Vitalia had discovered the secret to eternal life. Now she vowed to destroy it. Two hundred years ago, she had been given the formula for an elixir of immortality by a certain Dr Makropulos. Young and foolish, she had prepared and drunk it. Now she cursed her greed for life. Friends, lovers, and relatives had grown old and died, leaving her alone. With no death pursuing her, she lacked all drive and ambition, and all the projects she started seemed pointless. She had grown bored and weary, and now just longed for the grave.
Indeed, the quest for extinction had been the one goal which had given some shape and purpose to her life over the last half century. Now she finally had the antidote to the elixir. She had taken it a few days ago and could feel herself rapidly weakening. All that remained now was for her to make sure that no one else was condemned to life as she had been. The elixir itself had long ago been destroyed. Now, she took the piece of paper that specified the formula and tossed it into the fire. As she watched it burn, for the first time in decades, she smiled.
Baggini, J., The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten, 2005, p. 58.
Ugh. I may not be bored with life, but I am very bored of this fear of boredom. (A small tip of the hat to Baggini though for naming his protagonist Vitalia since vita is the latin word for life. That entertained me.) We have plenty of examples of old people with highly developed personality traits for curiosity and openness to new experiences to know that boredom is not a predetermined outcome of aging. Boredom only happens to those who have given up on living with a purpose. And of course one solitary immortal would become very sad over time—we're a very social species! But if all our friends and family were living agelessly..... I would like to say more, but there is far too much to say about this topic to be contained in a single blog post. In fact, the questions that surround the prospect of immortal life make up almost the entire structure of the plot for my next novel. As such, I've done a lot of research on the previous treatments of this topic, which you can get a sense of here in an early paragraph from my upcoming book:
Since the first moment we became aware of death, mankind has dreamt of defeating it. From our oldest legends to our latest pop fiction, we have created innumerable heroes and villains who have sought to cheat death in one way or another. From Gilgamesh walking underwater to find his plant that granted youth, from Knights of the Round Table searching for the Holy Grail, and from Ponce de Leon exploring the West for a Fountain of Youth, we have seen epic quests for immortality fail. The curses of bargaining for everlasting life were shown to us by Tithonus who received immortality from Zeus, but without everlasting youth; by Dorian Gray whose portrait portrayed each misdeed of his misguided steps with permanent scars on his painted self; and by Voldemort, who splintered his soul and lost all the pieces when his horcruxes were destroyed by Harry. We wrestled with boredom for hundreds of years alongside Ann Rice’s lonely vampires, Jorge Luis Borges’ inert City, and the existential angst of Simon de Beauvoir’s Raimon Fosca. And of course our highest heroes of all—the gods of our religions—all promised us eternal bliss in the myths and teachings of Jesus, Buddha, and Muhammad. For as long as immortality has been out of our reach, we have striven for it mightily and learned much from our poets and priests about what it might be like if we obtained it. Now science has placed it in our grasp and we must become ready to deal with all these pitfalls using the wisdom of the ages.
These works I listed are just a few of the most famous ones considering immortality though. It's a popular subject! Perhaps the best treatment I've seen cataloguing the worries and possibilities that arise during the quest for long life came in the recent non-fiction book by Jonathan Weiner called, Long For This World: The Strange Science of Immortality.
For a taster of what's in there, you can watch an excellent TED talk by
Aubrey de Grey called "A roadmap to end aging." de Grey is featured heavily in Weiner's book as he's such a strong and charismatic force in the current fight for immortality. de Grey's 22-minute talk (linked below) displays this charisma well and his arguments have influenced my thoughts on this subject heavily. So much so, that the topic became the final entry of my ten Tenets:
10. Evolution describes the rules that govern the way that life survives. The end product of evolution therefore would be immortal life. Humans may have the intellectual capacity to achieve this end.
When I wrote my blog post for this tenet, I titled it, "Do Evolution and Philosophy Point Towards Immortality?" and this final paragraph from that blog answers that question with an obvious rhetorical one:
We have longed for this goal [of immortality] since the first comprehension of death. Our myths tell tales of it, our gods exhibit it, our artists tell cautionary tales about it, our scientists strive to create it. Surely we can admit that deep down we do want this, even if it's just for one more day at a time. Maybe not when the vagaries of existence wear us down over the years until the struggle becomes too much for our imperfect bodies, but while we are truly alive, we never want that to end. All life feels that way. And if we can understand our bodies and our environment to the point where we can engineer a permanence of that spirit - why wouldn't we?
Of course, that's a big *if* that I'm asking for. An understanding of our bodies and our environment commensurate with the undertaking of living for hundreds or thousands of years would be an incredible thing. Perhaps, as this opening epigraph for my next novel tells us though, the massive wisdom required for this massive undertaking would be available once we started the journey.
Reason itself does not work instinctively, but requires trial, practice, and instruction in order gradually to progress from one level of insight to another. Therefore a single man would have to live excessively long in order to learn to make full use of all his natural capacities. --Immanuel Kant
But with the ability that humankind has evolved to hold and share culture down through the ages, I'd like to think it won't require a single man to live an excessively long time to learn the lessons necessary for immortal life not to be a condemnation. I'd like to think those lessons have accumulated and are already known to us. But you'll have to wait for me to complete my next novel to see exactly why I think that. Since this week's post generated more (and better) comments than almost anything else I've put up here before, I'd better get to it!
In the meantime, for more in this subject, watch Aubrey de Grey's TED talk: