We all know we will die, yet we cannot possibly comprehend it: an inevitability that cannot possibly be inevitable. This is the “Mortality Paradox,” and, according to Stephen Cave’s fantastic short book, Immortality, it underlies everything—from art to biology to civilization itself.
Cave, a PhD in metaphysics and a former diplomat for the British Foreign Service, structures the book around four “immortality narratives,” as he calls them—roughly four threads weaving through the history of the world:
- Living Forever: the way humans have tried to prevent themselves from dying, stretching on their lives more and more;
- Resurrection: the idea that humans could be brought back from the dead;
- Soul: the idea that the soul, or some part of humanity, lives on forever in some capacity; and
- Legacy: the concept that we can live forever through our children, our works, the memory, or whatever we left behind.
It is a good structure—and seems like it should have been obvious as soon as he sets it out, which is often the mark of brilliance. The drive for continued existence, in whatever its form, Cave writes, sets the living apart. His prose on this point is good enough that it deserves to be quoted at length:
The determination to survive and reproduce—to extend into the future—is the one thing that all life forms have in common. The mightiest mountain passively allows its own erosion, no different from the grain of sand washed over by the sea. But the tiniest organism will fight with all it has against the assaults of elements and predators—against the descent into disorder that otherwise characterizes the universe.
Every immortality question is “a direct consequence of our long evolutionary legacy,” Cave says, from the attempts of Nefertiti and Akhentaten in ancient Egypt to promulgate their images and the one god Aten, to the quest of a life-giving elixir by the first Qin Emperor, to Linus Pauling trying to eradicate his wife’s cancer. Cave fills the book with other such examples of every narrative, perhaps most notably with a long section on Alexander the Great and his (probably psychotic) mother Olympias. But Cave also discusses the Apostle Paul, the Singularity, curing cancer, cryonics, Copernicus—and he quotes Nietzsche, Einstein, and many leading psychologists and anthropologists to aid his argument. None of this, however, is stultifying, because they always serve the broader narrative—compelling as it is—along the way.
All four narratives ultimately fail; immortality, in whatever its form, Cave concludes, is impossible. If you weren’t convinced of this already, you probably won’t be by this book—Cave is not interested in exhaustively disproving every opposing theory or idea. The exception is perhaps resurrection, which Cave spends time refuting and discussing all of the myriad logical inconsistencies. (Perhaps no surprise, then, that many Christians, whose religion actually claims a belief in physical resurrection, don’t really believe it themselves, and prefer to think it is merely the soul that continues on to the afterlife.)
Immortality is one of those shorter nonfiction books that is a compelling page-to-page read. (It had me hooked as much as The Lost City of Z or The Devil in the White City did). It also makes one feel silly after reading, for never quite having thought through each of the four immortality narratives to their end—but, as they are hardwired into our very survival, perhaps one must realize the difficulty of militating against millions of years of natural selection. Cave’s final statements—about what his argued lack of immortality means for our present lives—are predictable, but nonetheless meaningful following his imaginative exploration. (Spinoza, as Cave is probably well aware, was there a long time ago: “the free man thinks of nothing less than of death.”)
The notion of immortality is a fundamental problem on which all culture as we know it is based. It leads to many complications and imperfections, but without it what we know of and love about the world would cease to exist. “The problem is that our culture is based on our striving for immortality,” Cave wrote last year for the New York Times. ” It shapes what we do and what we believe; it has inspired us to found religions, write poems and build cities. If we were all immortal, the motor of civilization would sputter and stop.” It was a shame this book stopped after only 270 pages. I could have kept reading Cave discuss these concepts—and I know the pun here is obvious—forever.