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Whether Aristotle is to be ranked among them, or not, remains uncertain. "Nothing is to be met with in his writings, says Dr. Enfield, which determines, whether he thought the soul of man mortal or immortal." (Hist. of Philosophy, 1. 285.)
Previously to forming any estimate of the sentiments, prevailing in the philosophic schools, on the doctrine of a future state, it seems necessary to make the following remarks.
We are not to conclude, that every one who spoke in elevated language concerning the immortality or divinity of the soul, really believed an individual or personal existence after death, or in any retribution whatever. The soul may exist after death without being rewarded or punished. And among those philosophers, who believed that the the soul survives the body, it was a common sentiment, that human souls are parts of the divinity, and will be absorbed in him again. Dr. Cudworth, speaking of the Stoics, observes, that they considered "reason as nothing else but part of the divine spirit, immerged into a human body: so that these human souls were to them, no other than certain parts of God, or discerptions or avulsions from him." (Intel. System 1. 235.) (Enfield 1. 341.) (Div. Leg. 11. 205.) (Enfield, 1. 54.) This sentiment is known not to have been peculiar to the Stoics, but generally to have prevailed among the ancients. A similar idea prevailed over all the East. (Priestley's Instit. of Moscs, 50, 52.) See Burrows' China, 458.) But when the soul is absorbed in Deity, it obviously ceases to exist as an individual, and is therefore incapable either of reward or punishment. (Ryan's Effects of Religion, 18.) It was justly observed by Madame de Stael, that "such an immortality looks terribly like death.” It is true that some did not believe that this absorption immediately followed death; and supposed that the immediate space was passed in something like a retribution.
Further, those, who believed the soul immortal, likewise believed it eternal. This, by the author of the Intellectual System, is expressed in very forcible language. "Neither
was there ever any of the ancients before christianity, that held the soul's future permanency, who did not likewise hold its pre-existence." (Intellec. Sys. 1. 13.) Now it is apparent, at first sight, that the two opinions last mentioned, are well consistent with each other, but are alike unfavorable to the most correct views of a future state of reward and punishment. For if we existed before this life, and yet retain no remembrance of it, it cannot be supposed, that af ter this life, we shall have any remembrance of the present. By consequence, should we be happy or miserable, we shall never know, for what we are punished or rewarded.
Again, there is peculiar difficulty in ascertaining what opinions, relating to the soul, the ancient philosophers did entertain as it appears to be a point well established, that they avowedly taught one set of opinions to the vulgar, and advocated a very different system in their own circles.
All these remarks it would seem, are applicable to Pythagoras. He held, indeed, that the soul made various transmigrations, before it was absorbed in the divine nature. (Enfield, 1. 397.) 'But these successive transitions of the soul into other bodies,' says the author of the Divine Legation of Moses, "were physical, necessary and exclusive of all moral considerations whatever." (Div. Legat. 2. 144.) We cannot, says Dr. Leland, lay any stress on the doctrine which he publicly taught, because he made no scruple of imposing on the people, things which he himself could not but know to be false.
If there was a person, not enlightened by revelation, who had clear and deep views of a future state, that person appears to have been Socrates. That the doctrine had a strong, practical influence on him, is beyond reasonable doubt. But was even Socrates able to place the doctrine of a retribution in a clear light?
1. Though he believed in the future existence of the soul, he did this on such a foundation, if it be rightly represented in the Phædon, as no christian philosopher, it is presumed, would consider, as adequate to support the superstructure.
2. He believed in the pre-existence of the soul, as well as in its future existence, and therefore could not, for the rea son already assigned, have very correct views of reward and punishment. (Phædon 112.) Hindoos have the same belief. (Instit. of Moses 261.)
3. Though he believed the soul to be immortal, it was a subject, on which he made no pretensions to certainty. The conclusion of his defence before his judges, is well known : "Tis true, we must retire to our respective offices, you to live, and I to die. But whether you or I are going on the better expedition, is known to God only." (Apol. of Socrates, 28. 45. 47.) But even if Socrates were convinced, it is evident, that his disciples were not before, nor fully even at their last conversation. This shows that he was no adequate guide. The Stoics, agreeably to the observations already made, taught, that the soul of man, being of a divine nature, would either at death, or after some indefinite changes and agitations,again be united to the first principle, even God, and thus lose its individual existence. How little practical use they made of the doctrine, appears from this, that in the Enchridion of Epictetus, where so many arguments are used in favor of contentment, and submission to divine providence, no arguments are drawn, no consolations are suggested from belief in a future and immortal life. (Warburton says they denied it. 11. 160.)
Cicero, it is well known, has expressed very elevated sentiments concerning the nature and powers of the human soul. He has professedly discussed the great subject of its immortality. But, notwithstanding the sublime language, and fine reasoning, which he has employed on the subject, it is far from being a settled point, that he believed the doctrine. (See Cicero's arguments, Tusc. Dic. L. 1. ch. 2.3.) In his epistles, which one would suppose likely to convey his real sentiments, are several passages, in which this docrine is plainly denied. (Ep. L. v. 21. (Ep. L. v. 21. vi. 3. vi. 21.) However this be, a writer, who expresses himself on different occasions so variously, that those, who have studied his
works with most assiduity, have not been able to ascertain his real sentiments, is surely not to be considered an adequate guide to others. His own uncertainty is acknowledged in very strong terms, even in that very work, whose object it is to decide this great controversy. (5. Locke, ii. 323.) After mentioning a variety of opinions concerning the soul, he says, "Which of these opinions is true, some god must determine. Which is most probable, is a great question." (Tusc. Dis. L. 1 9.) We may add to this, that whatever was the opinion of Cicero himself, on this subject, he represents the doctrine of those who deny the soul's immortality as more generally received; not by Epicureans alone, but by learned men in general. "Caterræ veniunt contradicentium, ne solum Epicureorum, sed nescio quo modo doctissimus quisque contemnit."
Tacitus, who may, perhaps, be ranked with philosophers as well as historians, though he wrote after the christian doctrine of immortality had made extensive progress, speaks on the subject in the most doubtful terms. Contemplating the disease of Agricola, his father in law, for whom he appears to have entertained no ordinary degree of respect and affection, his mind recurs very naturally to the doctrine of a future state, which he speaks of as merely possible, "si quis priorum manibus locus; si, ut sapientibus placet, non cum corpore extinguuntur magnæ animæ." (Vita Agricolæ.)
Pliny, the celebrated naturalist, in very strong terms, disavows all belief in a life to come," All men, (says he,) are in the same condition after their last day, as before their first, nor have they any more sense, cither in body or soul, after they are dead, than they had before they were born." Opinions of a contrary nature, he denominates,
childish and senseless fictions of mortals, who are ambitious of a never ending existence." (Nat. History. L. vii. cap. 55.)
"As to Varro, (says Dr. Ireland,) he is utterly silent as to the existence of a future state. Man, mortal man, is the beginning and end of his philosophy. To discover the art,
by which common life may be best conducted, is all his concern-the object of all his virtue. He never turned his views towards another world for the happiness, which he sought. And we must conclude concerning a genius, distinguished at Rome by his capacity of research, his depth of penetration, his strong judgment, and extensive learning, that he indulged no hope of immortality, and that, to his eyes, futurity was one universal blank.'
From what has been said, we are now to make a few practical remarks. And,
I. We perceive the immense value of the christian religion.
Had revelation assured us of nothing but a future state of reward and punishment, it would even then have been a gift, not unworthy of divine munificence. This point so important to the hopes and happiness of man, we are confident, would never, merely by the efforts of human reason, have been established. There is no ground for believing, that the human understanding ever would have accomplished what had been for thousands of years attempted without success. Never was experiment more fairly or extensively made. To establish, on rational grounds, the doctrine of immortality, was an affair, in which all men were equally interested. No subject could have been more popular, or have received more general attention. Not only was the matter a long time under examination, but in conducting this examination were employed the most profound and soaring intellects; such as probably neither have been, nor ever will be executed. The result was, that these very philosophers had less belief in the soul's immortality, than the vulgar, who yielded to the current opinions, however absurd. But the Gospel does vastly more, than merely to settle the controversy concerning the soul's surviving the body. It leads to the most rational views of moral obligation; it represents the divine law as perfect, unyielding, and universal; and by consequence, that depraved beings can obtain none but a gratuitious justification. It not only reveals an economy of