Mysticism and Vitalism

by Evelyn Underhill

Featured in Mountain Record 24.1, Fall 2005

All things,” said Heracleitus, “are in a state of flux. “everything happens through strife.” “Reality is a condition of unrest.” Such is also the opinion of Bergson and Alexander; who, agreeing in this with the conclusions of physical science, look upon the real as dynamic rather than static, as becoming rather than being perfect, and invite us to see in Time —the precession or flux of things—the very stuff of reality—

“From the fixed lull of heaven she saw
Time like a pulse shake fierce,
Through all the worlds"—

said Rosetti of the Blessed Damozel. So Bergson, while ignoring if he does not deny the existence of the “fixed lull,” the still Eternity, the point of rest, finds everywhere the pulse of Time, the vast unending storm of life and love. Reality, says Bergson, is pure creative Life; a definition which excludes those ideas of perfection and finality involved in the idealist's concept of Pure Being as the Absolute and Unchanging One. This life, as he sees it, is fed from within rather than upheld from without. It evolves by means of its own inherent and spontaneous creative power. The biologist's Nature “so careful of the type;” the theologian's creator transcending his universe, and “holding all things in the hollow of His hand:” these are gone, and in their place we have a universe teeming with free individuals, each self-creative, each evolving eternally, yet towards no term.

Here, then, the deep instinct of the human mind that there must be a unity, an orderly plan in the universe, that the strung-along beads of experience do really form a rosary, though it be one which we cannot repeat, is deliberately thwarted. Creation, Activity, Movement; this, says Vitalism, rather than any merely apparent law and order, any wholeness, is the essential quality of the Real—is the real: and life is an eternal Becoming, a ceaseless changefulness. At its highest it may be conceived as “the universe flowering into deity”... the key of Creation, so we are invited to see in that uninterrupted change which is the condition of our normal consciousness, a true image, a microcosm of the living universe as a part of which that consciousness has been evolved.

If we accept this theory, we must then impute to life in its fullness—the huge, many leveled, many colored life, the innumerable worlds which escape the rhythm of our senses; not merely that patch of destiny far beyond that with which it is credited by those who hold to a physico-chemical theory of the universe. We must perceive it, as some mystic have done, “the beating of the Heart of god;” and agree with Heracleitus that “there is but one wisdom, to understand the knowledge by which all things are steered through the All.” Union with reality—apprehension of it—will upon this hypothesis be union with life at its most intense point: in its most dynamic aspect. It will be a deliberate harmony set up with the Logos which that same philosopher described as “man's most constant companion.” Ergo, says the mystic, union with a Personal and Conscious spiritual existence, immanent in the world—one form, one half of the union which I have always sought, since this is clearly life in its highest manifestation. Beauty, Goodness, Splendor, love, all those shining words which exhilarate the soul, are but the names of aspects or qualities picked out by human intuition as characteristic of this intense and eternal Life in which is the life of human beings.