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60L’Chaim and Its Limits: Why Not Immortality?https://www.firstthings.com/article/2001/05/lchaim-and-its-limits-why-not-immortality
Tue, 01 May 2001 00:00:00 -0400 You don’t have to be Jewish to drink
, to lift a glass “To Life.” Everyone in his right mind believes that life is good and that death is bad. But Jews have always had an unusually keen appreciation of life, and not only because it has been stolen from them so often and so cruelly. The celebration of life—of
life, not the next one—has from the beginning been central to Jewish ethical and religious sensibilities. In the Torah, “Be fruitful and multiply” is God’s first blessing and first command. Judaism from its inception rejected child-sacrifice and regarded long life as a fitting divine reward for righteous living. At the same time, Judaism embraces medicine and the human activity of healing the sick; from the Torah the rabbis deduced not only permission for doctors to heal, but also the positive obligation to do so. Indeed, so strong is this reverence for life that the duty of
requires that Jews violate the holy Shabbat in order to save a life. Not by accident do we Jews raise our glasses “
Aldous Huxley Brave New World (1932)https://www.firstthings.com/article/2000/03/aldous-huxleybrave-new-world
Wed, 01 Mar 2000 00:00:00 -0500 The urgency of the great political struggles of the twentieth century, successfully waged against totalitarianisms first right and then left, seems to have blinded many people to a deeper truth about the present age: all contemporary societies, the open ones no less than the closed, are traveling briskly in the same utopian direction. All are wedded to the modern technological project; all march eagerly to the drums of progress and fly proudly the banner of modern science; all sing loudly the Baconian anthem, “Conquer nature, relieve mans estate.”
Leading the triumphal procession is modern medicine, the epitome of compassionate humanitarianism, becoming every day ever more powerful in its battle against disease, decay, and death, thanks especially to the astonishing achievements in biomedical science and technology”achievements for which we must surely be grateful. Yet contemplating present and projected advances in genetic and reproductive technologies, in neuroscience and psychopharmacology, and in the development of artificial organs and computer“chip implants for human brains, we now clearly recognize new uses for biotechnical power that soar beyond the traditional medical goals of healing disease and relieving suffering. Human nature itself lies on the operating table, ready for alteration, “enhancement,” and wholesale redesign.
Some transforming powers are already here. The pill. In vitro fertilization. Bottled embryos. Surrogate wombs. Cloning. Genetic screening. Organ harvests. Mechanical spare parts. Chimeras. Brain implants. Ritalin for the young, Viagra for the old, and Prozac for everyone. And, to leave this vale of tears, a little extra morphine accompanied by Muzak. What? You still have troubles? Not to worry. As the vaudevillians used to say, “You aint seen nothin yet!”
Years ago Aldous Huxley saw it coming. More important, he knew what it meant and, in his charming but disturbing novel,
Brave New World
, Huxley made it strikingly visible for all to see.
Brave New World
is not a great book, and, in purely literary terms, even the author found it seriously flawed. Yet, in my experience, its power increases with each rereading, and coming generations of readers should”and I hope will”find it still more compelling. For unlike other frightening futuristic novels of the past century, such as Orwells already dated
, Huxley shows us a dystopia that goes with, rather than against, the human grain”indeed, it is animated by modernitys most humane and progressive aspirations. Following those aspirations to their ultimate realization, Huxley enables us to recognize those less obvious but often more pernicious evils that are inextricably linked to successful attainment of partial goods. And he strongly suggests that we must choose: either our misery“ridden but still richly human world, or the squalid happiness of the biotechnical world to come.
In this satirical novel, Huxley paints human life seven centuries hence, living under the gentle hand of a compassionate humanitarianism that has been rendered fully competent by genetic manipulation, psychopharmacology, hypnopeaedia, and high“tech amusements. At long last, mankind has succeeded in eliminating disease, aggression, war, pain, anxiety, suffering, hatred, guilt, envy, and grief. But this victory comes at a heavy price: homogenization, mediocrity, pacification, spurious contentment, trivial pursuits, shallow attachments, debasement of tastes, and souls without loves or longings.
The Brave New World has achieved prosperity, community, stability, and nigh“universal contentment, only to be peopled by creatures of human shape but of stunted humanity. They consume, fornicate, take “soma” and “violent passion surrogate,” enjoy “Riemann“surface tennis” and “centrifugal bumble“puppy,” and operate the machinery that makes it all possible. They do not read, write, think, love, or govern themselves. Creativity and curiosity, reason and passion, exist only in a rudimentary and mutilated form. Art and science, virtue and religion, family and friendship are all passé. What matters most is present satisfaction: “Never put off till tomorrow the fun you can have today.” Like Midas, brave new man will be cursed to acquire precisely what he wished for only to discover”painfully and too late”that what he wished for is not exactly what he wanted. Or, Huxley implies, worse than Midas, he may be so dehumanized that he will not even recognize that in aspiring to be perfect he is no longer even human.
Huxleys novel is, of course, science fiction. But yesterdays science fiction is rapidly becoming todays fact. Prozac is not yet Huxleys soma; cloning by nuclear transfer or splitting embryos is not exactly Bokanovskification; MTV and virtual“reality parlors are not quite the “feelies”; and our current safe“and“consequenceless sexual practices are not universally as loveless or as empty as in the novel. But the kinships are disquieting, all the more so since our technologies of bio“psycho“engineering are still in their infancy”and it is all too clear what they might look like in their full maturity. Indeed, the cultural changes technology has already wrought among us should make us even more worried than Huxley would have us be.
In Huxleys novel, everyone without exception is genetically programmed and psychologically conditioned, beginning even before birth, under the direction of an omnipotent”albeit benevolent”world state. Accordingly, for Huxley, it is lack of freedom that will be the major price of engineered “perfection,” including the freedom to be unhappy. But the dehumanization he portrays does not really require despotism or external control. To the contrary, precisely because the society of the future will deliver exactly what people most want”health, safety, comfort, plenty, pleasure, peace of mind, and length of days”mankind can reach the same humanly debased condition solely on the basis of free human choice. No need for World Controllers. Just give us the technological imperative, liberal democratic society, compassionate humanitarianism, moral pluralism, and free markets, and we can take ourselves to Brave New World all by ourselves. If you require evidence, just look around.
In our age of cultural unraveling and dissolving moral agreement, it is heartening that readers are still revolted by Huxleys picture of the life to which, absent some moral and religious reawakening, our cherished prejudices will take us. While philosophical essays and moral exhortation are today largely impotent, good literature can”at least for now”capture our impoverished imaginations and thus keep the human flame afflicter.
Leon R. Kass is Addie Clark Harding Professor in the College and the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.
]]> Dehumanization Triumphanthttps://www.firstthings.com/article/1996/08/dehumanization-triumphant
Thu, 01 Aug 1996 00:00:00 -0400R
ecent efforts to legalize physician-assisted suicide and to establish a constitutional “right to die” are deeply troubling events, morally dubious in themselves, extremely dangerous in their likely consequences. The legalization of physician-assisted suicide, ostensibly a measure enhancing the freedom of dying patients, is in fact a deadly license for physicians to prescribe death, free from outside scrutiny and immune from possible prosecution. The manufacture of a “right to die,” ostensibly a gift to those not dying fast enough, is, in fact, the state’s abdication of its duty to protect innocent life and its abandonment especially of the old, the weak, and the poor.
]]> Farmers, Founders, and Fratricide: The Story of Cain andhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/1996/04/002-farmers-founders-and-fratricide-the-story-of-cain-and
Mon, 01 Apr 1996 00:00:00 -0500Once one gets right down to it, the difference between liberals and conservatives traces home to a disagreement about the basic source of human troubles.
]]>Educating Father Abraham:https://www.firstthings.com/article/1994/12/educating-father-abrahamthe-meaning-of-fatherhood
Thu, 01 Dec 1994 00:00:00 -0500 My theme is the education of the patriarch Abraham, Father of Judaism, father of Christianity, father of Islam. God Himself undertakes Abrahams education in order to address and to overcome the natural psychic and social human obstacles to righteous and reverent living, obstacles amply displayed in the pre-Abrahamic stories of Genesis. Abraham, the new man, is to be the founder of a new nation steeped in Gods new way, which this nation is to carry as a light unto all the nations of the world. The new way entails rightful conduct toward and rightful relations with members of ones household, members of the tribe, strangers and members of other nations, and the divine. I have taken as my focus Abrahams education in matters domestic: in the first part of this essay. (
November), the meaning of wife; here, the closely connected meaning of fatherhood. Educating the father of his people means, in the first instance, educating him to be a proper husband and father; for the perpetuation of God’s new way will depend not on a fortuitous succession of naturally virtuous men and women but on the proper rearing of the young in every generation to the task of transmitting their moral and spiritual heritage.
In the first article, we saw how this task of transmission is at the heart of the meaning of husband and wife. Rightly understood, man cleaves to his wife not because she is flesh of his flesh, nor because she is beautiful or because she loves him back, but because she is his chosen, willing, and coequal lifelong partner in self-conscious devotion to the work of perpetuation. Here, we shall look more closely at the work itself, or at least the paternal part of it. We shall look at Abrahams education in fatherhood.
A comparable discussion could, of course, be presented about Sarahs education in motherhood. Central to this tale would be the wondrous birth of Isaac, after a lifetime (ninety years) of infertility, which leaves no doubt that children are a gift, not a maternal product and possession-the latter a dangerous, albeit perfectly natural, belief of womankind, as we learn from Eves proud boasting at the birth of Cain. But this must remain a tale for another day. Our concern here is Abraham, who, like most men, needs much more instruction in these matters than does his wife.
]]>Educating Father Abraham: The Meaning of Wifehttps://www.firstthings.com/article/1994/11/educating-father-abrahamthe-meaning-of-wife
Tue, 01 Nov 1994 00:00:00 -0500 It is not exactly traditional to speak about the education of Abraham. Pious tales of the patriarch regard him as a precocious monotheist even before God calls him, a man who smashed his father’s idols, a man who sprang forth fully pious and knowledgeable about the ways of God. But, in my view, a careful reading of the biblical text shows otherwise: Abraham indeed goes to school, God Himself is his major teacher, and Abraham’s adventures constitute his education, right up to his final exam, the binding of Isaac.
]]> Man and Woman: An Old Storyhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/1991/11/man-and-woman-an-old-story
Fri, 01 Nov 1991 00:00:00 -0500Man and woman. What are they, and why—each alone and both together? How are they alike and how different? How much is difference due to nature, how much to culture? What difference does—and should—the difference make? What do men want of women or women of men? What should they want? Do they really need each other? If so, why? Which beliefs, customs, and institutions governing sexuality best promote their human flourishing?