How long would you like to live? One hundred no longer seems too greedy. In 1983, the Queen sent 3,000 congratulatory telegrams to centenarians. By 2016 she was sending 14,500 cards. One in three children born that year are expected to make it to three figures. Should you receive the second royal card that is sent out for reaching 105, a recent study suggested that every year that followed you’d have a 50-50 chance of surviving — better odds than an 80-year-old. If you made it to 123, you’d beat a record held by a French woman called Jeanne Calment who died in 1997. (Born in 1875, Calment was a supercentenarian whose age was well-documented).
For many, that’s not good enough. Maverick scientists such as Aubrey de Grey are trying to find a “cure” for senescence, also known as biological ageing or gradual deterioration of functional characteristics, while transhumanists (movement that advocates the transformation of the human condition by making sophisticated technologies greatly enhance human intellect and physiology), are looking to avoid the problem of your body packing up by packing you up and sending it to something more durable, like a virtual reality.
It’s long been fashionable to dismiss these longings as naive and foolish. Human beings are mortal animals. The wise embrace that, and with it the inevitability of their demise. For these sage souls, extreme longevity is a curse disguised as a gift. In the great German Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire, angels tire of their lofty, invulnerable lives and long to become mortal. In Karel Capek’s famous play The Makropulos Affair, adapted into an opera by Janaek, a woman who discovers the elixir of eternal life is bored to death — unfortunately for her, not literally — after a mere 300 years.
These realists understand that the nature of human experience is essentially one of transience and impermanence. This is captured perfectly in the Japanese thought concept ‘mono no aware’. Often translated as ‘the pathos of things’, I take it to be the sense that every experience, even the most wonderful, is coloured by a sadness that it will not and could never last. Being aware of this does not diminish the experience but intensifies it.
Take this seriously and you can see how the idea of living forever is incoherent. If your body could be kept going for a thousand years, in what sense would the you that exists now still be around then? It would be more like a descendant than it would a continuation of you. I sometimes find it hard to identify with my teenage self, and that was less than 40 years ago. If I change, I eventually become someone else. If I don’t, life becomes stagnant and loses its direction.
It is one thing to accept our mortality as a necessary part of being embodied beings who live in time. But it is quite another to romanticise death or consider it to be no bad thing at all. Immortality might be a foolish goal but a longer mortality certainly isn’t. My attitude to death is therefore similar to Augustine’s attitude towards chastity. Give me chastity and continence, but not yet, the saint said. Yes, I want to be mortal, but please — not yet.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Julian Baggini is a prominent British author, public intellectual and philosopher.