March 30, 2012 10:01 pm

Memento mori

An epic inquiry into the human desire to defy death – and how to overcome it

Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilisation, by Stephen Cave, RRP Biteback £20, 320 pages

 

Stephen Cave knew he wouldn’t achieve immortality by writing a book about it. But sometimes desire is stronger than knowledge, and imagination more persuasive than understanding. According to Cave, this is why we are trapped in the mortality paradox: we know we must die but we cannot imagine not existing. Death, thus, seems both inevitable and impossible. And so, in defiance of the clear evidence of our mortality, we all seek some way to cheat the reaper.

The bulk of Cave’s book is a philosophical history of the four types of strategy humans have pursued to this end: not dying, coming back to life, floating off as souls, or living on through a legacy we leave behind. It probably won’t ruin anyone’s surprise to reveal that none works, and so Cave concludes that we need a fifth alternative: the wisdom to come to terms with our mortality and carry on regardless.

Like life, although it might sound a bit underwhelming when reduced to précis, the book’s real value is to be found more in the journey it takes us on than the terminus it reaches. Cave traces the histories of each of his four immortality narratives through the world’s great religions, heroes, leaders, thinkers and stories. It’s an epic tale of human folly, featuring a cast of characters including Gilgamesh, Dante, Frankenstein, the King of Qin, Alexander the Great and the Dalai Lama. Time and again death, the great leveller, shows that no matter how famous, wise or powerful they are, the mighty are as fallen as the rest of us.

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History and narrative are the vehicles that carry the philosophical content of the book forward. Cave, a Berlin-based writer and former diplomat, is an admirably clear elucidator, stripping down arguments to their essences and recounting them without any unnecessary jargon. He is particularly good at cutting the straws that immortality-seekers cling to. For example, many hold on to the hope that the mysteries of consciousness leave open the possibility that your mind could outlive your body. To this Cave makes a devastatingly simple and direct challenge: “If the soul can see when the entire brain and body have stopped working, why can’t it see when only the optic nerves have stopped working?” What is true of vision is true for every other facet of consciousness: if it doesn’t need a brain after life, why does it need one now? It may be possible to imagine beings capable of celestial existence, “but such people would be very different from me and you”.

Cave’s account of human over-reaching sometimes over-reaches. The desire for immortality is portrayed not just as potent and perennial, but the key to understanding pretty much everything humans do. Pointing to the fruits of civilisation, for instance, he says: “All of this we have done in order to defy death.” All? Human motivation is surely a bit more complicated than that. I’d wager more has been done simply to pass the time than to grasp eternity. What are we to make of the stoics, whose daily reminders of the mortality of all flesh appear to soothe anxiety, rather than heighten it?

Nor does his repeated claim that “we are all ... driven to seek immortality” seem to fit experience, and it’s not just suicide cases that provide the counter-argument. I recently talked to a septuagenarian who was content with the life he had lived and wasn’t depressed, but like many he wasn’t sure he wanted to be around to celebrate his 100th birthday. To claim everyone wants to live forever requires you to assert that the many who maintain otherwise are either lying or in denial.

The mortality paradox also seems far from an irreconcilable contradiction. It is true that we cannot imagine the state of being dead, because not experiencing is not something we can experience. But that does not mean non-existence is “literally inconceivable”. In fact, it’s very easy: just think of the world in 1066, or any time before your birth. Imagining being dead is impossible, conceiving your own non-existence is not, and hence there is no mortality paradox to resolve.

Nonetheless, overall Cave meticulously follows the right path to the right conclusion, rightly stated. We need to accept mortality and to do that we have to adjust our attitudes towards the very things that lead us to deny it. The acute awareness of self, which makes our non-existence so hard to imagine, needs to be countered by a focus on others. Our ability to imagine the future needs to be balanced by a focus on the present. And we need sometimes to give our capacities to anticipate and avoid threats a rest and focus instead on what is good in the life we already have.

If we do all these things we may just find that the life we have, like Cave’s book, is less than perfect, but far more than good enough.

Julian Baggini is author of ‘The Ego Trick’ (Granta)

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