Wednesday’s Book Review: “Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization”

Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization. By Stephen Cave. New York: Crown, 2012.

How might we live forever? Become a vampire? Download your memory into a supercomputer and become a silicon-based life form? Enter the kingdom of God, paradise in some religions, or become a god in your own right if you follow the Latter-day Saint belief system? Something else? Written in an exceptionally accessible manner, Immortality: the Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization explores this quest for life everlasting. Stephen Cave brings to bear both his Ph.D. in philosophy and his experience as a professional writer to this task.

Cave argues that there was only four ways in which humanity has sought to achieve immortality. The first of these he calls “Staying Alive.” It has manifested itself in a variety of ways over history. This might be the mythical search for the “Fountain of Youth,” the belief in alchemy, and the embracing of transhumanism. In this last instance, Immortality presents the most interesting observations. Life extension might take many forms, ranging from healthy lifestyle choices to interventions with drugs, technology, and other countermeasures. It might also take the form of freezing a head of a body in anticipation of restoring them to full life at some future time.

A second approach is a belief in “Resurrection,” a common attribute of all religious traditions anywhere in the world. It might take the form of physical resurrection of a body on Earth, a reincarnation, or any number of other possibilities. Certainly Christianity, Islam, and many other religious beliefs incorporate this ideal.

The third aspect of the search for immortality suggests that the “Soul” lives on absent the body. This also takes a decidedly religious approach, but not entirely so, for such philosophical traditions as the Transcendentalists developed concepts of the “Oversoul” and the great chain of being.

Finally, regardless of one’s religious or philosophical beliefs, Cave focuses on a fourth quest for immortality, one that he calls the search for “Legacy.” In its most simple form, parents desire that a little spark of themselves live on in the lives of their children and other descendents throughout the generations. It also drives much of the quest for fame, which is not just about attaining possessions, power, and money but also about being remembered as a great man or woman long after they are gone. The actors of history virtually all have this desire for be remembered as a part of the psyche.

Immortality: the Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization is an enjoyable and sometimes enlightening meditation on the nature of death and the desire to subvert this most fundamental aspect of all human experience. It is philosophy written in a breezy manner, and history presented in a simple way. Don’t look to Immortality for a scholarly treatise on this important aspect of the experience of all living things. It is essentially, “once-over-lightly.” Treat it instead as an introduction to a fascinating area of human concern.

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