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.