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Hours with the MysticsReview - Hours with the Mystics
by Robert Alfred Vaughan
Kessinger Publishing, 1856
Review by A.P. Bober
May 15th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 20)

With the exception of Bucke's Cosmic Consciousness which is more evolutionary, Vaughan's 1856 work is the most sophisticatedly literary, if evasivly serpentine, of the chronological works on mysticism, whether interpretive survey or collection of readings.  The general public no doubt only knows Evelyn Underwood's overestimated Mysticism.  The more knowledgeable may prefer Walter Stace's Teachings of the Mystics or Bruno Borchert's more recent bottle of cognac, Mysticism.

It is easier to list the categories of mystics Vaughan covers than to explain either his method or his point of view.  The first of the "two volumes in one," after etymology, and talk of formalistic kinds (36) of mysticism, theopathetic, with its transitive and intransitive subclasses, theosophic, and theurgic, discusses almost nothing east of Greece, or, later, in the second volume, beyond the Sufis.  He next presents Plato and his aftermath among the western and some eastern ecclesiastics, with deservedly important focus on the Areopagite Pseudo-Dionysius up through some Franco-Italian exemplars and a lot of the early Germans. The second volume begins with the Reformation to discuss, among others, the alchemists, Behmen (Jacob Boehme), Rosicrucians, revivals of neo-Platonism, Quietism against which he burns, Swedenborg, relations with Romanticism, and chapters in resume. Vaughan features some mystics that might escape even the seasoned mysticism surfer:  a second St. Victor, Adolf Arnstein, Brigitta, various Lutheran mystics, Joana Leade, and Antoinette Bourignon. 

Some may grumble over his orthodox rejections of "error":  mysticism [xxvii] is "confessedly more or less a mistake," but if it is (xxxiii) "often a dream, it is commonly a dream in the right direction," being a significant chapter in the story of humanity.  It is (11) a "mysterious religious affection" which he ultimately defines (22) as "that form of error which mistakes for a divine manifestation the operations of a merely human faculty."  Thus, in a few fell swoops he misconceives the butterfly not yet pinned of mysticism as necessarily religious, never considering, except for being somehow (21) "incorporated in . . . atheism," this or agnostic versions that must have been known to him, e.g., The Story of My Heart by the naturalist Richard Jefferies.  He also depreciates thereby as mere faculty the human body.

The method he uses to forward an argument whose purpose has to be teased from the text is that of the dramatic dialogue in which the Socrates speaking the author's voice is named Atherton, uniting Gower the encyclopedist with Willoughby the literarian and minor others, all playing claques for Vaughan-Atherton.  Ultimately it resolves itself in a metaphoric anti-Götterdämmerung (368-74) where the openly male-chauvinist author of another age makes triumph Sun over Flame, living scripture, as it were, of a new Adam and Eve, over dark mystical revelation in a way that recalls the spirit of "Don Juan in Hell" from Shaw's "Man and Superman."  There he wants to put Intuition and Imagination on one side and Reason on the other, contradictorily making Understanding (361) mean reasoning, deliberation, judgment with Coleridge, yet later (365) opposing it to Reason, in a way we moderns call right brain versus left, heart versus head.  That Weber's charismatic authority as personal revelation historically transmutes to legal-rational scripture escapes him as it did not Bucke who knew that non-institutional charismatic mystics and prophets simmer what become encrusted texts.  As son Wycliffe's helpful 1879 preface to the third edition, not available in this 1856 version, implies, the frustrated father's inner playwright interwove Deipnosophist after-dinner drama within the increasingly synthesized text that added revealing points in the form of chapter epigrams, brief textual quotes, and footnotes too long spilled over as endnotes, where much German and Latin, along with a little Greek and Spanish, quotation is left either raw or occasionally rendered in English, at least by paraphrase.  So you may to a point read it as a novel.

Overall, the text may strike the motivated or educated reader as wordily nineteenth-century and remarkably unclear as to author's intent despite the philosophic clues he strews about.  They say that the similarly baggaged Underhill, not so burdened with Latin and especially the Greek that went out of style by the turn into her half-century, hated Vaughan.  His historical-empirical and skeptical though no less doctrinaire, rationalism slapped the blush out of the cheeks of this proto-feminist.  "So what would make me," you ask, "subject myself to such opportunities for mental frustration?"  Exactly this:  texts and names like the ones I've mentioned offer a cornucopia from which to choose material for your own joyful self-development.  A mature, efficient reader learns never to read anything slavishly from cover to cover, certainly before finding a lodestar author and companion for the road.  So choose, sister and brother, just those fruits from the horn that nourish you, including fruit of your own creation, fearing not hoary tomes like Vaughan's that inform--we deceitfully say "anticipate"--subsequent thinkers such as Underhill and Happold, Stace and Borchert, not to mention the stand-alone Bucke.



©2007 Anthony P. Bober


A.P. Bober has studied a psychology spanning Skinner and a humanistic-clinical view based on existential phenomenology and had been a PhD candidate in a substantive yet philosophic European-based sociology including the "critical" view.  His teaching augmented courses in group theory/"small-group developmental dynamics" (lab) while introducing "sociology of knowledge" and "issues in biological anthropology," with publications in the first two fields.  Currently he is writing a book on mystical experience as metaphorically tied to neuroendocrinology.


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