On March 17 at 7:00 pm, Ill be giving a lecture at Georgetown Universitys ICC Auditorium called "Living with the Dead: Why Cities Need Cemeteries and Nations Need Memorials. " The respondents will be the New Criterion s Roger Kimball , National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia , and the architectural historian Denis McNamara . The lecture is open to the public, with a reception to follow, so come if youre in Washington and having nothing better to do on St. Patricks Day.
The theme is a specific application to civil architecture and urban design of the work I did in ” Death & Politics, ” my essay this summer on the centrality of death in human activity. Thanks to responses from careful readers. Ive been thinking a great deal about such applications. It occurred to me recently, for instance, that there might be another line to follow toward my conclusion, through what we might call the argument from biotechnology ¯or, rather, the argument made possible by recent worry about the "immortality project" of contemporary biotechnology.
Take, for a beginning, the loathsome thought that we seem to require, in a quite literal way, the death of other people. Millions of babies are born every year on a finite earth; unless some other people die first, we will die: starved by their consumption, suffocated by their crowding, poisoned by their excrement.
This thought will not bear much analysis, of course. Perhaps, as Hegel put it, "each self-consciousness aims at the destruction and death of the other." But the fantasy of a world in which I alone am mortal merely inverts the more common fantasy of a world in which I alone am im mortal¯and it is even more unlikely (although a version of the thought may be present in the mind of certain suicides). If something like immortality, or even a greatly extended life, were a long-standing reality, we would be compelled to live in completely different ways than we do at present¯including, presumably, the way we deal with the physical and medical pressures placed on us by other lives.
Still, there is a truth behind this otherwise false imagining: The private and public arrangements of human beings are all created by, and remain tied to, the fact of mortality; the social and political changes necessary to accommodate something like immortality are so massive, it would be impossible to call the result human. "To be immortal would not be just to continue life as we mortals now know it, only forever. The new immortals, in the decisive sense, would not be like us at all," as Leon Kass puts it.
The promises made by eugenic biotechnology have forced some consideration of this point in recent years, and several thoughtful analysts have noted the likely "tragedy of the commons" involved in the immortality project of contemporary science. The advantages that biotechnology may offer to the individual will dissipate when the results are widely available; what might be a gain when held by few people will prove a loss when held by many. Francis Fukuyama’s 2002 book, Our Posthuman Future , is particularly good at enumerating the political and social consequences, were the promises of the biotechnological revolution ever fulfilled.
I am not sure, however, that we have explored everything suggested by this realization that the joys of physical immortality depend in certain ways on the failure of others to share it. The story Plato tells in The Republic about the Ring of Gyges is a classic presentation of the moral problems created by the realization that the best of possible worlds, for me, would be a world in which I have powers that others lack.
In the case of Gyges, it is the power of invisibility. In the case of the Greek gods¯at play, as Homer shows them in The Iliad , on the battlefields of Troy¯it is a range of powers, but particularly immortality in a world in which all others are mortal. Indeed, the Greek gods suggest a parallel to the modern promises of biotechnology: The best of all possible worlds, for me, is a world in which I live forever while others die.
In one sense, this is obviously wrong. No one who has experienced real grief, or offered his own life for another’s, would agree with the proposition. For that matter, the gods do not appear reliable human role models when they amuse themselves in a world in which they alone will not die. And so, in The Odyssey , Homer shows Odysseus rejecting the immortality that Calypso offers him.
But, in another sense, my immortality is already implicit in most of my behavior¯ everyone’s immortality is implicit in most of what he does. For although we know we will die, we lack the power to imagine ourselves dead. As Freud pointed out, if death is nonbeing, the very attempt to imagine being dead contradicts itself, since we have to imagine ourselves still existing as the observer of our nonexistence. "Death cannot be lived," as Wittgenstein famously put the thought: My death is not an event in my life, and the only death that could be an event in my life is the death of someone else.
More work is needed to clarify this distinction between the death of the self and the death of others, and the parallel distinction between their emblematic emotions of anxiety and grief. But here it may be enough to note that if biotechnological immortality demands enormous, even inhuman, changes in how I live, that cannot come from the fact that I will not die, for I have always lived my life in many ways as though I were immortal.
The changes would be forced on me, rather, from the new fact that many others will now not die¯which is, in its way, yet another proof that our private and public arrangements depend on the death of other people.