IMMORTALITY (Lat. in-, not, mortalis, mortal, from mors, death), the condition or quality of being exempt from death or annihilation. This condition has been predicated of man, both body and soul, in many senses; and the term is used by analogy of those whose deeds or writings have made a lasting impression on the memory of man. The belief in human immortality in some form is almost universal; even in early animistic cults the germ of the idea is present, and in all the higher religions it is an important feature. This article is confined to summarizing the philosophical or scientific arguments for, and objections to, the doctrine of the persistence of the human soul after death. For the Christian doctrine, see Eschatology; and for other religions see the separate articles.
In the Orphic mysteries “the soul was regarded as a part of the divine, a particula aurae divinae, for which the body in its limited and perishable condition was no fit organ, but a grave or prison (τὸ σῶμα σῆμα). The existence of the soul in the body was its punishment for sins in a previous condition; and the doom of its sins in the body was its descent into other bodies, and the postponement of its deliverance” (Salmond’s Christian Doctrine of Immortality, p. 109). This deliverance was what the mysteries promised. A remarkable passage in Pindar (Thren. 2) is thus rendered by J. W. Donaldson (Pindar’s Epinician or Triumphal Odes, p. 372). “By a happy lot, all persons travel to an end free of toil. And the body, indeed, is subject to the powerful influence of death; but a shadow of vitality is still left alive, and this alone is of divine origin; while our limbs are in activity it sleeps; but, when we sleep, it discloses to the mind in many dreams the future judgment with regard to happiness and misery.”
The belief of Socrates is uncertain. In the Apology he is represented as sure that “no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death,” but as not knowing whether “death be a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness, or a change or migration of the soul from this world to the next” (i. 40, 41). In the Phaedo a confident expectation is ascribed to him. He is not the body to be buried; he will not remain with his friends after he has drunk the poison, but he will go away to the happiness of the blessed. The silence of the Memorabilia of Xenophon must be admitted as an argument to the contrary; but the probability seems to be that Plato did not in the Phaedo altogether misrepresent the Master. In Plato’s thought the belief held a prominent position. “It is noteworthy,” says Professor D. G. Ritchie, “that, in the various dialogues in which Plato speaks of immortality, the arguments seem to be of different kinds, and most of them quite unconnected with one another.” In the Phaedrus (245 c) the argument is, that the soul is self-moving, and, therefore, immortal; and this argument is repeated in the Laws (x. 894, 895). It is an argument that Plato probably inherited from Alcmaeon, the physician of Croton (Arist. De An. i. 2, § 17 405 a 29), whose views were closely connected with those of the Pythagoreans. In the Phaedo the main argument up to which all the others lead is that the soul participates in the idea of life. Recollection (anamnesis) alone would prove pre-existence, but not existence after death. In the tenth book of the Republic we find the curious argument that the soul does not perish like the body, because its characteristic evil, sin or wickedness does not kill it as the diseases of the body wear out the bodily life. In the Timaeus (41 a) the immortality even of the gods is made dependent on the will of the Supreme Creator; souls are not in their own nature indestructible, but persist because of His goodness. In the Laws (xii. 959 a) the notion of a future life seems to be treated as a salutary doctrine which is to be believed because the legislator enacts it (Plato, p. 146). The estimate to be formed of this reasoning has been well stated by Dr A. M. Fairbairn, “Plato’s arguments for immortality, isolated, modernized, may be feeble, even valueless, but allowed to stand where and as he himself puts them, they have an altogether different worth. The ratiocinative parts of the Phaedo thrown into syllogisms may be easily demolished by a hostile logician; but in the dialogue as a whole there is a subtle spirit and cumulative force which logic can neither seize nor answer” (Studies in the Philosophy of Religion, p. 226, 1876).
Aristotle held that the νοῦς or active intelligence alone is immortal. The Stoics were not agreed upon the question. Cleanthes is said to have held that all survive to the great conflagration which closes the cycle, Chrysippus that only the wise will. Marcus Aurelius teaches that even if the spirit survive for a time it is at last “absorbed in the generative principle of the universe.” Epicureanism thought that “the wise man fears not death, before which most men tremble; for, if we are, it is not; if it is, we are not.” Death is extinction. Augustine adopts a Platonic thought when he teaches that the immortality of the soul follows from its participation in the eternal truths. The Apologists themselves welcomed, and commended to others, the Christian revelation as affording a certainty of immortality such as reason could not give. The Aristotelian school in Islam did not speak with one voice upon the question; Avicenna declared the soul immortal, but Averroes assumes only the eternity of the universal intellect. Albertus Magnus argued that the soul is immortal, as ex se ipsa causa, and as independent of the body; Pietro Pomponazzi maintained that the soul’s immortality could be neither proved nor disproved by any natural reasons. Spinoza, while consistently with his pantheism denying personal immortality, affirms that “the human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the body, but there remains of it something which is eternal” (Eth. v. prop, xxiii.). The reason he gives is that, as this something “appertains to the essence of the mind,” it is “conceived by a certain eternal necessity through the very essence of God.”
Leibnitz, in accord with the distinctive principle of his philosophy, affirmed the absolute independence of mind and body as distinct monads, the parallelism of their functions in life being due to the pre-established harmony. For the soul, by its nature as a single monad indestructible and, therefore, immortal, death meant only the loss of the monads constituting the body and its return to the pre-existent state. The argument of Ernst Platner (Philos. Aphor. i. 1174, 1178) is similar. “If the human soul is a force in the narrower sense, a substance, and not a combination of substances, then, as in the nature of things there is no transition from existence to non-existence, we cannot naturally conceive the end of its existence, any more than we can anticipate a gradual annihilation of its existence.” He adds a reason that recalls one of Plato’s, “As manifestly as the human soul is by means of the senses linked to the present life, so manifestly it attaches itself by reason, and the conceptions, conclusions, anticipations and efforts to which reason leads it, to God and eternity.”
Against the first kind of argument, as formulated by Moses Mendelssohn, Kant advances the objection that, although we may deny the soul extensive quantity, division into parts, yet we cannot refuse to it intensive quantity, degrees of reality; and consequently its existence may be terminated not by decomposition, but by gradual diminution of its powers (or to use the term he coined for the purpose, by elanguescence). This denial of any reasonable ground for belief in immortality in the Critique of Pure Reason (Transcendental Dialectic, bk. ii. ch. i.) is, however, not his last word on the subject. In the Critique of the Practical Reason (Dialectic, ch. i. sec. iv) the immortality of the soul is shown to be a postulate. Holiness, “the perfect accordance of the will with the moral law,” demands an endless progress; and “this endless progress is only possible on the supposition of an endless duration of the existence and personality of the same rational being (which is called the immortality of the soul).” Not demonstrable as a theoretical proposition, the immortality of the soul “is an inseparable result of an unconditional a priori practical law.” The moral interest, which is so decisive on this question in the case of Kant, dominates Bishop Butler also. A future life for him is important, because our happiness in it may depend on our present conduct; and therefore our action here should take into account the reward or punishment that it may bring on us hereafter. As he maintains that probability may and ought to be our guide in life, he is content with proving in the first chapter of the Analogy that “a future life is probable from similar changes (as death) already undergone in ourselves and in others, and from our present powers, which are likely to continue unless death destroy them.” While we may fear this, “there is no proof that it will, either from the nature of death,” of the effect of which on our powers we are altogether ignorant, “or from the analogy of nature, which shows only that the sensible proof of our powers (not the powers themselves) may be destroyed.” The imagination that death will destroy these powers is unfounded, because (1) “this supposes we are compounded, and so discerptible, but the contrary is probable” on metaphysical grounds (the indivisibility of the subject in which consciousness as indivisible inheres, and its distinction from the body) and also experimental (the persistence of the living being in spite of changes in the body or even losses of parts of the body); (2) this also assumes that “our present living powers of reflection” must be affected in the same way by death “as those of sensation,” but this is disproved by their relative independence even in this life; (3) “even the suspension of our present powers of reflection” is not involved in “the idea of death, which is simply dissolution of the body,” and which may even “be like birth, a continuation and perfecting of our powers.” “Even if suspension were involved, we cannot infer destruction from it” (analysis of chapter i. in Angus’s edition). He recognizes that “reason did, as it well might, conclude that it should finally, and upon the whole, be well with the righteous and ill with the wicked,” but only “revelation teaches us that the next state of things after the present is appointed for the execution of this justice” (ch. ii. note 10). He does not use this general anticipation of future judgment, as he might have done, as a positive argument for immortality.
Adam Ferguson (Institutes of Moral Philosophy, p. 119, new ed., 1800) argues that “the desire for immortality is an instinct, and can reasonably be regarded as an indication of that which the author of this desire wills to do.” From the standpoint of modern science John Fiske confirms the validity of such an argument; for what he affirms in regard to belief in the divine is equally applicable to this belief in a future life. “If the relation thus established in the morning twilight of man’s existence between the human soul and a world invisible and immaterial is a relation of which only the subjective term is real and the objective term is non-existent; then I say it is something utterly without precedent in the whole history of creation” (Through Nature to God, 1899, p. 188, 189). Whatever may have been Hegel’s own belief in regard to personal immortality, the logical issue of his absolute idealism has been well stated by W. Windelband (History of Philosophy, p. 633). “It became clear that in the system of perpetual Becoming and of the dialectical passing over of all forms into one another, the finite personality could scarcely raise a plausible claim to the character of a substance and to immortality in the religious sense.” F. D. Schleiermacher applies the phrase “the immortality of religion” to the religious emotion of oneness, amid finitude, with the infinite and, amid time, with the eternal; denies any necessary connexion between the belief in the continuance of personal existence and the consciousness of God; and rests his faith on immortality altogether on Christ’s promise of living fellowship with His followers, as presupposing their as well as His personal immortality. A. Schopenhauer assigns immortality to the universal will to live; and Feuerbach declares spirit, consciousness eternal, but not any individual subject. R. H. Lotze for the decision of the question lays down the broad principle, “All that has once come to be will eternally continue so soon as for the organic unity of the world it has an unchangeable value, but it will obviously again cease to be, when that is not the case” (Gr. der Psy. p. 74).
Objections to the belief in immortality have been advanced from the standpoints of materialism, naturalism, pessimism and pantheism. Materialism argues that, as life depends on a material organism, thought is a function of the brain, and the soul is but the sum of mental states, to which, according to the theory of psychophysical parallelism, physical changes always correspond; therefore, the dissolution of the body carries with it necessarily the cessation of consciousness. That, as now constituted, mind does depend on brain, life on body, must be conceded, but that this dependence is so absolute that the function must cease with the organ has not been scientifically demonstrated; the connexion of the soul with the body is as yet too obscure to justify any such dogmatism. But against this inference the following considerations may be advanced: (1) Man does distinguish himself from his body; (2) he is conscious of his personal identity, through all the changes of his body; (3) in the exercise of his will he knows himself not controlled by but controlling his body; (4) his consciousness warrants his denying the absolute identification of himself and his body. It may further be added that materialism can be shown to be an inadequate philosophy in its attempts to account even for the physical universe, for this is inexplicable without the assumption of mind distinct from, and directive of, matter. The theory of psychophysical parallelism has been subjected to a rigorous examination in James Ward’s Naturalism and Agnosticism, part iii., in which the argument that mind cannot be derived from matter is convincingly presented. Sir Oliver Lodge in his reply to E. Haeckel’s Riddle of the Universe maintains that “life may be something not only ultra-terrestrial, but even immaterial, something outside our present categories of matter and energy; as real as they are, but different, and utilizing them for its own purpose” (Life and Matter, 1906, p. 198). He rejects the attempt to explain human personality as “generated by the material molecular aggregate of its own unaided latent power,” and affirms that the “universe where the human spirit is more at home than it is among these temporary collocations of matter” is “a universe capable of infinite development, of noble contemplation, and of lofty joy, long after this planet—nay the whole solar system—shall have fulfilled its present spire of destiny, and retired cold and lifeless upon its endless way” (pp. 199-200).
In his lecture on Human Immortality (3rd ed., 1906), Professor William James deals with “two supposed objections to the doctrine.” The first is “the law that thought is a function of the brain.” Accepting the law he distinguishes productive from permissive or transmissive function (p. 32), and, rejecting the view that brain produces thought, he recognizes that in our present condition brain transmits thought, thought needs brain for its organ of expression; but this does not exclude the possibility of a condition in which thought will be no longer so dependent on brain. He quotes (p. 57) with approval Kant’s words, “The death of the body may indeed be the end of the sensational use of our mind, but only the beginning of the intellectual use. The body would thus be not the cause of our thinking, but merely a condition restrictive thereof, and, although essential to our sensuous and animal consciousness, it may be regarded as an impeder of our pure spiritual life” (Kritik der reinen Vernunft, 2nd ed., p. 809).
Further arguments in the same direction are derived from the modern school of psychical research (see especially F. W. H. Myers’ Human Personality, 1903).
Another objection is advanced from the standpoint of naturalism, which, whether it issues in materialism or not, seeks to explain man as but a product of the process of nature. The universe is so immeasurably vast in extension and duration, and man is so small, his home but a speck in space, and his history a span in time that it seems an arrogant assumption for him to claim exemption from the universal law of evolution and dissolution. This view ignores that man has ideals of absolute value, truth, beauty, goodness, that he consciously communes with the God who is in all, and through all, and over all, that it is his mind which recognizes the vastness of the universe and thinks its universal law, and that the mind which perceives and conceives cannot be less, but must be greater than the object of its knowledge and thought.
Pessimism suggests a third objection. The present life is so little worth living that its continuance is not to be desired. James Thomson (“B.V.”) speaks “of the restful rapture of the inviolate grave,” and sings the praises of death and of oblivion. We cannot admit that the history of mankind justifies his conclusion; for the great majority of men life is a good, and its continuance an object of hope.
For pantheism personal immortality appears a lesser good than reabsorption in the universal life; but against this objection we may confidently maintain that worthier of God and more blessed for man is the hope of a conscious communion in an eternal life of the Father of all with His whole family.
Lastly positivism teaches a corporate instead of an individual immortality; man should desire to live on as a beneficent influence in the race. This conception is expressed in George Eliot’s lines:
“O, may I join the choir invisible
But these possibilities are not mutually exclusive alternatives. A man may live on in the world by his teaching and example as a power for good, a factor of human progress, and he may also be continuing and completing his course under conditions still more favourable to all most worthy in him. Consciously to participate as a person in the progress of the race is surely a worthier hope than unconsciously to contribute to it as an influence; ultimately to share the triumph as well as the struggle is a more inspiring anticipation.
In stating constructively the doctrine of immortality we must assign altogether secondary importance to the metaphysical arguments from the nature of the soul. It is sufficient to show, as has already been done, that the soul is not so absolutely dependent on the body, that the dissolution of the one must necessarily involve the cessation of the other. Such arguments as the indivisibility of the soul and its persistence can at most indicate the possibility of immortality.
The juridical argument has some force; the present life does not show that harmony of condition and character which our sense of justice leads us to expect; the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer; there is ground for the expectation that in the future life the anomalies of this life will be corrected. Although this argument has the support of such great names as Butler and Kant, yet it will repel many minds as an appeal to the motive of self-interest.
The ethical argument has greater value. Man’s life here is incomplete, and the more lofty his aims, the more worthy his labours, the more incomplete will it appear to be. The man who lives for fame, wealth, power, may be satisfied in this life; but he who lives for the ideals of truth, beauty, goodness, lives not for time but for eternity, for his ideals cannot be realized, and so his life fulfilled on this side of the grave. Unless these ideals are mocking visions, man has a right to expect the continuance of his life for its completion. This is the line of argument developed by Professor Hugo Münsterberg in his lecture on The Eternal Life (1905), although he states it in the terms peculiar to his psychology, in which personality is conceived as primarily will. “No endless duration is our goal, but complete repose in the perfect satisfaction which the will finds when it has reached the significance, the influence, and the value at which it is aiming” (p. 83).
More general in its appeal still is the argument from the affections, which has been beautifully developed in Tennyson’s In Memoriam. The heart protests against the severance of death, and claims the continuance of love’s communion after death; and as man feels that love is what is most godlike in his nature, love’s claim has supreme authority.
There is a religious argument for immortality. The saints of the Hebrew nation were sure that as God had entered into fellowship with them, death could not sever them from his presence. This is the argument in Psalms xvi. and xvii., if, as is probable, the closing verses do express the hope of a glorious and blessed immortality. This too is the proof Jesus himself offers when he declares God to be the God of the living and not of the dead (Matt. xxii. 32). God’s companions cannot become death’s victims.
Josiah Royce in his lecture on The Conception of Immortality (1900) combines this argument of the soul’s union with God with the argument of the incompleteness of man’s life here:—
“Just because God is One, all our lives have various and unique places in the harmony of the divine life. And just because God attains and wins and finds this uniqueness, all our lives win in our union with Him the individuality which is essential to their true meaning. And just because individuals whose lives have uniqueness of meaning are here only objects of pursuit, the attainment of this very individuality, since it is indeed real, occurs not in our present form of consciousness, but in a life that now we see not, yet in a life whose genuine meaning is continuous with our own human life, however far from our present flickering form of disappointed human consciousness that life of the final individuality may be. Of this our true individual life, our present life is a glimpse, a fragment, a hint, and in its best moments a visible beginning. That this individual life of all of us is not something limited in its temporal expression to the life that now we experience, follows from the very fact that here nothing final or individual is found expressed” (pp. 144-146).
R. W. Emerson declares that “the impulse to seek proof of immortality is itself the strongest proof of all.” We expect immortality not merely because we desire it; but because the desire itself arises from all that is best and truest and worthiest in ourselves. The desire is reasonable, moral, social, religious; it has the same worth as the loftiest ideals, and worthiest aspirations of the soul of man. The loss of the belief casts a dark shadow over the present life. “No sooner do we try to get rid of the idea of Immortality—than Pessimism raises its head.... Human griefs seem little worth assuaging; human happiness too paltry (at the best) to be worth increasing. The whole moral world is reduced to a point. Good and evil, right and wrong, become infinitesimal, ephemeral matters. The affections die away—die of their own conscious feebleness and uselessness. A moral paralysis creeps over us” (Natural Religion, Postscript). The belief exercises a potent moral influence. “The day,” says Ernest Renan, “in which the belief in an after-life shall vanish from the earth will witness a terrific moral and spiritual decadence. Some of us perhaps might do without it, provided only that others held it fast. But there is no lever capable of raising an entire people if once they have lost their faith in the immortality of the soul” (quoted by A. W. Momerie, Immortality, p. 9). To this belief, many and good as are the arguments which can be advanced for it, a confident certainty is given by Christian faith in the Risen Lord, and the life and immortality which he has brought to light in his Gospel.
In addition to the works referred to above, see R. K. Gaye, The Platonic Conception of Immortality and its Connexion with the Theory of Ideas (1904); R. H. Charles, A Critical History of the Doctrine of a Future Life in Israel, in Judaism and in Christianity (1899); E. Pétavel, The Problem of Immortality (Eng. trans. by F. A. Freer, 1892); J. Fiske, The Destiny of Man, viewed in the Light of his Origin (1884); G. A. Gordon, Immortality and the New Theodicy (1897); Henry Buckle, The After Life (1907). (A. E. G.*)