Josef Pieper on Death and Immortality


“I am the resurrection and the life. He that believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” John 11:25-26

Josef Pieper (1904 –1997) was a German philosopher of the Platonist and Thomist schools of philosophy. His most highly regarded book is Leisure: the Basis of Culture (1952). Pieper believed that all knowledge leads ultimately to theology, as the following quote indicates: “The delight we take in our senses is an implicit desire to know the ultimate reason for things, the highest cause. The desire for wisdom that philosophy is, is a desire for the highest or divine causes. Philosophy culminates in theology. All other knowledge contains the seeds of contemplation of the divine.” From this we can conclude that scientists who deny God as an explanation for anything cannot be philosophers who have been released from their bondage to the senses. Thus, scientism (though it may pretend to be a philosophy) does not qualify as a philosophy. Scientism is controlled by the attitude called atheism which, mired in materialism, is the negation of any search for the first and highest Cause of Everything. This becomes, in a very interesting way, the theme of Pieper’s little book Death and Immortality (1969).

We are driven to discover (not imagine) God by the fact that we know we are going to die. We can delay the search for God, we can “invalidate” it by any number of subterfuges, but the fact of death’s immanence brings home over and over what we must confront at last … the ultimate encounter with either the Supreme Being or with Final Nothingness. Nothing gets the mind so focused, not even winning the lottery, as the immanence of dying. Think about it. If you were told on the same day that you had won the hundred million dollar lottery and that you had at most a month to live, what would you be mostly thinking about for the next thirty days? In other words, death causes us to think about dying the best way we can … coming to terms with the fate of our body and our soul. This is surely the root cause of all philosophizing; for if philosophy is trying to figure out how we should live, it is ultimately about trying to figure out how we should die, and whether there is a life we should think about beyond death.

The experience of death is purely speculative, so no one can speak with absolute authority about the experience of death, except to note that death brings an abrupt halt to life as we know it. But the life of what? Well, for starters, it certainly brings an abrupt halt to the physical experience of life. But does the mind share in this halt? Does it survive the process of physical decay to go on with its own life by itself? Again (aside from traditional theology) the question is a purely speculative one and therefore requires a speculative answer. While we see the body after death deteriorate and turn to bones and dust, we do not see what happens to the soul, the animating principle of human life. While in the body, the soul does not imagine itself to be identical to its body. It regards itself as a thing apart from and superior to the body, even though its functions (i.e. intellect and free will) require the body to support them. This is not based on logic so much as an immediate intuition that does not require proof because it is rooted in common sense, in much the same way that the existence of God satisfies common sense as an explanation for the universe.

In virtually all civilizations the folklore wisdom carried down through the ages is that some kind of life goes on beyond the separation of the body and the soul. When this is denied by some in any age of history, the denial is almost always a minority view, a somewhat muffled opinion, and transitory for the culture at large as the pendulum swings back again, as death approaches, to the conviction that souls are immortal and that at death they face, as Plato put it, a “terrible danger.” It is not the danger of nothingness approaching so much as the danger of entering a state of being where justice will be found, and therefore it is of the greatest concern that we die well in order to be in a better rather than a worse state of being. Socrates set the example when he asked that a cock be sacrifice to Aesculapius, the god of healing arts (Socrates was required to die of poisoning by hemlock).

Death is never a laughing matter, not only because we see it coming for others, but also coming sooner or later for us. Even the sight of an evil person in the electric chair for a crime fills us with horror, because we can see ourselves in that person, in the possibility, no matter how remote, of dying the same way. How much more so does the death of a loved one strike us as not only sad for the loved one, but sad as well for ourselves. Perhaps more sad too, because the loved one at least may have come to embrace the end as a good, rather than an evil (this would be especially true for one who has lived a good life and yearns for the final reward that has been truly promised). One who has faith and learns to die the way faith teaches us to die has to have a happier death than one who has no faith and has not lived as faith teaches us to live.

It does no good to avoid the terror of death by saying, as Epicurus said: “Death is nothing to us; for as long as we are, death is not here; and when death is here, we no longer are. Therefore it is nothing to the living or the dead.”This amounts to nothing more than a clever subterfuge, as when one chooses to whistle in the dark. It is because of terror that one begins to whistle at all the moving shadows in the dark night of the soul.

Separation of Body & Soul

We begin by asking, what is death? Is it the separation of the soul from the body, or the separation of the body from the soul? Do those two questions have one and the same answer? Yes, mere semantics. Or is it possible that both the soul and body are one and the same, and that both end their existence at death? According to Pieper:

I would uphold the hypothesis, first, that it is not man’s body nor his soul which dies, but man himself; and second, that the spiritual soul, although profoundly affected by death, connected with the body by its innermost nature and remaining related to it, nevertheless persists indestructibly and maintains itself, remains in being.

Following Aquinas, Pieper insists that the body and the soul must be regarded as a unitary being, the soul being the form of the body. Thus, death is a catastrophe for sure, separating the body and soul … “a violent separation of something that belongs together by nature.” And so, death is the end of a man, but not the end of his soul. His body may rest and decay in a box buried forever, and that is the end of the man. But his soul is not in that box. Then where is it? Materialism says that everything is in the box because the soul was always an illusion, and was merely a function of the body. But how can materialism ever prove that? All materialism can ever prove is that there is a body in the box. It can never prove that the soul does not exist, and therefore it can never prove that the soul dies with the body.

Unlike the animal kingdom at large, human souls universally cry out that something in us must last beyond death. Is this mere ego on steroids? But why is it universal and particular to humans? Can materialists explain this? That so many materialists deny this is not a proof against the soul, but rather a reason for studying the pathology of unbelief. If it is a proof that death is natural because we see the universal occasions of it, why should it not be equally natural that the soul exists and is immortal because it is nearly so universally desired? That so many materialists deny this is not a proof against the soul and immortality, but rather a reason for studying the pathology of unbelief.

Everything in us cries out that death is unnatural and evil. We may see death for others, we can hardly see it for ourselves unless directly confronted by it. It is an insult to life. Well and good, but it is only an insult to our present life. Christianity (and other religions) offer a medicine to cure us of the appalling certainty of death; that cure is the belief in life everlasting. Death then becomes seen more directly in Christian tradition as both a punishment for sin and a pathway toward purification and immortal life if we so choose. Not every loss is an evil, and the loss of human life (even as a punishment) can be a good if it is a way to prepare for an even greater good … immortality. Plato saw the same thing in his dialogue the Symposium, where Aristophanes is made to argue that death is a punishment for some kind of prehistoric guilt incurred by humans. How is it that Plato and the author of Genesis, so far apart in time and place, and knowing nothing of each other, have such a common answer to the question of death as punishment? So then, death as a just punishment (God warns Adam and Eve about the consequence of eating that particular fruit, “thou shalt surely die’” Genesis 2:17) becomes a kind of atonement for some ancient evil, and therefore may be seen as deserved and good since death is not just a punishment, but it re-positions man to seek not only life beyond death, but immortal life at that. The loss of innocence need not be forever, indicating not only a just God, but a merciful one as well, Who offers us a way back to a new Eden where death will be vanquished.

We are not required to choose that new Eden (Heaven) and no doubt many have chosen not to. But hell is not a punishment imposed upon us from above; eternal hell is (like death) a punishment we have imposed on ourselves by choosing mortal (deathly) sin against the warning of the Son of God that hell is an eternal state of being proper to the soul that has chosen it. Likewise, we can imagine the Son of God in heaven warning Satan of being expelled for all eternity from Heaven … and the reply John Milton puts in the mouth of Satan: “Better to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven.” The Son of God, as Christ on earth, is both divine and human, and so can experience death in such a way as to overcome, by his sacrifice on the cross, the proud villainy of our first parents and open the door to a new Eden. This offer was made to humankind. Was it made to Satan? We don’t know. If so, all that might reasonably be inferred is that the fallen angels will never want or merit a second chance.

So we have two approaches to death vying with each other for dominance. There is the view of a punishment that is temporary and can be rectified by the path prescribed to find our way back to an immortal and heavenly Eden. And there is another view, mostly a modern existentialist view, that death, like birth, is a part of the grim and pointless unfolding of life in the universe; life without design, without purpose, and finally without joy. These competing versions of “truth” challenge each other, but in general without a clear resolution that gives the members of either camp a sense of clear and permanent victory over the other. The first camp is consoled by the assurance that Christ has won the victory. The second camp is consoled by evidence that Christendom is collapsing everywhere, and the choosing of pointless death seems to be in the ascendant. Those who refuse to recognize that death is a just punishment our first parents stupidly chose for us might arrogantly shake the heroic fist at death to come and get them. Or as the atheist Nietzsche put it, a dying man might “make of his death a festival.” But those who recognize death for what they hope and believe it to be, the open sesame to immortal life, will greet death at the last with a calm and prayerful sigh.

Now this last point is important. Although death as an event may be delayed, it cannot be prevented. We are all doomed to suffer the same event. Yet there is a profound sense of freedom present as the soul senses that its detachment from the body is imminent. Whatever deceptions one has practiced upon one’s self or upon others suddenly seem to require admission. As Matthew Arnold put it, “ Truth sits upon the lips of dying men.” For example, many who have almost compulsively denied God suddenly come to regret their denial, and are now free to pray. Others, who have had a lifelong animosity for someone are now free to beg forgiveness and reconciliation. We all know how regularly the priest will make himself available to a dying patient for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Even criminals who have been observed to have spent all their years behind bars denying their guilt, are at the approach of death free to admit wrongdoing and seek out the prison chaplain. The philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, a longtime atheist, as death approached began to study the Old Testament in real seriousness. Yes, death is a moment of freedom for those who will seize it, and a hopeful moment of salvation. Pieper notes:

Man’s final disposition his last will and testament as it were, with which he simultaneously concludes and completes his earthly existence, is a religious act of loving devotion in which the individual, explicitly accepting death as his destiny, offers up himself, and the life slipping from him, to God…. in reality to lose his life in order to gain it. But here a new question promptly arises: to gain what life?

End without End

For the materialist, death is the end. The materialist has nothing to look forward to, nothing more to wait for. We are now not freed in the Christian sense of being lifted from the valley of tears to a better place, but rather freed from both life and the anguish of approaching death. For Sartre, this is a “dreadful freedom,” as I have said one which he seemed to renounce in his last days. But for the Christian the end called death means a new beginning. The poet Alexander Pope put it very precisely:

The world recedes; it disappears;

Heav’n opens on my eyes; my ears

With sound seraphic wings:

O Grave! where is thy victory?

O Death! where is thy sting?

So the soul goes on, Pieper insists (with Plato) pointing to both body and soul as recipients of God’s gift:  immortality. We obviously cannot empirically demonstrate this. It must be taken on faith and our own instinct that we were not made to perish. The materialist likewise takes it on his own faith that there is no soul, and therefore no possibility of being immortal. In the book of Genesis, God remarks that we are made in his “image and likeness.” That being so, we are created to last forever. Then Christ assures us of resurrection and life everlasting. What more grounds for conviction could we need? The dissolution of the body at death could well be reversed by God’s will, since God is almighty and all of creation must obey His fiats. Even the materialist, who believes we are in every way finished at death, must reckon with science: matter is forever, it cannot be destroyed. If the soul is not matter, why should it not also be forever? The atheist psychologist Sigmund Freud conceded something very telling in one sentence: “Each of us in the unconscious is convinced of his own immortality.”

Pieper recognized that on a philosophical level there are many arguments for the independence of the soul from the body, but there was one that he favored above the others: the soul’s capacity for truth. This argument is found in Plato, Augustine and Aquinas. Simply put, truth has an objective and immortal reality independent of the soul. The soul sometimes grasps it, and sometimes fails to grasp it. When truth is grasped, this is because the one who grasps it has a capacity to grasp that which is immortal, that which never changes and can never die. But how would the soul have this capacity if it were not itself immortal? This soul “must be an entity that persists beyond the dissolution of the body and beyond death.” And this no doubt is why the early Christians, so completely convinced that death was not the end of the soul, spoke so often of death as a “falling asleep.”

Pieper closes his book with a profound remark by Søren Kierkegaard: “Honor to learning, and honor to one who can treat the learned question of immortality in a learned way. But the question of immortality is no learned question. It is a question of the inner existence, a question which the individual must confront by looking into his own soul.” And so, looking into our own soul, there we find Christ beckoning us to make the leap of faith into a life beyond the grave and into immortal company with all the saints.




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Carl Sundell is Emeritus Professor of English and Humanities at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Massachusetts. The author of several books including The Intellectual and the Gunman, Four Presidents, and Shaw versus Chesterton, he has published various articles in New Oxford Review and Catholic Insight. He currently resides in Lubbock, Texas where he is developing a book of short essays for students of Catholic apologetics