The most recent English translation of The Spirits’ Book has been released. This new translation is based on painstaking research of the French text, so as to provide the most faithful rendering in English of Kardec’s seminal work. Several original editions in French were analyzed, comparing all the changes that Kardec himself made to the text, with copious notes that allow any reader to reconcile the translation with the source text in French.
The Spirits’ Book is the foundational work of Spiritism, a school of thought first established in France in the mid-nineteenth century by the French educator Allan Kardec. Currently, Spiritism includes over fifteen million adherents, the eleventh largest spiritual following worldwide, ahead of more historically traditional religions such as Judaism (twelfth) and Jainism (fourteenth).
The first edition of the book was published on April 18, 1857, being received with much interest and requiring a new edition soon after. The second edition was released on March 18, 1860, and incorporated a significant amount of additional material that the author amassed in the intervening years, doubling the size of the book. The second edition established the structure with which readers are familiar today, undergoing only minor modifications made by the author in later editions. The book went through a total of seventeen editions in France alone between its initial release in 1857 and Kardec’s death in 1869.
Starting with the second edition, Kardec decided to place the description Philosophie Spiritualiste (Spiritualist Philosophy) at the top of the title page of the book. Most readers would not immediately grasp the meaning of such a deceptively simple description, which only provides a faint indication of the extraordinary breadth and depth of topics covered in this seminal work. Despite the relative brevity—considering its large scope—the book represents nothing short of a philosophical treatise. Most important, however, is that, beyond its comprehensive content, the work stands out because of the ideas it conveys, some of which were truly revolutionary at the time. Some of them can, in fact, still be considered revolutionary to this date.
A Book Surprisingly Ahead of its Time
The book came out two years before Charles Darwin published the classic On the Origin of Species. Remarkably, question #50 of The Spirits’ Book (question #21 in the first edition)[b] already stated that “the man you call Adam was neither the first nor the only one to populate the Earth,” acknowledging that “physical … differences come from … climate, lifestyle, and habits” (question #52 in the second edition, #22 in the first edition), and that “living beings … are … subject to the law of progress.” Indeed, Kardec’s book went on to state that “the race that populates the Earth today will disappear someday and will be replaced gradually by more perfect beings. Such races will succeed the current one, just as the current one succeeded others that were even more primitive” (question #185 in the second edition, #138 in the first edition).
Figure 1: Title pages of the first and second editions of Le Livre des Esprits. The first edition of the book was published in Paris in 1857 and included 501 questions. The much augmented second edition was published in 1860, and contained 1019 questions, establishing the structure that readers are familiar with today. (Translator’s collection)
By itself, the mention in Kardec’s book of the concept of a species’ gradual progress (evolution) is extraordinary. But in a radical take, the book proposes that it is not only organic beings that are subject to the evolutionary process. Animals, for instance, “have … in them a principle independent of matter … which survives their body” (#597), “a soul … much less evolved than that of man” (#597) that “follows a law of progress” (#601), demonstrating “the unity of design and progress discernible in all of God’s works” and that “everything in nature is connected by links” that man “cannot yet discern” (#604). By knowing that “the intelligent principle is refined, gradually individualized, and prepared for life,” however, man must realize that “there is nothing humiliating about this origin.” Rather it is a demonstration of “the greatness of God in the marvelous harmony that establishes the solidarity of all things in nature” (#607), through this gradual development that allows the spirit to “enter the human phase” (#609). Thus, even before the debate creation versus evolution presented itself, The Spirits’ Book had already established an elegant framework to reconcile the row: both the material and the spiritual principles evolve in parallel and interdependently. “Therefore, everything serves a purpose, everything is linked in nature, from the primitive atom to the archangel, who also began as an atom, in an admirable law of harmony, which [our] limited intellect cannot yet grasp in its entirety” (#540).
In other instances, the book makes surprising predictions of scientific discoveries, such as the existence of matter that does not conform to the classical definition that prevailed in the nineteenth century—any substance that has mass and takes up space—because it is “so ethereal and subtle as to not make any impression upon [our] senses … yet, it is still matter, even though [we] do not see it as such.” (#22). The detection of the electron in 1897 was only the first step in a series of discoveries that proved the limitations of the classical concept of matter. Similarly, in question #29 we read that particles exist which are “imponderable”—in other words, massless, something that science would only confirm well into the twentieth century. Equally surprising is the later confirmation by science that “there is no void” in “any part of universal space” (#36), since fields—electromagnetic, gravitational, or otherwise—fill up space completely.
On a much different topic, four years before the United States would enter a civil war over the issue of slavery—resulting in the loss of over a million people, or three percent of its population back then—The Spirits’ Book ascertained in question #829 (#419 in the first edition) that “slavery is an abuse of power that will gradually disappear with progress, as will all other abuses.” At that time of the writing, slavery was still legal not only in the USA, but also in Russia, China, India, Persia, Brazil, and other countries. It was progressively abolished with time, as predicted by the Spirits.
In its coverage of ethics, many of the book’s tenets are radically pioneering. Question #822 establishes that “in order to be fair, human law must sanction the equality of rights between men and women. Any special privilege granted to one and not the other is contrary to justice. The emancipation of women heralds the progress of civilization; their servitude is an indication of barbarity.” This was advocated at a time when women’s rights were severely lacking in all areas. In the case of voting rights alone, the United States would enact women’s suffrage in 1920. France would do it in 1944.
This small sample gives us a glimpse into the wide scope and advanced concepts present in the book. In fact, the word Spiritisme did not even exist before Le Livre des Esprits was published, which is tantamount to saying that it does not make sense to talk about the Spiritist Doctrine without recourse to Kardec in general, and to The Spirits’ Book in particular. Kardec’s later books may all be seen as the expansion of themes that can be traced back to this foundational work.
The number of translations that have been made is surprising: two translations in Italian, two in Japanese, two in Polish, two in Russian, three in German, three in Spanish, twelve in Portuguese, six in English (including the present one), and three in Esperanto, in addition to one translation each in Arabic, Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Hungarian, Norwegian, Persian, Romanian, Swedish, Tagalog, Turkish, and Vietnamese.
In fact, the present English version derived from the preparation of the first Chinese translation. Appendix 1 includes a detailed account of the reasons for this new English edition, as well as many considerations about the translation process.
The publishing of The Spirits’ Book jumpstarted the dissemination of Spiritist ideas, which attracted the interest of a significant number of people. In France alone, it drew the attention of prominent writers such as Victor Hugo, Théophile Gautier (who wrote the novel Spirite), Honoré de Balzac (whose novels Les proscrits, La recherche de l’absolu, and Peau de chagrin are filled with Spiritist concepts), and Victorien Sardou (who wrote the play Spiritisme). It also attracted the interest of a host of scientists, including the famous astronomer Camille Flammarion (who gave a eulogy at Kardec’s funeral) and Nobel Prize winners Charles Richet (medicine), Marie Curie (physics and chemistry) and Pierre Curie (physics). Much to their own astonishment, the Curies’ verdict on Spiritist phenomena did not leave room for doubt, as they considered their séance experiences “convincing, a matter of the highest interest,” and “impossible to deny.”
Figure 2: Excerpt from Pierre Curie’s letter dated April 14, 1906, to his friend George Gouy, professor at the Faculté des Sciences de Lyon: “The result is that these phenomena really exist, and it is no longer possible for me to doubt it. It is incredible, but that’s the way it is, and it is impossible to deny it after the séances we have been to under perfect control conditions.” (Image courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France)