"The following story is told by the Balolo of the Upper Congo to explain the continuance, if not the origin, of death in the world. One day, while a man was working in the forest, a little man with two bundles, one large and one small, went up to him and said, 'Which of these bundles will you have? The large one contains knives, looking-glasses, cloth and so forth; and the small one contains immortal life.' 'I cannot choose by myself,' answered the man; 'I must go and ask the other people in the town.' While he was gone to ask the others, some women arrived and the choice was left to them. They tried the edges of the knives, decked themselves in the cloth, admired themselves in the looking-glasses, and, without more ado, chose the big bundle. The little man, picking up the small bundle, vanished. So when the man came back from the town, the little man and his bundles were gone. The women exhibited and shared the things, but death continued on the earth. Hence the people often say, 'Oh, if those women had only chosen the small bundle, we should not be dying like this!'"
This story is included by James G. Frazer at the end of his book, The Belief in Immortality and the Worship of the Dead. In his preface for the book, he wrote:
"Of all the many forms which natural religion has assumed none probably has exerted so deep and far-reaching an influence on human life as the belief in immortality and the worship of the dead; hence an historical survey of this most momentous creed and of the practical consequences which have been deduced from it can hardly fail to be at once instructive and impressive, whether we regard the record with complacency as a noble testimony to the aspiring genius of man, who claims to outlive the sun and the stars, or whether we view it with pity as a melancholy monument of fruitless labour and barren ingenuity expended in prying into that great mystery of which fools profess their knowledge and wise men confess their ignorance."
Over the past few centuries, the concept of personal immortality has been gradually disappearing. At the end of the 19th century, the literary critic George Saintsbury could safely say of the 17th century poet Robert Herrick that he was "The last — the absolutely last if we take his death-date — of those poets who have relished this life heartily, while heartily believing in another."
In his "As I Please" column for Tribune in the 1940s, George Orwell quoted a poem by John Skelton from memory:
Sepultus est among the weeds,
God forgive him his misdeeds,
With hey ho, rumbelo,
Per monia saecula,
"It has stuck in my mind because it expresses an outlook totally impossible in our own age. Today there is literally no one who could write of death in that light-hearted manner. Since the decay of the belief in personal immortality, death has never seemed funny, and it will be a long time before it does so again." (14 February 1947)
"I find it very rare to meet anyone," Orwell continued on another occasion, "of whatever background, who admits to believing in personal immortality. Still, I think it quite likely that if you asked everyone the question and put pencil and paper in his hands, a fairly large number would admit the possibility that after death there might be 'something.' The point is that the belief, such as it is, hadn't the actuality it had for our forefathers. Never, literally never in recent years, have I met anyone who gave me the impression of believing in the next world as firmly as he believed in the existence of, for instance, Australia." (14 April 1944)
I think that one of the reasons why Dante's The Divine Comedy is not as widely known as has been for a thousand years is because a guided tour of heaven and hell, no matter how exquisitely composed, is no longer of interest to people who never believed in the existence of either.
George Santayana was an American philosopher, poet, and Harvard professor who had a profound influence on an entire generation. It was Santayana who Wallace Stevens immortalized in his moving and magnificent poem "To an Old Philosopher in Rome."
It is poverty’s speech that seeks us out the most.
It is older than the oldest speech of Rome.
This is the tragic accent of the scene.
And you – it is you that speak it, without speech,
The loftiest syllable among loftiest things,
The one invulnerable man among
Crude captains, the naked majesty, if you like,
Of bird-nest arches and of rain-stained-vaults.
Edmund Wilson, in his 1945 updating of Europe Without Baedecker, described the same scene of Santayana living out his last days in self-imposed poverty in a Roman monastery. Santayana wrote fearlessly and beautifully on a wide variety of subjects. In the excerpt below, from the collection Little Essays, he tackles the subject of life after death in philosophical terms.
"A FUTURE LIFE
Many a man dies too soon and some are born in the wrong
age or station. Could these persons drink at the fountain
of youth at least once more they might do themselves
fuller justice and cut a better figure at last in the universe.
Most people think they have stuff in them for greater
things than time suffers them to perform. To imagine a
second career is a pleasing antidote for ill-fortune; the
poor soul wants another chance. But how should a future
life be constituted if it is to satisfy this demand, and how
long need it last? It would evidently have to go on in an
environment closely analogous to earth; I could not, for
instance, write in another world the epics which the
necessity of earning my living may have stifled here, did
that other world contain no time, no heroic struggles, or no
metrical language. Nor is it clear that my epics, to be
perfect, would need to be quite endless. If what is foiled
in me is really poetic genius and not simply a tendency
toward perpetual motion, it would not help me if in heaven,
in lieu of my dreamt-of epics, I were allowed to beget
several robust children. In a word, if hereafter I am to
be the same man improved I must find myself in the same
world corrected. Were I transformed into a cherub or
transported into a timeless ecstasy, it is hard to see in what
sense I should continue to exist. Those results might be
interesting in themselves and might enrich the universe;
they would not prolong my life nor retrieve my disasters.
The universe doubtless contains all sorts of experiences,
better and worse than the human; but it is idle to attribute
to a particular man a life divorced from his circumstances
and from his body.
"For this reason a future life is after all best represented
by those frankly material ideals which most Christians
— being Platonists — are wont to despise. It would be
genuine happiness for a Jew to rise again in the flesh and
live for ever in Ezekiel's New Jerusalem, with its ceremonial
glories and civic order. It would be truly agreeable for any
man to sit in well-watered gardens with Mohammed, clad
in green silks, drinking delicious sherbets, and transfixed by
the gazelle-like glance of some young girl, all innocence
and fire. Amid such scenes a man might remain himself
and might fulfil hopes that he had actually cherished on
earth. He might also find his friends again, which in
somewhat generous minds is perhaps the thought that
chiefly sustains interest in a posthumous existence. But
to recognize his friends a man must find them in their
bodies, with their familiar habits, voices, and interests;
for it is surely an insult to affection to say that he could
find them in an eternal formula expressing their idiosyn-
crasy. When, however, it is clearly seen that another life,
to supplement this one, must closely resemble it, does not
the magic of immortality altogether vanish? Is such a
reduplication of earthly society at all credible? And the
prospect of awakening again among houses and trees,
among children and dotards, among wars and rumours of
wars, still fettered to one personality and one accidental
past, still uncertain of the future, is not this prospect
wearisome and deeply repulsive? Having passed through
these things once and bequeathed them to posterity, is it not
time for each soul to rest?
"Dogmas about such a posthumous experience find some
shadowy support in various illusions and superstitions that
surround death, but they are developed into articulate
prophecies chiefly by certain moral demands. One of
these requires rewards and punishments more emphatic
and sure than those which conduct meets with in this
world. Another requires merely a more favourable and
complete opportunity for the soul's development. Con-
siderations like these are pertinent to moral philosophy.
It touches the notion of duty whether an exact hedonistic
retribution is to be demanded for what is termed merit
and guilt: so that without such supernatural remuneration
virtue, perhaps, would be discredited and deprived of a
motive. It likewise touches the ideality and nobleness
of life whether human aims can be realized satisfactorily
only in the agent's singular person, so that the fruits of
effort would be forthwith missed if the labourer himself
"To establish justice in the world and furnish an adequate
incentive to virtue was once thought the chief business
of a future life. The Hebraic religions somewhat over-
reached themselves on these points : for the grotesque
alternative between hell and heaven in the end only
aggravated the injustice it was meant to remedy. Life
is unjust in that it subordinates individuals to a general
mechanical law, and the deeper and longer hold fate has
on the soul, the greater that injustice. A perpetual life
would be a perpetual subjection to arbitrary power, while
a last judgment would be but a last fatality. That hell
may have frightened a few villains into omitting a crime
is perhaps credible; but the embarrassed silence which
the churches, in a more sensitive age, prefer to maintain
on that wholesome doctrine — once, as they taught, the
only rational basis for virtue — shows how their teaching
has to follow the independent progress of morals. Never-
theless, persons are not wanting, apparently free from
ecclesiastical constraint, who still maintain that the value
of life depends on its indefinite prolongation. By an
artifice of reflection they substitute vanity for reason,
and selfish for ingenuous instincts in man. Being apparently
interested in nothing but their own careers, they forget that
a man may remember how little he counts in the world
and suffer that rational knowledge to inspire his purposes.
Intense morality has always envisaged earthly goods and
evils, and even when a future life has been accepted
vaguely, it has never given direction to human will or
aims, which at best it could only proclaim more emphatic-
ally. It may indeed be said that no man of any depth
of soul has made his prolonged existence the touchstone
of his enthusiasms. Such an instinct is carnal, and if
immortality is to add a higher inspiration to life it must
not be an immortality of selfishness. What a despicable
creature must a man be, and how sunk below the level
of the most barbaric virtue, if he cannot bear to live and
to die for his children, for his art, or for his country!"
The passage that stands out for me in this excerpt is when Santayana mentions how, in the afterlife, a man "might also find his friends again, which in somewhat generous minds is perhaps the thought that chiefly sustains interest in a posthumous existence." As James Frazer showed, the belief in immortality is an ancient one. Excavated Stone Age burial sites that reveal an incipient belief that the person laid to rest was not entirely lost to the living tell us that the origins of belief in immortality were not, as some may think, a selfish wish to assuage a person's own fear of death, but a wish that the loved ones who have died before them are not lost to them forever, that they abide in a place as yet unknowable where they wait to be reunited.
How can anyone fear death when they think of everyone who has died until now? Some died humbly, some died badly and some heroically. My father, George Sr., and mother, Alice, and my two sisters, Virginia and Elizabeth, are all dead. I will join them when my own time comes, in death, whatever - wherever - that may be.