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The literature on the philosophical problems involved in the question of a future life begins with Plato. We cannot therefore do better than start with a quotation from Phaedo, the dialogue in which Plato deployed what is put forward as a demonstration of the immortality of the soul. Having heard and apparently accepted the supposed proof put into the mouth of Socrates, Crito asks:

"But how shall we bury you?" "However you please," Socrates replied, "if you can catch me and I do not get away from you." And he laughed gently, and looking towards us, said: "I cannot persuade Crito, my friends, that the Socrates who is now conversing and arranging the details of his argument is really I: he thinks I am the one whom he will presently see as a corpse, and he asks how to bury me. And though I have been saying at great length that after I drink the poison I shall no longer be with you, but shall go away to the joys of the blessed, he seems to think that was idle talk uttered to encourage you and myself."

This passage can be employed to fix two fundamental points by reference to which the main problems can be mapped.

The first point is that the essence of doctrines of personal survival (or immortality)and precisely this and this only is what gives them their great human interestis that they should assert that after our deaths we shall continue to exist (forever). Only in this way can they provide the basis for what John Wisdom has called "these logically unique expectations"that we shall, to put it as noncommittally as possible, have "experiences" after death, that death will be not our terminus but the beginning of a new journey. This has to be underlined both because there have been some famous philosophical doctrines of immortality which have not been of this sort and because there have been other doctrines which either were from the beginning substitutes for, or have been so hedged and interpreted that they have now ceased to be, the genuine article, personal immortality. Thus, whatever one makes of Aristotle on the immortality of the intellect (De Anima 429a431a) or of Benedict Spinoza on the eternal element in the mind (Ethics, V, xxiii ff.), it is certain that these views do not, nor were they intended to, provide any ground for such "logically unique expectations." Again, the man who urges that we all of us live forever because the ill (and sometimes even the good) men do lives after them indicates by the very irrelevance of his supporting reason that this sort of immortality is not the authentic personal brand.

The second basic reference point is that any doctrine of survival or immortality has one enormous and immediate obstacle to surmount before it can begin to qualify for any further consideration. This obstacle consists simply in our manifest universal human mortality. It is due to this ineluctably familiar fact that "All men are mortal" has become a trite truistic example in logic and that we so use the word survive that it is logically impossible for one and the same passenger to be both dead and a survivor after a crash. One can recognize and respect the longing that may lie behind the epitaph "Not dead, but sleeping," yet no one can deny that, literally interpreted, it is false. Indeed, even to consider the contrary possibility would be to enter the ghoulish world of Edgar Allan Poe. This second reference point is, of course, as obvious as the first though the inducement to disregard it is perhaps greater. And both points have to be kept constantly in view.

Three Doctrines of Immortality

There seem to be three ways of trying to circumvent the massive initial difficulty confronting any doctrine of personal immortality. If once the initial obstacle could be overcome, the remaining problems would turn out to be not philosophical but factual and practical.

immortal-soul doctrine

The first of the three doctrines is the Platonic attempt to demonstrate two points. One point is that we are essentially composite beings. Besides the more familiar corporeal element, the body, there is also something else, different in kindthe incorporeal soul. For the duration of a life the soul is somehow attached toincorporated into or imprisoned inits body. Although the soul is incorporeal, it is nevertheless a substance, something that could significantly be said to exist independently of anything else. This is precisely the point of Plato's arguments to the conclusion that the soul is not a harmony, for it would not even make sense to suggest that a harmony might survive or, for that matter, precede the elements of which it is a harmony. This is no more possible than that there could be a grin without a face to grin it (Phaedo 85e86d and 91c95a).

The other point is that the soul must be the person or, at any rate, the real, true, or essential person. This, though it is sometimes neglected, is crucial. Unless it is established that I am my soul, the demonstration of the survival of my soul will not demonstrate my survival, and the news that my soul will last forever could provide me with no more justification for harboring "these logically unique expectations" than the rather less elevated assurance that my appendix is to be preserved eternally in a bottle.

reconstitution doctrine

The second doctrine is, in its purest form, extremely simple and direct. It consists in urging the resurrection of the body or, more accurately, the reconstitution of the person. Whereas the first doctrine insists that I am the sort of thing that could perfectly well escape unharmed and unnoticed at death ("if you can catch me and I do not get away"); the second recognizes that to be truly a human person, I have to have the corporeal human form. It then relies on an act of sheer omnipotence to produce the immortal me.

shadow-man doctrine

Considering that the reconstitution doctrine or something approaching it has been part of traditional Christianity, it is surprising to find that Thomas Aquinas seems to be the only philosopher of the first rank to have discussed a version of it at any length. (See especially "Treatise of the Resurrection" in the supplement to Part III of the Summa Theologiae.) But the shadow-man doctrine seems to have received even less attention. It can perhaps best be regarded as an attempt to combine the strong points of the other two doctrines. It is the claim that a person is a kind of shadow man, sufficiently human and corporeal to overcome the problem of identification with the familiar flesh and blood person and at the same time sufficiently ethereal and elusive to have no difficulty in escaping unnoticed from the ordinary earthy body which is destined to be burned or buried. This view is found in some of the Christian Fathers (for instance, Tertullian in De Anima ). A similar view is also held by some modern spiritualists"the astral body" detaches itself at death to proceed on its "journey to the summerland." Perhaps the best way of conveying the idea to the modern reader unfamiliar with either patristic or spiritualist literature is to refer to the many films in which a "spirit" is shown as a tenuous shadowy replica of a man that detaches itself from him at death and is thereafter visible to the entire audience but only to favored characters in the film.

difficulties in these doctrines

At first sight the third doctrine might appear to be the most promising way to avoid the initial difficulty. However, the doctrine is bold precisely where the other two are discreet. By insisting upon the essential incorporeality of the soul, the first neutralizes all the ordinary weapons of empirical inquiry; the second, by deferring the corporeal resurrection to an unspecified time and place, indefinitely postpones any occasion for their deployment. But astral bodies, detaching themselves at death from the other sort, should be empirically detectable here and now. The crucial and probably insoluble dilemma for the shadow-man doctrine is to provide a specification of the nature of an astral body in which an astral body remains sufficiently like an ordinary flesh and blood person to avoid difficulties of identification and at the same time to ensure that the claim that there are such things would be verified or, at least, not immediately falsified by the appropriate factual investigation.

In the time of Tertullian and even in the early days of modern psychical research there may have been some slight basis for believing that this might possibly be done. Tertullian himself appealed not only to purely theological considerations but also to such cases as that of the woman who claimed to have seen "a transparent and lucid figure in the perfect form of a man." The systematic investigation of such phantasms has shown, however, that though they do undoubtedly occur, they belong to the category of purely subjective and hallucinatory experience. (See, for instance, G. N. M. Tyrrell, Apparitions, London, 1953.) The third way must therefore be dismissed as a blind alley.

Any reconstitution doctrine confronted with the question "How is the reconstituted person on the last day to be identified as the original me, as opposed to a mere replica, an appropriately brilliant forgery?" There seems to be no satisfactory answer to this question, at least for a pure reconstitution theory. This question is, however, logically prior to all questions about the reasons, if any, that might be brought forward in support of such a doctrine.

This decisive objection seems rarely to have been raised, and when it has been, its force has not usually been felt. No doubt, the explanation lies largely in the fact that the doctrine is scarcely ever found in the pure form, unalloyed with any Platonic elements. There are two defenses that might be offered. It could be urged that God will infallibly ensure that the unending torments and the eternal ecstasies are allocated to the right peoplethat is, in the one case to the very same people who had incurred his disapproval and in the other case to precisely those who had won his favor. It might also be suggested that though there might indeed be cases in which all other merely human observers must be entirely at a loss, the person himself could not fail to know whether he was the original person rather than a changeling or a replica. These are, in substance, the arguments presented by John Locke in developing and defending his own analysis of personal identity; however, that analysis itself was intended to meet difficulties about the identification of the future victims of divine judgment with people now living on Earth.

Both these arguments, though they possess a strong appeal, seem to miss the point. Notwithstanding the form of the original question, the difficulty is not one of "How do you know?" but of "What do you know?" The objection is that the reconstituted people could only be mere replicas of and surrogates for their earthly predecessors. Neither the appeal to the cognitive and executive resources of Omnipotence nor the appeal to the supposed special status of the person in question does anything at all to meet this contention.

The point can be brought out better in the case of the argument that the person cannot fail to know who he is. This argument depends on the premises that if I remember doing something, I must have done it and that normal people in normal situations are usually able to remember the most important features of their lives. Both premises are true, but it does not follow from them that if someone on the last day or any other day claims in all honesty to remember doing something, he must in fact have done it. From "He remembers doing that" it follows necessarily that "He did that," just as from "He knows that that is true" it follows necessarily that "That is true." But from "He claims to remember doing that, and he is not lying" it does not follow that "He did that," any more than from "He claims to know that that is true, and he is not lying" it follows that "That is true."

The crux in both cases is the possibility of honest error. However honest and however convinced, claims that you did something do not guarantee that you actually did it. In normal circumstances most such claims are no doubt entirely reliable, and the memories involved can properly be said to constitute knowledge. But the circumstances envisaged by the reconstitutionists are conspicuously not normal. In these circumstances the question of whether any of the ostensible memories enjoyed by the reconstituted people can properly be counted as memories at all must wait on the resolution of the logically prior issue of whether they have any past to remember, of whether, in particular, they are indeed the people they apparently think they are.

Thomas Aquinas seems to have appreciated that the immediate objection to any pure reconstitutionist view is decisive. This insight is no doubt one of the reasons that his own view incorporated important Platonic elements. In answer to the objection "that it will not be identically the same man that shall rise again. After the change wrought by death the selfsame man cannot be repeated," Thomas replied:

The form of other things subject to generation and corruption is not subsistent of itself, so as to be able to remain after the corruption of the composite, as it is with the rational soul. For the soul, even after separation from the body, retains the being which accrues to it when in the body. Consequently there has been no interruption in the substantial being of a man, as would make it impossible for the selfsame man to return on account of an interruption in his being. (Op. cit., IIIa, Supp. 79, 2, ad 1)

Immortal-Soul Doctrine

It thus seems that if any headway is to be made toward overcoming the first gigantic obstacle in the way of doctrines of survival or immortality, it will have to be, at least in its first stages, Platonic in an extremely broad sense. In this sense René Descartes's views on the nature of the soul and its relations to the bodily machine can be characterized as Platonic (see, for instance, The Passions of the Soul I, xxx ff.), and even Thomas must count as at least Platonizing. For everyone who maintains that the mind or the soul is a substance, in the sense that it could significantly be said to exist alone and disembodied, is thereby Platonizing, and everyone who identifies this putative substantial mind or soul as the real or true person is adopting a fully Platonic position.

Platonizing concerning the nature of the soul seems to be the essential condition of the possibility of any defensible doctrine of personal immortality or even survival. Philosophy that is Platonizing or Platonic in this sense constitutes an enormous field, so this article will concentrate on the views of Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes, making their positions serve as focuses. All three are well suited to serve in this way both because their work has been and is enormously influential and because they can each be seen as representative of a different approach to the problem. Since all three believed in some sort of immortality and since it is scarcely possible to treat their arguments about the nature of the soul without touching on their ideas of immortality, it will be convenient to consider the two together.

difficulties in the notion of the soul

One great and rather peculiar difficulty of our present subject is that it is very hard and, hence, very uncommon for anyone really to begin from the beginning. The key terms such as body, mind, and soul and their equivalents or near equivalents in other languages are all in a way familiar to all those acquainted with the languages concerned. Though there may be much unclarity about their meanings and perhaps even a certain indeterminacy in their usage, they are not the recognizably fresh coinages that both demand definitions and enable meanings to be prescribed with some confidence that the appropriate usage can be followed consistently by the prescriber and by others. (The point here is simply that speech habits, like other habits, can be very hard to break.)

Again, in the air there always are and always have been vulgar or not so vulgar theories about bodies, minds, and souls and their several natures, destinies, and relations, with no guarantee that these theories can be harmonized with the meanings of such terms as mind or soul as actually determined by whatever is the accepted correct usage of the culture concerned. For instance, correct usageand this surely is and must be the only possible standard of meaningmay very well determine that the soul, in the relevant sense of soul, is not a substance, even though the people concerned entertain fantasies which presuppose that it is. This thesis has been fully developed in this connection by Gilbert Ryle, chiefly in The Concept of Mind. The consequence of this is that the issues tend to be presented not as a matter of first giving some suitable sense to the word soul or mind and then asking whether in that sense the term would in fact have any application but, rather, as an inquiry which presupposing that we have or are souls or minds, asks what is the nature of the soul or the mind. Such a presentation is bound to constitute a temptation to prejudge the question whether, in the sense eventually chosen, we have or are such things. By itself this might give rise to no more and no less trouble than the insistence of the modern analytic philosopher that he is not concerned with the reality of matter, time, or whatever but is merely searching for an adequate analysis of the notions of matter, time, and so on. In the present case, however, there are also the various theories in the background, and these theories happen to be of very different sorts and suited to answering very different questions.

The fundamental distinction needed is that between theories that might serve as answers to philosophical questions about the meanings of the terms mind, soul, and the like and theories that offer some sort of explanation of why the creatures that are said to have minds, souls, and the like behave and suffer as they do. Thus, for instance, in reading Aristotle's criticisms of his predecessors (De Anima I), we must distinguisheven if they, or he, did notbetween those thinkers who said that the soul was a vapor, blood, or something of that order and must to that extent be interpreted as embryonic scientists and those thinkers who urged that the essence of the soul is motion, sensation, or some combination of the two and are therefore to be counted as philosophers.

Another crucial distinction must be made between explanatory and descriptive concepts. Suppose that for some person the meaning of the words mind and soul is to be given entirely in terms of certain capacities or incapacities and that in his use having a first-class mind is just being able to compass certain sorts of achievement. In his sense of mind, then, it can be no explanation to say that someone can do these things because he is endowed with a first-class mind, for to say this is, for him, only to redescribe the phenomenon. If his concept of mind is to be explanatory, he must give the word mind a meaning such that minds would be, in the terminology already explained, substances.


There seems to be only one, very brief passage in Plato (Alcibiades I 129b130c) where the argument is explicitly directed toward the justification of the Platonic presupposition that the soul is the person. Even in this passage the first presupposition, that we are composite beings, is very much taken for granted.


Socrates is talking with Alcibiades, and the question is raised, "What are we, and what is talking with what?" The conclusion is that we are our souls. The argument runs in this way. In speaking, we use words. The user and the thing used are always different. We use our hands, our eyes, our whole bodies. Thus, I cannot be my body. Yet it is agreed that I must be my soul, my body, or a combination of both. However, because the user and the thing used are always different and because I use my body, I cannot be either my body or my body and soul combined. Thus, I must be my soul.

Considering how vital the conclusion is, Plato's argument may seem inadequate. But if, sympathetically, we call in the rest of Plato's writings to provide supplementary evidence, it becomes clear that it has to be taken as the epitome of many arguments. For Plato constantly talked of the phenomenon of self-control and the lack of it and of all those times when we are inclined to speak of being let down or dragged down by the weaknesses or by the excessive strength of the body or some part of it. Few concepts are, in the ordinary narrow sense, more typically Platonic.

In all the innumerable cases of bodily control or lack of it, it is possible to produce arguments of basically the same form, and it is not at all necessary to appeal to the assumption, which may not seem as obvious to everyone today as it did to Plato's Alcibiades, that I must be my soul, my body, or both. Thus, starting from the known fact that our eyes sometimes play tricks on us, we may go on to argue that this shows that we see not with, but through, them, that they are, as it were, built-in optical instruments (compare Theaetetus 184c ff.). Or, again, noting how natural and entirely proper it is to describe someone on some desperate occasion as "flogging on his protesting body," we may infer that we drive our bodies as we drive our cars. In every case the Platonic conclusion, expressed in a more modern idiom, would be that the personal pronouns, personal names, and all other person words, words which clearly must refer to something and which, it seems, equally clearly cannot refer to bodies, the only available corporeal objects, must therefore refer to some incorporeal objects, the conclusion is that these are the objects to which we apply the term souls.

This conclusion is wrong, however, and all arguments of this kind are misguided. It is not true that person words are words for any sort of incorporeal objects. People are what you meet. We do not meet only the sinewy containers in which other people are kept, and they do not encounter only the fleshy houses that we ourselves inhabit. It is therefore wrong to suggest that the word person is equivalent to the word soul in this sense of soul and, hence, to imply that it is contradictory to deny that people are incorporeal objects and that it is absurd to say that you can see a person. This basic fact about the meanings of person words is central and fundamental to the entire problem.

To deal in detail here with all the variations on the present argument would be impossible. The mistake involved in all such arguments seems to be that of insisting that because expressions such as "that person" are, for one reason or another, not synonymous with "that human body" and because we use all sorts of idioms in which I and my body are spoken of as if they were two substances, there must therefore be a special class of incorporeal objects for person words to refer to. This false conclusion seems to be one more product of the perennially disastrous unum nomen, unum nominatum theory of meaningthe misconception that every different class of word must refer to a different class of object. The truth seems to be that in this area we have a vastly rich and idiomatic vocabulary that provides us with all manner of subtle linguistic instruments, all of which we employ to say things about one sort of inordinately complicated but essentially corporeal creature, ourselves.


Plato's second argument to the conclusion that we are incorporeal souls was his doctrine of reminiscence. This has two forms, each proceeding to the same conclusion from rather different premises. In one form the premise is that we can all be shown to possess some knowledge, which we have not acquired in this life, of a priori truths (Meno 81b86b). In the other it is that we all have certain ideal concepts, such as the ideal of perfect equality, which we cannot have acquired in our lives because they are never fully instantiated in this world (Phaedo 73a77a). In both forms the conclusion is that these facts can be accounted for only in terms of memory. We, or "our souls," must have acquired our knowledge of the conclusion of the theorem of Pythagoras or have been acquainted with the Platonic Idea of equality before this life began.

This argument has never been very popular, partly because of a well-grounded mistrust of both premises and partly because of the fact that the notion of preexistence involved in the conclusion does not square with the demands of Western orthodoxy. For its force the argument depends on the existence of an important logical link between (true) memory and personal identity. If I really do remember certain truths or being acquainted with certain objects, then it follows that at some time in the past I must have learned them or made that acquaintance. Plato's argument is sound, but he draws the wrong conclusion. The correct conclusion is not that we must be remembering from a former existence but that memory cannot be involved. It cannot be memory for the simple and basic reason that we were not available to acquire knowledge or anything else before we existed, because we are not, what this argument in fact assumes that we are, the sort of incorporeal things which could preexist our conception and growth.

It is worth remarking that although to products of Western cultural conditioning preexistence appears much less credible than immortality, Plato, in insisting on both, was adopting a much less arbitrary position than that of those who assert immortality alone. It was not without reason that in the ancient world Lucretius and other spokesmen for human mortality made much of the comparison between our nothingness before birth and our annihilation in death (see, for instance, Lucretius, De Rerum Natura III. 11. 830842 and 973977). As George Santayana once remarked, "The fact of being born is a poor augury of immortality."


Another argument was developed from distinctions embedded in Plato's account of Socrates' intellectual history (Phaedo 96a ff.). The Platonic Socrates here tells of his dissatisfaction with Anaxagoras, who apparently wanted to explain how the universe works rather than justify why everything is for the best. Socrates then goes on to contrast the physiological conditions of human behavior with the reasons the agent has for acting as he does. These categorial distinctions could serve as the foundations of an argument to the conclusion that since there are no necessary connections between the concepts of physiology, on the one hand, and the concepts that are peculiar to the distinctively human business of giving reasons for actions, on the other, it must therefore follow that rational agents are of their very nature incorporeal.

It would probably be going too far to attribute the argument in this form to Plato, although the conclusion and all the ideas involved are thoroughly Platonic. It is nevertheless one that needs to be noted here. C. S. Lewis and other contemporary apologists have tried to use these ideas to show that rationality is somehow essentially supernatural and that the bodily occurrences involved in rational behavior cannot be completely compassed in any scientific explanation.

There are two crucial points to be made in reply to this argument. The first is that precisely because the justification and appraisal of actions is so totally different from the causal explanation of physiological events, questions and answers belonging to the one universe of discourse cannot rival those belonging to the other. It is thus entirely possible to be confronted by a series of corporeal eventsthose, for instance, involved in what would normally be described as the oral development of an argumentand to ask and to answer both logical questions about the rationality of the whole performance considered as an argument and physiological questions about the causes of all the various glottal, oral, and nervous happenings considered as subject matter for the physiologist.

The second point is that to show that the concepts involved in the rational assessment of conduct are not logically reducible to purely physiological terms is not the same as to establish that agents must be essentially incorporeal. It would be equally impossible by purely logical analysis to translate the statement "Italy declared war" into a series of assertions about individual Italians, but this is no reason for thinking that "Italy" is the word for some incorporeal substance. Nor is the impossibility of a logical reduction any reason for thinking that it could even make sense to talk of incorporeal rational agents' or of Italy's taking part in international affairs if there were no individual Italians.


The Platonic approaches thus far considered have all involved thinking of the soul as the person; at the same time the person was wrongly thought of as an incorporeal substance. Another approach starts from the notion of a soul as a principle of life. It helps to note some peculiarities of the Greek language. The word ψυχ, translated "soul," is etymologically related to such words as ᾿ϵ́μψυχος, meaning "alive" (literally, "ensouled"), and λιποψυχία, meaning "swooning" or "death" (literally, "abandonment" by the soul). A popular idea to which Plato makes gently contemptuous reference was that death was a matter of the soul's permanently leaving its body; the soul was thought of as a puff of air, an invisible vapor, that would be dispersed in the breeze (see Phaedo 77d; compare, for instance, Euripides, Supplices 553554). In this connection we might therefore distinguish two senses of "soul." In the first "to have a soul" means merely "to be alive"; in the second "soul" is the word for a class of supposititious entities, corporeal but elusive.

In the first sense one might speak, rather pretentiously, of the soul as the principle of life. In this sense we do have souls, for to say that a creature possesses a soul in this sense is just a misleadingly substantival way of describing it as alive. At this point Plato took another step, apparently without recognizing that any step was involved and, therefore, without providing the slightest warrant for taking it. He simply assumed what is manifestly falsethat the word soul in this sense is equivalent to the term soul construed as a synonym for person (albeit for persons recognized to be incorporeal objects). He unjustifiably equated this "soul as the principle of life" with what the older commentators call "the soul as the bearer of moral values" (see, for instance, Republic 353d, a passage that is no less revealing for being found in an argument a little removed from our present concern).


The false equation of two senses of "soul" is crucial in the most considerable of Plato's arguments for immortality (Phaedo 100b107a). Of his other arguments the only one that retains more than antiquarian interest is the contention that the soul is something that moves itself and that whatever moves itself must be ingenerable and incorruptible (Phaedrus 245c246a). And the interest of this argument lies mainly in its later theological development. It was the germ of some of the theology of Plato's Laws. This theology led to Aristotle's notions of God as the Unmoved Mover. And Thomas later quarried Aristotelian materials for the first of his five waysthe argument to the First Mover.

This most interesting of the Platonic arguments presupposes Plato's general theory of Ideas, or Forms, especially as expounded in Phaedo, in the Republic, and elsewhere; in fact, Plato's other arguments derive what plausibility they may have from the theory of Ideas as a background assumption. Plato believed that for every significant word, such as justice or equality, there is a corresponding abstract Idea, or Form. These Ideas are eternal and incorporeal substances, intelligible to the intellect as material things are sensible to the senses. All the many particular instances of some general class of things "participate" in the appropriate unique Idea, and this Idea serves as an ideal standard, itself apparently preeminently possessing the characteristic concerned. These Ideas are thought of as providing answers both to questions about criteriaWhat makes an X count as an X ?and to questions of a more causal characterWhat is ultimately responsible for the existence of X 's?

The argument to show that life is incompatible with death starts from the notion of the soul as the principle of life, and this is equated, in terms of the theory of Ideas, with the Form of Life. Now, life in the abstract is as incompatible with death as equality is with inequality. Life can never be overcome by Death. Thus, the conclusion is that the soul as the very Idea of Life is essentially deathless and eternal and, hence, "the immortal part" of us is not destroyed by death, for "our souls will exist somewhere in another world" (Phaedo 106e and 107a).

The answer to this argument is that since Life and Soul are convertible terms in this context, there is as much or as little reason for saying that the Idea of Soul is eternal as there is for maintaining the eternal reality of any other Form. But, as Plato himself always insisted, the abstract Form is entirely different from the particular individual, whereas the nerve of the entire argument lies precisely in the equation of the Form of Soul with the particular soul. This identification is impossible not merely because, as we have seen, there is no reason to equate souls in the present sense with the souls that are people but, more fundamentally, because in the present sense no meaning has been given to the expression "an individual soul." This vital fact is one of the many that are obscured by the confusion of explanatory and descriptive concepts and by the failure to separate philosophical questions about criteria from factual questions about causes. Once these distinctions are made, it becomes clear that to say that someone has a soul (is alive) is not to say that he is alive only thanks to the presence of some mysterious extra substance, whether corporeal or incorporeal.


Aristotle's De Anima is perhaps best approached as a philosophical treatise on life. Anima is Latin for "soul" and is the word from which our animate and inanimate are ultimately derived; the declared aim of De Anima is "to ascertain the nature and essence of soul" as "the principle of life" (402a403b). The fundamental thesis is that life or the soul is "the form of the particular living body." The Aristotelian notion of form is complex and is to be distinguished from the Platonic. R. D. Hicks, the editor of the classic English language edition, stated that by the thesis that the soul is the form of the body Aristotle "so far from favouring materialism, secures once and for all the soul's absolute immateriality" (R. D. Hicks, ed., Aristotle: De Anima, Cambridge, U.K., 1907, p. xliii). Aristotle does dispose of all ideas that the soul is a lump of stuff. However, Aristotle's basic thesis is quite un-Platonic and leaves no room at all for any doctrine of immortality. An Aristotelian form is no more a corporeal thing than a Platonic Form would be, but it is not an incorporeal one either. In our sense it is not a substance at all. The soul as the form stands to the stuff of the particular bodyand the examples are all Aristotle'sas the configuration of the statue to the materials of which it is made, as vision to the eye capable of seeing, as cutting power to the serviceable ax. Whatever else may be obscure, here it is obvious, as Aristotle himself said, that in this view the soul is not separable from the body (413a) and, furthermore, that this inseparability is a matter not of physical but of logical impossibility.

Had this been all that Aristotle said, Aristotle's views could not have been used in support of immortality. He also maintained, however, certain Platonic views that have given rise to much discussion and development, particularly among the Scholastics and others committed to a belief in personal immortality. These views concern the intellectual aspects of man and the corresponding intellectual (functions of the) soul. Despite the enormous labors of the commentators, precisely what Aristotle thought on these points is far from clear, possibly because Aristotle was not very clear in his own mind. There are nevertheless some relevant points that may usefully be made.


The tradition descending from Alexander of Aphrodisias through Averroes attributes to Aristotle a belief in some sort of Eternal Intellect. This is, however, a doctrine of personal immortality offering "prospect of rewards and punishments," a point emphasized by St. Thomas (De Unitate Intellectus Contra Averroistes ). Furthermore, since the Abstract Intellect as opposed to the intellects of particular men is necessarily unique, it is not at all the right material to serve Thomas's own vital theoretical need for bridges between us and our successors in the next life.


The one kind of reason that might be proffered for saying that the Abstract Intellect (or any other putative Abstract Reality) is essentially eternal is really no reason for saying that anything at all actually goes on forever. In a way it is correct to say that such things as necessary truths and the logical relations between abstract mathematical concepts are somehow timeless and eternal. Yet this is not a matter of the existence of anything imperishable but, rather, of its not making sense to ask temporal questions about the periods during which any of these truths and these relations obtain. From eternity in this sense we can have nothing either to hope or to fear.

This distinction between two senses of eternity is fundamental in discussing personal immortality. We are concerned only with a life that would live on forever; the eternity of mere abstractions is not to the point. In the light of this distinction we can better appreciate the significance and the error of Plato's contention that the soul belongs to the same category as the abstract Ideas and, hence, that it is the sort of thing that may be presumed immortal (Phaedo 78b80b).

The presumption that an incorporeal substance would be naturally incorruptible has always been the philosophers' favorite argument for the immortality of the soul. Thomas appealed to it, for instance, although he, of course, would not have included Platonic abstract Ideas in this category and although he was also careful to insist that souls, like everything else, are sustained by God and would be at once annihilated if he chose to withdraw his support (Summa Theologiae Ia, 75, 6; ad 2). It was perhaps with the same idea in mind that in the Republic Plato offered, as if it were a proof, the following unconvincing argument: Because every sort of thing has its one congenital evil, because nothing can be destroyed by anything but its own congenital evil, because the congenital evil of the soul is wickedness, and because wickedness as such is never directly lethal to the wicked man, our souls must be immortal (Republic 608e611a).


Assuming that Aristotle had really wanted to suggest that it could make sense to talk of an individual intellect's existing separately, then, presumably, a large part of his reason would have lain in his belief that ratiocination, unlike sight or hearing, is not localized in any organ (De Anima 402a, 408a, 429a). This belief has, of course, turned out to be erroneous. But even if it had not, the absence of any special corporeal organ provides no justification for assuming that our intellectual attributes must, or even might, be those of special incorporeal substances. The lack of special organs of melancholy or of volition is surely not to be construed as grounds for seeking invisible subjects to which to attribute Eric's feeling glum or Katrina's wanting to go to sleep. These are simply and obviously attributes of the people concerned.

Aristotle himself never employed any argument of this sort. On the contrary, he urged that the intellect, "since it thinks all things must needs, in the words of Anaxagoras, be unmixed with any, if it is to rule, that is, to know" (429a). This dark saying has been construed as an expression of a belief that our intellects are both incorporeal and substances, a belief that might seem to mesh well with the conviction, which Aristotle undoubtedly did have, that pure intellectual activity, abstract cognition, is something rather grand, almost divine, an occupation only for the highest sort of person (see, for instance, Nicomachean Ethics 1177a1179b). Aristotle immediately went on to insist, however, that this pure intellect "has no other nature than this, that it is a capacity," and a capacity is not at all the sort of thing that can significantly be said to exist separately. Again, he seems elsewhere to have dismissed the idea of individual immortality with contempt (ibid., 1111b). And in the whole range of his works there is neither a positive treatment of the subject of a future life nor any promise of such treatment. The most plausible interpretation of Aristotle's view is surely that defended by Pietro Pomponazzi in Chapter 9 of his great polemic De Immortalite Animae. He concluded that the soul, including the intellect, "is in no way truly itself an individual. And so it is truly a form beginning with, and ceasing to be with, the body; nor can it in any way operate or exist without the body."

thomas aquinas

Thomas, as was mentioned, had urgent theoretical reasons for wanting to show that the soul is a substance, that it is, as he put it, "something subsistent." He was therefore inclined as far as possible to read Aristotle as holding the same view. In his Commentary on Aristotle's De Anima he explained the passage considered above (429a) in this way:

But our intellect must itself lack all those things which of its nature it understands. Since then it naturally understands all sensible and bodily things, it must be lacking in every bodily nature; just as the sense of sight, being able to know colour, lacks all colour. If sight itself had any particular colour, this colour would prevent it from seeing other colours, just as the tongue of a feverish man, being coated with a bitter moisture, cannot taste anything sweet.

If this were indeed what Aristotle meant, he really was confused. For if intellect is, reasonably enough, to be compared with the sense of sight, it is because they are both (cognitive) capacities. But we need no particular argument to show why a capacity, as opposed to the subject that may possess that capacity, cannot itself have any material characteristics. The reason that the sense of sight is not yellow is not that being yellow must render it or its possessor incapable of seeing yellow things but that, generally, it is nonsense to attribute sensible characteristics to a capacity. (It is hard not to regard all this as the product, at least in part, of the bad habit of making nouns out of verbs and then succumbing to the temptation to presume that a substantive must be a word for a substance.)

It might seem that it is upon precisely this argument that Thomas himself relied in the Summa Theologiae to establish "that the principle of intellectual operation which we call the soul is both incorporeal and subsistent." He even employed the same example of "a sick man's tongue being vitiated by a feverish and bitter humour," but here he was comparing the soul as "the principle of intellectual operation" with the organ, not the sense, of sight. Having thus supposedly established that "it is impossible for the intellectual principle to be a body," he proceeded:

It is likewise impossible for it to understand by means of a bodily organ; since the particular nature of the organ would prevent its knowing all bodies; compare the way in which liquid put into a glass vase seems to be of the same colour, not only when some particular colour is in the pupil of the eye but even when it is in the vase. (Ia, 75, 2)

In this version the argument escapes the previous criticism. But it escapes only at the price of removing what was in the commentary on De Anima offered as the proof of its major premise, here formulated as the proposition that "whatever knows certain things cannot have any of them in its own nature; because that which is in it naturally would impede the knowledge of anything else." The question arises, "How is this premise known?" The answer seems to be that it is not known, perhaps even that it is known to be false. Take Thomas's own example of the eye as the organ of sight. The eyes are admittedly material, yet that does not prevent us from using them for seeing material things, including other people's eyes and evenin mirrorsour own. Furthermore, even if the Thomist proposition did fit all the facts about our present sense organs, this would at most suggest that it was a contingent truth about them. But to serve Thomas's purpose, it must be known to be, if not actually necessary, at least sufficiently universal to apply not only to sense organs but also to "that principle of intellectual operation which we call the soul"something which he himself is here trying to show to be radically different from anything corporeal.


Plato and Aristotle can be regarded as the archetypical protagonists of two opposing views of man. Plato is the original spokesman for a dualistic view, and it seems that it is upon dualism that a doctrine of personal immortality must be grounded if it is to possess any initial plausibility. As a defender of a monistic view, Aristotle was neither so consistent nor so wholehearted. Yet it is still fair to see him at his most characteristic as the philosophical founding father of the view that the person is the living human organism, a view that apparently leaves no room whatsoever for belief in personal immortality. Thomas, who generally followed Aristotle on this point, characteristically attempted a synthesis that would have opened, had it been successful, the doors to heaven and to hell. In the present perspective Descartes must be placed squarely in the Platonic tradition. Thus, in the final paragraph of Part V of the Discourse on Method, after remarking that "next to the error of those who deny God there is none which is more effectual in leading feeble spirits 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," Descartes concluded that "our soul is in its nature entirely independent of the body, and in consequence that it is not liable to die with it. And then, inasmuch as we observe no other causes capable of destroying it, we are naturally inclined to judge that it is immortal."


Although his conclusions were thoroughly traditional, Descartes was nevertheless a revolutionary thinker. Unlike Plato, his chief intellectual interests were science, in particular physiology. Like Thomas Hobbes, the other great metaphysician of his period, Descartes quickly grasped the wider significance of the work of William Harvey and Galileo Galilei. Harvey's discovery of the circulation of the blood suggested to Descartes that both animals and human bodies might be regarded as machines. Descartes then asked himself how the creatures that we know might be distinguished from living machines. His answer was that with respect to animals there simply was no distinction in principle but that an automaton in human shape, however brilliantly constructed, could always be distinguished from a true human being in two ways. There were two sorts of test which were bound to reveal the absence of the vital rational soul: without a rational soul such an automaton would not be able "to reply appropriately to everything said in its presence, as even the lowest type of man can do," and their lack of versatility would always reveal that the automata "did not act from knowledge, but only from the disposition of their organs" (Discourse on Method, Part V).

One fundamental distinction, often overlooked in discussing these questions, is that between logical and technical impossibility. In Part V of the Discourse, his first published treatment, Descartes seems to have been making a purely factual claim "that it is morally impossible that there should be sufficient diversity in any machine to allow it to act in all the events of life in the same way as our reason causes us to act." To make any such would-be factual claim must be both rashly premature and scientifically defeatist. Elsewhere and later, it becomes clear that what Descartes, like so many successors, really wanted to say is that it is inconceivable that any material mechanism could be responsible for certain sorts of things. Thus, in the Passions of the Soul he laid down the principle "that all that which is in us and which we cannot in any way conceive as possibly pertaining to a body, must be attributed to our soul" (I, iv). And in his view what has to be thus attributed is thought, in his own rather broad sense of "thought," which seems to include all actions and passions considered to involve consciousness (ibid., I, xvii ff.). "By the word thought I understand all that of which we are conscious as operating in us. And that is why not only understanding, willing, imaging, but feeling also here count as thought" (Principles of Philosophy, I, ix).

Descartes was thus insisting that it is inconceivable that matter, however disposed, could in this sense think. This is a notion of the same sort as the idea that purposive and rational beings could not, without benefit of control by some Higher Purpose, have evolved first from creatures of a lower order and, ultimately, from inanimate matter, an idea found in both some objections to evolutionary theory and some versions of the Argument to Design. Presumably, Descartes would have accepted both contentions and many others like them because they fall under the generic principle, which he formulated as the fourth of his "axioms or common notions"; "All the reality of perfection which is in a thing is found formally or eminently in its first and total cause" (Addendum to the Replies to the Second Set of Objections to the Meditations ).

It has since Immanuel Kant become the custom to dignify such principles with the title "synthetic a priori propositions." But the one with which we are here concerned, though certainly synthetic, can be described as a priori only in the quite artificial sense that it is wholly arbitrary and unwarranted. Descartes's more specific idea had been forcibly challenged long before by the Epicureans (see, for instance, Lucretius, De Rerum Natura II. 865870 and 875882). The challenge was later repeated by both Spinoza and Locke even before David Hume launched his decisive onslaught on the generic notion that it is possible to know a priori that some thing or sort of thing must be or cannot be the cause of some other thing or sort of thing. The points made, in their different ways, by both Spinoza and Locke were that there is no contradiction in the idea of something material being endowed with thought and that we are in no position to deny dogmatically that there are material creatures so endowed.


Thus far, Descartes's originality, as against the Platonic tradition, has chiefly been in his positive scientific interests and in his mechanistic ideas about the body. His achievement was to form a new framework of discussion and to provide a metaphysical foundation for the further development of physiology. He was also revolutionary on a second count, for it was he who developed with compelling dramatic power a new approach to questions of mind and matter. For three full centuries this remained part of the accepted philosophical orthodoxy, an orthodoxy that even Hume seems never to have thought to question. This approach can be characterized, though with no intended moral overtones, as self-centered.

Whereas Plato generallyand Descartes, too, when he suggested tests of humanityapproached people from our common public world, Descartes at his most characteristic tried to approach the world from inside the closed circle of his logically private consciousness. Thus, in Part IV of the Discourse, having reached his rock-bottom certainty in the proposition cogito ergo sum, he asked what he was. "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." He concluded that he "was a substance the whole essence or 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 body, and even if the body were not, the soul would not cease to be what it is" (compare, especially, Meditations, II).

Much of the power of the Cartesian argument lies in the use of the first-person personal pronoun and in the idiosyncratic choice of tenses and moods. For there is surely no difficulty at all, even for Descartes, in supposing that Descartes may one day be annihilated or that Descartes might never have been born. The most fundamental objections are founded upon a rejection of his unstated general assumption that (his) words obtain their meaning by reference to (his) logically private experiences. In particular, Descartes mistakenly assumed that all the words for all the things that he comprehended under the term thinking are words for such private experiences. Only on this assumption is it possible to assert that there could bemuch less that we areessentially incorporeal beings and, as such, fully capable of every sort of thinking. To insist that this assumption is wrong is not necessarily to adopt either a complete logical behaviorismsaying that all terms of this type refer only to public performancesor Ludwig Wittgenstein's extreme later positionapparently denying the very possibility of a language's containing words defined in terms of one man's logically private experience. It is sufficient to commit oneself only to the more modest claim that most thinking words refer wholly or partly to various actual or possible proceedings that are necessarily corporeal. To recognize that this is true and could scarcely be otherwise, it is sufficient to reflect for a moment upon the whole context in which we learn to use these terms; consider how we should teach the meaning of "He argued with her" or "She drew her own conclusions." In this perspective it becomes no wonder that, as Wittgenstein said, "The human face is the best picture of the human soul."


The appeal of the Cartesian approach and its influence can be appreciated by considering two examples, both relevant to the question of immortalityfirst, the discussion of personal identity initiated by Locke and continued by Joseph Butler, Hume, and Thomas Reid and, second, the investigation of the question of human survival by modern parapsychologists through the study of the possible relevance of the evidence furnished by all types of mediumistic performances.

Both investigations have started from the self-centered Cartesian standpoint and have taken for granted that, essentially, people are bodiless. Thus, the problem of personal identity was generally taken to be one of the identity of an incorporeal thinking thing. Locke tried to provide an analysis of personal identity, so construed, in terms of consciousness (memory). The decisive objection to any such analysis was sharply put by Butler: "And one should really think it self-evident that consciousness of personal identity presupposes, and therefore cannot constitute, personal identity" (Dissertation I, "Personal Identity," appended to the Analogy of Religion ).

But most of Locke's critics, Butler included, seem to have failed to appreciate just how difficulteven, perhaps, impossiblethe problems of the nature of the identity and of the principle of the individuation of such putative incorporeal beings must be. If people are thought of as incorporeal substances having sorts of thinking, in the wide Cartesian sense, as their qualities (the substance, or "pure ego," theory of the self), then the question is how such substances are to be identified, what sense can be given to the expression "pure ego." If, with Hume, one is unable to provide any satisfactory answer to this question, the only alternative seems to be thinking of people as collections of experiences (the serial, or "bundle," theory of the self). Theories of this sort face two difficulties. First, it does not seem to make sense to speak of thoughts or experiences as "loose and separate" without anyone's having them, and, second, there seems to be no string capable of tying the bundles of experiences together while keeping one bundle distinct from another. The first difficulty may or may not be merely grammatical. The second, once the impossibility of using memory as the string is fully realized, appears very formidable. It was the second difficulty in a slightly different form that Hume had to confess to be "too hard for my understanding" (Appendix to Treatise of Human Nature ).

In parapsychology it seems to have been almost universally assumed that mediumistic material, insofar as it cannot be either satisfactorily explained away in terms of fraud and delusion or conveniently redescribed in terms of telepathic and clairvoyant transactions among the living, can and must be interpreted as evidence for human survival. Yet to interpret such material in this way is not to provide support for, but rather to presuppose, a Platonic-Cartesian view of man. For it is only insofar as a person is essentially incorporeal that it can even make sense to suggest that someone years ago dead, buried, and dissolved is even now communicating with us through a medium.

Other Arguments concerning Immortality

This article has thus far concentrated on philosophers who have adopted, more or less consciously, a Platonic or Platonizing view of man and who, if they have argued philosophically for any sort of immortality, have urged that the nature of the soul is such that it must be or must be presumed to be imperishable. None of these arguments requires any reference to a deity, and none appeals to any moral premises. This may perhaps be surprising, for most peopleat least those in the European cultural traditionare likely to think that beliefs in God and in immortality must go together. They are inclined to take it for granted that the main if not the only point of immortalityand sometimes perhaps of God, toois to provide inordinate rewards and punishments. Yet there is no obvious inconsistency in believing in a Creator while denying that he has established a new world in a future life to redress the moral unbalances of the old. Nor does it appear that to assert our immortality is logically either to presuppose or to imply the existence of any sort of god. It may seem odd, but it is not manifestly inconsistent, for such avowedly atheist philosophers as J. M. E. McTaggart and C. J. Ducasse to affirm immortality, McTaggart offering exclusively metaphysical reasons and Ducasse appealing mainly to the evidence of parapsychology.

moral arguments

The most considerable philosopher to rest his case for immortality on morality was Kant. Unfortunately, this is one of the many cases in which it is difficult to give an account of Kant's position and reasons that is clear, consistent, persuasive, precise, and acceptable to Kant scholars. Kant himself may be at fault here not merely, as usual, because he obscured his thought with cumbrous and idiosyncratic expression but also because he presented imprecise and uncompelling arguments.

But with these warnings it can be said that in the Critique of Practical Reason and in the Critique of Judgment Kant offered freedom, immortality, and God as the three postulates of practical reason. Practical reason is for Kant the source of the universal imperatives of morality. A "postulate of pure practical reason" is defined in the Critique of Practical Reason as "a theoretical proposition which is not as such demonstrable, but which is an inseparable corollary of an a priori unconditionally valid moral law" (translated by L. W. Beck, Chicago, 1949, pp. 225228). The form of the argument, in the cases of immortality and God, appears to be that something is said to be commanded by the moral law but could be obeyed only on a certain condition; therefore, the conclusion is drawn not that that condition must obtain but that it must be a postulate of practical reason. The first difficulty is to see how Kant, who in and after the Critique of Pure Reason regularly denied the possibility of proofs of immortality or of the existence of God, proposed to reconcile this denial with insistence on the validity of the present deductions. The most promising response to this is to suggest that they cannot be rated as proofs of the doctrines that Kant maintained to be unprovable because it has not been and cannot be shown that the moral ideas are indeed soundly based but that they do prove that to act in accordance with moral ideas is to act as if, or to act on the assumption that, these doctrines are true.

The second difficulty lies in the supposed derivations themselves. In the case of the postulate of immortality the conclusion is to be drawn from the premise that the moral law commands us to achieve a perfect correspondence between our will and that law. This is taken to be out of the question in this life. Thus, what the law really requires is an endless progress toward the ideal, which is possible "only under the presupposition of an infinitely enduring existence and personality of the same rational being." If this is what Kant meantas it certainly is what he saidthen the moral law includes one very strange command. For to reach the proposed conclusion, we have to construe that law not as stating that we should approach as near to perfection as is humanly possible, or, as Kant seemed at first inclined to say, that we must actually achieve perfection, but, rather, that we must forever approach asymptotically this eternally unattainable ideal.

In the case of the third postulate of God the moral premise is that the law requires us to promote the highest good, which involves a perfect correspondence between the morality and the happiness of every individual. But the only guarantee of the possibility of this correspondence would be the existence of God, presumably because God alone would possess the power necessary to achieve it. Consequently, practical reason demands this postulate.

There seems to be a crucial disharmony between the premises of the second and the third arguments. Only at first in the second but throughout the third, Kant apparently wanted to insist that the ideals prescribed by practical reason must be practically and not just theoretically possible. Surely, it is merely the contingent weakness of the flesh that makes holiness something "of which no rational being in the world of sense is at any time capable," whereas if the theoretical possibility of achieving the necessary correspondence was all that was at stake, there would be no call "to assume the actual existence of God." Yet Kant had urged in the second argument that the true imperative is to press ever closer to an ideal which is, it seems, not even theoretically attainable. This is fatal. If it is once allowed that an imperative can be to get as near as is humanly possible to an ideal that may be practicallyeven theoreticallyunattainable, then the whole foundation of both arguments collapses. For such more modest demands could be satisfied in an earthly lifetime and without benefit of God.

Three general points about the Kantian arguments should be particularly noted. First, that the cases for the second and for the third postulate are separate. Second, Kant scrupulously avoided any suggestion that the authority of the moral law is at all dependent on the availability, here or hereafter, of rewards and punishments. Third, Kant was careful not to make the mistake of trying to deduce what is the case from premises affirming only what ought to be. It is not often that any of these things can be said for some more popular arguments for immortality.

For instance, it is often urgedmost commonly, perhaps, in Roman Catholic textbook apologetic but elsewhere, toothat the lack of appropriate rewards and punishments would make nonsense of the claims of morality. Thus, the Jesuit M. Maher wrote:

But in the judgement that conduct entailing a sacrifice ought to be pursued, there is implied a further judgement that it cannot be ultimately worse for the agent himself to do that which is right. The supposition that virtue can finally result in misery for the agent; or that wickedness may effect an increase in the total quantity of his personal happiness is seen to be in conflict with reason, and to be destructive of all morality. (Rational Psychology, London, 1940, p. 530)

Maher proceeded to argue that God could not permit this and, therefore, that there must be immortality, with penalties and compensations. He himself believed that the existence of God is independently established by natural theology (p. 533), but "some of the proofs of Immortality are amongst the most forcible arguments for the existence of a Deity" (ibid., pp. 525526). It is interesting to compare the distress of Henry Sidgwick, who saw the moral situation similarly but was unable to share the supposedly saving religious convictions (Methods of Ethics, London, 1874, especially Part IV, Ch. 7).

Even if it were to be allowed that some such view is correct, it certainly does not warrant the suggested conclusions. Suppose we allow that rewards and penalties are indeed morally necessary; at most, this could support a demand not for immortality but for a temporary survival. Nothing has been said in the premises to explain why these necessary rewards and penalties have to be eternal. Indeed, to the secular moralist, to whom no revelation has been vouchsafed, it might seem that to provide eternal penalties for temporal offenses would be to make the universe infinitely worse. More generally, it is essential to insist that no argument from purely gerundive premisesstating only what ought to be or what is in some other way desirablecan by itself either establish or make probable any conclusion about what is actually the case. (Compare J. S. Mill, Three Essays on Religion, London, 1874, especially the essay "Theism.")

In any case it is certainly no part of the meaning of moral obligation that the obligation must always accord with the eventual self-interest or the person obliged. The sense in which categorical imperatives can be characterized as essentially rational refers to their universality and impartiality rather than to any implication that obedience must always be ultimately the best-paying policy. If anything, surely, it is part of the very idea of morality that sacrifices are sometimes required.

argument from desire

Many other arguments have been and are put forward. It is urged, for instance, that the allegedly almost universal belief in survival is somehow evidence of its own truth, a contention rejected by J. S. Mill for the decisive reason that to urge this is not to offer a good ground but, rather, if anything, to concede tacitly that there is none. Again, attempts have been made (by Dugald Stewart, for instance) to make something of the allegedly almost universal desire for immortality or of the existence of human potentialities that cannot be realized in a mere three score years and ten. If the existence of a desire really were a reason for affirming not merely, as perhaps it is, that this desire has some describable object but also, as it manifestly is not, that this object must actually be realized, then the argument could still be refuted by the considerationpressed by Hume in his essay "Immortality"that the certainly no less nearly universal fear of annihilation equally demands its real object. Of course, the existence of a desire for immortality, where it is found, does call forand can easily be givena naturalistic explanation. Such a desire, however, begins to be useful to the advocate of immortality only insofar as it can be used in conjunction with some idea of a God who may be relied on to arrange for the ultimate fulfillment of (some of?) the desires and (some more of?) the potentialities that he has arranged for us to have. (The qualification "some of" has, presumably, to be put in to allow for the existence of ambivalent and evil desires; the "some more of" is needed if we are to have an argument that even appears to hold.)

To consider the possibility of establishing the existence of such a God is beyond the scope of this article. Yet it is perhaps worth suggesting that the existence of these ostensibly frustrated wholesome desires and these apparently unfulfilled splendid potentialities must, by itself, count as evidence against, rather than for, the existence of this kind of God. It is, as Hume insisted both in his Dialogues and in the first Enquiry, very oddnotwithstanding that it is very commonto argue from what in themselves would have to be rated as defects of the familiar world to the conclusion that this world is the work of a being without defect, who will in the future make good all present deficiencies.

Arguments against Immortality

Philosophers opposed to the belief in immortality have generally confined their case to attacking weaknesses in the arguments thought up by immortalists. But some have also advanced arguments intended to show that human beings do not survive the death of their bodies. Thus, in the essay mentioned above Hume was not satisfied with pointing out the flaws in the metaphysical and the moral arguments for immortality but urged a number of considerations "from the analogy of nature" in favor of "the mortality of the soul." Similarly, many other writers who are not materialists and who are not committed to the view about the meaning of person words presented in this article maintain that there are powerful empirical grounds supporting a negative position on immortality. The most popular and impressive of these is what may be called the "body-mind dependence argument," an argument that, according to its more recent exponents, has received powerful confirmation from modern brain research. Bertrand Russell wrote,

We know that the brain is not immortal, and that the organized energy of a living body becomes, as it were, demobilized at death and therefore not available for collective action. All the evidence goes to show that what we regard as our mental life is bound up with brain structure and organized bodily energy. Therefore it is rational to suppose that mental life ceases when bodily life ceases. The argument is only one of probability, but it is as strong as those upon which most scientific conclusions are based. (Why I Am Not a Christian, New York, 1957, p. 51)

Philosophers in the Hume-Russell tradition have also generally insisted that in the case of immortality the onus of proof must lie entirely with the believers. In their view it is quite wrong that we start with an open question. As this article urged at the beginning, the familiar facts of life and death establish an overwhelming presumption of mortality. Given these facts and the fact that person words mean what they do mean, there are massive philosophical obstacles to be overcome before the question of a future life can be shown to be sufficiently open to leave any room at all for appeals to evidence or even to faith.

Of course, there is nothing to stop anyone from giving what sense he likes to the expression "disembodied person." The difficulty is to attach enough sense to the expression so that some discovery about disembodied people could provide us with grounds for believing that we survive death. In their present senses person words have logical liaisons of the very greatest human importance. Personal identity in the present sense is the necessary condition of both accountability and expectation. This is only to say that it is unjust to reward or punish someone for something unless, as a minimum condition, he is the same person who did the deed and that it is absurd to expect things to happen to me in 2014 unless, as a minimum condition, there is going to be a person in existence in 2014 who will be the same person as I. The difficulty is to change the use of person words so radically that it becomes significant to talk of people's surviving dissolution without changing it in such a way that these crucial logical liaisons must be broken.

If this difficulty cannot be overcomeand there seems little reason to think that it canthen the apocalyptic words of the early Wittgenstein are to the point: "Our life is endless as the visual field is without limit. Death is not an event in life. Death is not lived through" (Tractatus Logico-philosophicus, London and New York, 1922, Secs. 6.431 and 6.1411).

See also Aristotle; Butler, Joseph; Death; Descartes, René; Ducasse, Curt John; Eternity; Galileo Galilei; Harvey, William; Hobbes, Thomas; Hume, David; Kant, Immanuel; Lewis, C. S. (Clive Staples); Locke, John; McTaggart, John McTaggart Ellis; Mill, John Stuart; Mind-Body Problem; Moral Arguments for the Existence of God; Parapsychology; Personal Identity; Plato; Pomponazzi, Pietro; Punishment; Reid, Thomas; Russell, Bertrand Arthur William; Ryle, Gilbert; Santayana, George; Socrates; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Tertullian, Quintus Septimius Florens; Thomas Aquinas, St.; Wisdom, (Arthur) John Terence Dibben.


For a massive survey of the history of the doctrine of immortality, see W. R. Alger, A Critical History of the Doctrine of the Future Life (New York, 1871). For surveys of particular aspects of the doctrine, consult the bibliography of Antony Flew, ed., Body, Mind, and Death (New York: Macmillan, 1964), an anthology that includes a number of important pieces on immortality. The sources for the views given in the text are cited there.

St. Augustine's De Immortalite Animae has been translated by George G. Leckie in St. Aurelius Augustine, Concerning the Teacher and On the Immortality of the Soul (New York and London: Appleton-Century, 1938). Pietro Pomponazzi's De Immortalite Animae is available in an English translation by W. H. Hay II, revised by John H. Randall Jr., in The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, edited by Ernst Cassirer, Paul Oskar Kristeller, and John H. Randall Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948).

Moses Mendelssohn's Phaedon (Berlin, 1767) is a famous dialogue on immortality that consciously imitates Plato's Phaedo. Hume's "Of the Immortality of the Soul" first appeared in Two Essays (London, 1777); it is reprinted in A Modern Introduction to Philosophy, 2nd ed., edited by Paul Edwards and Arthur Pap (New York: Free Press, 1965). The translation of Immanuel Kant's Critique of Practical Reason quoted in the text is that of L. W. Beck (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949). Dugald Stewart's Philosophy of the Active and Moral Powers of Man is contained in The Works of Dugald Stewart, Vol. V (Cambridge, MA: Hilliard and Brown, 1829), pp. 366423. J. M. E. McTaggart's views can be found in Some Dogmas of Religion (London: Arnold, 1906). For C. J. Ducasse's views see Nature, Mind, and Death (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1951) and The Belief in a Life after Death (Springfield, IL, 1960). Joseph Butler, The Analogy of Religion (London, 1736), Part I, Ch. 1, is a detailed argument for immortality with replies to objections. John Fiske, The Destiny of Man (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1884) and Life Everlasting (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1901); William James, Human Immortality (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1898; 2nd ed., with reply to critics, 1917); Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Assurance of Immortality (New York, 1926); John Baillie, And the Life Everlasting (London, 1934); A. E. Taylor, The Christian Hope of Immortality (London: Unicorn Press, 1938); and Jacques Maritain, The Range of Reason (New York: Scribners, 1952) all present arguments for immortality, as does "Ten Reasons for Believing in Immortality," a sermon by John Haynes Holmes, published in The Community Pulpit (19291930) and reprinted in Edwards and Pap, op. cit. G. T. Fechner, Büchlein vom Leben nach dem Tode, translated by John Erskine as Life after Death (Chicago, 1906), is a panpsychist defense of immortality. A. S. Pringle-Pattison, The Idea of Immortality (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922), holds that if there is personal immortality, it is not the inherent possession of every human soul but must be won by continual effort. E. S. P. Haynes, The Belief in Personal Immortality (Londo: Watts, 1913); Chapman Cohen, The Other Side of Death (London, 1922); Clarence Darrow, The Story of My Life (New York: Scribners, 1932); and Corliss Lamont, The Illusion of Immortality (London and New York, 1932) argue against immortality. Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays (London: Allen and Unwin, 1957), should be consulted for a representative sample of Russell's arguments against immortality. A negative position similar to that presented in this article is found in C. B. Martin, Religious Belief (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1959).

C. D. Broad's The Mind and Its Place in Nature (London: Kegan Paul, 1925), though somewhat dated, is perhaps the most valuable work on the problem of mind and body so crucial to the question of immortality. In Section D, Broad argues against the moral argument for immortality.

The source of the discussion of personal identity is Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding, edited by A. C. Frazer, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1894), Vol. II, Ch. 27. For the contributions of Butler, Hume, and Reid and for later works on this topic, see the bibliography of the Personal Identity entry.

The classic parapsychological study of immortality is F. W. H. Myers, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death (London and New York: Longmans, Green, 1903). See also Ducasse, op. cit.; C. D. Broad, op. cit., Religion, Philosophy, and Psychical Research (London: Routledge, 1953), and Lectures on Psychical Research (London: Routledge, 1962); Antony Flew, A New Approach to Psychical Research (London: Watts, 1953); and the bibliography of the Parapsychology entry. For the investigations of psychical researchers into the nature of the experiences of spirits, see, for instance, G. N. M. Tyrrell, Apparitions (London: Society for Psychical Research by G. Duckworth, 1953). J. R. Hick, "Theology and Verification IV," in Theology Today, 17 (April 1960), reprinted in The Existence of God, edited by J. R. Hick (New York: Macmillan, 1964), presents a view opposite to the thesis of this article on the difficulty of identifying the reconstituted person with the original person.

F. C. Copleston, Aquinas (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1955), gives a sympathetic and illuminating account of Thomas's views on immortality.

For the most important recent criticism of the Cartesian doctrine of the soul, see Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (London and New York: Hutchinson, 1949). For a Wittgensteinian criticism see P. T. Geach, Mental Acts (London: Routledge & Paul; New York: Humanities, 1957).

For the view that the bodily occurrences involved in rational behavior can be completely explained only supernaturally, see, for example, C. S. Lewis, Miracles (London and New York, 1957), especially Ch. 2. For a fuller development of the view that such occurrences can be the subject matter of the physiologist while logical questions as to the rationality of the performance considered as an argument can be raised and answered, see Antony Flew, Hume's Philosophy of Belief (New York: Humanities Press, 1961), Ch. 5.

Antony Flew (1967)


views updated Jun 11 2018


Yiyun Li 2003

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


"Immortality," a short story by Chinese writer Yiyun Li, was first published in the Paris Review in 2003. It was reprinted in Li's collection of short stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers in 2005. "Immortality" is set in China and is told from the point of view of an entire town as it goes through the turbulent events that affected China in the twentieth century. These events include the overthrow of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911/12); the establishment of a communist dictatorship and the personality cult of Mao Zedong; the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, in which millions died; and the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square, Beijing, in 1989. All these details form the backdrop to Li's highly unusual story of a boy who was born in 1949, the year that the communists came to power, and who as he grew up bore such a strong resemblance to the dictator that he was summoned to Beijing and trained to impersonate the dictator in official films and national events. With its vivid picture of life in China during the communist era, Li opens a window on a world that to Western readers may seem exotic and strange, and the tragic story she tells, of a young man who eventually falls from grace as rapidly as he first rises to fame, is a quietly compelling one.

Author Biography

Yiyun Li was born in Beijing, China, in 1972. Her father was a physicist and her mother a teacher. As a young child, Li learned how harsh the judicial system could be in the communist country. In 1978, when she was five and a half, the police drove through her neighborhood informing all the residents by loudspeaker that they were to assemble in an open field in ten minutes. In the field, four heavily bound men were placed on a temporary stage, and a police officer announced that they were counterrevolutionaries who had been sentenced to death. The sentence was to be carried out after the men had been paraded through all the local districts. At a signal from her daycare teacher, the five-year-old Li raised her fist, and along with everyone else, shouted a slogan calling for the men to be put to death.

As Li grew up, her mother would close the windows of their house when Li's grandfather, who had fought in the nationalist army against the communists, denounced Mao Zedong, the communist leader. Li's mother warned her to be careful what she said when she was out of the house and could be overheard by others.

Li was a high school student in Beijing when in June 1989, the Chinese Army crushed the pro-democracy protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, killing thousands. She later said, according to Bob Thompson writing in the Washington Post on December 21, 2005, that everyone in Beijing knew someone who had been at the square that night, and she compared it to the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.

After the Tiananmen Square incident, the Chinese government ordered that every student at Beijing University was to attend a military camp for one year for purposes of political reeducation. In 1991, Li, a freshman student at the university, found herself at a military camp in central China. Though she already loathed the communist system, her enforced military service made her feel as if she were a victim of the regime, and her anger against the system continued to grow.

After she left the army, Li studied biology, with the goal of pursuing graduate study in the United States. In 1996, Li came to the United States, even though at the time she had only limited command of English. She enrolled in a Ph.D. program in immunology at the University of Iowa. She also took an adult education class in writing.

In 2000, Li realized that her ambition was to become not an immunologist but a writer. She accepted a master's degree in immunology and, in 2001, enrolled in a creative writing course at the University of Iowa. Her teacher was James Alan McPherson, a Pulitzer Prize winner. McPherson was deeply impressed by Li's story, "Immortality." Encouraged to continue writing, Li was admitted to the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she completed two more master's degrees, an MFA in fiction and an MFA in creative nonfiction writing. By this time, "Immortality" had been published in the Paris Review (2003) and a memoir by Li had been published in the New Yorker (2004). Soon, Random House had offered her a contract for a collection of short stories, which was published in 2005 as A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. The collection, which includes the story, "Immortality," received unanimous praise from reviewers and won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, the largest short story prize in the world.

As of 2006, Li lived in Oakland, California, with her husband and their two sons.

Plot Summary

"Immortality" is told in the first person plural by a narrator who represents an entire Chinese town over the course of the twentieth century. The narrator begins by going back to the time of the Chinese imperial dynasties, when members of the imperial family were served by eunuchs who attended to their every need. Eunuchs are men who have had their testicles surgically removed.

This particular town has a history of sending boys to be castrated and serve the emperor and his family. Serving in this way was considered an honorable calling, and the town is proud of the role it has played in producing what were called "Great Papas." The tradition died out, however, when the last imperial dynasty was overthrown and replaced by republics. By the 1930s, most of the Great Papas lived in poverty in temples around the Forbidden City, which was the imperial palace located at the center of the capital city, Beijing.

In the late 1940s, the communists were victorious in the civil war, and the new rulers promised everyone a prosperous life. In the narrator's town, a carpenter's wife becomes pregnant. As the baby grows inside her, she keeps looking at newspaper pictures of the communist dictator. (Historically, the dictator was Mao Zedong, although in the story he is not named.) The narrator reports that there is a saying in China that the more a pregnant woman studies a face, the greater the possibility that the child will resemble that face. So it turns out. The baby boy soon begins to resemble the dictator rather than his father, who was executed by the communists after making some indiscreet remarks about the dictator in a pub. The dictator's rule is a brutal one, but the townspeople are unaware of this, merely going along with whatever the authorities want them to believe.

The boy's mother, widowed at the age of eighteen, is given a job as a street sweeper. No one wants to marry her, and she ages rapidly. By the time the boy is ten, she looks sixty. At that time, a famine comes and lasts for three years. (Historically, this is the famine in China that occurred from 1959 to 1961.) It is partly the fault of the communists, for mismanaging the economy. But when the authorities tell the townspeople that the famine is caused by sparrows and rats that ate all their food, the citizens believe them and attempt to kill all the sparrows. (This incident is based on Mao Zedong's declaration during the famine that sparrows were pests and should be hunted down by the people.) The boy who resembles the dictator tries to sneak a sparrow into his sleeve and take it to his mother to eat, but a bigger boy grabs him and accuses him of stealing the property of the People. The boy is set upon by a mob and beaten until his mother comes to rescue him, telling the mob to look at the boy's face. The mob freezes when it realizes that the boy looks exactly like the dictator whom they are taught to revere.

After this event, no one in the town ever utters a disrespectful word about the boy's face, and the older the boy gets, the more he resembles the dictator. After he graduates from high school, the Revolutionary Committee discusses what would be an appropriate job for him. They eventually appoint him as the director of the advisory board to the Revolutionary Committee, which involves no responsibilities at all. The young man prospers, but no young woman will date him, because the word is that marrying this man will either bring the greatest fortune or the greatest misfortune.

When the dictator dies, the people in the town ostentatiously mourn. All entertainment is banned for six months. A year later, the young man, now twenty-eight, is whisked off in an official car to the capital city, where he is to audition as the dictator's impersonator. His mother is proud of him. The young man spends days in training for his new role, along with other candidates for the position. He succeeds in getting to the final round of competition, with three other men, and wins because he is the one who is adjudged to have best captured the essence of the dictator.

After this, he becomes the sole face that represents the dictator to the nation. He stars in movies about the dictator, and flies across the country appearing in televised celebrations of national holidays. The town hopes that he will marry a local young woman, but it becomes increasingly clear that this will not happen.

Time passes, and the country undergoes social changes as a result of Western influences. People can now buy Western consumer items and watch imported movies. The people in the town begin to realize that their own lives are not as happy as they had been taught to believe, and the capitalist countries are not simply waiting for the Chinese communists to liberate them through the worldwide spread of communism. Biographies and memoirs of the former dictator begin to appear that present the dictator in a bad light. Rumors spread that under his rule, fifty million people died through famine or political persecution. Doubt runs rampant through the people in the town. They are no longer interested in the stories told to them about the dictator's impersonator by his mother.

The present leader of the nation tries to reignite enthusiasm for communism, but a protest breaks out in the capital city. Thousands of people rally for democracy, but the army fires on the protesters. (Historically, this was the massacre in Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, in June 1989, in which between five hundred and seven thousand people were killed.) Shortly after that, the "big-brother country," which is their neighbor, ceases to exist. (This is a reference to the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991.) The townspeople are confused by all these rapid changes.

The dictator's impersonator, now in his forties, begins to encounter problems. He has never made love to a woman, and he starts to fantasize about his missed opportunities. He also thinks that no woman is good enough for him, since he is such a great man. He has time free now, and he takes to wandering the streets in disguise. At a stall in an alley, he buys a pornographic book and a biography of the dictator written by his physician of thirty years. The book was banned on publication abroad but has been smuggled into the country from Hong Kong and the United States. (This is a reference to the memoirs of Mao Zedong's physician, Dr. Li Zhisui, published in the United States in 1994.)

The man returns to his room and studies both books. He feels an emptiness he has never known before. He sees in the biography pictures of the dictator with attractive young nurses, and he realizes that being a great man means one can have whatever one wants in the world. He goes out in the night and finds a prostitute in a karaoke-and-dance bar. They go together to a hotel. The woman's pimp rushes into their room, impersonating a police officer. He handcuffs the man and photographs him. When the couple realizes who he is, they ask for ten times what they usually request in blackmail money. The man refuses to pay, thinking that his indiscretion will pass unnoticed. But rumors start to spread through the capital about his visit to the brothel. The incriminating pictures circulate until everyone claims to have seen them, and he is fired from his job as the dictator's impersonator. He is in any case no longer needed, since a new leader has come to power and is seeking someone who resembles him rather than the former dictator to become his impersonator.

On a winter's day, the man returns to his hometown. His mother has died, and he goes to her tomb, where he castrates himself. None of the townspeople knows why he does this, although they all remember the stories of the eunuchs of old, the Great Papas. The man lives on in the town, facing a long barren life. He sits around in the sun and walks to the cemetery at dusk, where he talks to his mother until it is dark. The townspeople pray for him to live forever, as they had prayed for the dictator.



The dictator is not named and does not appear directly in the story, but his presence is felt everywhere. His photograph appears all the time in the newspapers during the 1950s; at that time, he is "the only superstar in the media," and the townspeople refer to him as "Our Father, Our Savior, the North Star of Our Lives, the Never Falling Sun of Our Era." Since they regard him as a surrogate father, they weep like orphans at his death. Underneath their adulation of this pseudo-divine figure, however, lies a "hidden hatred" that they dare not acknowledge.


The impersonator is a young man whose face resembles the face of the dictator. The resemblance is so uncanny that even as a boy he leads quite a privileged life. At school, the teachers never rebuke him, and in the team games the children play, the side without him is always willing to lose. After he leaves school, he is given a title as director of he advisory board to the Revolution Committee, but this is a fake job that involves no work at all. A year after the dictator dies, the young man is taken to the capital city where he auditions as the dictator's impersonator. He is successful and travels the country, impersonating the dictator at national celebrations. He also appears in movies as the dictator. In this role, he is adored by the masses. People want to shake his hand and get his autograph, pretty young women rush up to him with bouquets of flowers, and enthusiastic children swarm around him. When he is in his forties, however, he becomes tormented by the fact that he has never married and never even made love to a woman. He has rejected many women who would have married him because he did not think they were worthy of him, since he has come to consider himself a great man. Eventually, he falls prey to lust, buying pornographic magazines and soliciting a prostitute in a bar, only to be blackmailed by the woman's pimp. He is fired from his job as impersonator, and even though he begs for another chance, his career is over. He returns to his hometown and castrates himself by his mother's tomb. At the end of the story, he cuts a pathetic figure: "He sits in the sun and watches the dogs chasing one another, his face hidden behind dark glasses and the high collar of his coat." In the evenings, he goes to the cemetery and talks to his mother.

Impersonator's Father

The impersonator's father is a young carpenter. He marries at the time when the dictator first comes to power. This would be in 1949, when the communists triumphed in the civil war. The carpenter is described as "a hardworking man, nice to his neighbors, good to his wife." However, he meets a tragic fate. One evening he is a little drunk and makes a joke about the dictator's policy of describing women who have given birth to a certain number of babies as mother heroes. This is considered an attack on the dictator's population policy, and the carpenter is tried and executed. His son is born on the day of his death.

Impersonator's Mother

The impersonator's mother is an illiterate eighteen-year-old girl. When she is pregnant, she frequently gazes at the face of the dictator in newspaper photographs; as a result, so she believes, her son's face resembles that of the dictator. After the execution of her husband, she is given a job as a street sweeper. Although she is beautiful, none of the young men in the town offers to marry her, since she is stigmatized as the widow of a counterrevolutionary. She ages rapidly in her appearance. By the time her son is ten years old, she looks like a woman of sixty. But she is fiercely protective of her son and rescues him from the mob that attacks him. She is proud of him when he is taken away to the capital city to become an impersonator and takes credit for the fact that he looks like the dictator. She enjoys telling the townspeople stories of his new life; she also does her best to persuade him to marry one of the local girls, telling him that he needs a son. When word of the scandal about her son's visit to a prostitute reaches her, she is stricken by shame, falls ill, and dies.


The narrator is the collective voice of the town, persisting over many generations, and referred to in the first person plural as "we." The townspeople are simple folk who cling to their old traditions at the same time as they embrace the new ideology of communism. They regard the Great Papas of the past as heroes and think of the dictator's impersonator as a hero, too, even after he disgraces himself. In their eyes, he is the greatest man in their history. The townspeople are not educated, and they have little power to think for themselves. They are obedient to authority, and they respond not as individuals but as a group. For the most part, they are tools in the hands of the dictator and the Communist Party. They are naive and appear to know little about the world beyond the borders of their town.


Mind Control

The story shows some of the negative consequences of a totalitarian system, in which the government controls every aspect of people's lives, including how they behave and what they think. The minds of the townspeople are controlled by the Communist Party, which is their only authority for what is happening both in their own town and in the wider world. They show no ability to make independent judgments for themselves or to exercise common sense. They will believe almost anything. They are convinced, for example, that the famine is caused by sparrows and rats eating the food, simply because this is what the Communist Party tells them, its propaganda transmitted to them through loudspeakers in the town.

The system under which the townspeople live wipes out individuality. They always think and behave as a group, and the group mentality can make them dangerous, as when they set upon the boy who during the famine merely wants to take a sparrow home for his mother to eat. They lose their reason, thinking that the boy is committing some offense against them all, and they become like animals: "Some of us bare our teeth, ready to eat him alive."

The townspeople are also quite ready to condemn their own people simply because the Party tells them to, as when they celebrate the execution of the young carpenter—the father of the future impersonator—for some small indiscretion which resulted in his being branded as a counterrevolutionary. The townspeople thrust their fists into the air and hail a great victory for the People and chant revolutionary songs.

Since they are easily controlled by the Party and believe fervently in the personality cult of the dictator, the townspeople are ready to make any sacrifice that is demanded of them, even their lives. When the dictator defies the Americans to drop atomic bombs on China, the ordinary people in the town work themselves into a state of great indignation about the aggression of the Americans. They are ready for the bombs to fall, so they can "prove to the dictator [their] courage, and [their] loyalty."

The tyrannous nature of the rule to which the townspeople have submitted is everywhere apparent. The Party rigidly enforces the personality cult of the dictator, even sending parents of first-graders who make the mistake of misspelling the dictator's name to labor camps. The people are terrified of doing or saying something that will get them into trouble with the government. They must make sure they express the sentiments that are officially approved. If for a moment they think anything that might call official doctrine or government practices into question, they instantly repress the thought. For example, when some of them go to see the memorial of the dictator erected after his death, they pay a "substantial fee" (the hint of exploitation is unavoidable) to buy a white paper flower to be placed at the foot of the coffin. Some of them wonder whether the flowers are collected at night and resold the next day, but "instantly we will feel ashamed of ourselves for thinking such impure thoughts in the most sacred place in the world." Another example occurs when they watch national celebrations on television and see people dancing and singing with hearty smiles on their faces "like well-trained kindergarteners." For a moment, the brainwashing is not quite perfect: "At such moments, those of us who think a little more than others start to feel uneasy, haunted by a strange fear that our people are growing down, instead of growing up." But that intuition quickly vanishes when the dictator's impersonator appears on the screen.

It is only when Western influences start to appear in China that the people start to think for themselves a little more, and doubts begin to appear. They realize the falsity of much of what they were taught in the early days of communist rule. But the communist system soon manages to reassert its hold over the people's minds. In the aftermath of the killing of pro-democracy demonstrators (this is a reference to the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989), the people mindlessly echo the words of the new dictator, who has said that he is willing to kill two hundred thousand people in exchange for twenty years of communist stability: "Numbed by such numbers, we will echo his words and applaud his wisdom when we are required to publicly condemn those killed in the incident." This suggests that in terms of how the people's minds are controlled by the authorities, nothing much has changed since the 1950s.

Topics For Further Study

  • Make a class presentation with a classmate on the life and achievements of Mao Zedong. What were Mao's contributions to twentieth-century China? Does he deserve credit as a modernizer of China? Was he a tyrant on the scale of Hitler and Stalin? One person should present the positive aspects of Mao's rule and the other the negative side. Then the class should vote on whether Mao deserves to be called a great man.
  • Re-read "Immortality," and write an essay in which you describe some of the ways in which traditional folk beliefs continue to exist alongside communist doctrine in the minds of the townspeople. What effect do those beliefs have on the people's behavior?
  • Team up with one other student. Imagine you are both pro-democracy students in Beijing in 1989, just prior to the Tiananmen Square massacre. Write a five-point manifesto listing the kind of changes you are advocating in Chinese politics and society. Then research the history of China since 1989, and against each point in your manifesto, describe any progress or lack of progress that has been made in attaining the desired goal. Has China gone backwards or forwards in terms of democracy since 1989? Make a joint class presentation of your findings.
  • In the story, the United States is perceived as an enemy of China and a potential adversary in a nuclear war. Write an essay describing how President Richard M. Nixon's visit to China in 1972 changed the relationship between the United States, China, and the Soviet Union. What was Nixon's purpose in visiting China?


When they first come to power, the communist leaders proclaim that communism is great, and they persuade the people that there will now be prosperity for everyone. But the story shows that in one respect at least, China continues as before. In the old days, the town used to castrate seven- and eight-year-old boys and send them to the capital city to serve the imperial family. The town is proud of its history of supplying the emperor with Great Papas, but the reader will find it hard to accept the notion that there is any honor in the practice of sacrificing boys' masculinity so that they may better serve the ambitions and whims of the country's leaders. The mutilation of the Great Papas serves as a powerful symbol of how individuals are emasculated in service of their rulers, and so it is with the young impersonator, who is a eunuch in everything but name even before he castrates himself at the end of the story. His status as a celebrity derives solely from his imitation of the dictator; in himself, he is nothing, his achievements nothing. All his power is derived from the dictator, on whom he is utterly dependent. The slightest sign of any individual expression would mean that he was no longer fit to impersonate the dictator. In this sense, he is as emasculated as the eunuchs of old, and like the eunuchs also, when he can no longer be of any use to his rulers, he is discarded. It comes as no surprise that eventually, because of sexual frustrations that derive in part from his life as an impersonator (he is too puffed up with ideas of his own greatness to accept a local young woman as a bride), he castrates himself and becomes literally a eunuch.


Point of View and Setting

The point of view from which the story is told is an unusual one, since the narrator is not an individual voice but a collective one: the members of the town stretching over a period spanning many generations. This point of view effectively conveys a sense of community; the town is proud of its history of sending Great Papas to serve the imperial family, and it is through the money that the eunuchs send home that their brothers are enabled to marry and raise families. The townspeople believe that this is their great distinction in history. Were it not for the Great Papas, they would have nothing of value; after all, they are "small people born into this no-name town." The fact that not a single person in the story is given a name contributes to another effect conveyed by the collective point of view, the sense that the town is a single group and acts as a group; it does not value individuality. The people in the community all think in the same way. This is in part because the town is relatively isolated, not yet affected by modernity. In the 1950s, although the town does have at least one newspaper, it gets a lot of its information from loudspeakers placed on the roofs of the houses, which are used by the Party to disseminate news and propaganda. Even in the 1970s, when a car comes to take the young man away for his training, most of the townspeople have never seen a car before. During that period also, there is just one television set in the entire town.

Historical Context

Chinese History in the Twentieth Century

China's two thousand years of imperial rule by various dynasties, the last of which was the Qing dynasty, ended in 1912 when the army overthrew the dynasty and established a short-lived republic. This change in power was followed by a ten-year period of fragmentation in which various "warlords," provincial military leaders, competed with one another for power. This period lasted from 1916 to 1927. During the 1920s, the great struggle between the nationalist movement and the communists to gain control of China began. In the 1930s, the nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975), gained the upper hand and expelled the communists from southern and eastern China. In what became known as the Long March, the communists trekked across China and established a base in the northwest. It was during this period that Mao Zedong (1893–1976) emerged as the communist leader.

In the 1930s, the impoverished and divided nation also had to deal with the Japanese invasion, which was not finally repelled until the end of World War II in 1945. After World War II, the civil war between nationalists and communists, which had been put on hold during the previous decade because of the need to unite against the foreign invader, resumed. By 1949, the Communist Party emerged victorious and inaugurated the People's Republic of China under the leadership of Mao Zedong. Chang Kai-shek and the remaining nationalists fled to the island of Taiwan.

The communists soon formed a strong central government with a planned economy based on the five-year plans typical of the Soviet Union. In rural areas, the old feudal system was broken up, and land was taken from landowners and given to the peasants. This was a violent upheaval, and from 1950 to 1952, some 700,000 landlords and others designated as counterrevolutionaries were killed.

Despite the violence, during the 1950s, China made enormous strides in modernizing the backward economy, particularly by investing in heavy industry (iron, steel, machinery). During the first five-year plan, the annual industrial growth rate was 11 percent. But Mao was dissatisfied with the results, and from 1958 to 1960, he oversaw what was called the Great Leap Forward, a drastic reorganization of the economy aimed at raising production. The results were disastrous and contributed to the famine that afflicted China especially in 1960 and 1961, during which twenty million people died of starvation.

The Cultural Revolution

In 1966, the ten-year period known as the Cultural Revolution began, during which the country descended into chaos and near anarchy. The Cultural Revolution was put into motion by Mao as a way of outmaneuvering other communist leaders whom he had come to distrust. Mao also wanted to shake up the bureaucracy, which he thought was too slow in implementing reform. For this he enlisted the aid of millions of young people, mostly students, reasoning that they were not attached to the ways of the past and would generate the necessary revolutionary fervor. Mao invited these students, who were known as Red Guards, to tear down all the old structures of society. Mobs of Red Guards dressed in paramilitary uniforms traveled the countryside by train creating turmoil wherever they went. Educational and religious institutions were targeted. Teachers were beaten up by their students; factories and high schools were closed. People who were arbitrarily accused of being counterrevolutionaries were either imprisoned or executed. Millions died during the Cultural Revolution; some estimates put the deaths at between twenty-three and thirty-five million.

The Cultural Revolution was also the time when the personality cult surrounding Mao, which had been present since the 1940s, reached its most extreme form. Jonathan Spence explains in his book Mao Zedong the form the personality cult took during this time:

Every street was to have a quotation from Chairman Mao prominently displayed, and loudspeakers at every intersection and in all parks were to broadcast his thought. Every household as well as all trains and buses, bicycles and pedicabs, had to have a picture of Mao on its walls. Ticket takers on trains and buses should all declaim Mao's thought.

Mao Zedong was regarded as the embodiment of the Chinese nation, the great leader whose wisdom unerringly steered the ship of state.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1950s: According to China's census in 1953, the population of China is 583,000,000. The population rises fast as death rates fall, and birth rates are not curbed.

    1980s: In 1982, China's census reports the population to be 1,008,175,288, an increase of about 73 percent on the 1953 figure. At this time, China's population is about one-fourth of the global population.

    Today: The population of the Chinese mainland is estimated in July 2005 to be 1,306,313,812.
  • 1950s: Although population is rising rapidly, the communist government does not implement a population policy.

    1980s: China continues the population policy it instituted in the 1970s, when family planning was incorporated into the constitution. The fertility rate drops from 5.29 (children born/woman) in the 1950s to 2.63 in the 1980s. However, enforcement of the one-child policy is harsh. There are forced abortions, infanticide, and strict penalties.

    Today: The population policy remains but is less strictly enforced. Rights of women are more respected as China tries to strike a balance between population growth, human rights, and long-term social development. The fertility rate is estimated to be 1.72 in 2005.
  • 1950s: China's economy is centrally planned and for the most part is not open to international trade. China makes great strides in modernization.

    1980s: China focuses on market-oriented economic development, develops stock markets, and opens up to foreign trade and investment.

    Today: Economic reform has produced a more than ten-fold increase in China's gross domestic product since 1978. Living standards have improved dramatically. Although China remains a communist, one-party state, the private sector of the economy is growing, and China is a major participant in the global economy.

Economic Liberalization

Mao died in 1976. In the 1980s, his successor, Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997), pursued what were known as open-door economic policies, which encouraged the introduction of Western capitalistic practices to the Chinese economy. These policies were continued by Deng's successor, Zhao Ziyang (1919–2005), who became general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 1987. As a result, the Chinese economy began to prosper as never before. Annual growth rate during the 1980s was about 9.5 percent (compared to an average 3 percent annual growth in the United States), and Chinese consumers found that luxury items such as American clothes, stereos, automobiles, and washing machines were now within their reach.

Economic liberalization also produced demands for political liberalization. During 1989, there were massive pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. In early June, one such demonstration was violently suppressed. Chinese leaders sent in troops and tanks, killing hundreds, possibly thousands, of demonstrators. Many students and others were executed or imprisoned following the shootings.

Critical Overview

Li's collection of stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, in which "Immortality" appeared, was greeted with universal acclaim. Reviewers admired Li's treatment of the different ways in which Chinese people came to terms with the dramatic changes in their society during the 1990s and also her many portraits of Chinese immigrants adapting to life in the United States. Publishers Weekly calls the book "A beautifully executed debut collection…. These are powerful stories that encapsulate tidily epic grief and longing."

Many reviewers also singled out "Immortality" for comment. Fatema Ahmed in the New York Times Book Review describes it as the most ambitious story in the collection, in which Li takes the reader "on a virtuoso tour" through the turbulence of China's twentieth century history. Ahmed comments that "The collective first-person narrators, reminiscent of the bereaved neighborhood boys in Jeffrey Eugenides's novel The Virgin Suicides, are a striking symbol of endurance; like Eugenides's narrators they, too, outlive the subjects of their story."

For Rodney Welch in the Washington Post, "Immortality" is the best story in the collection. Welch writes:

The story captures 20th-century China in all of its false hopes, terrors and (speaking of violent metaphors) emasculation, and the narrative voice is perfect: It's told by an anonymous voice in the crowd—a crowd that believes what everyone believes, which is also what it is ordered to believe from on high.

In England's Guardian, Michel Faber comments on the story's "disquieting blend of realism and fable." Calling it "the most overtly artful piece" in the collection, Faber writes: "The doppelganger's career in propaganda movies is handled with deadpan humour, but we are kept off-balance by a piteous parallel narrative about imperial eunuchs and by the sheer horror of quotes from the tyrant's speeches." In the Village Voice, Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow describes "Immortality" as "eerie" and draws attention to the unusual point of view from which it is told: "[T]he first person plural, convey[s], better than any description could, a sense of community that subsumes its constituent selves."


Bryan Aubrey

Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on contemporary literature. In this essay, Aubrey discusses, first, China's traditional practice, now discarded, of employing eunuchs as imperial servants; and second, the cult of personality associated with Mao Zedong.

In its short twenty-four pages, Li's story "Immortality" manages to provide a condensed yet illuminating tour of some of the most bizarre and disturbing aspects of Chinese political culture as it hurtled from one violent change to another through the twentieth century. Much of what Li describes may strike the Western reader as strange, repellant, and sinister, and it will be no surprise that the author chose to leave her homeland and live in a society where freedom and individuality are prized more highly than passive obedience to collective authority. This essay discusses two aspects of the story that are most foreign to the American mind: first, China's practice, discarded only in the early twentieth century, of employing eunuchs as imperial servants; second, the cult of personality associated with Mao Zedong and the associated limitations of thought that are demanded in a totalitarian society.

Li's account of the role of eunuchs in China's imperial dynasties, which takes up the first four pages of "Immortality" is fact not fiction. As Mary M. Anderson explains in her book, Hidden Power: The Palace Eunuchs of Imperial China, eunuchs were an irreplaceable part of the Chinese imperial system. Since eunuchs were unable to father children and, therefore, had no sons to whom they might seek to hand down political power, it was considered that they would be completely passive and loyal to the emperor. Only eunuchs were allowed to attend the emperor and the ladies of the imperial family as well as the emperor's large harem. One of the eunuch's duties was to ensure that no male took advantage of the concubines, since it was considered essential that all the children the concubines bore were fathered by the emperor. As Li makes clear in the story, and as Anderson confirms, some eunuchs, since they were so close to the emperor, did attain positions of power and influence, as well as accumulating considerable wealth. Eunuchs were often put in charge of young princes and would make sure that they exerted as much influence as they could on the future emperor to further their own ambitions.

Eunuchs, who could easily be spotted by their high falsetto voices and characteristic walk—leaning slightly forward, taking short steps, toes turned outward—were resented by the mandarins, the elite members of the Chinese civil service, who could not attain such personal closeness to the emperor. Anderson points out that since it was the mandarins who wrote the histories of China, it is not surprising that eunuchs were presented in such histories as having exerted a bad influence on the country. Despite the bias of the mandarins, however, Anderson regards it as undeniable that the disloyalty of powerful eunuchs, particularly those who served weak emperors who mistrusted their own political advisors and, therefore, became dependent on their eunuchs for advice, did cause great harm to China in various periods of history. This, of course, is a conclusion that the humble inhabitants of the anonymous town in "Immortality," who are proud of the eunuchs they sent to the palace, would reject as malicious fabrications. They persist in referring to castration as being "cleaned," a tidy euphemism that disguises the horrific and repellant nature of the practice.

When China's last imperial dynasty was overthrown, in the early years of the twentieth century, the practice of castrating boys for the purposes of serving the nation's leaders ended. By mid-century, the most populous nation on earth had adopted communism and was determined to modernize its society and become a great power in the world. It was during these years, from the 1950s to the 1970s, that the so-called cult of personality emerged in China, associated with the towering figure of Mao Zedong. This is the period described in "Immortality" "when the dictator becomes larger than the universe in our nation."

The personality cult was a feature of twentieth century totalitarian regimes. A single leader was elevated to quasi-divine status and was presented as the great liberator of his people. His image appeared everywhere in statues and on billboards, posters, and murals in public places, for the people to contemplate. The leader was often represented in different guises, in military uniform as revolutionary hero and in civilian clothing as gentle father of the nation. His slogans and teachings were also ever-present, either accompanying the images or quoted by Party officials as well as ordinary people. Bookstores, schools, and libraries were filled with volumes of the leader's speeches and other writings. For those living in the midst of such a cult, it became almost impossible to think of their country except in terms of the indispensable leader who was the very soul of the nation. Thus in China, as Jonathan Spence explains in his book, The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and their Revolutions, 1895–1980, Mao was hailed by the masses as the "great helmsman," and little books of his sayings were distributed everywhere. When the Red Guards burned the British legation in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, they chanted that Mao was "the red, red sun in their hearts." Spence quotes a poem written by a young female textile factory worker that refers to the time when Mao saluted the marching Red Guards from the terrace of the Gate of Heavenly Peace in 1966. The poem conveys the feeling that the great man had the keys to the future in his hands: "Chairman Mao waves his hand at the Gate of Heavenly Peace; / In an instant, history has rolled away so many centuries."

China under Mao Zedong is only one example of the cult of personality. Before Mao, Joseph Stalin (1879–1953), who wielded absolute power in the Soviet Union from the 1930s until his death, established a similar cult. Stalin was regarded as virtually a demigod; numerous places in the Soviet Union were renamed after him; writers and artists were compelled to depict him in a heroic light; and schoolchildren were taught that everything valuable and good came from their great leader. As the historian Roy A. Medvedev explains, "The deification of Stalin justified in advance everything he did, everything connected with his name, including new crimes and abuses of power. All the achievements and virtues of socialism were embodied in him."

The cult of personality was designed to convince the people that the leader was kind and just and wise and did everything for the benefit of the people. Stalin was often known as "Uncle Joe," for example, which gave him a benevolent image. The truth was markedly different, though, since both Stalin and Mao were responsible for the deaths of millions of their fellow countrymen and women. But for the most part, the brainwashed masses were unable to entertain the notion that their kind and noble leader might also be a man who ordered or condoned mass murder and was indifferent to the value of human life. This was in part because in a totalitarian state the Party controls all the sources of information, so the masses know only what they are permitted to know. But in addition to this limitation, they are trained to think in certain limited grooves. If they are presented with evidence that their leaders are not quite what they seem to be, or they suspect as much, they immediately repress the thought or reinterpret the information they have received. The classic analysis of the kind of thinking that goes on in totalitarian societies was made by the English novelist and essayist George Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949 and set in Oceania, a future totalitarian society in which the cult of personality centers on the infallible, all-knowing leader known as Big Brother. In Oceania, the people are trained from an early age in what is called "crimestop," a kind of unconscious self-censorship in which a person automatically stops short of any thought that might lead in a heretical direction. Should that process break down, the result is "thoughtcrime," which is not an actual crime or any act at all, but simply a thought that does goes against the interests of the Party. Should it be discovered, a person can be arrested for thoughtcrime. In "Immortality," there is a clear example of what Orwell meant by both these terms. When the people from the town visit the memorial to the dead dictator, they see a mass of white paper flowers around the coffin, and some of them, just for a moment, wonder if the flowers are collected each night and resold the following day. But they instantly repress the thought and feel ashamed of themselves for thinking it. In other words, just as a "thoughtcrime" pops up, "crimestop" comes into play. The people have been conditioned and are now incapable of thinking a negative thought about the Party.

Other elements in "Immortality" show how the masses have had their ability to think in a rational manner blunted by the propaganda of the Party. When they discover that their beloved leader is willing to sacrifice half the population of China to American bombs, they direct their anger not at the dictator, to whom they make ostentatious displays of loyalty, but at the United States. Perhaps even more disturbingly, later, when cracks start to appear in the monolithic cult, the people seem indifferent to the dictator's crimes. Rumors circulate that fifty million may have died from famine and persecution during his reign, but when the people realize that this is less than the number of people the dictator was willing to sacrifice in a nuclear war, they say, in a matter-of-fact way, "So what is all the fuss about?" Still without the strength to call their leaders to account, they soon acquiesce and even applaud the statements of a later leader who says he is willing to sacrifice many thousands of lives in exchange for social stability. It seems that the long habit of subservience to authoritarian leaders is not an easy one to shake off.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on "Immortality," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.

Rodney Welch

In the following review, Welch calls Li's collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers "fresh, wise, and alive, creating a fascinating, horrifying and heartbreaking picture of life in a country where the past never goes away."

Yiyun Li's A Thousand Years of Good Prayers is a remarkable debut—as acute and authentic-sounding about the domestic effect of cross-cultural change in modern China as Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies was about India. Also like that book, it's one of those rare short story collections where you find yourself reading one perfectly realized gem after the next.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Li's article, "The Man Who Eats," in the New Yorker (September 6, 2004), is a memoir of her grandfather, a former member of the Chinese nationalist army and a formidable man who lived through three regimes, two world wars, two civil wars, famine, and revolution. The piece also contains much information about conditions of life in Beijing when Li was growing up in the 1970s.
  • China's Son: Growing Up in the Cultural Revolution (2001), by Da Chen, is a story of how one man's life was devastated by the Cultural Revolution. Da Chen came from a landowning family and found himself an outcast in communist China. Told that he could never become more than a poor farmer, he dropped out of school. After the death of Mao in 1976, however, he realized that a college education might still be possible for him. Working long hours, he made his dream come true, earning a place at the prestigious Beijing University.
  • The Rice Room: Growing Up Chinese-American, From Number Two Son to Rock 'n' Roll (1994) is an autobiography by Ben Fong-Torres, who was a writer and editor for Rolling Stone magazine during the 1960s. As a first-generation Chinese immigrant, Fong-Torres found himself immersed in a culture that was vastly different from the cultural heritage which his immigrant parents urged him to preserve. Fong-Torres describes his feelings of having a dual identity and how his attempt to forge a compromise between the old and the new affected all areas of his life.
  • The Chinese Century: A Photographic History of the Last Hundred Years (1996), by Jonathan Spence and Annping Chin, is a collection of rare historic photographs documenting Chinese history through the century, from the lives of the famous to the millions of anonymous ordinary citizens. There is also a supplementary text that gives some historical background for the photographs.

Li—who grew up in Beijing, came to America to study medicine and entered the Iowa Writers' Workshop after taking a master's degree in immunology from the University of Iowa—writes with the kind of brisk clarity you see in, say, the Japanese novelists Junichiro Tanizaki and Yukio Mishima. She gets down to business quickly, sketching characters with swift, deft strokes, immediately setting them off on journeys that are as compelling as they are tragic. There's a strong streak of Flannery O'Connor here, too; metaphors for life, faith and desire are realized through violence, and the often bloody fate of these characters has a richly revelatory power.

These natives and exiles of post-Mao, post-Tiananmen China are victims of tradition and change, of old barbarities and recent upheavals. Some of them have grown up singing love songs to the Communist Party—"The Party is dearer than my own mother," goes one; "My mother only gives me a body. It is the Party who gives me a soul"—and now see the influences of capitalism everywhere. Elderly people play the stock market, and young people leave for America, where cultural norms against divorce, homosexuality and abortion are far more relaxed.

Tradition, however, is as strong as ever and has a way of hunting these characters down. Nowhere is this more true than with marriage, which serves as a kind of binding theme of these stories. Li contrasts the failed unions of the young with the domestic hells of their parents, both becoming so accustomed to unhappiness that they make a culture of their own misery.

That's certainly the case with Sansan, the schoolteacher in "Love in the Marketplace," who receives an offer of marriage from Tu, the man she lost earlier to her best friend. Sansan's mother urges her to forget the past, but she refuses; she has banked her entire life on the all-or-nothing proposition of being Tu's first and only, a point she makes with bloody emphasis in a horrifying and starkly effective final scene. In "The Arrangement," a man holds his marriage together by avoiding it as much as possible—and leaving his sickly, frigid, vicious wife to the care of a long-suffering friend.

In the title story, a father tries to patch things up with his recently divorced, estranged daughter, whom he wants to see remarried. "Women in their marriageable twenties and early thirties are like lychees that have been picked from the tree," he advises her. "Each passing day makes them less fresh and less desirable, and only too soon will they lose their value, and have to be gotten rid of at a sale price." What he doesn't know is that his daughter sees through his illusions about his own life and knows what a sham his own marriage has been.

"After a Life" follows the dual stories of Mr. Su and Mr. Fong, elderly Chinese gents who meet each other at the "stockbrokerage" and are both mired in burdensome lives that go against prevailing convention. Mr. Fong uses Mr. Su to cover for an affair, which threatens to reveal the hidden secret of Mr. Su and his wife: an adult daughter with cerebral palsy, whom they keep locked away in a room for fear of revealing their shame to the neighbors. "Life is not much different from the stock market," Mr. Su thinks. "You invest in a stock and you stick, and are stuck, to the choice, despite all the possibilities of other mistakes."

"Son" vaguely calls to mind O'Connor's story "The Enduring Chill" and seems to have a touch of her faith as well; it's written with a cool objectivity that is just a shade short of openly devout. Han, living in California, returns home to China to visit his mother and discovers she has given up Marx for Jesus. Han tries to convince her that she has merely exchanged one false god for another—an argument that will not only bring terrible consequences but will force Han, who is gay, to realize that his mother is living her convictions with far more courage than he can live his own.

Several stories directly address the human costs of life under a brutal dictatorship. The best, "Immortality," follows the fate of a child who looks like Mao, which becomes first his blessing and then his curse. The story captures 20th-century China in all of its false hopes, terrors and (speaking of violent metaphors) emasculation, and the narrative voice is perfect: It's told by an anonymous voice in the crowd—a crowd that believes what everyone believes, which is also what it is ordered to believe from on high.

Each of these stories takes you to a different place, and each feels fresh, wise and alive, creating a fascinating, horrifying and heartbreaking picture of life in a country where the past never goes away.

Source: Rodney Welch, "Cultural Revolutions: A Debut Collection of Stories Explores the Complexities of Life in Modern China," in Washington Post, November 27, 2005, pp. 1-2.

Jennifer Moeller

In the following review, Moeller applauds Li's A Thousand Years of Good Prayers for its "insight into what lies at the heart of Chinese culture" and commends her talent for creating "well-realized characters."

A flight from Boston to Beijing costs $900. Yiyun Li's book, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, costs about $22. What do these two purchases have in common? Spending money on either may offer insight into what lies at the heart of Chinese culture.

Personally, I would suggest both.

My own trip to China a year ago was full of cultural exchange and understanding, but I left with a number of unanswered questions, such as, why do the Chinese stand in line with recycled paper flowers outside Mao's mausoleum to pay tribute to a man who died in 1976? What was it like to live during the Cultural Revolution? Are young Chinese moving away from their own cultural traditions and toward Western values?

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers provides context and understanding, but does not directly answer any of these questions. That's the beauty of it.

Li's writing and storytelling present the reader with the information necessary to understand each character, but leave stories open-ended enough that readers find much left to ponder.

This collection of 10 short, fictional stories examines and explores Chinese cultural phenomena such as eunuchs, the one-child policy, corruption, arranged marriages, the rise of religious fervor, and the stigma of single women, and then juxtaposes the Western-embracing youth with their traditional elders.

In all cases, Li draws neither negative nor positive conclusions. Instead, she places readers in a variety of characters' shoes for a moment in time, long enough for them to get at least a glimpse of the historical, emotional, and cultural contexts that lie beyond.

Li thus offers readers their own chance to grasp a Chinese thought process, yet still allows them to draw their own conclusions.

She does all of this subtly—almost unnoticeably so—through her well-realized characters. The book begins with Granny Lin, an old Chinese woman who has been laid off from her job as a government-owned factory worker. With no job and no pension, Granny Lin lets her friend arrange a marriage for her with an elderly widower.

Through statements like, "It does not say that Red Star Garment Factory has gone bankrupt, or that being honorably retired, Granny Lin will not receive her pension … for these facts are simply not true. 'Bankrupt' is the wrong word for a state-owned industry," Li refrains from partaking in direct political discussion.

Instead, she describes the strictly-in-denial fashion in which the Chinese government closes down a factory. The story presents a type of evasion that might surprise Westerners but is common in China.

In another story, Li explores life during the Cultural Revolution, suggesting that the people failed to grasp that the famine and suffering they experienced had anything to do with Mao's policies.

The fictional characters seem instead to believe Mao when he explains their hunger over the loudspeaker by saying, "Get rid of the sparrows and the rats; they are the thieves who stole our food and brought hunger to us."

While not directly related to each other—and without character overlap—her stories weave together easily, providing a well-rounded but fluid and thought-provoking look at Chinese society.

Growing up in Beijing, Li has captured the art of writing in a way that both explains and honors Chinese culture, while also questioning it.

In these stories, Li provides a glimpse into the oft-misunderstood lives of the Chinese people and the way their culture impacts their thoughts and decisions. Although based in fiction, Li's frequent allusions to actual historical events made me wonder if her tales explains what it was actually like to live in Zhong Guo.

Part of Chinese culture and tradition includes speaking in euphemisms and avoiding blunt confrontation that would incur the loss of 'face.'

This respectful tone of conversation employed by Li throughout A Thousand Years of Good Prayers provides a natural and genuinely Chinese feel to her writing—even as her stories cleverly question every aspect of tradition.

This is Li's skill, to delicately maintain balance, justifying tradition and contradicting it at the same time through her fictional account of the Chinese people's perspective and reaction to past and present.

In her last story, an older Chinese gentleman visiting his daughter in America says to a friend, "'That we get to meet and talk to each other—it must have taken a long time of good prayers to get us here'."

Although I never sat down with Yiyun Li or any of the book's fictional characters, reading A Thousand Years of Good Prayers gave me a better understanding—even if only a fictional one—of my neighbors across the globe.

Source: Jennifer Moeller, "A Glimpse into China's Heart," in Christian Science Monitor, October 11, 2005, p. 16.


Ahmed, Fatema, Review of A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, in New York Times Book Review, October 23, 2005, p. 17.

Anderson, Mary M., Hidden Power: The Palace Eunuchs of Imperial China, Prometheus, 1990, pp. 15-18, 307-11.

Faber, Michel, Review of A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, in Guardian (London), January 7, 2006, p. 16.

Medvedev, Roy A., Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism, edited by David Joravsky and Georges Haupt, translated by Colleen Taylor, Alfred A. Knopf, 1972, p. 362.

Orwell, George, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Harcourt, Brace, 1949, pp. 213, 236.

Review of A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 252, No. 26, June 27, 2005, pp. 39-40.

Spence, Jonathan, The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolutions, 1895–1980, Viking, 1981, pp. 343, 346, 350.

――――――, Mao Zedong, Viking, 1999, pp. 163-64.

Thompson, Bob, "Will Her Words Fail Her? Immigration Officials Snub Literary Sensation Yiyun Li despite Her Peers' Praise," in Washington Post, December 21, 2005, p. C01.

Tuhus-Dubrow, Rebecca, "How Soon Is Mao? Li's Fiction Debut Is China by Way of Iowa," in Village Voice, October 31, 2005.

Welch, Rodney, "Cultural Revolutions: A Debut Collection of Stories Explores the Complexities of Life in Modern China," in Washington Post, November 27, 2005, p. BW07.

Yiyun Li, "Immortality," in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, Random House, 2005, pp. 44-67.

Further Reading

Casserly, Jack, The Triumph at Tiananmen Square, ASJA Press, 2005.

This is a vivid, eyewitness account by a veteran American news reporter of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Casserly also provides an account of the transformation of China in the 1980s and 1990s into a nation that manages to combine communism with free-market economics.

Li Zhisui, The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs of Mao's Personal Physician, translated by Professor Tai Hung-chao, with the editorial assistance of Anne F. Thurston, Random House, 1994.

This book is referred to in "Immortality." Li was Mao's physician for thirty years, and in this book he describes Mao's private life, including his medical conditions, such as his dependence on barbiturates, his sexual contacts with young women even when he was an old man, and many other revelations. The memoir makes an intimate but entirely unflattering portrait of a man whom Li regards as a tyrant with a callous disregard for human life.

Terrill, Ross, Mao: A Biography, Harper & Row, 1980.

This very readable biography does justice to Mao's status as one of the most powerful leaders of the twentieth century. Terrill also discusses Mao's personal and political failings but does not demonize him in the way Li Zhisui does.

Yiyun Li, "What Has That to Do with Me?" in Gettysburg Review, Vol. 16, No. 2, Summer 2003, (accessed May 3, 2006).

Using the point of view of a five-year-old girl in day care, Li tells the story of a nineteen-year-old girl who expressed doubts about Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution. The girl was arrested and imprisoned for ten years before being executed in 1978. Li links the story to her own experience growing up in Beijing.


views updated May 17 2018


The doctrine that the human soul is immortal and will continue to exist after man's death and the dissolution of his body is one of the cornerstones of Christian philosophy and theology. Because of its importance, it is treated here from four different points of view: first the history of the problem in ancient and medieval thought is sketched; then a philosophical analysis is given that relates the doctrine to modern thought; thirdly, the place the teaching holds in the Bible is indicated; and finally revelational data pertinent to the doctrine are presented and analyzed.

1. History of the Problem

When the Apologists and early Fathers presented Christianity to the Greeks, the Last Judgment formed part of their message. Since this doctrine implied the survival and immortality of the soul, they appealed to the poets and philosophers and general tradition of Greek thought in support of belief in immortality. Later, the scholastics preferred to make use of Plato or principles from Aristotle.

Ancient Thought. Despite a generally materialist concept of soul, all ancient peoples seem to have had some belief that a part of man survives the death of the body and is subjected to reward or punishment in another world. An exception may be found in those pantheistic religions which taught an absorption at death, at least for the virtuous, into some higher entitye.g., Brahmanism, daoism, perhaps ancient buddhism, and certainly more

than one Greek tradition, as in Euripides. In Egypt, the myth of Osiris and the 42 judges, together with the care lavished upon the dead (because the survival depended on the preservation of the body); in Persia, the cult of Mithra as judge of the dead; and in Greece, the myths of Homer, such as the descent of Ulysses into Hades (Odyssey 11), orphism and the cult of Dionysos, the theme of escape to the Isles of the Blessed, and the myths of transmigration related by Plato are all tenuous examples sometimes advanced of more positive beliefs. Yet one may reasonably doubt whether such traditions touched the daily lives of ordinary people. Immortality of fame or even of posterity seems to have been a more prevalent ideal (cf. Plato, Symp. 206E209E).

It is rather in the philosophers that the Fathers found support for the message of Christianity. pythagoras and empedocles, cited by Saint Justin (Apol. 1.18.5), both teach the survival and transmigration of the soul, which for them is made from heavenly particles of ether. Yet the doctrine is less philosophical than religious, and may have been borrowed from Orphism. The thought of socrates, who left no writings, is probably that expressed in Plato's Apology: that some "divine element" in him makes him believe death is no evil; he hopes it is a good, though he has no proof of this.

Platonic doctrine, often cited by the Fathers, is clearcut and positive. The soul, for plato a self-moving principle, is ungenerated and eternal; it has existed before the body, to which it is united by way of punishment for some fault, and will therefore survive it. To be without the body is indeed the natural and proper state of the soul, though Plato admits transmigrations and future unions should the soul not attain full purification in this life (Phaedo 81). A series of arguments is offered in the Phaedo based on reminiscence or recollection (Phaedo 7277; Meno 8186; Theaet. 150B151D), the simplicity and spirituality of the soul, its likeness to the divine (Phaedo 7880) and, by contrast, its loose union with the body (87B88C), and its likeness to, and participation in, the Ideas (99D105C), especially in the Idea of life (105D). Yet Plato himself, in accordance with his theory of knowledge (cf. Tim. 29C), seems to admit that these arguments give no more than a "likely account" because of "the greatness of the subject and the weakness of man" (Phaedo 107A). For Christian thinkers, Plato's position was sometimes considered dangerous, since it implied not only the preexistence of soul but also a certain divine character attaching to it.

The same must be said of the early Aristotelian teaching in On Philosophy, Eudemus, and other dialogues, since Aristotle first saw the soul as something divine, sojourning on earth and longing to return to its natural state of separate existence. When, however, he attained the maturity of his thought in the De anima, he had long since abandoned such Platonic dualism. As entelechy of the body, the soul is distinguished from the body as act from potency. Aristotle concedes that "mind may be capable of existing apart, as what is eternal from what is corruptible" (413b 2527); and in the Metaphysics he grants that "there is nothing to prevent some form surviving the union with the body; the soul, for example, may be of this sort, not all soul, but the reason" (1070a 2528). In another text only the "active reason" is said to be immortal and eternal because it alone is by nature impassible and simple (Anim. 430a 2025). Since this obscure passage has given rise to greatly divergent interpretations, one cannot conclude from it that Aristotle explicitly taught a personal immortality.

The explicit negation of immortality in the earthbound atomism of democritus is repeated by epicurus. Since for these thinkers the soul as well as the body is composed of atoms, it dissolves at death: "So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing for us: for as long as we exist, death is not with us; and when death comes, then we do not exist" (Epist. 3). Though, at the other extreme, stoicism made the soul a spark from the Eternal Fire, a particle of God, and spoke of it as immortal, individual Stoics were never agreed whether the separated soul retained its own existence or was absorbed into the monistic Fire.

If Christianity roughly disposed of these philosophies (cf. Augustine, Serm. 150, Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne, 38:80714), it found neoplatonism more tempting. Yet it soon realized that the immortality proposed therein, though of a spiritual and intellective soul of "the same species as the gods" (Plotinus, Enn. 5.1.2), was not greatly different from that of Stoicism. Souls came from Soul, the third of Plotinus's divine hypostases, and yet were never quite separate from it. They would return to it after a good life on earth (Enn. 4.3.24) and make but one Soul, to the point of having no individual identity. Fundamental to such a doctrine, Augustine points out, is the argument that nothing can be immortal unless it has existed eternally (Civ. 10.31).

If Greek philosophy thus favors rather than denies immortality, it has no clear conception or proof of such a doctrine. Given indeed the whole framework of Greek thought on God and His relation to the world (as in Aristotle), a doctrine of personal immortality has relatively little meaning or importance to the Greek mind.

Patristic Teaching. Even when it used the dualistic language of the Greek world, patristic thought recognized that man is not a soul that has descended to the body as to an alien dwelling, but is a living whole created as such by God and called in body and soul to the resurrection and to eternal life (Pseudo-Justin, De resurrectione 8, Patrologia Graeca, ed. J. P. Migne, 6:1585). Yet some early Fathers were persuaded that the soul was mortal by nature but could become immortal by good works, or, as others preferred to stress, by union with the Spirit of God, a teaching they thought to find in Saint Paul. Thus, in writing that "immortality is not the consequence of nature, but the reward and prize of virtue," Lactantius (Div. instit. 7.5) repeats a thought expressed before him by Justin and Tatian. Yet these same Fathers claimed that the wicked are to live on, to receive "the punishment of death in immortality" (Tatian, Discurs. 13). Such imprecision was abolished by augustine, with his distinction between physical and moral immortality (Civ. 13.2; C. Maximin. 2.12.2; Serm. 65 46).

Again, under the influence of the Jewish belief in Sheol, the parable of Dives and Lazarus, Christ's descent into hell, millenarianism, and sometimes in reaction to Gnosticism, most of the early Fathers posited a period of rest and even of "sleep" for souls between death and the general resurrection. The wicked, they generally admitted, were immediately subjected to some intermediate punishment; but of the just, only the martyrs were, according to irenaeus, tertullian, and even Augustine, admitted immediately to the beatific vision (cf. Augustine, Retract. 1.14, Patrologia Latina 32:606).

Very few Fathers attempt lengthy rational proofs for immortality. Tertullian suggests a reason from simplicity (De anim. 14); lactantius, from the moral order (Div. instit. 7.89). Augustine, who knew the Phaedo at least indirectly, preferred to formulate his own, from the indestructibility of truth (Soliloq. 2.19.33) and of the thinking subject (Immort. anim. 11.18). Neither proof is very convincing; both works show the incomplete development of his thought shortly after his conversion. His later works offer only one new argument, from incorporeality (Gen. ad litt. 7.28.43). More philosophical is Gregory of Nyssa's approach in Macrinia, a Christian adaptation of the Phaedo, where one finds a long proof based on the simplicity of the soul and the immateriality of its intellectual operations (Patrologia Graeca 46:4449). nemesius of emesa recalls that Plato and others offer many arguments, but they are difficult and obscure; man's assurance is rather from Sacred Writ (De nat. homin. 2, Patrologia Graeca 40:589). Saint Bonaventure repeats Nemesius's words almost literally (Opera omnia 6:37).

Scholasticism. Interest in a philosophical demonstration of immortality was awakened in 12th- and 13th-century scholasticism by the De immortalitate animae of dominic gundisalvi composed at Toledo after 1150. A century later the question became acute as scholastics recognized that Averroës and Moses maimonides denied personal immortality. Still later, the value of such philosophical proofs was subjected to much debate, which carried over into the Renaissance.

Besides theological arguments from the justice of God, Gundisalvi proposed a whole series of demonstrations ex propriis, from the proper nature, activities, properties, and relations of the soul. His arguments, many drawn from Avicenna, others based on Aristotelian principles of being, become almost standard among such scholastics as Robert of Melun, William of Auvergne, Alexander of Hales, Philip the Chancellor, and John of La Rochelle. Yet with the expansion of the university programs, the schoolmen began to develop more original arguments and to probe such questions as the status and activity of the separated soul. The proofs offered varied from theologian to theologian. Saint bonaventure considered the final end of man the most apt means of establishing the doctrine (Opera omnia 2:460), a proof that is primarily theological. Saint thomas aquinas, improving considerably on the philosophical proofs of Gundisalvi, found immortality a consequence of the spirituality and substantiality of the soul. The intellectual operations prove the soul is a spiritual subsistent being, which is subject to no type of corruptibility. Only secondarily did Aquinas advance as a proof man's universal desire or appetite for immortality, or appeal to God's will not to take from things what is proper to their natures (Summa theologiae 1a, 75.6; De anim. 14; C. gent. 2.55, 79). The metaphysical proofs were called into question by John duns scotus; not indeed denied, any more than Scotus denied immortality itself, but not accepted as valid philosophical demonstrations; for immortality man has only probable reasons (Opus Ox. Not all Scotists accepted this viewpoint; William of Alnwick directly attacked it as extreme [Gregorianum 30 (1949) 279289]. The Latin Averroists, for quite other reasons, held that no rational proof was possible; their discussions filled the late Middle Ages at Bologna and Padua. The debate was renewed with Donato's translation (Venice 1495) of the first book of Alexander of Aphrodisias' De anima and the teachings of P. pomponazzi and others. Cardinal Tommaso de Vio cajetan was drawn into the question and led to change his opinion. If in his commentaries on Saint Thomas (1507) and Aristotle (1509) he was sure that immortality could be proved, by 1532 he had reached the conclusion that it was a matter of faith only, though supported by probable arguments. The controversy continued through much of the 16th century.

Bibliography: a. j. festugiÈre, L'Idéal religieux des Grecs et l'Évangile (Paris 1932). f. cumont, Lux perpetua (Paris 1949), to be read with caution. j. daniÉlou, Message évangélique et culture hellénistique aux IIe et IIIe siècles (Tournai 1961). m. schmaus, "Die Unsterblichkeit der Seele und die Auferstehung des Leibes nach Bonaventura," L'Homme et son destin, d'après les penseurs des moyen âge (Congrès international de philosophie médiévale 1; Louvain 1960) 50519. s. vanni rovighi, L'immortalità dell'anima nei maestri francescani del secolo XIII (Milan 1936). e. verga, "L'immortalità dell'anima nel pensiero del Card. Gaetano," Rivista di filosofica neoscolastica 27 supplement (1935) 2146. r. m. martin, "L'Immortalité de l'âme d'après Robert de Melun," Revue néo-scolastique de philosophie 36 (1934) 12845.

[i. c. brady]

2. Philosophical Analysis

Immortality means immunity from death, or unceasing duration of life. It differs from eternity in that the latter implies no beginning. Here it means that the human spiritual soul will endure forever, regardless of biological death or subsequent resurrection of the body. It does not mean mere temporary revival after apparent death or continuation of some functions for a short time. Nor does it mean metaphorical immortality by continued existence in the memory of mankind or as a symbol. Lastly, it does not mean absorption into the eternal existence of God or transmigration into another being. Immortality means actual continued existence in one's own identity.

Arguments for Immortality. Three chief arguments are usually given for the immortality of the human soul: one from its nature, another from its unlimited spiritual capacities, and a third from the necessity of a future sanction for the moral order. Claims of contact with the spirits of the dead, through spiritualist mediums and the like, are, at best, evidence of some future life but not of strict immortality.

Nature of the Soul. Of its nature the human soul is incorruptible. Being simple, it lacks any spatial or constitutive parts into which it can break up. Being spiritual, at the death of the body it is not subject to corruption incidental to any intrinsic dependence on matter, for its spiritual operations of intellection and volition show it to have only extrinsic dependence on matter (see soul, human 4; spirit). The only way it could cease to exist is by annihilation, the failure of God as First Cause to conserve it in being. But for God to annihilate what He has made immortal by nature would be inconsistent and unreasonable, a contradiction of His own design. Such an imperfection is impossible to God.

Capacities of the Soul. The argument for immortality from the soul's unlimited capacities is sometimes called the argument from desire; but one might desire many things and not get them, or one might not consciously desire immortality. It argues rather from the very nature of man's two highest powers to the conclusion that he is made to live forever, whether he desires it or not. The intellect can know whatever is or can be, all that is intelligible. This unlimited capacity for truth sets up in man an insatiable curiosity. The will has a corresponding capacity for unlimited goodness. However much it may possess, it can always want further. True, one may rightly expect a reasonable amount of happiness in this life, but even those who claim to be quite content are capable of having much more.

Now these unlimited capacities of intellect and will can never be fully satisfied in this life, or with anything less than an eternity with God. Only when the intellect can explore the inexhaustible intelligibility of Infinite Truth will curiosity be sated. Only when the will possesses the infinite goodness and beauty of Goodness Itself will it rest content. But it is absurd that in a universe where other things reach their natural goals, for the most part and with admitted exceptions, only man should be necessarily and completely frustrated in achieving the end for which he was designed. If the human soul is not immortal, it means that no man achieves his end, that the entire species is aimed at a nonexistent goal.

It is true that some people may not attain God and thus may miss their end. This possibility is the inevitable consequence of free choice. But they do so by their own agency, not because their end was impossible of achievement.

Moral Sanctions. Lastly, one may infer the logical necessity of a life after death from the fact that people generally experience moral obligation and a sense of responsibility. The question is whether this widespread phenomenological fact has any validity if the soul is not immortal. In an orderly universe it is preposterous that disorder would reign only in the case of man. Yet one sees people trying to do what they think right, and receiving no reward in this life. Others, who commit crime, go unpunished; and still others are punished unjustly for crimes they did not commit. Moral values, a sense of obligation, and responsibility find no adequate sanction in this life. Unless there is a life after death in which wrongs will be righted and people receive what they deserve, the whole notion of obligation seems irrational.

Some scholastic philosophers claim that this last argument proves that there will be some future life, but not that it will last forever. Others disagree, for the reason that a sanction that is not everlasting is not adequate ultimately. If the good knew that heaven would eventually cease, they would be tempted to feel that a virtuous life is not worth the effort. Likewise, if the bad knew that they would be freed no matter what they did or how severe the punishment was, it would mean that in the end everybody would be the same; so the difference between moral and immoral would become zero eventually, and mere expediency would become at least as reasonable as obligation. Only immortality provides adequate sanction.

Conditions of Afterlife. It is argued that the existence of the immortal soul after death of the body would be meaningless because the soul would be without its proper operation, viz, perceptual knowing or understanding derived from sense. It is true that without some special supernatural aid the human intellect will be unable to know singular material objects or acquire further knowledge of the physical universe. But there seems to be no intrinsic impossibility of knowing spiritual realities, for they are intelligible and the intellect is spiritual. God, angels, one's own, and other human souls would thus be known without need of the senses. Again, habitual knowledge is stored in the intellect by way of habit. The use of this and the acquisition of other knowledge does seem to call for extra help on the part of God to substitute for the role played by sense knowledge when the soul is joined to matter. But although one does not know exactly how, there seems to be no absurdity in this possibility because matter has only an extrinsic and subordinate part in human intellection. Even God could not supply for sense if matter entered intrinsically and necessarily into the activity of the intellect. But since it does not, it seems legitimate to assume that He will somehow provide the necessary conditions for man's intellect to function (Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 1a, 75.6 ad 13; 89.18).

If its highest powers are satisfied, the soul's happiness will be essentially achieved. It will be too absorbed in enjoying God to be distracted by any desire for bodily pleasures, for God contains all such pleasures equivalently and to a supereminent degree. Failure to grasp the essential nature of the future life causes people to claim they do not desire heaven because they imagine it an eternity of harp playing, instead of the enjoyment of God as Infinite Truth and Goodness. Any other objects or persons or the lack thereof are so minor as to be negligible.

As to maintaining one's personal identity when the soul is no longer united with matter, a soul is not any human soul but is identifiable as the soul that united with matter to form this person in a certain place at a certain time. This is historically and irrevocably true. Even after separation by death, for all eternity the human soul retains this transcendental relation to the composite who was this man and no other. (see metempsychosis.)

See Also: soul, human, origin of.

Bibliography: thomas aquinas, Summa theologiae 1, 75.2, 6; 89; 1a2ae, 85.6; C. gent. 2.55, 7982; De anim. 14. m. j. adler, ed., The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, 2 v. (Chicago 1952) 1:784804. e. peillaube, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190350) 1.1:102141. m. t. coconnier, Dictionnaire apologétique de la foi catholique, ed. a. d'lÈs, 4 v. (Paris 191122) 1:86107. a. vacant, Dictionnaire de la Bible, ed. f. vigouroux, 5 v. (Paris 18951912) 1:45373. m. c. d'arcy, Death and Life (London 1942). a. e. taylor, The Christian Hope of Immortality (New York 1947); Faith of a Moralist (London 1951). m. maher, Psychology (9th ed. New York 1921) 52544. j. e. royce, Man and His Nature (New York 1961) 32136. r. verardo, "Il problema dell'immortalità," Sapienza 2 (1949) 283309, esp. 294. w. e. hocking, The Meaning of Immortality in Human Experience (New York 1957). r. a. falconer, The Idea of Immortality and Western Civilization (Cambridge, Massachusetts 1930). c. lamont, The Illusion of Immortality (3d ed. New York 1959), strong but often confused case against immortality. a. montagu, Immortality (New York 1955), dismisses personal immortality as wishful thinking; takes advantage of the fact that scholastic arguments are sometimes poorly put.

[j. e. royce]

3. In the Bible

When we speak of the immortality of the soul in the Bible, we must clearly distinguish between the general notion of survival after death and the Platonic idea of specific survival of an immaterial principle after death.

Survival of Soul. The notion of the soul surviving after death is not readily discernible in the Bible. The concept of the human soul itself is not the same in the Old Testament as it is in Greek and modern philosophy, and the Hebrew OT has its own idea of a future life (see afterlife, 2). Immortality, άθανασία, has no Hebrew equivalent in the Masoretic Text and occurs only five times in the Septuagint (LXX), all in the Book of Wisdom. The adjective άθάνατος occurs once in Wisdom (1.15), where it modifies justice, and perhaps twice in Sirach. The substantive occurs only three times in the New Testament: 1 Timothy 6.16 speaks of the immortality of the Lord of lords; and 1 Corinthians 15.5354 speak of mortal nature putting on immortality. The closely allied concept of incorruptibility, άφθαρσία, occurs a little more frequently in the Epistles of Paul (see 1 Cor 15.42, 50, 53, 54), but only twice in Wisdom (2.23; 6.19).

Moreover, although the LXX renders it as ψυχή, the Hebrews nepeš is a term of far greater extension than our "soul," signifying life (Ex 21.23; Dt 19.21) and its various vital manifestations: breathing (Gn 35.18; Job 41.13), blood [Gn 9.4; Dt 12.23; Ps 140 (141).8], desire (2 Sm3.21; Prv 23.2). The soul in the Old Testament means not a part of man, but the whole manman as a living being. Similarly, in the New Testament it signifies human life: the life of an individual, conscious subject (Mt 2.20; 6.25; Lk 12.2223; 14.26; Jn 10.11, 15, 17; 13.37; Acts 27.10, 22; Phil 2.30; 1 Th 2.8). Consequently, for the Israelite, man dies when his nepeš leaves him (Gn 35.18; 2 Sm 1.9; 1 Kgs 17.21), and death is somehow a diminution of life, a loss of life. The New Testament remains faithful to this understanding of death (Mt 16.25; 20.28; 1 Jn 3.16). Hence, save for a few important examples (Wis; Mk 8.35; Mt 10.39; 16.2526; Lk 9.2425; Jn 12.25) where life is seen as a necessary condition for eternal blessings, the Bible does not speak of the survival of an immaterial soul. This is not surprising if one considers that categories of Greek philosophy are not likely to be found in a Semitic corpus of literature.

Survival after Death. A general notion of survival after death is found, however, both in the Old Testament and New Testament. In examining the evidence, a distinction between the fact of survival and its mode is useful. The fact, stated negatively, is that in neither Testament is death regarded as an absolute end to all life, as a total annihilation. Such passages as Gn 42.13; Job7.21; Psalms 38(39).14; and Jeremiah 31.15 speak of "being no more" with regard to earthly existence, not existence as such. Survival after death is attested to in the Old Testament by the burial of the dead (Gn 23.120) and the desire to be buried with one's own (Gn 47.2931;49.29); especially by the belief in an abode for the dead (sheol, hades, the "nether world") as in Numbers 16.30, 33; Job 7.9; 14.13; Psalms 29(30).4; Hosea 13.14; Isaiah 5.14; 14.9; by some prayers in the Psalter, which possibly indicate a desire for a vital afterlife [Ps 6; 7; 29(30).910; 87]; and by a growing sense of the divine justice that will punish the persecutor and crown with glory the works of the suffering just [Ps 9A.18, 19;15(16).10; especially the late wisdom Ps 33(34).2023].

On the other hand, the mode of survival after death is extremely confused in its inception, but gains greater clarity with the approach to New Testament times, receiving in some quarters (e.g., the tenets of the Essenes as related by Flavius Josephus in The Jewish War 2.8) a formulation distinctly Hellenistic. The confusion is owing to the imperfect state of Biblical anthropology, to the lack of sufficient revelational data on the subject, and to the prevalent Hebrew mentality that regarded the permanence of the community as more fundamental than that of the individual. Hence, there is an ardent desire for progeny and a curse attached to sterility in Genesis 30.1; 1 Samuel 1.5; Isaiah 4.1; 47.9; Jeremiah 18.21; Hosea9.12; and Luke 1.25. Moreover, the lot of the evil and the good who died remained for a long time in the Hebrew mind the same lot in Sheol (see Smith, ch. 3, 8).

A succession of national tragedies and the sufferings endured by the just on earth brought about a deeper reflection upon the specific lot of each individual after death. Here the wisdom of Israel's scribes achieved greater precision concerning the afterlife. It reached its apogee shortly before our era in the Book of Wisdom. Although Wisdom's formulation of the doctrine of immortality is still disputed by exegetes, it seems likely that "the whole Book has at its basis the conviction that the soul survives after death," while "the immortality of which the author speaks is never the immortality which the soul has of its very nature" (Weisengoff, 109110).

Is the New Testament more explicit on the point? Recent exegetes [Cullmann, Immortality of the Soul; see J. Coppens in Ephemerides theologicae Lovanienses 33 (1957) 37273; J. Levie in Nouvelle revue théologique 80 (1958) 53738; and P. Benoit in Revue biblique 65 (1958) 14748] have maintained that the New Testament does not teach the immortality of the soul in the Hellenistic sense of survival of an immaterial principle after death. This does not mean that the doctrine is denied there; but it does emphasize that the ultimate solution to the problem is to be found not so much in philosophical speculation as in the supernatural gift of the Resurrection.

Bibliography: g. kittel, Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament (Stuttgart 1935 ) 2:84453, 85758; 3:721. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 50810, 53236, 105254, 134749, 2196, 228690. c. r. smith, The Bible Doctrine of the Hereafter (London 1958). j. p. weisengoff, "Death and Immortality in the Book of Wisdom," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 3 (1941) 10433. o. cullmann, Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? (New York 1958).

[s. b. marrow]

4. Revelational Data

The immortality of the human soul is a truth that has always been asserted by professing Christians. It was taken for granted by both sides at the Reformation. As examples of this one can recall John Calvin's use of the arguments from moral consciousness and the way Saint Thomas More in his Utopia made public denial of this truth punishable by death. René Descartes illustrates how philosophers who are Christians have tried to find a place for immortality in their systems. It is because of this agreement that the official Church pronouncements are few.

A Theological Issue. Since the immortality of the soul is a truth that is to some extent attested by reason as well as by faith, Catholic apologists have always been ready to demonstrate the reasonableness of the teaching of revelation. But, valuable as these arguments have been, one must remember that for Catholic theology the immortality of the soul is not primarily a philosophical problem. The theologian must begin with the fact of man's restoration through Christ to a share in the divine life (see elevation of man). This is the "life everlasting" of the early creeds. God alone is truly immortal and incorruptible by nature; He is the eternal one who transcends the categories of space and time. But man is made in the image and likeness of God, and by the free gift of eternal life he finds his fulfillment in a sharing in the intimate life of God. The immortality of the soul is bound up with the immortality of God and the life of grace. Consequently in the first Christian writers one does not find arguments from reason concerning the immortality of the soul but rather the proclamation that God through Christ has called man to a life of happiness that will never end. It begins here in the new life one receives in Baptism, but it will reach its fulness only at the parousia, when the resurrection of the flesh takes place. The gaze of the early Fathers is fixed on entrance into the full possession of immortality so that the life everlasting is to be associated with the resurrection of the flesh; it concerns the destiny of the whole of man Sometimes this stress on the gratuitous nature of immortality and the desire to distinguish it from a merely natural quality of the soul led Christian writers to deny that the soul is immortal by nature. Irenaeus was so conscious of the supernatural life of the soul as union with God that he opposed the Gnostic idea of a natural immortality.

God's original plan was that this God-directed terrestrial life would prolong itself into eternity, but as a result of the sin of Adam this life was lost and death ensued. Death in the theological sense is the loss of this eternal life, of the sharing in the divine nature. This loss is manifested to man by the death of the body. This dissolution of man's being is but a symbol of his separation from God that is due to his sin. Saint Augustine develops this line of thought, and in this he is simply following the teaching of Saint John. But Christ conquered death insofar as He brought back to men true life, union with God in grace. The death of the body still remains for men, but now it no longer signifies their final separation from God. It is now the means of union with Him. It is the way to sanctification, since men have to follow Christ through death to resurrection. One dies only to rise with Christ. This changed attitude to death is seen in many of the early catacomb paintings in which the figures of Jonas, Daniel, and the children in the fiery furnace show one that death does not conflict with the hope of immortality.

Yet death of the body is an overwhelming fact of human experience, and despite the claims of spiritualism one has no sure sensible evidence of survival. One knows from faith that there is a life beyond the grave and knows further that this is a survival of the individual in the sense that there is a continuity between this life and the next. This is brought home by the Scripture teaching on retribution. In the next life one will be rewarded or punished as he has lived in this life: Romans 2.7; Matthew 25.3446. A just retribution demands the permanent existence of the subject. It was to safeguard this truth that the Church spoke out at the Fifth Lateran Council in 1513 (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer, 1440) and affirmed the survival of the individual soul. The teaching of Averroës that there is one common intellect for all mankind was thus rejected. It was not that the Church was particularly interested in Averroism as such, but only insofar as this doctrine endangered the idea of individual responsibility (see averroism, latin).

Theology Looks at Rational Arguments. And so the theologian starts his reflections with what revelation teaches about man's share in the everlasting life of God that begins at Baptism and will continue into the next life. However, the Church has always insisted that reason has a contribution to make to the question of immortality. The apologists of the 2d and 3d centuries were quick to seize on those aspects of Greek thought that could be made to show that the Christian message was not at complete variance with man's desires and thoughts on this subject. Tertullian in his De anima gave a fairly full treatment of the soul, and Lactantius made use of some of the arguments of Plato and other pagan authors in favor of immortality. However, the use of reason in this matter can never be completely satisfactory, and many of the pagan philosophers held to a view of immortality that involved a preexistence of the soul, i.e., before this earthly life. Irenaeus was aware of this danger and distrusted the Gnostic's arguments from reason; but Origen, who was much more susceptible to rational argument, was led to the opinion that souls did indeed preexist and were put into bodies as a punishment for sins committed in a previous life. This view was partly motivated by a desire to show that the sorrows of this life are not an argument against the justice of God. There was a reason for suffering. This idea of his met with general opposition. Methodius explicitly rejected it, and later, under Pope Vigilius in 543, this view of the Origenists was condemned (Enchiridion symbolorum 403). In the early 16th century when disputes arose in Italy concerning the true interpretation of Aristotle on the nature of the soul, the Fifth Lateran Council, already referred to, defended its immortality as not being contrary to reason and required teachers at universities to make clear to students of philosophy what the Christian view on this matter is (Enchiridion symbolorum 144041, but for full text see Conciliorum oecumenicorum decreta 58182).

This of course does not rule out the view of those theologians who follow Duns Scotus and Cajetan and allow only a probable probative force to the arguments from reason when taken in isolation from the facts of revelation. In more recent years (1844) it has been stated against Bautain that reason can prove the immortality of the soul, although there has been no indication of what the actual proof is (Enchiridion symbolorum 2766). Nowadays this fact is taken for granted (cf. Pius XI, Divini Redemptoris; Enchiridion symbolorum 3771).

Immortality of the Damned. The problem of the eternity of Hell is also connected with the immortality of the soul. From time to time there has recurred the idea of a conditional immortality. That is, survival after death is conditional on conformity with God's law and wishes. Against the Gnostics Irenaeus said that the soul is not immortal by nature, but it can become immortal if it lives according to God's law. Arnobius the Elder also held this view; it implies that the damned are not in fact called to immortality. In their eagerness to point out the salvific significance of immortality, that it is a gratuitous gift and is intended to benefit man, some writers, such as Justin and Tatian, tended to favor the idea that the souls of the wicked died or were annihilated (thanatopsychism). They did not fully appreciate that the eternal death of which the Apocalypse speaks, i.e., being cut off from God forever, does involve some sort of immortality, although not the immortality intended by God. They did not pay sufficient attention to the fact that man's conduct here on earth decides his lot forever, not only in the sense that he can earn eternal reward but in the sense that he can also earn eternal damnation.

Intermediate State. Some of the most difficult problems from both the philosophical and theological viewpoints arise in connection with the intermediate state between death and final resurrection. The first-generation Christians faced the problem concerning the state of those who die when they began to recognize that the Parousia would be delayed. Saint Paul himself seems to have changed his emphasis. In the earlier Epistles, for example, Thessalonians, he looked forward to the Parousia, although he had already to meet the objection as to what happens to those who die before this event. But in his later writings he sees the probability of his own death before the Lord's coming, and he says something about those who are already dead. In Philippians 1.2326 he tells of their union with Christ, a union much fuller than anything achieved on this earth, although it is not yet the glory of the resurrection. In the 14th century the discussions about the nature of the human soul led finally to the question concerning immediate retribution at death. John XXII in two sermons before he became pope expressed the view that no full reward or punishment would be given until the last day. The social character of retribution was uppermost in his mind, and perhaps the Aristotelian notion of man as a complete entity of body and soul and not a soul imprisoned in a body also created a difficulty in explaining the intermediate state. But in Benedict XII's constitution benedictus deus (Enchiridion symbolorum 100002) it is laid down that the beatific vision is given before the resurrection and also eternal punishment. This doctrine about the particular judgment is repeated in the Council of Florence (Enchiridion symbolorum 130406).

But there still remains a difficulty in understanding this state. It is a greater one for those of an Aristotelian or Semitic turn of mind who consider man as being truly man only when he is body and soul, a totality. It is difficult to see how there can be a full reward if man is essentially incomplete and how the resurrection of the body can add something that is only accidental. The capabilities of the separated soul have exercised the ingenuity of Catholic thinkers, but perhaps there has been too much consideration of the problem in terms of the nature of the soul and not sufficient attention paid to the element of time. Death is a transitus, a going over, to a new order of reality; and man enters a world where the time differences are transcended. To speak of a resurrection in the future would not have the same connotations for thedeparted as it has for those here on earth.

This problem has become increasingly prominent as the tendency has been away from a Platonic view of the soul as being a complete entity in itself and toward a Semitic notion of man. This has brought a deeper appreciation of the resurrection of the body. But one must not see the resurrection of the body as a truth that is in opposition to the immortality of the soul. O. Cullmann revived the idea that at death the soul enters into a state of unconsciousness or sleep until the resurrection. This was rightly criticized by Biblical scholars as being contrary to the teaching of the Gospel of Saint Luke and the Epistles of Saint Paul. The references to death as a sleep in early Church documents are not to be taken as a denial of consciousness beyond the grave, but as a natural metaphor for death. Moreover, the Benedictus Deus and Catholic teaching on purgatory rule out such a view. Likewise the view of J. Héring as to the possibility of reconciling a doctrine of reincarnation with that of the resurrection seems to be doomed to failure from a Catholic point of view, since the good and the wicked receive their final reward "soon after death" (Enchiridion symbolorum 100102).

See Also: death (theology of); destiny, supernatural; eschatology, articles on; heaven (theology of); hell (theology of); judgment, divine (in theology); man, 3; resurrection of christ; resurrection of the dead; soul, human, 5.

Bibliography: Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, Tables générales, ed. a. vacant et al. (1951) 2:221821. "Unsterblichkeit," Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d new ed. Freiburg 195765) v.10. a. etchevery et al., Catholicisme. Hier, aujourd'hui et demain, ed. g. jacquemet (Paris 1947) 5:131628. άθάνατος, άθανασία, φθαρτος, άφθαρσία in g. w. h. lampe, ed., A Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford 1961 ). "Unsterblichkeit," k. rahner and h. vorgrimler, Kleines theologisches Wörterbuch (Freiburg 1961). o. cullmann, Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? (New York 1958). c. davis, Theology for Today (New York 1962). r. w. gleason, The World to Come (New York 1958). j. n. d. kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (2d ed. New York 1960). g. pala, La risurrezione dei corpi nella teologia moderna (Rome 1963). k. rahner, On The Theology of Death, tr. c. h. henkey (Quaestiones disputatae 2; New York 1961). m. schmaus, Katholische Dogmatik, 5 v. in 8 (5th ed. Munch 195359) v.4.2. a. vonier, The Human Soul and Its Relations with Other Spirits (3d ed. Saint Louis 1925; repr. London 1939). s. garofalo, "Sulla eschatologia intermedia in S. Paolo," Gregorianum 39 (1958) 33552. É. h. gilson, "Autour de Pomponazzi: Problématique de l'immortalité de l'âme en Italie au début du XVIe siècle," Archives d'histoire doctrinale et littéraire du moyen-âge 36 (1961) 163279. j. hÉring, "Entre la mort e la résurrection," Revue d'histoire et de philosophie religieuses 40 (1960) 33848; "Eschatologie biblique et idéalisme platonicien" in The Background of the New Testament and Its Eschatology: Studies in Honour of C. H. Dodd, ed. w. d. davies and d. daube (Cambridge, Eng. 1956) 44363. y. b. trÉmel, "L'Homme entre la mort et la résurrection d'après le N.T.," Lumière et vie 24 (1955) 3358.

[m. e. williams]


views updated Jun 08 2018


Western belief systems believe that there is life after death. William James waited until the final pages of his classic Varieties of Religious Experiences (1902) before trying to evaluate this belief. In those pages he endeavored to answer the question: Suppose that there is a God; What difference would humans expect God to make within the natural world? Although James believed that God was the producer of immortality, his far-ranging study of religious experience did not provide clear support for personal immortality. He could conclude only:

... that we can experience union with something larger than ourselves and in that union find our greatest peace. ...Anything larger will do, if only it be large enough to trust for the next step. It need not be infinite, it need not be solitary. It might conceivably be only a larger and more godlike self, of which the present self would then be but the mutilated expression, and the universe might conceivably be a collection of such selves with no absolute unity at all. (James 1992, pp. 570571)

Types of Afterlife Belief

It is doubtful that many believers have ever traded their faith in personal immortality for the speculations offered by James. A far more heartening prospect is eternal life under the auspices of an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God. Nevertheless, personal immortality is only one of the answers that have been proposed over the centuries. This entry (1) surveys a variety of afterlife beliefs; (2) considers their foundation in faith, reason, and fact; and (3) explores some of the meanings and uses associated with these beliefs. Survival of death is not identical with immortality, and immortality is not identical with a continuation of personality or individuality. These distinctions become clearer as several types of survival are identified and explored.

Afterflash. An "afterflash" refers to a force field or faded image of the person that occurs immediately after death, but soon vanishes. This afterlife belief holds that the afterflash might come and go so quickly that witnesses are left with the feeling that something happened or somebody was there, yet have no tangible evidence to show for it. The after-flash might also manifest itself briefly on a few occasions before disappearing forever. It is possible that even this minimal phenomenon is not what it seems. Perhaps what is perceived is only a record of what has perished, as the scholar F. W. H. Myers suggests. Myers cites the example of the streaming light from stars that perished before the earth was formed. Even if these phenomena do represent some type of survival it would be in a downgraded and fleeting form that does not express the individual personality of the deceased. Therefore, this philosophy is clearly a long way from personal immortality.

Fade away. One of the most prevalent views of the afterlife in the ancient world was a gradual dimming of the departed spirit, known as a "fade away." In pre-Christian Mesopotamia, for example, the souls of the dead dwelled in a gloomy under-world. There they became dulled, miserable remnants of their former selves. Early Hebrew belief inherited this tradition. Yahweh (the Hebrew word for "God") kept watch over the living; the shades of the dead were abandoned. Within this belief system, the fade-away type of survival did not preserve individual personality. According to some accounts, the piteous dead continued to become even weaker until the end of creation; others are inclined to believe that the spirits dissolved as their vital essence eventually gave way.

Cosmic melding. According to the philosophy of "cosmic melding," the spark of life is not destroyed by death. Because it was never really the private property of the individual, it does not remain so after death. Rather, each person is like a drop of water that returns to the ocean of creation to become a continuing but transformed part of the universal flow. The philosophy of cosmic melding, although not termed this way, can be found in Hindu thought. Central to Hindu belief are the writings collectively known as the Upanishads (the "Equivalences"). The individual soul (atman ) is at one with the universal soul (brahman ). Life and death are different aspects of the same reality. One hopes ultimately to escape the cycle of death and rebirth and achieve ecstatic union with the universal soul. This is a survival doctrine that seeks an end to personal survival.

The idea of cosmic melding has been expressed outside Hinduism. It has been suggested that the universe itself is alive with pulsations from the unimaginable subatomic to the unimaginable vast. Individuals pulsate as unique units for a brief time and then participate in the music of the spheres in different forms. This ancient idea has been kept alive in modern theoretical physics.

Reincarnation and rebirth. Besides the Hindu cycle of birth and rebirth, other reincarnation beliefs exist in many world cultures. These beliefs differ greatly in their details, but in 1958 a historian of religion, Mircea Eliade, observed that typically it is not just the life and death of the individual that is involved. Human society and the world itself can be regenerated through death. Many communal rituals are devoted to this purpose, including those that initiate novices into adulthood. There are many rites of passage in the course of communal life. One has experienced symbolic but intense death/rebirth experiences before encountering physical death. However, all of this does not guarantee that one will continue to survive death after death. The doctrine of reincarnation includes the belief that souls can perish because of individual misfortune or attack, and all souls can perish when the skies and mountains dissolve.

Conditional survival. The philosophy of continued survival holds that there is more than one possible outcome after death. A person might or might not survive death. This survival might be glorious or horrifying. Furthermore, survival might be everlasting or only temporary. According to this view, it should not be assumed that survival of death is identical with immortality. There is no guarantee that passing through death assures the spirit or soul of continued existence for all time or eternity. The possibility of more than one outcome after death has had numerous distinguished advocates. The philosophers Gustav Theodor Fechner and William Ernest Hocking are among those who believe that individuals develop more or less spiritual sensitivity and depth through their lives. The universe itself is changing. Within this cosmic framework, the fate of the individual personality perhaps should also be considered as a set of possibilities.

According to this philosophical approach, the nature of the self is a key to what happens after death. In resonance with Eastern thought, these philosophers regard the self as always in process, always in the making. People become more real as they develop their spiritual selves to a higher level. What happens after death depends on how "real" the self has become. People who have gone through life without awakening their spiritual potential will have little or nothing that can survive death, but those who have sought and opened themselves to enlightenment will continue to develop after death.

An elitist view of survival was also known in the ancient world. The possibility of a spiritual survival was the privilege of the royal family, not the commoner. Immortality depended on status, and status either depended on the choice of the gods or political skill and good fortune. Furthermore, Islam as well as Christianity presents two contrasting paths for the soul after death. First there is the waiting for judgment. One is then either awarded salvation or condemned to damnation. Similarly, Muslims either cross the sacred bridge (sirat ) safely, or are hurled into hell. Some of the impure are in torment forever; others may eventually repent sufficiently and join the blessed.

Data file. The concept of a "data file" has become widely known as the ability to register and store large quantities of information in electronic, computer-accessible form. The idea that survival of death might operate through data files does not appear in the sacred writings of the great religions and the rituals of world societies; however, it is a logical spin-off of the computer sciences. In The Physics of Immortality (1994), Frank J. Tipler offers a bold theory derived from concepts and findings in quantum cosmology. Tipler suggests that modern physics is supportive of the Judeo-Christian tradition, although in a nontraditional way. According to Tipler's philosophy, the dead can exist as information and therefore be reconstituted or resurrected in the future. He does not use the term data file, but this perhaps conveys the central idea that one can continue to exist as a potential source of information. When effective retrieval and reconstitution techniques are developed, the souls on file can be accessed and, in that sense, return to life. (There is a parallel here with developments in cryonic suspension since the mid-twentieth century.) But does this "information" know that it is information? Is self-awareness or consciousness part of this process, or is the surviving element more like a book that can be read, rather than a reader?

Symbolic immortality. The idea of something that represents a person can continue to survive in society after death is known as "symbolic immortality." The person is dead, but his or her name or some important aspect of the personality has become part of ongoing human life. Other people, now deceased, live on in human memory. The living will also survive in this way. With continuing advances in communication technology people can survive as CD-ROMs with digitized audio and video, and perhaps in other forms still to come. This is the essence of the concept of symbolic immortality. Wealthy people can endow university buildings and the illustrious can have their names attached to a variety of programs and events, staying alive, then, in public memory. Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley, and Frank Sinatra may be considered to have a share of symbolic immortality through their recordings and movies.

Helping others to stay alive has emerged as a relatively new form of symbolic immortality. Organ donation and efforts to rescue endangered species and protect the environment are ways in which people are contributing to the continued survival of others; thereby bringing something of their selves into the future.

Personal immortality. The concept of "personal immortality" is a core belief within the Christian tradition. Something of the individual survives death forever. Many people expect to enjoy a reunion with loved ones. This expectation obviously assumes the continuation of personal identity. Many other belief systems are ambiguous about personal immortality, however, and traces of this vagueness or discord can be found within Christianity as well. A key question here is the relationship between person and soul. Is the soul the essence of the individual? If so, then survival is personal. Or, Is the soul a sort of passenger-spirit that has very little to do with the individual's unique life? If so, then there might be immortal survival, but not necessarily of the person.

Belief and Disbelief

Are humans immortal in any meaningful sense of the word? The history of religion is closely associated with beliefs in survival of death as James, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, and other historians and philosophers have noted. Ancient burial pits, mounds, and tombs often included objects designed to be useful to the deceased in their next lives. From prehistory onward the available evidence suggests that survival belief has been widespread and dominant.

Disbelief also has its tradition, however. Early Chinese philosophy mostly saw death as the natural end to life. Because humans are all part of the cosmic process there is no reason to bemoan one's fate: It is best to become a good person and live well with others into old age. Ancestor cults did flourish, but the illustrious thinkers of the time discouraged people from investing too much in the prospect of immortality. Confucius himself replied to a disciple's question by saying, "If we do not yet know about life, how can we learn about death?" Wang Ch'ung, a scholar of the Han dynasty, scoffed at the presumption of immortality and called his followers' attention to other natural processes by saying:

Human death is like the extinction of fire. When a fire is extinguished, its light does not shine any more, and when man dies his intellect does not perceive any more. The nature of both is the same. What is the difference between a sick man about to die and a light about to go out? (Overmyer 1974, p. 202)

The world has not been divided neatly between believers and disbelievers. Many people have experienced doubt or uncertainty. It is not unusual for people of strong faith to have wrestled with their doubts from time to time, nor for skeptics to wonder if immortality, improbable as it seemed to them, might not yet be true.

Belief can be grounded on custom, authority, positive personal experience, inner knowledge, external fact, reason, or any combination thereof. By "faith" is usually meant a certainty of belief derived from personal experience and/or inner knowledge. Doubt and disbelief can be occasioned by weakened or conflicted custom, discredited authority, negative personal experience, discredited or counter facts, and compelling alternative arguments.

Custom and authority, reinforced by impressive rituals, was probably enough for many people who lived in small face-to-face societies and worshiped local gods. Intense ritual experiences might also produce the inner conviction that one had touched the sacred. The truth was therefore felt as inside one's self as well as with the people and nature. Authority became a stronger force in religious belief as people organized themselves into larger organizational structures. Although the Egyptian dynasties with their central authorities took shape about 7,000 years ago, there were still many small societies worshiping local gods throughout the days of the Roman Empire. Politics, social action and control, and religion were tightly entwined in emerging civilizations. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were all beset with internal dissension on a variety of concepts and practices. Authorities, bolstered by canons of approved writings, systematically accepted a particular view of survival while rejecting others (e.g., reincarnation died hard and only temporarily in Christianity).

Questions about the existence and nature of God and the survival of death lingered despite the weight of Church authority and tradition. Medieval theologians and scholars debated these related issues with intensity and often ingenuity. Saint Thomas Aquinas, for example, argued that the soul is immortal despite its association with the vulnerable body because it comes from God who is the "necessary being" on whom all other creatures depend. This was an influential view, but there were dissenters who argued that "the immortal form" that survives death seems to have none of the characteristics of the actual person who diesthis kind of immortality was too abstract and distant for the critics of Aquinas. Elite scholars made repeated attempts to prove immortality by rational analysis and were regularly taken to task by other elite scholars.

Immortality became a keen issue for society at large as science emerged, challenging the order of the universe as conceived by theology. Astronomers in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries made observations that contradicted the Catholic Church's official beliefs about the nature and motions of earth, sun, and other celestial bodies. In the nineteenth century the English naturalistCharles Darwin's theory of evolution led to a convulsive response on the part of established institutions. If humans are but another kind of animal, what then of immortality?

Philosophers and scientists lined up on both the side of belief and disbelief. Strenuous arguments pro and con continued well into the twentieth century. Meanwhile, academic philosophy quietly slipped away from what increasingly seemed like an outmoded and unrewarding debate, and only in the late twentieth century took the challenge up again.

Belief in a just God and personal immortality was shaken by calamitous events throughout the twentieth century. Two world wars, genocides, and a host of other disastrous events led many to reject the traditional assurances. Others devoted themselves to assuage their sorrows and affirm their beliefs through spiritualism and communication with the dead. Brought up within conventional churches, some set off on quests to find ways of life that might speak more directly to their needs. These quests sometimes took the form of exploring Eastern religions, sometimes in reshaping Judeo-Christian beliefs and practices (from which the New Age movement emerged).

Reports of near-death experiences were welcomed as another opportunity to affirm personal immortality. At the core of these reports is an absolute conviction: "This is what happened; this is what I saw, what I felt, what I experienced!" Logical arguments for or against survival of death are always vulnerable to powerful rejoinders. Scientific findings are always subject to modification, even rejection, by subsequent studies. What a person feels and experiences, however, can seem sufficient within itself. A sense of direct experience and inner knowledge is more convincing to many people than a survey of external facts or convoluted argumentation.

Thomas A. Kselman's 1993 analysis Death and the Afterlife in Modern France offers insights applicable to other contemporary societies as well. He notes that beliefs about death were of prime importance in establishing and maintaining social order. How people thought they should live was ruled to an appreciable extent by how they hoped to fare in the next life. In the meantime, public officials and the clergy often played upon this theme to achieve their own ends. By the waning years of the nineteenth century, however, this longstanding social and moral order was rapidly crumbling. The pace of technology and commerce had picked up dramatically, shifting attention to the opportunities of the present life on the earth. The establishment had a difficult time in trying to keep the lid on simmering developments in all areas of society. Increasingly, death became a concern for individuals and their families and fell less under the control of church and state. The "market culture" had taken over, and ideas about survival of death would have to compete not only with each other but also with other, sometimes more compelling, possibilities.

At the turn of the twenty-first century an enormous range of ideas, attitudes, and practices coexist, including Margaret Wertheim's The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace (1999) and N. Catherine Hayles's How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Infomatics (1999). The survival of the survival question appears to be assured for some time to come.

See also: Afterlife in Cross-Cultural Perspective; Buddhism; Chinese Beliefs; Communication with the Dead; Ghosts; Immortality, Symbolic; Near-Death Experiences; Reincarnation


Camporesi, Piero. The Fear of Hell: Images of Damnation and Salvation in Early Modern Europe. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990.

Chan, Wing-Tsit. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Coppleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Book One. New York: Image, 1985.

Ducasse, C. J. The Belief in a Life after Death. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1961.

Durkheim, Émile. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. 1915. Reprint, New York: Free Press, 1965.

Eliade, Mircea. Birth and Rebirth. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958.

Fischer, John Martin, ed. The Metaphysics of Death. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993.

Hayles, N. Catherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Hocking, William Ernest. The Meaning of Immortality in Human Experience, revised edition. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. 1902. Reprint, New York: The Modern Library, 1999.

Kselman, Thomas A. Death and the Afterlife in Modern France. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Lamont, Corliss. The Illusion of Immortality. New York: The Philosophical Library, 1950.

Lifton, Robert J. The Broken Connection: On Death and the Continuity of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979.

Malin, Shimon. Nature Loves to Hide. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Overmyer, Douglas T. "China." In Frederick H. Holck ed., Death and Eastern Thought. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1974.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. A History of Heaven. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Tipler, Frank J. The Physics of Immortality. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Wertheim, Margaret. The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.



views updated May 29 2018


Psychical research is concerned primarily with survival as a matter of inference from intelligently observed and interpreted psychic phenomena. It does not attempt to answer the question whether survival means continued existence for a only a limited period or for a longer time, or even forever. With few exceptions, psychical researchers have been concerned with the authenticity of claimed phenomena and with the question of whether there is really evidence for survival of personality after death.

The issues of the continued existence of a soul or spirit and the possible perfection of that soul through evolution or reincarnation move from science into the realm of religion. Many religions proclaim the immortality of the soul. Christianity speaks of a continued existence in heaven with an eternity for progress and perfection (though different denominations have quite different ideas about the exact details of the afterlife). Eastern religions also offer elaborate descriptions of the existence beyond this earthly life, although, again, details vary considerably on the relationship between the human soul and God.

In advaita Vedanta, for example, the individual soul is perfected by infinite reincarnations to reassert its true reality as a group soul, then as the infinite Divine itself; in vishadvaita Vedanta, however, there remains some distinction between Divinity and the perfected human souls. In general Vedanta does not view immortality in terms of an achievement of individual souls in a period of time, but rather as the reassertion of an infinite divine reality when the illusions of individual ego, body, mind, time, space, and causality have disappeared. This postulates the infinite Divine as the eternal reality that is veiled by illusions of individual consciousness and the world of matter.

At its beginning Spiritualism offered itself as a new religion, necessarily rooted in Christianity. The question of immortality and perfectibility of the soul has been more than just another doctrine; it has been a keystone of the Spiritualist position. As the movement developed, it developed a split over the doctrine of reincarnation. Most Spiritualists now accept reincarnation.

Most of the pioneers of psychical research in the nineteenth century were religious people who had experienced a crisis of faith, largely because of the attacks of nineteenth-century science on traditional Christian doctrine. Spiritualism claimed the ability to demonstrate "scientifically" the reality of life after death. It thus offered a means, many hoped, to recover not only an affirmation of mere survival (the primary issue open to psychical research) but a firm base from which a faith in a meaningful afterlife could be reaffirmed as a religious hope.

The religious quest so evident in the life of most of the pioneer psychical researchers suggests that a will to believe was operative in their research and was a causative element in their frequently falling victim to fraud.


Augustine, Saint. Immortality of the Soul. Reprinted in the Fathers of the Church series, vol. 4. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1973.

Bernard, Theos. Philosophical Foundations of India. London: Rider, [1945].

Carrington, Hereward. Death: The Causes and Phenomena with Special Reference to Immortality. London, 1911. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1977.

Charles, R. H. A Critical History of the Doctrine of a Future Life in Israel, in Judaism and in Christianity. London, 1899. Reprinted as Eschatology, The Doctrine of a Future Life in June 19, 2000, in Judaism, and in Christianity: A Critical History. New York: Schocken Books, 1963.

Ducasse, C. J. Critical Examination of the Belief in a Life After Death. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas, 1974.

Fournier, D'Albe. New Light on Immortality. London, 1908.

Hyslop, James H. Psychical Research and the Nature of Life After Death. Albuquerque, N.Mex.: American Institute for Psychological Research, 1980.

James, William. The Will to Believe and Human Immortality. New York: Dover Publications, n.d.

Lombroso, Cesare. After DeathWhat? London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1909.

Myers, Frederick W. Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death. 2 vols. London, 1903. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Steiner, Rudolf. Reincarnation and Immortality. New York: Harper & Row, 1980.

Tugwell, Simon. Human Immortality and Redemption. London: Darton, Longman, & Todd, 1990.


views updated May 11 2018

352. Immortality (See also Agelessness.)

  1. Admetus granted everlasting life when wife Alcestis dies in his place. [Gk. Myth.: NCE, 54]
  2. amber axe symbol of everlasting life. [Western Folklore: Jobes, 82]
  3. ambrosia food of gods; bestows immortality. [Gk. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary ]
  4. amrita beverage conferring immortality. [Hindu Myth.: Parrinder, 19]
  5. ankh talisman ensuring everlasting life. [Egyptian Myth.: Jobes, 99]
  6. apples of perpetual youth admit Norse gods to eternal life. [Norse Myth.: Benét, 43]
  7. Calypso promises Odysseus eternal youth and immortality if he will stay with her forever. [Gk. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 166]
  8. cedar symbol of everlasting life. [Western Folklore: Jobes, 301]
  9. Chiron immortal centaur. [Gk. Myth.: Kravitz, 58]
  10. cicada symbol of eternal life. [Chinese Folklore: Jobes, 338]
  11. cypress symbol of eternal life. [Flower Symbolism: Jobes, 402]
  12. cypress coffin symbolizes everlasting life; used for burials of heroes. [Gk. and Egyptian Folklore: Leach, 272]
  13. fan palm emblem of eternal life among early Christians. [Plant Symbolism: Embolden, 2526]
  14. globe amaranth flower of immortality. [Flower Symbolism: Flora Symbolica, 172]
  15. greybeard-grow-young magical lake plant; its scent conferred everlasting life. [Babyl. Myth.: Gilgamesh ]
  16. ichor flows through the veins of gods instead of blood. [Gk. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary ]
  17. Luggnagg imaginary island; inhabitants immortal but lack immortal health. [Br. Lit.: Gullivers Travels ]
  18. nectar drink of gods; bestows eternal life. [Gk. and Rom. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 75)]
  19. nightingale immortal bird whose voice has been heard from time immemorial. [Br. Poetry: Keats Ode to a Nightingale]
  20. scarab dung-beetle; said to carry secret of eternal life. [Egyptian Legend: Brewer Dictionary, 967]
  21. serpent sheds skin to renew its life. [Gk. Myth.: Gaster, 37]
  22. Struldbrugs race cursed with gift of deathlessness. [Br. Lit.: Gullivers Travels ]
  23. Tithonus given eternal life but not eternal youth. [Gk. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 1087]
  24. tree of life eat of its fruit and live forever. [O.T.: Genesis, 3:22]
  25. Utnapishtim blessed by Enlil with everlasting life. [Babyl. Myth.: Gilgamesh ]
  26. Wandering Jew doomed to live forever for scorning Jesus. [Fr. Lit.: The Wandering Jew ]
  27. Xanthus and Balius Achilles divine horses. [Gk. Lit.: Iliad ]
  28. yew traditionally planted in churchyards; symbol of deathlessness. [Br. Legend: Brewer Dictionary, 1171]


views updated May 29 2018

im·mor·tal / i(m)ˈmôrtl/ • adj. living forever; never dying or decaying: our mortal bodies are inhabited by immortal souls. ∎  deserving to be remembered forever: the immortal children's classic, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”• n. an immortal being, esp. a god of ancient Greece or Rome. ∎  a person of enduring fame: he will always be one of the immortals of hockey. ∎  (Immortals) hist. the royal bodyguard of ancient Persia. ∎  (Immortal) a member of the French Academy.DERIVATIVES: im·mor·tal·i·ty / ˌi(m)ˌmôrˈtalitē/·mor·tal·ly adv.


views updated May 18 2018

Immortal ★½ Immortal Ad Vitam 2004 (R)

Writer/director Bilal uses CGI and blue screen to depict a devastated New York in 2095 in this visually arresting but completely confusing (and very loose) adaptation of two of his graphic novels. An interstellar pyramid invisibly hovers over the city, housing several Egyptian gods, including Horus (Pollard), who is about to lose his immortality. He has seven days to find a human vessel to host his spirit long enough so that he may impregnate a mate who will give birth to a new immortal. Horus chooses the rebellious Alcide Nikopol (Kretschmann) and the blue-haired Jill (Hardy), only there are a lot of complications to overcome, including the fact that Jill isn't exactly human. 102m/C DVD . GB FR IT Linda Hardy, Thomas Pollard; D: Enki Bilal; W: Enki Bilal, Joe Sheridan, Serge Lehman; C: Pascal Gennesseaux; M: Goran Vejvoda.


views updated May 29 2018

Immortality ★★ The Wisdom of Crocodiles 1998 (R)

The vampire myth undergoes yet another postmodern twist. Steven Grlscz (Law) is a medical researcher, living in London, who stops Maria (Fox) from committing suicide and then sets out to seduce her. When he's convinced she's in love with him, he kills her and takes her blood. His next would-be victim is Anne (Lowensohn), but she's reluctant to commit to Steven and soon he becomes ill, which leads him to confess to Anne that his bloodsucking tendencies can only be satiated when he believes his victims love him. While Law is a charming seducer, he fails to chill as a vampire killer. 98m/C VHS, DVD . GB Jude Law, Elina Lowensohn, Timothy Spall, Kerry Fox, Jack Davenport, Colin Salmon; D: PoChih Leung; W: Paul Hoffman; C: Oliver Curtis; M: John Lunn, Orlando Gough.


views updated May 09 2018

immortal XIV. — L. immortālis, f. IM-2 + mortālis MORTAL.
So sb. XVII. immortality XIV. — (O)F. — L. immortelle everlasting flower. XIX. — F.

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