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Thoughts on Death and Immortality

Ludwig Feuerbach, the 19th century philosopher and theologian, discusses the modern idea of the soul and immortality in this excerpt from his 1830 book, Thoughts on Death and Immortality. Feuerbach was the original “materialist” in that he felt human existence to be subsumed in the larger existence of nature and society. Philosophical anthropology, the philosophy of the existence and experience of personhood, remained a key theme across all of his work. Feuerbach thought that modern Christianity’s notion of the soul and its immortality was errant. His attempt to ground human existence in the natural world could be seen as one of the earliest attempts to overcome the mind-body dualism that had become entrenched in European religion, through Christianity, and European philosophy, through Descartes. Given Feuerbach’s perspective, a focus on materiality and environment cannot be separate from a philosophical anthropology that supports or denies their significance.

Originally published in:
(1980) Feuerbach, Ludwig Andreas,
Thoughts on Death and Immortality. 
Trans. James A. Massey.
Berkeley: University of California Press.




Within the developmental history of the Spirit of European humanity, it is possible to distinguish three main epochs in the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. The first epoch is that of the Greeks and Romans, who neither believed in nor were aware of immortality as we understand it. The Roman lived only in Rome; the Roman people were, so to speak, the one and only space that contained his soul and defined the horizon of his public life. The individual citizen’s most idealized and extensive endeavor was to glorify Rome, to expand its might beyond all boundaries, and to establish it for the future, and, in respect to personal reward, to continue in the thankful remembrance of posterity. The Roman did not consider his self to be a reality over and above the actual common life and did not understand it to be something substantial and autonomous in such an exaltation beyond all determination and commonality. The Roman was the soul, the “I” of the Roman; he was something and was aware that he was something, not on his own, but only in union with his people, only in and through them. The belief in immortality in its modern meaning rests on the separation of potentiality from actuality; when these are one, this modern belief disappears. Ethical fulfillment in its determination as Roman ethical fulfillment, the perfect Roman, was the ethical ideal of the Roman. But it was in his power to attain this ideal, just as the ideal of the bud, the brightly colored and fragrant flower, is already attained in the bud by virtue of its natural tendency, capability, and potentiality. Now since the Roman knew of no separation or gap between representation and actuality, between potentiality and efficacy, between ideality and reality, he knew of no continuation of his self after death.

The same is true of the Greeks. Greece, where beauty was the all-ruling, all-permeating, and all-inspiring concept, where beauty was, so to speak, the public ideal, the people’s mode of perception, where the understanding of beauty rested precisely on the presentability of inner spiritual reality in actual visible form—how could the modern belief in immortality thrive in Greece? How could one encounter in Greece the belief that splits humans into an otherworldly, inconceivable, shapeless soul, which is hostile to both form and nature, and into a crude, spiritless body, which is hostile to the soul? The assertions of a few Greek philosophers that the soul is immortal and the ancient representations of Elysium and Tartarus cannot be counted as beliefs in individual immortality.

The second epoch in the developmental history of this doctrine or belief is the Catholic Christian period, the Middle Ages. Here immortality became a universal article of belief and doctrine. But it would be an extremely superficial opinion concerning the Catholic Christian age to cite the belief in, and teaching of, immortality as a characteristic moment and decisive indicator of the Spirit of this period. Rather, the characteristic and most prominent feature of the Middle Ages was the living belief in the actual existence of divine grace and of the highest supersensible goods, the unqualified, all-inclusive belief in the entire positive content of the Christian religion. The individual human had not yet attained the desolate and empty consciousness of his individuality, of his isolated autonomy, had not yet abandoned himself to himself and taken his stand on himself. He had been received and included in the holy communion of believers, and perceived and felt himself to be redeemed, delivered, in possession of the true life, but only by being included in a divine communion, a holy spiritual world, a real supersensible order. The highest being is communal being, the highest enjoyment is the enjoyment and feeling of unity. But the Catholic church was just this communal being, the gathering together of all spirits into one Spirit and one belief. Since the individual was not dependent on himself, was not confined to himself and left to his own resources, the attainment of his hereafter, that is, of his salvation and happiness, did not depend on his own inner self determinations— his activities, convictions, and aspirations. Neither belief, nor moral disposition, nor moral action is being; they are only inner self-determinations, self-activities. From the perspective of belief, moral disposition, and moral action, being is something that is not actual but exists only in another world, is something to be believed in, to be hoped for, to be longed for. But in the Catholic Christian time, the only otherworldly being for belief and moral disposition was in the actually existing church, which was a real being standing beyond the merely natural and worldly life, a sensibly supersensible and supersensibly sensible world. Thus it was neither belief nor moral disposition but being in the church that constituted the essence of the individual. However, since the church as the communion of believers was the actual kingdom of God, no room was allowed for the separation between this world and the next, hope and attainment, activity and being, ideality and reality, potentiality and actuality. Therefore, the belief in immortality was only one article of belief among others, not an illuminating indicator and moment that defined and characterized the medieval Spirit. In fact, if this matter is considered with more care and exactitude, it must be asserted that, not so much the individual as such, but rather heaven and hell were the essential objects of this article of belief and doctrine.

The belief in heaven and hell must be distinguished completely from the belief in individual immortality. The essential mark of the belief in heaven and hell is not belief in the eternal continuation of the individual but belief in the recompense for good and evil—in other words, belief in the reality of the good and in the nothingness of evil. Indeed, heaven is nothing but a sensuous picture of the good and of the bliss united to it, while hell is nothing but a sensuous representation of evil and of the nothingness and misery that is inseparable from it. The true meaning of this belief, purged of its pictorial element, is this: good follows the good, evil follows evil, and the results of good and evil do not cease together with the end of sensible existence. Moreover, purged of all admixture of temporal metaphors, the meaning of this belief is this: there exists not only an external, sensible unhappiness, but also a pure, spiritual, moral unhappiness, which is evil itself; and there exist not just external, sensible goods, but also eternal, moral goods, which come from the good itself and which consist solely in enjoyment of the good. Good and evil do not have only sensible consequences, do not result in just external reward and punishment; there also exist inner moral reward and punishment. Although the joys of heaven and the pains of hell have been vividly painted in sensuous form, heaven really means the realm of the good, and hell really means the realm of evil, and the meaning of this statement is as follows: good humans are rewarded with the good; evil humans are punished with evil.

If one wishes to find somewhere in the belief system of early Christianity the idea of the immortality of the individual as such, of individual continuation after death in the modern sense, one will be able to find it only in the belief in the resurrection of the body. For this belief means precisely that the body, the individual as individual, is immortal. In nature, the shadow follows the reality, but in history, the shadow precedes it. So, too, whereas in art, the copy follows the original, in history, the copy precedes it. The belief in the resurrection of the body was the symbol, the enigmatic picture, the shadow of the belief in the immortality of the individual as such. When history, which solves all enigmas and reveals all secrets, solved this enigma, when history brought forth and manifested the meaning of this belief, the belief in the picture disappeared. To confirm: the belief in the resurrection of the body is found already in the holy religious texts of the ancient Zends. But no religion of the ancient world is joined as closely in Spirit to the Christian religion as the religion of the ancient Parsees, for it proceeds from moral principles alone. As the whole ancient Persian religion was but one luminous, transparent symbol, was but one idea, that of the good symbolized by light and of evil symbolized by darkness, and as the whole ancient Persian religion can be called a symbol, a silhouette, of the Christian religion, so, too, was the belief in the resurrection of the body nothing but the belief in the immortality of the individual as such, its idea in picture and symbol, which only became articulated in the modern Christian age. (Thus, too, the ancient Persian representation that each reality has its heavenly guardian spirit was a likeness, a picture, of the Platonic and Christian doctrines of the ideas and essences of all things in God.)

The belief in the immortality of the individual as such emerges on its own grounds and without disguise only in the modern age, which therefore constitutes the third and most important epoch of this doctrine and belief, and, thus, only in this age does it form a characteristic historical moment that is determinate and determining, that should be grasped and brought to prominence for its own sake. The trademark of the entire modern age is that the human as human, the person as person, and therefore the single human individual in his own individuality, has been perceived as divine and infinite. The first shape in which the character of the modern age was expressed was Protestantism. Its highest principle was no longer the church and being in unity with the church but was belief, individual conviction. No longer was the church the principle of belief, but belief became the foundation and the principle of the church. Now the church possessed the power and the basis of its existence, no longer in the authority of unity and universality, but in the power of individual belief. The focal point of the Protestant believer was Christ, the God-man, or the essence of humanity unified with the essence of God in the shape and form of Christ. Thus already the focal point of Protestantism was the person, but not yet the concept of the person as person, within which each person is included without distinction; it was the person only as the single, world-historical person of Christ. In certain sects within Protestantism, such as those of the pietists, this veneration of the person of Christ was pressed to such extremes that even the sensuous individuality of Christ became an object of veneration; in turn, the veneration of his individuality was extended to the veneration of his corpse. This assertion can be sufficiently confirmed by the following pietist utterances from the previous century: “Those who wish to be and to remain blessed must be kissed by the pale, dead, icy lips of Jesus, must smell the dead corpse of the Savior, and must be penetrated with the breath of his grave.”

Now Protestantism developed further to the point that, no longer the person of Christ, but the person as person was the focal point of individual belief; thus each person in himself and in his own interior reality became a focal point to himself. Accordingly, Protestant evangelicalism became rationalism and moralism. Thus pietism must be recognized as the point transitional to these latter forms. For, in the mind of the pietist, the true and essential Christ is no longer the actual person of Christ in and for himself, as he exists in God, but is the shape that Christ assumes in the interior of the subject, the Christ who is taken up into the heart, who exists only in feeling and disposition, the Christ who has become the very I of the believing individual. Meanwhile, the only elements of the external Christ in which the pietist remains interested are his specifics, his subjective particularities. But because only that which is personal to the individual Christ—such as the painful experiences that Christ endured out of love for others—becomes an object of representation, only the subjective becomes an object for the subject, and the subject truly becomes his only object. In this sense, pietism led to rationalism and moralism, for these are precisely the forms of Spirit in which the object of the subject is solely the subject himself, in which the person alone is everything, is the essential and infinite reality. Thus the belief in individual immortality as an infinitely important and essential moment, as a specifically distinguishing, characteristic indicator of the modern point of view, first emerged in the standpoint of pietism, but then became especially prominent in moralism and rationalism. The reasons for the importance, significance, and necessity of this belief for these standpoints can be comprehended and expressed in various ways.

  1. Pure, naked personhood is considered to be the only substantial reality. But for the person who grasps himself in this manner, this life is a highly inadequate condition. There is no pure personhood in this world; here, personhood is restricted on all sides, is determined, oppressed, depressed, and bothered by all kinds of conditions and painful qualities that contaminate and tarnish it. But if the person is the only substantial reality in this world, and yet this life is a determined life, a life made agonizing by the boundaries of qualities, then this life is insubstantial, is a life that is inadequate to the essence of the person. Therefore, there must exist a second life, a life that is not determined and restricted by the conflict and dissimilarity of any qualities, a life that is lived out in an element as bright and transparent as the purest crystal water, in order that the pure light of personhood may penetrate and shine through this element without limitation, without coloration, without resistance. In earthly life, the pure person is only a represented person, only an ideal person; thus there must additionally exist a being in which the represented person is actual, possesses the ideal reality.
  2. More exactly, the pure person is the sinless and stainless person, the person who is totally good, who is identical with virtue itself. Morality, perfectly virtuous personhood, is the essence of the person. But determined persons, limited by qualities and sensible properties, are not totally and perfectly good; they only strive for the essence of perfect morality. Unity with pure personhood, whether it is understood apart from individuality as goodness itself, virtue itself, or perfection itself, or whether it is understood as an absolutely perfect, holy individual, as God, is only a distant, otherworldly goal; only the one and all, the universal, the totality, being itself, the Absolute, can be perfect and complete. Therefore, if individuals as such wish to be complete, that is, to be absolute, then, in addition to the present life, they need a time that is unbounded, that disappears into eternity. However, there are two possible relationships between the individual and the object that is his goal in the hereafter. On the one hand, his striving is continued in the hereafter; in this case, it will and must be continued without end. For if the individual were to attain his goal, if he became complete, at that point he would cease to be an individual person. Only a finite measure, a determinate quantity of perfection leaves room for self-consciousness in the determined individual; if the measure of his perfection were filled, the individual would drown, like Glaucon in the honeypot, in the overflowing wellsprings of perfections. Only as long as the measure is not full does the certainty and consciousness of the individual hold out. But since the individual clings to his particular individuality as an absolute, the attainment of perfection must be put off into an unattainable future. On the other hand, individual striving ceases in the hereafter; the individual instantaneously attains his goal in the enjoyable contemplation of the good or of God. But in this case, the individual still remains distinct and separated from the object that is his goal, for only in this distinction does he maintain the certainty, representation, and perception of himself. He is a self only as long as he is distinct; his distinction cannot and should not be surrendered, for only the self is the essence of the self. For the individual, it is a matter not so much of unity with the object as of distinction from it.
  3. Since the essential object of individuals is only the subject, since only personhood has absolute reality for them, they have placed themselves at a standpoint where the one thing important in every object, that is, the universal, the totality, the truly actual and substantial, disappears from sight. Because in the innermost depths of their souls, only the subject is their object, they also see outside of themselves only subjects, the subjective, the individual, and therefore only that which is defective, negative, finite. To be sure, they call the history of philosophy by its proper name; they even call it “the history of thinking reason.” But, to them, it is really nothing but a history of opinions, of peculiar, paradoxical whims, of superfluous endeavors and subjective experiments. Again, they grant to the history of the church the title “Church History” (but it is nothing more than a title; for these individuals, that which is universal and substantial exists only in titles and names), but, to them, it is really only a history of popes, of orthodoxy and heterodoxy, of religious enthusiasts, of pietists, atheists, simple believers, and so on. So if church history is not quite a history of human folly, still it is a history of monstrous aberrations, of contaminations and disfigurements of the pure Gospel. Through this labyrinth of corruption is drawn a barely noticeable thread of providence, which is at best slender and delicate. In fact, it is so thin and frail that it is torn apart by every heretic and philosopher, and, till now, could be observed and analyzed only by certain specially graced persons. World history is called “universal history,” “world history,” “history of humanity,” but they know only of humans and not of humanity, of one Spirit or one totality; world, humanity, Spirit, to them, are only titles or names. Thus, in their minds, world history is only, on the one hand, a history of individual humans, on the other, a history of situations, circumstances, details. The Indians thought that elephants were the bearers of the cosmos, but these persons think that the secret whims of the cabinet ministers, the parrots and hunting puppies of princesses and queens, the fleas and lice that nest on the heads of the great lords and heroes, are the bearers, the movers, and the exalted pillars of the cosmos. They even speak of a nature, yet they have no knowledge of one nature, but only of an aggregate, of a collection of the countless single stars, stones, plants, animals, elements, things. They even say that God exists; indeed, they swear to it most solemnly; they certify that the being of God is the being that is the most certain being of all. But, to them, “being” is really only a word, a title; God exists only in their hopes, their beliefs, their representations; they grant to him only a subjective, represented being. Thus, if someone comes along and points out to them that God really exists, that his being is not merely a represented, unreal being, but that nature and world history are the existence (though not the nature) of God, to their minds, one who gives credence to an actual God, precisely because he asserts that God exists, is an atheist and a naturalist.

Accordingly, once all that is truly actual, universal, substantial, once all Spirit, soul, and essence have disappeared from real life, nature, and world history, once everything has been massacred, has been dissolved into its parts, has been rendered without being, without unity, without Spirit, without soul, then, upon the ruins of the broken world, the individual raises the banner of the prophet and stations the abominable sacred watchman of the belief in his immortality and in the pledge of the hereafter. Standing on the ruins of the present life, in which he sees nothingness, all at once there awaken in the individual the feeling and consciousness of his own inner nothingness; and in the feeling of this double nothingness there flow from him, as from a Scipio on the ruins of Carthage, the compassionate teardrops and soap bubbles of the world of the future. Over the gap that lies between the present life as it really is and his perception and representation of it, over the pores and gaps in his own soul, the individual erects the fools’ bridge of the future life. After he has allowed to wither the fruit trees, the roses and lilies of the present world, after he has sickled away grass, cabbage, and corn and has transformed the whole world into a desiccated field of stubble, there finally springs up, in the empty feeling of his futility and the impotent consciousness of his vanity, as the weak semblance and faint illusion of the living, fresh time when flowers bloom, the nondescript, pale red, faded autumn crocus of immortality. Because nothing exists in the subject but the truthless subject itself, and because nothing exists outside of the subject but the temporal and the transitory, the finite, nothing but that which is false and unreal in the real world, it stands to reason that for the subject the real world is an unreal, future, otherworldly world. For the hereafter is nothing but the mistaken, misconceived, and misinterpreted real world. The subject knows only the shadow, the superficial external appearance of the real world, because he is only shallow and hollow in himself. He mistakes the shadow of the world for the world itself; and his idea of the really true world must be only a shadow, the illusion and fantastical dream of the future world.



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