IS HAMLET A POSITIVIST?

By: Simon Augustine Blackmore

The following biography was originally published in The Riddles of Hamlet and The Newest Answers. Simon Augustine Blackmore. Boston: Stratford Company, 1917.

If any theory of Hamlet's Protestantism is untenable, what must be said of the view of certain Positivists who seek to claim through him a relationship with Shakespeare? Their claim appears the more surprising, if we glance at their philosophic system. Notwithstanding its apparent originality, which is due to modern dress and forms of thought, Positivism is the revival of the ancient doctrine that man is the measure of the universe. That all human knowledge is limited to bodily sense perceptions; that material and formal causes are unknowable; that final causes are illusions, and efficient causes simply invariable antecedents; that our intelligible world and the boundless universe, as well as the mind, heart and duty of man, are narrowed down to the mere knowledge of visible things; all these are fundamental dogmas of ancient as well as of modern Positivism.

As a religious system, Positivism admits neither the existence of the Creator, nor supernatural and spiritual agencies, nor the spirituality of the soul and its immortality in a future life of rewards and punishments; but, supplanting the personal God of the Christians by the "Great Being" called Humanity, it makes it the sole object of its veneration and cult. Mindful of these dogmas of Positivism, an intelligent reader will at once recall their multiplied contradictions in Shakespeare's works. His belief in Sacred Scripture, in God and Creator, and His all ruling Providence; his affirmation of the spirituality and immortality of the soul, and the existence of angels and evil spirits; his portrayal of preternatural agencies especially in Macbeth and Hamlet; his acceptance of purgatory, hell and heaven; his teaching concerning the efficacy of prayer, and grace, and the sacraments, as well as his ideas of Christian morality, as revealed in his good and evil characters; all are so emphatically affirmed in his dramas that his opposition to Positivism shines forth from them as brilliantly as the glaring light of day.

Apart, then, from the fact that the dramatist affords in his writings innumerable proofs that he was not a Positivist, but a believing Christian, upon what grounds do Positivists claim that Hamlet, as well as Shakespeare, is one of their own? A proof, thinks a certain professor [G. Santayana, PhD--Formerly instructor in philosophy at Harvard University; American Eccl. Review, Vol. 17, pp. 348 and 484] is found in the famous soliloquy, in which Hamlet speaks of "The undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns." Armed with this apparent proof, he attempts to inflict on Hamlet and on Shakespeare his own dogma of Positivism. The professor writes: "The metaphysical Hamlet sees a true ghost, but so far reverts to the Positivism which underlies Shakespeare's thinking, as to speak soon after of "the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns."

The Professor's assumption is clearly based on a misconception of the term, "undiscovered country," for an analysis of the soliloquy will show that Hamlet in reality admits, contrary to Positivistic doctrine, the existence of a spirit world, and merely regrets that it must remain forever "undiscovered," that is, unseen and unexplored by man in mortal life. To discover means, according to standard authorities, "to expose to view," "to bring to light,"--"to make known;" and specifically considered, it signifies: "to find and to bring to the knowledge of the world." Leif Eric and his roving Northmen landed on the coast of Massachusetts more than four hundred years before Columbus, and, nevertheless, affirms Fiske, in his History of the Discovery of America, it is an abuse of language to say that they discovered America. Though De Soto gazed on the Mississippi years before Marquette explored it, the latter is justly called the discoverer, because, while De Soto kept his knowledge to himself, Marquette gave to the world his maps and descriptions of the discovery and exploration. In Shakespeare's age, the use of the terms "discovered" and "undiscovered" country were common enough in their specific sense; many maritime rovers, following in the wake of Columbus, roamed the high seas in search of new lands, and, in giving to the world a description of their explorations, merited the name of discoverers, and were universally so acknowledged. Hence, though as a Christian, believing in the existence of the future life on the authority of Divine Revelation, Hamlet could even after his conversation with the ghostly visitant, justly call the spirit world an "undiscovered country." His father's ghost gave him indeed an assurance of a life hereafter, but was forbid, beyond the specific purpose of his visit, to gratify his curiosity concerning the affairs of the other world; and, therefore, that world still remained to Hamlet "an undiscovered country." The disembodied spirit though permitted to revisit earth in the cause of justice, was not allowed to resume human life and, like a traveller returning to his native land, to disclose to fellowmen his discoveries and explorations of the unseen spirit world.

GHOST: ... but that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porcupine:
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.

That the ghost was forbidden to blazon forth to mortal ear the secrets of the spirit world, was sufficient reason for Hamlet to regret that that region must forever remain to man in human life an "undiscovered country." The prohibition so strongly emphasized by the ghost is in strict accordance with the ordinations of Divine Providence regarding all still sojourning on earth. Truths of the supernatural order which are beyond man's native reach, have been made known to him by Divine revelation, not indeed to satisfy his curiosity, but for his spiritual or religious guidance here, and his eternal welfare hereafter. Christianity itself is a religious edifice built upon Divine Revelation, and, therefore, the faith of a Christian is necessarily a faith in God's existence and his revelation, which includes the fact of a spirit world invisible to human eye. Without this faith, says the Apostle, "it is impossible to please God."

The truth that a Christian's life on earth must be of a life of faith, and not of vision or experimental knowledge of the future world, is exemplified in Sacred Scripture. When Dives from the torments in hell prayed Father Abraham for relief, he was told: "Between us and you, there is fixed a great chaos; so that they who would pass from hence to you, cannot, nor from thence come hither." This chaos, which separates the visible from the invisible, or spirit world, seems, by the ordinary law of God, to be a gulf which bars all passing and repassing from one region to the other. Hence, the invisible world must forever remain to human life a region unseen and unexplored, an "undiscovered country," whose existence and whose nature can be known to man on earth only by Divine Revelation. This universal law commonly inviolable, flows as a consequence from the divine decree, according to which man's salvation depends upon his faith in God's Revelation; and it stood a barrier against Dives' earnest prayer. Experience has more than once attested the truth of our Savior's words that the man who will not believe the word of God on the testimony of his accredited prophets, will neither believe it on the word of one risen from the dead.

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