Saturday, May 01, 2010

The Evolution of Heaven and Hell (2): Ancient Origins

The intellectual history of thinking about Heaven and Hell is set forth very well in John Casey's recent book--After Lives: A Guide to Heaven, Hell, & Purgatory (Oxford, 2009). One major limitation of Casey's book, however, is that he concentrates on Western culture and ignores the Eastern traditions of rebirth and reincarnation. One good book on the traditions of karmic rebirth is Gananath Obeyesekere's Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth (University of California Press, 2002). In this series of posts, I will be looking mostly at Western thought and drawing ideas from Casey's book.

Although the belief that the dead live on as spirits or ghosts might have been common in earliest human history, the ancient Egyptians seem to have been the first people with any clear conception of another life after death in which the dead were rewarded or punished for their conduct in this life. Those who had lived in accord with ma'at--the cosmic order of the universe--were rewarded with eternal happiness. In the earliest periods of Egyptian history, the ascent to heavenly bliss was restricted to the pharoahs and their families, while ordinary people passed to the underworld. Later, the heavenly route was opened to all. Osiris, the god who had been raised from the dead, became the god who offered the hope of resurrection to all those human beings who were not guilty of wicked behavior.

In contrast to this Egyptian belief in an immortal afterlife, the ancient Mesopotamian poem The Epic of Gilgamesh teaches that the search for immortality is hopeless and foolish. Gilgamesh wanders the world in his quest for the secret source of immortal life. But he finally learns that the search for eternal life is vain and childish, and that it distracts us from finding joy in the earthly life that is available to us as mortal animals.

At least until the middle of the fifth century B.C., the ancient Greeks seemed to have been closer to the Mesopotamian view of life and death than the Egyptian view. Ancient Greek mortuary inscriptions say nothing about an afterlife, but instead they speak about the dead person's life, his family, his city, and his achievements--rather like what I see today in the graveyards I visit. Homer's poetry depicts the underworld as a shadowy realm in which the dead take no pleasure in their vague half-existence.

But then the Orphic religion introduced into the ancient Greek and Roman worlds the Egyptian conception of a future life after death where people would be rewarded or punished for their good or bad deeds during their earthly lives. Plato became the philosopher of Orphism in adapting its beliefs to his transcendentalist philosophizing, which distinguished the intelligible world of true Being from the visible world of mere Becoming. The human soul as pure thought was immortal, because it participated in the eternal world of Being. But the soul's attainment of its true destiny could come only after death. In its earthly life, the soul was held captive within the mortal human body. After death, the soul left the body and then would be judged, so that the souls of the good would be rewarded, and the souls of the bad would be punished.

In Plato's Phaedo (69a-70b), Socrates affirms his belief in the Orphic mystic rites by which human beings are purified and initiated into a state of thoughtfulness by which the immortal soul is separated from the mortal body, so that the soul can attain its divine rewards after death. This pure state of the soul is achieved through the purely contemplative life of the philosopher. It's noteworthy that Socrates' interlocutor--Cebes--interrupts him to express the skepticism about any life after death that was apparently common among the ancient Greeks. So it's clear that Plato's Socrates is introducing a new Orphic religion of otherworldly beliefs to overturn the worldly realism of Greek experience.

Plato presents this religious belief in the otherworldly destiny of the human soul through mythic stories. Although they differ in their details, these myths--particularly, in the Laws (885c-907b), the Timaeus, and the Republic (614a-621d)--converge on a common theme: the cosmos is an intelligent order that has been divinely designed to distinguish between good and bad, noble and base, and in the next life, the good will be rewarded and the bad punished. A philosophic life of pure contemplation wins the greatest rewards, because the purely theoretical activity of the human mind participates most fully in the eternally intelligible order of the divine Mind.

But the fact that Plato and Plato's Socrates present this vision through myths rather than demonstrations has led many readers to question whether they really believe what they are saying, or whether they are presenting this only as noble lies.

Augustine suggested that Plato's philosophic theology was probably dissimulation: although Plato did not really believe what he said in his mythic depictions of the afterlife and the divine order, he thought it would be good for common people to believe such things. And yet Augustine (like many of the early Christian theologians) embraced Plato's theology of the afterlife as the closest approximation among the pagan philosophers to the truth of Christian theology. While Plato presented the life of philosophic contemplation as the most divine life, Augustine and other Christians could see this teaching as fulfilled in the Christian doctrine that human nature will be fulfilled in Heaven through the eternal contemplation of God as the ground of Being.

Straussian scholars have stressed the esotericism of Plato's theological cosmology in arguing that Plato knew this cosmology to be ridiculously implausible, but that he presented it only as a noble lie for providing cosmic support for a morality necessary for common people but not for philosophers. According to the Straussians, the true Platonic teaching is that the best life for human beings is a purely contemplative life that is attainable only by a philosophic few, and this purely theoretical life transcends the moral or political life of the many.

The problem with this Straussian reading of Plato, however, is that it ignores the fact that the supposed supremacy of the philosophic life depends upon Plato's transcendentalist cosmology, with its claim that the pure mind of the philosopher transcends the body and participates in the divine realm of the purely intelligible order of the cosmos. If Plato didn't really believe his noetic cosmology, it's hard to see how he could really believe in the superiority of the philosophic life as the only true human good for those few capable of living it.

A few of my previous posts on Platonic cosmology can be found here, here, here, and here.

No comments: