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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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7 occurrences of Dictionary_of_the_History_of_Ideas
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1. Plato. The two basic premises of Plato's doctrine
of the immortality of the soul are a radical dualism
which sees man as a composite of a material body and
an incorporeal soul, and the assertion that the soul,
and not the body, is the essential, the true man. The
soul is not only totally independent of the body, but
it is of divine origin and only an unwilling guest in
the body. This is what makes Plato define death as a
liberation of the soul from the bodily “prison.” The
probable source of this view is the Orphic “soma-
sema,” the body is the prison (of the soul). Whether
it is this view of the soul which leads to the notion
that the soul is the essential person or the other way
around, is impossible to determine. In any case, when
Crito asks Socrates how he wants to be buried, the
latter expresses surprise that his listeners apparently
still did not get the main point of his discussion,
namely, that it is the Socrates who is now conversing
with them, and not the corpse he will soon become,
who is the real Socrates (Phaedo 115C-D).


Plato advances the following arguments for the
immortality of the soul: (1) the argument from remi-
niscence. Man has certain ideal concepts as well as
some knowledge of a priori (e.g., mathematical) truths
which could not have been derived or been acquired
through experience (Phaedo 72A-77A; Meno 81B-86B).
Thus we must have acquired them before this life
began, which indicates that the soul is prior to the
body. But this would prove only the preexistence of
the soul, not its immortality, although the latter is made
more plausible if preexistence is true. The case for
immortality is strengthened, however, when we con-
sider that in order to apprehend the eternal “Ideas”
or “Forms,” the soul must itself be eternal for “noth-
ing mortal knows what is immortal.”

(2) Argument from the “fact” that the soul is the
principle of life: the soul, whose essence is life (vitality)
and thus the very opposite of death, cannot be con-
ceived as dying any more than fire can be conceived
as becoming cold. This argument (Phaedo, 100B-107A)
is based on Plato's arbitrarily equating “soul” as the
principle of life with soul as the bearer or originator
of mental and emotional activity. Moreover, to hold
that as the principle of life the soul is the “Idea” of
life and, as such, deathless and eternal has no bearing
on the immortality of the individual soul, since the
“Idea” of a thing is, according to Plato himself, very
different from its individual manifestation.

The same unwarranted equation of the two meanings
of soul underlies the third argument, (3) the soul as
self-moving, which states that since the soul moves
itself and is the source of movement and life, it must
be immortal because that which moves itself is incor-
ruptible and ingenerable (Phaedrus 245C-246A).

(4) The soul as “simple.” Plato argues that the soul
must be immortal since it is “simple” and incorporeal.
An incorporeal substance is “naturally” incorruptible,
and “simple” means that it is uncompounded and
therefore incapable of dissolution (in the sense of falling
apart; Kant has later argued that even if it has no
“extensive quality,” it nevertheless possesses “intensive
quality” and can therefore dwindle to nothingness “by
a gradual loss of power”).

Plato himself was well aware of the inadequacy of
his arguments for the immortality of the soul (and this
may be taken as a proof that he never doubted its
truth). He admitted that the divine origin of the soul
as well as the existence of eternal “Ideas” require
further investigation (Phaedo 107B). His former pupil,
Aristotle, rejected these basic assumptions on which
Plato's doctrine of immortality of the soul rested.
Aristotle held that the soul is one with the body as
its “form” (which term is quite different from Platonic
sense of “Form” or “Idea”). There is no necessity for
the separate existence of Ideas, because “the shape of
a bronze sphere exists at the same time as the bronze
sphere exists,” but it is not at all certain that “any form
survives afterwards” and “the soul may be of this sort”
(Metaphysics 1070a).

But while he was quite positive in his denial that
the soul could survive in its entirety, Aristotle spoke
of the possibility of survival of the intellectual part
of it. Unfortunately, it is not at all clear what he meant
by the term “pure intellect”: on the one hand he
described it as a capacity, but then there are passages
where he speaks of it as if it were an incorporeal
substance. Clearly, only the latter could be conceived
as immortal. What Aristotle may have had in mind
is that if not the whole soul, then at least man's active
intellect is of divine origin (since he spoke of it as
coming from the “outside”) and as such can be said
to be eternal. But this is not the immortality of the
soul as Plato conceived it. Not only does Aristotle seem
to be contemptuous of this doctrine (Nicomachean
1111b), but most of his commentators beginning
with Alexander of Aphrodisias, and particularly Aver-
roës, were of the opinion that “The Philosopher” did
not believe in any kind of individual immortality.

2. Descartes. For almost two thousand years, few
new arguments were propounded in favor of the doc-
trine of the immortality of the soul until Descartes
turned his attention to the problem. In the meantime
the reintroduction to the Western world of Greek
philosophical works, in particular those of Aristotle,
by Arabic scholars about the middle of the twelfth
century, brought with it the first serious threat to the
universally accepted belief in immortality, since these
works, and the commentaries on them, contained
shocking but well-reasoned arguments against immor-
tality of the soul.

The reaction among Christian philosophers to this
threat was exemplified by Siger of Bradant in the
twelfth century, and set the pattern for the next six
hundred years. This reaction considered in the distinction
between the truth of reason and the truth of faith.
Although on rational grounds the immortality of the
soul is, at best, doubtful, human reasoning must yield
to the divinely revealed truth as set forth in the Holy

Descartes shared the view of the religious apologists
about the morally disastrous effects of disbelief in the
immortality of the soul. In Part V of the Discourse
on Method,
he wrote that “next to the error of those
who deny God... there is none which is more effec-
tual in leading feeble minds from the straight path of
virtue than to imagine that... after this life we have
nothing to fear or to hope for, any more than the flies
or the ants” (Haldane and Ross, trans. throughout).


He asserted that “our soul is in its nature entirely
independent of the body, and in consequence it is not
liable to die with it. And then, inasmuch as we observe
no other causes capable of destroying it, we are natu-
rally inclined to judge that it is immortal.” How did
he justify the first assertion? Harvey's discovery of the
circulation of the blood gave Descartes the idea that
both animal and human bodies might be regarded as
“machines.” But, although, according to Descartes,
there is no real difference between a machine and a
living organism, man is much more than just a body.
For he is able “to reply appropriately to everything
... said in his presence” and “act from knowledge,
whereas the animal can do so only from the disposition
of its organs” (Discourse, Part V). What this means is
simply that man alone “thinks.” Thinking, however,
was conceived by Descartes rather broadly to include
“all that we are conscious as operating in us... will-
ing, imagining, feeling” (Principles of Philosophy, I, IX).
And “all that is in us and which we cannot in any
way conceive as pertaining to the body must be attrib-
uted to our soul” (Passions of the Soul, I, IV).

Since the idea that something material may be
endowed with thought is not contradictory and must
have been known to Descartes (it was the view of the
Greek atomists and presented with eloquence by
Lucretius), what were his reasons for attributing
thought to an immaterial soul apart from his commit-
ment to religious dogma? The “proof” that there is
a soul totally independent of the body appears as a
by-product of his revolutionary approach to the prob-
lem of a criterion of certainty. In the Discourse (Part
IV) he describes how he arrived at what he claimed
to be rock-bottom certainty of the cogito ergo sum—“I
am thinking, therefore I exist”: “... I saw that I could
conceive that I had no body, and that there was no
world nor place where I might be; but yet that I could
not for all that conceive that I was not.” Thus he
concluded that he was “... a substance the whole
essence and nature of which is to think, and that for
its existence there is no need of any place, nor does
it depend on any material thing; so that this 'me,' that
is to say, the soul by which I am what I am, is entirely
distinct from the body... and even if the body were
not, the soul would not cease to be what it is.”

The strength of the above argument in favor of a
soul entirely distinct from the body derives from the
ease with which everyone can follow it, and from the
familiarity with the experience described therein, be-
cause everyone at one time or another did have the
impression of being a disembodied “spirit.” The main
objection to Descartes' conclusion is his unwarranted
equating of “me” with the soul. It is a far cry from
the reasoning that “while trying to think everything
false, it must needs be that I, who was thinking this
was something” to the conclusion that this something
was the incorporeal soul, that it was entirely distinct
from the body, and thus will survive bodily death.

It is interesting that Descartes sometimes appears
to have been more concerned with proving the exist-
ence of the soul than with the search for ultimate
certainty. Having been advised by his friend, the
mathematician Father Mersenne, that his cogito, ergo
is not an original discovery since it can be found
in Saint Augustine's The City of God (XI, 26), Descartes
defends himself in a letter to Andreas Colvius (Novem-
ber 14, 1640) by pointing out the difference between
them: “The use I make of it is in order to show that
that 'I' which thinks is an immaterial substance which
has nothing corporeal about it.”

Descartes' difficulties in attempting to explain how
such two radically different substances as the immate-
rial soul and the extended body could interact, since
they obviously do interact, are well known. In them-
selves, they do not invalidate the notion of an incorpo-
real and immortal soul. But he must have felt in the
end that to prove it may be as impossible as to solve
the problem of the interaction between body and soul.
It is significant that he changed the original subtitle
of his Meditations from “In which the existence of God
and the Immortality of the Soul are demonstrated” to
“In which the Real Distinction between Mind and
Body is demonstrated.” But this does not mean that
Descartes gave up his deep conviction that the soul
was immortal.

The belief in immortality did not have to rely on
rational proofs. As early as the ninth century, the Irish
monk John Scotus Erigena held that personal immor-
tality cannot be proved or disproved by reason. A much
more forceful, detailed, and influential statement of the
same position was made by Pietro Pomponazzi in his
De immortalitate animae (1516). After having examined
various arguments in favor of immortality and dis-
cussed several sets of objections to them, he concluded
that the question should be regarded as a “neutral”
one since man's natural reason was not strong enough
either to demonstrate or to refute immortality of the
soul. Pomponazzi added, however, that the question
of the immortality of the soul had been answered
affirmatively by God himself as reported in the Holy
Scriptures. This is, in essence, a reiteration of the
position advanced by Siger of Brabant. Pomponazzi's
conclusion was interpreted by some of his contem-
poraries, and many modern historians have agreed with
them, as implying that Pomponazzi. himself did not
believe in the immortality of the soul. Nevertheless,
the imputation of hypocrisy in Pomponazzi has very
little real evidence to support it.


In any case, in spite of the position that the truth
of immortality of the soul should be based on faith
and revelation, and asserted on this ground alone,
philosophers continued to seek proofs of immortality.
However, Descartes' fiasco made it clear to some that
a radically new approach had to be tried, the more
so because of new arguments against immortality.

The most cogent and influential were those advanced
by David Hume. According to Hume, the doctrine of
immortality is suspect since it is so obviously favored
by human desire. Man would not cling so tenaciously
to this belief if he did not fear death. But the very
fact of this fear points rather in favor of the assumption
that bodily death brings with it also the end of the
conscious personality. Since “Nature does nothing in
vain, she would never give us a horror against an
impossible event.” But what is the point of making
us afraid of an unavoidable event? Hume answers that
without the terror before death, mankind would not
have survived. Moreover, why does Nature confine our
knowledge to the present life if there is another? All
the arguments from analogy to nature, Hume dismisses
as being rather “strong for the mortality of the soul.”
Finally, “What reason is there to imagine that an
immense alteration, such as made on the soul by the
dissolution of the body, and all its organs of thought
and sensation, can be effected without the dissolution
of the soul?” (“Of the Immortality of the Soul,” Unpub-
lished Essays
[1777], pp. 401-06).

The last argument was, in essence, the one advanced
also by the French Encyclopedist d'Alembert and by
the materialists, La Mettrie, Cabanis, and d'Holbach.

3. Kant. The most notable attempt to provide a new
basis for ascertaining immortality of the soul, was
Kant's “moral” argument. His starting point was that
man is not only a rational but also a moral being, and
that human reason has two functions, one “speculative”
or theoretical (“pure reason”), and the other concerned
with moral action (“practical reason”). In his Critique
of Pure Reason
(1781; revised 1787), Kant showed that
God, freedom, and immortality are ideas which specu-
lative reason can form but cannot prove. They are,
however, “postulates” of “practical reason,” that is,
they “are not theoretical dogmas but presuppositions
which necessarily have only practical import... they
give objective reality to the ideas of practical reason
in general.” Thus the immortality of the soul must be
true because morality demands it. In his Critique of
Practical Reason
(1789), Kant argued that the highest
good (summum bonum) is the union of happiness and
virtue. But while happiness can be attained in this life,
perfect virtue (“holiness”) cannot and requires, there-
fore, that the existence of man be prolonged to infinity.
Thus there must be another, future life. Later on, Kant
modified this argument somewhat by stating that we
are required by moral law to become morally perfect.
But “no rational being is capable of holiness at any
moment of his existence. Since, however, it is required
as practically necessary, it can be found in a progress
which continues into infinity.... This infinite progress,
however, is possible only if we assume an infinitely
lasting existence of the same rational being (which is
called the immortality of the soul)” (Critique of Practi-
cal Reason,
trans. L. W. Beck [1949], pp. 225-26).

Unfortunately, there is no absolute necessity that
reality will yield to moral demands unless, of course,
we assume that the world is ruled, as Kant asserts,
“with great wisdom” and with a purpose which in-
cludes the moral perfection of man. This, too, however,
can be “proved” only as a postulate of practical reason.
No wonder, then, that Kant's moral argument for
immortality of the soul failed to impress even his

4. Some Recent Philosophical Arguments. The in-
fluential French philosopher, Henri Bergson, the
Englishman, John McTaggart, and the German, Max
Scheler, were probably the most notable twentieth-
century thinkers who opposed the predominant anti-
immortalist trend of the nineteenth century, and
argued in favor of immortality. All three embraced
more or less the position that we cannot form a correct
judgment on the issue of immortality because we do
not know all the relevant facts about mental life.
Bergson felt that to consider man as limited to his
bodily frame is “a bad habit of limiting consciousness
to a small body and ignoring the vast one.” He argues
that the only reason we can have for believing in the
extinction of consciousness at death is that we see the
body become disorganized. But this reason loses its
force if it can be shown, as Bergson believed, that
almost all of consciousness is independent of the body
(Time and Free Will [1913], p. 73). But if the “mental
life overflows the cerebral life, survival becomes so
probable that the burden of proof comes to lie on him
who denies it” (ibid.). Max Scheler took a similar posi-
tion and declared that the burden of proof (onus
) falls on those who deny immortality.

McTaggart, however, was much more of an old-
fashioned metaphysical idealist. He believed that “all
that exists is spiritual,” that reality is rational and
external, and that time and change are only apparent.
Death is not the end of the self, even though it deprives
the spirit of an apparent finite body.

Basic to the views of all three philosophers is their
conviction that the self—the unchanging, unifying core
of man's personality—is not identical with the body
and not wholly dependent on the brain, since it controls
and drives the body in ways which are not native to


it. The body gives to the self merely a location and
an opportunity to act. This is also the view of William
Ernest Hocking, and of Gabriel Marcel who essentially
repeats Socrates' assertion that “I am not my body.”
William James, however, held that even if the “soul”
may be the function of the brain, this does not at all
exclude the possibility that it continues after the brain
dies. According to James, this continuity is, on the
contrary, quite possible if we think of their relation
as one of “functional dependence,” that is, if the brain
just fulfills a “permissive” or “transmissive” function.

In addition to the sometimes very subtle arguments
for the immortality of the soul advanced by philoso-
phers, there are several less sophisticated ones. Among
them are the following.

A. Argument of “General Consent.” This argument
is simply that the universality of the belief in immor-
tality is evidence of its truth. Others see such evidence
in the universal desire for immortality. However, both
arguments are fallacious, if for no other reason than
the fact that such a belief is neither universally held
nor is immortality universally desired. Moreover, no
matter how intense and widespread such desire may
be, there is no guarantee that the object of a desire
must actually exist or be realized.

In addition, it must be pointed out that what is
actually desired (although far from being a universal
wish) is not the immortality of the soul but “deathless-
ness”: most people would rather go on living indefi-
nitely, and the belief in an immortal soul is merely
a “compromise,” a “second best” for those who are
reluctant to face the prospect of total extinction but
know that death is inevitable.

B. Argument that Cessation is “Inconceivable.” The
difficulty of imagining one's own demise has been
used, among others, by Goethe as an argument for
immortality: “It is quite impossible for a thinking being
to imagine nonbeing, a cessation of thought and life.
In this sense everyone carries the proof of his own
immortality within himself” (Johann Peter Eckermann,
Conversations with Goethe, 1852). He tries to compen-
sate for the obvious weaknesses of this “proof” by
taking refuge in the difficulties of proving immortality.
“As soon as one endeavors to demonstrate dogmatically
a personal continuation after death, one becomes lost
in contradictions” (op. cit.). But Hume has disposed
of this excuse by asking why, if man is indeed immortal,
he does not have a clearer knowledge of it.

C. Mystical “Evidence.” As a counterargument
against the above, Jacques Maritain affirms that there
is in man “a natural, instinctive knowledge of his im-
mortality.” The question is whether this “instinctive
knowledge” is not the very same psychological phe-
nomenon of disbelief in one's mortality that we have
referred to above. But Maritain may have in mind
certain experiences which, for the lack of a better
word, we can call “mystical,” like those described in
Goethe's Wilhelm Meister: “During some sleepless
nights, especially, I had some feelings... as if my soul
were thinking unaccompanied by the body.... The
grave awakens no terror in me; I have eternal life.”
But this and similar experiences are strictly “private”
insights and, as such, not very convincing. Sometimes
they are not convincing even to those who have such
“revelations,” especially since they are counter-
balanced by other experiences recently emphasized by
some “existentialists.” For example, Karl Jaspers speaks
of the “awareness of fragility,” and Heidegger speaks
of the “experience of progressing toward death.”

What is needed, then, in order to make immortality
credible would be empirical, publicly verifiable evi-
dence, without which the subjective feeling of one's
indestructibility will have great difficulties in over-
coming the formidable obstacle voiced by Omar
Khayyam that “... of the myriads who/ Before
us passed the door of Darkness/ Not one returns to

D. Spiritism and Psychical Research. It is precisely
because it claims to offer empirical proof that the dead
do survive, and can be communicated with, that
“Spiritualism” (or “Spiritism”) exercises a strong ap-
peal to more people than is usually realized. “Spirits”
and the doctrine of Spiritism were revived in the
United States in 1844, in Hydesville, New York, where
mysterious happenings occurring in the farmhouse of
the Fox family were assumed by the members of the
family to be due to the “spirits” of people, now dead,
who had previously occupied the house. The “experi-
ences” of the Fox sisters, who claimed to be able to
communicate with these spirits, served as a basis for
the book of a Frenchman, Léon Rivail (who assumed
the spirit-inspired name of Allan Kardec), entitled Le
Livre des esprits,
which is considered the “bible of

There are two schools of Spiritism. The one preva-
lent in Anglo-Saxon countries believes in a single
embodiment of the soul. The other, popular in Latin
countries, follows Kardec who teaches multiple incar-
nation. Both posit the existence of an “astral” body
which is conceived as an infinitely fine matter, or subtle
fluid, which envelops the immaterial soul. It is said
to be observable when a person dies and the soul
reverts from the carnate to the disincarnate state. This
“visibility” as well as the communication between the
living and the dead (by means of the tapping of a
three-legged table or the utterances of medium in
trance) is the “proof” of immortality which the spirit-
ists offer. And since immortality is thus for them a


proven fact, they claim that they bring it down to earth
as a purely naturalistic phenomenon and not something
that involves supernatural intervention or magic. The
idea of an astral body had been entertained by several
early church fathers. Thus Tatian speaks of an ethereal
body which envelops the soul, and Irenaeus maintains
that the soul retains the imprint of the body like water
which retains the shape of the receptacle in which it

The obvious criticism of the spiritist doctrine of
immortality is that although there may be mental and
even physical paranormal phenomena, it is quite far-
fetched to assume that they are caused by the spirits
of the dead. Moreover, not only are the messages from
“beyond the grave” uniformly trivial, not to say
asinine, but all the mediums have been so far exposed
as frauds, even by sympathetic investigators of the
“occult” world. The more serious among the students
of these strange phenomena assert only that they are
the result of the hidden or neglected powers of the
mind, that these point to the mind's independence of,
and mastery over, the body, which renders the hypoth-
esis of its survival after death not only plausible but
even probable.

More recently, experimental studies of these unusual
powers of the human psyche have been undertaken,
of which those of J. B. Rhine of Duke University have
received the most publicity. Without necessarily deny-
ing the existence of “extrasensory perception” (ESP),
critics point out that it may be superfluous to assume
a spiritual entity in order to explain parapsychological
powers and that these are not more spectacular or
uncanny than other psychological capacities which are
taken for granted.

E. Conclusion. It has become clear from our brief
survey of the arguments for immortality that they are
perhaps sufficient to reinforce an already existing con-
viction, but not good enough for someone skeptical
about the possibility of survival after death. Nor is the
position that the burden of proof lies on those who
deny immortality particularly persuasive.

William James noted that on this subject there are
two kinds of people, “those whom we find indulging
to their hearts' content in the prospects of immortality,
and... those who experience the greatest difficulty
in making such a notion seem real to themselves at
all. These latter persons are tied to their senses...
and feel a sort of intellectual loyalty to what they call
hard facts” (The Will to Believe [1897], p. 40). But
today, even among the first kind, we find rather a hope
of immortality than a firm belief in it.

Several causes of the erosion of the immortalist's
position have been suggested, among them the general
decline of religious beliefs, the refutation of “proofs”
of immortality by materialist philosophers, and scien-
tific data showing the dependence of mental phenom-
ena on the brain. Another reason could well be that
many may not really care about it. If this is so, it would
signify a radical change in attitudes not only toward
death but also toward life.