THE result of recent historical studies, whether on anthropological, sociological, archeological, or religious lines, has brought into ever clearer vision as the substratum of all civilizations that stage of culture from which this book takes its title. One consequence is: general recognition of animism as a life factor, the power of which is not yet exhausted, the study of which fascinates because of its almost infinite variety and its persistent force. The words "animism," "animistic," have come to fall ever so lightly from tongue and pen and meet us at every turn. Yet what animism is few who use the term adequately realize. Though Sir E. B. Tylor in his imperishable monograph on Primitive Culture exhibited many of its phenomena and blocked out the main lines of investigation over forty years ago, comparatively few understand its significance or are acquainted with its manifestations even yet. Fewer still comprehend the doings and beliefs as actual or realize the state of mind--operations of perception and reason--of those whose acts and beliefs we call animistic.
There seemed to be room, then, for a small volume which should exhibit the phenomena and the related and inferred beliefs of this complex stage in a simple manner, with sufficiently numerous citations to illustrate clearly, yet without the overlay of too abundant references. The references here given have been drawn almost entirely from very recent and authoritative sources gathered in the writer's own reading, easily accessible in the current of books on travel now pouring from the press. Most of the volumes to which reference has been made in this discussion belong to the twentieth century. Moreover these sources are primary. Recourse has seldom been had even to so valuable a collection of facts as Fraser's quite exhaustive Golden Bough in its third edition. The facts there adduced were employed by the talented author for quite another end than the present writer's, and this might easily have led to confusion.
What value a knowledge of the features of this agglomerate of facts and beliefs has becomes evident when it is remembered that over half the population of the globe is animistic in its main features of faith and action, that a large part of humanity entertains beliefs only one remove away from this and regards as fundamental a philosophy of life grounded in animistic thought, and that at least three basal tenets of Christianity itself are common to Christians and animists. Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, the larger part of the population of India, the North Asiatic tribes, Oceanicans, Africans, and American Indians are, or were recently, animists. No stage of culture, no great religion, has ever been able to disown some of the commonest heirlooms left by primitive modes of thinking. From the standpoints both of culture and of religion animism may be described (not defined) as the taproot which sinks deepest in racial human experience and continues its cellular and fibrous structure in the tree trunk of modern conviction. It is not less important than the surface roots of accrued beliefs that branch out on all sides, drawing a wide-sourced sustenance, while the taproot penetrates the subsoil of man's most intimate soul-substance.
Hardly less interesting is the fact that in some fundamentals--religious and social--the advanced thought of the day is returning to some convictions essential to animistic culture. One would not be drawing the long bow were he to affirm that in that stage every act in life had a religious aspect. Nothing a man could do but might be regarded as either pleasing to spirits or the reverse. One might say that animists went far beyond Matthew Arnold's dictum that conduct is three-fourths of life--for them it embraced the whole of life. That is precisely what advanced thinkers are maintaining today, and in that tenet is the best promise for improvement in modern conditions among all classes.
In another aspect, too, the social, we are returning to early conceptions. Under totemism, the foundation of which is an animistic view of things non-human, the individualism that became so marked a feature in some philosophies of the last centuries and gave impetus even to revolutions was unknown. The characteristic of totemic and derived society was much nearer that slogan which has now advanced beyond the circle of purely socialistic propaganda: "Each for all and all for each."
Theologically also we find ourselves returning to old, old views of man's relation to the supernatural. The comparatively recent doctrine of sin is being discarded. The implacability of Deity, the notion of that Deity's infinity as the measure of offence, making of sin an enormity that clouds eternally the face of God and requires an infinite and exactly equivalent penalty, no longer holds the entire field. On the other hand, the act itself, its effect on the doer and his kind, its indelibility of effect on the one side, and the propitiability of the offended Spirit, his desire to have man reinstate himself in divine favor--the willingness to come more than half way (to state the matter in the language of every-day life)--are now standing out in relief.
It seems hardly necessary to remark that, of course, in all these cases the effect is not that of the return of a circle's circumference into itself. There has been marked, if spiral, progress, progress comparable to that of the earth in the solar system toward its distant goal in the constellation of Hercules. The one encouraging result of this study is that from the beginning the heart of man was essentially sound, though his vagaries were many during the centuries in which he was feeling his way. To use a significant term, man has ever been essentially theotropic, though he was not always conscious of the direction of his tropism.
In studying this subject, then, we are engaged in discovering the paths our own ancestors have trodden, and our gratitude is due them for leading us with increasing certitude to a nobler way of thought, so that we see in the heavens not deities, but the work of One; and in the earth the effects of that same One's immanence, his gift to his sons and daughters.
The author takes this opportunity to acknowledge with gratitude the kindness of Mr. Francis Medhurst who has read all the proofs and offered many valuable suggestions.