Monday, November 04, 2013

Can We Live Forever Through Our Glory or Our Genes?

In choosing to fight in the Trojan war, Achilles faced a choice.  "If I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans," he says in Homer's Iliad, "I shall not return home, but my glory shall be everlasting; whereas if I return home to the beloved land of my father, my glory will be gone, but there will be long life left for me."  He chose to fight and die in the war to win his everlasting glory, even though that meant forgoing a long and happy life at home.  He thus became the model of Greek glory-seeking heroism. 

Alexander the Great emulated Achilles.  It is said that on his campaigns of military conquest, Alexander carried with him a copy of the Iliad annotated for him by Aristotle.  Alexander died young, at age 32, but like Achilles, he lives on through the fame of his extraordinary deeds.

Achilles and Alexander are examples for Stephen Cave of how human beings can pursue immortality through the Legacy Narrative:  they can hope that if they do something glorious, they will be remembered after they die.  This often seems to be the motivation for politically ambitious people who are moved by what Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist called "the love of fame, the ruling passion of the noblest minds."  Similarly, Augustine thought that the greatness of the Roman Empire was due largely to the desire of citizens and rulers to do great things that would make them famous, so that they would be remembered after death for their glorious deeds (City of God, V.12-21).

One might even argue--as Ernest Becker does in The Denial of Death (Free Press, 1973)--that the history of civilization is a history of human beings striving for immortality through cultural achievements.  As Becker writes, "heroism is first and foremost a reflex of the terror of death."  Through what Cave calls "the technology of cultural reproduction," we do things that will win us some social recognition in the shared space of cultural symbols.  Politicians want to earn a name for themselves in political history.  Artists want to be known for their art.  Authors want to be famous for their books.  Celebrities want to be celebrities.  Millions of people want to spread the news of their personal lives on social media websites.  Bloggers want to be known to people around the world who visit their websites.

Thus, cultural immortality is one form of the Legacy Narrative.  The other is biological immortality:  we might hope to live on after death in our children.  In one of his biological writings, Aristotle observed: "For any living thing . . . the most natural act is the production of another like itself, an animal producing an animal, a plant a plant, in order that, as far as its nature allows, it may partake of the eternal."  Modern evolutionary genetics suggests another way of expressing this.  Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene writes: "the genes are the immortals . . . we, the individual survival machines in the world, can expect to live a few more decades.  But the genes in the world have an expectation of life that must be measured not in decades but in thousands and millions of years."

But does either of these two forms of the Legacy Narrative give us true immortality?  I think Cave is right in arguing that whatever immortality one might have through one's cultural or biological legacy is not a personal immortality of one's individual consciousness.

Woody Allen is famous, and his fame will surely live on after his death.  But that's not the kind of immortality he wants.  He once wrote: "I don't want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment."

The first problem with everlasting glory is that it's never everlasting.  Most of us will be completely forgotten a few decades after our deaths.  A very few of us might be remembered for thousands of years, but even that memory cannot be eternal, because human cultural memory is not eternal.

The second problem with everlasting glory is more fundamental: cultural fame is not personal immortality.  The symbolic replications of a person do not constitute a real person.  A famous dead person is just as dead as a forgotten dead person.

It's natural for us to be pleased by our imagining that we will be remembered after we die, or to be pained by our imagining that we will be forgotten after we die.  But our imagination is tricking us if we think that we will somehow be around to enjoy our fame after death.

Even Homer knew this.  In his Odyssey, he tells the story of Odysseus descending into Hades and meeting Achilles.  Odysseus is shocked to hear Achilles regret his choice of a glorious but short life.  Achilles declares: "I would rather work the soil as a serf to some landless impoverished peasant than be king of all these lifeless dead."

The same problems arise for genetic immortality.  Our genes can live on after our death, but they will not live forever.  And whatever life my genes have after my death will not be my life.  Even if I can live on in some sense through the propagation of my genes after my death, I will no longer exist as a separate conscious being.

If all four of the immortality narratives are illusions, if we cannot live forever, can we live without any hope of immortality and without our lives being ruined by the fear of death?

To be continued . . .

1 comment:

Gene Callahan said...

"the genes are the immortals . . . we, the individual survival machines in the world, can expect to live a few more decades. But the genes in the world have an expectation of life that must be measured not in decades but in thousands and millions of years."

He said this, but it is nonsense: an individual gene gone when an individual person is.