views updated


KARDECISM is the name given the system of spiritist doctrines and practices codified by the French spiritist Allan Kardec. Kardec's religio-philosophical principles and therapeutic techniques have been especially influential in the development of spiritism among the urban middle classes in Brazil from the mid-nineteenth century until the present.

Kardec's Life and Work

Allan Kardec was born Hyppolyte Léon Denizard Rivail on October 3, 1804, in Lyons, France. The son of Justice Jean-Baptiste Antoine Rivail and Jeanne Duhamel, Rivail received a thorough education. Descended on his father's side from a family of magistrates, and on his mother's side from a family of theologians, writers, and mathematicians, Rivail was sent as a boy to Switzerland, to study under the famous pedagogue Henri Pestalozzi. He distinguished himself with his intelligence and precocity: At fourteen, Rivail had a command of several languages and was conversant in Greek and Latin.

Having received training as a teacher, he returned to Paris, and earned a bachelor's degree in sciences and letters. According to some of his biographers, Rivail concluded the course in medicine at twenty-four years of age. During his studies, he taught French, mathematics, and sciences. Having failed at his attempt to create a teaching institution after Pestalozzi's model, he survived by doing translations and teaching courses at schools and institutes. Notwithstanding his medical studies, the eight books written from 1824 to 1849 deal with mathematics, grammar, and the physical sciences in general, in which his pedagogical concerns prevail. He joined several professional, pedagogical, and scientific associations.

In short, Rivail was a typical European scholar of his time, with a classical training in letters, positivist beliefs, an interest in the theoretical and applied development of science, and a professional specialization in teaching. But Rivail was not an orthodox positivist. Imbued with a great curiosity about phenomena unheeded and even shunned by official science, he belonged to the French Society of Magnetists. Hypnotism, sleepwalking, clairvoyance, and similar phenomena strongly attracted him. He studied them as physical phenomena resulting from unknown causes, an approach resulting from his being a follower of the theory of animal magnetism, called Mesmerism, expounded by Franz Anton Mesmer (17341815).

Magnetism brought Rivail in contact with spiritism. He was by then fifty-one years old and had consolidated his scientific background. In the years 1854 and 1855, the so-called turning table and talking table invaded Europe from the United States and created an intense curiosity. Several people would sit around a table, hand in hand, in a state of mental concentration; after a certain lapse of time, the table would begin to rotate, to produce noises, and even to answer, in code, questions proposed by the participants. This practice became quite a fad, especially in the more elegant circles. Rivail was introduced by magnetist friends to such sessions, which were already accepted by their promoters as demonstrations of spiritual phenomena. He was initially skeptical about their authenticity but was soon to revise his opinion. Under his supervision, the sessions were no longer dedicated to frivolous consultations and guessing games but became serious study sessions.

Rivail considered such phenomena both relevant and natural, though invisible, and believed one should adopt a "positivist and not an idealist" attitude toward them. If the conditions in which such phenomena manifested themselves hindered the use of common scientific instrumentation, he believed that one should at least employ the scientific method of "observation, comparison, and evaluation."

Inspired by his own experiences, stimulated by illustrious spiritists who supplied him with fifty notebooks containing messages from the souls of deceased persons, and guided by the spirits that conferred on him the role of codifier of spiritism, Rivail became Allan Kardec; he adopted this pen name under the inspiration of one of his guiding spirits, who revealed that it had been his name in a former incarnation, in which he had been a druid in ancient Gaul. In 1857 he published his fundamental work, Le livre des esprits, which contained 501 questions answered by the spirits themselves. By the time of its twenty-second and definitive edition, the number of questions had grown to 1,019.

Thereafter followed his other works: Qu'est-ce-que le spiritisme? (1859); Le livre des médiums (1861); Refutation aux critiques au spiritisme (1862); L'évangile selon le spiritisme (1864); Le ciel et l'enfer, ou La justice divine selon le spiritisme (1865); and La genèse, les miracles et les predictions (1868). The literature further includes his Œuvres posthumes, published in 1890, and an incalculable number of articles published over a period of eleven years in the Spiritist Journal, issued by the Parisian Society for Spiritist Studies that had been founded by Kardec in 1858 and of which he was the chairman to his death in 1869.

Kardecism, as codified by Kardec, defines the spiritist doctrine in this way: There are souls, or spirits, of deceased persons that are capable of communication with the living through mediumistic phenomena. They belong to an invisible but natural world; there is no discussion of magic, miracles, and the supernatural in Kardecism. This invisible and nonmaterial world is, as part of the natural world, susceptible to experimentation, but, unlike the natural world, it is eternal and preexistent and is identified with goodness, purity, and wisdom. There is a spiritual hierarchy ranging from that most closely identified with the material plane (and hence with evil, impurity, and ignorance) up to that of spiritual fullness.

God is the primary cause that generates the material and the spiritual; the spirits are engendered by him, and although they receive a mission and submit to the law of constant progress, they are endowed with free will. Spirits continually progress toward perfection, and they fulfill their missions through successive reincarnations, not only on earth (considered a planet of atonement) but also on other worlds. The law of cause and effect explains human happiness or misfortune as consequences of good or evil practiced in previous incarnations. Christian charity is the supreme virtue (Christ is considered the most elevated spirit that has ever incarnated) that makes spiritual evolution possible; it is closely followed in importance by the virtue of wisdom. As the locus of the activity of the developing but morally free spirits and as the product of evolution, the social world, even with its injustices and inequalities, is seen as ultimately just, and the search for perfection is ruled by individualistic ethics.

It is a rather curious fact that Kardec remained practically unknown for a long time outside French spiritist circles. Approximately sixty years after his death, Arthur Conan Doyle, as chairman of the London Spiritist League and honorary chairman of the International Spiritist Federation, only devoted a few scanty pages to Kardec in one of the twenty-five chapters of his comprehensive History of Spiritualism (1926). There seem to be two related reasons for this obscurity: British spiritism did not accept the idea of reincarnation, and, except in France, Kardec's claim to be the true codifier of spiritism by virtue of a mission entrusted to him by the spirits was not readily accepted. Although this role currently tends to be universally accepted by spiritists, the name of Kardec (or Rivail) is not mentioned in the main European encyclopedias, and he remains known only within spiritist circles.

Kardecism in Brazil

Originally introduced in Brazil in the middle of the nineteenth century in the form of "talking tables," spiritism mainly attracted teachers, lawyers, physicians, and other intellectuals. One of the reasons for its appeal was the pseudoscientific character of Kardecism. Kardecist groups were soon organized, first in Bahia (1865), and later in Rio de Janeiro (1873, where the Brazilian Spiritist Federation was created in the following year), São Paulo (1883), and gradually throughout the entire country. Kardecism was already attracting large sectors of the urban middle class.

Although Kardec did not consider spiritism a religion (but rather a philosophy of science with religious implications), Kardecism in Brazil was soon to take on a religious character, centering on the idea of charity, which led to therapeutical practices such as the "pass." Kardecism followed the same pattern of evolution as positivism, which had already become a religion in Brazil, with an organized church and cult.

The 1940 and 1950 censuses in Brazil showed an intense expansion of spiritism: Though its adherents did not exceed 2 percent of the population in 1950, it was growing at a much more rapid pace than any other religion, including Catholicism, the unofficial but dominant creed (then adhered to by about 90 percent of Brazil's people). For this reason, the Catholic Church initiated an antispiritist campaign during the fifties.

A distinguishing feature of Brazilian spiritism is the fact that it is an almost exclusively urban phenomenon. In these regions, however, Kardecism is not the only spiritist current that manifests itself. Another trend is that of Umbanda spiritism, a syncretic product of Afro-Brazilian religions under the influence of Kardecism. While Kardecism proper tends to be a religion of those of the urban middle classes who have been city-dwellers for several generations, drawing people who have a certain level of secular education and who are disposed to accept its pseudoscientific discourse, Umbanda remains a religion of the unschooled lower classes of more recent urbanization. Unlike Kardecism, Umbanda is still linked to a magical conception of the universe.

Currently, Kardecism and Umbanda encompass significant population groups in Brazil. The censuses, however, do not register their extension, because both Kardecists and Umbandists often also declare themselves to be Catholics, especially for social purposes such as christenings, marriages, funerals, and statements given in official forms. In spite of the evident importance of spiritism in Brazilan importance that is easily verified by other indicators (e.g., the medium Chico Xavier's book sales are exceeded only by those of the novelist Jorge Amado)the census still reports the number of spiritists as approximately 2 percent.

Despite census data to the contrary, it seems fairly certain that Umbandists outnumber Kardecists in Brazil. Though until the forties Kardecism was predominant, in the sixties the situation was utterly reversed in favor of Umbanda. It should be noted, however, that the fifties mark the stage of the greatest penetration of Umbanda by Kardecism. Up to that time, Umbanda subsisted as a semiclandestine cult under severe and tyrannical police control. From 1953, many Kardecists, disenchanted with the prevailing intellectualism of their spiritist centers, turned to Umbanda. Under their leadership, federations were organized that grouped Umbanda adherents into units called "yards" and "tents," and these disenchanted Kardecists took over, in a less repressive and more persuasive fashion, the control that formerly had been exercised by the police. The price Umbanda had to pay for this protection was its adjustment to a rationalization and moralization of the cultprocesses that were based on Kardecist models. One may therefore conclude that although Umbanda has grown much more rapidly than Kardecism over the last few decades, the influence of Kardecism in the context of Brazilian spiritism continues to remain strong.

See Also

Afro-Brazilian Religions.


Sociological, anthropological, and historical studies on Kardecism are scarce. With respect to the historical aspects, one will search in vain for a single work by any specialist in the field; the only texts available are biographies of Kardec written by spiritist intellectuals. Among these the best are José Herculano Pires's O espírito e o tempo: Introdução histórica ao espiritismo (São Paulo, 1964), a scholarly and interesting work, and the voluminous book by Zeus Wantuil and Francisco Thiesen, Allan Kardec, pesquisa bibliográfica e ensaios de interpretação, 3 vols. (Rio de Janeiro, 19791980), which offers a comprehensive analysis and represents the official view of Brazilian Kardecism on the life and work of its inspirer.

Among sociological and anthropological studies, the following are worth mentioning: Cândido Procópio Ferreira de Camargo's Kardecismo e Umbanda: Una interpretação sociológica (São Paulo, 1961); Roger Bastide's article "Le spiritisme au Brésil," Archives de sociologie des religions 12 (1967): 316; and Maria Viveiros de Castro Cavalcanti's work, O mundo invisiuel: Cosmologia, sistema ritual e noçao de tempo no espiritismo (Rio de Janeiro, 1968). The first two are solid sociological analyses of Kardecism in Brazil, with Umbanda as a counterpoint; studies solely dedicated to Kardecism, such as Cavalcanti's interesting and lucid book on Kardecist cosmogony, are few and far between.

Finally, one can mention the doctoral dissertation of J. Parke Ronshaw, "Sociological Analysis of Spiritism in Brazil" (University of Florida, 1969), which contains historical data and analyses, and Donald Warren, Jr.'s articles "The Portuguese Roots of Brazilian Spiritism," Luso-Brazilian Review 5 (December 1968): 333, and "Spiritism in Brazil" in Journal of Inter-American Studies 10 (1968): 393405.

New Sources

Hess, David. Spirits and Scientists: Ideology, Spiritism, and Brazilian Culture. University Park, Pa., 1991.

Hess, David. Samba in the Night. New York, 1994.

Santos, José Luiz dos. Espiritismo: Uma Religiã Brasileira. São Paulo, 1997.

Wulfhorst, Ingo. Discernindo os Espíritos: O Desafio do Espiritismo Eda Religiosidade Afro-brasileira. São Leopoldo, Brazil, 1989.

Lisias Noguera NegrĀo (1987)

Revised Bibliography