The Great Conversation:
Life & Death—Part II
By Gabriel Blanchard
Life is: precious, short, unfair, like a box of chocolates, but a dream, worth living ...
Death, despite enjoying the rare status of a universal interest, is not well-liked by most people. Its companion idea, and the precondition of its existence (since nothing can die without first being alive), is life, which has attracted a wider and more loyal fandom. Naturally enough, this has driven the human imagination—artistic, religious, speculative—to the topic of immortality.
A multitude of myths and folk tales exemplify the interest, often in the form of “immortality gone wrong.” The recent waves of popularity for vampire and zombie media are natural examples, but the taste plainly goes very far back. Toward the worse end of the gone-wrong spectrum we find Tithonus, a lover of Eos, the goddess of dawn; she asked Zeus to make him immortal, but forgot to ask for eternal youth for him as well, and age ravages him utterly. At the pleasanter end lies Endymion, whose beloved Selene (the goddess of the Moon) had better luck: Endymion received immortality with youth, but, as the Moon’s beloved, he also sleeps forever. There is also the story of Orpheus and his wife Eurydice, and the history of the story is quite curious: all versions agree that she was killed tragically young, that Orpheus traveled alive into the underworld to get her back, and that he sang such a beautiful lament that even Hades was moved to pity. The familiar version today is that Hades let Eurydice return to life on the condition that Orpheus not look behind him until they were above ground again, but Orpheus’ resolve failed him at the last moment and he lost her for a second and absolutely irrevocable time. However, it seems this tragic ending was introduced by Virgil and is not how the original tellings conclude—in the oldest versions, Orpheus is simply victorious, and he and Eurydice live out their days in peace.
In the writings of Tolkien, we find the dilemma of death and immortality in a more articulate and reflective form. The Lord of the Rings is mainly about the quest and the war, but The Silmarillion, which describes the history of the First and Second Ages,* is concerned more directly with the contrast between Elvish deathlessness and “the Doom of Men.” Tolkien relates that death was originally the Gift of Men: a “seeking elsewhither,” a desire to move “beyond the circles of the world,” that was the peculiar character of Men as distinct from Elves. Elves and Men must biologically be the same species, since Half-Elves like Elrond can exist; but Tolkien describes the two races as two different “experiments” on the Creator’s part with how soul and body relate to each other. Men in the legendarium often become corrupt through envy of the Elves for their escape from death, and men in real life tell stories about beings like the Elves out of fascination (envious or not) with immortality; but Tolkien himself suggests in his justly famous address “On Fairy-Stories“:
Lastly there is the oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape: the Escape from Death. Fairy-stories provide many examples and modes of this … Fairy-stories are made by men, not by fairies. The Human-stories of the elves are doubtless full of the Escape from Deathlessness. … Few lessons are taught more clearly in them than the burden of that kind of immortality, or rather endless serial living.
In the supplemental material to The Silmarillion (the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth series), published by the late Christopher Tolkien from his father’s notes, a truly tantalizing notion is set forth, born of Tolkien’s desire to reconcile his theory of “the Gift of Men” with his belief as a Catholic that death is a result of the Fall of Man. The human trait of “seeking elsewhither” seems to him to be a fact—which, considering how often our stories about immortality imply the moral that it wouldn’t be at all nice to live forever, is plausible. If sin is the reason we are subject to death, then there must have been some way for us to fulfill this desire without enduring death; and in some of his very latest writings, Tolkien hit upon a solution: that our original fate was meant to be not death, but assumption.
This naturally brings us to the religious side of the concept of life. It would be rash to say that religion exists “for” any single purpose—religion itself is exceedingly difficult to define**—but one thing most religions do is offer their followers tools to cope with death. These tools can include mourning rituals, like the Catholic requiem Mass or the Jewish El Malei Rachamim prayer for the dead. Other such tools are more philosophical, and often involve the at-first-glance puzzling idea that death is not permanent.
One form of this idea, common in what are called dharmic religions, is reincarnation. This means that after death, the soul, being immortal, enters a new body. Details vary on whether reincarnation is always as a human, whether the cycle of return goes on forever, and even whether reincarnation is desirable. One of the most celebrated texts on the subject is the Hindu scripture known as the Bhagavad Gītā, which gives an account of karmic rewards and punishments, as well as a path out of the cycle and into complete union with the Godhead.
At this point, it would be ideal to turn to the Abrahamic faiths, but we are overrunning our standard length with the material! (Who knew that life would be such a rich topic?) We will pick up there in the next installment.
Part III to come!
Aristotle, On Generation and Corruption
Solomon ibn Gabirol (a.k.a. Avicebron), The Fount of Life
Michel de Montaigne, Essays, “Of Cannibals“
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop
Huston Smith, The World’s Religions
*The Lord of the Rings is set at the end of the Third Age of Middle-earth’s history. The First Age, in which Elves, Dwarves, and Men first came into being, lasted around 5,000 years, and the Second rather more than 3,000; the Third lasted just over 3,000.
**For example, we might assume is that all religions involve some kind of God. However, the existence of a deity is practically irrelevant to Confucianism and some forms of Buddhism (the founders of both seem to have been agnostics), and the Jain religion is sometimes considered atheistic, or else as pantheist—but then, is pantheism more like theism or atheism? And it only gets thornier from here!
Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor-at-large. He lives in Baltimore, MD.
To read more from our ongoing series on the history of thought, check out these posts on ideas like angels, the citizen, hypothesis, and medicine, and z. You might also like our seminar series on the Author Bank, led by professors from colleges across the country, and our podcast, Anchored.
Published on 4th November, 2022. Page image of a seventeenth-century painting of the Tree of Life from the Palace of Shaki Khans in Azerbaijan, photographed by Urek Meniashvili (source); the tree depicted is the pomegranate, pomegranates being a favorite symbol with several meanings in the Near East, including eternity and immortality (due to its large number of seeds).