Blessed is he of men on earth who has beheld them;
but he that is uninitiated in the holies or has no part in them,
never shares the same lot down in the musty dark when he is dead.
Hymn to Demeter, 480-482, The Homeric Hymns, Homeric Apocrypha, Lives of Homer, translated by Martin L. West, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 2003, pp.70-71, translation modified, with some alterations based on The Homeric Hymns, translated by Jules Cashford, Penguin Books, 2003, p.26.
Thrice blessed are those among men who, after beholding these rites [the Eleusinian Mysteries], go down to Hades. Only for them is there life; all the rest will suffer an evil lot.
...some fall into the Avici Hell, from which they never emerge to be reborn.
The Tathagata, in Wu Cheng'in, Journey to the West, ("Record of the Western Journey"), Volume IV, Foreign Language Press, Beijing, p.2260
If there were one [who could teach virtue], he could be said to be among the living as Homer said Teiresias was among the dead, namely, that "he alone retained his wits while the others flitted about like shadows [, skiaí]."
Socrates, Meno, 100A, Plato, Five Dialogues, translated by G.M.A. Grube, Hackett, 1981, 1986, p.88
'Son of Laertes, sprung from Zeus, Odysseus of many devices, remain now no longer in my house against your will; but you must first complete another journey, and come to the house of Hades and dread Persephone, to seek prophecy from the ghost [, psyché] of Theban Teiresias, the blind seer, whose mind [, phrénes] remains steadfast. To him even in death Persephone has granted reason [, nóos -- Attic , noûs], that he alone should have understanding, but the others flit about as shadows [, skiaí].'
Circe, Homer, The Odyssey, I, Book 10, Lines 488-495, translation by A.T. Murray & Geroge E. Dimock, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1995, pp.393-395
Dixit ei Iesus: Ego sum resurrectio et vita.
Qui credit in me et si mortuus fuerit vivet:
Et omnis qui vivit et credit in me non moriertur in aeternum.
Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life:
he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:
And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.
Believest thou this?
It may be widely regarded as one of the harshest aspects of Christian belief is that dying in unbelief condemns one to Hell for eternity. There has been the occasional dissent from this in the history of Christianity, from Origen to C.S. Lewis, but mostly the idea of salvation out of Hell has been regarded as a heresy. I have already considered some aspects of this elsewhere.
Christianity is not alone in this approach of eternal damnation, with both Plato in the Republic and Buddhism, which generally require even those punished in hell(s) to be reborn, allowing that some may be evil enough that their hell may not allow them to leave (as Plato has it). The moral valence of this is absent in other Greek belief, as in the Odyssey, where all go down to Hades and, punished or not, do not live a full life or even retain their reason. The Eleusian Mysteries promised a full and happy afterlife, without responsibility or moral judgment for the others left without this option.
The early Greek view of the dead opens another possibility in the Christian case. What if the dead are psychologically unable to change their minds because, with death, their capacity for choice is lost? Thus, the soul may lose its ability to deliberate or change its mind after death. If Homer was right, and most of the dead have lost their reason, then this is altogether credible. The dead have a kind of dementia, we might say the dementia mortui, and they lose the character of the mind that we are familiar with from life. Or, we can imagine that the mind becomes fixed in some other respect at death, so that "changing our mind" in a moral or soteriological sense becomes closed off. If so, life is a churning mix of mind, which sets and becomes fixed at death.
We don't really see such possibilities explored in Christian theology because, with the idea of the soul inherited from Plato and Aristotle, the faculties of the mind are a permanent part of its essence. To be what we are, namely rational beings, we have all the faculties of rational beings, including deliberation and choice. However, this really created some difficulties. It is not clear how real cases of dementia and insanity are to be explained on the basis of such a theory. These could only be dealt with in terms of some problem with the material substratum of the soul, like other organic disease, which somehow can interfere with the proper functioning of the mind. It is not at all clear how it could do so; and the traditional theory may fall into the same embarrassment as René Descartes, whose theory of the soul as possessing the essence of thought thereby precludes the unconsciousness we daily experience in sleep. As far as I can tell, John Locke was the only philosopher ever to point this out. Similarly, Aristotle would be at a disadvantage to explain how the dead, who are senseless according to Homer, could possibily be in that state in the absence of a material body, if we can only account for dementia as due to a material defect in the body. Of course, Aristotle himself did not believe in personal immortality or an afterlife, so this embarrassment only falls on St. Thomas and other theologians who adopt Aristotelian metaphysics -- often without realizing its unsuitability for the metaphysics required by their religion.
Another problem with traditional Christian theology is that, as at John 11:25 quoted above, the promise made by Jesus does not seem basically to be a positive reward or absence of punishment in the afterlife, but simply that those who believe will live, with the implication that those who do not, will not. With the attendant reference to resurrection, we may understand that the dead have died and then been buried but, like Jesus, will be resurrected. The others will not. All traditional Christians believe in the resurrection, but those who believe, as some do, that this is the only afterlife are called "Sleepers," after the reference of St. Paul to "those who sleep in Christ." It is the Greek belief in the immortal soul that adds to this the notion that the souls of the dead are already alive in the hereafter, to which the resurrection of the body is an addition. However, if we entirely substitute the resurrection for the immortal soul, then those who do not believe will simply remain dead, and there will be no population in Hell. Since both Jesus and St. Paul speak of Hell as a place of punishment, which cannot include saved Christians, this would seem to imply that the lost and the damned continue to live in some way. Such an apparent inconsistency requires that the damned are neither alive nor dead, which, come to think of it, is rather like the status of the dead in Homer.
The modern expectation is that there either is an afterlife, with full mental function, or there isn't one at all. Yet we find some anxiety about this in the famous monologue from Hamlet:
To die -- to sleep --
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die -- to sleep.
To sleep -- perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub!
Hamlet worries that the oblivion, the sleep, that he might anticipate in death can be spoiled by what it is that happens to us in actual sleep, namely dreams, and especially bad dreams. And we know that in dreams we do not possess the same mental capacities that we do when awake. We do not need to have any touch of dementia or insanity to experience some features of them in sleep, or at the moments when falling asleep (hypnagogic) or waking up (hypnopompic). If death were a twilight world of dreams, confusion, nightmare, and hallucination, its horrors would not fall much short of the senselessness described by Homer.
The inheritance of Greek philosophy in Western religion prevented other conceptions of the soul and self from opening up the issue. Thus, the idea that the faculties of the mind might not belong to the essence of the soul would have been unremarkable in Vedânta, especially in a doctrine like that of the Mân.d.ûkya Upanis.ad, where at the third level of consciousness various functions of the mind have disappeared. Thus, for both the waking and dreaming states, the Upanishad says they possess the "nineteen mouths," namely "the five senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell), five organs of action (speech, hands, feet, genitals, anus), five vital principles (prân.a, apâna, samâna, udâna, vyâna), and the 'sensorium' (manas) reason (buddhi) ego (ahamkâra) and apperception (citta)." These are all missing in the third state, deep sleep, and the fourth, the Âtman, "Self," and liberation. Indeed, the character of deep sleep is something we also normally experience. Deep sleep is what Hamlet was hoping for; but what Shakespeare did not anticipate was that Vedânta would see deep sleep and the Âtman as forms of consciousness, with the attributes of Brahman as sac-cid-ânanda, , "existence, consciousness, & bliss." In daily life, most of us look forward to the bliss of deep sleep. Its disruption is both psychologically and physiologically adverse to our well being.
In Indian religion and philosophy, one's fortunes are determined, of course, by one's karma, i.e. one's actions in previous time, including previous lives. "Karmic causality" is moral causality, in which reward and punishment follow from one's deeds with the certainty and regularity of any other natural law. Our condition in life, or in the afterlife, or in the next life, are then determined as the appropriate fruits of previous conduct. This includes one's nature, mental and physical. The "realms of rebirth" in Buddhism mean that a person might be reborn as a human, as an animal, in the hells, as a god, as a demon, as a hungry ghost, or in other forms. In all of these, we may have a sense that mental faculties will be equivalent; but then that is obviously not the case for people reborn as animals, whose minds will be very different from rational beings. Thus, the possibility exists that the "nineteen mouths" of the Mân.d.ûkya Upanis.ad might appear in various forms and combinations in the different realms, or in individual births, where, of course, some people are born with mental disabilities or may come to suffer insanity or dementia in the course of their lives. All these diverse fates would be determined by ones merit and karma.
In Buddhism, without a substantial self, the self is a collection of things, the "aggregates" (skandhas, ): 1) the body, or "form," 2) feelings, 3) ideas, 4) impressions, & 5) momentary consciousness. There is no enduring thing present, such as Brahman or the Âtman, in the aggregates. This critique of the self as just a collection is very similar to the view of Hume, who could discover nothing permanent in the introspective examination of the mind. Also, the aggregates are the essence of nothing, since there are neither substances nor essences in Buddhist metaphysics. Thus, for an afterlife, all bets are off. The realms of rebirth and the nature of the aggregates are all a function of Buddhist merit and karma. Anything is possible, depending on your desserts. However, there is not quite the possibility of actual nothingness, despite the apparent meaning of Nirvân.a, , which is "Extinction." Actual Extinction, or nothingness, after death is a heresy in Buddhism, "annihilationism," becaue it violates the Four Fold Negation, that in Nirvân.a there is neither existence, nor non-existence, nor both, nor neither.
A self or soul of bits and pieces, as this appears in these different traditions, through careful introspection, nevertheless sounds like one of the earliest representations of the soul, with the Egyptians. The Egyptian fragmentation of the soul is not an internal but an external division. Thus, the different parts of the soul are different and distinct from each other and even reside or go to different places. The most striking form of this in one respect is the , the "Ba," a bird with a human head, which is the form of the soul that one uses to leave the tomb and travel around on the outside. This seems commensurate with the cross-cultural suspicion that night birds are souls, either restless and confused or self-possessed and investigating. More challenging is the , the "Ka" or "Double." In one way the Ka simply seems to be the soul, in general, since it is the form of the dead person addressed by the living, and to whom offerings are made. However, a person's Ka can also be addressed by the living person himself, and it is always represented as the twin or double of the living person. This is confusing. If the Ka is me, why is it always shown distinct from me and available to be confronted by me? What happens to the proper me at death? Or does the Ka somehow also come to encompass the proper me? The Egyptians were not good at recognizing, let alone answering, such questions. Nor do they ever provide a clue how things like the Ba and the Ka relate to each other.
On the other hand, it is not unusual for various traditions to see the soul as something distinct from both body and consciousness that can be detached from the body, temporarily or permanently, perhaps without any immediate harm to the person -- although certainly to some subsequent disability or danger. We have the intriguing fictional device of the Harry Potter books that the life of the villain Voldemort was protected by the division of his soul and its concealment in various items, all of which needed to be destroyed to kill him. The Ka may share in these notions of distinctness and separation, although we find the Egyptians making no sport of the idea, as seen elsewhere.
Other traditions also feature conceptions, like the Egyptian, of distinct parts of the soul that separate. Thus, the Chinese soul divides into the "animal soul" or , which descends into the earth at death, and "the spiritual part of man... the wits" or , which "ascends to heaven." The division is also reflected in the notion that is the "spirit" of the outside the body, while the is the "ghost" of the outside the body. Again, how these elements relate to each other is unclear, although a certain kind of skeptical Confucian believed that both sides dispersed at death, a notion specifically rebuked by the Hung-wu Emperor, founder of the Ming Dynasty.
The Egyptian and Chinese conceptions of the soul(s) reflect differences in function that may be physiological or practical, with different spatial locations or destinations, unlike the largely mental distincitons of Buddhist doctrine or the view of mental faculties whose disability or decay (in insanity, dementia, or other mental infirmity) challenges us in theories of the mind after the Greeks. The evident incoherence, insufficiency, or just ad hoc jumble (which is no better than we can say, for instance, of the Egyptian version) of these ideas can all be traced back to the same problem: the principle of Kantian philosophy that consistent theories of transcendent objects are impossible. They generate Antinomies, i.e. contradictions. Kantian philosophy also allows for the bizarre feature of Egyptian and Chinese souls that different parts go to different locations; for Kant's theory is that space does not exist among things-in-themselves, a proposal strangely supported by the phenomenon of "non-locality" in quantum mechanics. After death, there could be nothing to stop you from being in two places at once, with your checking on your relatives, while the , the "Akh," can mingle with the stars.
So what are we to make of all this? Indeed, we cannot expect a complete and coherent view of the soul and the afterlife, or even of our own selves. On the other hand, perhaps Christians would be better to cease threatening Hell and stick to promising Life -- although I retain a certain fondness, as does Buddhism, for the punishment of the wicked -- I can think of a fair number of politicians, judges, and other tyrants who deserve a taste of hellfire. But then, I am not a Christian.
In general, it should be clear that there are worse fates for us than becoming nothing, and punishment may not even be the worst of it. The twilight existence of Homer or Gilgamesh was something that people accepted for centuries, even as in India the idea developed that our fate typically was to be reborn, which holds its own horrors. Another childhood can itself be a kind of twilight existence, often with all too real terrors of its own -- as a Mel Brooks character discovered that his great psychological fear was not heights, but parents. We certainly cannot expect that the continuation of our existence would be in our present form, as anticipated by Christian resurrection, or even in the present form, with the familiar abilities, of our minds. We might not, after a fashion, even be able to recognize our own minds in a future form of existence. The reality may be quite the opposite of the fearful Homeric dementia mortui.
Thought Experiments on the Soul
Faith, Works, and Knowledge
Philosophy of Religion