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The Idea of Immortality

1921 to 1923
University of Edinburgh

In chapter 1 author Andrew [Seth] Pringle-Pattison examines the primitive ideas of the soul as ‘an ethereal image of the body’, and how the future life is idealised as ‘a better world’ than the present world experienced. The author emphasises that future life as mere continuance in itself leads nowhere, and it is only when the concept of future life is invested with moral or religious value that it acquires significance for a people. Chapter 2 compares the notion of future life between the Hebrew and the Greek traditions. The Greek Hades resembles the Hebrew Sheol and was the common abode of the departed, regardless of their moral distinctions. In both traditions, the so-called existence of the shades is more a form of words than a reality. It has nothing for men to look forward to, and breeds revulsion, as in the mind of Job and the Sadducees, who denied an afterlife. The author argues that for both traditions the notion of immortality, as distinct from the mere images of the physical locale for a future life represented by Hades or Sheol, is inspired by the possibility of communion with God as the supreme reality. The blessed life hereafter is the consequence of a communion with the god that the worshipper has already enjoyed. Chapters 3 and 4 discuss Platonic ideas. Specifically, chapter 3 examines Plato’s conception of immortality. The author highlights the fact that Plato inverts the primitive animistic notion of the soul as the shadowy image of the bodily self by giving primacy to the soul, making the soul a man’s real self from the outset, and the body theeidolon (shadow) of the soul. With this inversion, and the belief in the divinity of the soul and its consequent immortality, the Platonic soul becomes the vehicle for immortality in Western and Christian thought. In chapter 4 Plato’s conception of the soul is contrasted with that of Aristotle. To Aristotle, body and soul are not two separate entities; the soul is the functioning of the body, and a disembodied (discarnate) soul is a contradiction in terms. To Plato, the soul is of a different substance from the body; its immortality depends on its separate existence from the body after death. The Platonic soul becomes designated as the mind (nous), and finds its duplicate in the patristic and scholastic doctrine of the rational soul as specially created by God and infused into the organism. That man is of two substances, and the mind-body dualism thus introduced by the Platonic soul comes to dominate Western philosophy and the Christian religion.

The history of the problem posed by the mind-body dualism is covered in chapter 5, tracing in brief the break-up of the Cartesian School, and the rise of Occasionalism and its ultimate development into the parallelistic theories of Spinoza and Leibniz. The views of Kant, Hume, Comte and William James are specially mentioned. The mind-body duality is, to the author, ‘a forced and unnatural hypothesis’. He dismisses the idea of ‘the substantial soul’ as the supernatural mechanism for human consciousness and asserts the body as the bearer of the conscious life. However, the author introduces ‘the spiritual self’, created through the bodily medium, as capable of achieving ‘a unity and identity more complete and more permanent than can belong to any non-self-conscious being’. He asserts that when the body ‘relapse[s] into its elements, it has “fulfilled” itself’, and the ‘true individual, in which that fulfilment consisted, pursues his destiny under new conditions’.

Theories of immortality (reincarnation and Karma) are examined in chapter 6 against the principles established by Pringle-Pattison’s analysis of the nature of the spiritual self: the ‘true individual’. Neither theory is in the nature of a scientific law, but both are ethical postulates. Reincarnation does not necessarily presuppose the pre-existence of the soul. Chapter 7 explores the concept of ‘eternal life’ based on Schleiermacher’s definition of ‘eternal’, not as an endless continuance in time, but a quality of experience which transcends time altogether. In the New Testament, ‘eternal life’ is a designation of a frame of mind or spiritual attitude intended to be here and now. The author asserts that eternal life is not a state of existence after death but an all-satisfying present experience through the participation in the being of the spiritual Christ.

The bearing of eternal life so defined upon the question of immortality in the sense of continual existence is the subject matter of chapter 8. Spinoza’s substitution of the eternal life of thought, living here and now, for immortality in the usual sense of a continued personal existence is related. Pringle-Pattison endorses Spinoza’s position, reiterating that the present participation in the eternal life of thought is the only kind of immortality. Chapter 9 examines the implications of the moral argument for a future life, if Spinoza’s notion of immorality is adopted. The arguments of Kant, Butler and Sidgwick are discussed. The author concludes that genuine virtues are independent of the system of rewards of punishments. To argue for the ‘indispensability of the doctrine’ as a check on our passions or as a kind of police protection against the others’ excesses is a poor argument for a professedly religious belief. In the final chapter, Pringle-Pattison sums up that the ‘hope of immortality’ is not to be regarded as an event in the temporal sense, but as a supreme assertion of ‘the infinite value of the human spirit that has realised its vocation and entered into its heritage’. For this reason, the life beyond remains something which we cannot translate into concrete detail.

  • Heidi Poon, University of Edinburgh