Olaf Stapledon

Mystical Experience of Olaf Stapledon

William Olaf Stapledon (1886 – 1950) was an influential British philosopher and author. He earned B.A. and M.A. degrees in Modern History at Balliol College, University of Oxford, and a Ph.D. degree in philosophy at the University of Liverpool. Stapledon wrote nearly two dozen fiction and non-fiction works, including Sirius: A Fantasy of Love and Discord; Star Maker; Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future; and Darkness and the Light.

During World War I, Stapledon served as a conscientious objector. He also worked at the front for three and a half years as an ambulance driver with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit in France and Belgium, earning the French War Cross for bravery. His experience during the war shaped his pacifist beliefs. Stapledon spoke at the World Congress of Intellectuals for Peace in Wrocław, Poland in 1948; he attended the Conference for World Peace in New York City in 1949; and, in 1950 (shortly before his death), he became involved with the anti-apartheid movement.

Stapledon described his mystical experiences in his non-fiction book, Saints and Revolutionaries, as follows:

“Sometimes, when I am more than usually awake, I do have a deeply moving experience. There is nothing mysterious, or in any way magical about it. It is just ordinary experience of the world and oneself, only much more lucid and comprehensive. I cannot but regard it as the rightful compass-needle of my whole life. It may happen unexpectedly in response to some particular and even insignificant event, which now suddenly opens up vistas of significance; or it may come when I try persistently to ‘get the feel of’ being a self in relation to other selves and the rest of the universe. In either case it brings an unusually precise and poignant awareness both of my present surroundings and of things remote in space and in time. It seems to be simply a very comprehensive act of attention, an attending to everything at once, or to the wholeness of everything at once. And in response to all that act of attention reveals I feel a very special emotion which I can describe only as a tension of fervour and peace. The experience is one which, if I were less sceptical, I might easy regard as some sort of contact with ‘God’. But being sceptical I refrain from this interpretation. There may be a sense in which the old religious language is true, but in our day it is far less true than misleading…

But what about this ‘something discovered in the depths of one’s own being’? This I interpret as a metaphorical way of saying that in persistent contemplation of myself I discover, beneath all the personal desires which make up the everyday ‘I’, another desire or will, so alien from the everyday ‘I’ as to seem indeed another being. It is a detached will for the good, not for my good nor even for mankind’s good, but for the good of the universe, whatever that may turn out to involve. I recognise that this will ought to be the supreme determinant of my conduct, and in a feeble sort of way I strive to submit my normal self to it. I recognise also that in some sense this will is a potentiality of all minds. Inevitably the awakening of a mind must lead it to this desire, this will. Evidently, then, this will is a very important factor in the universe. But what its metaphysical status is, I do not pretend to know.

To say all this is to suggest merely my own reaction to an experience which I cannot at all clearly grasp, let alone describe. All I can say of it is that it gives meaning to life, that it is the supreme consolation, the supreme inspiration, and yet also, strangely, a most urgent spur to action.”

Quoted from Saints and Revolutionaries by Olaf Stapledon.

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