Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Immortality in ancient philosophy

New article December 10, 2002

1 Before Plato
2 Plato
3 Aristotle
4 After Aristotle


1 Before Plato

In early Greek literary sources, from Homer’s time forward, immortality is an unchallenged feature of divinity, and ‘the immortals’ is a common expression for the gods (see Homer). Human beings are just as routinely called ‘mortals’, but the question of the soul’s mortality is not as clearly settled. Human beings enjoy – or suffer from – some form of personal survival after death in Homer; their souls descend to Hades where they remain recognizable as the individuals they were in life, though diminished in their powers. But Homer famously says of the fallen warriors that ‘they themselves’ remained lying on the field, while their souls fled to Hades (Iliad I.4); the later philosophical assumption that the soul is the real self is not clearly made.

The rise of more systematic theories of the afterlife is shrouded in the obscurity known as Orphism (Bremmer 2002). Though confident assertion is impossible, it seems that at the beginning of the sixth century bc a religious movement developed in Greece, perhaps with some inspiration from Eastern sources, that claimed that human souls are immortal, and that after death we are judged by the gods for our actions on earth. These doctrines were attributed to the mythical singer Orpheus, and no historical author can be identified. The influence of Orphic doctrine may be measured, for instance, by the references to its pernicious popularity in Plato, Republic II (364e).

Pythagoras seems to have grown out of this milieu, though the details of his doctrines are nearly as obscure (see Pythagoras §2; Pythagoreanism §3). A contemporary spoof of his views by Xenophanes (§1) guarantees that he believed in transmigration (Greek metempsychōsis); the story tells of a human soul reincarnated in a dog. More importantly, Pythagoreans such as Philolaus certainly advocated the claim that the soul is superior to the body and that life in the body is a sort of imprisonment, or burial alive, for the soul. Socrates is represented as treating such theories with the utmost seriousness in Plato’s Gorgias (493) and the Phaedo (61).

Empedocles also preached metempsychōsis under the influence of Pythagoras; he himself had been a fish, a young girl, a bird and a shrub (fr. 117). Life on earth is a punishment for some previous sin (fr. 115; perhaps the sin of sacrificing animals, which themselves house souls previously human), but a blameless life can promote the soul to the status of a god (fr. 146) (see Empedocles §7).

Alcmaeon (§1), another Pythagorean, claimed that the soul is immortal and that it resembles the immortal gods (e.g. the sun and moon) in its unceasing motion (fr. A12). A generous eye may here discern something like an argument for the soul’s immortality; more guardedly one may say that the references to the soul’s resemblances and motion contain the raw material of later arguments.

Xenophanes deserves further mention for having noticed that a strict adherence to the doctrine of divine immortality requires the revision of some elements of popular theology. To a cult that ritualized the death and resurrection of a god he said: ‘if you think he’s a god, you shouldn’t mourn him; if you think he died, you shouldn’t worship him’ (fr. A13). In opposition to theogonies and genealogical accounts of the gods’ births, he said ‘it is equally impious to say that a god came to be as to say that one died’, on the grounds that this too implies the god’s non-existence at some time (fr. A12).

(A subsidiary use of ‘immortal’ applies it to non-personal objects or stuffs, e.g. the primal apeiron of Anaximander (§2) or the elements of Empedocles (see Empedocles §3); here the word may be a merely ornamental variant for ‘imperishable’ or may alternatively credit its subject with at least some divine properties.)

How to cite this article:
BRENNAN, TAD (2002). Immortality in ancient philosophy. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved June 18, 2021, from

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