Immortality: Experience and Symbol

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:

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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 engendering reality.

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?"


The sequence:

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:

In our civilization, the sequence has run its course twice:

Modernity is energetic madness. "Madness" in the sense of spiritual disease, the loss of contact with nonexistent reality.

Modernity also contains those thinkers who correctly diagnose its madness, and who attempt to recapture reality, such as:

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.


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.

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: 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 transcendence.


The quarrel between doctrinaire beliefs and objections is the modern counterpart of the first, argumentative part of the "Dispute."

Rules for the philosopher:

This field of tensions has both extension and structure: 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 doctrinaire 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 existence.]

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 illusion."

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 content.

The polemical force of the proposition is due to existential assent:

The proposition "the experience is an illusion" operates with two intellectual tricks:
  1. 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 fallacy).
  2. 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 obsolete past).
[End of the analysis: how history appears in the subfield of doctrinaire existence.]

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:

  1. 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 opinion.
  2. 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 opinions.
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.

An example expression of segmented history: "We are living in a post-Christian age".

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

    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.

  3. 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.

    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:

  1. A nuclear group consisting of the symbols:
  2. A group consisting of the entities involved in the fate of life and death:
  3. A group concerning the order of the cosmos and society, justice and judgment
  4. The group that appears in Hellenic philosophy, Christianity and gnosis:
  5. A group of imagery concerning the upper and lower worlds and the destinies of their inhabitants.
Historically, the groups are weighted and actualized differently: 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 emergent truth.

The "Dispute" can be used to clarify some problems of immortality that are obscured by the later variants:

  1. alienation
  2. experiential motivations of the symbol "immortality"
(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.

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.

(2) Experiential motivations of the symbol "immortality".

Problems posed by the symbols "mortality"-"immortality":

  1. "Immortality" is not peculiar to Christianity and revelation
  2. Immortality presumes a subject:
  3. Whatever the subject, immortality pertains to the lasting or duration of an entity.
  4. 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 statements suggest two historical modes of existence: 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.

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 "existential virtues".

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:

  1. The confusion arises at the point of transition from the earlier to the later mode. The old myths are inadequate for the new truth.
  2. 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 divine.
  3. 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 God.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
Why does "immortality" mean "lasting in the manner of the gods"? How do we know the gods are "everlasting" and what does that mean?

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 cosmos.

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.

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 resymbolization.

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