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BORGES ON IMMORTALITY by Jon Stewart The various conceptions of immortality in most every culture evince at once the basic human fear of death and at the same time the equally basic hope for a more congenial future beyond mundane existence. The Greek and Christian views of immortality, which have been so influential in Western philosophy and theology, represent two different, yet generally quite positive, visions of eternal life. Although for the Greeks immortality in Hades was not, as Achilles' lament indicates , a thing to be eagerly anticipated, nevertheless the Olympian gods with their immense power and influence represented a positive picture of perennial existence. The Christian account presents another perhaps even more optimistic view of immortality since it teaches that eternal existence is possible for humans who live righteous lives and hold correct beliefs. The Christian promise of an everlasting life in heaven in the state of perfect bliss has long been held up by theologians as representing the apex of human happiness and fulfillment. "The Immortal,"1 by Jorge Luis Borges, hints at something fundamentally wrong about the very concept of immortality. Most philosophical criticisms of this concept concentrate on attacking the notion of a separable soul which survives the death of the human body, thus approaching the question of immortality essentially as a mind-body problem. Borges's story, on the other hand, focuses on the concept of immortality itself and on what we might call its internal consistency. Reflecting on "The Immortal," Borges says that the story shows us "the effect that immortality would have on men," and he explains that the Philosophy and Literature, © 1993, 17: 295-301 296Philosophy and Literature story offers "a sketch of an ethic for immortals."2 "The Immortal" can be seen as a thought experiment: Borges proposes that we imagine that we are immortal,3 and he then calls on us to examine our conception of that imagined existence to see if it can be thought consistently. We shall see that in the end our traditional views of immortality are contradictory and that the consistent conception represents something quite different from our preconceptions and—surprisingly—something far from desirable. Although the most obvious target ofcriticism in Borges's story is the Greek conception of immortality, on closer inspection he is, I would like to argue, also concerned to criticize the Christian view. This reading has, in my opinion, been neglected by many commentators ,4 the majority of whom would see in this work an affirmation of the power of literature over death and finitude.5 According to Augustine and Aquinas, the immortality of the blessed souls in the supernal state consists essentially in participating in the vmo beatifica. To behold God in this vision is to take part in eternal life. Aquinas claims that only by viewing God can one obtain "perfect bliss"6 and immortality. In an argument largely appropriated from Aristode's Nicomachean Ethics, Aquinas contends that man, who naturally desires to know, is never perfectly satisfied provided that there remains something unexplained. In his terrestrial condition, always seeking and desiring , man is in a tragic situation since he can never unravel the ultimate causes and thus attain perfect beatitude. In heaven, however, man obtains ultimate bliss since in beholding God, who is the first cause of all things, man thus sees and understands the workings of all things. With the comprehension of the first cause, all the other causes become apparent as well. Aquinas also argues that when we behold the workings ofthe entire universe in the visio beatifica, in fact, we are merely beholding God himself or more exactly the omnipresent divina substantia. Augustine describes the vision as follows: "Similarly, in the future life, wherever we turn the spiritual eyes ... we shall discern . . . the incorporeal God directing the whole universe."7 Observing how God governs the universe , our intellect gains ultimate satisfaction, and there remains nothing more to be known. But yet God does not exist in time as do finite things. This means that our vision of God is not a temporal one but rather an eternal one. Likewise, since the universe is nothing other than the divine substance which is God, we behold the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 295-301
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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