Ernest Belfort Bax

The Ethics of Socialism

On Immortality

Original version published in To-day, April 1888, pp.138-142
Republished with additions (largely notes) and alterations in 1893, from which this version is taken, in The Ethics of Socialism, pp.180-188.

What is it we understand by immortality or the “immortality of the soul?” Unless we clearly define this we are merely beating the air in discussing the subject. By immortality, then, we mean the popular conception of a continuance of that object of consciousness we term myself, what Kant calls the object of the internal sense, which philosophers generally call the empirical ego, after death, i.e., after the definitive dissolution of the organic system or animal body with which it is apparently correlated. Now it should be noted that this conception practically denies the fact of the correlation of the mental phenomenon with the material, and affirms their independence. But what is the mental object or phenomenon we call “myself?” When we come to examine it, we find it is primarily nothing but a memory-synthesis, that is, a succession of perceptions and thoughts held together by memory and categorised by the active, outlooking, or pure consciousness, subject, or ego, as substance like other substances.

To drop the technical language of philosophy, I wish to emphasise this fact of memory as being the primary condition of the possibility of the particular personality or individuality. That the principle of Selfhood or I-ness which is the condition of all possible consciousness, for which time is, and therefore which is eternal, i.e., apart from time, is not incidental to or bound up with the object-ego is clear enough when pointed out, but in most minds there is much confusion as to this, a confusion greatly helped by the popular psychological distinction of subject and object, the “subject” referred to being really object (Kant’s object of the internal sense) and not subject at all. Now the question of personal immortality clearly turns on this object, this memory-synthesis, myself, A.B., as distinct from you, C.D. This psychical object is in many points unique. Though it recognises itself as object among other objects, it is nevertheless like the world (universe) an absolute totality within itself. As with the world-object, no definite limits can be assigned to it in space and time, so with the soul-object no definite limits can apparently be assigned to it in time. “Myself” is therefore a cognised object, i.e., an object in consciousness. But as object, it has in it an element of particularity which as particularity is unstable and evanescent, since every particular comes and passes away.

The great question, therefore, remains; is the memory-synthesis which is the primary condition of the personality or individuality of the nature of the particular or not? If it is not, then there is ground for a belief in this personal immortality we are enquiring into, if it is, there is not only no such ground, but we are forced to make the contrary assumption. To my thinking this question is very easily decided. For it resolves itself substantially into this, did memory or the memory-synthesis arise in time? If it did we must assume that it will pass away in time, since a coming necessarily implies a going.

The argument may be put more elaborately as follows: Change is of the essence of the time-content. That which was not, or which arises, cannot be a necessary and universal element of the Real but is obviously contingent and particular. Its existence hinges upon or is bound up with a concurrence of other particulars, and this again is conditioned by others and so on to infinity. It therefore belongs to the realm of change and chance, and among the infinity of possible changes which Reality pre-supposes some must arise at some time or other which are incompatible with its existence, in other words which involve its annihilation, i.e., as particular or formal object, as this object distinguished as such, from other particular objects of the same kind.

Now, as I take it, it cannot be denied that this object-self held together by memory, as distinguished from the pure Consciousness which knows it, which distinguishes it as such, did arise in time, since there is a time before which memory is silent. It begins on the hither side of the genesis of this body. The thread of memory which constitutes that sense of personal identity expressed in the phrase “myself,” I can trace back and back in time; until I arrive at a period about which it is lost. There is a time therefore, when, speaking popularly, memory may be said to arise, and hence I argue a time when again, speaking popularly, it may be said to cease. In the one case we know that it is correlated with the development of the organic synthesis or animal body, in the other we have every analogical reason to think it is equally correlated with the dissolution of that synthesis. This is as much as to say, the memory-synthesis of personal identity as expressed in any given individual belongs to the particular, singular, or perishable.

Now, let us examine some of the most plausible arguments in favour of the limitless continuance of particular memory, or of “personal identity.” We cannot strictly speaking it is said, assign a time when memory begins, and, therefore, it is argued, plausibly enough, we have no right to assign a time when it ends. Here I think we have a confusion between memory, as a sensible individual particular fact, and memory as the universal condition of individual consciousness. That in this latter plane, memory, personal identity, has neither beginning nor ending may be perfectly true, but that does not affect our present question which concerns this particular individual on the time-plane. We are discussing a temporal fact, not a metaphysical postulate. “Myself” now speaking is a fact in time. Though concrete consciousness may always involve a memory-synthesis, as it always involves time, it nevertheless does not, per se, involve this memory-synthesis here and now, which only accrues to it per accidens. I, to be concrete, must always have an object-self, but not necessarily this particular object-self. We may say, therefore, that this memory-synthesis, the foundation of particular personal identity, of the soul or object-self, does arise in time since it carries us back a certain way and then vanishes. The impossibility of assigning the moment of beginning or ending is merely an instance of the irrationality of the purely sensible or the particular, generally, like the Zeno-problems of the impossibility of assigning the moment when motion ceases, or of the extension or intension of space, or the precise moinmit or going to sleep or waking. [1]

The attempt to find an analogy between the temporary break in the memory-synthesis in sleep, swoons, and anaesthesia and the change from infancy to childhood, from death to life, is inept for two or three reasons. Firstly, it may fairly be doubted whether the break is ever complete in these cases. In sleep my observations distinctly traverse this assertion. Even under the influence of an anaesthetic, I have traced the memory-thread of personal identity, gone very thin it is true but still there. But the real gist of the matter lies in the fact that in the one case the break in memory or personal identity (if such) is only a break, in the other it is a complete lapse. Behind my soundest sleep lies my past life known to me as mine. Behind my present life lies no life known to me as mine. My personal identity begins with a certain year. Beyond that I have no personal identity. Behind that there is no “myself,” i.e., no this “myself” that is now speaking, and with any other “myself” we have nothing to do. This memory-synthesis or personal identity carries me back through all the changes in my mental life, etc., up to this year but there it ends. “There is nothing that comes into being but it ceases to be,” said Herakleitos. Were I conscious of the pre-existence (as regards life) of my particular personality, I could believe in the possibility at least of its post-existence. Did I become conscious, however dimly, however transiently, of “myself” as having lived and played a part amid the life of any past age, then I could believe in a continuance in the future. But I cannot find “myself” in the London of Dr. Johnson, nor in the old English country house, nor in the salons of Paris, nor amid the workmen of the faubourg St. Antoine, nor anywhere in the eighteenth century world. As little can I trace “myself” amid the monasteries, castles, burgs, of the Middle Ages, nor with the decaying world of antiquity around me. My particular self, the object of memory, in short, then, has no pre-existence. It is up to date, correlated with the organic synthesis, viz., body. The body is its wedding garment, and hence I argue the body is its shroud.

The memory-synthesis, personal identity, “myself,” is, if this be true, one of the infinitude of evanescent particulars, or individuals of which all sensible reality is made up. [2] It is one of those ripples which come and which go as they come, leaving the sea, indeed, but made up of other ripples. The meaning of human life is not to be sought for in this particular person, but rather in the universal principles which it embodies, or to which, maybe, it gives voice. Why should men strive to believe in a continuity of memory after death which they know does not obtain before birth? Because they refuse to recognise themselves as essentially unimportant and as only the temporary illustrations of universal notions. Of course in this there is no reason for reproach at all, since the feeling is perfectly natural. But the truth remains that our thoughts, deeds, friendships, and loves, which are merely the momentary and particular manifestations of certain human traits, we are accustomed to regard as the main fact of the universe. We forget that every object of our affection consists of a matter, human nature, and a form, certain particular traits, and that these traits will continue, as they have done, to manifest themselves in other particulars or individuals. Of course it may be objected, this does not concern me; I am concerned only with my particular memory-synthesis, and with what falls within it – be it persons or things – “I” has been saying this ever since the rise of the introspective spirit, i.e., since man first learnt to distinguish himself as individual from, what was to him “humanity,” to wit, his clan or tribe. And “I” says it still. The objection must be allowed, of course, up to a certain point. I thus individually can never be fully compensated for the loss of a friend or child, so long as I, i.e., my object-self the memory-synthesis which includes the friend or child, subsists. But it is surely some consolation to recognise that this synthesis itself is transient no less than its content – that “I” as universal individual in other divisions of time, past and future, with another object-self, another memory-synthesis, present to it, will have also the same qualities otherwise presented, embodied that is, in other friends and children.

If it be objected that it is only actual living individuals or those we have known when living that we can care for, I answer this entirely overthrows the notion of any duty towards, or concern for an unborn posterity. If any one recognises a duty towards a being unborn or even unconceived (if for instance he admits an obligation not to procreate a child to conditions of certain misery) he perforce admits that the concrete, real, actual, is not the sole object of his solicitude, but that he can also care for human nature as yet purely potential (nay, abstract in a sense) and unrealised in any particular or individual. How many lives, how many “myselves” have we not perceived on this very spot? Do we feel acutely the sorrows of the myriads of nameless individuals, memory-syntheses, myselves, who have thought, acted, loved and hated in mediaeval London, or during those four centuries of Roman London, whose remains are beneath our feet and whose history and manner of life are now for ever a total blank? Why then do we trouble ourselves about this particularity attached to this animal body? This universal individual realised in and through an infinitude of particulars in space and time, must again and again and yet again present substantially the same combination of universal attributes which we present here now, always barring, of course, the special direction and colouring these attributes acquire from the historical period in which they manifest themselves. The latter (so far as the modern man is concerned) we would fain hope will not recur. They belong to the substance of humanity, ourselves as particular individuals are its mere temporary accidents. The words “individual” or “person” as commonly used are a little ambiguous for the reason that their derivatives, “individuality” and “personality” are employed to connote that side of the individual which is universal, while the words in their simple form are more often used as synonymous with the “particular” or the “singular.” Thus a man is said to have an “individuality” or a “personality,” who has a well-marked and decided character, that is, who embodies prominently certain universal attributes which distinguish Human Nature as opposed to animal nature, in all times and places. The man has no special character, he is a commonplace man, who embodies merely animal characteristics or the ordinary human characteristics which are common to his race, his class, his age, or his immediate surroundings. It is these immediate surroundings (race, class, age) which the man of character lifts himself above, and the lifting above is the sign of his character. The universal principle or attribute which he embodies is eternal, it is only himself, its particular embodiment, which is transient and since the memory-synthesis correlated with his animal organism is undeniably part of this particular embodiment, I repeat once again we have no reason for believing it – i.e., this focussing of consciousness, here and now – to have any significance or any permanence apart from its physical correlate.


1. All actual, i.e., individual, consciousness presupposes a known past. Memory, therefore, for this reason, can never can, properly speaking, begin, since it always presupposes memory. I can, it is true, now recall a time approximately when I was first aware of myself or conscious, i.e., before which I cannot recall being aware or conscious. But I am bound to assume that my then awareness or consciousness must have involved a remembered past, a memory-synthesis, just as does my present consciousness, although this previous past is now lost to me. At the point of the genesis of the individual subject we lose it in the universal fact-- the consciousness in general or universal subject which it presupposes. This particular memory-synthesis in time has not fuller emerged from the universal condition of its possibility – the I of which time and actual or object consciousness is itself the determination.

2. With regard to this point of the chance-nature of the object-self several curious speculations present themselves neophyte. One of these which used to perplex me as a boy, was: how far does the thisness of consciousness implied in the phrase “myself” depend on the circumstances of parentage or conception? Should I, the speaker, this I, have existed in, any sense whatever had my parents never met one another but each married differently and so on? One thing I never could make out was the determinating factor which fixed “myself” here and now and not five hundred years ago or hence, or at the antipodes. The solution of all these puzzles is to be found of course in the distinction between consciousness as particular actuality or object and consciousness as universal possibility or subject.


Last updated on 14.1.2006