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34 VLADIMIR M.

BEKHTEREV

Journal of Russian and East European Psychology


vol. 39, no. 5, September–October 2001, pp. 34–70.
© 2002 M.E. Sharpe, Inc. All rights reserved.
ISSN 1061-0405/2002 $9.50 + 0.00.

VLADIMIR M. BEKHTEREV

Immortality from a Scientific


Point of View

At such moments in history as the present, when almost every day


brings us news of the death of hundreds, even thousands, of people
on the battlefields, questions concerning “eternal” life and the im-
mortality of the human personality arise with particular persistence.
Of course, they also arise under the ordinary, mundane conditions
of life, in which, at every step, we are confronted with the loss, from
natural or violent causes, of friends, relatives, and acquaintances.
“A shot was fired, and the person is no more.” “Illness has
claimed our friend, and he has passed on to another world.” Such
are the words commonly spoken at the graveside. But how true
are they? After all, if our intellectual or spiritual existence really
were terminated at the moment our heart beats its last, if death
only transformed us into nothingness, into inert matter subject to
decay and transformation, what would life itself be worth? For if
this life has no spiritual continuation, who could possibly find it

Translation © 2002 M.E. Sharpe, Inc., from the original Russian “Bezsmertie
sv tochki zreniia nauki.” This article was initially a speech delivered at a special
meeting in February 1916 at the Psycho-Neurological Institute. It was later
published in Vestnik Znaniia, 1918, No. 2, from which this version was translated.
Financial support from the “Dean’s Discretionary Fund” of Christ Church
Cathedral, Ottawa, is gratefully acknowledged.
The translation is by Alisa Lockwood, a student in the Department of Politi-
cal Science at the University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Canada.

34
IMMORTALITY: THE SCIENTIFIC POINT OF VIEW 35

valuable, with all its anxiety and emotional turmoil? Even if it is


enhanced by the striving of great minds toward ideals of good-
ness, truth, and beauty, what would justify the preeminence of such
ideals over selfish aspirations for the average individual, his life
and actions? If there is no immortality, then neither is there moral-
ity: all is permitted.
Indeed, why should I care for others given that everyone—I
and they alike—must inevitably become “nothing,” and that all
moral responsibility, too, quite naturally disappears into this “noth-
ingness”? To suppose that death is not accompanied by the kind of
spiritual immortality to which all religions subscribe, in which all
peoples have believed, does this not amount to removing any foun-
dation for a system of ethics, or even simply for the desire to build
a better future?
Indeed, if death extinguishes forever the existence of the hu-
man individual, of what use are our concerns about the future?
What purpose is there in a concept of duty if our human personal-
ity expires with our last breath? For if this were true, would it not
be more appropriate to seek nothing from life beyond the few com-
forts it provides since, when it is over, nothing will remain in any
case? Otherwise, life itself, the gift of nature, might pass by bereft
even of those earthly pleasures it is capable of granting human-
kind, enjoyments that lend some color to the individual’s brief
existence.
As for the demonstration of concern for others, it hardly bears
consideration, seeing how tomorrow, or the next day, or at some
future point both “I” and “they” will become “nothing.” Yet this is
clearly a direct rejection of human obligation, responsibility, and
of any sort of community, which are inextricably tied to the re-
sponsibilities in question.
This is why the human mind cannot come to terms with the idea
of complete death of the person beyond the limits of his earthly
existence, and why religions of all nations have created the con-
cept of the soul, of an entity existing beyond the grave in the form
of a living, incorporeal being. This is why the Eastern worldview
has developed the idea of a soul that is transferred from one crea-
ture to another.
36 VLADIMIR M. BEKHTEREV

Thus, both national epos and religious doctrine draw our atten-
tion to a subject that, by virtue of its importance, ought also to
have been the subject matter of science, but which until very re-
cently has remained outside the latter’s field of vision. True, the
idea of immortality is not foreign to philosophy, which has long
posed the problem of human immortality as central enough to hu-
man life to require resolution one way or another; certainly, we
know that Spinoza and, later, Kant—not to mention certain oth-
ers—acknowledged the immortality of the spirit.
Our great moralist, Leo Tolstoy, has also expressed his opinion
on the subject: “If life is to be found not in the body, but in the
spirit, then there is no death, only liberation from the body. We
acknowledge something in the soul that defies death. Discover the
element of your mind that is intangible, and you will have grasped
that aspect of it that does not die.”
Among more recent authors, the American philosopher James,
recently deceased, “was so convinced of the existence of a world
beyond the grave that he promised to find a means of spiritually
communicating with his friends after death.” In response, our sci-
entist Mechnikov has noted, not without irony, that James “still
has not fulfilled his promise.”
Some philosophers have even adopted Christian ideas in deal-
ing with this question. As is known, Christian doctrine speaks of a
universal resurrection of the dead; and our famous philosopher
Soloviev1 draws on this particular aspect of Christianity in the dia-
lectical objections he directs against moral amorphism.

In rejecting various institutions, moral amorphism neglects one in par-


ticular, an institution that might well be considered relatively impor-
tant—namely, death—and only this selective amnesia allows the doc-
trine to exist.
It is clear that moral amorphism, while failing to give sufficient
attention to the idea of death, implicitly bears the concept within it-
self. It claims to embody a restoration of true Christianity; but it is
quite obvious, both psychologically and historically, that the Gospel
did not overlook the subject of death, since above all its teachings
drew on the resurrection of the One as an accomplished event, and on
the future resurrection of All as a certain promise. Universal resurrec-
IMMORTALITY: THE SCIENTIFIC POINT OF VIEW 37

tion involves the creation of a perfect form for all that exists; it is the
final expression and realization of the meaning of the universe, and
consequently it is also the end and the goal of history.

Thus our venerable philosopher understood the Christian doc-


trine literally, exactly in the manner in which it is presented in the
Holy Book, and looked upon the prospect of universal resurrec-
tion as a guaranteed promise, as an indisputable fact of the future,
forgetting that, in certain cases, the words of the Bible—and words
in general—should be interpreted according to their inmost sense,
not according to their external, literal form.
In saying this, of course, we do not mean to detract from the
significance of Christian doctrine to the civilized world. The el-
evation of the “spirit” above the body, love for one’s fellowman,
restraint from repaying evil with force, and self-sacrifice for the
sake of truth and the common good: these are the moral principles
that Christianity promoted. And these principles, in overturning
the ancient pagan world, in conquering it through the great suffer-
ings of the Teacher himself and, later, also the suffering of his
disciples, led to the renewal of the world and created a new era for
modern man.
But even having taken into account Soloviev’s assertion regard-
ing the promise of Christian teachings, i.e., the actuality of their
future realization, a scientist will say: The universal resurrection
is a matter of faith, because it is in the highest sense a kind of
miracle, whereas scientific process, on the other hand, has long
since renounced the miraculous and cannot depend upon faith.
This is why even such powerful thinkers as Mechnikov have
completely rejected the idea of life after death. However, before
attempting to deal with this debate, let us leave the religious plane
and its related philosophical problems, and turn to a scientific analy-
sis of immortality, i.e., to the branch of knowledge recognized as
precise; let us see how the question of the immortality of the hu-
man personality may be addressed from a scientific point of view.
Not so long ago, this scientific view rested on three pillars—the
acknowledgment of the separate existence of physical energy,
matter, and spirit, all three apparently irreducible to more general
38 VLADIMIR M. BEKHTEREV

phenomena and likewise not sharing any common features with


one another. Even the late Mendeleyev did not think it possible to
abandon this universally acknowledged view.
But since then, Meyer and Helmholtz have enriched the scien-
tific discipline with the addition of one unshakable principle: the
law of conservation of energy. This law states that energy can be
subject to transformation, but is neither spent nor diminished in
the process.
Previously, there had already been established the principle of
conservation of matter. It was postulated that matter retained the
same mass throughout all possible transformations; in other words,
a given amount of matter, regardless of transformation, always
remained the same.
However, subsequent scientific discoveries, especially the dis-
covery of radioactive substances and of Roentgen rays, shook the
very foundations of the aforesaid principle of conservation of
matter, because they made evident a transformation (albeit slow
and gradual) of matter into energy. On the other hand, science has
further established that atoms of matter, decomposable into elec-
trons, are themselves centers of energy; consequently, in the physi-
cal world we can speak only of energy as the essence of both visible
matter and, obviously, physical energy itself.
In other words, we can say that under certain known condi-
tions, energy in its latent, potential form is the source of substance—
matter or mass—and the latter, in turn, under certain conditions
can be decomposed into a variety of physical energies. In this sense,
even Descartes approached the truth of the matter in suggesting
that substance consists of “motion” or “force.”
G. LeBon, posing the question “Is matter energy?” notes:
As anyone who has followed the progress of my work must be aware,
I have been able to demonstrate that the properties of radium salts are
equally the properties of every body existing in nature, with the differ-
ence that in the case of radium, they are more obviously expressed.
All substances are characterized by the emission of particles, simply
to a lesser extent than is radium. This proves that matter is character-
ized by slow disintegration. Radioactivity and disintegration (or dis-
sociation, or decay) and dematerialization are, with respect to the
IMMORTALITY: THE SCIENTIFIC POINT OF VIEW 39

properties of matter, synonymous. Electricity and the warmth of the


sun consist of nothing but dissociated matter. It can be proven that
elements given off by the Earth’s poles are identical with the elements
emitted by radium.2
But beyond all this there remains the spiritual world or, more
precisely, the realm of so-called “neuropsychic activity,” which
we directly perceive as the world of phenomena originating in
self-observation and self-analysis. This world is commonly juxta-
posed to the objective world, for the latter is not subject to a pro-
cess of self-observation; yet, at the same time, the objective world
is perceived only by mediation of the senses, of internal emotion,
i.e., by means of the very same subjective world that was discov-
ered through self-analysis.
However, this juxtaposition can exist only so long as we judge
neuropsychic activity on the basis of our emotional experience—
in other words, acknowledge this activity as completely subjective—
and so long as, at the same time, we lack the capability to perceive
the internal workings of the external world. The scientific discipline
I am striving to establish under the name of “objective psychology”
or “reflexology”3 examines neuropsychic (associative) activity, from
a strictly objective point of view, as the totality of “higher” or
associative reflexes and their external causes or influences and
leaves the study of the subjective aspects of these reflexes to the
discipline of subjective (traditional) psychology.
Thus, from a strictly objective point of view, analogies can and
must be drawn between various human actions and the movements
of pseudopods belonging to the simplest creatures, such as amoe-
bas; and what we understand to be a higher or associative reflex
is, in the end, simply the response of living substance to an exter-
nal stimulus. From this it is clear that mental activity in general,
wherever and however it is manifested in nature, must likewise be
reduced to a particular form of energy, whose various manifesta-
tions we observe in the surrounding organic world.4
We know, moreover, that the basis of the associative activity of
higher organisms is neural current5 (in itself the product of proto-
plasmic reactivity), for there is no associative (neuropsychic) pro-
cess that does not occur in the brain; and brain activity, as we
40 VLADIMIR M. BEKHTEREV

know, is based on neural current, which is transformed via muscu-


lar contraction and bodily movement into mechanical energy.6
It is known, too, that the impulse that arouses neural current is
external energy, which acts on receptive organs located on the
external and internal surfaces of the body, organs that thus play
the role of transformers of external energy (as I already indicated
in 1896).7 The proper conduction of current along neural threads,
on the other hand, is ensured by continuous blood flow to the brain.
Existing evidence leaves no doubt as to the fact that, under con-
ditions of normal blood circulation in the brain, the intensification
of subjective (conscious) processes corresponds to the slowing or
even delay of physical movement, i.e., the reduction of mechani-
cal activity. On the other hand, the acceleration and intensifica-
tion of mechanical activity correspond to the weakening of
consciousness. From this flows the opposition between subjective
manifestations of consciousness and objective motor processes,
which speaks in favor of the idea that active mental activity is
accompanied by a delay of energy in the body’s centers, more
precisely, in the cells of neural tissue.8
We are all well aware that the active form of mental work pro-
ceeds more slowly than the automatic. While walking, for example,
it is enough to make a concentrated mental effort, striving to care-
fully focus on producing each step, for one’s pace immediately to
slow down or even be temporarily interrupted; on the other hand,
as soon as one’s attention is diverted to another subject, the pro-
cess of walking becomes more free and regular.
Certain direct experiments with newborns, conducted at the
Pedological Institute in Petrograd (founded by V.T. Zimin and
myself), have proven that any external impression attracting the
attention of the infant child has a calming effect on his move-
ments, especially on his breathing pattern, which becomes more
regular.
Thus, it is essential to acknowledge that the conscious or, to
speak philosophically, spiritual realm is tied to a delay in neural
current. The neural current itself consists, as we have observed, of
transformed physical energy of one kind or another. From this it is
clear that the spiritual aspect of the human personality, if by this
IMMORTALITY: THE SCIENTIFIC POINT OF VIEW 41

we mean the totality of subjective processes taking place within


that personality and the related external phenomena, ultimately is
derived from external energy and is the result of the delay and,
consequently, of the maximum intensity of energy in the neural
centers.
Hence it is obvious not only that there is no opposition between
neuropsychic and so-called physical energy, but that in fact there
exists a mutual relationship between the two forms, based on the
transition of one into the other, and vice versa.9
For this reason it is essential to acknowledge that all natural
phenomena, including the internal processes of living creatures
and manifestations of the “spirit,” can, and must, be considered as
the product of one universal energy, in which all known physical
energy, along with its material forms and even its manifestation as
human spirit, must potentially be contained.
In the final analysis, all energy must be acknowledged as a single
essence existing in the universe; and all transformations of matter
or substance—indeed, all forms of motion in general, including the
flow of neural current—are nothing less than a manifestation of
universal energy. The latter is unknowable in its essence, but repre-
sents the primary foundation of the physical energies we observe,
i.e., is the source of their expression under certain conditions.
The most recent scientific conceptions, it is true, speak of elec-
trons as the smallest elements serving as carriers of energy. How-
ever, this by no means excludes the possibility that electrical atoms,
or electrons, containing positive or negative charges, are not the
final subdivision of the visible and invisible physical world. In-
deed, these ideas about electrons as particles in continuous mo-
tion indicate, if anything, the reluctance of the human mind to
relinquish the idea of an endless divisibility of the material world
into smaller and smaller parts in favor of acknowledging the com-
plete disintegration of matter into energy. Moreover, as Khvol’son
rightly indicates in his pamphlet [Knowledge and faith], the hy-
potheses of modern physics are, in general, based more on faith
than on scientific proof.10
In the end we must acknowledge that owing to the limited ca-
pacity of human thought, which draws its subject matter from the
42 VLADIMIR M. BEKHTEREV

visible, material world, the essence of universal energy remains


inaccessible to our understanding.
One thing is nonetheless clear: that universal energy serves as
the origin of both the material and the spiritual worlds; conse-
quently, in potential form it must likewise contain equally the spiri-
tual and the material.
In branding all substance—matter and energy, trees and sky—a physi-
cal product, do we really touch upon its true nature? Are we even
entirely certain that what we call the physical world is that? The domi-
nant scientific view indicates that this is not the case. The very expres-
sion the material world is, we are told, inaccurate: the world is a spiri-
tual world, which uses “matter” only in order to reveal itself.11

Be that as it may, we find, among the smallest subdivisions of


the material world, for example, among the products of radioac-
tivity, that the properties of matter have already ceased to be mani-
fested, that only the qualities specific to energy remain. Similarly,
mental processes are revealed, in the final analysis, to lose any
strictly psychic properties, and must be reduced instead to uncon-
scious processes connected to the expenditure of energy.
Thus, not only do we see no basis for the juxtaposition of physi-
cal energy, matter, and spirit as separate or particular entities but
rather hold to the view that all three have a single origin in the
form of universal energy, the latter being the basis of everything
that is material and “spiritual” in the universe. This doctrine, which
unifies all world phenomena, we term evolutionary monism, choos-
ing this particular label because in the given case we arrive at
monism via clarification and analysis of an evolutionary process
that reduces all external manifestations of the visible world to a
single, “universal” energy.12 It is this energy that determines the
motion of everything in the universe, for we are not aware of any
natural phenomenon, any process, that is not accompanied by
movement.
With motion, in turn, is associated the energy of attraction and
repulsion (forming the foundation of the laws of gravity among
celestial bodies), the energy underlying the chemical combination
of atoms, and, lastly, the energy contained in the active compounds
IMMORTALITY: THE SCIENTIFIC POINT OF VIEW 43

of colloid substances, which, underlying all life processes, is the


source of the ability to respond to stimuli and also, consequently,
of all responsive reactions and reflexes of the living matter of which
organisms are composed.
Moreover, we must acknowledge that all motion occurs seem-
ingly within a single continuous chain, thanks to the ceaseless trans-
formation of one energy into another. From this stems the constant
and continual dependence of one phenomenon on another, thanks
to which the whole world becomes an endless system of interac-
tions underlying the so-called “law of relativity.”
In Nature’s vast economic system . . . mutual dependence is an immu-
tably established law.
The arrangement is, from top to bottom, a continuous sequence of
reciprocal actions. Kingdom coordinates with kingdom, organic world
with inorganic.
Indeed, everything comes into being thanks to something else. The
earth’s substance is formed from the interaction of atoms; the earth
itself owes its existence, its position and its stability, to the interaction
and influence of other planets. Plants and animals are the product of
interacting particles; nations consist of interacting human beings. Na-
ture makes no movement, society achieves no goal, the compass makes
no step forward, without cooperation; and to the extent that the dis-
agreements of the world disappear as our knowledge increases, sci-
ence, too, discloses with greater clarity the universality of mutual
interrelations.13

Thus, in the end, all natural forces are based on interaction; and
all of them, furthermore, participate in the creation of the human
being, thus connecting man to his primal origin.14
However, this does not provide us with a complete picture of
the world process: we must add the fact that organic nature, living
and dead, is subject to the law of evolution, according to which
the development of one thing from another guarantees the progress
of all that exists, of the world process itself, and likewise of man-
kind as the highest organism on Earth.
To emphasize the grandeur of this law of evolution and its sig-
nificance even in the moral sphere, let us cite the words of
H. Drummond, who says:
44 VLADIMIR M. BEKHTEREV

In the boundless progression of the natural world, which from the very
beginning moves ever upward, from incompleteness to completion
and from imperfection to perfection: in this progress, moral nature, in
all its breadth and depth, asserts an eternal right to exist. Complete-
ness, perfection, and love have always been human needs. But never
before have they been supported on “natural” grounds by such com-
manding voices, or confirmed by such great and rational authority.
(op. cit., p. 387)

With this preliminary information in mind, let us proceed to


examination of the matter at hand. Let us see whether science truly
is powerless to address the question of the continued existence of
the human personality beyond the limits of life and death.
When a person dies, his body decomposes and ceases to exist:
this is a fact. The decay of complex protein- and carbohydrate-
based substances leads to decomposition of the organism into sim-
pler elements. In the process, energy is released, only to be
entrapped again as the basis for the growth of vegetation, which in
turn serves as nutritive matter for other life forms and thus as a
condition for the development of energy in the latter. In this way,
the physical aspect of the human organism—what is known as the
body—disintegrates; but this is not the same as saying that it is
destroyed. In fact, it is not lost, but rather transformed, contribut-
ing to the creation of new organisms and new creatures that are, in
turn, subject to the laws of evolution, and thus capable of infinite
transformation and perfection. Consequently, the circulation of
energy does not cease even after the death of the organism, foster-
ing, on the contrary, the development of life on earth.
But what happens to the individual consciousness of the human
being or, more precisely, to his mental activity? Let us refer to the
words of Mechnikov, a great skeptic with regard to the question of
human immortality.
Before our birth, as so often during the course of our lifetime, con-
sciousness may be absent; but never is it transformed at these points
into anything else, at least not into something observable to ourselves.
Even the slight alteration of our consciousness that we perceive in
dreams can be unpleasant because it is conditional on disruption of
the brain’s proper functioning. And upon the complete cessation of
IMMORTALITY: THE SCIENTIFIC POINT OF VIEW 45

the latter, rather than its simple temporary disturbance, we are left
with precisely nothing, although it is true that the brain is, in a physi-
cal sense, integrated into nature. But how far from consciousness, from
a normally functioning mind, is the brain that has become a culture for
bacteria or the contents of an insect’s intestinal tract!
However, is this actually the last word on the subject of the
continued existence or nonexistence of the human personality?
If neuropsychic activity is reducible to energy, we must acknowl-
edge that the law of conservation of energy—stated by Meyer,
supported by Helmholtz, and now generally accepted—must be
similarly applied to neuropsychic, or correlative, activity.
In this way the properties of energy, which underlie reflexol-
ogy, give us the opportunity not only to examine the higher mani-
festations of human neuropsychic activity from a strictly objective
point of view—in the manner of any natural phenomenon with-
out, moreover, having to contrast spirit with matter, as so many
have done even to this day—but also to investigate neuropsychic
activity in light of the law of conservation of energy.15
Thus, in relation to the subject at hand, this law can be restated
to read: Not one human action, not one step, not one thought,
whether expressed verbally or nonverbally—none of these disap-
pears without trace. This is due to the fact that any action, word,
gesture, or mimetic movement in general is inevitably accompa-
nied by specific organic impressions that are, in turn, reflected in
the person’s personality, becoming components of new forms of
activity.
However, the particular characteristics of neuropsychic ac-
tivity presuppose that the latter is not exhausted in this simple
“self-influence.”
The fact of the matter is that if a person’s action, mimetic move-
ment, or gesture is produced in the presence of others, providing
that those others are capable of assimilating what they see and
hear, it is clear that they will transform such actions and gestures
into neuropsychic activity, either thanks to suggestion, induction,
and imitation or because of opposition and reaction; and this ac-
tivity will be reflected in their future interactions with the sur-
rounding world.
46 VLADIMIR M. BEKHTEREV

Our soul acts in the manner of an imperceptible liquid, easily perme-


ating its surroundings, unimpeded in the exercise of its influence on
the external world, through mediation of its animal manifestations. It
alters the material environment in which these manifestations take
place: the presence of a virtuous individual improves the surrounding
air and soil; the existence of evil and lawlessness, on the other hand, is
conducive to the spread of physical infection.16

Ultimately, each person’s self-expression is determined by the


influence exerted upon him by other people. The human being is
an organism that receives at birth a certain part of its ancestors’
biological heritage, and subsequently acquires, through its upbring-
ing, the experience of older generations, and their moral outlook
as well. At the same time, the human is enriched by his own per-
sonal life experience, and develops particular skills.
Thus, every individual possesses certain energy reserves that
are endowed at birth and others that are acquired through upbring-
ing and life experience; consequently, the activity of external in-
fluences is effective to the extent that it is able to stimulate the
active manifestation of, or channel in a particular direction, the
previously acquired stores of energy. If this proves impossible, the
activity of these external influences is inhibited.
Nonetheless, even in the latter case their activity leaves its mark,
being manifested in one way or another, even to a very limited
extent, even perhaps in the form of reactionary opposition on the
part of the individual. In any case, we must keep in mind that
inhibition represents only a temporary delay, rather than the utter
and final destruction, of a phenomenon.
How else could matter endure? If human neuropsychic activity
must be reduced to energy, then it is clear that this energy, mani-
fested in the speech, mime, gesture, or action of certain people,
acts on the sensory organs of other people and must be reflected,
in turn, in their speech, gesture, mime, and action, which is pre-
cisely what guarantees the social transference of facts and events
in the historical life of nations.
It can be said that not one sigh, not one smile ever disappears
without a trace. It would seem that nobody hears the last breath of
a dying prisoner, sequestered from the world in his cell; and yet
IMMORTALITY: THE SCIENTIFIC POINT OF VIEW 47

this very breath is reincarnated in the streets, in meeting-halls, in


the cries of a people rebelling against tyranny, against a power
that leaves its political enemies to rot in jail. Equally insignifi-
cant, it seems, is the smile on the face of a young bride sending her
beloved to war; and yet it makes the soldier a hero, for he has
understood the smile’s meaning and dares not return home with-
out the laurels of victory.
Being an expression of the energy inherited by a person from
his parents and accumulated throughout his life thanks to the con-
version by receptory organs of external energies into neural cur-
rent, and likewise being an expression of those external
manifestations that characterize it, neuropsychic activity contains
all the preconditions for its dissemination from one person to an-
other, and from generation to generation.
This provides us with reason to presume that a person’s “spiri-
tual” self, which possesses inherent value, can never vanish with-
out a trace. The human individual, as an amalgam of personal and
inherited experience, does not terminate his existence with the ter-
mination of his life. On the contrary, he continues to exist in all
those people with whom he made contact, even indirectly, and
thus is preserved in posterity for as long as there is life on earth.
In other words, it can be said that during his lifetime, a person
disseminates his energy among those who surround him, who in
turn transfer that energy to others, continuing the cycle to the fur-
thest limits of human communication and interaction. Moreover,
the originator of this cycle is also eventually influenced by his
own energy in its transmuted form.
In the collective human personality, everyone is connected in
an intricate relationship, so that no single event can occur without
having widespread repercussions. One heroic gesture breeds an-
other, just as one crime inevitably brings another in its wake.
To make a figurative comparison—not forgetting to take into
account the boundlessness of human interactions—we may say
that over the course of his lifetime, a person distributes his influ-
ence through the collective human personality and is, in turn, in-
fluenced by others, in the same way that a ship’s progress across
the sea creates waves that move outward in all directions and that,
48 VLADIMIR M. BEKHTEREV

upon finally encountering the impediment of the shore, are sent


back once again to their point of origin, the ship itself.
It goes without saying that in connection with the exertion of its
influence on others, every human personality confronts the activ-
ity of a whole range of other personalities, an activity that is fre-
quently in opposition to its own and that, as a consequence, acts as
an inhibitor to the dissemination of the individual personality’s
influence. However, inhibition in a scientific sense is, as we al-
ready noted, a temporary phenomenon. Upon its elimination un-
der certain favorable conditions, the barrier it presents to the further
spread of the individual’s influence quite simply falls away.
Thus is achieved the circulation of energy from one person to
the next, thanks to which there occurs a continual, albeit not al-
ways observable, interaction among people—and not just among
people but also between human beings and all the other living
creatures with which they make contact. Ultimately, the mutual
influence of people on each other creates a general spiritual per-
sonality within a particular environment; from the totality of these
are formed the spiritual personalities of nations; and taken all to-
gether, these constitute the universal human personality.
Yet if continual mutual influence is an indisputable fact of hu-
man life, then it is clear that physical death does not correspond to
spiritual death: the individual personality continues to exist be-
yond the boundaries of its physical form. The manifestations of
that personality, the ways in which it has asserted itself in the hearts
and minds of men, are all transformed into new neuropsychic pro-
cesses among surrounding people and among future generations;
they are passed from person to person, from generation to genera-
tion, forever remaining a motive impulse that instigates one or
another form of activity by its recipients.
This is why the so-called afterlife, i.e., life beyond the limits of
the corporeal aspect of the human person, undoubtedly exists; for
the content of the human personality is distributed in the manner
of a stimulus across the depth and breadth of human society, as
though physically poured into other beings and thus transferred to
the future. And it has no end so long as even one human creature
still exists on earth.
IMMORTALITY: THE SCIENTIFIC POINT OF VIEW 49

In this respect, the Eastern doctrines of reincarnation seem to


have anticipated by many centuries an idea that we now assert on
strictly scientific grounds.
We come thus to the idea of the social immortality of any given
human being. This kind of immortality necessarily and even in-
evitably stems from the fact that energy cannot simply disappear
in the external world. The neuropsychic activity of the person, as
the expression of the energy held in his neural centers, manifested
externally in one form or another and received by surrounding
people thanks to the mediation of specialized organs as transform-
ers17 of energy—that neuropsychic activity then serves to stimu-
late certain processes in other organisms and consequently gives
the latter the necessary impulse to express anew those processes
in the external world.
Thus proceeds the ceaseless transfer of energy from one person
to another, and from one generation to another over the centuries,
via a process known in everyday life as influence or mutual influ-
ence, though viewed as such only when the aforementioned trans-
fer of energy is more or less obvious; yet, in reality that transfer,
whether clearly visible or not, is inevitably and necessarily occur-
ring every minute—even every second—wherever one human
being interacts with another.
Hence, Nadson is right to exclaim, in a moment of poetic
inspiration:
Do not tell me he has died—for he lives on;
Though altar18 is destroyed, the fire still burns;
The rose still flowers, though from the bush ’tis torn;
The harp, though broken, sounds ever and anon.

From what we have said above, it is clear that we are not deal-
ing with the immortality of an individual human personality in its
entirety, since the latter, as we have noted, ceases to exist as a
personality, as a species, as an individual, after death; rather, we
are dealing with a social immortality stemming from the inde-
structibility of the neuropsychic energy that consstitutes the basis
of the human personality. Speaking in philosophical language, we
can say that we are dealing with the immortality of a “spirit” that,
50 VLADIMIR M. BEKHTEREV

throughout its individual existence, passes via mutual influence


into the thousands of human personalities it encounters, and can
spread its influence still further by means of certain cultural insti-
tutions (writing, the printed word, the telegraph, the telephone,
the gramophone, art, architecture, etc.) so that it transcends im-
mediate person-to-person relations and can even transmit itself
to subsequent generations. We could say, in other words, that the
personality, with all its many facets and idiosyncracies, flows
into a number of other personalities, both contemporaneous and
future.
This is why, to the extent that humanity’s existence may be con-
sidered eternal, all manifestations of the human personality must
likewise be considered eternally transferable. This is why the sci-
entific conception of life after death must, in essence, come down
to an understanding of the human personality as continuing out-
side the limits of its individual existence, so that it participates in
the perfection of humanity as a whole and in the creation of a
universal, human, spiritual personality. In the latter, a part of ev-
ery separate human personality exists, even if it has ceased to ex-
ist in the physical world; a part of it continues to live, continually
transformed, in the spiritual life of humanity—in other words, in
an endless number of human personalities.
It goes without saying that not every personality, through its
activity and work in general, makes the same contribution to the
spiritual culture of humanity: its part may greater or lesser, posi-
tive or negative, creative or destructive, compared with the contri-
bution of others. However, the nature of this contribution does not
affect the immortality of the personality; indeed, we are forced
once again to concede that the personality is not destroyed by death,
but, having manifested itself throughout its lifetime in all its vari-
ous forms, lives on, and lives eternally, contributing to the cre-
ation of human spiritual culture, which is itself formed from the
creative work of all individual human personalities in general.
Indeed, does not the work of Praxitelus, Phideas, Michelangelo,
Raphael, Shakespeare, Newton, and other greater or lesser mas-
ters of art and science live among us and bring to life in turn the
image of its creator? And further, does not all of our spiritual cul-
IMMORTALITY: THE SCIENTIFIC POINT OF VIEW 51

ture, our priceless heritage, represent the expression of our ances-


tors’ collective activity?
Here we must particularly emphasize that we do not see the
eternal existence of the human personality as consisting of its par-
ticipation in the creation of material culture (since the latter is just
as transient as the human body), but rather in its contribution to
the progress of thought itself.
This reminds us of Derzhavin’s famous stanza:
The passage of time sweeps away in its current
All matters of human preoccupation
And floods to obscurity in its torrent
Kingdom, and people, and nation.

True, nations disappear from the face of the earth; gods and
rulers are forgotten; but a people’s spiritual progress, which el-
evates the savage to the level of civilized man, does not disappear
and is not forgotten, but, being accumulated from generation to
generation, leads to the perfection of the human personality and
thus gives further impetus to the development of human spiritual
culture. Material wealth is lost, but spiritual culture remains; and
if it happens to encounter a lack of fertile soil with which to nour-
ish the early stages of its development, it simply transplants itself
to more promising ground, where it continues to develop with re-
newed vigor. Thus, in the ancient world we see a concentration of
spiritual culture on the coasts of the Mediterranean, first in Egypt,
afterward in Greece, then in Rome, and later in Spain. Later, the
cultural focal point was transferred to the countries of Western
Europe and, to some extent, to America, perhaps to be relocated
eventually in the East. Yet, notwithstanding the shifting centers
of human culture over time, its continuity has never once been
broken.
Some might say that when we are dealing with the creation of
human spiritual culture, the names of an immense number of our
ancestors who have participated in its formation are lost forever,
and only the names of those persons fortunate enough to have dis-
tinguished themselves in the course of history survive.
However, even this last point does not always hold true. We
52 VLADIMIR M. BEKHTEREV

know very little, for example, about the creators of the Chaldean
culture or about the recently discovered ancient culture of the
American Incas. Yet that both cultures existed is an indisputable
fact. Doubtless when they were at their height, they, too, spawned
brilliant, famous personalities whose names and histories have been
lost in the darkness of past centuries. Where are they now?

In our world, what does fame signify?


It is nothing but a loud and empty sound,
An insidious poison
Amid life’s trivialities.
Like incense fragrantly burning
Before the image of the Creator,
It soothes the jealous ear
With a singer’s sweet voice;
But just as the breath of frost
Fades the gentle flowers,
The caprice of unforgiving fashion
Eclipses fame, that child of reverie.

But do we really need to know who exactly created one or an-


other product of the human spirit, such as the Iliad or the Lay of
Igor’s Campaign? Is it really so important to be certain whether it
was Shakespeare who wrote the works we attribute to him, or some-
one else? “Who was the genius behind Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear?”
asks Gnedich. Does it matter? Let me repeat the words of Mark
Twain:
Whether it was Bacon, or someone else; whether it was an actor, or the
son of a butcher from Stratford, what is important is that we now have
the benefit of these extraordinary pearls of human creativity, before
which the writers of the world bow down in awe. All the Homers,
Ovids, Dantes, Hugos, Racines, Molières, Goethes, Schillers, Byrons—
all fade before the bright sun of Shakespeare’s brilliance.

In the end, “What’s in a name?” It is enough to know that great


creative works, which have held such fascination for modern man,
are the result of the synthetic labor of a great mind belonging to
one era or another.
Let me present at this juncture an episode from the French Revo-
IMMORTALITY: THE SCIENTIFIC POINT OF VIEW 53

lution that clearly demonstrates how the human spirit may be el-
evated above mere mundane reality. Construction work was tak-
ing place high up under the roof of a certain house. Two of the
workers suddenly felt that the board on which they were suspended
had snapped, and would soon give way completely, sending them
plummeting to their deaths. Which of them should die—one, or
both?—was the thought that immediately passed between them. One
declared that he had a wife and children, and instantly the other
man, a bachelor, jumped off the board and was killed. The life of
his companion was saved as a consequence of this heroic action.
During the Sebastopol campaign, two soldiers from opposing
camps were left injured on the field of battle; one was Russian, the
other French. Both suffered intensely from pain and hunger. In the
morning, the Russian awoke feeling better, and noticed that he
had been covered with the Frenchman’s overcoat; the French sol-
dier himself was lying nearby, dead.
At the time of the Russo-Japanese war, a Russian warship, un-
able to withstand further onslaught, had fallen prey to the enemy
and was being towed to captivity by a Japanese vessel. Two Rus-
sian sailors who had been left unnoticed on the Russian ship de-
scended to the hold and, opening the seacocks, sank the craft, thus
keeping the honor of the naval ensign untarnished—though they
themselves were drowned.
During the sinking of the Titanic, when the seemingly endless
ocean threatened certain death, the capacity of the lifeboats was
insufficient to hold all of the ship’s passengers. One lifeboat in
particular had been dangerously crammed with people, primarily
women and children, and the sailor in charge was forced to an-
nounce that if the load of the boat were not lightened, it would
capsize. Three Englishmen immediately threw themselves over-
board, later to drown in the icy Arctic waters, thus saving the other
passengers in the lifeboat.
The names of the heroes whose deeds are described above re-
main unknown. But what of this? Does it in any way demean the
significance of their conduct? Does it make their heroism less af-
fecting that we do not know their names? Does the anonymous
hero leave less of a mark on our feelings and our history? Hardly!
54 VLADIMIR M. BEKHTEREV

I should even say, quite the opposite. The anonymity of the hero,
in my eyes, speaks still more convincingly for the merit of the
heroic act itself. In the end, in human progress it is the final result
that is important, a result that can take the form of a heroic act that
represents a synthesis of all the life activity of the human person-
ality during a given era.
He who supposes that leaving the legacy of his particular name
guarantees him an unfading memory—eternal life, so to speak—
among future generations is deeply mistaken: first of all, because
the human memory for names tends to be quite short and, sec-
ondly, because it is not the name that is important, but the creative
activity that the given personality has performed throughout its
existence, an activity that constitutes a certain part of human spiri-
tual culture.
And even if this part turns out to be only a tiny speck in the
grand scheme of the evolution of human spiritual culture, it is
impossible to imagine, having taken into account the law of con-
servation of energy and having understood activity to be a mani-
festation of that energy, that any human personality would not
contribute to the overarching spiritual culture. And this contribu-
tion is what guarantees eternal life beyond the personality’s earthly
existence. For this reason, there is no particular need to lust after
great deeds, since the seemingly insignificant act is just as essen-
tial to humanity as the great one.
If one or another personality makes a negative contribution to
the evolution of human culture, this is, of course, detrimental to
the latter, since it means that its progress goes not in a straight
line, but along a kind of “zig-zag” trajectory, by irregular leaps
and bounds. Naturally, we must not forget that a so-called nega-
tive contribution can often have a positive end result, for example,
because it stimulates greater activity (protest) on the part of the
personalities that make a positive contribution to the spiritual cul-
ture, perhaps highlighting through juxtaposition all that is morally
superior. Thus, negative aspects of the activity of one or another
personality ultimately only temporarily suspend the development
of human spiritual culture, without terminating its progress through
the history of nations.
IMMORTALITY: THE SCIENTIFIC POINT OF VIEW 55

For example, let us say that a war is being waged. No matter


what slogans are bravely shouted on the field of battle, no matter
how valuable it may be to assert right above might, it is incon-
trovertible that the fact of war itself goes against the universal
human ideal of brotherhood among nations, in the same way that
the death penalty goes directly against the idea of the rehabilita-
tion of criminals.
However, every war must end eventually; and, believe me, the
words peace and brotherhood never sound so attractive, so natu-
ral, to humankind as directly after a war, especially if the peace
has been negotiated fairly.
Indeed, war itself gives rise to so many moral and universally
human questions, particularly related to the development of self-
rule in various countries, especially here in Russia, that there is
good reason to believe that war represents, for humanity, a sort of
cleansing crucible, ridding it of the social disorder in which it has
dwelt for so many centuries.
To take another example: it is known what a repulsive impres-
sion is given by an execution; and perhaps it is for this reason that,
in order to preserve the shameful institution of the death penalty,
its supporters are forced to conceal its operation from the public
eye.
However that may be, those people who, by contrast, promote
the general good of mankind, who are guided by ideas of justice
and humanism, must be acknowledged as the true “creators” of
human spiritual culture and consequently have an indisputable right
to eternal life and to the eternal recognition of humanity—not so
much in the sense of having their names made famous among fu-
ture generations, since names alone must inevitably fade over the
millennia, but particularly in the sense of ensuring that the seeds
they have sown come to fruition and remain forever a part of the
universal spiritual culture—as a result of their creative activity,
which will contribute in the future to the betterment of humanity.
Everything in the world is in motion, everything flows; the world
is continual motion, is the ceaseless transformation of one form of
energy into another: so says Science. There is no constancy; one
thing is always being supplanted by another. People are born, and
56 VLADIMIR M. BEKHTEREV

people die; kingdoms are created and destroyed—in short, noth-


ing remains the same. And it seems to the human being that when
his life ceases, he decays and fades away, turning to nothing and
disappearing forever. But this is not true. The person is an actor
and a participant in the general world process. It goes without say-
ing that advances in science, technology, art, and morality are
immortalized as rungs in the ladder that leads toward a new cre-
ative era. But everyday human activity, too, leaves its mark.
Imagine that you have been to the theater. The quality of the
play, whether it was good or bad, depends on the play rather than
on yourself; nonetheless, can it be doubted that the experience has
left some mark on your psyche? Even if this mark—this influ-
ence—is forgotten over time, it does not follow that it was incon-
sequential, that it was not in some way reflected in your later life.
Perhaps we should concede the same cause–effect correspondence
to the rest of life experience, in which, just as in the theater, you
are constantly observing the activity of surrounding personalities,
hearing their conversations and their judgments. It might seem to
you that these pass unnoticed, leave no trace, have no consequences.
But is this possible if we accept the previously noted indestructi-
bility of energy?
After all, energy is manifested by the other people whom you
encounter, in their actions, words, mimicry, gestures, and so on; as
such, can it simply disappear without a trace? Of course not. And
if we have spoken of the immortality of the more outstanding cre-
ations of the human mind, it is only to say that these creations
remain eternal independently, of their own accord, whereas all other
manifestations of individual human activity serve only as impulses
to the activity of others. However, the latter type of activity—
transferred through generations—is equally important, and serves
as an agent that, over time, comes to be manifested in new creativ-
ity of the “eternal” type.
Let us consider the products of human creativity in literature.
Nearly three hundred years ago, humanity was endowed with the
unforgettable works of Cervantes and Shakespeare. These works
are acknowledged to be eternal, since they have been found to
contain that which dwells forever in humankind, embedded deep
IMMORTALITY: THE SCIENTIFIC POINT OF VIEW 57

in its personality. In the face of Don Quixote, we have a poor knight,


a fanatic verging on madness and perhaps already slightly mad;
but we also have a man in whom dwells boundless dedication to
an ideal. “For freedom and honor, a man must sacrifice his life,
because slavery is the greatest misfortune on earth”—these are
the words of Don Quixote to his companion Sancho Panza, words
that embody his selfless devotion to his ideal.
In Shakespeare’s works, on the other hand, we encounter such
character types as King Lear, whom the author transports from the
position of happy, wealthy ruler to that of an impoverished, home-
less exile. This transition from good fortune to suffering could not
but lead Lear to begin feeling compassion, for contentment dulls a
man’s sense of justice and empathy:
Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.19

Finally, having drunk the cup of sorrow to its dregs, King Lear
shows that he has acquired the highest sense of fairness and duty, in
exclaiming: “None does offend, none, I say, none; I’ll able ‘em!”20
Then we have Hamlet. Doubting everything, particularly his
own self; feeling himself to be powerless, weak-willed, without
faith—in short, seeing himself as an insignificant and useless hu-
man being—he nonetheless acknowledges the greatness of the
human spirit: “Rightly to be great / Is not to stir without great
argument / But greatly to find quarrel in a straw / When honor’s at
the stake.”21
This is an eternal truth, transmitted to humanity through the
beautiful imagery formed from the creative power of two great
writers. But did the authors and their works simply appear, so to
speak, in the manner of a deus ex machina? Did not the preceding
creative activity of humankind, an inexorable battle for ideals, for
honor, for the highest good, already generate all that was given to
humanity in these great literary works?
And whatever you may select as an example from the pantheon
of what is considered eternal, you must concede that this “eternal”
58 VLADIMIR M. BEKHTEREV

is, in the end, the product of an endless number of preceding con-


ditions formed by the creative hand of man.
Thus, mankind’s future existence, through a kind of synthesis,
will reflect all preceding products of human genius (and conse-
quently of morality); for the human of the future is the direct heir
to all that has previously occurred in human life, to humanity’s
quest for well-being and to its acquisitions over the course of hu-
man civilization.
In this respect, the future human race will embody the achieve-
ments of all preceding generations of humanity, will be in fact
their spiritual heir, but only in the form of a general synthesis. How-
ever, in this synthesis not one new addition, not one tiny seed planted
in the past by one or another human being, will disappear without a
trace, since each puts forth shoots that eventually must develop and
grow. Even people who created nothing new during their lives, who
were simply imitators, who by their very existence—by their in-
teraction with others—could not do otherwise but leave their mark
(whether good or bad is a separate issue), which, in turn, could not
but affect the spiritual makeup of future human beings.
The fact of the matter is that if the human personality is immor-
tal and continues to live in the future as a part of universal spiri-
tual culture, then it lives also in the past, since it is the direct product
of history: it is the product of all that it has absorbed from past
human culture through transferral and inheritance.
Moreover, we mean by this not only biological inheritance,
which transmits from generation to generation the external form
of the human personality as well as its internal structure, in the
sense of biochemical processes (that are, of course, reflected in
human temperament and character) but also the process we call
social inheritance, which transmits all the life experience of one
generation to the next.22
In essence, every person is a unique unit, one of an endless line
of antecedent units of life energy, in the sense of a force that is
transferred through inheritance from one living creature to another.
Just as the physical form of the amoeba, through evolution, served
as the basis for the development of all other, more complex forms
of living nature, so the primitive reactivity of protoplasm, which
IMMORTALITY: THE SCIENTIFIC POINT OF VIEW 59

likewise lies at the foundation of all life, led, through evolution, to


the development of complex associative reflexes in the animal
world and reached its highest form in the world of humans.
Thus, all those acts that we praise as heroic, and all those that
we decry as criminal, inevitably leave their mark on human life,
and have corresponding consequences among future generations.
At the same time, every person who is the heir of past genera-
tions is also an actor, creator, and fashioner of the future in his own
right. He does not have the prerogative to speak of being powerless,
since the seeds of the future are contained within himself.
There is a certain kind of person who seems almost pathetic in
his constant desire to cling to life as though it were a prescription
for happiness, although his inner voice must be hinting that in
some cases, by sacrificing his life or experiencing great suffering,
he would be creating a spiritual and moral basis for the life of
future generations. This does not mean, of course, that we must be
careless with our existence and not preserve it in situations where
its loss, or even simply damage to our health, would reduce the
potential human creativity we contain. Suicide in general, as a
selfishly motivated act, cannot be condoned from a socio-ethical
point of view; but the sacrifice of one’s life for the good of man-
kind is the highest ethical impulse, though also one rarely achieved.
This rarity of self-sacrifice is perhaps due to the uncertainty of
what lies beyond the grave, in particular, the fear of turning into
nothingness, which is the main source of the widespread trepida-
tion when one faces the prospect of death.
According to Maeterlinck, writing in Le Figaro, the sole source
of the fear of death is “the fear of the state of obscurity into which
it casts us.” In his opinion, our greatest desire is to maintain our
self-awareness, or knowledge of the self.
It is utterly inconsequential to me—says the “self,” limited and stub-
born in its lack of understanding—whether the most noble, liberated,
and elevated aspects of my spirit live on eternally since, after all, they
would be no longer mine and, consequently, I would not acknowledge
them. Death would have torn asunder the web of nerves and memo-
ries, interwoven with a kind of primitive fearfulness, in which some-
where there existed my sense of self. Once they have been separated
60 VLADIMIR M. BEKHTEREV

from me, to wander somewhere in space and time, their fate is as rel-
evant to me as the fate of the most distant stars in the universe.

But is this the true state of things? Is man so egotistical that he


considers irrelevant what the consequences of his life will be, given
that these consequences cannot, apparently, be directly linked to
himself, but will take place somewhere far in the future? But the
future will be populated by his own offspring. Are children, the
flesh of our flesh, the inheritors of our spiritual culture, completely
meaningless to us? Is their fate entirely foreign and irrelevant?
Through serious consideration of his role as one link in an end-
less chain of lives, in which each inherits from his antecedents his
internal contents and his external form, the person must reconcile
himself to the term, the timespan, that fate has granted him for the
achievement of his creative work. The existence of a fear of death
only proves that man looks at himself as an independent being
isolated from the world, as an entity for whom death signifies the
cessation of any and all existence—which, as we have seen, is
patently untrue.
In the words of Mechnikov:
Among humans, a high level of intellectual development has culti-
vated an awareness of the inevitability of death, while an essentially
animal nature has shortened life expectancy as a result of chronic poi-
soning caused by the by-products of bacterial activity in the intestinal
tract. This basic disharmony in human nature can be eliminated by
following the rules of rational hygiene, which provide people with the
opportunity to experience a full and happy life-cycle, ending with a
peaceful and natural death. This is so-called “orthobiosis,” which may
be viewed as the goal of rational human existence.

Without denying the validity of the concept of orthobiosis as


self-conduct in accordance with the rules of hygiene, promising to
lead to a natural death after 120–150 years, we can nonetheless
question whether it should be seen as the “goal of rational human
existence.”
After all, to say this would mean to assume that a long, industri-
ous, and temperate life led in accordance with the rules of good
hygiene is the goal toward which one must strive as though to-
IMMORTALITY: THE SCIENTIFIC POINT OF VIEW 61

ward a final ideal. But are there not thousands of examples of


people who, having lived only a short time, nevertheless have left
behind a spiritual heritage that is incomparable in value to the
legacy of others who have lived for many more years?
And if this is so, then orthobiosis is not a goal in itself, but
rather a means toward realization of moral ideals, since it allows
for continuous moral and intellectual development. In other words,
physical health is nothing more than a favorable condition of hu-
man development.
But aside from all that has already been said, does the simple
fact that a person lives to a natural end according to the rules of
orthobiosis in itself eliminate his fear of death or clarify his under-
standing of the “unknown” that lies beyond life and reality? No, in
this respect everything remains the same—although perhaps se-
nility could become such a burden that the desire for “eternal rest”
would arise of its own accord, or perhaps consciousness itself be
dimmed by the effects of old age. If this is what Mechnikov had in
mind when speaking of his orthobiosis, then I must question
whether it would be beneficial to human culture, not only in a
material but also in a moral sense, to burden humanity with a sec-
tor of the population that is decrepit, weak, and afflicted with re-
duced mental capacities—since, after all, these characteristics of
old age are not eliminated by orthobiosis, only postponed.
In our view, the person who dies at the moment fate has or-
dained for him, regardless of whether his death is premature or
whether he has enjoyed the fullest potential term of his life, when
this person passes into a state of eternal, dreamless sleep, he should
not fear death itself, but only regret the fact that he was unable to
do everything possible for the common good, and comfort himself
with thoughts of what he did achieve. It is essential that the person
possess a sense of having lived a useful life in order to ensure
peace of mind in the face of his final end. But how many people
truly have this source of comfort? Those who die with an aware-
ness that they have served a just cause do not fear death. Recall
the fate of the first Christians, who sustained terrible suffering
with praises to God on their lips. Recall the death of Jan Hus, who
prayed while being burned alive. Finally, among those who died
62 VLADIMIR M. BEKHTEREV

for their homeland, or among those whom fate made sacrifice to


their political convictions, we find many more people who have
accepted death as the greatest tribute to their sense of duty.
Are these not examples of vital moral strength, these victories
of the spirit over the flesh? What, indeed, can be more exalted—
and I should even add more to be envied—than the transformation
of death into an event no longer feared, into a welcome sacrifice
for the present and future good of humanity? . . .

My friend, fear not that death must come


And stop the heart from beating,
Or that your blinded gaze will not perceive
The future achievements of genius.
Believe me, friend, all that lives and is lauded
On God’s earth must perish;
And your soul has only as much value
As the legacy of good it leaves behind.

So that ideals do not fade,


Fate has decreed over the centuries
That decrepit old age be replaced
By the smile of young life. . .

Your concerns, your doubts


Will fall into youthful minds,
Will again arouse in them emotion
And fire their hearts with heroism.

And so I say that in order to conquer the fear of death, we must


live in such a way as to feel that our existence has been fruitful and
useful; and, furthermore, we must be constantly prepared to die.
In daily life, we become so mired in petty matters that we easily
forget about the age-old institution of death, and are reminded only
when it takes away a friend, or when we pass a funeral procession
in the street, and even at these moments we do not always think of
the hour that must inevitably toll for ourselves as well. Yet it is of
that very hour that we ought to think more frequently—not in or-
der to wail and moan, but in order to rouse ourselves to action, to
renew our awareness of the connection between ourselves and all
IMMORTALITY: THE SCIENTIFIC POINT OF VIEW 63

of humanity, indeed, between ourselves and the universe, to whose


infinite motion and perfection we in some measure contribute.
Is it really possible to speak of eternal life, however, if our planet
has only a limited existence, one whose length is determined, at
the very least, by the gradual cooling of the sun? I should answer
that if we are going to look that far ahead, we must acknowledge
that since there are no limits to the potential to perfect the human
personality, it is quite possible that, in the future, humans will be
able to communicate with other worlds, especially since the idea
of interplanetary communication is already being put forward by
some astronomers.
And can it really be doubted that life exists not only on Earth
but also on other planets that share the Earth’s characteristics?
After all, the laws of the universe are the same everywhere: hence,
if life originated on earth in the distant past according to general,
universal principles, then it must also have arisen on other planets
possessing similar external conditions. Since the forces of nature
are limitless and the power of the human mind, being a reflection
of universal energy, is inexhaustible, it would be wrong to assume
that the task of communicating with inhabitants of other planets
will always remain impossible. And once this communication takes
place, the boundaries imposed on the future of human life by the
limitations of our planet, this tiny speck circling its insignificant
sun, will be eliminated, for a new, interplanetary transfer of spiri-
tual culture among living beings will have been established.
Necessarily related to the idea of the continuation of the indi-
vidual human personality within the general spiritual life of hu-
manity is, as we have seen, the question of the individual’s moral
responsibility. Although we have already touched on this matter, it
is so important in and of itself that we deem its further discussion
to be essential.
Therefore, let us imagine that a person dies and that with death
not only his physical but also his spiritual self is lost completely
and forever. Let us imagine further that the person in question is
an atheist, for whom belief in the afterlife, in the sense of Chris-
tian doctrine, is out of the question. What criteria will he depend
upon to evaluate his actions? What does he think of himself, of his
64 VLADIMIR M. BEKHTEREV

existence, of the meaning of life? What for him will justify virtue,
a sense of duty, heroism? More generally speaking, upon what
grounds would a human conscience base itself, and would a hu-
man spiritual culture itself be possible under such conditions—
i.e., assuming the total loss of individual personalities—seeing that
it presupposes, to the contrary, the spiritual progress or perfection
of mankind’s spiritual personality?
If I know that my “self” will not exist in the future, as it did not
in the past, then what principles will guide me in my thoughts and
actions? What sort of ideals will take the upper hand—those based
on self-interest, or those concerned with common human values?
And what could tempt me to favor the latter? The grateful memory
of future generations? But the latter, after all, is hardly long-last-
ing. Even now we know very little about the lives of prehistoric
peoples, for example. And human memory, moreover, narrows with
the passage of time to encompass only those people who have
held the greatest power, possessed the greatest genius, left behind
the most significant legacy. But are there not numerous individu-
als who may be considered, if not geniuses, at least closely ap-
proaching them in brilliance? And what becomes of those who see
themselves as belonging to the category of mere mortals? These
people are either unable to reconcile themselves to existence, so
that they may even commit suicide; or else, without trying to un-
derstand the purpose of their life, they resign themselves to the
fleeting nature of their existence, the senselessness of human
ideals, the pointlessness of working for the common good, and
take refuge in the dictum “Live well while you can.” For them, the
question of how to live—for one’s own benefit or with regard for
the common good—does not even exist.
However, this kind of attitude is unthinkable from the point of
view we have elaborated above, which, by contrast, does put for-
ward the question of the individual’s moral responsibility to his
descendants, indeed to all of humanity.
Responsibility becomes a completely natural concept if our every
act, every step, every word and gesture, every mimetic movement,
and even every sound leaves its mark on human life, is reflected in
one way or another on the surrounding people, is transformed
IMMORTALITY: THE SCIENTIFIC POINT OF VIEW 65

through them into new influences on the external world and trans-
ferred via social inheritance to future generations of humanity.
And if this is so, then the necessity arises for every human per-
sonality to strive for moral perfection. It is essential that every
person, by means of the energy reserves that he acquires at birth
and further accumulates throughout his life, participate as fully as
possible in the common creative labor, in the development of
humanity’s spiritual culture, and introduce the full force of his
creativity into the surrounding world. This represents the moral
responsibility of every human being, and it derives from the sys-
tem of premises we have already presented above.
Life, like the universe itself, is not at rest: it consists of constant
motion and activity.
Labor, related as it is to the expenditure of energy, is a physi-
ological necessity for human beings. But labor in itself, like any
activity that must encounter and overcome obstacles, leads to the
perfection of the individual via a process that continues from in-
fancy to old age—unless, of course, the inclination to work (and
therefore perfect oneself) is prematurely compromised by ill health
or disability.
Furthermore, we must not forget that the opposition encoun-
tered by a given activity does not impede the process of perfection
but simply delays it for a certain amount of time, while at the
same time serving to strengthen the energy available for overcom-
ing future obstacles.
But for the individual, competition or mutual rivalry can be
neither a life’s goal nor simply a means of self-improvement be-
cause, even in biology, as I have demonstrated, there exists along-
side the natural selection that is based on competition, a process
of social selection. If the first, i.e., natural selection, is the founda-
tion of biological progress, then the second, i.e., social selection,
based on cooperation and the division of labor, is the foundation
of social progress.23
From the foregoing it is clear not only that man is capable of
perfecting himself but also that, indeed, he cannot do otherwise,
given the conditions of the surrounding environment; his self-im-
provement progresses now rapidly, now more slowly, but contin-
66 VLADIMIR M. BEKHTEREV

ues uninterrupted until the end of his life. Every instant of his
existence is a step toward the highest forms in which individuality
can be manifested—such is the basic law of normal human devel-
opment. But man is at the same time a social creature, and without
sociality it is impossible to imagine a perfectible human personal-
ity. This is why the perfection of one individual must not interfere
with the perfection of others, in fact, must actually contribute to
the latter, for otherwise personal improvement would be equiva-
lent to social detriment.
Thus, we can say that a life attuned to sociality is perfection,
and consequently is also good.
Life is an inevitable and irrevocable part of the world process,
the result of a particular combination of energies. There is no cata-
clysm that could finally terminate the existence of life in the uni-
verse, for, having vanished from one planet, life is reincarnated
wherever favorable conditions exist, and develops once again ac-
cording to the established laws of natural and social selection24
that lead to the physical and moral perfection of living creatures.
From this fact it should be clear that aspiration toward “the good”
is as eternal as life itself.
And the poet K. R. is right to praise love as the eternal life-
giving source:
Let people say: Like all things in creation,
Your love will die with you—
Do not believe their false doctrine.
Flesh will decay, blood will cool;
At a predestined time our world will fade,
And with it countless others;
But the flame lit by the Creator
Will last for eternity.
In conclusion let us note that the law of evolution forces us to
search for the roots of contemporary human life not only in the
prehistoric era corresponding to the first period of human exist-
ence but also in the very beginning of organic life on earth, in the
first germ of living matter to appear on the globe. Since, further-
more, this living matter was a complex product of energy, we must
seek the genesis of human beings, and likewise of their spirit, in
IMMORTALITY: THE SCIENTIFIC POINT OF VIEW 67

the universal energy that serves as the foundation of the entire


visible and invisible world.
This truth was instinctively acknowledged by the ancient peoples
who worshipped the sun and its light, i.e., the energy that for our
planet represents a life-giving source. Contemporary scientific
thought points in a similar direction; however, it casts its gaze
beyond that of the wise men of antiquity and locates the first source
not in the sun, but in the universal energy that serves as the source
of the earth and of all that exists, including the sun itself.
But in the visible world, insofar as it is accessible to the hu-
man mind, nothing seems absolute; for we cannot perceive the
world’s essential nature, only the relationships it contains and
their external forms. Energies, too, in themselves do not repre-
sent anything absolute, for energy is a concept that expresses a
quantitative relationship between visible, tangible objects; but
the essence of the energy itself is something we still have not
been able to grasp. It appears inaccessible to our minds. None-
theless, we know that universal energy serves, in the end, as the
impetus for the human personality’s highest moral achievements.
When this energy is directed toward selfless service to others
and, especially, to all of humanity, to the point of self-abnegation,
to the destruction of personal interest, we deem it deserving of
deification, in view of the fact that it approaches the highest moral
ideal, known as God.
The naive religious view inevitably imagines God in a human
form. But this is anthropomorphism, unacceptable from a logical
point of view. On what basis can we imagine God as having a
specifically human form? Not only is it completely unnecessary
for God, the spiritual first cause, to resemble a human being, but it
is also logically impermissible.
True, according to religious teaching man is created “in God’s
image,” and naturally this does not contradict the scientific view-
point, since otherwise there could be no correlation between hu-
mankind and the higher good, or God, and men would cease to
seek the latter. However, we are speaking here of a spiritual corre-
lation, i.e., pertaining to the aspect of humankind that may be seen
in the manifestation of the highest spiritual principles, or else in
68 VLADIMIR M. BEKHTEREV

relation to sociality. And if this is the case, the question of a corre-


spondence between the external forms of God and man does not
even bear discussion. Christianity itself, which embodies in Christ
a sort of God-man, situates his godliness in his spiritual, not his
physical, aspect—in other words, in his teachings, which are full
of the highest, almost inaccessible moral values; and in his ac-
tions, which are the practical reflection of his morality and also
the best expression of universal energy.
Perfection of the human personality is also related to that di-
vine principle which ensures the existence of goodness on earth,
permeating life in all its various manifestations and representing,
in its highest forms, the very pinnacle of world progress. For this
reason it is possible not only to believe and to hope, but in fact to
assert with utter conviction that the world process, following the
same trajectory as the human personality, will lead us by means of
the progress of generations to the creation of the highest moral
being—let us call him the virtuous man—a being who will be able
to realize an earthly kingdom of love and goodness. This may oc-
cur only after many centuries have passed; but the eventual occur-
rence is itself unquestionable, for the laws governing life in general
and human life in particular are as immutable as the laws guiding
the movement of celestial bodies.
And since ideals always anticipate the future, we who are the
followers of these ideals and the carriers of universal energy must
strive to live in such a way that our existence is wholly permeated
by the divine spirit, so that all that is universally human, humane,
and self-sacrificing is reflected in our being and thus contributes
to the formation of a more perfect human entity. All our efforts
must be directed toward the creation of this virtuous man, this
morally superior individual; and so we must strive ceaselessly to
perfect our own personality, in harmony with the interests of col-
lective humanity, and to perfect the social form of human life.

Notes

1. V. Soloviev, [Foreword]. In [Justification of goodness].


2. G. LeBon (1911) [The evolution of matter]. St. Petersburg.
IMMORTALITY: THE SCIENTIFIC POINT OF VIEW 69

3. See V. Bekhterev, Vestn. Psikhologii, 1904; Ob’ektivnaia psikhologiia,


No. 1 (1907), No. 2 (1910), and No. 3 (1911), St. Petersburg; [General founda-
tions of reflexology]. In Obozr. Psikhiatriia, 1916 and 1917, and separate publi-
cations; Vestn. Znaniia, 1916.
4. See V. Bektherev (1904) [Mind and life] (2nd ed., rev. suppl). St. Peters-
burg; L’activité psychique et la vie. Paris; Psyche und Leben. Wiesbaden.
5. Nerve impulses—Trans.
6. Worth noting are the recent investigations that establish the relationship
between food intake and the performance of mechanical labor (on a bicycle). A
person was placed in a closed environment subject to constant temperature. The
mechanical labor he produced was transmitted to one or another mechanism, for
example, to a dynamo. The comparison of the amount of food ingested to the
amount of useful labor produced demonstrated that the work performed by hu-
man muscles represents about 21 percent of the energy consumed by the organ-
ism (whereas the steam engine, as we know, yields no more than 13 percent
efficiency). People possessing greater physical strength produced an even greater
percentage of useful labor, i.e., up to 36 percent. This statistic, of course, does
not take into account the energy expended on the functioning of the glands and
other internal organs (sweat glands, heart, etc.). These findings are explicable,
on the one hand, by the high degree of perfection of the human “machine”—its
chief advantage being its ability, should malfunctions occur, to fix itself—and,
on the other hand, by the fact that the energy of our centers, which stimulates
movement, is formed not so much via the transformation of nutritive material
(blood),as by means of the transformation of external influences on the receptory
organs and of the continuously available energy reserves in the centers.
7. V. Bekhterev, Obozreniie Psikhiatrii, 1896, and Neurol. Centr., 1896.
8. V. Bektherev, [Mind and life]. St. Petersburg.
9. Energic doctrine as applied to neuropsychic activity has also recently been
developed from various points of view by Lassvitz, Gret, Krainsky, and others.
10. Prof. Khvol’son gave a speech on the same subject before the Petrograd
Philosophical Society in March 1916.
11. H. Drummond, [The progress and evolution of man]. P. 373.
12. V. Bekhterev, [Mind and life]; Psyche und Leben, Wiesbaden; L’activité
psychique et la vie, Paris. The ideas presented in this work on the subject of
evolutionary monism and also my views presented at debates on the same topic
by scientific societies, especially the Russian Society of Normal and Pathologi-
cal Psychology, have even been reflected in the philosophical literature. (See, for
example, K.F. Zhakov’s latest works.)
13. H. Drummond, Op. cit. Pp. 273–74.
14. “Primal origin” reads literally as “infinity principle”—Trans.
15. Perhaps this cycle (of conservation of energy), an understanding of which
was accessible even to ancient peoples, helped serve to create the doctrine of
transmigration of souls.
16. Freichtersleben. [Hygiene of the soul]. P. 21.
17. See V. Bekhterev (1896) Obozreniie Psikhiatrii, also Neur. Centralbl. for
the same year.
18. Sacrificial altar—Trans.
70 VLADIMIR M. BEKHTEREV

19. King Lear, Act III, Scene IV—Trans.


20. Ibid. Act IV, Scene VI. In this context, to “able” means to “uphold.”—
Trans.
21. Hamlet, Act IV, Scene IV—Trans.
22. In addition to the observations on social inheritance already made above,
see my work [The objective-psychological method applied to the study of crimi-
nality]. St. Petersburg, 1912 [separate publication].
23. See V. Bekhterev (1916), [The significance of hormonism and social se-
lection in the evolution of organisms], Priroda. There, too, are noted my other
works on the subject.
24. V. Bekhterev (1912) [Social selection and its biological significance].
Vestnik Znaniia and Nord und Sud.