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Being Human: Readings from the President's Council on Bioethics

Chapter 7: Why Not Immortality?

In the previous chapter, we saw how renewal—having children—is one response to our finitude. Another response, though, would be to conquer the effects of time and continue life, either much longer than is now possible, or even indefinitely. For this—for immortality—human beings have longed since the beginning of recorded history, and for all we know, longer. For many, this longing is to be satisfied in a promised life hereafter. For many others, it is to be satisfied here on earth, by means of technological progress.

Just how far biomedical technology can take us in the direction of bodily immortality remains to be seen. Yet we need not wait for this promise to mature to consider what it would mean to live forever, or even just to live significantly longer than we do now. Our present lives are largely defined by our awareness that we will die, and die some time within the approximately four-score limit natural to our species. How might unending life, or even significantly longer life, affect us? Would it make a difference whether we continued to age, or remained youthful in our additional years? And what about our children? How would our own immortality, or the great lengthening of the lives we live now, affect our relations with those we expect to follow us? Surely the intergenerational effects of profound changes in the human lifespan would go beyond costlier Social Security payrolls.

Our readings in this chapter consider all these questions and more. They begin, appropriately, with a direct consideration of the existential problem. In our first excerpt, the hero of Homer’s Odyssey confronts a stark choice between human life and immortality in paradise. What might human life—with its perils, shortcomings, and culmination in the grave—have to place on the scales against deathless perfection? In our second excerpt, from the Book of Revelation, we are shown a competing vision: a glimpse of heaven, presented as a new Jerusalem, in which death itself has passed away and all human suffering is redeemed.

Our next three excerpts address the fear of death. First, the Roman poet Lucretius, consistent with his materialist philosophy, attempts to dispose of the fear of death by confronting the facts about it, in an excerpt from On the Nature of Things. Next, Francis Bacon attempts the same task but goes further, adding reasons why one might welcome death. In the last of these three, a letter by the Stoic philosopher Seneca offers advice on preparing oneself mentally to “[meet] death cheerfully.”

Our next four excerpts consider immortality. First, an excerpt from the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh features a hero who travels to the land of the gods in search of endless life. There he is counseled to abandon his quest in favor of a finite human life. Next, the hero of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels discovers a land where some do live forever, and is disabused of his notions about what such a life might be like. After this, the heroine of a contemporary children’s novel, Tuck Everlasting, meets a family of immortals who both differ from and resemble Swift’s. Finally, modernist American poet e. e. cummings celebrates a naturalistic view of what it might mean to live forever.

We conclude with five meditations on death itself. Philosopher Hans Jonas begins these readings with his essay on “The Burden and Blessing of Mortality.” Next, Mark Twain, in the final chapter of his Autobiography, is compelled by the loss of a beloved child to confront death squarely for what it is; his judgment of it may surprise readers. In two famous poems—“Fern Hill” and “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”—Welsh poet Dylan Thomas ponders the postures toward mortality typical of the young and the old. Three classical Japanese poets—Murasaki Shikibu, Sôku, and Dogen—consider the relationship between death and beauty. Lastly, William Shakespeare, in his twelfth sonnet, questions whether that which is destined to die can be beautiful at all, and identifies only one “defense” against “Time’s scythe.”


Sample Reading

Excerpt from

Gulliver’s Travels

by Jonathan Swift

In Jonathan Swift’s best-known novel, the protagonist, Gulliver, recalls his travels to fantastical foreign lands. In the following excerpt, Gulliver recounts his visit to Luggnagg, where every few years a child is born with a distinctive mark that signifies he or she will never die.

Until he went to Luggnagg, Gulliver had regarded death as “the universal calamity of human nature.” This view changes when he learns the truth about the immortal “struldbrugs.”

When Gulliver first learns about the struldbrugs from mortal Luggnaggians, he is “struck with inexpressible delight.” Prompted by them to describe how he would have lived, had he been one, he imagines perpetual study, ever-growing wisdom, service to humanity, and the comfortable fellowship of his own kind. His interlocutors laugh and set him straight. Though they are immortal, the struldbruggs enjoy neither perpetual youth nor perpetual prosperity and health. They live anything but enviable lives.

When Gulliver imagines himself as an immortal, he sees himself growing to accept the ongoing loss of mortal acquaintances with as little regret as mortals feel for the withering of annual flowers. He also sees himself remaining engaged in solving the problems of the human race. Is he realistic in imagining that these two attitudes could coexist?

Were the struldbrugs to remain healthy and prosperous as they aged, would they necessarily be happy? Does Gulliver’s interpreter fully understand what ails them?

Marriages among struldbruggs are dissolved when the spouses reach eighty, and the only mention made of the children of these marriages is that they take their inheritances at that time (and are themselves likely to be mortal). What might the experiences of the struldbrugs suggest about the relation between marriage, children, and mortality?

Mortal Luggnaggians are human; are the struldbrugs? If not, what crucial human attributes do they lack?


The Luggnaggians are a polite and generous people, and although they are not without some share of that pride which is peculiar to all eastern countries, yet they shew themselves courteous to strangers, especially such who are countenanced by the court. I had many acquaintances among persons of the best fashion, and being always attended by my interpreter, the conversation we had was not disagreeable.

One day, in much good company, I was asked by a person of quality, whether I had seen any of their struldbrugs, or immortals. I said I had not; and desired he would explain to me what he meant by such an appellation, applied to a mortal creature. He told me, that sometimes, though very rarely, a child happened to be born in a family with a red circular spot in the forehead, directly over the left eye-brow, which was an infallible mark that it should never die. The spot, as he described it, was about the compass of a silver three-pence, but in the course of time grew larger, and changed its colour; for at twelve years old it became green, so continued till five and twenty, then turned to a deep blue; at five and forty it grew coal black, and as large as an English shilling; but never admitted any farther alteration. He said these births were so rare, that he did not believe there could be above eleven hundred struldbrugs of both sexes in the whole kingdom, of which he computed about fifty in the metropolis, and, among the rest, a young girl born, about three years ago; that these productions were not peculiar to any family, but a mere effect of chance; and the children of the struldbrugs themselves were equally mortal with the rest of the people.

I freely own myself to have been struck with inexpressible delight upon hearing this account: and the person who gave it me happening to understand the Balnibarbian language, which I spoke very well, I could not forbear breaking out into expressions, perhaps a little too extravagant. I cried out as in a rapture: “Happy nation, where every child hath at least a chance of being immortal! Happy people, who enjoy so many living examples of ancient virtue, and have masters ready to instruct them in the wisdom of all former ages! But happiest beyond all comparison are those excellent struldbrugs, who, born exempt from that universal calamity of human nature, have their minds free and disengaged, without the weight and depression of spirits caused by the continual apprehension of death.” I discovered my admiration that I had not observed any of these illustrious persons at court; the black spot on the forehead being so remarkable a distinction, that I could not have easily overlooked it; and it was impossible that his Majesty, a most judicious prince, should not provide himself with a good number of such wise and able councilors. Yet perhaps the virtue of those reverend sages was too strict for the corrupt and libertine manners of a court. And we often find by experience, that young men are too opinionative and volatile to be guided by the sober dictates of their seniors. However, since the king was pleased to allow me access to his royal person, I was resolved, upon the very first occasion, to deliver my opinion to him on this matter freely, and at large, by the help of my interpreter; and whether he would please to take my advice or no, yet in one thing I was determined, that, his Majesty having frequently offered me an establishment in this country, I would with great thankfulness accept the favour, and pass my life here in the conversation of those superior beings, the struldbrugs, if they would please to admit me.

The gentlemen to whom I addressed my discourse, because (as I have already observed) he spoke the language of Balnibarbi, said to me with a sort of a smile, which usually ariseth from pity to the ignorant, that he was glad of any occasion to keep me among them, and desired my permission to explain to the company what I had spoke. He did so, and they talked together for some time in their own language, whereof I understood not a syllable, neither could I observe by their countenances, what impression my discourse had made on them. After a short silence, the same person told me, that his friends and mine (so he thought fit to express himself) were very much pleased with the judicious remarks I had made on the great happiness and advantages of immortal life, and they were desirous to know in a particular manner, what scheme of living I should have formed to myself, if it had fallen to my lot to have been born a struldbrug.

I answered, it was easy to be eloquent on so copious and delightful a subject, especially to me, who have been often apt to amuse myself with visions of what I should do, if I were a king, a general, or a great lord: and, upon this very case, I had frequently run over the whole system how I should employ myself, and pass the time, if I were sure to live for ever.

That, if it had been my good fortune to come into the world a struldbrug, as soon as I could discover my own happiness, by understanding the difference between life and death, I would first resolve, by all arts and methods whatsoever, to procure myself riches. In the pursuit of which, by thrift and management, I might reasonably expect, in about two hundred years, to be the wealthiest man in the kingdom. In the second place, I would from my earliest youth apply myself to the study of arts and sciences, by which I should arrive in time to excel all others in learning. Lastly, I would carefully record every action and event of consequence that happened in the public, impartially draw the characters of the several successions of princes, and great ministers of state, with my own observations on every point. I would exactly set down the several changes in customs, language, fashions of dress, diet and diversions. By all which acquirements, I should be a living treasury of knowledge and wisdom, and certainly become the oracle of the nation.

I would never marry after threescore, but live in an hospitable manner, yet still on the saving side. I would entertain myself in forming and directing the minds of hopeful young men, by convincing them from my own remembrance, experience and observation, fortified by numerous examples, of the usefulness of virtue in public and private life. But my choice and constant companions should be a set of my own immortal brotherhood, among whom I would elect a dozen from the most ancient, down to my own contemporaries. Where any of these wanted fortunes, I would provide them with convenient lodges round my own estate, and have some of them always at my table, only mingling a few of the most valuable among you mortals, whom length of time would harden me to lose, with little or no reluctance, and treat your posterity after the same manner; just as a man diverts himself with the annual succession of pinks and tulips in his garden, without regretting the loss of those which withered the preceding year.

These struldbrugs and I would mutually communicate our observations and memorials through the course of time; remark the several gradations by which corruption steals into the world, and oppose it in every step, by giving perpetual warning and instruction to mankind; which, added to the strong influence of our own example, would probably prevent that continual degeneracy of human nature, so justly complained of in all ages.

Add to all this, the pleasure of seeing the various revolutions of states and empires; the changes in the lower and upper world; ancient cities in ruins, and obscure villages become the seats of kings; famous rivers lessening into shallow brooks; the ocean leaving one coast dry, and overwhelming another; the discovery of many countries yet unknown; barbarity over-running the politest nations, and the most barbarous become civilized. I should then see the discovery of the longitude, the perpetual motion, the universal medicine, and many other great inventions brought to the utmost perfection.

What wonderful discoveries should we make in astronomy, by out-living and confirming our own predictions, by observing the progress and return of comets, with the changes of motion in the sun, moon, and stars.

I enlarged upon many other topics, which the natural desire of endless life and sublunary happiness could easily furnish me with. When I had ended, and the sum of my discourse had been interpreted, as before, to the rest of the company, there was a good deal of talk among them in the language of the country, not without some laughter at my expense. At last, the same gentleman who had been my interpreter said he was desired by the rest to set me right in a few mistakes, which I had fallen into through the common imbecility of human nature, and, upon that allowance, was less answerable for them. That this breed of struldbrugs was peculiar to their country, for there were no such people, either in Balnibarbi or Japan, where he had the honour to be ambassador from his Majesty, and found the natives in both those kingdoms very hard to believe that the fact was possible; and it appeared from my astonishment, when he first mentioned the matter to me, that I received it as a thing wholly new, and scarcely to be credited. That in the two kingdoms above mentioned, where, during his residence, he had conversed very much, he observed long life to be the universal desire and wish of mankind. That whoever had one foot in the grave, was sure to hold back the other as strongly as he could. That the oldest had still hopes of living one day longer, and looked on death as the greatest evil, from which Nature always prompted him to retreat; only in this island of Luggnagg the appetite for living was not so eager, from the continual example of the struldbrugs before their eyes.

That the system of living, contrived by me, was unreasonable and unjust, because it supposed a perpetuity of youth, health, and vigour, which no man could be so foolish to hope, however extravagant he may be in his wishes. That the question therefore was not whether a man would choose to be always in the prime of youth, attended with prosperity and health; but how he would pass a perpetual life under all the usual disadvantages which old age brings along with it. For although few men will avow their desires of being immortal upon such hard conditions, yet in the two kingdoms before mentioned, of Balnibarbi and Japan he observed that every man desired to put off death for some time longer, let it approach ever so late; and he rarely heard of any man who died willingly, except he were incited by the extremity of grief or torture. And he appealed to me, whether in those countries I had travelled, as well as my own, I had not observed the same general disposition.

After this preface, he gave me a particular account of the struldbrugs among them. He said they commonly acted like mortals, till about thirty years old, after which, by degrees, they grew melancholy and dejected, increasing in both till they came to fourscore. This he learned from their own confession; for otherwise, there not being above two or three of that species born in an age, they were too few to form a general observation by. When they came to fourscore years, which is reckoned the extremity of living in this country, they had not only all the follies and infirmities of other old men, but many more, which arose from the dreadful prospects of never dying. They were not only opinionative, peevish, covetous, morose, vain, talkative; but incapable of friendship, and dead to all natural affection, which never descended below their grandchildren. Envy and impotent desires are their prevailing passions. But those objects, against which their envy seems principally directed, are the vices of the younger sort, and the deaths of the old. By reflecting on the former, they find themselves cut off from all possibility of pleasure; and whenever they see a funeral, they lament and repine that others are gone to an harbour of rest, to which they themselves never can hope to arrive. They have no remembrance of anything but what they learned and observed in their youth and middle age, and even that is very imperfect. And, for the truth or particulars of any fact, it is safer to depend on common traditions, than upon their best recollections. The least miserable among them appear to be those who turn to dotage, and entirely lose their memories; these meet with more pity and assistance, because they want many bad qualities, which abound in others.

If a struldbrug happen to marry one of his own kind, the marriage is dissolved of course, by the courtesy of the kingdom, as soon as the younger of the two comes to be fourscore. For the law thinks it reasonable indulgence, that those who are condemned, without any fault of their own, to a perpetual continuance in the world, should not have their misery doubled by the load of a wife.

As soon as they have completed the term of eighty years, they are looked on as dead in law; their heirs immediately succeed to their estates, only a small pittance is reserved for their support; and the poor ones are maintained at the public charge. After that period they are held incapable of any employment of trust or profit, they cannot purchase lands, or take leases, neither are they allowed to be witnesses in any cause, either civil or criminal, not even for the decision of meers and bounds.

At ninety they lose their teeth and hair; they have at that age no distinction of taste, but eat and drink whatever they can get, without relish or appetite. The diseases they were subject to still continue, without increasing or diminishing. In talking, they forget the common appellation of things, and the names of persons, even of those who are their nearest friends and relations. For the same reason they never can amuse themselves with reading, because their memory will not serve to carry them from the beginning of a sentence to the end; and, by this defect, they are deprived of the only entertainment whereof they might otherwise be capable.

The language of this country being always upon the flux, the struldbrugs of one age do not understand those of another; neither are they able, after two hundred years, to hold any conversation (farther than by a few general words) with their neighbours, the mortals; and thus they lie under the disadvantage of living like foreigners in their own country.

This was the account given me of the struldbrugs, as near as I can remember. I afterwards saw five or six of different ages, the youngest not above two hundred years old, who were brought to me at several times, by some of my friends; but although they were told that I was a great traveller, and had seen all the world, they had not the least curiosity to ask me a question; only desired I would give them slumskudask, or a token of remembrance; which is a modest way of begging, to avoid the law that strictly forbids it, because they are provided for by the public, although, indeed, with a very scanty allowance.

They are despised and hated by all sorts of people; when one of them is born, it is reckoned ominous, and their birth is recorded very particularly; so that you may know their age, by consulting the register; which, however, hath not been kept above a thousand years past, or, at least, hath been destroyed by time, or public disturbances. But the usual way of computing how old they are, is, by asking them what kings or great persons they can remember, and then consulting history; for, infallibly, the last prince in their mind did not begin his reign after they were fourscore years old.

They were the most mortifying sight I ever beheld; and the women more horrible than the men. Besides the usual deformities in extreme old age, they acquired an additional ghastliness, in proportion to their number of years, which is not to be described; and, among half a dozen, I soon distinguished which was the eldest, although there was not above a century or two between them.

The reader will easily believe that from what I had heard and seen, my keen appetite for perpetuity of life was much abated. I grew heartily ashamed of the pleasing visions I had formed; and thought no tyrant could invent a death into which I would not run with pleasure from such a life. The king heard of all that had passed between me and my friends upon this occasion, and rallied me very pleasantly; wishing I would send a couple of struldbrugs to my own country, to arm our people against the fear of death; but this, it seems, is forbidden by the fundamental laws of the kingdom, or else I should have been well content with the trouble and expense of transporting them.

I could not but agree that the laws of this kingdom, relative to the struldbrugs, were founded upon the strongest reasons, and such as any other country would be under the necessity of enacting in the like circumstances. Otherwise, as avarice is the necessary consequent of old age, those immortals would in time become proprietors of the whole nation, and engross the civil power; which, for want of abilities to manage, must end in the ruin of the public.~



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