An Argument from Self-Reversion

There are a lot of different ideas in the Pagan community about what the afterlife might be like. But, in order for there to be an afterlife of any kind, we must be able to survive the death of our bodies. In this post we’ll take a look at one reason to draw just this conclusion.

The core idea here is that we are able to do something that no divisible thing can. Having separated ourselves in kind from divisible things, we may deduce that the death of any divisible thing (such as a body) could in no way mean the end for us.

In this post we will be drawing inspiration from the Neoplatonic philosopher Proclus (412-485 C.E.) who seems to have argued that there is something about every human being which is essentially indivisible. We will look to him, not simply for the sake of understanding Proclus, but for the sake of determining whether there is a good reason to think we survive the death of our bodies. If it turns out that the argument we discover is not one Proclus intended to give, then we will have made an historical or exegetical error, but that would not mean we thereby made a philosophical error: arguments are made good or bad by their premises, not by people.

Before presenting Proclus’ case, it will be helpful to highlight some of the Neoplatonic beliefs that his argument can be seen to arise from.

We’ll jump right into it and begin by drawing a distinction between a ‘who’ and a ‘what’. A ‘who’ is peculiar and idiosyncratic; it is incommunicable and cannot be duplicated. By contrast, a ‘what’ is exemplifiable and common; it is communicable and can be repeated. Whereas persons typify ‘whos’, properties such as shape, color and size typify ‘whats’. This distinction is an important theoretical tool to have when thinking philosophically about a variety of things, and we will expand on it make use of it in future posts.

The second background belief we will highlight here is that all beings are homeostatic units. One way to unpack this belief is to think carefully about the fact that things come in forms of being – such as solid, liquid, gaseous, organic, inorganic etc.

In so doing, things are both like their forms and unlike them. That is, by coming in a form of being, a thing is an instance or image of its form, but by coming in a form of being, a thing is not that form itself.

Take, for example, the nature of being liquid. This is a form of being that many things come in: water, milk, juice, soda, honey, alcohol etc. Some are more liquid-like than others (especially in regards to viscosity), and so manifest their nature more clearly; but, they are all liquids. They differ in the degree to which resemble a form of being, not in the kind of form they resemble.

Now, being the particular or unique image of a form that one is may be all well and good, but if it is to last for even more than a moment, there must be something that anchors one as the image that she is; some principle by which she can retain her individuality across time. We may call this reversion, and it is a directing of one’s being back to reflecting her form; a sort of clinging-on-to of this form, which manifests at the most general of levels as an inherent tendency.

Reversion closes the circuit of one’s being, connecting the continuous currents of resembling one’s form and becoming different therefrom so as to stabilize one as a unity of the two. It secures one’s who-ness or individuality. In the case of reverting to a form, it is the fortifying of one’s individuality as the peculiar image that she is.

Now, what will interest us in this post is not reversion as such, nor even reversion to a form of being, but rather reversion to one’s self. Instead of securing one’s individuality as a this or a that, this sort of reversion secures one’s individuality as such, or simpliciter.

In the hands of Proclus, this phenomenon becomes a crucial player in the case for our immortality:

Prop. 15. All that is capable of reverting upon itself is incorporeal.

For it is not in the nature of any body to revert upon itself.  That which reverts upon anything is conjoined with that upon which it reverts:  hence it is evident that every part of a body reverted upon itself must be conjoined with every other part — since self-reversion is precisely the case in which the reverted subject and that upon which it has reverted become identical.  But this is impossible for a body, and universally for any divisible substance:  for the whole of a divisible substance cannot be conjoined with the whole of itself, because of the separation of its parts, which occupy different positions in space.  It is not in the nature, then, of any body to revert upon itself so that the whole is reverted upon the whole.  Thus if there is anything which is capable of reverting upon itself, it is incorporeal and without parts. – The Elements of Theology. Ed. and trans. E.R. Dodds. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963. 17-19.

The idea here, it seems to me, is that in reverting to one’s self, one reverts to herself as such or precisely insofar as she is the peculiar ‘who’ that she is, not to herself insofar as she is a ‘who’ with this or that attribute, property or feature. But, a divisible substance cannot be considered apart from what it can be divided into: it just is a whole with parts. There is in a divisible substance qua divisible substance no ‘who’ as such for it to revert upon; only a ‘who’ with this or that attribute, property or feature; only a ‘who’ with this or that ‘what’. As such, divisible substances are just not the sort of things that can revert upon themselves: there is no pure self for them to become “identical” with. It follows, therefore, that whatever can revert upon itself is indivisible, impartible and incorporeal.

But, if one is indivisible, impartible and incorporeal, then she has no component parts whatsoever, let alone any upon which she depends for her existence. We may deduce in the second place, therefore, that whatever can revert upon itself can and indeed must survive the death of any body.

Insofar as each of us is a unique individual or a ‘who’, and can be considered precisely in that respect, we have a self upon which to revert. And insofar as we retain our individuality as such for more than even a moment, we are at some level engaging in self-reversion. We are thus in our peculiarity, indivisible, impartible and incorporeal. For that reason, we can and must survive the death of any body.