2 Types of Immortality

What does it mean to desire immortality?

In my dissertation on this topic 2 different types of immortality emerge, each of which can be desired: (1) literally living forever, and (2) living on symbolically, for example in the memories of the living.

Religions like Christianity promise the first kind of immortality, being personally saved and restored in the afterlife forever.  In one part of my dissertation, I show how philosopher John Locke credits Jesus Christ for making immortality the reward of living a good, moral life.  It was by appealing to human beings’ desire for immortality that finally people were willing to follow a philosopher’s moral doctrine (Locke likens Jesus to a philosopher).  Do what this philosopher tells you, and you will be eternally rewarded.  This was a game changer for philosophers generally, who had hardly been listened to previously.  In many cases, in fact, philosophers had been persecuted (Jesus is a prime example).  Now, if you could connect your philosophic doctrine to Christ’s successfully made promise of immortality, people will listen — all because people have a desire for immortality.

But the desire for immortality can manifest itself in other ways.  Having children perpetuates your presence in the world; having grandchildren and great-grandchildren even more so.  In Genesis 22:17 God promises Abraham “I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies.”  The divine’s gift to Abraham here is a symbolic form of immortality; why else should he care?  Inventing something — a new gadget that everybody uses — is another extension of yourself.  For example, take Steve Jobs’ memory — and even when his name is forgotten, his influence — which will clearly endure due to his inventions.  Politicians and other people of prestige carefully cultivate their legacies, trying to work their way into history books.  We carve our names into trees and finger our initials into wet cement.  Why our names?  We also extend this desire for immortality to those we love, naming charities and scholarships in their honor.  We erect monuments, dedicate books, and name our children in honor of the dead, to extend their memory.  These all are vehicles by which the significance or our own lives and that of others extends down through time.  Indeed, one of the worst things you can wish on a person is to be forgotten, for their memory to be extinguished.  This list goes, and you can probably think of some great examples yourself (please send them to me when you do!).

Of course, these two broad types of immortality are not mutually exclusive.  Anyone can pursue any or all of the types of immortality, if they have a strong enough desire to.  But the distinction between literal and symbolic immortality is a meaningful one, and I think very important to political theory.  Since this last point requires a bit of explanation (it involves Plato and the Declaration of Independence), I’ll leave it for a later post.

3 thoughts on “2 Types of Immortality

  1. “living on symbolically, for example in the memories of the living.”

    It’s just a way to copy with the condemnation of death, a way to comfort yourself, and was a useful belief when we were powerless in front of it. Now we are just few decades far from anti-ageing biotechnologies, as Dr. Aubrey De Grey claims (He’s the chief scence officer of the SENS Foundation).

    So, whoever aims to get immortal, can totally focus on the second type and call the first type legacy, glory or use a proper word for it.

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      • Thanks Omar, as I mentioned to you on Twitter, I’m skeptical of the radical life extension’s realization. Nevertheless, my point is about the human desire for immortality, and that this desire manifests itself in a multitude of ways precisely because there is no known solution to the problem of death. John Dunne, in The City of the Gods, uses the Epic of Gilgamesh as a way of understanding the persistent human desire to find such a solution. If we recall the alchemists, for example, the effort to solve the problem of death has always found its optimists, and civilizations have always thought that they were close to a solution, yet such a solution has always exceeded our grasp. It all traces back to the human desires, and symbolic means of satisfying it should not be discredited, because absent an afterlife, they are all we have.

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