Desiring Immortality and Resisting the Regime in Political Liberalism



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Many political thinkers in the Western tradition, both ancient and modern, recognize the desire for immortality as either potentially helpful or harmful to political liberty. Indeed, there are deep disagreements among them over the most basic question: in what manner and to what extent should this desire be approached? Our understanding of their answers are only beginning to be fully understood. Limited scholarship exists on the desire for immortality in ancient Thucydides’ and modern Hobbes’ writings, but political liberals have been largely neglected. In the dissertation, therefore, the liberal approach to this desire has been studied in order to better our understanding of it. The thinkers I analyze each represent a major theoretical advance in the emergence and development of the liberal tradition: Plato, John Locke, Alexis De Tocqueville, and John Dewey.

I argue that in the liberal tradition, desiring immortality is related to the willingness to resist the authority and coercion of unjust regimes. Plato uses spiritual hope to promote the philosophic life in his encouraging of resistance to tyrannical authority. Locke links prudential hope for immortality to moral living founded on respect for individual rights, in order to oppose absolutism. Tocqueville uses a dogmatic assumption of immortality to tie together respect for property rights with religious conviction, hoping to oppose the excessive material enjoyments and irreligion which he thinks can threaten democracy. Dewey alone rejects this entire package of desiring immortality, respect for private property, and religion as increasingly antithetical to liberalism’s development. He argues our true “religious” feelings are for experiencing ideals, which do transcend; our identity is a creation of social interaction in this world.

Lastly, I conduct a survey experiment which aims to empirically test the primary hypothesized relationships from the theoretical chapters. The results support the proposition, most explicit in Tocqueville, that statesmen acting as religious exemplars can strengthen belief in immortality. This effect predicts changes in participants’ favoring of individual rights. To the extent that belief in individual rights is a crucial battleground for political change in the 21st century, this study suggests the fate of religion may be more consequential than generally thought.



Liberalism, Immortality, Religion, Desire, Rights, Liberty