That was the rock band Queen’s plaintive refrain in the movie Highlander in scenes where the immortal Connor MacLeod suffers his beloved wife’s growing old and dying, while he remains forever young. Sad certainly, but I’d bet most of us fantasized how great it would be to be like MacLeod—deathless.
That’s not surprising as the most important personal “issue” for us is our deaths. British philosopher Stephen Cave’s very readable 2012 book Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization is a fascinating attempt to grapple with this human condition.
After all, what makes us different from other creatures on this planet is that it is only us who are aware – dreadfully and anxiously, for most — that we, all of us without exception, will one day die.
But there is another thing that makes us different: Deep inside us, perhaps in order to overcome the dread of death, we believe we are or could be immortals. Humanity’s history in fact is a search for immortality, and the foundation of civilization is this striving to be deathless. As Cave put it: “This seeking is the foundation of human achievement: it is the wellspring of religion, the muse of philosophy, the architect of our cities, and the impulse behind the arts.
Each of Cave’s chapters explains what he terms as humanity’s narratives to strive to be, or pretend to be, immortals.
Path One: “Staying Alive”. After Cave explains, it becomes so obvious. What prompted homo sapiens over hundreds of thousands of years to build civilization? It was the need to extend their lives, initially to invent as simple a technology as agriculture all the way to the adoption of the scientific method in order to manipulate nature in order so humans can postpone death. As much as science has advanced to learn the secrets of the atom and the universe, it has unlocked the mysteries of life and has extended it, from the average 30 years life span in ancient Greece to 70 in the developed countries now.
Path Two: Religion, which Cave in the book presents as two narratives, one involving the distinctive Christian dogma of Resurrection and the more universal belief in an immortal Soul.
Many Catholics would be surprised to learn that the Vatican’s dogma has remained unchanged since the early Christians and affirmed in the Second Vatican Council of Lyons in 1245: “We believe in the true resurrection of this flesh that we now possess.” That’s the immortality many indeed want, their very own flesh and bones existing forever.
Christianity’s tenet is that when the day of judgment will come a decade, a million, a billion years from now, Christ will descend on earth to physically—not symbolically—resurrect your body, ‘the flesh you now possess.” This is the reason why since its founding 2,000 years ago Christianity forbade cremation, with the ban lifted only in the 1983 Canon Law, without any theological explanation for it.
For pre-scientific man of course, it was easy to imagine that a human body was merely made of “clay” (as in “dust into dust”) breathed to life by a Holy Spirit. And just as a clay statue weathered by time and the elements but still intact can easily be restored to be practically “brand new”, a full corpse can be brought back to life by His divine powers.
We know better of course, that a human body is so complex that it is inconceivable how each atom, molecule, DNA, organ, brain synapse can be restored after these have decomposed up to the molecular level. To demonstrate how impossible resurrection is, Cave explains the fascinating logical paradoxes regarding resurrection Catholic theologians over the centuries have struggled to get out of.
One can be posed as a question: “Do I have a choice which body—when I was in my 30s or when I would be in my 70s —I’d want to be resurrected?” Another is the so-called “Cannibal Paradox.” When your body decomposes, and your molecules somehow get into the food chain to be imbibed by another human being, which “body” would be resurrected, yours or that “cannibal”?
Most religions though don’t believe in the reconstitution of the body. From the ancient Greeks to today’s Buddhists, the belief has been in a non-physical, immortal “soul”, something like a transparent you floating out of your body when you die. Buddhists for instance believe in an Atman (soul) in every creature that merely sheds the physical body to inhabit a brand-new one still in some woman’s womb, again and again, until through spiritual purification this curse of the body is ended, with the Atman uniting with the infinite.
But Cave points out, science, especially with the breakthroughs in neuroscience just in the past two decades, have incontrovertibly demonstrated that our dreams, ambitions, lusts, loves, hates, fancies, are created by the trillions of firings by 100 billion neurons in our brains. Change something in the brain, and this has been proven in countless documented cases, and an evil man could be as meek as a sheep.
Path Three is not unfamiliar: Our immortality is in our legacy to our clan, nation, even humanity. This is in fact is one reason why the search for immortality drives civilization. Albert Einstein has long been dead, but the theories his brain produced have been a pillar of our modern world. Rizal lived only 35 years, but his legacy is the Philippine nation. All we see around us—institutions, cars, houses, cell phones, nuclear power—were first invented or constructed by people who did so mainly because they somehow believed in “legacy.”
But rely on Woody Allen to prick this balloon of an idea: “I don’t like to live in the hearts of men. I prefer to live in my apartment.”
It’s noble of course to spend one’s lives to improve the lot of humanity. But to believe that that will give you personal immortality you’d be conscious of is an illusion. There are scores of books on Rizal. But his consciousness is certainly different from what is contained between these books covers. He wasn’t up there peeping from the clouds enjoying the nation’s celebration of his birthday of his 150th birthday. To be remembered is wishful thinking, Cave says: a survey showed that most people don’t even remember the names of their great-grandfathers.
You have to read the book to its end if you don’t want to be depressed, and miss its wisdom.
In his concluding chapter, Cave first of all tries to mitigate our fear of death by pointing out that for us, it just doesn’t exist. You may imagine seeing your corpse in a wake or that you will be going trough a black tunnel. Bu as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein pointed out: “Death is not an event in life. We do not live to experience death.” You won’t experience “blackness” as there will no longer be this brain event called “experience”.
The problem is also in the notion of “immortality” and “eternity.” I was surprised reading a rare 2009 interview of billionaire Manuel V. Pangilinan, whose views somewhat are in the vein of Cave’s questions regarding immortality:
“After you die you’re supposed to live for eternity. So maybe after you die, you may spend the first 10 million years of life traveling around the universe. But then after 10 million years, what do you do? Do you have the option of extinguishing yourself, say by plunging into a black hole and say, ‘Look, I’m done!’”?
Life is something in which at some point, you say “I’m done.” This is the same insight the late columnist Billy Esposo had when he told himself in his last column: “Your time’s up, laddie.”
What do you do with endless time? Life is life because it has a beginning and end, between the two oblivions before birth and after death. Civilizations through the centuries have dominant narratives of an afterlife, different interpretations of paradise, from the Vikings’ Great Hall where they drink ale for eternity to Christianity’s cloudy heaven with angels strumming harps, to the Muslims’ jannah (garden) where 72 virgins await jihadist suicide bombers and other martyrs.
However, tucked though in these religions’ scriptures is a largely unnoticed “wisdom narrative”, according to Cave, which denies that there is an eternal afterlife, that man should be just grateful for the gift of life, no matter how short it is, and to be happy is to move out of your small world we call the ego.
Written 2,500 years ago, Ecclesiastes says: “The dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost. Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart . . . Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity.”
That is, live life fully, preferably in love, and enjoy every moment of it. That’s been the not-too-secret teaching of ancient gurus, zen masters, even of modern teachers like Krishnamurti and Eckhart Tolle.
That’s also in Queen’s Highlander song:
But touch my tears with your lips
Touch my world with your fingertips
And we can have forever
And we can love forever
Forever is our today
Who waits forever anyway?
(Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization, by Stephen Cave. Bought at La Solidaridad bookstore and digital edition at Kindle.)