The Great Conversation: Immortality

By Gabriel Blanchard

Fittingly, immortality is one of the perennial subjects of human thought.

As The Princess Bride taught us, man is mortal. People respond to this in a range of ways: fear, anger, melancholy, even relief. Regardless, our survival instinct (if nothing else) drives us to avoid what we know to be inevitable. Religion, literature, and philosophy are all full of attempts to resolve this paradox. One of the earliest surviving works of literature, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, revolves around the titular hero’s fruitless attempts to gain immortality. In the end, Gilgamesh learns to accept that he cannot live forever. In later centuries, the chief purpose of alchemy was to discover the “Philosopher’s Stone.” This was held not only to make gold, but also the “elixir of life” that bestowed immortality.

Oddly enough, this “primitive” idea of immortality (if it ever really was primitive) has returned in certain circles today. Advances in modern technology have prompted speculations that it may be possible for humans to live for centuries, or even forever—perhaps by transferring human consciousness into mechanical “bodies” that do not die. This has not, at time of writing, met with success; whether it would even be desirable is dubious. Tolkien analyzes the attempt to live forever in many of his writings. His Elves are immortal, so mortal races naturally envy them. However, the Elves also experience an ever-mounting sorrow over the transitory nature of the world they live in. He suggests in On Fairy-stories that, much as our stories about Elves are interested in escape from death, so their “Human-stories” are doubtless fascinated with escape from deathlessness.

Secondly, there is living on through one’s descendants. This is a major cultural concern in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible). Early Hebrew ideas of sheol, or the underworld, were vague but negative, similar to the Homeric depiction of Hades. Psalm 115 states that “The dead praise not the LORD, neither any that go down to silence”. The importance of begetting children is stressed throughout the Tanakh—so much so that provision was made for a childless widow to marry her brother-in-law (a union otherwise considered incestuous) so that he could “raise up offspring to his brother.” The idea of personal immortality, separate from one’s descendants, became a regular aspect of Jewish thought only after the Babylonian exile. It remained controversial even into the Second Temple period, as shown in the dispute between the Apostle Paul and the Sanhedrin in Acts 23.

An alternative to living on through descendants is the concept of immortality through fame. This is a recurring motif in Roman culture. In this tradition, fame did not merely mean celebrity, but remembrance for a selfless act of service. The archetypal example was Marcus Curtius. In the 362 BC, an earthquake opened a huge sinkhole in the city, and the augurs pronounced that the gods demanded Rome’s most precious possession to fill it. The citizenry struggled to decide what that was. Curtius, according to the legend, said that it was the arms and courage of Rome, and made good on his word by donning his armor, mounting his horse, and riding directly into the pit, which then closed over him. Historical or not, he clearly gained lasting memory by this act.

On the other hand, thinkers throughout history have questioned and even parodied this idea. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous sonnet Ozymandias includes the simple, biting inscription beneath a ruined statue: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” / Nothing beside remains.

He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt.

Joseph Heller, Catch-22

However, we mostly think of immortality in religious contexts. This is almost as true in the Far East as it is in the West, though approaches to immortality differ considerably. Several major religions in Asia espouse the doctrine of reincarnation: indeed, in some, like Buddhism and Jainism, reincarnation is a more definite point of their creed than theism is. Moreover, reincarnation need not be a positive thing. The “Eightfold Path” of Buddhist ethics is designed to liberate the soul from the incessant cycle of rebirth, which is the source of suffering.

By contrast, Abrahamic faiths like Christianity and Islam affirm not only the immortality of the individual soul, but its tie to a specific body. Some people think of immortality simply in terms of going to heaven or hell when one dies, but the eschatology of Abrahamic religions usually includes doctrines such as the Last Judgment. Not only will God judge all the living at once, but raise all the dead bodily to judge them too.

With or without religious sanction, immortality has often been considered necessary to enforce moral codes. If there are no eternal rewards or punishments, the argument goes, what can motivate people to do what is right? As Voltaire remarked on the different but related subject of theism, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” Of course, plenty of people (atheists included) do observe moral conduct for other reasons. But the definition of morality itself depends partly on whether the immortal soul exists. If not, achieving the greatest happiness in earthly terms is the obvious candidate for our highest moral purpose. This is the argument of utilitarianism. But if we do possess immortal souls, all of that is relativized. Earthly happiness may have its own importance, but it is unlikely to be the most important thing.

Suggested reading:
Cicero, The Dream of Scipio
St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason
John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

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