This is a part of my study of Kass that I’m posting today instead of saying more about Rousseau . . .

The thought of Enlightenment thinkers such as Bacon, Descartes and Condorcet was that only indefinite longevity could transform the world in a genuinely humane way. With it, the progress of modern science wouldn’t be experienced as progress at all. Human lives are distorted by a fear of death, and that fear accelerates in the modern world with the atrophying of various illusions about personal immortality. That fear would recede, Condorcet explained, if human lives were long enough that it would be impossible to count their days. The individual would no longer be distorted by the prospect of dying, and the result would be an unprecedented birth of peace, freedom, and unobsessive enjoyment.

The unalienated existence Marxists promised with the coming of communism could only be possible if people were no longer moved by a scarcity of time, by the fairly imminent prospect of no longer being at all. As long as they have that scarcity in mind, they’ll be stuck with living obsessive, screwed up lives.

Indefinite longevity finally made sense as a real possibility with the coming of regenerative medicine, with the promise that perhaps every bodily part could be replaced by a new and even better one. The promise here isn’t for immortality. An old body, like an old car, will eventually stop working, but not at any particular time. No matter how old you are, you don’t experience any definite limit to how long you’ll be around.

This modern promise is countered, of course, by plenty of premodern wisdom. Psalm 90, for example, ask s God “to teach us to number our days” in the name of wisdom. The 20th century critic of techno-liberation Hans Jonas wrote that “a nonnegotiable limit to our expected time is necessary for each of us as the incentive to number our days and make them count.” Natural necessity used to be the source of that limit. Can we really replace natural necessity with a nonnegotiable, pro-death act of will? Leon Kass is surely right to say that the effectual truth of indefinite longevity will be to increase our hostility to our natural mortality. And so it’s hard to see how or why our wills would suddenly shift to the side of “natural death.” It’s the natural inevitable “gradual descent into aged frailty,” Kass writes, that “weans us from attachment to life and renders death more acceptable.”

But what is no longer inevitable and annihilates my very being can hardly be regarded as acceptable. Kass also echoes Jonas in his claim that numbering our days is the source of our “creative depth” and moral seriousness; the scarcity of time is what causes us to rank our pursuits. Counting is what makes them count. The immortality of the Greek Gods (and the quasi-immortality of today’s Vampires of films and TV) was the source of lives we have to regard as not worth living. But it seems to be above our human pay-grade, so to speak, to be compelled to actually choose mortality as a condition of love, greatness, meaningful work, poetic genius, and living virtuously with what we really know. Even Vampires, to say the least, continue to be quite conflicted over this superhuman choice.

Articles by Peter Lawler


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