Life Everlasting: Writers and Philosophers Examine the Fear and Folly Behind This Desire

Article excerpt

The Sibyl of Cumae, wooed by Apollo, was offered a year of life for every grain of sand she could gather in one hand. More than a thousand, it turned out. But when she rejected his love, the god took sly revenge. The Sibyl aged in a normal span then spent the remainder of her long days shrivelled and suffering, wishing for death. Swift would reprise the point in Gulliver's Travels: eternal life is not eternal youth, still less, eternal happiness. Be careful what you wish for.

Hence a very human paradox: even if we don't want to live forever, most of us would rather not die. Timor mortis conturbat me, as the medieval poets liked to say. The fear of death confounds me.

Socrates is said to have defined philosophy as learning how to die, suggesting not some deranged death cult but an awareness of the fragility, hence the urgency, of life. We want to live well so that when death comes we will feel ready. Klingons staunchly vow that today is a good day to die. Philosophy can help you get there.

Socrates also argued that it was senseless to fear death, since death is the unknown, simple nothingness. It would be as sensible to fear the condition of being not yet born. This is stalwart thinking but bogus wisdom. That nothingness, the absence of experience, is precisely what we do fear. The outrage of death is that individual consciousness simply comes to an end.

Some people believe it doesn't, of course, though this prospect can pose problems for snobs and racists. "There are grave difficulties about the after-life," a nasty Raymond Chandler character muses. "I don't think I should really enjoy a heaven in which I shared lodgings with a Congo pygmy or a Chinese coolie or a Levantine rug peddler or even a Hollywood producer." Meanwhile, for those unconvinced of post mortem resurrection, what to do?

Legacy, rooted in the Latin legatus, means a commission, any act of passing on. …