Brain Pickings

The Philosophy of Immortality

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“Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.”

“If we are continually inadequate in love, uncertain in decision and impotent in the face of death, how is it possible to exist?,” Rilke famously asked. “The idea that you’d have to say ‘goodbye’ to all this — even though it’s infuriating and maddening and frightening and horrible, some of the time — is even more infuriating and maddening and horrible: How do you spend this time without perpetually being so broken-hearted about saying the eventual goodbye?,” Maira Kalman pondered.

In this short interview for Brain Pickings, pop-philosophy hunter-gatherer Filip Matous sits down with Cambridge University philosopher Stephen Cave to crack open some of the insights from his fascinating book, Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization (public library) — which also gave us this stimulating, if unsettling meditation on the mortality paradox.

The crux of Cave’s argument falls somewhere between Montaigne’s reflections on death and the art of living and John Cage’s affinity for Zen Buddhism.

We, like all living things, want to live on — we want to project ourselves into the future, we have this will to live. And yet, unlike other living things, we have to live in a knowledge that this will is going to be thwarted, that we’re going to die. And so we might have to live with this sense of personal apocalypse — the worst thing that could possibly happen, will. This is what it means to be mortal.

But this very sense of our inevitable mortality might also be a steering wheel for life: Cave reminds us that “busy is a choice” and that how we spend our time shapes who we become:

The American novelist Susan Ertz says, “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” I think there’s a lot of truth in that: Actually, it’s the fear of death rather than the love of life, often, that’s motivating us. If people complain that they don’t have enough time, why do they watch so much TV? It doesn’t seem, actually, when we look at the way people behave, that lack of time is their problem. On the contrary … when you look at how much time we waste, [it seems] that life is already too long — so long that we become complacent and we waste great swathes, so many hours. And, in fact, being conscious of the fact that our time is limited is what makes us really value and appreciate the time that we have.

Cave touches on Tolstoy’s wisdom, observing:

There’s a kind of conspiracy of silence… We, culturally, don’t like to talk about death. I think we need to talk about death because only by talking about our mortality can we understand the lives we’re leading and why we’re leading them the way we’re leading them.

Immortality remains a must-read, and the Ernest Becker book mentioned in the conversation, The Denial of Death, is also very much worth a read.

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