The Ideal of Immortality

The Ideal of Immortality

by David A. Beardsley

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Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

From Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,  William Wordsworth

    That we as human beings are immortal souls is axiomatic to the philosophy of the Ideal.  The Ideal is “infinite in all directions,” including time, so immortality is a given.  However, we’ll take a look at a number of the different expressions given to this principle by some of our favorite Idealists through the ages.  (I’ve treated the subject before in both the book The Ideal in the West and also my blog,  but I hope to expand on it here.)  As I expressed in the book, I believe this to be one of the most pressing issues facing us today, when medicine can keep a heartbeat going almost indefinitely, and it is not uncommon for hundreds of thousands of dollars to be spent prolonging life of the body for just a few days or weeks.  Not to mention the whole sad phenomenon of cryogenics and other supposed ways to achieve immortality for the body.  We need to come to terms with the fact that bodies are temporary, and look at what happens when they stop.

    The word “mortality” of course is derived from the French (ultimately Latin) mort (death), as in Vive La Mort.  “Mortal” is often used as a synonym for the human being.  It’s what we do; we die.  It is based on the observation of the body through the senses, and our identification with the body.  At one moment we are mobile and animated, we speak and communicate, but when this ceases we are dead and presumed to enter into some state of non-existence.  Of course pretty much all religions have as an article of faith that the soul moves on to some state of continued existence, but given the almost universal grief and sadness occasioned when someone dies, it is evident that most people do not believe this in fact.  If they did, there would be celebrations rather than wakes.

    The ancient Greek establishment religion, with its pantheon and cast of lesser beings, is a good example of this pattern.  The gods were immortal, but according to Hesiod’s Theogony they had been born, so their immortality is in one direction only.  There were intermediate kinds of beings who could be immortal, but did not get to participate in the eternal nectar-drinking bliss of those on Olympus.  Human beings had it the worst–even if they were “good” people, they were all destined for a kind of shadowy, dreary afterworld, to which any kind of human life was preferable.  When Odysseus, on his way home from the Trojan War, visits the Underworld, he runs into his old comrade-in-arms Achilles, and tells him, “For of old, when thou wast alive, we Argives honored thee even as the gods, and now that thou art here, thou rulest mightily among the dead. Wherefore grieve not at all that thou art dead, Achilles.”  (Murray translation.)  But Achilles “straightway made answer and said: ‘Nay, seek not to speak soothingly to me of death, glorious Odysseus. I should choose, so I might live on earth, to serve as the hireling of another, of some portionless man whose livelihood was but small, rather than to be lord over all the dead that have perished.”  Life sucks and then you die and then it gets worse.

 From the earliest records however, there was a counterpoint to this view which is seen in the works of “Pre-Socratics” such as Pythagoras, Anaximander, Parmenides, Empedocles and others.  Having experienced the Ideal as eternal, they made immortality, timelessness, a central quality in their descriptions of it.

 We see it perhaps earliest in the apeiron (“boundless”) of Anaximander (c. 610 – c. 546 BC), all of whose thoughts we have only at second hand.  But in a passage from Aristotle’s Physics,  he specifically gives Anaximander credit for the identifying the Boundless, or Infinite, as a first principle (arch́e), and equating it with the Divine:

We cannot say that the infinite has no effect, and the only effectiveness which we can ascribe to it is that of a principle.  Everything is either a source or derived from a source.  But there cannot be a source of the infinite or limitless, for that would be a limit of it.  Further, as it is a beginning, it is both uncreatable and indestructible. For there must be a point at which what has come to be reaches completion, and also a termination of all passing away. That is why, as we say, there is no principle of this, but it is this which is held to be the principle of other things, and to encompass all and to steer all, as those assert who do not recognize, alongside the infinite, other causes, such as Mind or Friendship. Further they identify it with the Divine, for it is ‘deathless and imperishable’ as Anaximander says, with the majority of the physicists.

Similarly, Parmenides, in his poem about meeting with the goddesses says:

(…) Being unborn is undestroyable, for it is intact and unshakable and endless; neither sometime was nor will it be, for it exists now all together, one, continuous; for what birth of it can you seek?

       Here, the Being (or Existent) is seen as “immortal in all directions;” because it is, it must always have been.  It is uncreatable and indestructible, athanaton (“not dying”).  It destroys our conception of time, just as it would destroy our conception of space.  It is not that it is everlasting; it is everpresent.  In the words of Werner Jaeger,

The Existent is un-become and imperishable, whole, single, unshakable, temporally without limits, and complete.  (p. 106)

Obviously we are speaking here of something about which we cannot speak, something we cannot reduce to an object of thought for our discursive mind.  The function of the mind, and that of language which springs from it, depends on time (events) and multiplicity (things).  The apeiron cannot have been conceived of by this mind, and cannot be proved to it.  It must have been directly experienced, and have left Anaximander and Parmenides and all the others groping for a way to express it.  That their descriptions would differ is to be expected, except insofar as it is without limit.

(Many of the writers on this topic see reincarnation ((and by extension, preincarnation)) as a necessary corollary to immortality, a topic that is discussed in The Ideal of Justice.  Suffice it to say for now that the interest we show in “previous lives” is just another instance of the ego’s endless fascination with itself.)

Plato’s own ideas on the immortality of the soul adhere largely to the ideas that have been laid down by these others, and they constitute a central position in his teaching.  He returns to them in a number of different works: Symposium, Phaedrus, Republic, Phaedo.  His fundamental teaching is that of the absolute Idea or Form of the Good, which is eternal and intelligible.  To the extent that we participate in the Good–realize our identity with it–we too are eternal, and worthy to be in the company of the gods.  But because we have forgotten that identity, we are compelled to “wander below” and must keep taking on new bodies and new lives until it is recollected.

    In the Phaedo, which is the dialogue presenting Socrates’ last meeting with his students before his execution in 399BC, he presents what are probably his most cogent ideas about death and immortality.  When he says “the true philosophers practice dying, and death is less terrible to them than to any other men,” it is because they have gotten rid of attachment to the transitory body which keeps them anchored in time.  His listeners are skeptical, though, and Socrates tries to convince them through a reasoned argument involving how things grow out of their opposites, e.g., waking comes from sleep, sleep returns from wakefulness.  Since death follows life, then life must follow what we call death; there is then in fact no death but just different states of the soul.  He goes on to make the claim that we all have knowledge which has been acquired before our birth, and that when we learn in this life, we are really just recollecting this knowledge which is already ours.

    His main interlocutors, Cebes and Simmias, accept his argument that the soul exists before we are born (preincarnation), but cling to the traditional view that the soul is like breath which just disperses and is lost forever when the body dies (which Socrates calls a “childish fear”).  He echoes the analogy he has given in the Divided Line in the Republic, stating that the body is the part of us that exists in the sensible world, but that the soul exists in the intelligible realm–it is not visible, but it is permanent; indeed “that the soul is most like the divine and immortal and intellectual and uniform and indissoluble and ever unchanging….” (Phaedo, 80b)

    But Cebes and Simmias are still not convinced.  Simmias raises an objection based on the analogy of a physical lyre to the non-physical music it produces: if the lyre is destroyed, the music also stops.  I won’t recreate the rest of the argument here–as I’ve said, it won’t convince any “sensible” person, who would presumably want somehow to see and measure the soul.  But in his inimitable roundabout way, and getting in a few digs at Anaxagoras along the way, Socrates does lead them to the following conclusion:

 “Then when death comes to a man, his mortal part, it seems, dies, but the immortal part goes away unharmed and undestroyed, withdrawing from death.”

“So it seems.”

“Then, Cebes,” said he, “it is perfectly certain that the soul is immortal and imperishable, and our souls will exist somewhere in another world.” (Phaedo, 106e)

In the Symposium, Socrates’ teacher Diotima says that on a very basic level, the desire of people to beget offspring is a desire for immortality; that they may live on in their children.  And she draws the analogy to poets and other “pregnant souls” who produce works which they hope will make them famous for the same reason; that their names will live on in men’s minds.  But the one who truly achieves immortality is he or she who is able to climb the “ladder of ascent” by love to the great sea of Beauty and has “begotten a true virtue.”  He, she says, is “destined to win the friendship of Heaven; he, above all men, is immortal.” (212a)

(I just remembered a line from the old Whole Earth Catalog, something to the effect that “We are as gods, and we might as well get good at it.”)

It is in the Republic, however, in recounting the Myth of Er, that Plato gives his fullest account of the progress of the soul after “death.”  It recounts the story of one Er, a resident of Pamphylia, who, after a battle in which he is “killed,” is granted observer status of the whole process of judgment and reincarnation that occurs between lives.  I’ve previously written about this in my blog, and I won’t repeat that here, save to reiterate its closing words, which give us the hope that when we realize ourselves as immortal, as the Good, we will be let off this cycle of dying/remembering/choosing/forgetting again/being born.

And thus, Glau­con, the tale has been saved and has not per­ished, and will save us if we are obe­di­ent to the word spo­ken; and we shall pass safely over the river of For­get­ful­ness and our soul will not be defiled.  Where­fore my coun­sel is that we hold fast ever to the heav­enly way and fol­low after jus­tice and virtue always, con­sid­er­ing that the soul is immor­tal and able to endure every sort of good and every sort of evil. Thus shall we live dear to one another and to the gods, both while remain­ing here and when, like con­querors in the games who go round to gather gifts, we receive our reward. And it shall be well with us both in this life and in the pil­grim­age of a thou­sand years which we have been describing.  (621b-e)

    I especially appreciate the line that the immortal soul is “able to endure every sort of good and every sort of evil.”  It is natural for humans to think in terms of these dualities, and to think that we can have all the good without the evil.  But I believe what Plato is saying that the “goods” we experience on earth are a pale reflection of the Good itself, and must be endured as must the evils.  They are subject to change and loss, and we cannot try to hold onto them as our own.  The love we have for individuals is a good we endure until we develop a universal love for all humanity.  I write this soon after an incident where a crazed gunman has shot and killed a number of innocent people (I won’t say which incident–there are too many), and this is an evil which must be endured.  Nothing has really perished, just been withdrawn.  It may sound cold to say it, but without this kind of loss, we might never start to ask the kinds of questions that must ultimately bring us to knowledge of the Good.  Only then “shall we live dear to one another and to the gods….”

    The dual nature of man, the paradox of being simultaneously mortal and immortal, is also spelled out in the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus.  In my essay The Ideal of Love I quoted from Book 1, in which Poimandres instructs Hermes in the way this came about: man wishes to create, and is granted this power by Nous (Universal Mind) through a loving union with nature.  But man becomes entrapped by his own materials, as did Narcissus.

14. ‘Having all power over the world of mortals and living creatures without speech, he looked down through the harmony of the cosmos and, having broken through the sovereignty of the Divine Power, he showed to downward moving Nature the beautiful form of God.

‘When she had seen the beauty which never satiates of him who had in himself all the energy of the powers and the form of God, she smiled with love, because she had seen the image of the most beautiful form of Man in the water and his shadow upon the earth.  He, seeing himself a similar form to his own in the water, fell in love with her and wished to dwell there.  No sooner wished than done, and he inhabited a form without speech.  Nature, having taken her beloved, enfolded him completely and they united, for they loved each other.

    15.  For this reason, of all living beings on earth, Man alone is double: mortal because of the body, immortal because of the real Man.  For although being immortal and having authority over them all, he suffers mortal things which are subject to destiny.  Then, although above the harmony of the cosmos, he has become a slave within it.  He is beyond gender as he has been born from a Father beyond gender, and he never sleeps as he is ruled by one who never sleeps.  (p. 20)

This recalls all the myths and fairy tales in which the hero(ine) is put under a spell and needs only to be awakened to remember his/her true nature.  We seem to sleep, but even this cannot be true in fact since we are “ruled by one who never sleeps.”  One of the wonderful things about the Corpus Hermeticum is that it treats man not as a miserable sinner in need of salvation, but in fact as an immortal who has just forgotten his immortality.  We merely look at ourselves the wrong way round; we are not, as it is said, human beings seeking a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience.  Indeed, Hermes is unequivocal in stating that we can become as gods:

11:20.  See what power you have and what speed!  You can do all these things and yet God cannot?  Reflect on God in this way as having all within Himself as ideas: the cosmos, Himself, the whole.  If you do not make yourself equal to God you cannot understand Him.  Like is understood by like.  Grow to immeasurable size.  Be free from everybody, transcend all time.  Become eternity and thus you will understand God.  Suppose nothing to be impossible for yourself.  Consider yourself immortal and able to understand everything: all arts, sciences, and the nature of every living creature.  Become higher than the heights and lower than all depths.  Sense as one within yourself the entire creation: fire, water, the dry and the moist.  Conceive yourself to be in all places at the same time: in earth, in the sea, in heaven; that you are not yet born, that you are within the womb, that you are young, old, dead; that you are beyond death.  Conceive all things at once: times, places, actions, qualities and quantities; then you can understand God.  (p. 57-8)

    And later, in Book 13:14:

The visible body born of nature is far different from that of spiritual birth.  For the one can be dissolved and the other cannot; the one is mortal and the other immortal.  Do you not know that you have become divine and that you are a son of the One?  So also am I.  (p. 68)

    As Hermes himself is wont to say, “Thank you.”

Practical Immortality

    Now at this point I normally move on to Plotinus and then Ficino and then Emerson and others to make the point that they also supported the idea of immortality.  Which of course they did; for example, Ficino’s magnum opus Theologia Platonica subtitled De Immortalitate Animorum (“On the Immortality of the Soul,” as you may have guessed) “probably played a role in the Lateran Council’s promulgation of the immortality of the soul as a dogma in 1512.” (Introduction, p. viii)  But the point is not to win converts or do a thorough history–I’d like to explore what “immortality” means in practical terms, if that’s not a contradiction.

    We have been defining immortality pretty much in the negative: athanaton, not dying, not perishing.  What is normally taken to be the opposite–living forever–is not a prospect that is terribly appealing to many people, despite the misguided efforts of some who equate the body with the person.  Many are, as the song says, “tired of livin’ and scared of dyin’,” and being told that life will go on indefinitely may make you want to go take a nap.  But I think this is not the lesson to be had.

    A closer reading of our guides would have us know that it is not “life everlasting;” it is “consciousness everpresent.”  Time, as normally experienced, ceases to exist and becomes a useful convention for arranging certain events to happen simultaneously.   “Meet me at 10 at the Starbuck’s.”  But as a past to be idealized or regretted, or a future to be wished for or feared, time loses its meaning.  The past is gone, despite what Faulkner says; we don’t know what the future will bring (except death), and “the present only is our happiness” (Goethe).  How we respond to whatever is presented to us at each moment will determine what continues to be presented and how we will continue to respond.  We can choose at each moment to respond to events with anger, or fear, or a feeling of being victimized.  Or we can choose to respond with patience, love, acceptance.  The first adds to our baggage, the other lightens our load.  Which we choose will determine the quality of our lives.

    This choice, this letting go, is tied into the Platonic Ideal of Justice, which will be examined in another work in this series.  But for now I’d like to look at the implications that letting go of time has for our consciousness.

    If we are able to bring our thoughts under observation, even for a short time, we will see that they are often hopping forward or backward in time.  Memories, good or bad, appear randomly, and imaginings about the future also. With all due respect to George Santayana, too often those who cannot forget the past are condemned to repeat it.  We see things and people through a lens conditioned by what has gone before.  Our expectations are determined by our previous experience.  We nurture our grudges; we would rather simmer in the pathology of anger than forgive, or ask to be forgiven.   We refight old battles, or hope that a change of circumstances will make us happy in the future.

As Emerson says,

    A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick, or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event, raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.  Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.

    We experience the passage of time through the passage of events, forgetting our consciousness in which the events occur.  They do not just happen “out there;” they also happen “in here.”  This is the point of Plato’s analogy The Child of the Good.  When we see “things” with our eyes, we are really experiencing the reflected light of the sun.  When we experience events, when we have thoughts, we are really experiencing the reflected “light” of the intelligible world–our own consciousness.  Because the events change, we think the mind changes, and we are pulled along by these changes.  But the consciousness–the blank screen, if you will, on which our life-movie is projected–remains constant and unaffected.  As Plato says in the Phaedo:

“Now we have also been saying for a long time, have we not, that, when the soul makes use of the body for any inquiry, either through seeing or hearing or any of the other senses—for inquiry through the body means inquiry through the senses,—then it is dragged by the body to things which never remain the same, and it wanders about and is confused and dizzy like a drunken man because it lays hold upon such things?”


“But when the soul inquires alone by itself, it departs into the realm of the pure, the everlasting, the immortal and the changeless, and being akin to these it dwells always with them whenever it is by itself and is not hindered, and it has rest from its wanderings and remains always the same and unchanging with the changeless, since it is in communion therewith. And this state of the soul is called wisdom. Is it not so?” (Phaedo 79c)

Wisdom then is the ability to discriminate between the transient and the eternal.  The qualities that we associate with wisdom–patience, love, steadfastness, magnanimity–all relate to the long term, but which are capable of being chosen and expressed at any given moment in time.  If we carefully watch our reactions to people or events, our very first response usually  comes from this place of wisdom; a desire just to meet the need in front without judgment or desire for gain.  But this is too often immediately replaced by some form of criticism or question of “What’s in it for me?”, even if it’s just a desire to be recognized for our wisdom.

In his commentary on Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, Wordsworth says:

Archimedes said that he could move the world if he had a point whereon to rest his machine.  Who has not felt the same aspirations as regards the world of his own mind?

But we need to find a resting point for (or from) the mind, so we move it rather than being moved by it.  To experience immortality, we must turn to that part of us that does not change, but which is eternally present–the soul “alone by itself.”  This does not mean withdrawal from the world, it does not mean leaving the people we love, but it does mean remembering that we do not love others just because of who they are, but also because of who we are.  The love we have does not originate from us, but comes with us, “trailing clouds of glory,” perpetually available from its source in the Good.  This is what is constant in us, and what can give us the ability to master the apparent changes and “remain always the same and unchanging….”  Lacking nothing, we no longer expect these external events to make us happy or sad, fearful or contented.  Our soul by itself in each moment is Being, Consciousness, and Bliss.

The quality that is most needed in our ability to experience this lack of time is stillness, a word and a state practically unknown in the West.  It goes without saying that ours is a culture that values doing above all.  We like our weekends and vacations when we can “relax,” we look forward to retirement when we can “do nothing,” but that just reinforces that the normal state is activity.  Beyond a certain point, stillness becomes equated with laziness and  sloth.  Activity is necessary for living in the world, but it is not its purpose: realizing our identity with the Good is the purpose, and that is done only through stillness.  “Be still and know that I am God,” (Psalm 46:11) is probably the most familiar teaching on the subject, and it is a theme that runs through the Ideal tradition as well.  It is not as explicit as the practice of meditation found in many Eastern traditions, but all the great teachers have given examples of getting away from endless doing–especially mental doing–and just being still.  Socrates was known for spending periods in immobility, such as the one that made him late for the Symposium.

As a practice, it was known as theoria (θεωρία), from the same root as our theory and theater.  It has the sense of seeing, considering, resting the attention on.  It is usually translated as “contemplation;” sometimes as “vision.”  Aristotle considered it the highest of human “activities,” which would lead to “perfect happiness.”  Plotinus devoted one Ennead to Nature, Contemplation and the One  (Περὶ φύσεως καὶ θεωρίας καὶ τοῦ ἑνός), and sees this “vision” as a defining quality of the sage:

The Sage, then, is the man made over into a Reason-Principle: to others he shows his act, but in himself he is Vision: such a man is already set, not merely in regard to exterior things but also within himself, towards what is one and at rest: all his faculty and life are inward-bent.

       Marsilio Ficino also knew the value of stillness as a prerequisite to knowledge of the One.  In a letter addressed to his “friends,” he says:

    Per­haps it would be worth­while, if we wish to attain what we are seek­ing, to flee only to that which does not flee any­where.  But that alone can­not flee any­where which can­not be moved any­where, since it fills the uni­verse.  How­ever, is there any need even to be moved to that which is not moved any­where, which is present every­where in every sin­gle thing?  Then let us not be moved or dis­tracted by many things, but let us remain in unity as much as we are able, since we find eter­nal unity and the one eter­nity, not through move­ment or mul­ti­plic­ity, but through being still and being one.  (#67)

So immortality is “achieved” through “being still and being one.”  But to do that we must give up the illusion of time.  We need to train the mind to let go of the constant “stream of consciousness,” which is actually a stream of unconsciousness.  We need to stop letting ourselves be dragged around the the ever-changing emotional states: anger, fear, envy, pride, arrogance. We need to learn to see the perfection of what the universe is presenting us with at each moment, and let go of the desire for it to be any other way.

We will close with these well-known but always-new words of Emerson:

Men ask concerning the immortality of the soul, the employments of heaven, the state of the sinner, and so forth. They even dream that Jesus has left replies to precisely these interrogatories. Never a moment did that sublime spirit speak in their patois. To truth, justice, love, the attributes of the soul, the idea of immutableness is essentially associated. Jesus, living in these moral sentiments, heedless of sensual fortunes, heeding only the manifestations of these, never made the separation of the idea of duration from the essence of these attributes, nor uttered a syllable concerning the duration of the soul. It was left to his disciples to sever duration from the moral elements, and to teach the immortality of the soul as a doctrine, and maintain it by evidences. The moment the doctrine of the immortality is separately taught, man is already fallen. In the flowing of love, in the adoration of humility, there is no question of continuance. No inspired man ever asks this question, or condescends to these evidences. For the soul is true to itself, and the man in whom it is shed abroad cannot wander from the present, which is infinite, to a future which would be finite.

These questions which we lust to ask about the future are a confession of sin. God has no answer for them. No answer in words can reply to a question of things. It is not in an arbitrary “decree of God,” but in the nature of man, that a veil shuts down on the facts of to-morrow; for the soul will not have us read any other cipher than that of cause and effect. By this veil, which curtains events, it instructs the children of men to live in to-day. The only mode of obtaining an answer to these questions of the senses is to forego all low curiosity, and, accepting the tide of being which floats us into the secret of nature, work and live, work and live, and all unawares the advancing soul has built and forged for itself a new condition, and the question and the answer are one.