the cosmos, and formed the sweeping conclusion that boons are always repaid by equal boons; that every human creature shall be rewarded by the powers of governing gods of Nature in proportion to his good deeds, or deeds of conformity. This conclusion was aided by the natural greed or desire of acquisition inherent in the species. All men want more than they have, and in order to explain the instinct they invoke an imaginary “right” to receive more. The idea of retribution and divine punishment was an inevitable concomitant of the idea of reward and divine favour.

This element of desire played a vast part in the extension of idealistic thought. Man’s instincts, made more complex by the added impressions received through the nascent intellect, in many cases developed novel physical and mental reactions; and gave rise to the isolated phenomena of emotion. Emotion, working hand in hand with imagination, created such illusions as that of immortality; which is undoubtedly a compound of man’s notions of “another world” as gained in dreams, and of the increasing horror of the idea of utter death as appreciated by a brain now able to comprehend as never before the fact that every man must sooner or later lose forever his accustomed pleasures of hunting, fighting, and lying before his favourite tree or cave in the sun. Man does not want to lose these pleasures, and his mind seeks an escape from the unknown and perhaps frightful abyss of death. It is doubtful if the savage, remembering nothing but life, can conceive of absolute non-existence. He finds false analogies like the vernal resurgence of plant life, and the beautiful world of dreams, and succeeds in persuading his half-formed intellect that his existence in the real world is but part of a larger existence; that he will either be re-born on earth or transplanted to some remote and eternal dream-world. Later on the illusion of justice plays a part in the comedy; and man, failing to find abstract equity in actual life, is glad to invent a future life of repayment and adjustment according to merit.

With such a beginning, we need not marvel at the development of an elaborate and highly cherished system of idealistic philosophy. The advance of the intellect without previous scientific knowledge to guide it had the effect of strengthening emotion and imagination without a corresponding strengthening of ratiocinative processes, and the immense residue of unchanged brute instinct fell in with the scheme. Desire and fancy dwarfed fact and observation altogether; and we find all thought based not on truth, but on what man wishes to be the truth. Lacking the power to conceive of a mighty interaction of cosmical forces without a man-like will and a man-like purpose, humanity forms its persistent conviction that all creation has some definite object; that everything tends upward toward some vast unknown purpose or perfection. Thus arise all manner of extravagant hopes which in time fasten themselves on mankind and enslave his intellect beyond easy redemption. Hope becomes a despot, and man comes at last to use it as a final argument against reason, telling the materialist that the truth cannot be true, because it destroys hope.

As the complexity of the mind increases, and reason, emotion, and imagination develop, we behold a great refinement, subtilisation, and systematisation of idealistic thought. In the interim aesthetic and intellectual interests have arisen, demanding improvements and concessions in the dominant religions or superstitions of man. Idealising must now be made to conform to the actual facts which have been unearthed, and to the quickened sense of beauty which has grown up. At this stage the great civilisations are forming, and each fashions one or more highly technical and artistic scheme of philosophy or theology. At first the advances tend to confirm the idealistic notion. Beauty breeds wonder and imagination, whilst partial comprehension of the magnitude and operation of Nature breeds awe. Men do not pause to question whether their gods could in truth create and manage a universe so vast and intricate, but merely marvel the more at gods who are able to perform such cosmic prodigies. Likewise, each thing on earth becomes merely the type of some imaginary better thing, or ideal, which is supposed to exist either in another world or in the future of this world. Out of the pleasantest phases of all objects and experiences imagination finds it easy to build illusory corresponding objects and experiences which are all pleasant. Whilst all mankind is more or less involved in this wholesale dreaming, particular nations develop particularly notable idealistic systems, based on their especial mental and aesthetic capacity. Here Greece, foremost of cultural centres, easily leads the rest. With a primitive mythology of unexcelled loveliness, she has likewise the foremost of later idealistic philosophies, that of Plato. It is this Platonic system, sometimes operating through the clumsy covering of an alien Hebraic theology, that forms the animating force in idealism today.

The idealists of today form two classes, theological and rationalistic. The former are frankly primitive, and use the crudest and least advanced methods of argument. The latter adopt an outwardly scientific attitude and honestly believe themselves to be working from facts alone, yet are overwhelmingly influenced by the illusions of human perfectibility and a better world. In clinging to these hoary fancies, they generally seize upon the rather recently discovered and indubitably proven law of evolution to sustain them; forgetting the infinite slowness of the process, and overlooking the fact that when evolution shall have really affected our descendants to any appreciable degree, they will no longer belong to the human race, mentally or physically—any more than we belong to the simian race. Of the two idealistic types, the theological deserves respect for its accomplishments, the rationalistic for its intentions. Religion has undoubtedly been the dominant factor in facilitating human relations and enforcing a moral or ethical code of practical benefit in alleviating the sufferings of mankind. The human reason is weak in comparison to instinct and emotion, and up to the present these latter forces, in the guise of theology, have proved the only effective restraint from the disorders of utter licence and animalism. The percentage of men civilised and governed by reason is still relatively slight. True, certain religious have claimed exclusive credit. Christianity, for example, claims to have civilised Europeans; whereas in cold truth it is Europe which has civilised Christianity. The faith of Christus, adopted for political reasons by the Imperator Constantinus, was forcibly seated in power, whence it naturally assimilated to itself all the characteristics of the Graeco-Roman culture of the later Empire and of the European nations which rose from that Empire’s ashes; a culture which would have elevated to supreme dignity any religion similarly linked with it. But despite such excessive claims, it remains fairly clear that some form of religion is at least highly desirable among the uneducated. Without it they are despondent and turbulent; miserable with unsatisfied and unsatisfiable aspirations which may yet lead the civilised world to chaos and destruction. The rationalistic idealist neglects this practical consideration, and denounces religion in terms of unmeasured scorn because he knows it to be untrue. Just as the theist forgets that his faith may be fallacious though its effects be good, so does the idealistic atheist forget that his doctrine may have ill effects though it be true.’ Both are governed by emotion rather than reason in their campaign of mutual destruction. Both cling to the primitive ideal of the ought-to-be. The rationalist is honest, and therefore to be admired. But when he allows his relentless and idealistic hostility to fallacy to lead him into a destructive course, he is to be censured. He should not pull down what he cannot replace; and since a preponderance of obvious evidence is against the possibility of rational self-government of the masses, he should obey the practical judgment which forbids a gardener to saw off the tree-limb in which he is sitting, even though it be dead and useless save as a support. In his passionately intense and narrowly single-minded crusade against religion, the militant atheist shews himself as unbalanced an idealist as the Christian fanatic. Like the latter, he is following up one idea with febrile ardour and conviction; forgetting general conditions and the relative unimportance of truth to the world. Usually he acts in protest against the many undeniable evils of religion; evils which are outweighed by good effects, and which at worst are no graver than the evils inseparable from an atheistical code. It is this crusade against irremediable evils which stamps the idealist of every kind as childish. To fancy that age-old principles can be improved suddenly, or to fancy that the necessary little hypocrisies and injustices of ordinary life form a pretext for overturning the whole social structure, is in truth puerility of the most pitiful sort. The spectacle of Christians and idealistic atheists in mortal combat is indeed grotesque—one thinks of such things as the battles of the frogs and mice, or of the pygmies and the cranes.

The materialist is the only thinker who makes use of the knowledge and experience which ages have brought to- the human race. He is the man who, putting aside the instincts and desires which he knows to be animal and primitive, and the fancies and emotions which he knows to be purely subjective and linked to the recognised delusions of dreams and madness, views the cosmos with a minimum of personal bias, as a detached spectator coming with open mind to a sight about which he claims no previous knowledge. He approaches the universe without prejudices or dogmata; intent not upon planning what should be, or of spreading any particular idea throughout the world, but devoted merely to the perception and as far as possible the analysis of whatever may exist. He sees the infinity, eternity, purposelessness, and automatic action of creation, and the utter, abysmal insignificance of man and the world therein. He sees that the world is but a grain of dust in existence for a moment, and that accordingly all the problems of man are as nothing—mere trifles without relation to the infinite, just as man himself is unrelated to the infinite. He sees through the feeble fallacy of justice, and perceives the absurdity of the doctrine of an immortal personality, when in truth personality and thought come only from highly organised matter. He recognises the impossibility of such things as vague, uncorporeal intelligences—“gaseous vertebrates”, as Haeckel wittily called them. But while thus disillusioned, he does not fall into the rationalistic idealist’s error of condemning as wicked and abnormal all religious and kindred benevolent fancies. Looking beyond the bald facts of atheism, he reconstructs the dawn of the human mind and perceives that its evolution absolutely necessitates a religious and idealistic period; that theism and idealism are perfectly natural, inevitable, and desirable concomitants of primitive thought, or thought without information. That they are still desirable for the many he accepts as a plain consequence of man’s backward and atavistical nature. Actually, it can be shewn that man has made but little progress since the dawn of history save in facilities for physical comfort. What arouses the materialist to conflict is not the existence of idealism, but the extent to which idealists obtrude their illusions upon thinking men in an endeavour to befog the truth. Truth, be it pleasant or unpleasant, is the one object of the materialist’s quest—for it is the only object worthy of the quest of an enlightened mind. He seeks it not to spread it and wreck happiness, but to satisfy the craving of his intelligence for it; to establish his right to the position of a rational man. When theists or atheistical idealists try to force their childish doctrines down the throat of realistic thinkers, the trouble begins. With the humble and unobtrusive church or the quiet and undemonstrative Utopian the materialist has no quarrel. But when either of these adopts arrogant tactics and seeks to discredit a philosophy which is honest, quiet, and sincere, the eternal enmity of dissimilar thought once more becomes manifest. No manly reasoner will tamely allow himself to be lulled into mental inactivity by the emotional soothing-syrup of faith, be it faith in a supernatural goodness, or a non-existent perfectibility of humanity.

Perhaps it is in the ethical field that materialists clash most decidedly with idealists; and curiously so, since in most cases the difference is one of approach rather than of actual code. Idealists believe in a right and wrong distinct from Nature, and therefore invent something they call “sin”, building up a highly artificial system of mythology around it. They measure man’s acts not by the standard of practical value in promoting the comfort and smooth existence of the race, but by imaginary ideals of their own construction. That materialists should not believe in this mythical system of ideals enrages idealists vastly, yet when both come to apply their codes of moral government, a surprising similarity is shewn. The fact is, that on the one hand ideals are largely formed with Nature as a pattern; whilst on the other hand, an efficient, practical code of ethics must always demand a bit more than it expects. An harmonious and workable moral system must satisfy as many aspects of Nature as possible, and accommodate itself to the peculiarities of the age and place. Where an idealistic code is well grounded, the materialist leaves it unaltered as a matter of sound common sense. Where it is not, he consults Nature, history, and good taste, and advocates a system most nearly in ac- cord with these things. A study of history will shew that the basic moral ideals of the white race have been but little affected by its beliefs. Some systems bring out certain virtues more strongly than others, and some conceal vices more cleverly than others; but the general average is about the same. Of course, practical enforcement is another matter; and here the sincere materialist concedes the palm to religion. Superstition is stronger than reason, and a code will best touch the masses if sustained by supposed divine authority. In the case of our own Anglo-Saxon code, no honest materialist would wish to cause any marked alteration. With a little less Sabbatarianism and exaltation of meekness, the existing system would be admirably suited to natural wants, and even these slight defects are now wearing rapidly away. If at the present time we complain at the tendency of the church to assume a position of ostentatious moral guardianship, it is because we perceive the signs of its decay, and wish to preserve its ethical legacy as best we can in a rationalistic manner. We do not wish to see faith and morals so inextricably intertwined that the latter will collapse with the former.

Beyond the sphere of simple conduct lies the question of one’s attitude toward life as a whole. That the philosophy of materialism is pessimistic, none can deny; but much may be said in favour of a calm, courageous facing of the infinite by the resigned, disillusioned, unhoping, unemotional atom as contrasted with the feverish, pathological struggle and agony of the Christian mind, coping desperately with the mythical shadows and problems it has invented, and agitated by emotions which idealism has overstimulated instead of repressing as emotions should be repressed. The materialist has nothing to lose; the idealist is eternally suffering the pangs of disillusionment. And even the boasted theological “peace that passeth all understanding” is a weak, hollow thing as compared with the virtuous materialist’s pride in an unshackled mind and an unsullied honour. If idealism really lived up to its promises, conditions might be otherwise; but no fallacy can wholly envelop the human mind, and there are terrible moments when even the unprepared intellect of the idealist is brought face to face with the truth about the cosmos and the lack of divine justice, purpose, and destiny.

Idealism as we know it today bases itself on the false premise that emotion forms under certain conditions a perfect substitute for reason in imparting positive knowledge. Mr. Dryden expressed this sentiment with great vividness at the beginning of his “Religio Laici”:


“And as those nightly tapers disappear

When day’s bright lord ascends our hemisphere;

So pale grows Reason at Religion’s sight,

So dies and so dissolves in supernatural light.”


Religious persons will assure you that they know their faith to be true by means of sensations and intuitions too deep to be expressed. The materialist cannot but smile at this readiness to accept hallucinations as evidence. Those who make these assurances forget that other religions have undergone the same emotional experiences, and are equally certain that their respective faiths are the only true faiths; and they forget that many a man in bedlam has the certain belief that he is Alexander, Caesar, or Napoleon. The subjective is always vague, variable, and visionary. It is based on false mental images like those of dreams, and can easily be proved to have no weight whatsoever in imparting facts, or distinguishing truthfrom error. The writer can cite a subjective childhood fancy of his own which illustrates the false position of the intuitive theist. Though the son of an Anglican father and Baptist mother, and early accustomed to the usual pious tales of an orthodox household and Sunday-school, he was never a believer in the prevailing abstract and barren Christian mythology. Instead, he was a devotee of fairy tales and the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments; none of which he believed, but which seemed to him fully as true as the Bible tales, and much more attractive. Then, at an age not much above six, he stumbled on the legends of Greece—and became a sincere and enthusiastic classical pagan. Unlearned in science, and reading all the Graeco-Roman lore at hand, he was until the age of eight a rapt devotee of the old gods; building altars to Pan and Apollo, Athena and Artemis, and benignant Saturnus, who ruled the world in the Golden Age. And at times this belief was very real indeed—there are vivid memories of fields and groves at twilight when the now materialistic mind that dictates these lines knew absolutely that the ancient gods were true. Did he not see with his own eyes, beyond the possibility of a doubt, the graceful forms of dryads half mingled with the trunks of antique oaks, or spy with clearness and certainty the elusive little fauns and goat-footed old satyrs who leapt about so slyly from the shadow of one rock or thicket to that of another? He saw these things as plainly as he saw the antique oaks and the rocks and the thickets themselves, and laughed at unbelievers, for he knew. Now he realises that he saw these things with the eye of imagination only; that his devotion to the gods was but a passing phase of childish dreaming and emotionalism, to be dissipated with time and knowledge. But he has today every jot of evidence for Graeco-Roman paganism that any Christian has for Christianity, any Jew for Judaism, any Mahometan for Mahometanism, or any Lodge for Spiritualism What mixture of crude instinct, desire, illusion, fancy, auto-hypnotism, delirium, and aesthetic fervour is the religious belief of the average theist! Much of the zeal he displays is undoubtedly derived from a perversion or modification of rather baser instincts, about which a psychologist of the Freudian type could speak more authoritatively than the writer. This very connexion betwixt religious and other emotion should be significant to the observer. It is the less thoughtful and more passionate man or race that possesses the deepest religious instincts, as we see in the case of the negro. The colder and more highly developed mind of the European is the birthplace of materialism.

Idealism and Materialism! Illusion and Truth! Together they will go down into the darkness when men shall have ceased to be; when beneath the last flickering beams of a dying sun shall perish utterly the last vestige of organic life on our tiny grain of cosmic dust. And upon the black planets that reel devilishly about a black sun shall the name of man be forgotten. Nor shall the stars sing his fame as they pierce the aether with cruel needles of pale light. But who shall be so heedless of analogy as to say that men, or things having faculties like men, do not dwell on uncounted myriads of unseen planets that whirl about the far stars? Greater or lesser than our own their minds may be—probably some worlds hold duller creatures, whilst some hold beings whom we would call gods for their wisdom. But be their inhabitants greater or lesser than we, none can doubt that on every world where thought exists, there exist also the systems of Idealism and Materialism, eternally and unalterably opposed.


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Hasisevő, avagy a Gonosz Apokalipszise, A


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Harp of Alfred, The


Robert E. Howard:
Red Thunder



Howard Phillips Lovecraft:
Cthulhu hívása

Ez az egyetlen történet Lovecraft részéről, amelyben jelentős szerepet kap a szörnyisten, Cthulhu. 1926 későnyarán, kora őszén íródhatott. A dokumentarista stílusban megírt történet nyomozója, Thurston, a szemita nyelvek egyetemi kutatója darabkáról darabkára rakja össze a rejtélyes kirakóst. A fiatal kutató egyre több tárgyi és írásos bizonyítékát leli a hírhedt Cthulhu-kultusz létezésének. A kultisták a Necronomicon szövege alapján a nagy szörnyisten eljövetelét várják. A történetek a megtestesült iszonyatról beszélnek, ami átrepült az űrön és letelepedett a Földön sok millió évvel ezelőtt. Most hosszú álmát alussza tengerborította városában: Ph’ngluimglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn, vagyis R'lyeh házában a tetszhalott Cthulhu álmodik. A Csendes-óceán déli részén néhány bátor tengerész megtalálta a várost és felébresztette a Nagy Öreget. Ennek hatására őrülethullám robogott végig a Földön, több ember lelte halálát ezekben az időkben. A találkozást csak egy tengerész élte túl, de ő is gyanús körülmények között halt meg. A fiatal kutató érzi, hogy ő is erre a sorsra juthat... A novellát nagy részben Lord Tennyson Kraken című költeménye inspirálta: Cthulhu is egy csápos, polipszerű szörny, egy alvó isten (ez a gondolat nagyban Lord Dunsany műveinek Lovecraftra gyakorolt hatásának köszönhető). S. T. Joshi felveti, hogy számottevő hatást váltott ki Lovecraftra Maupassant Horlája és Arthur Machen A fekete pecsét története című története is. Maga Lovecraft e történetet roppant középszerűnek, klisék halmazának titulálta. A Weird Tales szerkesztője, Farnsworth Wright először elutasította a közlését, és csak azután egyezett bele, hogy Lovecraft barátja, Donald Wandrei bebeszélte neki, hogy más magazinnál is érdeklődnek a sztori iránt.


Howard Phillips Lovecraft:
Őrület hegyei, Az; Hallucináció hegységei, A

Egy déli sarki kutatócsoport, köztük a narrátor, William Dyer a Miskatonic Egyetemről az Antarktiszra indul 1930/31 telén. A fagyott környezetben 14, a hideg által konzerválódott idegen lényre bukkannak. Miután a kutatók több csoportra oszlanak, és az egyikről nem érkezik hír, a megmaradt tagok felkeresik az eltűntek táborát, ahol szétmarcangolt emberi és állati maradványokat találnak - néhány idegen létformának pedig mindössze hűlt helyét... Legnagyobb döbbenetükre azonban a kutatás során feltárul előttük egy évmilliókkal régebben épített, hatalmas kőváros, amely a Nagy Öregek egykori lakóhelye lehetett. A kisregényt szokás Poe Arthur Gordon Pym című kisregényének folytatásaként tekinteni, az enigmatikus és meg nem magyarázott jelentésű kiáltás, a "Tekeli-li!" miatt. Eredetileg a Weird Talesbe szánta Lovecraft, de a szerkesztő túl hosszúnak találta, ezért öt éven át hevert a kisregény felhasználatlanul a fiókban. Az Astounding végül jelentősen megváltoztatva közölte a művet, több bekezdést (nagyjából ezer szót) kihagyott, a teljes, javított verzió először 1985-ben látott napvilágot.


Abraham Merritt:
Moon Pool, The

Amikor dr. David Throckmartin elmeséli egy csendes-óceáni civilizáció ősi romjain átélt hátborzongató élményeit, dr. Walter Goodwin, a regény narrátora azzal a meggyőződéssel hallgatja a hihetetlen történetet, hogy a nagy tudós valószínűleg megzavarodott. Azt állítja ugyanis, hogy feleségét és kutatócsoportjának több tagját magával vitte egy "fényjelenség", amely az úgynevezett Holdtóból emelkedik ki teliholdas éjszakákon. Amikor azonban Goodwin eleget tesz Throckmartin kérésének, és társaival a titokzatos szigetre utazik, fantasztikus, megdöbbentő kalandok sorozata veszi kezdetét.



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