The Cartoon History of Humanism, Episode 13 Farewell, the Soul Immortal: The Reality-First Psychology of Pietro Pomponazzi

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Farewell, the Soul Immortal: The Reality-First Psychology of Pietro Pomponazzi


For twelve hundred years we had it. As the stoic realism of the Romans faded away, it left in its wake a heady neo-Platonic dualism that preached the metaphysical otherness, and therefore deathlessness, of the human soul. We knew nothing so surely as that there was a life beyond this one, and that there our true reward or punishment was to be had. We built cavernous and desperately self-contradictory theologies to buttress that notion and pretended to our utmost that all was well. And for over a thousand years it worked, until a Mantuan Aristotelian named Pietro Pomponazzi (1462-1525) blew over the entire philosophical house of cards with one swift, devastating breath.

PietroPomponazziHe was simultaneously the last of the Scholastics and the first of the moderns, pushing through a rigorous and critical investigation of the basic assumptions of medieval theology at one moment while erecting a new human-centered but classically inspired system of morality, will, and purpose at another. Over the course of a few decades and five books, he wrote the first rigorous critiques of personal immortality, prayer, miracles, and theological morality, but draped in an Aristotelian language so compelling that the religious authorities of his time could do little more than huff and harrumph at his lack of discretion while leaving him personally free to teach as he wished.

To understand why he was able to get away with such radical views in the teeth of the Inquisition’s golden years, we have to peer into the theories of the soul that preceded him.  Aristotle had been pretty clear that the soul is just the form of the body, intimately tied to it in every meaningful way. This was, of course, not what the first Christian philosophers wanted to hear, and so early in the game they started injecting Platonism into the body of Christian thought, keeping Aristotle’s teachings on logic and argumentation, while slowly importing the idea of the soul as a substance separate from, and superior to, the body.

It was the birth of dualism, and it was a sloppy mess from the start. Yes, it allowed for personal immortality, as everything fundamental about us was shifted to the soul, which was free to operate once the body was gone, but on a mechanical level it didn’t make a bit of sense even in the hands of its most deft of theorists. How an immaterial, formal soul interfaced with a material body, how the material world was able to produce changes and development in something immaterial, how differences in personality were to be accounted for, these and a cavalcade of other questions were the issues that perplexed the greatest of the medieval philosophers, and their answers were all, unilaterally, unsatisfactory upon the scantest inspection.

However, so great was the need for immortality in the Christian system, and so powerful the Church that insisted upon the absolute certainty of personal immortality, that the whole philosophical catastrophe was allowed to limp along, under-scrutinized, for centuries. The two dominant versions of the soul that Pomponazzi had to grapple with were those of Averroes and St. Thomas Aquinas. And grapple with them he did, with a ruthless insistence on rigor that the soul hadn’t faced since Roman times.

Both Averroes and Aquinas had, in their own ways, deepened the tradition of separating the soul and intellect from the body, and therefore carving out a bit of potential space for personal immortality. For Averroes, all human beings partook of a common reservoir of intelligence that stood outside of space and time, while St. Thomas, admitting that the soul did seem to depend rather much on the body, hypothesized nonetheless that the most important part of it was wholly separate in nature and could live on beyond our death. Pomponazzi, however, wasn’t having any of that. His mantra was the investigation of the mind and psychology of humanity as we experience it, not as we theorize it to be.

Looked at from this point of view, he argued, it is eminently clear that there is nothing in the content of our interaction with the world, not even those lofty moments when we are thinking about thinking or considering abstract objects, that does not, at its base, have some link with our material natures. How we see and feel, how we generalize and fantasize are all based on events that are fundamentally mediated materially. Who we are, then, is linked entirely to our physical being, and whatever existence one might hypothesize persists after death, the conclusion must be that it is of a type wholly different than that which we know, and that therefore the individual who experiences such an afterlife is, in no recognizable or meaningful way, ourselves.

When we die, we die. Everything that forms our character as it stands is connected to physicality, and with the perishing of the body comes the end of anything that could possibly resemble ourselves. There is no heaven, no hell, no afterlife, no ultimate reward. There is just the time we have now, and every attempt to philosophically prove otherwise is based on abstract speculation that has no grounds in life as it is actually lived.

The book in which Pomponazzi laid out these claims, De Immortalitate animae (1516), made him a name throughout Europe, and while some copies were ritually burned by the church, the only official action the Vatican took was to have two counter-texts written and published, which Pomponazzi deftly swatted down in his Apologia and Defensorium.

To the arguments that humans must be immortal because (a) they yearn after immortality, and surely God wouldn’t allow a yearning that couldn’t be satisfied, (b) the unpunished wickedness and unrewarded virtue of this world have to be rewarded somewhere if God is to be considered just, (c) morality would fall apart without it, and (d) as a matter of fairness and God’s magnanimity, life being too short to reach our goals there must be an extended life beyond this one, Pomponazzi had several ingenious responses that prefigure much of our modern humanist canon.

As to our yearning after immortality, Pomponazzi’s response was, in a nutshell, “suck it up.” We yearn after all sorts of things we can’t have because we have a capacity to form abstract concepts from concrete situations. We live and can imagine a longer life, and therefore yearn after it. But that’s on us, and our lack of proper perspective. Only a fool feels bad because he can’t have the un-haveable. And only a greater fool would build a whole philosophical system on the necessity of its achievement.

On a less smack-talking level, Pomponazzi’s new system of morality and purpose is a brilliant stroke of perspective switching. Yes, mortality means no heaven, and it also means that you’ll only get to do a fraction of the things you wanted to do. But, you’re not alone. You are part of a species that is constantly changing and advancing and meeting collective goals that are far beyond what you could do even given an eternity of self-development. Rather than moping that you didn’t get to master every skill ever in your short decades of life, learn to take satisfaction in contributing to the big project of humanity. Instead of feeling bad that you won’t be a genius or a master craftsman, perfect that which is in everybody’s power to perfect, namely your capacity for goodness. Not everybody can be brilliant, but everybody can work towards being good, and when immortality is removed from the picture, that goodness will be its own source of satisfaction, untainted by the baseness of “ultimate reward,” just as your occasional episodes of not-so-good behavior will cause real and fundamental self-reflection, instead of being sloughed off in ritualized penance.

Rather than seeing mortality as the death knell of morality, Pomponazzi recasts it as the fundamental criterion for any morality worth having, and in that recasting there is the script for the whole project of modern secular behavior. That we are wired to receive satisfaction from social good is a psychological fact Pomponazzi, alone amongst the Scholastics, appreciated. And the view of human potential, detangled from the bonds of eternity, is pretty inspiring stuff still.

But that’s not all! For Pomponazzi took his naturalist investigations a step further, into the realm of miracles, prayers, and prophecy in a set of books published after his death. He insisted with unflagging vigor that everything that had ever been described as supernatural in origin was either the work of profit-hungry charlatans or the result of a natural, if currently unknowable, set of causes. Granted, these causes included chains of astrological influence that we wouldn’t accept as entirely rigorous today, but the whole thrust of Pomponazzi’s inquiry was a bold departure, insisting that the myriad of angels and demons believed to interfere in the affairs of people was nothing but vulgar superstition covering a lack of knowledge about the causal changes behind the seemingly miraculous.

There are dodgy bits in these works but his section on prayer is priceless. By Pomponazzi’s account, prayer doesn’t do anything. Event A is going to happen whether you pray for it to come about or not. There’s no changing the mind of God or the universe by really wanting something. At best, you’re giving yourself some spare moments of reflection to think about the things you want to improve in your life, a bit of space to question what it is you need and what it is you merely desire, which is useful in making you a better person but certainly not a causal, universe-disrupting power (though he does ponder the possibility of there being a mechanical ability of a brain, concentrating hard enough, to alter its surroundings—a bit Jean Grey, sixteenth-century style).

Against a continent-wide philosophy dictating that we are immortal souls clad in temporary bodies, bound for heaven or hell and in constant, effective contact with the divine, Pomponazzi raised a sole but powerful call for sober reflection, a fundamental investigation a millennium past due of what life actually looks like. We shall die, but can still be happy, and good, and wise. And if the heavens won’t turn at our command, we can take satisfaction in each other and feel contentment from those virtues within our power to perfect.


Further Reading

Pietro Pomponazzi is still something of an unsung hero of early humanism. He shows up as one figure among many in accounts of Renaissance philosophy, but the last book in English that dealt solely and systematically with his thought was 1910’s The Philosophy and Psychology of Pietro Pomponazzi by Halliday Douglas. Luckily, that is readily available as a historical reprint through Forgotten Books. His main book, On the Immortality of the Soul, is available in English translation in The Renaissance Philosophy of Man collection by Cassirer, and in Latin all over the place.