Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Immortality in ancient philosophy

New article December 10, 2002

1 Before Plato
2 Plato
3 Aristotle
4 After Aristotle


4 After Aristotle

Stoic theology bears some resemblance to the two-tiered henotheistic system of Plato’s Timaeus, in that only one god, Zeus, enjoys literal immortality, while the rest of the pantheon are created at the start of one cosmic cycle and subsumed into Zeus at its conflagration (Seneca, Letters 9.16) (see Stoicism §5). We hear very little about the fate of human souls after death (not that their corporeal nature provides any conceptual bar to immortality, since even Zeus is corporeal). One source claims that they outlive the dissolution of the body and that perfectly virtuous souls last until the next conflagration, while those of the vicious last shorter periods (Eusebius Preparation of the Gospel 15.20.6) – thus the perfectly virtuous enjoy as much immortality as the gods do, apart from Zeus. No surviving Stoic source offers post-mortem rewards as an incentive for virtuous behaviour; so far as we can tell, the reasons to be virtuous all had to do with its production of happiness in this life.

The Epicureans talked a great deal about the soul’s fate after death and made it central to their ethical teachings; but in contrast to Platonic promises of immortal rewards, they fervently promised mortality. What blights our earthly life, they insisted, is not death, but the fear of death, and the fear of death may be fully dispelled by understanding how fully we die. Death brings the physical dissolution of the atomic complex that is our soul, and with it the complete cessation of any subject that could experience pleasure or pain, the only things that are good or bad. Thus no Tartaran torments can be felt and none are to be feared; a series of arguments proves that death can have no sting (see Epicureanism §13). ‘The correct understanding that death is nothing to us makes our mortality enjoyable, not by adding infinite time, but by taking away the yearning for immortality’ (Epicurus Letter to Menoeceus 124).

But immortality and imperishability are essential attributes of the gods, according to Epicurus (the other essential attribute is happiness or blessedness). The nature of the Epicurean gods’ existence, and thus of their immortality, has always been a matter of controversy, but both were fervently asserted (see Epicureanism §9). Our happiness can be seen as an approximation of divine bliss: the Epicurean adept ‘will live as a god among human beings; for there is no resemblance to a mortal animal when a human being lives surrounded by immortal goods’ (Letter to Menoeceus 135). This rhetorical flourish underplays one point of resemblance: the human being will die. Here as with Aristotle the language of ‘immortality’ is being applied metaphorically to a distinctly temporary activity (here the enjoyment of pleasures, rather than contemplation).

After the Hellenistic period, philosophy once again fell under the sway of Plato and Aristotle, and old issues were revived. Alexander of Aphrodisias (§2) advocated a reading of Aristotle’s psychology according to which no part or aspect of the individual human soul is immortal; this view later formed part of the Averroism (§2) that jolted medieval Christianity.

Platonists tried to reconcile the various strands of Plato’s views on the parts of the soul and their immortality (see Platonism, Early and Middle §5). The tendency of Platonism from Plotinus onwards is to endorse the disembodied existence of souls with such vehemence as to make it seem that it is our current corporeal state whose reality needs proving, rather than the soul’s immortality. Our true selves are identified with a level of reality that is not only immortal but outside time altogether (see Plotinus §6). In Laws X (904) Plato defended divine providence by giving souls responsibility for the kind of life they lead at their next embodiment. This project of theodicy via reincarnation is embraced by later Platonists and results in one of the more chilling passages of heartless piety in antiquity, when the fourth-century Platonist Sallustius argues that birth-defects in ostensibly innocent newborns are merely evidence of their souls’ wickedness in a previous life (Sallustius On the Gods and the Cosmos 20.2).

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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