Immortality in ancient philosophy
In Greco-Roman philosophy immortality is discussed in two contexts: as an uncontroversial attribute of the gods and as a highly controversial attribute of human souls. Subdividing this latter topic, one may discern a more metaphysical question about whether every human soul as such is immortal in virtue of its nature or essence, and a more ethical topic about whether certain souls may enjoy a greater degree or share of immortality through adopting a certain mode of life. (This sub-topic is joined to the first main topic, to the extent that the virtuous agent’s approximation to immortality is part of their imitation of god or homoiōsis theōi).
Several Presocratic philosophers held that human souls are immortal, but it is Plato who first offers extensive arguments for this claim, as well as extensive reflections on the ethical import of personal immortality. Aristotle’s psychology leaves little room for the soul’s immortality, and it remains controversial whether he wished to leave any whatsoever. Discussions of immortality and its ethical consequences are similarly downplayed in surviving Stoic sources. The Epicureans gleefully argued the contrary view that a virtuous outlook depends on our conviction that we are irredeemably mortal. Only with the resurgence of Platonism in the Common Era does the soul’s immortality become once again a commonplace among philosophers. The connection between this and the Christian belief in resurrection is complicated. It is presumably due to the ascendancy of this double legacy that current popular usage counts it as nearly tautological that souls are immortal, but acknowledges a real question of whether human beings have souls, where ancient usage accepted as a near tautology that all living beings have souls, but admitted wide dispute over whether souls are immortal or not.
Citing this article:
Brennan, Tad. 'Immortality in ancient philosophy'. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2002: Accessed (April 29, 2016). https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/immortality-in-ancient-philosophy/v-1/. doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A133-1
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