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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
2 occurrences of Ancients and Moderns in the Eighteenth Century
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2 occurrences of Ancients and Moderns in the Eighteenth Century
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1. The Discovery of Death. It is a matter of debate
whether animals have an awareness of mortality, but
it is certain that man alone among all living creatures
knows that he has to die. Yet even Homo sapiens ac-
quired this knowledge relatively late in the long history
of the species. It is reasonable to assume, as Voltaire
did in his Dictionnaire philosophique (article, “Tout va
bien”), that man has learned about death “through
experience.” More recently some philosophers, notably
Max Scheler, asserted that man possesses an intuitive
awareness of his mortality, and Paul Landsberg sug-
gested that it is not through experience in the usual
meaning of the term but by way of a particular “expe-
rience of death” that one realizes one's own finitude.
There is undoubtedly some truth in this view but as
numerous anthropological studies have shown, primi-
tive man is totally unaware of the inevitability as well
as the possible finality of death. For him it is neither
a natural event nor a radical change: death occurs only
as a result of violence or of a disease brought on by
magic, and those who do die merely enter into another
mode of living in which the need for food, drink, and
clothing does not cease.

Therefore it is misleading to speak of the primitive's
belief in immortality, because his view of death is
rooted not in a denial of death but in the ignorance
of its nature. And the term “immortality” would have
to signify deathlessness as well as survival after death,
whereby survival would be that of the whole man and
not merely of a hypothetical incorporeal entity. It was
only after it had become apparent that death was not
a mere temporary lapse and that the change was irre-
versible and extreme that the notion could occur that
what survives is something other than the whole man.
Even then the “survivor” was not conceived of as
something immaterial, but as a replica of the body,
a “ghost” or “shadow,” and only much later did it
become the completely disembodied “soul.”

The primitive's misconception of death is due pri-
marily to his inability to draw the proper conclusions
from his observations, but it is also strongly favored
by the difficulty of visualizing the end of one's exist-
ence. This psychological peculiarity is not charac-
teristic of the primitive alone. As Freud, and Schopen-
hauer before him, have pointed out, “deep down” even
contemporary man does not “really” believe in his own
death. And Martin Heidegger shrewdly observed that
the proposition, “all men are mortal” usually involves
the tacit reservation “but not I.”

Neither the time nor the historical sequence of the
two elements in the discovery of death—its inevita-
bility as well as its possible finality—can be determined
with any degree of accuracy. On the one hand, the
realization of the inevitability of death may conceiv-
ably have preceded the suspicion of its finality. On the
other hand, the finality of death is in no way predicated
on its inevitability. But if we judge by the testimony
of the first written record of man's discovery of death,
the Gilgamesh Epic (ca. 2500 B.C.), the realization of
the inevitability of death as well as its possible finality
would seem to have occurred simultaneously. If this
is so, it is pointless to ask which of the two produced
the greater shock. But again on the basis of the
Gilgamesh legend, there can be no doubt about its
severity. As a result we find in Gilgamesh most of the
themes of the meditation on death as we know them
today. But while King Gilgamesh strongly suspects that
death may well be total extinction, the predominant
view of death of his contemporaries, obviously still
rooted in primitive ideas, was that the dead somehow
continue to exist. But one cannot help but be impressed
by the somber and frightening nature of the afterlife
as it appears in the Babylonian and Greek mythologies.
Typical is Achilles' complaint in the Odyssey that it
is better to be a slave on earth than a king in the realm
of phantoms. Such an image of a miserable existence
as a mere “shadow” ought to throw considerable doubt
on the usual interpretation of the belief in immortality
as a mere “wish fulfillment,” at least as far as the
earliest manifestations of this belief are concerned. This
kind of survival must have appeared, at least to some,


as worse than complete extinction. For most peo-
ple, however, the prospect of total annihilation was
as frightening and repulsive as that of a miserable
afterlife. Seen against this background, the earliest
philosophical speculations about the soul's ultimate
blissful immortality must have appeared as welcome

We shall deal with these, and subsequent, doctrines
of immortality in the second part of this article and
consider the various attempts to come to terms with
mortality without taking refuge in comforting visions
of post-mortem existence.

2. Epicurus. These attempts were mainly concerned
with gaining mastery over the fear of death. It is
important, however, to realize that the first such at-
tempts made by Democritus, and in particular by
Epicurus, have been undertaken at a time when the
predominant view of death was that of dismal survival
in a bleak Underworld. Consequently Epicurus' liber-
ating message consisted primarily in the denial of the
reality of Hades. Later thinkers, however, had a differ-
ent, and clearly a more difficult, task of trying to
reconcile man with death meaning total extinction.
According to Epicurus the fear of death is one of the
two major afflictions of mankind, the other being the
fear of the gods. Man fears death because he errone-
ously believes that he will experience pain and suffer
after he has died. But, says Epicurus, death is depriva-
tion of sensation. As to the soul it too does not survive
death because, as Democritus has taught, like all things,
it too consists of atoms (albeit particularly fine ones)
which will disperse at death. Consequently “Death, the
most terrifying of all ills, is nothing to us, since as long
as we exist, death is not with us, and when death comes,
then we do not exist” (Fragment XLVII, in Whitney
J. Oates, The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers [1940],
p. 42).

This argument is frequently invoked even today in
spite of the fact that it can be effective only against
the fear of what comes after death—what may be done
to the dead body, as well as what is supposed to happen
to one's “shadow” in Hades. (The fear of mutilation
and desecration of the corpse and the fear of being
deprived of a proper burial were widespread in an-
tiquity and sometimes appear to have been stronger
than the fear of death itself.) But what is mostly feared
today is precisely that which has been so lightly dis-
missed by Epicurus, namely, that one shall not exist

Another obvious shortcoming of the Epicurean
argument is that it might alleviate the fear of death
“at the thought of death,” but not in its actual pres-
ence. The inadequacy of the argument in this respect,
as well as with regard to the fear of annihilation, has
been noted even by some of Epicurus' contemporaries.
In one of the Platonic apocrypha, the Axiochus, the
dying ruler rejects it as “superficial twaddle which can
impress only little boys.” Perhaps this was the reason
for which Lucretius, while exalting Epicurus as the
great liberator from the “dread of Acheron,” intro-
duced the additional argument of a pessimistic evalua-
tion of life: “And quitting life you quit thy living pain.
... For all the dismal tales, that poets tell, are verified
on earth and not in Hell” (De rerum natura, trans. John
Dryden, Book III, 978-79).

3. Methods of Mastering the Fear of Death. The
pessimistic evaluation of life can be considered as the
oldest “remedy” against the fear of death. That “the
best thing is not to be born, and the second best is
to escape life as soon as possible” has been, since
Theognis of Megara (sixth century B.C.), a recurrent
theme of Greek poetry and drama. Pessimism is an
important element also in Emperor Marcus Aurelius'
approach to mastering the fear of death. But for most
people the pessimistic stance carries no real conviction.
Thus, another Roman Stoic, the slave Epictetus, relies
more on self-discipline and the sense of decorum when
it comes to death. His answer is that we have to take
modestly the place assigned to us by God or Nature
at the banquet of life and when the end approaches
to leave it quietly and gracefully. This is also the view
of Seneca. But he realized, however, that such an
attitude is rather the result of the conquest of the fear
of death than its condition. He was, therefore, more
specific in suggesting as a remedy the constant thinking
of death.

However, this second method of conquering the fear
of death, even if it is done in the framework of hope
of a future life, is scarcely realistic. And without that
hope it is a “remedy” which may be worse than the
affliction. The shortcomings of this method gradually
became clear to Montaigne. In the chapter of his
Essays significantly entitled “That to philosophize is
to learn to die,” he reports that being bothered by
attacks of dread of dying, he at first tried to follow
Seneca's advice. As time passed, he came to the con-
clusion that the only proper remedy against the fear
of death is not “philosophy, which orders us to have
death constantly before our eyes,” but the attitude of
the unsophisticated peasant whom “nature teaches not
to think of death except when he actually dies....
If this be stupidity, let's all learn from it” (Essays [1595
ed.], Book III, Ch. 12). But how can not thinking of
death be effective in the “presence” of death? What
about the problem of “easy” dying? Here Montaigne
is somewhat vague. He praises Nature which arranged
things so that dying is in reality not too hard. And
he says that “if we have known how to live properly


and calmly, we will know how to die in the same

However, Nature's cooperation is not necessarily
realized in every case, although it was in Montaigne's:
he did not have a chance to put the above statement
to a test, having died suddenly of a stroke. His expecta-
tion of a peaceful death as an outgrowth of a “proper
life” does not really convey Montaigne's radically new
attitude toward life which determines his eventual
attitude toward death. It is quite different from the
Stoic position and even more so from that of Christi-
anity; it is the expression of the Renaissance spirit with
its appreciation of the exciting and wonderful world
surrounding man of which he feels himself to be a part.
Life is not seen any longer as something to be endured
but something to be enjoyed and which can be shaped
and changed for the better by man's own effort. In
short, the memento vivere replaces the Christian me-
mento mori.
(It is plausible to assume that this radical
reversal was, at least in part, an anticlimax to the
pathologically heightened consciousness of mortality
characteristic of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries,
which grew out of the disaster of the “Black Death.”)
What a “proper and calm” life was for Montaigne,
a useful and productive life was for Leonardo da Vinci.
“As a day well spent bestows pleasant sleep, so a life
well used bestows pleasant death.”

This has become the most often suggested secular
answer to the problem of coming to terms with the
fact of death. A variant of it, which puts even a greater
emphasis on achievement, has been given expression
by the German poet Hölderlin: “Should my verse grow
perfect/ Most welcome then, O stillness of shades
below... (“To the Fates”). It is obvious, however,
that such a condition for overcoming the reluctance
to die is well beyond the reach of the majority of
mortals. Moreover, even the consciousness of having
led a “full” life, and achieved great things may not
be enough to make death welcome. What usually
makes death acceptable is its coming as a well deserved
surcease from a life of continuous hardship and partic-
ularly from the indignity and suffering of old age.
However, it is hardly necessary to point out that the
problem posed by premature death still remains in all
its poignancy.

The weakness of the method of allaying fear of death
by not thinking of it is that under certain circumstances
it is easier said than done. Robert Burton realized it
when he wrote in his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621)
that “if our present weakness is such that death
frightens us, we cannot moderate our passion in this
behalf. We must divert them by all means, by doing
something else, thinking of another subject. Study is
above all the best means to divert one's thoughts” (Part
a, sec. 3, mem. 5 [1907 ed.]). Spinoza too was well
aware of this. But, according to him, not any kind of
study but only philosophical reflection which leads to
what he calls “a higher kind of knowledge” can be
truly effective. Therefore, his famous proposition
LXVII (in the fourth part of Ethics), “A free man thinks
of nothing less than death, and his wisdom is a medita-
tion not of death but of life,” is not advice to avoid
thinking of death as a means of overcoming fear of
it. To interpret this proposition as meaning that only
fools waste their time on meditating about death is
to misunderstand it completely. Spinoza's “free” man
is the wise man, and the latter is defined as “one who
lives under the guidance of reason and is not led by
fear.” But as Spinoza points out at the end of his
magnum opus, the attainment of wisdom is one of the
most difficult things in the world. Thus the above
proposition is not an admonition not to think of death
because no reasonable man does such a foolish thing,
but a promise of a reward for the effort of becoming
wise. It asserts that when one finally attains wisdom
(that is, becomes “free”) he will be able not to think
of death, but of life. And it is obvious that only after
having thought of death a great deal did Spinoza him-
self become able not to think of it any longer because
he had learned not to fear it.

Although the method of allaying the fear of death
by not thinking about it is a defective one, particularly
since one usually thinks of it for some good reason (be
it real danger of death to a loved one, or to oneself),
the proffering of such advice is understandable if we
consider man's uncanny ability to ignore his mortality.
There is also the previously mentioned phenomenon
that, in Freud's words, “in the unconscious no one
really believes in one's own death.” Were it not for
these psychological defense mechanisms, who knows
what havoc the knowledge of death would create in
man's psyche.

Finally, a fourth method of mastering the fear of
death is that of “minimizing” death. We have noted
already that Epicurus' argument against the fear of
death was, to a large extent, based on such an ap-
proach. But it was Socrates who must be considered
as its initiator when, in Plato's Apology, he presses the
analogy between death and sleep. “For fear of death
is indeed the pretense of wisdom... being the pre-
tense of knowing the unknown.... We may well hope
that death is good, since it is either dreamless sleep
or migration of the soul from this world to another
...” (Apology 39D).

A telling criticism of the sleep analogy is Keats'
complaint that “Mortality weighs on me like unwilling
sleep” (“Endymion,” 1818), and John Dryden's insist-
ence that death is a very special kind of “sleep”: “to
sleep, and never wake again.” These are valid reasons
why the other alternative suggested by Socrates has


been so popular. From the point of view of the
conquest of the fear of death, the belief in immortality
is nothing but another way of “minimizing” death.

While the method of not thinking of death could
be effective only in instances of the fear of death “at
the thought of it,” that of thinking of it constantly (and
thus becoming “familiar” with it) could probably be
of help also in the “presence” of death. The two other
methods, that of minimizing death, and that of mini-
mizing the value of life may be helpful in both in-
stances and unlike the first two are not mutually exclu-
sive, but can and have been combined for greater
efficacy. None of the four, however, is effective in the
case of pathological fear of death. As the fifteenth-
century Scottish poet, William Dunbar, stated in his
“Lament for the Makaris” (stanza 10),

... Art magicians, and astrologis,
Rhetoris, logicians and theologis,
Thame helpis no conclusions slee;—
Timor mortis conturbat me
(“Fear of death shatters me”).

Before we consider what, if anything, contemporary
psychology and psychotherapy have to contribute to
this issue, we have to say a few words about death
as the motive as well as the theme of philosophy.

4. Philosophers and Death. Schopenhauer main-
tained that death is the muse of philosophy and that
“all religious and philosophical systems are principally
directed toward comforting us concerning death, and
are thus primarily antidotes to the terrifying certainty
of death” (The World as Will and Idea, III, Ch. 16).
This is an obvious oversimplification and over-
statement. The origin of religion involves many other
factors than just the dimension of human anxiety with
regard to death, and this is true even more of philoso-
phy where “wonder” (Plato) and intellectual curiosity
were motives of equal if not greater importance.

Still almost from the very first, death was a major
topic of philosophical reflection. Of the 126 known
fragments of Heraclitus, no less than sixteen deal with
death. And while it is a mistake to impute to Plato
the proposition that philosophy is a meditation on
death or to suspect him of an inordinate fear of it,
there can be no doubt whatsoever that it held a promi-
nent place in his thought. What Plato did say was
that “the true philosopher is ever pursuing death and
dying” (Phaedo 64A). This statement can be understood
correctly only in the context of Plato's notion that
the soul is a prisoner in the body, that the body is an
obstacle to the acquisition of knowledge, that the
philosopher is a seeker after truth, and that the attain-
ment of true knowledge is possible only when the soul
is liberated from the chains of the body, which is what
death means to Plato. Thus, in the pursuit of true
knowledge, the philosopher strives in this life to ap-
proach the condition in which his soul will be after
death. In philosophizing, he is, as it were, rehearsing

Death was also an important theme among the
Stoics, Montaigne, Bruno, Descartes, Pascal, Spinoza,
Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Feuerbach,
Nietzsche, and many others of lesser stature.

In any case, not until very recent times did philoso-
phers—with the notable exception of “existentialists”—
deliberately shun the problems arising from the fact
of mortality. This is the more surprising since the
prominent place which the topic of death occupies in
contemporary literature (Malraux, Camus, Heming-
way, Faulkner, Beckett, Ionesco to mention but the
most oustanding examples) seems to reflect the pro-
found uneasiness concerning man's ultimate fate.

One of the reasons for the reluctance of most contem-
porary philosophers to deal with death is their disen-
chantment with metaphysical speculation which
seemed to yield nothing but contradictory opinions.
Moreover, the “glamor” of science, due to its spec-
tacular advances and the visibility of its practical ap-
plications, awakened the ambition to make philosophy
an “exact” science in its own right. Both of these
tendencies led to a considerable restriction of the scope
of philosophy. “Professional” philosophers today are
neither disposed nor expected (at least by their peers)
to concern themselves with “ultimate questions.” But
if the so-called analytical philosophers, who predomi-
nate in the English-speaking countries, exclude death
as a legitimate topic of philosophy because of a narrow
view of the task of philosophy, some of those who still
cling to a broader and more traditional view of the
philosophical enterprise disregard death because indi-
vidual man and his death appear to them to be of little

Typical is the remark of the German philosopher
Nicolai Hartmann that only “self-tormenting meta-
physicians” waste their time on meditating on death
and speculating about immortality. And most pragma-
tists are, in addition, haunted by the fear that concern
with “otherworldly” things will interfere with the task
of improving the conditions of existence here and now.
It may be argued, however, that a better life includes
also a satisfactory coming to terms with death. In any
case, for better or for worse, a great many contem-
porary philosophers have abandoned the field almost
entirely to psychologists and sociologists.

5. Contemporary Psychology and Death. System-
atic studies of man's attitudes toward death and dying
have begun only around the turn of this century. They
have elicited information with regard to different age
groups, sex, occupation, marital status, education, and
physical as well as mental health and sickness. Most


of the results are, however, conflicting, and no uni-
versally accepted theory of the genesis of the fear of
death has emerged. But it has become amply clear that
the term “fear of death” is a catch-all label which hides
heretofore unsuspected complexities. Not only do the
emotions described as death-fear range from simple
reluctance or aversion to think of death to outright
terror, but these emotions refer to a variety of “ob-
jects.” There is fear of what comes after death (fear
of the effects of death), and fear of the process of dying
(fear of the pain and anguish of dying). As to the
therapy of the (pathological) dread of death and dying,
(that is, when no valid medical reasons to expect im-
pending death exist), it appears that the two most
effective approaches so far are that of psychoanalysis,
which considers “anxiety” over death as but a special
case of a general anxiety state which has become
“fixated” on this particular subject, and hypnotic sug-
gestion therapy, for which Russian psychiatrists claim
outstanding successes. In the case of apprehension and
fear in people actually dying, recent experiments with
LSD have shown promising results. One should be
careful, however, not to confuse the cure of the
pathological fear of death or the chemically induced
relief of the anxiety of the dying with a “solution” of
all the problems which the fact of death continues to
present to the inquiring mind.

This does not mean that there is, or must be, such
a “global” solution. However, it is important to re-
member that until very recently it was generally as-
sumed that the answer to the problems of death was
known, universally accepted, and it is still considered
valid by many. This answer was “immortality.”


Before discussing the main doctrinal formulations of
the idea of immortality, a few preliminary remarks will
be useful.

In order to be a satisfactory solution to the problems
arising in connection with the fact of death, immor-
tality must be first a “personal” immortality, and sec-
ondly it must be a “pleasant” one. Only pleasant and
personal immortality provides what still appears to
many as the only effective defense against the fear of
death. But it is able to accomplish much more. It
appeases the sorrow following the death of a loved
one by opening up the possibility of a joyful reunion
in the hereafter. It satisfies the sense of justice outraged
by the premature deaths of people of great promise
and talent, because only this kind of immortality offers
the hope of fulfillment in another life. Finally, it offers
an answer to the question of the ultimate meaning of
life, particularly when death prompts the agonizing
query, “What is the purpose of this strife and struggle
if, in the end, I shall disappear like a soap bubble?”
(Tolstoy, A Confession, 1879).

It is important to realize, however, that the notion
of a pleasant immortality for all and sundry runs coun-
ter to the sense of justice which otherwise plays such
a prominent role in man's claim to immortality. While
it was felt that it would be an “injustice” if man were
condemned to total annihilation, it did not make sense
that evil men should enjoy the same privileges in the
hereafter as did the good ones. Thus we find in all
doctrines of immortality some restrictions as to the
enjoyment of a blissful afterlife, be it a permanent
exclusion from it of those guilty of crimes, or a merely
temporary one, allowing for rehabilitation, expiation,
or purification. The main difficulty with personal im-
mortality, however, is that once the naive position
which took deathlessness and survival after death for
granted was shattered, immortality had to be proved.
All serious discussion of immortality became a search
for arguments in its favor.

The three main variants of the idea of immortality
are the doctrine of reincarnation, or transmigration of
the soul, the Platonic theory of the immortality of the
soul (which also admits the possibility of transmigra-
tion), and the Christian doctrine of resurrection of the
body, which includes “Platonic” immortality. Histori-
cally they seem to have appeared in the Western world
in that order. But we shall begin with the doctrine
of the immortality of the soul as expounded by Plato,
partly because his position was the best argued, and
because it is around it that in subsequent times most
serious discussions revolved.


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.


Bodily reconstitution combined with the immortality
of the soul has been the universally accepted version
of immortality in the Western world for almost two
thousand years. Only recently (1968) Pope Paul VI
reaffirmed this doctrine, thus categorically repudiating
all attempts to interpret it symbolically.

The Christian view of the immortality of the soul
differs significantly from the Platonic in that it is some-
thing which results from divine grace, whereas for the
latter, immortality is a “natural” endowment of each
and every soul. As Pope Paul formulated it, “We be-
lieve that the souls of all those who die in the grace
of Christ, whether they must still be purified in Purga-
tory or whether from the moment they leave their
bodies Jesus takes them to Paradise, are the people
of God in the eternity beyond death which will be
conquered on the day of resurrection when these souls
will be reunited with their bodies” (Time, August 1968).

Most of those who accept this position as well as
those who consider it unacceptable in such literal terms
are unaware that the belief in the resurrection of the
dead antedates Christianity. It is an integral part of
the Zoroastrian eschatology and it is found among the
Jews prior to Jesus' time. Although, according to
Josephus Flavius, the sect of the Pharisees believed
“that every soul is incorruptible, but that only the souls
of the good pass over to other bodies,” and thus appear
to have believed in transmigration rather than resur-
rection, Saint Paul (Acts 23:6) attributes to them the
latter belief.

Generally speaking, the idea of the resurrection of
the body is not at all strange if we consider that, like
the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, it was a
reaction to the popularly held somber vision of post-
mortem existence in Sheol or Hades. Man is no more
content with a sad conclusion to the drama of his
existence than he is with this existence being an un-
mitigated calamity. Moreover, the awakening moral
conscience demanded not only punishment but also
rewards for one's actions in this life. And what better
reward for a decent life could there be than restoration
to life?

Significantly, however, what Saint Paul had been
preaching seems to differ from the later, official Cath-
olic doctrine. Not only did he speak of the resurrection
of the body (resurrectionem corporis) and not of the


flesh (resurrectionem carnis), but he insisted that the
body will be resurrected in a new, changed form. Twice
in I Corinthians he says, “We shall all be changed.”
In his view, God will recreate man not as the identical
physical organism that he was before death but as a
“spiritual body” (soma pneumaticon) endowed with
the characteristics and the memory of the deceased.

Yet such a view of resurrection may have been trou-
blesome. Skeptics doubted that Jesus had risen from
the dead at all, and in order to convince them, it was
imperative to be able to say that the disciples did
recognize Him because He was physically exactly the
same—“flesh and bones”—(sarka kai ostea, Luke
24:29). Obviously, such a positive identification would
not have been possible in the case of a changed, “spir-
itual” body. In any case, the early church fathers did
reshape the Paulinic view of resurrection to conform
to these requirements.

This raises, however, the thorny question as to the
condition in which the body will be resurrected, e.g.,
as it was at the time of death, or in its youthful
splendor. Another perhaps even more serious problem
was whether, on the day of the Last Judgment, the
souls which were in Purgatory or Paradise awaiting
that decisive hour would indeed rejoin the right bodies.
The officially accepted answers to these and other
problems are those of Thomas Aquinas.

Concerned as he was with proving the truth of
resurrection, Aquinas was attracted to Aristotle's view
that the person is the living human body. And faced
with the necessity of asserting the immortality of the
soul, he had, however, to show that it was a substance
or, in his terminology, “something subsistent.” There-
fore, in his commentary to Aristotle's De anima,
Aquinas tries to interpret Aristotle's remark that the
intellect exists separately as meaning that “the princi-
ple of intellectual operation which we call the soul
is both incorporeal and subsistent.” Only in this way
was a “synthesis” of the Aristotelian and the Platonic
positions possible. And only if such synthesis could be
accomplished and the unity of body and soul demon-
strated can bodily resurrection, and not merely im-
mortality of the soul, be asserted as man's true post-
mortem destiny. On the other hand, only if the soul
is an incorporeal substance will it survive death and
be available for the reunification with the resurrected
physical body. That it will find the identical former
body is, according to Aquinas, quite certain because
the truth of resurrection is vouchsafed by the Holy
Scriptures. He argues further that since man is created
for happiness, and since it is unattainable here on earth,
there must be an afterlife where this goal will be
attained. But the whole man, body and soul, is destined
for happiness. Thus only resurrection, and not mere
immortality of the soul, would fulfill this promise. And
if the soul would not return to the very same body
it left at death, it would not be true resurrection.

Modern man has considerable difficulty in accepting
the doctrine of literal resurrection of the body. As
Edwyn Bevin points out, “For many people today, the
idea of a literal resurrection of the body has become
impossible” (The Hope of a World to Come [1930], p. 53).


Various forms of this doctrine are transmigration,
metempsychosis, palingenesis, and rebirth. It does not
necessarily imply the eternity of the soul since
Buddhism, which teaches reincarnation, denies it. The
belief that the soul of a dead individual reenters im-
mediately (or as in the Tibetan book of the dead, the
Bardo Tödol, after 49 days) that of a newborn child
eliminates the difficulty of visualizing a totally disem-
bodied soul and the question of its destiny after it leaves
the body. The doctrine of reincarnation seems to have
originated in India, possibly in prehistoric times. Many
primitives in various parts of the world believe that
man possesses several souls, one of which reincarnates
in a descendent of the deceased, a notion which may
have been suggested by the sometimes striking resem-
blance between a child and his dead relative. It is
interesting, however, that no traces of the belief in
reincarnation can be found among the ancient Egyp-
tians or the Assyro-Babylonians. There is also no hint
of it in Homer, or Hesiod, and no mention of it in
the Old Testament. Among the Jews we find it much
later, and the sect of the Pharisees which adopted it
had been obviously influenced by their Greek contem-
poraries. In Greece itself, the doctrine of reincarnation
was first taught by Pythagoras in the sixth century B.C.
and is usually assumed to be of orphic origin. Some
scholars, however, claim that the doctrine was
“invented” by Pherecydes of Syros and base their
opinion on a passage in Cicero's Tusculan Disputations.
Others point out that to trace it to Orphism of which
little is known is to beg the question of an even earlier

It is tempting to seek it in the influence of Indian
thought if it were not for the difficulty of finding
concrete evidence for such a connection. Moreover,
there is a basic difference between the Hindu version
of the doctrine and that of Pythagoras. While the latter
considers successive reincarnations as the opportunity
for the purification and perfection of the soul, for the
Hindus, Brahmanists and Buddhists alike, reincarnation
represents merely a continuous repetition of the
suffering and misery of earthly existence. It is tied in
with the doctrine of cosmic eternal recurrence and the
periodic disappearance and reappearance of humanity


during which the soul transmigrates without end. And
while, for the Hindu, salvation consists in an escape
from the wheel of rebirths, in the Greek version the
soul is ultimately united with God.

In the Western world, the doctrine of reincarnation
has never achieved popularity. The Pythagorean
brotherhoods were secret societies, and subsequently
only sectarian and heretical movements like the Jewish
Cabalists, the Christian Gnostics, and the Cathars
embraced it. It fared somewhat better among philoso-
phers. Aside from Pythagoras, one has to mention
Empedocles and, in particular, Plato who gave a more
or less systematic account of the doctrine of the trans-
migration of the soul in several of his dialogues (Gorgias
525C-526B; Phaedrus 248A-B; Phaedo 82A, 113E,
114A-B; Republic X, 614C-625A; Theaetetus 117A;
Timaeus 91D, 92A-B). Plotinus incorporated this doc-
trine into his philosophical system. Soon thereafter it
was completely displaced by the Christian doctrine of
resurrection. It reappears again in the Renaissance
among the Italian Platonists of the fifteenth century,
in the Cambridge Neo-Platonists in the seventeenth
century, and is sympathetically considered by Giordano
Bruno, and later on by Leibniz. Even the skeptical
Hume felt that if there were immortality, “metem-
psychosis is the only system of this kind that philosophy
can hearken to” (“Of the Immortality of the Soul,”
op. cit.). In the twentieth century, McTaggart argued
in its favor, and C. J. Ducasse considers it the most
plausible hypothesis.

Apart from metaphysical considerations, what are
the most important arguments for reincarnation? Here
again we have to distinguish between the Hindu and
Western proponents of this doctrine. In the West it
is but one of several answers to the question of man's
post-mortem destiny, and unless it is accepted un-
critically, it adds the burden of proving multiple incar-
nations of the soul to the already sufficiently taxing
task of proving its immortality. In Hindu thought, for
which (with the exception of a few materialist philoso-
phers) the immortality of the soul is axiomatic, its
reincarnation is most often equally so. And if one
should, nevertheless, want proofs, these are usually
based on the soul's “obvious” immortality. Thus the
leading contemporary philosopher (and ex-president)
of India, S. Radhakrishnan, advances the following
argument: since souls are eternal, and since their nor-
mal condition is to be associated with a body which
is perishable, it is plausible to assume that in order
for the soul to remain in its normal condition, it must
inhabit an unending succession of bodies.

But the Western mind is not impressed and prefers
empirical proofs. Among these, one of the favorite
arguments is the undeniable fact that some children
exhibit certain instinctive capacities, and a few are
even geniuses at a very early age. This is supposed
to prove that there must be reincarnation, since other-
wise the possession of such extraordinary gifts remains
totally uncomprehensible.

Another argument is the occurrence of the phenom-
enon known as déjà vu. But the most popular and
supposedly clinching argument is that some people
apparently remember their previous existences, some-
times without extraneous help, though usually under

The obvious counterarguments, as far as genius in
children and the déjà vu phenomena are concerned,
is that although they are difficult to explain, the re-
course to such an extreme as the preexistence and
reincarnation of the soul seems unjustified. And re-
garding people who claim to remember their previous
lives, not only can the information elicited not be
reliably verified, but such people are exceedingly few
and far between.

It remains to mention the reply of the adherents of
the reincarnation doctrine to the last counterargument.
They contend that death is a traumatic experience of
such a force that it seriously affects or obliterates
memory. But this argument tacitly assumes the immor-
tality of the soul, since only in such a case can one
speak of the consequences of the traumatic experience
of death. And while dying may well be traumatic for
many, on all available evidence it appears to be the
last experience of a person.

Substitute Immortalities. Some of those who bring
forth arguments against immortality of the soul (or
resurrection of the body) propose other kinds of
“immortality,” thus giving this term a broader and
often misleading meaning. There is, first of all, what
may be called the doctrine of impersonal immortality:
the spirit, or mind of man, is not destroyed at death
but returns to and merges with the universal or divine
Soul, or mind. This is the possible meaning of Aris-
totle's hint about the eternity of the active intellect.
The main representatives of this view are Averroës,
Bruno, Spinoza, and the German and English romantic
poets and philosophers of the late eighteenth and early
nineteenth centuries. Of this kind of immortality, Ma-
dame de Staël remarked somewhat sarcastically that
“if the individual inner qualities we possess return to
the great Whole, this has a frightening similarity to

Another kind of “immortality” which is intended to
console, as well as to justify death, is “biological”
immortality of our germ plasm (genes). The prospect
to live on in one's children has, however, lost much
of its comforting power since the realization that man-
kind itself will some day disappear, and particularly


now that the atomic and hydrogen bombs have made
such an outcome not infinitely remote but a very real
and even immediate possibility. It might not neces-
sarily affect Santayana's “ideal” immortality which is
reminiscent of Goethe's view that the “traces on one's
earthly days cannot be erased in Aeons.” Nor would
it affect what is known as “cosmological” immortality,
according to which our energy-matter does not cease
to exist but is only transformed and dispersed. But to
both of these “immortalities,” Madame de Staël's criti-
cism equally applies. Of course, many people would
be satisfied with mere “social” or “historical” immor-
tality—to have left traces of one's passage on earth
in the form of an artistic achievement, scientific dis-
covery, or other remarkable accomplishments. “How
can he be dead, who lives immortal in the hearts of
men?” asks Longfellow in speaking of Michelangelo.
This was the meaning of immortality for the great men
of Ancient Rome. In modern times, this kind of
“immortality” was first suggested by M. J. de Con-
dorcet in his Outline of the Progress of the Human
and, with particular force, by Ludwig
Feuerbach. The least ambitious immortality would be
to live on for a short time in the memory of one's family
and friends. Very probably this is the only kind of
“immortality” that the overwhelming majority of peo-
ple will ever have. But for many people, this is not
a completely satisfactory thought.


Death. Jacques Choron, Death and Western Thought (New
York, 1963); idem, Modern Man and Mortality (New York,
1964), which contains an extensive bibliography of the most
relevant philosophical and psychological works in English
and foreign languages dealing with death. Herman Feifel,
ed., The Meaning of Death (New York, 1959). Robert Fulton,
ed., Death and Identity (New York, 1965). Arnold Toynbee,
Man's Concern with Death (London, 1968).

Immortality of the Soul. W. R. Alger, A Critical History
of the Doctrine of a Future Life
(New York, 1871). Anthony
Flew, ed., Body, Mind and Death (New York, 1964). James
Hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, 13 vols.
(Edinburgh and New York, 1910), Vol. XI, article “The State
of the Dead.” Corliss Lamont, The Illusion of Immortality
(New York, 1950). F. W. H. Myers, Human Personality and
its Survival of Bodily Death
(London and New York, 1903).

Resurrection. J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines
(London, 1958). James MacLeman, Resurrection Then and
(Philadelphia, 1967). K. Stendahl, ed., Immortality and
(New York, 1965), consists of four Ingersoll
Lectures (1955, 1956, 1958, and 1959), by Oscar Cullmann,
Harry A. Wolfson, Werner Jaeger, and Henry J. Cadbury.

Reincarnation. S. G. F. Brandon, “Man and His Destiny,”
World Religions (Manchester, 1962). C. J. Ducasse, The
Belief in a Life after Death
(New York, 1961). Ian Stevenson,
The Evidence for Survival from Claimed Memories of Former
(New York, 1961).


[See also Antinomy; Buddhism; Existentialism; Faith; Idea;
Platonism; Pythagorean....]