Immortality: Experience and
This is an outline of Eric Voegelin's essay Immortality:
Experience and Symbol, which was the Ingersoll Lecture
on Immortality, delivered at the Harvard Divinity School in
1965. It can be found in:
- Harvard Theological Review, LX (1967)
- Faith and Political Philosophy: The Correspondence
Between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, 1934-1964,
edited by Peter Emberley and Barry Cooper, Pennsylvania State
- The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Volume 12:
Published Essays 1966-1985, Louisiana State University
Your comments and corrections are always welcome: please
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"Immortality" is one of the language symbols engendered by a
class of experiences commonly called "religious". The symbols
have a peculiar relation to the truth experienced:
When the experience disappears from the man, the reality to
which the symbols refer has vanished also. Because of this the
symbols often become detached from reality. But this reality is
the source of right order in human existence and we must try to
explain the symbols so that others can reconstitute the
- They do not refer to objects existing in time and space,
but rather to nonexistent reality.
- The experience itself is just the consciousness of
participation in nonexistent reality.
- The symbols have no meaning apart from the truth of the
The truth may be stated as simple propositions ("The soul is
immortal"), but the form of doctrine or dogma creates new
experiences such as fideistic acceptance. Worse, when doctrinal
truth becomes dominant, knowledge of the original experience
may be lost and the doctrines taken as propositions similar to
those referring to tangible things. This provokes skepticism
and the "smart idiot" questions of "How do you know?" and "How
can you prove it?"
can attach itself to every experience of nonexistent reality
when it becomes articulate. When the sequence is attached to
the great ordering experiences of philosophy and Christianity,
it is discernible as a structure in historical processes. A
brief survey of our position in them:
- original account
- dogmatic exposition
- skeptical argument
In our civilization, the sequence has run its course
Modernity is energetic madness. "Madness" in the sense of
spiritual disease, the loss of contact with nonexistent
- the noetic experience engendered classic
- which became the dogmatic philosophy of the
- which immediately provoked a skeptical reaction
In modern times (which is a more complicated case because
because the sequence attaches to both philosophy and
- In the high Middle Ages the Christian order
bifurcated into mysticism and nominalism.
- In the 16th century doctrinaire Christianity exploded
into the wars of religion.
- The revulsion toward religious and metaphysical
dogmatism crystallized around the revival of ancient
- Which in the 17th century began the ever-declining
spiritual and intellectual orders of modernity.
Modernity also contains those thinkers who correctly
diagnose its madness, and who attempt to recapture reality,
There has been progress since the beginning of the 20th
century. The experiences of reality are being recovered by
historical studies. Next: a representative case.
- Descartes, who, in his Meditations,
attempted to go beyond dogmatism and skepticism to immediate
- Hegel, in his Phänomenologie
- William James
- Henri Bergson
The Egyptian text of 2000 B.C.: "Dispute of a Man, Who
Contemplates Suicide, With His Soul."
First part. A man, in despair, wants to end his meaningless
life. His soul argues against suicide.
These are all ironic vulgarian arguments, as presented by the
author who has a vital alternative to the deficient mode of
living. He rises above lamentation into existential revolt, to
dramatic judgment and action. His consciousness grows through
resistance to society's pressure and his soul's counsel.
- Soul: Life is a gift from the gods. Man: These are
- Man: The afterlife will be pleasant. Soul: That is
- The man is persuaded neither by conventional belief nor
skepticism. Soul: Enjoy life, live for the moment. The man,
in spiritual agony, finds this repellent.
Second part: The experience of reality.
This pattern is a compact form of the accounts later rendered
by Plato and St. Paul. The symbols of:
- Revulsion toward corruption.
- Life in the mode of unreality. Living death. The
destruction of community. Withdrawal of the divine presence
from the self.
- Death as liberation from the sickness of life. Life as
sickness, darkness, exile, prison. Death as recovery, light,
longing to return home, release from prison.
- Faith in the fullness of life to be achieved through
death. Transformation into a god, judging the affairs of men
are constants in the class of experiences from which the
symbolism of immortality emerges.
The author of the "Dispute" does not break with the
cosmological order, but does approach a personal experience of
The quarrel between doctrinaire beliefs and objections is
the modern counterpart of the first, argumentative part of the
Rules for the philosopher:
This field of tensions has both extension and structure:
He cannot side with the believers and argue the doctrinal
question of whether man has an immortal soul. This would be
to commit Whitehead's "fallacy of misplaced concreteness":
the erection of symbols into entities.
(The believer has the existential advantage, preserving
truth in its doctrinal derivation).
He cannot side with the skeptics who deny the validity of
such propositions because they cannot be verified or
falsified. Doctrinal truth is not original, but is
derivative of experience.
(The skeptic has the intellectual advantage because he
does not operate with hypostatized symbols. But: he denies
- He must not condemn the dispute, because the conflict
between faith and reason is a mystery.
- He must not be indecisive.
The "subfield of doctrinaire existence": the dynamics of belief
and unbelief. The philosopher is concerned with the whole
field, not with any specific part. He must resist occupying the
pole to which he is drawn; that would be to derail into
- Extension: man, society, and history.
Structure in two principle dimensions:
- The tension between existence in truth and the
deficient modes of existence. The philosopher moves
between the poles of order and disorder, reality and loss
- Tensions on the level of deficient existence.
The issue of "history" is present in the "Dispute" only
compactly, but is an explicit theme in modernity.
[First: how history appears in the subfield of doctrinaire
New to modernity are the ideological objections to doctrinal
belief. They have been so successful because doctrinaire belief
prefigures ideology and makes society receptive to it. An
example: the objector's argument, "The experience is an
Intellectually, the proposition is a piece of loose
thinking. Experiences are always real; only their content can
be characterized as illusory.
As a polemic, the purpose of the proposition is to cause the
misunderstanding noted, diverting attention from a taboo
question: What does it mean when the content of an experience
is to be characterized as an illusion? Either:
In either case, the judgment of illusion rests on control
experiences of the object outside the experience in question.
But the judgment can pertain only to experiences of existent
objects, not to the experiences of participation in nonexistent
reality. Thus, the proposition "the experience is an illusion"
is nonsense both when referring to the experience and to its
- The object experienced does not exist, or
- it does exist but on closer inspection has
characteristics different from those apparent in the object
The polemical force of the proposition is due to existential
The proposition "the experience is an illusion" operates with
two intellectual tricks:
- The general readiness to "think" in doctrinal form.
The specifically Western and modern ambience of language
and opinion as it has developed through two centuries of
ideologies. Noteworthy components:
- Feurbach's psychology in Essence of
Christianity, where he stated that dogmatic
propositions are projections of the world-immanent
consciousness of man.
- Marx's critique of religion.
- Comte's positivism.
- Freud's Future of an Illusion
[End of the analysis: how history appears in the subfield of
- It obscures the fallacy of misplaced concreteness which
its background premise has taken over from doctrinal truth.
(The doctrinal believer becomes the victim of his own
- It hides the implied ideology which carves history into a
series of blocklike segments, each governed by a state of
consciousness. (The doctrinal believer is relegated to an
Those who live in the subfield of doctrinaire existence are
in a closed world; they exclude the experience of truth. The
pathological deformations which characterize the subfield:
Laws of segmented history serve to frighten contemporaries into
a state of consciousness favorable to the doxic thinker. But
history is actually the struggle between existence in truth and
deficient modes of existence as, for example, illustrated by
the "Dispute". The history of mankind comprehends both truth
and untruth in tension. Predominance of one pole does not
abolish the other, or the tension itself.
Experienced truth can be excluded from discourse but not
from reality. Its presence disturbs mental operations. To
save the appearances of reason, the doctrinaire must:
The doctrinaire descend from reason into the realm of
- leave premises inarticulate
- refuse to discuss premises
- invent devices to obscure premises
- use fallacies
The critical study of history is impossible when a whole
class of phenomena is excluded. The appearance of science
is saved by opposing, not faith and philosophy, but late
doctrinal forms of theology and metaphysics. By presuming
that consciousness is world-immanent, the doctrinaire carve
history into ascending phases or states of consciousness.
The events of participation must be crushed into doctrine;
note the deformations of Plato as a severe example. The
covering devices of such butchery are "methods:"
The doctrinaire construction of history itself became a
methodological principle. "Value-free science" selected
materials from the standpoint of "values" which were exempt
from critical examination. Popper's "Open Society" was
invented to prevent public collisions between private
An example expression of segmented history: "We are living
in a post-Christian age".
- This partly describes historical reality, the epochal
revolt against doctrinaire theology and metaphysics. However,
since the revolt was against doctrine rather than faith,
calling the age "post-Christian" is to give the revolt depth
it doesn't have. This lack of depth characterizes the age;
the revolt did not recover the experience of truth but
adopted the doctrine of world-immanent consciousness.
There is a larger meaning within the world of doctrinaire
existence. The ideological revolt against the older type of
doctrine derives its strength from the experience of power
over nature, and from the persecution by church and state
suffered when exploring the natural world. The reality of
existential tension was lost at the same time the reality
of science and power were gained, freeing the libido
dominandi to construct terrorist ideologies. The empty
shells of doctrine were transformed into ideological
equivalents, as for example:
The center of all these symbols is the transformation of
human power over nature into a human power of salvation.
Nietzsche is explicit about this.
- contempt of the world into exaltation of the
- the City of God into the City of Man
- the apocalyptic into the ideological millennium
- eschatological metastasis through divine action into
the world-immanent metastasis though human action
The ideologue secures a self-immortalization which is no
longer believable, and he can no longer accept rational
argument in general. It is difficult to revive the reality
of existential tension which reason requires. Breaking out
of the dream by any other means causes anxiety at the
bleakness of existence in world-immanent time. Hence the
ideologue's resistance to rational argument: his
self-immortality is at stake. He tries to force time and
eternity into oneness.
How does the philosopher deal with the "post-" symbol, as
regards his participation in the timeless, and his
consciousness of that area of reality where the timeless
reaches into time? Plato's symbol of the metaxy
expresses the experience of the intersection of time and
the timeless. "Presence": the point of intersection in
man's existence. "Flow of presence": the dimension of
existence that is, and is not, time. Questions:
The philosopher must reject Christian doctrine that
condemns to hell mankind who lived before Christ, because
he knows that the tension of faith toward God is a trait of
human nature, as Augustine and Aquinas confirm. History is
Christ written large, a symbol compatible with Plato's "man
written large". The Definition of Chalcedon (451 AD)
describes the same structure of intermediate
metaxy reality that the philosopher analyzes. The
reality of the Mediator and the intermediate reality of
consciousness have the same structure.
- What sense does the symbol "post-" make if history is
a flow of presence?
- What sense does the symbol "presence" make if the
presence of intersection is a time-like flow?
Caution: a philosophy of consciousness (a man in search
of truth) is not a substitute for revelation (God revealing
truth). This is one of Hegel's errors.
Man exists in time but experiences participation in the
timeless. The experience engenders a large complex of symbols
(of which "immortality" is one) which must be considered as a
unit. The complex has a structure. The "Dispute" suggests that
at least these groups are typical:
Historically, the groups are weighted and actualized
A nuclear group consisting of the symbols:
A group consisting of the entities involved in the fate of
life and death:
- his soul, or part of his soul
- the gods, or God
- A group concerning the order of the cosmos and society,
justice and judgment
The group that appears in Hellenic philosophy, Christianity
- life as a prison, as sickness, a darkness, and an
- death as release from prison, recovery from sickness,
a light shining in the darkness, a return home
- A group of imagery concerning the upper and lower worlds
and the destinies of their inhabitants.
All these variants are modalities of the tension between time
and the timeless. They are subunits of meaning in the sequence
which derives its meaning from the one engendering flow of
presence. Study of the variants allows them to elucidate each
other, and allows the meaning of the whole to emerge, although
"meaning of the whole" is not the proper term because the
perspective of truth is gained from within the process of
- The accents may fall on the consequences of immortality
for the ordering of existence in earthly life, as in
- The tension of existence may snap, so that the injustice
of social order will appear irreparable in the present
aion and just order is to be expected only from a
metastasis of the world through divine intervention, as in
- ...or, it may be deformed by the libidinous attempt at
pulling the timeless into identity with time, as in
ideological speculations on politics and history.
- The cosmos may be considered a demonic prison, so that
the purpose of human action will be reduced to finding the
means of escape from it, as in gnosis.
- The expectation of immortality may rise to Egyptian
- ...or shrink to the Hellenic shadow existence in
- ...or expand ecstatically to Christian
- The drama of fall and redemption may assume the form of
cosmological myth, as in Gnostic systems...
- ...or of an historical myth, as in Marxian
- The imagery of afterlife may be richly elaborated, as in
apocalyptic and Gnostic symbolisms...
- ...and then again, the mythical imagery may disappear
under pressure of enlightenment and demythization, to be
replaced by the hedonistic imagery of perfect realms to be
achieved through progress and revolutionary action, as in our
The "Dispute" can be used to clarify some problems of
immortality that are obscured by the later variants:
(1) Alienation: a mood of existence, which when aroused to
intense consciousness, engenders a characteristic group of
symbols ("life as prison", etc). A very rich influence in
gnosticism. Originally indicating remoteness from God; since
Hegel and Marx, the state of existence apt to engender this
group of symbols. For Voegelin: a mood of existence rooted in
the structure of existence itself.
- experiential motivations of the symbol "immortality"
The task is to connect the plurality of meanings of the
alienation group with those in other groups, particularly of
the life-death group.
The suspense between temporal and nontemporal life becomes
so intense that "life" and "death" exchange meanings. The
parallel between the "Dispute" and the Gorgias,
both preparing for the vision of judgment in the afterlife,
restoring just order.
"Alienation" is when the suspense reaches a stage of acute
suffering; the symbol expresses the feeling of estrangement
from existence in time because it estranges us from the
timeless. We become strangers to the world that requires
conformity to a deficient mode of existence.
Further elaboration: existence in time becomes an "alien
world" or a "foreign country" or a "desert" in which the
wanderer from another world has lost his way. He may find his
direction and engage in a "pilgrim's progress" or an "ascent
from the cave" or a "wandering in the desert" which will lead
to the "promised land". Or he may adapt to the alien world such
that the true world becomes alien.
The symbols of alienation are hypostases of the poles of
existential tension. But there is only one world; man exists in
the tension between time and the timeless. The dissociation of
the world in "this world" and the "other world" makes us
strangers to one or the other.
The great symbolic expressions of alienation occur during
the breakdown of traditional order:
Alienation occurs in many contexts, not just the Gnostic.
- the "Dispute": the disorder of the First Intermediate
- the pre-Socratics and Plato: the decline of the
- apocalypse, gnosis, Christianity: the expansion of
- modernity: the decline of Christianity into dogmatic
belief, the wave of enlightenment, the rise of industrial
society, the global wars
(2) Experiential motivations of the symbol
Problems posed by the symbols "mortality"-"immortality":
The statements suggest two historical modes of existence:
- "Immortality" is not peculiar to Christianity and
Immortality presumes a subject:
- Homeric usage: the gods
- classic philosophy: the noetic part of the soul
- early Christianity: the bodily resurrection
- the "Dispute": one of man's souls
- Whatever the subject, immortality pertains to the lasting
or duration of an entity.
- Immortality presupposes the experience of life and death.
The symbols "life"-"death" express man's consciousness of
existing in tension toward the divine ground.
The older symbols are retained when shifting from the earlier
to the later mode. The earlier meanings cannot be abandoned;
the symbols come to have two meanings. The symbolizations of
truth supplement one another.
- The primary experience of the cosmos, with mortal and
- Differentiated consciousness, where the symbols express
the poles of existential tension.
Nichomachian Ethics X.vii.8 shows the symbolism
of immortality in transition from the earlier to the later mode
of existence, with the confusion of meanings. The tension of
existence can be symbolized by both the older polytheistic and
newer philosophic traditions. Aristotle invented the symbol
athanatzein ("to immortalize"): the habit of
If Nous is both the god beyond man and the divine entity
within man, the two are likely to collapse into one, as for
Hegel. Experienced participation in the divine is transformed
into speculative possession of the divine.
More on the confusion:
Why does "immortality" mean "lasting in the manner of the
gods"? How do we know the gods are "everlasting" and what does
- The confusion arises at the point of transition from the
earlier to the later mode. The old myths are inadequate for
the new truth.
- The pre-Socratic and classical philosophers developed a
host of new symbols to express the nature of the In-Between
and the mutual participation of the human and the
- Consciousness is both the site and the sensorium of
participation in the divine ground. As the site, its reality
partakes of both the human and the divine without being
wholly one or the other. As sensorium, it is definitely
human, located in the body in space and time. Consciousness
is both the time pole and the whole tension including the
timeless pole, but our participation in the divine is bound
to the perspective of man. Losing the distinction between the
two meanings of consciousness divinizes man or humanizes
- Life experienced in the tension of existence, lived in
the flow of presence, is structured by death. Life is more
than the life of mortals.
- This is unsatisfying for those who want immortality to be
something like future existence in a state of deathlessness.
But: rebellious questioning motivated by a desire for
fulfillment beyond the tension is healthy. The experience of
existential tension is not all of man's experience.
The problems of the "Dispute" are expressed in cosmological
myth. The order of the kosmos is experienced by Man as
the lasting reality of which he is part. Man participates in
the lasting of the cosmos by attuning his existence to the
order of the gods. The imagery of immortality is engendered by
the primary experience of man's conduration with the
The experience of reality is historically stratified:
Regarding "immortality": the imagery of afterlife originates in
the compact experience of cosmic reality; the symbolism of life
structured by death originates in man's experience of his
existence in tension toward the divine ground.
The compact experience of the cosmos. Its symbols include:
- the time of the cosmos; and conduration with the
- the intracosmic gods
- the language of the mythical tale and its
The differentiated experience of existential tension. Its
- the polarization of cosmic time into the time and the
timeless of the tension; and the flow of presence
- the world-transcendent God
- the language of noetic and spiritual life
Disturbances which arise from changes in the modes of
experience. There is only one reality; the different
experiences reference each other. On the level of existential
experience, the cosmic reality must be resymbolized. Hence,
Plato's "philosophic myth", expressing on the noetic level the
cosmic reality formerly treated by traditional myth. The older
myths must not be destroyed because many people will not
consequently become philosophers, but will become spiritually
disoriented. Christianity is able to mine much older myth.
Reality which is suppressed will return "underground" and make
itself felt through alienation and mental disturbances, as
described by Jung.
The ideological constructions of history which ignore the
stratification of experience and suppress the compact strata
are acts of despair caused by alienation. They attempt the
murder of reality which has not yet found satisfactory
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