“We have no reliable guarantee that the afterlife will be any less exasperating than this one, have we?” – Noel Coward
If there is one universal truth, it’s that nobody likes bureaucracy, and as a species, our go-to example for spectacular levels of human inefficiency engendered by the bureaucratic model has traditionally been the Department of Motor Vehicles. Any Department of Motor Vehicles in any state at any time since some diabolical public administrator came up with the concepts of license and registration. The visceral hatred with which we regard bureaucracy is puzzling in so far as historically it has turned out to be a pretty rational way to get cool stuff like canals and pyramids built or as noted by Jacoby, “Bureaucratic systems developed in all instances where large groups of men existed in large areas, creating a need for a central agency to deal with problems” (Jacoby, 1973, p9). Hunting and gathering is all well and good, but eventually one tires of chasing dinner across the veldt or subsisting on nuts and berries. And those ziggurats don’t build themselves. Part of this love-hate relationship with bureaucracy has to do with the fact that we don’t like other people telling us what to do. We prefer that other people be told what to do, particularly noisy neighbors, bad drivers, and other nefarious threats to civilization. The true “tragedy of the commons” is actually that we generally feel we should be able to graze however many sheep wherever and whenever we want while preventing other shepherds from behaving similarly. I don’t need bureaucracy. Bureaucracy was invented to curtail the ill manners of the guy next door. We spend our savage, brutish and short existences as an egocentric little bunch of upstart hominids looking for an edge. Then we die.
Now, according to most cultural traditions, there are a few perks to dying. I mean, hygiene goes out the window what with the decomposing and closer acquaintance with maggots, and scavengers, and typically you take an economic downturn when all the relatives divvy up your stuff, but once you hit the eternal bricks and shuffle off this mortal coil, assuming your behavior has not lapsed into overt insidiousness, with a few notable (and bad-tempered) exceptions, most mythologies foresee some serious lifestyle improvements. These are best summed up by “no more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks”. Sure there’s a line and some paperwork at the Pearly Gates, but once you get Saint Peter’s stamp of approval, it’s all harp jams and lounging on clouds for eternity, basking in bliss and hardcore partying to celebrate the divine glory. And sometimes there are virgins involved. Or union with the universal mind on one endless ecstasy binge. If one of these options sounds like your kind of afterlife, I must warn you to choose your folkloric traditions wisely, as there are some pessimists out there who maintain that bureaucracy extends into the afterlife, where your eternal reward may be abruptly revoked with a second death, a death after life after death, so to speak, where you accumulate too many points on your afterlife license, and the divine bureaucracy opts to bring down the hammer.
We’re not talking about that initial sorting process that sends the insufferably righteous to heaven and the irredeemably evil to hell. You know who you are. I’m talking about the rude interruption of your post-corporeal dinner party with Einstein, Lincoln, Gandhi, and Keith Richards (not dead, but I hear he drops in now and again), when a heavenly bureaucrat hands you your immaculate pink-slip. Bummer, dude. For example, consider the ancient Egyptians. They took their afterlife seriously, hence all the mummification, grave goods, and monumental architecture. The reason they spent so much time and effort on post-death preparations was that the afterlife was thought to run parallel to one’s earthly life, with plenty of bureaucratic pitfalls to trip you up (they wrote whole manuals like the Book of the Dead, providing numerous tips for a highly successful afterlife). If you messed up in your Egyptian afterlife you were dead. Really dead, this time. Death in the afterlife was a permanent affair.
Second Temple Judaism (from about the 6th Century B.C. onwards), likewise reserves a second death for later in the eschatological play. There being no precise analog for the Christian Hell in Judaism, the resolutely unrighteous get warehoused in Gehinnom. Gehinnom was more of a purgatory, a DMV of the soul if you prefer, where the wicked had up to a year to suck up some suffering and atone for their misbehavior. Failing this remediation, the unrecalcitrant sinner gets handed a “second death”, which is alternatively complete obliteration or spending eternity in remorse.
Plato’s treatise on Immortality, the Phaedon, discussed the common classical notion of a “second death” at some length. While Plato himself landed on the side of the indestructability of the human soul, he considered the possibility that there could be death after life after death. Of course, he put the words into the mouth of the long dead Socrates (who couldn’t adequately defend himself as he was busy pushing up daisies).
For as the man is to his suit of clothes, so is the soul to the body; and whoever applies to the soul and body what is said of the man and his suit of clothes, will speak to the purpose. For he will make the soul more durable, and the body a weaker being, and less capable to hold out for a long time. He will add that every soul wears several bodies, especially if it lives several years; for the body wastes while the man is yet alive, and the soul still forms to itself a new habit of body out of the former that decays, but when the last comes to die, it has then its last habit on, and dies before its consumption; and when the soul is dead, the body quickly betrays the weakness of its nature, since it corrupts and moulders away very speedily; so that we cannot put such confidence in your demonstration, as to hold it for a standing truth that our souls continue in being after death. For, supposing it were granted that our soul has not only a being antecedent to our birth, but that, for anything we know, the souls of some continue in being after death, and it is very possible they may return again to this world, and be born again, so to speak, several times, and die at last; for the strength and advantage of the soul beyond the body consists in this, — that it can undergo several births, and wear several bodies one after another, as a man does suits of clothes: supposing, I say, that all this were granted, still it cannot be denied but that in all those repeated births it decays and wastes, and at last comes to an end in one of the deaths. However, it is impossible for any man to discern in which of the deaths it is totally sunk: since things stand thus, whoever does not fear death must be senseless; unless he can demonstrate that the soul is altogether immortal and incorruptible (Plato, Phaedon, trans. Fénelon, 1833).
Benjamin Franklin sagaciously maintained that “Nothing is certain in this life, but death and taxes”, taxes being largely representative to us all of the heavy hand of bureaucracy. One hoped that death might preclude the need to settle up one’s debts, and to lead the carefree life of the landed gentry, but it seems that there may be no silver lining on your heavenly cloud. Our penchant for organization and the bureaucratic structures of our mortality apparently follows us on into the afterlife. Life after death obviously ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Mostly, we’re unconcerned with the fates of our fellows. The afterlife is about preserving our ego, our self, our sense of identity and importance, and just as we apply bureaucracy to our earthly lives, despite our disdain, we feel that if we apply the same level of organization to the afterlife, we might just be able to find a loophole in some eternal tax haven. Otherwise, we expect we might not make it into heaven with the cool kids. This was best captured by Russian mathematician and esoteric Pyotr Uspensky when he said, “Suddenly I began to find a strange meaning in old fairy-tales; woods, rivers, mountains, became living beings; mysterious life filled the night; with new interests and new expectations I began to dream again of distant travels; and I remembered many extraordinary things that I had heard about old monasteries. Ideas and feelings which had long since ceased to interest me suddenly began to assume significance and interest. A deep meaning and many subtle allegories appeared in what only yesterday had seemed to be naive popular fantasy or crude superstition. And the greatest mystery and the greatest miracle was that the thought became possible that death may not exist, that those who have gone may not have vanished altogether, but exist somewhere and somehow, and that perhaps I may see them again. I have become so accustomed to think “scientifically” that I am afraid even to imagine that there may be something else beyond the outer covering of life. I feel like a man condemned to death, whose companions have been hanged and who has already become reconciled to the thought that the same fate awaits him; and suddenly he hears that his companions are alive, that they have escaped and that there is hope also for him. And he fears to believe this, because it would be so terrible if it proved to be false, and nothing would remain but prison and the expectation of execution.”
Jacoby, Henry. The Bureaucratization of the World. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973.
Plato. Phædon. 1st American, from the rare London edition. New-York: W. Gowan, 1833.