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SECTION LXIII. The Immortal Spirit.

(4) Man, as a rationally self-conscious spirit, is personally immortal; only as such is he a truly moral being,—has a moral life-task transcending his own immediate individuality. Faith in immortality is the presupposition of true morality; for the moral life-task is one that is incessantly progressive, ever self-renewing, and at no moment perfectly brought 52to a close; and, as the perfect realization of Godlikeness, it can only be accomplished through an uninterruptedly-continuing personal life.

We have to do here, not with the scientific demonstration of the doctrine of personal immortality, but only with its moral significance. In recent times, especially since Kant, the notion has frequently been maintained, that morality is entirely independent of a belief in immortality, nay, that it evinces its purity and genuineness by the very fact of entirely leaving out of view this belief, and that a man is not truly moral so long as he allows himself to be determined in his moral activity by this belief. It is true, Kant deduces from the idea of the moral, the idea of personal immortality as a rational postulate; the moral idea itself, however, is with him independent of this postulate,—calls for its fulfillment absolutely and unconditionally. There is in this some degree of self-contradiction; if the “categorical imperative” demands morality unconditionally, and utterly irrespectively of immortality, then this immortality cannot be embraced in it as a postulate, but must be merely associated thereto from without. In the endlessness of the life-task, however, as it is presented by Kant, there actually lies, in fact, the thought of immortality as included in the moral idea itself,—so that his express dissociating of the two ideas is illegitimate and unnatural. Schleiermacher goes further; and, even in his Dogmatics, he is unable entirely to rise above his previous express denial of immortality. In his Discourses on Religion he places the religiously-moral life-task proper in an actual disregarding of the idea of this immortality. “Strive even in this life to annihilate your personality, and to live in the One and All; strive to be more than yourselves, in order that you may lose but little when you lose yourselves;” the immortality to be aimed at is not that of the personality, not above and beyond the earthly existence, but it is an ideal immortality in each and every moment; men should not desire to hold fast to their personality, rather “should they embrace the single opportunity presented to them by death for escaping beyond it.”55Reden üb die Rel., p. 174 sqq., 2 Auf. Even in his Dogmatics Schleiermacher holds, 53that the purest morality perfectly consists with a “renunciation of the perpetuity of the personality,—that, in fact, an interestedness in a recompense is impious. In the Hegelian philosophy morality is absolutely independent of immortality; this idea in fact can nowhere find footing in the system; the religion of the “this-side” which sprang from this philosophy, affects to give point to its rhetorical flourishes on morality by its seemingly magnanimous renunciation of all expectation of eternal life.

The pretended disinterestedness of moral actions performed without reference. to immortality, is mere appearance. All moral activity looks to an end, and this end is a good; and personal perfection is for each individual an essential part of the highest good, or, in fact, this good itself; hence not to wish to obtain any thing for one’s self by one’s moral activity is simply absurd; the first and most necessary of all goods, and the one which is the presupposition of all morality, is in fact existence; to desire to renounce personal existence, or to regard it as indifferent, is equivalent to renouncing moral life, and is consequently not unselfish, but it is immoral. It is true we cannot claim for the so-called teleological proof of the immortality of the soul, full demonstrative power; this much, however, it does prove, namely, that the highest moral perfection would be impossible without immortality; for, as man can never arrive at such a perfection of the moral life as that he can advance no further, so that consequently his farther existence would be purposeless, but in fact, on the contrary, every fulfillment of one moral duty gives in turn birth to new ones, and there is absolutely no point to be found where the moral spirit might say, “thus far and no farther, there remains nothing more for me to do,” —hence also moral perfection cannot be realized save in an unbroken perpetuity of personal life. To say now, that the moral life-task does not consist in obtaining entire moral perfection, but only a limited degree thereof, would be per se immoral. And in fact should we for a moment concede some such limited degree of the moral, then there would be no conceivable rule for fixing this degree, and each would be at liberty to narrow the limits of his morality at pleasure, without that any one would be justified in blaming, or less esteeming him therefor.


In all moral systems, even those of heathen nations, morality is more precious than temporal life, and that person is regarded as ignoble and contemptible, even by pagans, who clings to his life at any price, for example, at that of failing in his duty to his country, to his family, or to his own honor. This moral sentiment of honor we have no wish to weaken. It is conceivable, on the assumption of the prevalence of sin, that one’s moral duty, as, for example, that of speaking or confessing the truth, or of fidelity in love or obedience, cannot in some conjunctures be fulfilled save at the sacrifice of temporal life. Now, to one’s existence in general one has an unlimited right; it is his first and most natural right. In the absence of immortality, however, the sacrifice of one’s life for a moral duty would not only not be a moral requirement, but it would be downright folly and sin; for morality can never require the giving up of the first condition of all moral activity, namely, personal existence. The first, the most immediate and absolutely unconditional duty, is self-preservation, and other duties are binding only in so far as they do not radically interfere with this one. As it would not be a moral action, but on the contrary a proof of insanity if one man should really choose66It is only seemingly so that Paul expresses such a willingness in Rom. ix, 3. eternal damnation for the sake of another, just as little is any being whatever at liberty to purchase for others any temporal good, however great, at the cost of personal existence; and in the absence of immortality there can be none other than temporal goods. Man may sacrifice any one good only for the sake of a higher good; but in renouncing existence he obtains no good whatever. The sound and unsophisticated judgment will find, on the denial of immortality, no other rule of life-wisdom than simply to take advantage of the short span of life here allotted to us for enjoying the greatest possible happiness. Happiness is in fact an absolutely necessary phase of human perfection, and an essential expression of the highest good; to strive after it is not only not selfishness, on the contrary, it is a requirement of reason and of moral duty; and it is not possible that in a world of rational order morality should work any thing else than happiness. Were it otherwise it would be a plain 55proof of the non-existence of a rational, moral world-order, and in that case it would be totally absurd to speak further of moral duty at all, for duty is itself a part of a moral world-order. If there is, now, no eternal blessedness as a highest good, then it can be only after temporal, earthly happiness, that man has to seek, and by which consequently he is to measure the morality of his acts. If it is true that all morality necessarily renders happy, then on the above hypothesis only that can be moral which procures for us earthly comfort, temporal enjoyment; the teachings of the Epicureans would then be the only rational theory, and no valid objection could be made to the moral rule: “Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die” [1 Cor. xv, 32]. Foolish then would he be who did not recklessly seek as much enjoyment in his earthly life as in any way he possibly could. It is, of course, not necessary that this system should lead simply to groveling sensual enjoyment; the ancient Epicureans knew well enough that riotous intemperate indulgence works much suffering, and the modern ones also know equally well, that by unrestrained wantonness they bring themselves into shame and contempt in the eyes of the morally-taught masses; this, however, does not in any degree ameliorate the essence of this morality of the “this side.” The outwardly-respectable life of many a denier of immortality rests in reality on the power of public opinion, and on custom as grown up from Christian ground. But the case is quite otherwise where unbelief becomes fashionable in wider circles of society. Let vouch for this, the utter immorality and depravity that prevailed in the circles of the French and of the Gallicized German free-thinkers of the last century. In the lower walks of society where a simpler logic prevails, and where respect for position and for public opinion has a less controlling power, the practical inferences from a naturalistic philosophy are more speedily and consistently drawn; and the ringleaders in depravity among the lower classes of the present day are, for the most part, deeply imbued with the conquests of “free thought,” and are able thereby admirably to justify their wantonness; and there is scarcely conceivable a more absurd rôle than that assumed by the “respectable” among the free-thinkers, who presume to preach morality 56to their more free-thinking and more logically reasoning brethren.

He who is without belief in immortality cannot act from an unconditional moral idea, but only from empirical external fitness, from circumstantial need; he cannot make moral duty his life-task, and his moral life sinks to a merely higher-cultured animal life. The question as to whether Christian morality is possible without a belief in immortality would have to be rejected as trivial,—seeing that a belief in Christ’s and God’s express word is certainly included in Christian morality,—had it not been expressly affirmed by some. The word of Christ, however, is a sufficient answer. “He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it,” and “He that loveth his life shall lose it, and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal” [Matt. x, 39; Luke ix, 24; xvii, 33; John xii, 25; x, 17; comp. 1 Cor. ix, 25; Phil. i, 21]. We emphasize in these passages, not the expressly pronounced affirmation of a life after death, but simply the express requirement to sacrifice one’s life in the interest of a moral duty. But a world-government in which the realization of the good is possible only by the destruction of him who has for his life-task to realize the good, would be per se in a state of utter anarchy, and would have no right to impose moral duties. The simple undeniable fact is this, that the Christian heroes who literally fulfilled the above word of Christ, had joy in so doing only because of that living faith that enabled them to pray amid the tortures of death: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” [Acts vii, 59]. But between the Christian martyr’s joy in death and an unbeliever’s defiant contempt of death, there is a world-wide difference. Cases are not unfrequently seen of hardened criminals and atheists meeting death with undaunted courage and great coolness; this is, however, but another form of the cold defiance with which other persons blow out their own brains; and whoever has the assurance to compare such blind hardness, even in the remotest degree, with the joyousness and peace of soul of the Christian, surely shows himself utterly incapable of appreciating the true nature of morality.

When Schleiermacher and others, after him, declare it as unpious to be interested in a recompense,—understanding by 57this assertion that there is wanting a pure and immediate seeking for piety and morality themselves, and that both are desired merely as means for attaining to perfect happiness in a future life,—there is indeed some ground for their position, but only in so far as the subject should regard morality merely as a means to happiness, and that too as a meritorious means even in our present state of sinfulness, while the happiness should be considered as a justly claimable reward. But so soon as the objectors presume to reprehend the seeking after happiness as an essential and necessary phase of the highest good, and to brand as unpious the striving after the same as an actual life-purpose in general, we must reject their position as one-sided and untrue. Every good and hence every moral end produces happiness; and it would be a strange requirement, to permit the seeking after the good but not the seeking after the happiness therein contained. When Christ and the Apostles hesitated not to base all moral sacrifice on the promise and confident hope of eternal life, it does not seem very becoming in a Christian to stigmatize this as immoral self-seeking. When appeal is made to the Reformed divine Danaeus, who (in his Ethica Christ. i, c. 17) represents the honor of God as the sole motive, and that for the sake of which we should be in duty bound to take upon ourselves eternal death, were it required of us, and who stigmatizes it as mercenary to act morally for the sake of eternal happiness,—we may reply, on the one hand, that it could never occur to one who is a Christian and conscious of redemption by grace to regard eternal blessedness, as a reward due for his virtue-merit,—which, in fact, is the sole view that Danaeus rejects [fol. 78, ed. 3],—and, on the other hand, that this somewhat rash and readily misunderstood declaration has quite a different sense in the mouth of Danaeus, who held fast to personal immortality, and in the mouth of those who see in the thought of immortality only a “dogma” without significance for the religious life, and which it is well to vail as much as possible in ambiguous phraseology. And in fact it doubtless forms a part of the moral honoring of God, that we believe in his promises, and love and thank him for them, and also act piously from this loving thankfulness. For the moral life is genuine only 58when it is a full and true expression of the filial relation of man to God; and it is not only illegitimate, but also a sinful disregarding of God, to require that we should keep only one phase of this relation in view, and violently throw aside and forget the other,—that we should see in God only the Sovereign and not also the lovingly promising Father. If God has gifted man with immortality, if he has promised to the Christian eternal life, then neither can nor should man, as moral, have any other moral goal than that which answers to this promise; if man, in his moral life, ignores that this life is the way to eternal life,—that God has placed before him an everlasting goal,—such conduct is an immoral rejecting of God’s love. Whoever does not act from love acts immorally; now, for the promise of eternal life we owe God thankful love; hence there is no true morality which has not this loving thankfulness for its motive.

Against this view,—which is surely in perfect harmony with the general Christian consciousness,—indignant warning has been made,77So especially Alex. Schweitzer in the Protest. Kirchenz., 1862, Nr. 1; Fr. Nitzsch in the Stud. u. Krit., 1863, II, 375. as if it were an ignoring of the inalienable “conquests of recent science,” and even appeal has been made to the Old Testament, in which, as an actual fact, it is asserted, the doctrine of immortality is not presented as a moral motive. Now, if the conquests of modern science are to consist in going back to the Old Testament stand-point, for which, on other occasions, the objectors are not in the habit of showing any very high esteem, we may well allow ourselves to deem it a progress beyond said conquests, to come back to the stand-point of Christ and the Apostles. What the wise educative purpose of the said Old Testament peculiarity was, we have elsewhere inquired, and we do not hesitate in the least to claim that Christian morality stands higher than that of the Old Testament, and that also in moral respects “he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater” than the greatest of the Old Testament saints [Matt. xi, 11], though indeed the latter also had, in their faith in the divine promise, in their hope of a future glorious goal for all the children of God, a powerful moral motive that was in no wise opposed to a belief in immortality, but on the contrary 59implicitly contained it. Whether those who in recent times decline, with such professed disinterestedness, the application of faith in immortality as a moral motive, seek their moral glory in quite as unconditional a submission to God’s revealed Word and guidance as did the saints of the Old Testament, seems to us, after all, quite questionable. We do not doubt but that there may be some sort of morality without said faith; but the question is as to true morality—that which embraces the whole man, appropriates to itself all truth, and is of the truth. The pains which some persons give themselves to prove that there may be a moral life without faith in immortality, reminds us very much of the recently made experiment of a naturalist:—he scooped out with a spoon the brain of a living dove, and the poor bird actually continued to live for six several weeks, and even partook of food in the mean time! Very interesting experiments may be had by performing similar amputations on the living body of the Christian faith,—and some of our theologians are quite busy at the work,—but whether the patient prospers very well under the operation is another question.

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