[A very gifted controversialist and man of letters was George Bernard Shaw, but not, in retrospect, a particularly reliable guide to anything at all. The gibe to which this webpage is linked—‘The existence of a liar is more probable than the existence of a ghost’—may be a case in point. Clever and amusing though it is, sober second thought begins to suspect some intellectual sleight of hand in the quicksilver of Shaw’s reasoning. Though not as pleasing, I think a deeper investigation into the subject would pose the question, ‘Which is more improbable, that ghosts exist or that every last ghost story is the product of faulty observation or fraud?’ Among the many millions of vivid reports of ghostly encounters over the millennia, one involving a philosopher can be found in a letter written by the Roman lawyer and pursuer of literary fame, Pliny the Younger (61-113 A.D). The reason for presenting this letter, however, is not to offer evidence for the existence of ghosts. What C. S. Lewis said about miracles is also true of ghosts: namely, the philosophical question has to be decided first. Assuming that one’s philosophy can accommodate ghosts, an inquiry into their existence would focus on well documented contemporary reports rather than on ancient hearsay. No, the purpose of these ghost stories (Pliny’s letter actually contains three), aside from entertainment, is to remind us that ghosts are a permanent feature of human experience, and that educated, civilized people throughout history have often found the human testimony for their actual existence quite credible.]
To Licinius Sura
The present recess from business we are now enjoying affords you leisure to give, and me to receive, instruction. I am extremely anxious therefore to know whether you believe in the existence of ghosts, and whether they have a real form, and are a sort of divinities, or only the visionary impressions of a terrified imagination. What particularly inclines me to believe in their existence is a story which I heard of Curtius Rufus. When he was in low circumstances and unknown in the world, he attended the governor of Africa into that province. One evening, as he was walking in the public portico, there appeared to him the figure of a woman, of unusual size and of beauty more than human. And as he stood there, terrified and astonished, she told him she was the tutelary power that presided over Africa, and was come to inform him of the future events of his life: that he should go back to Rome, to enjoy high honours there, and return to that province invested with the pro-consular dignity, and there should die. Every circumstance of this prediction actually came to pass. It is said further that upon his arrival at Carthage, as he was coming out of the ship, the same figure met him upon the shore. It is certain, at least, that being seized with a fit of illness, though there were no symptoms in his case that led those about him to despair of his life, he instantly gave up all hope of recovery, apparently judging the truth of the future part of the prediction by what had already been fulfilled, and of the approaching misfortune from his former prosperity.
Now the following story, which I am going to tell you just as I heard it, is it not more frightening than the former, while quite as thought provoking? There was in Athens a large and roomy house, which had such a bad reputation that no one lived there. In the dead of the night a noise, resembling the clashing of iron, was frequently heard, which, if you listened more attentively, sounded like the rattling of chains, distant at first, but approaching nearer by degrees: immediately afterwards a spectre appeared in the form of an old man, of extremely emaciated and squalid appearance, with a long beard and dishevelled hair, rattling the chains on his feet and hands. The distressed occupants meanwhile passed their wakeful nights under the most dreadful terror imaginable. This, as it broke their rest, ruined their health and brought on distempers, even leading to death. Even in the day time, though the spirit did not appear, yet the impression remained so strong upon their imaginations that it still seemed before their eyes, and kept them in perpetual fear. Eventually the house was entirely abandoned to the ghost, being deemed absolutely uninhabitable. However, in hopes that some tenant might be found who was ignorant of its history, a notice was put up advertising it for rent or for sale.
It happened that Athenodorus, the philosopher, came to Athens at this time, and, reading the notice, enquired about the price. The extraordinarily low price raised his suspicions. Nevertheless, when he heard the whole story, so far from being discouraged, he was all the more inclined to rent it, which he did. When it grew towards evening, he ordered a couch to be prepared for him in the front part of the house, and, after calling for a light, together with his pencil and tablets, directed all his people to retire. But that his mind might not, for want of employment, be open to the vain terrors of imaginary noises and spirits, he applied himself to writing with the utmost attention. The first part of the night passed in entire silence, as usual; at length a clanking of iron and rattling of chains was heard: however, he neither lifted up his eyes nor laid down his pen, but in order to keep calm and collected tried to pass the sounds off to himself as something else. The noise increased and advanced nearer, till it seemed at the door, and at last in the chamber. He looked up and recognized the ghost exactly as it had been described to him: it stood before him, beckoning with its finger, like a person who summons another. Athenodorus in reply made a sign with his hand that it should wait a little, and turned his eyes again upon his papers; the ghost then rattled its chains over the head of the philosopher who, looking up and seeing it beckoning as before, immediately arose and, light in hand, followed it. The ghost slowly stalked along, as if encumbered with its chains, and, turning into the courtyard of the house, suddenly vanished. Athenodorus, being thus deserted, made a mark with some grass and leaves on the spot where the spirit left him. The next day he gave information to the magistrates, and advised them to order that spot to be dug up. This was accordingly done, and the skeleton of a man in chains was found there; the body, having lain a considerable time in the ground, was putrefied and mouldered away from the fetters. The bones were collected together and publicly buried, and the ghost, having been appeased by the proper ceremonies, haunted the house no more.
This story I believe upon the testimony of others; what I am going to tell you next, I give you upon my own. I have a freedman named Marcus, who is by no means illiterate. One night, as he and his younger brother were lying together, he fancied he saw somebody upon his bed, who took out a pair of scissors, and cut off the hair from the top part of his head; and in the morning his hair was indeed cut, the clippings scattered about the floor. A short time after this, an event of a similar nature gave credence to the former story. A young lad of my family was sleeping in his apartment with the rest of his companions, when two persons clad in white came in, as he says, through the windows, cut off his hair as he lay, and then returned the same way they entered. The next morning it was found that this boy had been served just as the other, and there was the hair again, spread about the room. Nothing very remarkable followed these events, unless perhaps that I escaped a prosecution in which, if Domitian (during whose reign this happened) had lived some time longer, I should certainly have been involved. For after the death of that emperor, articles of impeachment against me were found in his writing table, which had been exhibited by Carus. It may therefore be conjectured, since it is customary for persons under any public accusation to let their hair grow, this cutting off the hair of my servants was a sign I should escape the imminent danger that threatened me. Let me urge you then to give this question your mature consideration. The subject deserves your examination, and I trust I am not altogether unworthy of sharing in the abundance of your superior wisdom. And though you should, as usual, strike a balance between two opposing views, yet I hope you will lean more on one side than on the other, lest, having consulted you in order to have my doubt settled, you should leave me in the same suspense and indecision that prompted me to learn your opinion in the first place. Farewell.
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