This is a book that pulls no punches. The premise is that humanity, on the whole, has always been unable to imagine their own demise, as a species but also on the individual level. Death is all around but we are unable to accept that, sooner or later, it will come to us. This is something that the author calls the mortality paradox, which is a rather grandiose way of saying that humans just are not wired to deal with the idea of their own non-existence. I would have been interested in more discussion here as to why this has turned out to be the case, and if indeed it is true, as, actually, some humans have come to terms fairly well with the idea of their own death over the centuries. The author cunningly ignores all this until the final chapter.
The inability to accept death has thus led to the pursuit of immortality in a number of different ways. These are the quest to live forever in the body we have, the idea of the resurrection of the body after death, the immortal soul continuing on after the body dies and the hope for immortality through great deeds or reputation. In something of a mishmash between the very oldest approaches to these attempts to live forever from Ancient Egypt and China through to Christianity and alchemy, to the newest scientific fads on the block (vitamins, exercise, cryogenics, downloading your mind onto a computer to name but a few) the author reveals clinically and logically the truth that, in fact, none of them have succeeded in making even a single individual immortal and that they are all, in their own way, blind alleys which serve only to help us perpetuate (ironically) the mortality paradox. There’s nothing here that isn’t obvious after a rational examination of evidence, but somehow having humanity’s longest standing delusion destroyed blow by blow makes for rather depressing reading.
Other philosophers, such as John Gray, have seen this pointless quest for immortality as the very pinnacle of human stupidity and denied that humans can ever transcend their state as just another animal. Cave, however, sees the very essence of civilization as an unintentional bi-product of humanity’s efforts to permanently maintain their existence, and hence it is something which has served to differentiate humanity from other animals. By this he means the development of religious ritual, especially surrounding death, and spiritual thought, such as Plato’s idea of the immortal soul, Christianity’s idea of bodily resurrection and Hindu and Buddhist ideas of reincarnation. Beginning with the Pyramids, very many great and long-standing monuments have been constructed as eternal memorials for individuals, and so much of art has been created in the pursuit of lasting fame. These are the cultural icons of humanity and they have been made, at least in part, in order to perpetuate the names and ideas of their creators.
So is the hopeless pursuit of immortality, in fact, a good thing? Hard to tell. In the final chapter Cave imparts the wonderful news that by simply and wisely embracing the tenants of Epicureanism we can all be freed of the mortality paradox and we can face our inevitable and permanent demise without fear (which, argues Epicurus, will be just like before we were born, a state about which we experience nothing). Now, the ideas of Epicurus are, to my mind, the most sanguine and clear-headed notions to come from antiquity. However, being nothing new, Cave rather fails to explain why they have not replaced our foolish opinions about immortality wholesale over the past two millennia. Why haven’t more people caught on to this blissful rationalization and why do billions still strive pointlessly to live on forever? Also, if the quest for immortality really is driving the development of civilization, in science and medicine, religion and philosophy, then what would be the true result of our abandoning it en masse for atomic materialism? Would progress cease? Would people actually be happier?
As such, I found the ending to this book raised so many more questions than it attempted to answer, which, in itself is no bad thing, but like Wilde’s cigarette and perfect pleasure, leaves one somewhat unsatisfied.
For those allergic to paper, here’s the main ideas of the book in a TED talk.
If you’re not yet beaten down completely by the evident pointlessness of all humanity’s efforts, try The Immortalization Commission by John Gray. This will finish anyone off.