THR Web Features   /   February 27, 2020

The Rebirth of Purgatory

While the purgatorial “industries” of Transhumanism might not yet represent a counter-revolution on the order of the Reformation, they are already substantial enough to warrant our attention.

Richard Hughes Gibson

( Sculpture of Purgatory at White Temple in Chiang Rai. Jakub Hałun via Wikimedia Commons.)

In the conclusion of his magisterial history of the development of the doctrine of Purgatory, La naissance du Purgatoire (1981), Jacques Le Goff comments on the doctrine’s weakening hold on the imaginations of present-day Catholic clergy and laity alike. By Le Goff’s reckoning, Purgatory remained a plausible—if not vivid—prospect to the faithful from the High Middle Ages (the focus of Le Goff’s account) right up to the nineteenth century. But as the twentieth century drew to a close, Purgatory appeared a matter of growing embarrassment among the clergy. Le Goff saw a “less infernal, less material” version of the doctrine emerging as the new official line. Meanwhile, “rank-and-file” Catholics seemed increasingly indifferent “to the idea of an intermediate interval in the afterlife.” Le Goff’s detailed record of Purgatory’s birth thus ends by raising the question of whether the doctrine’s death may be imminent. This state of affairs leads Le Goff, though himself a well-known agnostic, to close on a somewhat wistful note: “I hope that it will be a long while before it can truly be said of Purgatory that its time is past.”

But Le Goff needn’t have worried; he was simply gauging the mood of the wrong flock. Even as Catholic enthusiasm for Purgatory waned, notions of an “intermediate interval” on the way to Paradise were springing to exuberant life in another religious tent: that of the Transhumanists.

I am not the first to propose that Transhumanism channels elements of Christian eschatology. In The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace (1999), the science writer Margaret Wertheim argued that Transhumanists seek to “realize a technological substitute for the Christian afterlife” in “digital domains.” She documents, for example, Transhumanist hopes for “whole brain emulation,” whereby—as its most influential proponent, Hans Moravec, envisions it—a “robot brain surgeon” will download your “mind” tissue-layer by tissue-layer, after which you’ll wake up in a simulation. (The useless “meat” leftovers will be trashed.) One’s new cyber-body will now be “limitless” both in time and space, a hope that bears more than a passing resemblance to the “glorified” bodies promised by St. Paul. Moreover, a self made of bits could be backed up, making it possible for one’s “soul-data” to survive a crash or power outage. “As in the New Jerusalem,” Wertheim writes, “‘death would be no more.’”

In a related vein, Wesley Smith has argued that the “Singularity” on which so many Transhumanists pin their hopes—in which technological advances (such as super-intelligent machines) will fundamentally alter the course of history—looks like a materialist version of the Rapture. Like Wertheim, Smith notices many familiar eschatological themes in Transhumanist literature, including the end of suffering and the resurrection of the dead. In the latter case, he cites the Oxford professor Nicholas Bostrom’s plans “to have his head cryogenically frozen” so that “Once the Singularity kicks in and the resulting technology enables his reanimation” his mind can be uploaded via Moravecian brain surgery. The Transhumanists have even revived of the millenarian practice of assigning the Rapture an exact date, as the inventor Ray Kurzweil has done in foretelling the Singularity’s arrival in 2045.

To be sure, transhumanists do not postulate the existence of place called Purgatory. The most meaningful correspondence between the thinking of Le Goff’s medieval Catholics and of Transhumanists occurs at the level of social consequences rather than the letter of doctrine.

Yet even in terms of beliefs, the comparison is instructive. Several observers have noted in passing the purgatorial “look” of all the “vats of liquid nitrogen holding the bodies of the members whose pictures line the walls” at the Alcor Cryonics facility. The prospect of medically induced unconsciousness—a deep frozen “sleep” awaiting future revival—likewise has an undeniable purgatorial vibe. In turn, Bostrom’s hopes for cyber-reanimation raise questions about how much of the self would be preserved—one’s identity-defining memories?—and how easily an Earth-raised organism would adapt to existence in a virtual reality. Would there need to be preparatory stage? More immediately, Transhumanists often speak of our current moment as kind of Purgatory, and not just regarding its intermediate status. Transhumanist writers urge would-be long livers to adopt ascetic and even penitential disciplines. There are no contorted bodies bearing boulders or with their eyes sewn shut in these writings à la Dante’s penitents in Purgatorio, though perhaps regimens for extreme fasting (a theoretical life-extender) come close.

 More importantly, the underlying moral logic of this writings is strongly reminiscent of medieval expositions on Purgatory. Arriving at the Singularity is the promised reward for committing one’s self to years—perhaps decades—of model behavior and ritual cleansing. Kurzweil’s nine-point life-extension plan, for example, includes exercise, supplements—kits of which he sells— dietary restrictions, and “detoxification.” These visions, moreover, often have a strong “numerical” aspect in which the years of self-denial will pay off in future bliss. Indeed, numbers abound in Transhumanist literature, recalling Le Goff’s contemporary Jacques Chiffoleau’s memorable descriptions of how Purgatory inspired a new mode of “accounting for the hereafter” (“la comptabilité de l’au-delà”).

That “accounting” was no mere theoretical exercise: It had consequences in the world of the living. This is the stronger support for my argument that Purgatory has been reborn in Transhumanism. Recall that, for medieval Christians such as Dante, Purgatory was a point of contact between the living and the dead. One’s stay there could be sped by others’ willingness to undertake the so-called “suffrages for the dead,” which included prayer, fasting, and masses said on one’s behalf. As Chiffoleau demonstrated in the case of Avignon and subsequent studies have shown to be true throughout Medieval Europe, the new “mathematics of salvation” drove demand for post-mortem masses heavenward. “The mass,” the historian Peter Marshall has wisely written, “came to be seen as a quantifiable unit of spiritual power: two masses were better than one, and a thousand a thousand times better.” Looking at wills, historians have found arrangements tailored to virtually every income level, everyone seeking in Marshall’s apt phrase “to maximize the merits of the mass for their soul.” The poorer sort might leave a bequest for a handful of masses, the not-so-rich a hundred, the middling rich a thousand or more. The very rich, meanwhile, often endowed clerical positions for this express purpose. In theory, these were to go on in perpetuity—“as long as this world shall endure.” At the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in England, for example, there were more than two thousand of these “perpetual chantries” in operation there.

Purgatory thus represented a veritable industry in the High Middle Ages across Europe (and in Catholic lands for centuries to come). Indeed, so basic was it to medieval life that it might be counted part of the social infrastructure. Some clerics devoted all or most of their time to this office, and in some cases in specially designated areas of churches or estates. Others moonlighted in chantries. The appeal of this ready money is indicated in the praise given to the Parson in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales for never leaving his parish to “run up to London, up to Saint Paul’s / To get himself a chantry there for souls.”

The amount of property transferred to monasteries and individual churchmen to keep the masses going was enormous, and to some observers at the time worrying. Indeed, in some locales, the state intervened in transfers of real estate for the sake of chantries out of worries about the depletion of the tax base. As Carlos Eire writes at the conclusion of his Reformations (2016), Protestantism fundamentally transformed death, severing contact between the societies of the living and the dead. This new state of affairs had immediate financial consequences for the living, who under the old order “constantly saw part of their inheritance consumed by the dead, or, to be more precise, by the clergy who were charged with the duty to say all of those masses for the dead.” Eire would have us see that Protestantism’s rejection of “the third place” (Luther’s term) wasn’t just a theological correction. It was an “economic revolution.”

While the purgatorial “industries” of Transhumanism—the cryonics facilities, the research labs, the supply chains of supplements—might not yet represent a counter-revolution on the order of the Reformation, they are already substantial enough to warrant our attention. Alcor charges $200,000 to “vitrify” (the official term for cooling to a temperature below -120 degrees Fahrenheit) and store a corpse, along with subsequent yearly dues. The brain-only option (“neuropreservation”) runs around $80,000. You can enroll right now for these services through direct payment plans or other arrangements—such as by making the company the beneficiary of a life insurance policy. Several major national insurers offer options, meaning that in some cities you can draw up the plan with a local agent. The result is that moderns now have a chance to return to the medieval practice of writing Purgatory plans into their wills. Worldwide at least a few hundred and perhaps more than 1000 people have done so already, including the baseball legend Ted Williams. The list of those who have expressed an intention to do so include Kurzweil, Peter Thiel, Larry King, Britney Spears, and Simon Cowell. There are less expensive options as well—such as “braincase preservation” in which the brain is not removed from the skull. Some companies offer their services for the price of a new car. As in the scaling of post-mortem masses to all income levels, a “preservation” plan is now available for an array of budgets. You can set up a plan for a spouse, a child, even a pet. The growing menu recalls the historian K. L. Wood-Legh’s remark that postmortem mass arrangements “stood for the right of the individual to provide for his salvation as he saw fit.”

As Le Goff, Chiffoleau, Marshall, and Wood-Legh all highlight, the maturation of the doctrine of Purgatory both was supported by and itself encouraged new attitudes toward quantification and calculation. As the end of life approached, medieval Christians engaged in a new kind of cost-benefit analysis in which the allocation of one’s worldly goods to family members and charities had to be weighed against the prospect of a smooth voyage through Purgatory. The rise of Transhumanist doctrines and supporting institutions has injected into our culture a new opportunity for this kind of calculation. Indeed, it begins with the very premise of all this— cryonics, whole brain emulation, the Singularity, and the like. Do you buy it? If so, how much is the right amount to set aside? Are you funding a few years? Decades? Hundreds of years? Thousands? These feel like new questions, but they are really quite old ones. As to the answers—well, I’ll check back with you in 2045.