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The immortality bias: Further reading on the 4 stories we tell ourselves about death

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In a talk at TEDxBratislava, philosopher Steven Cave turns his eye to four stories about death that circulate over and over again. His suggestions of where you can see each story in action. Photo: TEDxBratislava

At TEDxBratislava, I shared 4 stories about death that have circulated over and over again, across cultures and time. Below, notes on where you can see each story reflected. Photo: TEDxBratislava

We each live in the shadow of a personal apocalypse: the knowledge that — someday, somehow — we will die. It’s a terrifying thought, and so we look for a way out. In my talk from TEDxBratislava (and in my book Immortality) Stephen Cave: The 4 stories we tell ourselves about death Stephen Cave: The 4 stories we tell ourselves about death , I walk through four stories that people have told throughout cultures and time, as a way to manage this very real fear. Here, some of the myths, books, movies and articles where you can see each of these stories reflected. I’ll end with a fifth story — I call it the “wisdom narrative” — an alternative to these oft-repeated tales.

1. The Elixir story

Almost every known culture has legends of a magic pill or potion that can ward off ageing and disease. Alchemists in both East and West, for example, believed they could brew an elixir of life, while the Spaniard Juan Ponce de León believed he would find the fountain of youth in Florida. Jorge Luis Borges wonderfully satirises this quest in his short story ‘The Immortal’, which details the terrible consequences of finding the water “that cleanses men of death.”

The idea of being immune to death is one that fills us with hope and dread in equal measure. In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift gives us the Struldbrugs, who never die but continue to age, so becoming shriveled and senile. This is a retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Tithonus, the tragic prince granted immortality by Zeus, but not eternal youth.

The most popular recent exploration of the elixir myth is in the Harry Potter books and films. From the Philosopher’s Stone to the Horcruxes, the series asks whether we should accept death or rebel against it.

Despite warnings from myth and literature, the quest for the elixir continues. The historian David Boyd Haycock chronicles the many attempts of serious science to defeat aging and disease in his book The Mortal Coil: A Short History of Living Longer, or you can watch one of the leading advocates of a modern day elixir, Aubrey de Grey, in his TED Talk.

2. The Resurrection story

Given the success rate of the average elixir, it is a good idea to have a back up plan — and that is just what the Resurrection Story offers: it promises that if you die, you can nonetheless physically rise to live again.

The most influential story of resurrection can of course be found in the Gospels. If you’ve not read them for a while, you might be surprised — for example, by the passage that tries to explain away rumours that the disciples themselves took Jesus’s body (Matthew 28:11-15).

But the story of Jesus was by no means the first legend of a god-figure who died and rose again, so defeating death for himself and the rest of us. The ancient Egyptian god Osiris, for example, did the same as the first mummy. Spectacular artifacts from the three thousand year cult he inspired can be seen in museums across the world, especially the British Museum in London, the Neues Museum in Berlin, the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York or of course Cairo’s own Egyptian Museum.

Whereas some hope the gods will resurrect them to live again, others hope that scientists will do it. Like the Elixir Story, this theme has inspired classic works of fiction, such as Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, in which we read how the eponymous young scientist “on a dreary night of November,” manages to “infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing” that lies in front of him.

Like modern day mummies, those hoping to be resurrected by science go to great lengths to preserve as much as possible of their bodies. Their preferred method though is not balms and bandages, but the deep freeze — a process known as cryonics. A wonderful exploration of the troubles this can lead to can be found in Woody Allen’s 1973 film Sleeper. Or for an account of one man’s determination to be frozen, read my Aeon magazine article, “Frozen Dead Guys,” on cryonics. 

3. The Soul Story

The majority of people on earth believe that they have one, and this belief plays a central role in most religions.

One of the earliest attempts to prove the existence of the soul can be found in Plato’s account of the death of Socrates in the Phaedo, in which the philosopher explains his belief in the afterlife before calmly drinking deadly poison.

Early Christians preferred to believe they would attain immortality by being physically resurrected, but as time went by and the Last Judgement failed to materialise, more and more turned to the Platonic doctrine of the soul. The Christian version of what happens to this soul once it departs the body is most vividly expressed in Dante’s Divine Comedy, recently newly translated into English by Clive James.

Many other religious and cultural traditions subscribe to some idea of a soul — for example, Hinduism. In the short, powerful text the Bhagavad Gita, the god Krishna tells us how, “Just as a man casts off worn out clothing and accepts new ones, even so the embodied soul discards worn out bodies and enters into different ones.”

Buddhism has a similar belief in reincarnation — the movement of the soul from one body to another — although it confusingly also teaches that there is no permanent soul or self. The film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which won the Palme d’Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, is a charming exploration of these themes.

The dark side of the Soul Story is when these spirits of the departed come back to haunt us. Ghost stories come close to being a human universal, found in every culture. One of the most enjoyable — and appropriate to this time of year — is Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

4. The Legacy Story

The Legacy Story is about living on through the echo you leave in the world, like the great hero Achilles, who sacrificed his life at Troy in order to win immortal fame. The film Troy with Brad Pitt in the lead role nicely captures Achilles’ yearning to be the most renowned of heroes. Or you could read Homer’s original The Iliad and The Odyssey, which contains a more nuanced assessment of the quest for fame.

But nowhere is the futility of this quest more pithily expressed than in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1818 poem Ozymandias, which contains these lines about a traveller finding a ruined colossus in the desert:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

There are, however, other ways of leaving a legacy than becoming famous — for example, by leaving a biological legacy. In his book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins describes how the real immortals are our genes, whose lifespans can be measured in millions of years.

Or our legacy might be our contribution to a much greater whole — for example, Gaia, the entire web of life. This is the view taken by Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan in their excellent book What is Life?.

An Alternative: The Wisdom Story

None of these immortality stories is entirely convincing — that is why there are four, as the flaws in each lead people, or sometimes entire civilisations, from one to the next.

But there is an alternative — a fifth story that can also be found weaving its way through history. Its oldest expression is in the fantastic Epic of Gilgamesh, a dramatic story of one king’s pursuit of immortality and ultimate reconciliation with death.

Coming to terms with mortality isn’t easy. It helps if we first recognise that immortality probably isn’t all it’s cracked up to be — as Borges’s short story The Immortal, mentioned above, expresses. This theme is also at the heart of Karel Čapek’s play The Makropulos Affair, which can also be enjoyed as an opera (with the same name) by Leoš Janáček.

The next step is to realise that we need not fear death — something first expressed by the Greek philosopher Epicurus, whose few surviving writings are well worth reading. “While we are, death is not; when death is come, we are not,” he wrote. “Death is thus of no concern either to the living or to the dead.”

The final step is to cultivate those virtues that help us to appreciate the time we have, rather than worry about it being finite. It can help, for example, to focus on the present, a theme common to many wisdom traditions; or to focus on other people, as the philosopher Bertrand Russell put it: “the fear of death is somewhat abject and ignoble. The best way to overcome it — so at least it seems to me — is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life,” (from his essay ‘How to Grow Old’ in Portraits From Memory And Other Essays).

And the third virtue is gratitude, expressed beautifully in this TED talk by the Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast. We shouldn’t waste our time worrying about our time being limited, but should rather, as the Greek Epicurean Philodemus put it, “receive each additional moment of time in a manner appropriate to its value; as if one were having an incredible stroke of luck.”

Stephen Cave is a philosopher and writer. Read much more about him »