Wednesday, January 15, 2020


A. G. Long, Death and Immortality in Ancient Philosophy. Key Themes in Ancient Philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Pp. vi, 232. ISBN 9781107086593. £74.99.

Reviewed by Jonathan Griffiths, University College London (

Version at BMCR home site


Alex Long's thoughtful and wide-ranging new book is devoted to exploring ancient Greek conceptions of immortality and human immortalization (Part 1), as well as various Greek and Roman philosophical attitudes towards death (Part 2). It focuses especially on Plato, Stoicism and Epicureanism, but also covers Homer and early Greek poetry, Empedocles, Aristotle, Cicero and the sceptical tradition. Despite this breadth, the great strength of Long's study lies not in propounding a single overarching thesis about ancient philosophies of death and immortality, but in presenting detailed and frequently original readings of individual passages, in ways that are always sensitive to both philosophical context and divergences between ancient and modern approaches. In this review I summarise the leading contentions of each chapter, before concluding with some reflections on the achievements of Long's book as a whole.

A central interest in Part 1 of the book is what the author identifies as 'a less recognised debate in ancient philosophy', over 'what it means to be immortal' (p. 1). Here Long partly wishes to contrast ancient perspectives with one modern understanding of immortality as (no more than) the infinite prolongation of a human life, as in Bernard Williams' example of the character of Elina Makropulos.1 In Chapter 1, this re-defining of views is pursued by asking how, starting from Homer, immortality is linked to duration, and, in Empedocles, what it means for certain items to be called immortal that cease to exist in the climax of each period of cosmic domination by Love and Strife. In Homer, Long shows that becoming immortal is characteristically to become 'an' immortal, i.e. a god or goddess, rather than an endlessly preserved human being, but that words for 'immortal' (athanatos, ambrosios) can also bear a secondary sense of 'god-resembling' or 'god-appropriate', to describe items whose existences are themselves temporary. Early theories of reincarnation can, but need not (as in the Pythagorean tradition), be committed to the soul's everlastingness, and this leads Long to understand Empedocles' conception of immortality as marking the privileged exemption that is enjoyed by certain things, such as the transmigrating daimon, from the process that is commonly called 'death'.2

Chapter 2 ('Platonic immortalities') begins by considering the close association between immortality and divinity that was identified in Chapter 1, before going on to analyse Plato's discussions of immortality in three dialogues, the Symposium, Phaedrus and Timaeus. One running distinction in this chapter (outlined at pp. 30-1) concerns the presence of two contrasting, but characteristically Platonic, notions of immortality: according to the first, immortality is possessed essentially by the soul, regardless of whether the soul (or soul-bearer) is itself good or bad, whereas, according to the second, immortality is presented as an attainable goal for the exceptionally virtuous human being within the confines of his or her mortal lifespan. This chapter is one of the most nuanced and careful in the book. One potentially surprising discovery is that, for Plato, lasting forever should not be understood as a good thing per se, but as value-neutral. According to Long, this 'evaluative neutrality of everlastingness' (p. 36) partly justifies why Plato's arguments for the soul's immortality are consistently supplemented by post-mortem myths in which the soul's future is determined by its moral behaviour during embodiment. It also helps to explain Diotima's description of every human's desire for 'immortality with the good' (Symp. 207a). Finally, Long urges us to appreciate how these two kinds of immortality gain their respective purchase from the different contextual interests of different works, such as the shared interest of the Symposium and Timaeus in the god-like nature of human intellectual ambition.

Picking up on Plato's second kind of achievable immortality, Chapter 3 presents close readings of three cases of 'immortality without everlastingness' (p. 63) from Aristotle's and Epicurus' ethics, and in the Stoic Chrysippus' natural philosophy. Starting from Aristotle's injunction in the Nicomachean Ethics that we, as human beings, ought to athanatizein, Long here discusses several attestations and possible senses of this word, and settles on the meaning 'act as an immortal'. Next he discusses Epicurus' promise that a fully trained follower of the school will 'live as a god among human beings: for a human being living among immortal goods bears no resemblance to a mortal creature' (Ep. Men. 135), suggesting that, by 'immortal', Epicurus means goods that are securely possessed as long as the possessor is alive, and that encompass various kinds of freedom from fear. Lastly, Long develops a suggestion by Keimpe Algra that Chrysippus distinguished between 'mortal' entities such as human beings, which are necessarily subject to death, and 'perishable' things, e.g. gods and virtuous souls, which he calls 'immortal' because of their immunity to death, but which nevertheless perish in the universal conflagration.3 Hence, a major achievement of Long's in Part 1 is to demonstrate how notions of immortality and divinity, imperishability and everlastingness, while obviously overlapping, are not always straightforwardly co-extensive in the philosophical literature discussed.

The second part of the book examines a variety of evaluative attitudes towards death and its consequences, both for the deceased and for his or her loved ones and community. As one significant general contribution of these chapters, Long encourages us to look beyond the dogmatic poles in ancient thought that consider death either to be the absolute termination of the individual (Epicurus) or the threshold to a guaranteed afterlife (Plato), by discussing a number of more sceptical or agnostically-minded traditions that nevertheless draw comfort from seeking to adopt a correct mind-set towards death. Chapter 4 presents three case-studies of works in which individuals admit doubt about knowing, or being able to know, about death and the afterlife. After a comparison of Socrates' two utterances about death in Plato's Apology—the one agnostic, the other more dogmatic—Long considers the interesting example of proto-sceptical resistance that is voiced by Simmias in the Phaedo, who doubts whether any human proposition has the stability to cast a verdict on the soul's immortality. Rather than think that Plato is making Simmias represent a wholly ill-judged form of scepticism here, Long shows that Socrates actually responds approvingly to Simmias' habit of not trusting any argument uncritically, but that he urges greater confidence in humans' capacity for knowledge and certainty. Thirdly, in the first book of the Tusculan Disputations, Cicero is seen to have absorbed some of Simmias' scepticism for himself, in which he gathers the views of different philosophical schools to attack the common opinion that death is an evil.

Another alternative to dogmatism in the face of death is the subject of Chapter 6, which focuses on post-mortem agnosticism in (especially Roman) Stoicism and the use of so-called Symmetry Arguments outside the Epicurean tradition. Stoicism allows for a greater open-mindedness about death than the Epicureans or Plato, not only because death is considered to be in itself morally neutral, but also because individual Stoics, such as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, entertained differing perspectives on the soul's continuation, the length of its continuation, and its posthumous identity. Another interest here concerns the harmonising of agnostic attitudes with arguments that forged an equivalence between pre-natal and post-mortem states in relation to life. Long's helpful review of both the pre- and post-Epicurean evidence (as well as his allowing for lost further pre-Epicurean evidence, e.g. in later fourth-century literature on grief; pp. 162, 164 ff.) leads him to caution persuasively against regarding Symmetry Arguments as being 'exclusively or even primarily Epicurean property' (p. 151).

These two chapters are sandwiched by an extended discussion of Epicurean evaluations of death, which covers not only Epicurus and Lucretius, but also the various fears of death discussed in On Death by Philodemus, who tends to be less frequently drawn upon in contemporary ethical debates that engage with Epicureanism. Long sets out by asking why death occupies such a central position in Epicurus' ethics. He then goes on to present a new and (by his own admission) elaborate analysis of what Epicurus meant by his famous assertion that death is 'nothing to us' (Kuriai Doxai 2), and how this saying differs in its regard for death as a perceptually unaware state from his longer discussion in the Letter to Menoikeus. This chapter, like many others, will both pose interpretive challenges to specialists and present clear, but demanding, introductory scholarship to (advanced) undergraduate and postgraduate students. In the last two sections, Long invites a contrast between Epicurus' more restrictively individualistic therapeutic aims and Philodemus' broader consideration of dispositions towards death, such as his allowance for the sensible person to feel a 'more natural pang' at the death of loved ones.

Another insightful distinction made by Long throughout the second part of the book concerns the extent to which death is explored directly or indirectly among different philosophical traditions. In Epicureanism, Long maintains, we can speak of the school's "philosophy of death", but in other cases, such as for Plato and the Stoics, questions around death may be either felt to be a matter of subjective importance (as in Stoicism: Ch. 5.2) or they may be explored as a pathway to discussing other kinds of philosophy, such as metaphysics or theology (as in Plato's Phaedo). In these examples there is philosophising on or about death, but not a philosophy of death in such a targeted sense. This second kind of indirect engagement also extends to the special case of suicide, which is studied in Chapter 7 from a range of religious (the Phaedo), ethical (Aristotle, Cicero's De Finibus), and legislative perspectives (Plato's Laws). Here too, Long is context-sensitive and guided by ancient, versus modern, concerns, emphasising the ways that different thinkers justified and discussed suicide in different circumstances, rather than (as a modern ethicist might do) presenting grounds for its approval or disapproval.

In summary, Long's book breaks new ground as a philosophical study of ancient views towards immortality and death. It is successful in highlighting certain differences in outlook and motivation between ancient and modern thinkers, and it contains many perceptive and challenging individual readings of often familiar texts. These readings are arranged, in chapters that mostly cover multiple authors, in a contrastive and mutually illuminating way. Long also writes in admirably clear and precise prose, offering clear direction for his detailed and frequently demanding arguments (including for the Greek-less reader), and each chapter ends with a helpful summary of its key findings. Perhaps at times Long could have invited further correspondence between the two parts, such as by considering Plato's and Aristotle's biology of death (cf. Tim. 81c-e, and the essay On Death in the Parva Naturalia),4 but he also nowhere pretends to be exhaustive on these themes. I noticed only a small number of typing errors, in the form of words that have fallen out of the text.5 The book should appeal to advanced undergraduates and above in Classics, Philosophy and Theology, as well as anyone else interested in immortality and death in the ancient world.


1.   B. Williams , 'The Makropulos case: reflections on the tedium of immortality', in his Problems of the Self: Philosophical Papers 1956-1972 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1973), ch. 6.
2.   Some findings of this chapter are partly anticipated by I. G. Kalogerakos, Seele und Unsterblichkeit: Untersuchungen zur Vorsokratik bis Empedokles (Stuttgart; Leipzig, De Gruyter, 1996), not cited in the bibliography.
3.   K. Algra, 'Eternity and the Concept of God in early Stoicism', in G. Van Riel and C. MacĂ©, Platonic Ideas and Concept Formation in Ancient and Medieval Thought (Leuven, Leuven University Press, 2004), pp. 173-90, at pp. 185-6.
4.   See e.g. R. King, Aristotle on Life and Death (London, Duckworth, 2001), with the BMCR review at 2004.06.10.
5.   See p. 138 ('it would surprising'); p. 175 ('according his own account'); also at p. 153 n. 3, 'soul"(Preparation' is missing a space.

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