The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Immortality

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Edition of 1920. See also Immortality on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

IMMORTALITY (Lat. immortalitas, in + mortalis, “not mortal”). The doctrine that the soul continues to exist after death, or more specifically the doctrine of eternal personal survival. To the question “What becomes of the soul after death”? various answers have been given by different philosophers and civilizations. The most noteworthy of these answers may be grouped as follows: (1) Complete annihilation (the Materialists); (2) Survival of the soul for an indefinite period in a world of filmy shadows (Aboriginal); (3) Eternal existence in a moral world of retribution (Christian and certain idealistic philosophies); (4) Transmigration (India, as early as the Upanishads; the Egyptians, Plato, the Pythagoreans, and sporadic amongst aborigines); (5) Absorption into an Infinite or Absolute Being (Pantheism; the Buddhistic Nirvana, where the individual is annihilated only in the sense that the seed is annihilated in the fully developed plant, — the seed's life-goal); (6) The survival of the individual in the form of the posthumous influence of his personality and achievement, which is scarcely more than a metaphorical use of the term Immortality (many Evolutionists and Positivists; cf. also Ostwald, Münsterberg); (7) Merging or diffusion of the psychic energy of the individual into an unseen hypothetical etheric energy (quasi-materialistic).

Belief in some form of immortality is widespread, although not universal. It is found in all stages of civilization from the lowest form of aboriginal life to the highest Occidental culture. The doctrine varies from a belief in an indefinite survival-period after death to the belief in eternal personal life, the latter being the legitimate use of the term Immortality.

Aboriginal Civilization.— Amongst primitive peoples, belief in the survival of the soul is due mainly to four things; (1) Their prevailing animism, which ascribes a soul to everything; (2) The phenomena of dreams and apparitions; (3) The instinctive will to survive and the instinctive aversion to annihilation; (4) The belief in the substantial character of the soul as an entity. “Looking at the religion of the lower races as a whole, we shall at least not be ill-advised in taking as one of its general and principal elements the doctrine of the soul's future life.” (Tylor, ‘Primitive Culture,’ Vol, II. p. 19). By “future life” is not meant immortality in the strict sense, but simply the soul's survival after death. Amongst aboriginal peoples we find two forms of the doctrine; Transmigration and the independent personal existence of the soul. It must be noted, however, that the dominant idea in the lowest civilization is simply the continuance of the soul in a new life similar to the present life. The abode of souls is usually in some distant part of the earth, less frequently in the nether world or the sky (some Hindus represent the seat of happiness to be vast mountains on the north of India), where they pursue a life modeled after this life, without ethical coloring. To some aborigines the idea of a bodiless existence is unintelligible or ludicrous (cf. Lubbock, ‘Origin of Civilization,’ 5th ed. p. 378). In the Tonga Islands, the chiefs are thought to be immortal, while the common people are held to be mortal. Amongst the Fijians the belief prevails that everything has a spirit, and they even hope that every coconut will be made anew in Paradise. (Peschel, ‘The Races of Man,’ 2d ed., p. 259). They do not restrict future life to man or even to animals. So also the Itelmes of Kamschatka believe in the rebirth of all creatures “down to the smallest fly.” (Peschel, op. cit. p. 259). The Fijians think that as is their condition at death, so will their condition in the next world be. The infirm and diseased will find it difficult to make the long journey to Mbulu; consequently it is a custom to put the aged to death before they become too weak to travel. A common belief amongst some primitive peoples is that the individual has several souls, as amongst the Chippewa Indians, the Khonds of Hindustan, and in Madasascar. The Sioux Indians believe that man has four souls, as has also the bear (in their view the most human of animals). The Totemism of the Indians rests on the theory that the souls of ancestors have passed into the bodies of animals. Certain Eskimos put a dog's head in a child's grave, because the dog is skilful in finding its way and can guide the child's soul to the spirit-land. (Tylor, op. cit. p. 424). The Hottentots place the body of the deceased in the same position as the embryo occupied in the mother's womb, symbolizing thereby their belief that in the womb of the earth's darkness the dead will mature and come to birth. The lower races, in general, regard the soul as a filmy body, i.e., a corporeal entity capable of life and action, and needing, consequently, no bodily renewal. The idea of a resurrection of the body is, however, often found amongst primitive peoples, although it forms no important feature of their belief, as it dots in the doctrine of immortality in Persia, later Judaism and the Pauline Epistles. On the whole, one may say that the difference between the conception of lower races and that of higher civilizations regarding the immortality of the soul is that the former look upon the future life as a continuance of the present type of sense-life, with activities analogous to the present crass activities, a corporeally refined shadowy state, with a decrease in the struggle for existence and an increase in the amount of pleasure. The higher civilizations, on the other hand, make the doctrine of judgment and retribution paramount, spiritualize the conception of the soul and its future life, eliminate geographical definiteness from the soul's abode and correlate the conception of immortality with a system of religion and ethics.

The Egyptians.— In the earliest, known civilization of Egypt, the problems of religion and eschatology were central interests. In the remotest period of their history, the Egyptians believed in an invisible deity or deities and in the future life of the soul. The human soul is of the divine substance, an emanation from Ammon-Ra. At death it passes to the seat of judgment at the gateway of Amenti (the (Hellenic Hades) and there it is adjudged by the 42 assessors (representing the 42 sins of which the soul must be innocent) of the dead, before the supreme tribunal of Osiris. The soul that is proved pure at the judgment returns to its divine origin, while the soul that has led an impure life is condemned to reincarnation and passes into an animal life to attain purification through probationary metempsychosis. The theory of the future life of the soul amongst the Egyptians is based on the metaphysical view that the soul is an emanation from an original cosmic soul, on the ethical view that the present life is a probationary period, and on the conception of the moral fitness of the soul for reabsorption into its original source, the sun-god Ra — the head-spring of all light and life. See Book of the Dead.

Hebrews.— Sheol, or the realm of shadows, appears in the early history of the Jews to be an amplification of the idea of the grave, as the dark abode of departed spirits, where souls dwell bodiless, unconscious, without feeling. The references in the early part of the Old Testament Scriptures to a future life are rare and vague, and the doctrine of the immortality of the soul is nowhere explicitly taught in the early books. The rites of necromancy were discouraged by the prophets and lawgivers of ancient Israel as antagonistic to belief in the God of life, whose realm excluded Sheol (or the realm of the dead), until post-exilic times. Eternal life belongs to God alone, and to those celestial beings who have eaten of the tree of life and live forever. In connection with the Messianic hope and under the influence of Greek and Persian ideas, the later Jews adopted a doctrine of resurrection of the body which made room for belief in the soul's continuous life. The Cabalists took up the doctrine of transmigration (Gilgul, “rolling on” of souls) according to which the soul of Adam passed into David and shall pass into the Messiah, as is mystically set forth in the letters of that name (Ad[a]m). The Platonic doctrine of pre-existence is also found in the rabbinical philosophy. Immortality conjoined with the dogma of the resurrection is the prevailing conception in the post-exilic literature, the latter (resurrection) becoming fixed in the Mishna and liturgy. Since the time of Moses Mendelssohn, who rehabilitated the doctrine of Plato in his “Phædon,” progressive Judaism tends to lay less emphasis on the resurrection of the body, and greater emphasis on a purely spiritual immortality, the former dogma being discarded in the Reform rituals.

The Greeks.— The origin of the doctrine of immortality amongst the Greeks is lost in the remotest antiquity. It is found in the early traditions of the Orphic and Dionysiac mysteries, in the poems of Homer and Hesiod, and forms a central tenet in the philosophy of Pythagoras, a contemporary of Buddha-Siddhartha and Lao-Tze. The view of Pythagoras includes the doctrine of transmigration, which may have been suggested to him by the theology of the Orphic mysteries or by Pherecydes, rather than by the Egyptians (Zeller, ‘Pre-Socratic Philosophy,’ Vol. I, pp. 71, 514). The great problem of a man's life is moral purification, which he pursues in a divinely governed Cosmos, where his chief end is to become like God. The soul is imprisoned in the body because of sins committed in a pre-existent state, and after death passes into a superior or inferior state. according as it has served Good or Evil. In the ascending stages of metempsychosis the soul is prepared for moral redemption. Although the belief in some form of immortality prevailed amongst the Greeks throughout their history, and probably came into their philosophy from their religion, it was not until Plato that a philosophic basis was furnished to the doctrine. The Platonic arguments for the immortality of the soul may be summarily stated as follows: (1) The fact that the mind brings to the study of truth a body of interpretative principles and axioms with it, as part of its native endowment, shows that they can be only reminiscential and, therefore, derived from a pre-existent state; (2) The soul is an ultimate unity (i.e., monadic in character) and, therefore, not being composite or divisible, it cannot be disintegrated; (3) The soul (ψυχή) means the “principle of life,” having the idea of life essentially immanent in it, and inseparable from it, and therefore it must exclude the opposite idea, death; (4) The soul is self-moving, deriving its activity from within; consequently its motion and therewith, its life, must be perpetual; (S) The soul as an immaterial reality is essentially related to the immaterial, invisible, eternal idea; and as the former is akin to the latter in nature, so is it also akin in duration; (6) The superior dignity and value of the soul argue for its survival of the crass body, and even the crass body persists for a time; (7) The cyclical movement of nature shows everywhere the maintenance of life by opposition, as night, day; sleeping, waking; the dying seed, the germinating flower. This is an argument from analogy: out of the decay and death of one living organism, a new life is generated; (8) The instinctive aspiration of the soul toward a future existence shows that the belief is founded in natural law; (9) Things that are destructible are destroyed by their peculiar evil or disease; the peculiar evil of the soul is vice, which corrupts the soul's nature, but does not destroy its existence; (10) The world as a moral and rational world demands a future life of rewards and punishments tor the rectification of inequalities in this life, else the wrong would ultimately triumph, as in a bad play. This argument is based on the ethical claim that there must be a final equivalence between inner worth and external condition or reward. The views of the Greeks, and especially the views of Plato, have had a profound, an incalculable influence on Christian thought, on early theological formulæ and on the sum of Occidental philosophy. Plato was not merely a framer of philosophy, an intellectual interpreter of reality, but still more a man of religion, a seer.

The question of the pre-existence or survival of the soul is not a scientific problem. Positive science is impotent either to prove or disprove the dogma. It is a problem for religion, and its ultimate appeal is to faith. So long as science keeps within its borders, it is neither philosophy nor religion, and has no verdict to pronounce upon ultimate reality. The dogma of immortality in the higher civilizations is largely based on the philosophical theory of the ideality of human life, and on the demand for an ideal completion of experience which involves a transexperiential world. It is a postulate of purposiveness, of teleology in the ethical realm.

The general tendency of modern biological science and cerebral physiology has been to discard the doctrine of immortality, although the relations between molecular movements of the brain, on the one hand, and thoughts and feelings, on the other, are known to science merely as concomitants, and in no case as products or effects. James (‘Human Immortality,’ 1898) has endeavored to “draw the fangs of cerebralistic materialism” by ascribing to the brain a “transmissive” function, instead of a “productive” function. Tait and Stewart (‘The Unseen Universe,’ London 1894) postulate an unseen world, from which the known visible world has arisen and to which we must resort for the origin of molecules as well as for an explanation of the forces that animate these molecules; and it is reasonable to suppose, as these physicists say, that the ultimate unseen universe is connected by bonds of energy with the visible universe and is capable of receiving energy from it and of transforming the energy thus received. To say that the visible world is either eternal or has the power of originating life contradicts the result of observation and experiment (op. cit. p. 246). Therefore, the hypothesis of an eternal unseen universe is necessary to explain the evolution of the matter and life of the visible world and the only method of avoiding a break in the continuity of reality. The law of the conservation of mass and of energy, the law of biogenesis (every living being presupposes an antecedent life), and the law of continuity (there is no break in reality, the universe is of a piece) make the assumption of an unseen universe the easiest mode of explaining the empirical. Further, the postulate of a rational cosmic energy is necessitated by the ordered character and inherent teleology of reality. The law of continuity and conservation of energy necessitate the further conclusion that the psychic energy of the individual is not lost, but transmuted into the unseen world.

During the 18th century and the early part of the 19th, the dogma of immortality was widely discussed. The French materialists denied the doctrine in every form, regarding the psychic life purely as an organic function. In the system of Identity (Schelling) and Spinozism no place for the doctrine is found. In Fichte's idealism the creative Ego is not the individual, but the absolute Ego; the individual Ego realizes itself only by negating its individuality, by universalizing itself, and the Ego thus exemplifying the conceptual life of truth, continues to all eternity, as an indestructible part of the reality of the Absolute Ego. Hegel paid little attention to the problem, but the early Hegelians split into two factions, the one affirming and the other denying the doctrine (cf. Feuerbach, Richter, Weisse, Göschel, Conradi). In Lotze's teleological idealism the immortality of the soul (which is hardly more than casually mentioned) is based on the principle of value; that thing will continue forever which by reason of its excellence should be an abiding constitutive part of the Cosmical Order, but one cannot say that all human souls are immortal. This idea of a conditional immortality, determined by ethical value, reappears in later discussions (cf. McConnell, ‘The Evolution of Immortality’), i.e., immortality is simply a moral achievement.

According to Kant, scientific demonstration is not applicable to these three truths: the Existence of God, the Freedom of the Will and Immortality. They are postulates of morality. The work of man as a moral being, with infinite potentialities, i.e. infinite perfectibility, necessitates an infinite time for their realization. The laws of the moral life are drawn from a transcendental sphere, free from conditions of time and space, and so the very essence of man's moral being is invested with the eternal. Man is infinitely progressive and perfectible in his moral and intellectual evolution, and this fact points indubitably to a further existence. If death were the end, the moral ideal would be illusory, and man would perish a fragment. An infinite moral imperative implies an infinite moral ability. Duty demands moral perfection. Further, the moral ideal is a character-ideal, an ideal of personal aim, which implies a personal destiny, and the non-illusoriness of the moral life implies the possibility of realizing its ideal.

One may fairly say that since the time of Kant the dominant note in the discussion of immortality has been ethical. The main postulates on which faith in the dogma has been based in the late literature of the subject are the moral perfection of a World-Governor, the basic rationality of the universe, and the worth of human life (cf. Gordon, ‘Immortality and the New Theodicy,’ p. 46).

The advocates of psychical research claim to find in spiritistic phenomena a proof not only for the existence of disembodied spirits, but also for their power to communicate with spirits still incarnate. The examination of these phenomena, however, is as yet in an unsatisfactory stage, and in any case the phenomena, so far as we know, have no hearing on the problem of the duration of survival.

The chief traditional arguments adduced in support of the doctrine are: (1) The ontological argument, which bases immortality on the immateriality, simplicity and irreducibility of the soul-substance; (2) The teleological argument, which employs the concept of man's destiny and function, his disposition to free himself more and more from the conditions of time and space, and to develop completely his intellectual and moral potentialities, which development is impossible under the conditions of earthly life; (3) The theological argument; the wisdom and justice of God guarantee the self-realization of personal beings whom he has created; (4) The moral argument, i.e., the moral demand for the ultimate equivalence of personal deserts and rewards, which equivalence is not found in this life; (5) The historical argument; the fact that the belief is widespread and ancient, showing it to be deep-seated in human nature, and the historical fact of the resurrection of Christ and the statements of the New Testament Scriptures.

As to the attitude of men in the present time toward the doctrine, Osler (‘Science and Immortality’) happily groups them into three parties: (1) The Gallionians (cf. Acts of the Apostles, xviii, 14), i.e., the Scientists who study the How of the universe and who regard the dogma as without the pale of science, neither affirming nor denying its truth, although tending to reject it; (2) The Teresians (Saint Teresa, 1516-82), i.e., the seekers of the Why of the universe, the mystics who “live by faith” and have the “will to believe,” who read a purpose in human destiny and teleology in the world; these are of the spirit of Plato; (3) The Laodiceans, who study neither the How nor the Why of the universe, who are absorbed in empirical problems and the sense-life; these have no practical concern with the doctrine.

Bibliography.— Alger, ‘A Critical History of the Doctrine of a Future Life’ (14th ed., New York 1889); Deussen, ‘The Philosophy of the Upanishads’ (Eng. trans. by Geden, London 1906); Elbó, ‘La vie future devant la sagesse antique et la science moderne’ (Eng. trans. Chicago 1906); Fechner, ‘Das Büchlein vom Leben nach dem Tode’ (5th ed., 1903; Eng. trans. by Wernekke, Chicago 1906); Fiske, ‘The Destiny of Man’ (5th ed., Boston 1885); Gordon, ‘The Witness to Immortality’ (Boston 1893) and ‘Immortality and the New Theodicy’ (Boston 1897); James, ‘Human Immortality’ (Boston 1898); Lodge, Sir Oliver Joseph, ‘Raymond, or Life and Death’ (London 1916); Lubbock, ‘Origin of Civilization’ (6th ed., New York 1889); McConnell, ‘The Evolution of Immortality’ (New York 1904); Mendelssohn, ‘Phædon, oder über die Unsterblichkeit der Seele’ (Berlin 1767, new ed. by Badeck, Leipzig 1869); Myer, ‘Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death’ (2 vols., London 1903); Münsterberg, ‘The Eternal Life’ (Boston 1905); Osler, ‘Science and Immortality’ (Boston 1904); (Ostwald, ‘Individuality and Immortality’ (Boston 1906); Peschel, ‘The Races of Man’ (New York 1876); Pétavel-Olliff, ‘Le problème de l'immortalité’ (Eng. trans. by F. A. Freer. London 1902); Reynolds, ‘The Natural History of Immortality’ (London 1891); Rohde, ‘Psyche’ (3d ed, 2 vols., Freiburg 1903): Royce, ‘The Conception of Immortality’ (Boston 1900); Salmond, ‘The Christian Doctrine of Immortality’ (London 1897); Savage, ‘Life beyond Death’ (New York 1899); Seth, ‘Study of Ethical Principles’ (Edinburgh 1902); Stewart and Tait, ‘The Unseen Universe, or Physical Speculations on a Future State’ (London 1894); Teichmüller, ‘Ueber die Unsterblichkeit der Seele’ (Leipzig 1879); Tylor, ‘Primitive Culture’ (2 vols., London 1871); Wheeler, ‘Dionysos and Immortality’ (Boston 1899).

William A. Hammond,
Sage Professor of Ancient Philosophy, Cornell University.