SHAKESPEARE’S PHILOSOPHER-GHOSTS: Mystical Empire & the Multi-verse

by Tom McBride

Shakespeare’s Philosopher-Ghosts

Tom McBride

     Ghosts all tell the same story: that what we thought was over and settled is not so; that miscreants can’t get away with their crimes and you can’t cut off and steal someone’s hand without their coming back as ghosts to claim it. The motto of ghosts is what Faulkner once said: “The past isn’t over; it’s not even past.” This is also the typical message of literary ghosts and part of the fun of ghost stories. The premise is that death settles nothing, in a way a comforting idea, and if you throw in the spookiness of ghosts, as long as we readers are safe from them, then the whole thing adds up to a most attractive human experience.

     Shakespeare is no exception. His three main ghosts all have roughly the same function.  Caesar’s ghost comes to Brutus to tell him that killing Caesar has not ended the Roman dreams of empire and that the future emperors are even now gathering to defeat him in battle. Banquo’s ghost tells Macbeth that he may have murdered Banquo but that his sins and his guilt will find him out and that the whole assassination scheme will end badly. Hamlet’s father’s ghost tells Hamlet that a great wrong has been done and that it is Hamlet’s job to make it right. Caesar, Banquo, Hamlet, Sr.: they are all dead, but they are really not, and their murders have settled nothing—the past is not done yet.

      Sometimes this whole thing is also a little embarrassing. Respectable society wants to live in the present and not bebothered by family secrets or shameful back stories. Freud, in his essay on “The Uncanny,” termed this the sort of thing that should remain hidden but won’t. Of course, Freud was drawn to this idea because it reminded him of the return of repressed instincts that should be kept in the psychic closet but always seem to get out. This is why so-called respectable women came to him to cure their hysterical episodes, which stemmed from something traumatic that happened long ago that they would just as soon forget but can’t quite do so, really.

     At first, we may think that Shakespeare’s three ghosts are generally all the same and have identical functions as plot-turners. The past is not over—not even in the past. Yet a closer look shows that there are philosophical distinctions among the three ghosts that are worth a look. Let us start with great Caesar’s ghost.

      We might assume that Caesar’s ghost is an immaterial phantom. How else could formerly living matter rise from the dead? Think again. We don’t need his ghost at all in order to know that what Caesar represented, alive or ghostly, has never died. This is the dream of empire, of conquest, of control and influence over vast territory. Even today, the idea has not perished in the minds of Putin and Xi and their followers. We could call this the “recurring ghost of empire,” but wait a minute. If the universe is made of matter, then how does such nationalistic and imperial consciousness get transferred from one human being to another over eons of time—from Rome to Mongolia to Persia to London to Washington, D.C.? The consciousness of empire, whether actualized or not, is hardly the only aspiration, hope, or anxiety so moved from consciousness to consciousness over the centuries—there is also, for instance, fascism, democracy, tolerance, and apocalypse. How does this happen in a material universe? If we are persuaded that the mind is a function of the brain, how do mere concatenations of neurons get us to conscious thoughts of empire?

     Matter can get us to the behaviors of empires—swords and guns—but much less obviously the idea of empire. One solution to this conundrum is the idea of panpsychism: that matter is itself tacitly conscious in some so far unknown and perhaps unknowable way. Only if there is some prototypical level of awareness in neurons, electrons, and quarks can there emerge not only my awareness of wanting empire but also my awareness that it is I who wants it and that I should seek out others who do as well.

     We could otherwise be left with an unworkable choice: that matter itself, left to its own devices, is too incoherent to account for organized consciousness and its inheritance, or that consciousness is itself a ghost, something totally apart from molecules and atoms. Phillip Goff has explored this enigma beautifully in Galileo’s Error.  It seems more likely, and more interesting to posit that Shakespeare’s haunting Caesar is not so much a ghost as a literary device that raises questions about how a material universe can produce what seems like a ghost—the mind’s great intangible awareness of itself. Indeed, when we see great Caesar’s ghost onstage or read him on the page, we are using our material tools of vision and ink (or fonts) and cognitive neurology.

     Caesar then is a Pan-psychic Ghost.

     If we may skip Banquo and Macbeth for a moment and go to Hamlet, we will find that his father’s spirit was a Mystical Ghost. How so? Was Hamlet’s encounter with his father’s ghost a mystical experience? A religious one?

     Modern philosophy helps us with these questions, and it begins with a skepticism worthy of Hamlet himself.  Such philosophy has long suspected what is sometimes called “naïve realism,” or the proposition that when we see X we see it precisely and accurately and wholly. Too much research has been done on misperception for that view to be easily sustained, but above all, there is the notion that natural selection has evolved human animals to see what it is necessary to see for survival and little else. Bats can hear better than we can, and octopi can feel better than we can, and a number of species have stereoscopic vision greater than ours. Perhaps we do not perceive other dimensions because we don’t need to see them, just as octopi and bats don’t need to talk in order to get on in the world.

     It is in this spirit of skeptical inquiry that William James asked (in Varieties of Religious Experience) why we honor scientific observation as a way to find out nature but dishonor mystical encounters as a way to find out God. Mystical experiences, James said, are noetic, passive, and transient: They impart knowledge about the divine; they don’t last long; and those who have them are attentive but not active participants. Was Hamlet’s meeting with his father’s ghost a “religious experience?” Later, Hamlet seems to think so, as he says “there’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.” James says that knowledge of God, however defined, come via religious experience. You can’t find God in a scientific experiment or in a guess about how someone is going to react when you present bad news or in an estimate of your chances at a gambling table. One finds religion, says James, in, well, religious experiences—mystical, visionary, ghostly ones. Such experiences are life-changing; nothing is the same after them.

     Alastair McIntyre wrote that Hamlet received upon his return from the university, an “epistemological shock”: his father had died and his mother had married his beastly uncle. Yet it is equally true that Hamlet had a collision with a phantom that ushered him into his fate for the rest of his life, just as a religious experience can usher one into one’s life trajectory for the rest of one’s days.  Furthermore—this is the main thing—it is only through this sort of life-altering vision that Hamlet can find out the content and direction of his destiny. This alone justifies the ghost as a plot device to get thins rolling.

    To be sure, Hamlet’s religious experience is not the type we might expect. We might prefer some angel of the Lord convincing us that our life’s mission is to aid the poor. Yet surely Moses had a mystical experience when the Lord appeared to him in a Burning Bush on Mount Sanai and told him that he, Moses, was elected by Providence to lead his people out of bondage. Hamlet was elected to avenge his father’s death and bring justice to the Kingdom of Denmark. It is by no means something that he always wants to do or thinks he should do. But it is his life’s meaning, and it would never have been had it not been for his father’s ghost. And he at least manages to bring Claudius’ ruthlessly unfair rule to an end. Is this not a religious duty also?

     How much of all this is real? Could the ghost have been a psychic projection or delusion? Hamlet worries over this question, too. No matter. Hamlet thinks he has had it, and he behaves accordingly for the remainder of the play. James takes no position on the ontological status of religious experiences but adds that they are real to those who have them and communicate a knowledge that can frequently come in no other way.

     Hamlet Senior’s ghost is a Mystical Ghost. Banquo’s ghost is a Multiverse One. How so? The short answer is that before he became a ghost Banquo represented a profound counterfactual to Macbeth’s moral choices. Let us delve into the significance of counterfactuals via the work of a great modern philosopher.

     David Lewis, in On the Plurality of Worlds, and other writings, argued that the world you and I inhabit is one of very many others. He was trained in a philosophical world in which all answerable questions were presumed to be scientific ones. Metaphysical speculation was a waste of time. But Lewis noticed that in daily practice we speculate a great deal of the time, mostly about alternative scenarios. “I’d better do X because doing Y will be bad for me.” We run in our minds counterfactual outcomes in order to do the right thing, however “right” is defined. Lewis in time came to believe that if counterfactuals have a status in this world, there would be no way to disprove that they do not exist in different worlds altogether. There may be worlds in which it would be better for us to do Y instead of X; or worlds where X and Y aren’t options at all; of worlds where we do not even exist. There can be an infinite number of such worlds. At the same time, there were limits to Lewis’ plurality of worlds, for in all such words he posited that there was causation in space and time. He was a many-world guy but not a promiscuous one. He was also a moral realist, who thought murder was wrong in a real-world sense and not a matter of cultural preferences or social constructions. The wrongness of murder is no more a social fact than is the law of gravity.

     In the world of Macbeth, three prophetic weird sisters tell him and Banquo about their futures. They tell Banquo that he will never be king but that he will establish a line of kings. They tell Macbeth that he will be king.  Banquo does not do anything about the prophecy that pertains to him. He prefers to relax and enjoy, until Macbeth has him killed to make sure that Banquo cannot possibly start a line of kings that will outshine his own rule (which, by the way, will have no successors since Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have no children). Banquo is an index to the fact that Macbeth, too, could have decided to relax and enjoy. The witches tell him he will be king, so why not wait to see if it will happen? Why force the issue with an assassination—a murder (always wrong, in Lewis’ view). Why would Macbeth not have tuned into his que-sera-sera channel?

      It is hard to say why. But the fact is that he didn’t. He decided to take matters into his own hands. A counterfactual would be that King Duncan would die and Macbeth be named his successor, or that Duncan become ill and name Macbeth his successor.

     And indeed, per David Lewis, there are worlds in which that happened. They are not the world of the play. They are different worlds, but one thing common to them all: murder is wrong as a brute fact, not a social one. It is wrong in the world where Macbeth did no murder and the one, that of the play, in which he does. There is a world where Macbeth wins the lottery and one in which he becomes a killer.

     This should in turn lead us to re-interpret, big time, Banquo as a ghost. The standard view is that he reminds Macbeth of his guilt, and indeed Macbeth is terribly frightened of Banquo’s ghost and denies that he had anything to do with his murder (Banquo’s son Fleance got away and went on to found the Stuart line of kings that resulted in King James I, who attended the play). Yet Banquo’s ghost is not only an agent of guilt and potential retribution. He is also a reminder that Macbeth had had another way—a Banquo way—of waiting and seeing if the sisters’ prediction came true. Banquo is a visitor from a separate world: the world in which Macbeth could have been patient and kindly and become monarch after all. IN this deep sense Banquo is a Multiverse Ghost—an index of counterfactual worlds, separate ontological realms that are, alas, totally cut off from our world—and from Macbeth’s.

     Banquo thus expresses the idea that there are multi-verses, decidedly different from one another, but in all of which murder is wrong. This of course does not settle other philosophical questions. Existing as he did in his world, could Macbeth have done anything other than become an assassin? Banquo suggests that Macbeth did have other choices. The answer to the difficult question might well go like this: Had Macbeth preferred to relax and enjoy, he would have made his world different, although there might well be another world in which he chose to kill his sovereign. Thus: we are not trapped in our world but have a role in defining it. We make our worlds, but there are other denizens in other worlds that make theirs, and quite differently. You and I may make our worlds by becoming florists instead of killers, but there will be others, to be sure, where florists become killers; and still others where killers try to hide from their wrongs by becoming florists; and still others in which killers murder only florists. Meanwhile, Macbeth made his world and it was the one he had to live and die in.  

     Banquo visits him from a different world and reminds him that it didn’t have to be this way.

     We are left, then, with the commonly observed function of the three ghosts as expressions of deficient justice (or at least deficient historical judgment) and of a coming squaring of accounts. But the ghosts reveal more, and this more is nothing short of describing who we are as human beings and what we must confront as such. This includes being made of a matter that, however transient as an emergent creature, somehow manages to communicate a continuing cultural consciousness long after we as individuals have been buried with our molecules; a potential for visionary experience that seems to be one of the few privileged ways by which we learn our directions; and an authorship of moral choices that mandate that we live in one world as opposed to another. We are historically conscious beings, mysteriously destined ones, and morally realistic ones. Do these things go together neatly? No. Shakespeare’s universe is as varied and contradictory as is the assortment of his ghosts.

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