I think you told me that you had found the Bertrand Russell unreadable. This is quite as it should be. You asked me some time ago to suggest books for reading; but since I am rather out of touch with the world of books as it is today, and also don't know what is available in Ceylon, I have not been able to give you many positive indications. But at least I can give you a negative indication—don't read Russell, not for his philosophy anyway. Russell's influence (in the English-speaking world, that is to say) is very great, and it is almost wholly pernicious. He accepts 'scientific common sense' as the basis for his thought, and this is precisely the thing I am at pains to combat in the Notes.[a] Russell's philosophy is rather like the gaudy cover to his book—patchy and specious. The best things about him are his repeated admissions of failure, often just at the point where he seems about to recant his former views and make a real advance. But his roots are too firmly embedded in 'scientific common sense'.
Physics assures us that the occurrences which we call 'perceiving objects' are at the end of a long causal chain which starts from the objects, and are not likely to resemble the objects except, at best, in certain very abstract ways.(With this you may compare PHASSA from the words 'But when (as commonly)...' to the end.) Then Russell says
We all start from 'naive realism', i.e., the doctrine that things are what they seem. We think that grass is green, that stones are hard, and that snow is cold. But physics assures us that the greenness of grass, the hardness of stones, and the coldness of snow, are not the greenness, hardness, and coldness that we know in our own experience, but something very different. ...Naive realism leads to physics, and physics, if true, shows that naive realism is false. Therefore naive realism, if true, is false; therefore it is false.... These considerations induce doubt....
On p. 303 he tells us 'I do not, it is true, regard things as the object of inquiry, since I hold them to be a metaphysical delusion.' A metaphysical delusion? Nonsense! Things are given in immediate experience, and as soon as we enter upon reflexion we are directly aware that 'There are things'. (As for not regarding them as the object of inquiry, you have only to look at the opening of the note on FS to see that there can be two opinions about that.) 'The net result' claims Russell 'is to substitute articulate hesitation for inarticulate certainty.' If he had claimed to replace articulate certainty by inarticulate hesitation, I should feel more inclined to agree with him.
Crome Yellow,[c] on the other hand, like all Huxley's early books, and also his later books when he is not being mystical or trying to reconstruct the world, is instructive in its destructiveness (even if I have long ago learned the lessons). Perhaps destructiveness (or at least this kind of destructiveness) is more necessary for the West than the East, since the West thinks more than the East—it is more literate, anyway, whereas the East practises more than the West—and consequently has a greater accumulation of wrong views (I am speaking of Ethics). In my own case, certainly, a great deal of rubbish had to be cleared away before I could begin to approach the Buddha's Teaching, and here I have much to thank Huxley for. But Huxley's later works have become more and more mystical and constructive, and then he writes nonsense. (It is astonishing the way good European writers and artists run to seed when they settle in America.) Practically everything, for example, that is said by Mr. Propter in After Many A Summer is misleading in one way or another (he speaks of the Pali texts, but he preaches Mahāyāna.) The Fifth Earl is much more instructive.
But in After Many A Summer, at least, Huxley does not speak in praise of sensuality (i.e. sex[d]); whereas in his most recent books it seems that the achievement of a satisfactory sexual relationship is exalted, along with chemical mysticism, as among the highest aims to be striven for. This idea, of course, is not so uncommon: there seems to be a widespread view, not in Ceylon only, that if a man does not become a monk—Buddhist or other—it is his duty to marry. This is quite mistaken. The Buddha's Teaching is perfectly definite—a satisfactory sexual relationship within the limits of the third precept (which, however, allows rather more latitude than is commonly supposed), though allowable for an upāsaka, comes a bad third. If you can't be a bhikkhu, be a brahmacārī upāsaka; if you can't manage that, then keep the third precept (preferably limiting yourself to your wife or wives). The Buddha condemns the notion N'atthi kāmesu doso—There's no harm in sensuality—(A. III,111: i,266; Ud. VI,8: 71)—as a wrong view that swells the charnel grounds, i.e. leads one to repeated births and deaths. To get out of samsāra, first this view must be given up, and then sensuality itself must be given up—an easy or difficult matter according to circumstances, but usually difficult.
Joyce's Ulysses is a destructive book, and so too is Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon is a very entertaining writer, and I can recommend the Decline and Fall as profitable reading if ever you are feeling complacent about the wisdom and virtues of the human race. He is incapable of writing a dull page, whether he is discussing circumcision amongst the Ethiopians or the Pandects of Justinian. (I am, personally, very fond of Gibbon's account of a particularly unsavoury character called George of Cappadocia—better known as St. George of England. George of Cappadocia started his career as a successful army contractor, and eventually rose by extremely questionable methods to the episcopal throne of Egypt, where he spent his time liquidating his enemies. The celebrated 'dragon' slain by St. George was none other than St. Athanasias, his rival to the bishopric of Alexandria and a man of considerable importance in both ecclesiastical and secular history. The English pretend that nothing is known of the life of their patron saint, which I cannot but regard as wishful thinking.)
And the footnotes! 'The inhabitants of Oxyrhincus, who worshipped a small fish in a magnificent temple.' Here you have the full weight of Gibbon's contempt for 'superstition' in all its forms, and expressed with the utmost economy of words. 'Grotius [a Dutch theologian], who has so accurately defined the limits of omnipotence....' Poor Grotius! No, don't miss the footnotes, whatever you do. And doesn't he infuriate the Christians!
Since the book contains about three thousand pages and covers fourteen centuries (100-1500 A.D.—the Roman Empire had an incredibly long death-agony), you would not be able to read it in a week-end: a good occasion might be if ever you are confined to bed for a month or so. One must read Gibbon slowly in order to relish the full flavour of his irony and his perfectly balanced sentences;[e] and a small atlas is useful for reference. I have read the entire work three times since being in Ceylon (in the earlier days of my amoebiasis), and I am quite ready to start again.
The communicators in the Willett scripts were the people who, while living, founded the Society for Psychical Research.[f] This, no doubt, is the reason for their interest in experiment, rather than that scientific investigations are a normal part of existence as a discarnate spirit. Henry Sidgwick was the first President and Myers and William James (the American psychologist, brother of Henry James) were Presidents in 1900 and 1894-5 respectively. Gurney was an early member. An account of the founding of the Society is given in G. N. M. Tyrell's The Personality of Man. The Society is still active.
The Ven. Thera mentioned the communications he had received from his brother, one of which seemed to be referring to myself—so no doubt I am 'under observation', as presumably we all are. About spirits in the East, one of the reasons for their being here may be that given in the Ratana Sutta, second verse (Sn. 223), where it is said that human beings bring them offerings (balim) day and night. The Buddha, in certain Sutta passages, encourages laymen to make offerings to those spirits who are capable of receiving them. This, I think, is more than just the offering of merits. (I never advise anyone not to make material offerings to spirits, but to be quite clear in their mind what they are doing. Gifts given to anyone, human or not, bring merit, but do not lead to nibbāna. And spirits certainly do, upon occasion, give protection. I am not in agreement with the modern sceptical tendency.)
The reason for my (qualified) approval of self as 'me as I know myself' was rather to mark disapproval of Myers's notion of self as the 'subliminal', which ex hypothesi is beyond the range of what they rather unfortunately call 'conscious knowledge'—by which they mean reflexive awareness. I do not by any means wish to give the impression that Balfour has resolved the problem of 'self'—being a puthujjana he does not know what he is talking about when he speaks of 'self'—; but if I were asked 'What is the normal meaning of the word attā in the Suttas?' I would reply 'It means "me as I know myself in the act of reflection"', though I would go on to say that this is not in the very least an answer to the question 'What is "self"?' (See ATTĀ, first paragraph.)
Yes, I have read one or two descriptions of death (autobiographical, of course), and they are much in agreement with your account of Stead's death. Did you, by any chance, read this account in a book called Four from the Dead? It contains communications from four people who had died—one was Stead, and one was the medium's own husband (a doctor who had committed suicide by swallowing poison while walking along the road). I forget how the other three died, but I remember that the doctor said that after taking poison (cyanide, I believe—very quick) he suddenly found himself standing and looking down at his own dead body on the ground. As you quite rightly point out, the new surroundings may be warmer than what one has been accustomed to—that is, if one has not taken the precaution of becoming sotāpanna.
[67.a] In this connexion, though you may find the note on Fundamental Structure as unreadable as Russell, there will, perhaps, be those more professionally philosophical than yourself who do manage to read Russell but yet are dissatisfied with him and all that his thinking implies. Possibly they may find that the note on FS offers something quite, quite different, and certainly more satisfying aesthetically. (I rather flatter myself that the note on FS says a great deal in a few elegant pages. Not everybody will agree; but at least I do not think that anybody can accuse me of verbosity.) [Back to text]
[67.b] Russell allows, elsewhere, that physics can never be more than probably true, which means to say that there is no logical reason why it should not sometimes be false. But 'scientific common sense' is an act of faith that in fact physics is always true, and experimental evidence to the contrary is not enough to shake this faith. [Back to text]
[67.c] The house described in the book really exists: it is Beckley (Park), near Oxford. The late Ven. Ñānamoli Thera used to know the people who live there, and was an occasional visitor. (I met them once in London, and found them very much less interesting than Huxley's characters. We played bridge.) [Back to text]
[67.d] Of course, listening to Beethoven also is sensuality, but when you have said 'sex' you have said all. A man who can give up sex can give up Beethoven. [Back to text]
[67.e] Gibbon tells us that, apart from the first three chapters, which he wrote out three times before he was satisfied with the style, he wrote out the book once only, and it was printed direct from this first draft. Even in writing this letter to you I have had to make two drafts, and this fair copy contains erasures and corrections. [Back to text]
[67.f] I have just discovered, by chance, that both the Pali Text Society and the Society for Psychical Research were founded in 1882. Those enterprising Victorians! [Back to text]
[67.1] Russell: The book being discussed is An Inquiry Into Meaning and Truth. [Back to text]
[67.2] Grotius is also credited with founding international law. According to Gibbon's account it was George of Cappodocia who was slain (in 361 A.D.), whereas Athanasius died of old age in 373. [Back to text]