By immortality is ordinarily understood the doctrine that the human soul will survive death, continuing in the possession of an endless conscious existence. Together with the question of the existence of God, it forms the most momentous issue with which philosophy has to deal. It belongs primarily to rational or metaphysical psychology and the philosophy of religion, though it comes also into contact with other branches of philosophy and some of the natural sciences.
Belief in a future life of some sort seems to have been practically universal at all times. Here and there individuals have rejected this belief, and particular forms of religion or systems of philosophy logically incompatible with it have had adherents; still, however vague and inconsistent may have been the views among different peoples as to the character of the life beyond the grave, it remains true that the persuasion of the reality of a future existence seems to have been hitherto ineradicable throughout the human race as a whole. The doctrine of immortality, strictly or properly understood, means personal immortality, the endless conscious existence of the individual soul. It implies that the being which survives shall preserve its personal identity and be connected by conscious memory with the previous life. Unless the individual’s identity be preserved, a future existence has relatively little interest. From the doctrine of immortality thus explained there have been sundry variations. Some have held that after a future life of greater or less duration the soul will ultimately perish. Throughout the East there has been a widespread tendency to believe in metempsychosis or transmigration—that individual souls successively animate different human beings, and even the bodies of lower animals. A special form of this view is the theory of metamorphosis, that in such a series of reincarnations the soul undergoes or can undergo evolution and improvement of its condition. Pantheism, if logical, can offer only an impersonal immortality, a future condition in which the individual is absorbed into the absolute—the one infinite being, whether conscious or unconscious. Practically, this differs little from annihilation. For the materialist, the soul, or the conscious life, is but a function of the organism, and necessarily perishes at death. Positivists, however, while adopting this conclusion, would still cheer mankind with the hope of a place in the “choir invisible”, that is, a future existence in the minds and on the lips of future generations—a not very substantial form of immortality, and one of a very aristocratic character, the franchise being narrowly limited.
Egypt affords at a very early date the most abundant evidence of an extremely vivid and intense belief in a future life. Offerings of provisions of all sorts to the spirits of the departed, elaborate funeral ceremonies, and the wonderfully skilful mummification of the bodies of the deceased, all bear witness to the strength of the Egyptians’ convictions of the reality of the next life. (See EGYPT, especially sections on The Future Life and The Book of the Dead.)
The doctrine of personal survival with a future retribution for good and ill conduct is found in the earliest forms of Brahminism. At a later period a school of Brahmin philosophers evolved a system of vague Pantheism in which absorption into the Infinite Being is the final goal. Still, the popular belief has in practice always tended towards Polytheism, whilst the doctrine of successive reincarnations of the soul in different human beings or animals remained a constant expression of belief in survival. A special form of this belief is the doctrine of Karma—the persisting existence and transmission through re-incarnations of the sum of the past deeds and merits of the individual. Akin to the pantheistic absorption of philosophic Pantheism is the theory of Nirvana, which forms a central feature in strict Buddhism. Whatever Nirvana may mean for the philosophers and saints of Buddhism, for the multitude the ideal liberation from labour and pain is restful quiet, not death or extinction.
In China worship of ancestors is evidence of belief in some form of personal survival which carries us back to the earliest ages of that most ancient and conservative nation. The departed spirits are both helped and propitiated to aid their descendants by sacrifices and sundry services of filial piety (see CONFUCIANISM).
Similarly in Japan, whatever may be the genuine logical theory of the soul in the religion of Shintoism, the popular mind finds in the great institution of ancestor worship instinctive satisfaction and expression for the belief in a future life, which seems so deeply and universally rooted in human nature.
That early Jewish history shows that the Hebrew nation did not believe in a future life, is sometimes stated. It is true that temporal rewards and punishments from God are much insisted upon throughout the Old Testament, and that the doctrine of a future life occupies a less prominent position there than we should perhaps have anticipated. Still, careful study of the Old Testament reveals incidental and indirect evidence quite sufficient to establish the existence of this belief among the Israelites at an early date (see Genesis 2:7; Wisdom 2:22-23; Ecclesiastes 12:7; Proverbs 15:24; Isaiah 35:10; 51:6; Daniel 12:2, etc.). It would, however, on a priori grounds, have been incredible that the Hebrew people should not have held this belief, considering their intimate contact with the Egyptians on one side and the Chaldæans on the other (see Atzberger, “Die christliche Eschatologie”, Freiburg, 1890).
The Greeks seem to have been among the first to attempt systematic philosophical treatment of the question of immortality. Belief in a future life is clear in Homer, though the character of that existence is vague. Pindar’s conception of immortality and of its retributive character is more distinct and also more spiritual. The Pythagoreans are vague and tinctured by Oriental Pantheism, though they certainly taught the doctrine of a future life and of metempsychosis. We have not definite texts defining Socrates’ view, but it seems clear that he must have been a believer in immortality. It is, however, in the hands of his great pupil Plato that the doctrine attained its most elaborate philosophical exposition and defence. Plato’s teaching on the subject is given in several of his writings, the “Meno”, “Phædrus”, “Gorgias”, “Timæus”, and “Republic”, but especially in the “Phædo”. There are many variations and seeming inconsistencies, with liberal use of myth and allegory, in the unfolding of his ideas in these different works. For Plato, the soul is a being quite distinct from the body, related to it as the pilot to the ship, the charioteer to the chariot. The rational soul is the proper soul of man. It is a Divine element, and it is this which is immortal. Among his arguments in favour of immortality are the following:
- Throughout the universe opposites alternately generate and succeed each other. Death follows life and out of death life is again generated. Man must be no exception to this general law.
- The soul is a simple substance, akin in nature to the simple and immutable idea, and therefore, like the latter, incorruptible.
- The essence of the soul is life and self-movement. Being a soul only in so far as it participates in the idea of life, it is incapable of death.
- The process of learning is really only reminiscence, the recall of knowledge of a past life. Man is, therefore, to survive the present life.
- Truth dwells in us; the soul is made for truth, but truth is eternal.
- The soul is made for virtue, but advance in virtue consists in progressive liberation of oneself from bodily passions.
- The soul is not a harmony, but the lyre itself.
- Destruction can be effected only by a principle antagonistic to the very nature of a being. Vice is for the soul the only principle of this kind, but vice cannot destroy the being of the soul, therefore the soul is indestructible. Otherwise the wicked would have no future punishment to expect.
Finally, he urges, in many forms, the argument from retributive justice and the necessity of future existence for adequate reward of the good and punishment of the wicked. In Aristotle’s philosophical system, on the other hand, the question of immortality holds so small a place that it is doubtful whether he believed in a future personal life at all. He teaches clearly that the nous poietikos, the active intellect, is indestructible and eternal; but then it is not certain that he did not understand this nous, in a pantheistic sense. It is, however, in his Ethics that Aristotle is most disappointing on this subject. For obviously, the question of the reality of a future life is of the first importance in any complete philosophical treatment of morality, whilst Aristotle in this treatise practically ignores the problem. His attitude here proves how much all modern ethical philosophy owes to the Christian Revelation.
The Epicurean School offers us the most complete and reasoned negation of immortality among ancient philosophers. Indeed the most recent Materialism has little of force to add to Lucretius’ elaborate exposition of the Epicurean arguments (De Natura Rerum, III). He is quite candid in stating that his object is to relieve men from fear of that life. The position of the Stoics is more uncertain. Their Pantheism presents difficulties to the doctrine of survival, yet at times they seem to favour the belief. But in Greece and Rome, as elsewhere, whatever may have been the teaching of the philosophical schools the mass of even pagan mankind clung to a faith and hope in a future existence, however degraded and incoherent their conception of its character.
With the birth of the Christian religion the doctrine of immortality took up quite a new position in the world. It formed the foundation of the whole scheme of the Christian Faith. No longer a dubious philosophical tenet, or a hazy popular opinion, it is now revealed in clear and distinct terms. The dogma of the Fall, the Christian conception of sin, the Incarnation of the Son of God, all the means of grace and redemption, and the priceless value of each human soul are connected in significance with this article of the Creed. As part of the Christian Faith this doctrine was one of the chief factors in establishing the equality of man and the liberation of the slave. The doctrine received its complete philosophical elaboration from St. Thomas. Accepting the Aristotelean theory that the soul is the form of the body, Aquinas still insists that, possessing spiritual faculties of intellect and will, it belongs to an altogether higher plane of existence than other animal forms. Though form of the body, it is not to be conceived as immersed according to its whole being in the body. That is, it is not completely and intrinsically dependent on the body which it animates, like form educt ex materiâ. For the human soul is created and infused into the body, and there is thus no intrinsic impossibility in its existing separate from the body. Still, as the human soul possesses vegetative and animal faculties, its natural condition is that of union with a body, and during this life the activities of the spiritual powers of intellect and will presuppose the co-operation of the organic faculties of imagination and sensation. Even the most spiritual operations of the soul are therefore extrinsically dependent on the bodily organism. The sensory and vegetative activities of the soul should necessarily be suspended when the soul is separated from the body, whilst its conscious spiritual life must then be carried on in some manner other than the present. What that manner is, our present experience does not enable us adequately to conceive. Yet St. Thomas holds that we can prove the fact of the soul’s conscious life when separate from the body.
Modern thought has not added much to the philosophy of immortality. Decartes’ conception of the soul would lend itself to some of the Platonic arguments. In Leibnitz’s theory the soul is the chief monad in the human nature. It is a simple, spiritual substance of a self-active nature. From this he infers its indestructibility and immortality, but he also believes that its pre-existence is similarly deducible. Spinoza’s Pantheism is incompatible with the theory of personal immortality. In Kant’s critical philosophy, substantiality is a mere subjective category or form moulding our way of thinking. The conception of the soul as a substance is illusory, and every attempt to establish immortality by rational argument is a mere sophism. Yet, like the existence of God, he reinstates it as a postulate of the practical reason. For Hume and Sensationists generally, to whom the mind is merely a series of mental states attached to certain cerebral changes, there can obviously be no metaphysical basis for the doctrine of immortality, though J. Stuart Mill argues that his school need have no special difficulty in adhering to the belief in an endless series of such conscious states.
Justification of the doctrine of immortality
As we have already observed, the immortality of the human soul is one of the most fundamental tenets of the Christian Religion. Consequently, every evidence for the Divine character of Christianity goes to prove and confirm the foundation upon which the whole edifice rests. Catholic philosophers, however, with the exception of Scotus and his followers, have generally claimed to establish the validity of the belief apart from revelation. Still its adequate treatment presupposes, as already demonstrated, some of the main theses of natural theology, ethics, and psychology. It is itself the crowning conclusion of this last branch of philosophy. Only the briefest outline of the argument can be attempted here. For fuller discussion the reader may consult any Catholic text-book of psychology. The following are the chief propositions involved in the building up of the doctrine: The human soul is a substance or substantial principle. It is a simple, or indivisible, and also a spiritual being, that is, intrinsically independent of matter. It is naturally incorruptible. It cannot be annihilated by any creature. God is bound to preserve the soul in possession of its conscious life, at least for some time, after death. Finally, the evidence all leads to the conclusion that the future life is to continue for ever. By the human mind, or soul, is meant the ultimate principle within me by which I feel, think, and will, and by which my body is animated. A substance, in contrast with an accident, is a being which subsists in itself, and does not merely inhere in another being as in a subject of inhesion. Now the ultimate subject to which my mental states belong must be a substance — even if that substance be the bodily organism. Further, reflexion, memory, and my whole conscious experience of my own personal identity assure me of the present abiding character of this substantial principle which is the centre of my mental life. Again, the simplicity and spiritual character of many of my mental acts or states prove the principle to which they belong to be of a simple and spiritual nature. The character of an activity exhibits the nature of the agent. The effect cannot transcend its cause. But careful psychological observation and analysis of many of my mental operations prove them to be both spiritual and simple in nature. Our universal ideas, intellectual judgments and reasonings, and especially the reflective activity of self-consciousness manifest their simple or indivisible and spiritual character. They cannot be the activities of a corporeal agent or the actions of a faculty exerted by or essentially dependent on a material being.
Again, psychology shows that our volitions are free, and that the activity of free volition cannot be exerted by a material agent, or be intrinsically dependent on matter. If volition were thus intrinsically dependent on matter, all our acts of choice would be inexorably bound up with and predetermined by the physical changes in the organism. The soul is thus a simple or indivisible, substantial principle, intrinsically independent of matter. Not being composite, it is not liable to perish by corruption or internal dissolution nor by the destruction of the material principle with which it is united, since it is not intrinsically dependent on this latter being. If it perish at all, this must be by simple annihilation. But annihilation, like creation, pertains to God alone, for, as shown in natural theology, it can be effected only by the withdrawal of the Divine activity, through which all creatures are immediately conserved in existence. God could of course, by an exercise of His absolute power, reduce the soul to nothingness; but the nature of the soul is such that it cannot be destroyed by a finite being. For positive evidence, however, that the soul will continue after death in the possession of a conscious life, we must appeal to teleology and the consideration of the character of the universe as a whole. All science proceeds on the assumption that the universe is rational, that it is governed by reason, law, and uniformity throughout. Theistic philosophy explains, justifies, and confirms this postulate in establishing the government of the universe by the providence of an infinitely wise and just Creator. But the consideration of certain characteristics of the human mind reveals a purpose which can be realized only by the soul’s continuing in the possession of a conscious life after death. Firstly, there is in the mind of man, as distinguished from all the lower animals, the capacity to look back to the indefinite past and forward to the distant future, the impulse to project itself in imagination beyond the limits of space and time, to rise to the conception of endless duration. There is an ever-increasing yearning for knowledge, a craving for an ever fuller possession of truth, which expands and grows with every advance of science. There is the character of unfinishedness in our mental life and development—the contrast between the capabilities of the human intellect and its present destiny, “between the immensity of man’s outlook and the limitations of his actual horizon, between the splendour of his ideals and the insignificance of his attainments” (Marshall), which all demand a future existence unless the human mind is to be a wasteful failure.
Again, there is the craving of the human will, the insatiate desire of happiness, universal throughout the race. This cannot be appeased by any temporal joy. Finally, there is the ethical argument. Human reason affirms that the performance of duty is both right and reasonable in the fullest sense, that it cannot be better in the end for the man who violates the moral law than for him who observes it. But were this the only life this would often be the case. It would assuredly not be a rational universe, and it would be in irreconcilable conflict with the notion of the moral government of the world by a Just and Infinite God, if vice were to be rewarded and virtue punished—that the swindler, the murderer, the adulterer, and the persecutor should enjoy the pleasures of this world to the end, whilst the honest man, the innocent victim, the chaste, and the martyr may undergo lifelong injustice, privation, and suffering.
Argument from universal belief
We have already traced at such length the history of belief in a future life that it is only necessary here to point out that a universal conviction of this kind, in opposition to all sensible appearances, must have its roots in man’s rational nature, and therefore claims to be accepted as valid, unless we are prepared to hold that man’s rational nature inevitably leads him into profound error in a matter of fundamental importance to his moral life.
Evidence from spiritualism
During the last quarter of a century considerable labour has been devoted to investigating what is called “experimental evidence” of another life. This, it is supposed, is specially suited to the Zeitgeist of our day. The Society for Psychical Research, founded in 1882, has published a score of volumes of “Proceedings”, and a dozen volumes of a “Journal”, in which is accumulated a mass of evidence in regard to extraordinary phenomena connected with thought-reading, clairvoyance, telepathy, mesmeric trance, automatic writing, apparitions, ghosts, spiritualism, and the like. In the last few years, also, several works by individual investigators, who have selected material from the Society’s “Proceedings” or elsewhere, have appeared, urging these phenomena as scientific proof, or rather as evidence guaranteed by scientific method, in favour of the hypothesis of another life.
The main evidence insisted on in most of the recent works is the alleged communications of certain mediums with the souls of particular deceased persons. These mediums are, it is supposed, gifted with some supernormal faculty by which they get into relations with departed spirits. They receive at times, it is alleged, information from these discarnate souls which they reveal to the investigator. This knowledge, it is asserted, is frequently of a kind which the medium cannot have attained by any recognized means, and therefore establishes the personal identity of the communicating spirit. In some cases the spirit furnishes much information about its present condition — which is, however, invariably of a very homely character. Amongst the grounds of objection against this line of argument it may be urged: The total number of mediums who give evidence of remarkable experiences is relatively small. Many are shown to be impostors. Those whose testimonies have been tested and authenticated are extremely few. The prominence of one or two well-known mediums in all the recent literature evinces this. The communications from the “departed” obtained even by the most successful mediums in their most fortunate experiments are very imperfect and disconnected in character, while the quality of the information received is ludicrously trivial, suggestive of the grade of intelligence we are wont to shut up in asylums for idiots (Royce). Further, the alleged mediumistic communications from the discarnate spirit, of however singular or private a nature, can never prove the personal identity of the spirit with any particular deceased human being. It can only prove that the “control” of the medium is exercised by an intelligence other than human; and there is no sort of evidence to prove the veracity of such an intelligence. The reality of occasional obsession by evil spirits has, since the time of Christ, been always believed in the Church. Finally, the mediumistic faculty, if it be the exercise of genuine power of communication with souls passed out of this life, must, according to Catholic theology, be effected not by use of a merely supernormal personal aptitude, but by a preternatural agency. It is the teaching of the Church that no good, but serious moral evil will be the ultimate result of invoking the intervention of such an agency in human affairs. The view that faith in life everlasting, revealed by Christ and guaranteed by the miraculous history of the Christian Religion, when once lost may be restored by the instrumentality of experiences like those of Moses Stainton or Mrs. Piper, does not seem very solidly founded (see OBSESSION and SPIRITUALISM).
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ST. THOMAS, Con. Gent., II, lxxix, lxxxi; Summa Theol., I, QQ. lxxvi. xc; PLATO, Ph do; FELL, Immortality of the Human Soul, tr. (St. Louis and London, 1906); MAHER, Psychology (6th ed., New York and London, 1905); MARTINEAU, A Study of Religion (2 vols., 2nd ed., Oxford, 1889); ALGER, The Destiny of the Soul. A Critical History of the Doctrine of a Future Life (14th ed., New York, 1889) contains a valuable bibliography of the subject, but the writer’s presentation of Catholic doctrines is often grotesque; ELBÉ, Future Life in the Light of Ancient Wisdom and Modern Science, tr. (New York and London. 1907); The Ingersoll Lectures by William James, Royce, Fiske, Osler (New York and Boston, 1896-1904) are useful on some particular points; ROHDE, Psyche. Seelenkult u. Unsterblichkeitsglaube der Griechen (2 vols., 3rd ed., Freiburg, 1903); KNEIB, Der Beweis für die Unsterblichkeit der Seele (Freiburg, 1903); KNABENBAUER, Das Zeugnis für die Unsterblichkeit (Freiburg, 1878); PIAT, Destinée de l’homme (Paris, 1898); JANET AND SÉAILLES, History of the Problems of Philosophy, tr. (London, 1902).
The literature of what claims to be the evidence of spiritualism has rapidly increased in recent years. See HYSLOP, Science and a Future Life (New York and London, 1906); DELANNE, Evidence for a Future Life, tr. (London, 1909); LODGE, Survival of Man (London, 1909); MYERS, Human Personality and its Survival of the Bodily State (London, 1902-3); IDEM, Science and a Future Life (New York and London, 1898); TWEEDALE, Man’s Survival after Death (London, 1909).
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APA citation. (1910). Immortality. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved December 28, 2020 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07687a.htm
MLA citation. “Immortality.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 28 Dec. 2020 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07687a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.