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THE IDEA OF IMMORTALITY
Prevalence of the idea of immortality-Difficulty of forming negative
ideas—Want of discrimination between objective and ideal existenceThe instinct of self-conservation—Reasons inducing man to believe in immortality : 1. Fear of death ; 2. Mode of accounting for anomalies of life-Retribution-Forms assumed by the belief in immortality : 1. Degeneration; 2. Continuous existence similar to that in life ; 3. Metem psychosis ; 4. Cyclical life ; 5. Development-Conjectures on mode of life after death-Evil effects produced by the belief-Demonology and witchcraft.
widely spread than the idea of the existence of one or more Gods. Barbarous people, standing on the lowest rung of the scale of civilization, incapable of the smallest mental advance, unable to draw inferences which are self-suggestive, and to argue from palpable analogies—and this is all that is required for conceiving the idea of God—are nevertheless found to believe explicitly or implicity in the perpetuation of life after death. The aborigines of California, when first visited, were as near beasts as men ever become. The missionaries likened them to "herds of swine, who neither worshipped the true and only God, nor adored false deities ;" yet they must have had some vague notion of an after-life, for the writer who paints the darkest picture of their condition remarks, “I saw them frequently putting shoes op
the feet of the dead, which seems to indicate that they entertain the idea of a journey after death.”] The natives of Australia, who have no idea of God, believe that after death their souls mount to the clouds, or cross the ocean to a distant land.2
The existence of funeral rites is a proof that those who practise them have some idea, indistinct enough perhaps, that the dead are not annihilated.
The prevalence of a belief in the continued vitality of the soul after death is evidence that the idea must rest on an exceedingly simple basis.
The conception of a deity requires some mental exertion; the conception of immortality requires none. Given the consciousness of personality, of a self the seat of the will, the thoughts, and the feelings, and the belief in the perpetuity of its life follows at once.
For the supposition that death annihilates the conscious principle could not be entertained by an unphilosophic mind. A high degree of education must be attained before the notion of annihilation can be apprehended. The mind receives positive impressions only, and intelligentially con. ceives negatives by eliminating positive impressions. Night is regarded as the absence of day, death as the absence of life. In order to form an idea of the destruction of the conscious self, an amount of exhaustion of impressions is required wholly beyond the powers of an uncultivated mind. Man's personality is so distinctly projected on the surface of his consciousness, that the idea of its obliteration is inconceivable without doing violence to his primary convictions. Let any one try to imagine himself extinguished,—his
· Brinton: Myths of New World, p. 234 ; New York, 1868.
powers of thought, his feelings, his volitions, his perceptions broken short off,—and he will see how extremely difficult is the task, and how incomplete is his success.
The phenomenon of death is the cessation of the action of the will in such a manner as to be cognizable. But to argue from such premises that the existence of the will is at an end is illogical. It has ceased to act in one way; that is all that can be said. The savage A has a rooted conviction that B's actions are determined by an inner force. B dies. A observes that B no longer eats and walks, hunts and fights. Unless A be a metaphysician, his conviction in the persistence in the life of the soul of B is not disturbed; he simply concludes that the soul of B is operating in a way hitherto unusual. To suppose that the soul-force is extinct is to infer that, because one set of modes of operation has ceased, the force is incapacitated from operating according to another set of modes. It is far easier for A to allow his conception of the positive existence of B to remain undisturbed, than to distress his mind by thinking of B as an aggregation of negative ideas.
The popular belief in apparitions illustrates this truth. In most cases of ghost-seeing, the dead are beheld dressed in the clothes they wore during life, and are engaged in a customary pursuit. These supposed apparitions, of which one hears well-authenticated stories every day, prove that minds continue to represent the dead as existing in the same way as in past times. Most persons experience a difficulty in realizing a startling event, such as the death of a relative. To realize is to see a fact in all its bearings, and these, in the case of death, are of a negative description; such as "A, who has hitherto sat in this chair, will occupy it no more. He will not take a walk after break
fast, nor read his newspaper, nor smoke his pipe," and so on. When spectres are said to have been seen, it is evident that the seer is of sluggish intellect; and, as a matter of fact, it will be found on examination that ghost-seers are not imaginative, but prosaic personages. The more imaginative a person is, the more able he is to perceive the bearings of a fact, and the less likely he is to be deluded by fancy.
Another cause of the wide-spread belief in the immortality of the soul is the want of discrimination between objective and ideal existence. When a man dies, the remembrance of him survives. To those who knew him he is not annihilated, because they are able to remember or re-present him ideally. The dead man produces no longer material impressions, but his personality survives in the remembrance of his friends. The savage is unable to distinguish between an idea and an object, an imagination and a reality, a dream and a fact. The inhabitants of Madagascar believe that every apparition seen in a dream has a substantial existence. When a European dreams of his distant country, the Dayaks think his soul has annihilated space, and paid a flying visit to Europe during the night. “Whoso seeth me in his sleep," said Mahommed, “seeth me truly." The Basutos, when they dream of a deceased relative, believe that he has really visited them; and they sacrifice a victim on his grave, thinking that he must be hungry. “Whiles I think my puir bairn's dead," said Madge Wildfire, "ye ken very weel it's buried—but that signifies naething. I have had it on my knee a hundred times, and a hundred till that, since it was buried; and how could that be were it dead, ye ken ?—it's merely impossible."
Those whom education has taught to discriminate between fact and fancy know that the re-presentation is merely ideal; but this the rude intellect does not know, and it regards it as a tangible reality.
Man, as has been justly remarked by Feuerbach,' is led to believe in immortality by the instinct of self-conservation. He cannot endure the idea of letting that which he possesses escape his hands; what he has, he desires to have for ever.
“ We cannot,” said Fichte, “love any object which we do not regard as eternal.” This is true, for we will not undertake the execution of any task unless we are assured that it will last. Who would build a house if he knew that to-morrow it would fall? If I regard the possibility as a probability, I lose all desire of building. The idea of eternity is an idea of vague continuance. I build a house, hoping that it will last, and I do not care to think when it will fall; I do not attempt to fix a date at which it will fall. My idea of its lasting is indefinite. So the idea of the savage concerning the continued vitality of his friend's soul is that it will last on,
and it is no concern of his when that indefinite duration will be cut short. The Fiji Islanders are said to believe that the soul of the dead man passes through two stages or conditions of existence, one of happiness, the next of misery; and that then it undergoes annihilation. This, however, is nothing more than a supposition that the soul is born at death into a life of vigour, which passes into age, and ends in a second death, beyond which the Fiji mind does not attempt to follow it.
1 Gedanken über Tod u. Unsterblichkeit ; Leipz. 1849.
2 United States Exploring Expedition, Report of Hales, p. 54; Phila. delphia, 1846.