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  • The Desire for Immortality at the Dawn of the Third Millennium:The Anthropological Stakes
  • Bernard N. Schumacher
    Translated by Michael J. Miller

"But, happiest beyond all comparison are those excellent Struldbruggs, 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."1

Gulliver's exclamation upon discovering the existence of the immortal Struldbruggs is only one of the countless examples of mankind's dream to free itself from its destiny ever since it was banished from the Garden of Eden. Ever since then, man has lived alongside death, which has ceaselessly prowled around its future prey. Strongly attracted by immortality, on the one hand, and on the other hand feeling repugnance and anguish toward death, the human being has developed a multitude of ways to domesticate it, to make it less frightening, less horrible in its appearance. Some think of it as the reaper who gathers the good grain and takes the harvest to paradise or makes room for the new generation. Others see it as an angel that will accompany them to an afterlife or as a liberator from the evils of this [End Page 1221] one. Still others take it to be God's servant who bestows the laurel crown on the hero, gives the palm to the martyr, the halo to the saint, rest to the weary, and renders justice to the oppressed. Worried that it might surprise them and wishing to escape the violence of its coming, the philosopher of antiquity and then the early Christian monk counseled us to meditate continuously on death—hence the presence of the skull on their table, or in their oratory. In both cases, man thought that he would receive the wages for his acts in an afterlife.

As for Epicurus, because he rejects the idea of an afterlife, he also refuses to reflect on death, so as to live his life without always being disturbed by something he can do nothing about. So it is that two diametrically opposed philosophical attitudes have emerged: to be wise by reflecting on death, by living in its presence, or else to be wise by refusing outright to think about death. Still another possibility is the position of Martin Heidegger, with his thesis of Being-toward-death, which disputes immortality a priori, just like the Epicureans and the Stoics. Nevertheless, far from refusing to think about death, he proposes looking it in the eye. Aware that he cannot escape it, he invites it to sit down at the table so as to live in its presence in an attitude of authenticity. These attitudes toward death, however different they may be, all testify to a humble recognition of the helplessness that we experience in confronting the thing that deprives us so brutally of life.

Coming to light these days, however, is a new response to what the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre calls "the permanent alienation of my being-possibility which is no longer my possibility."2 It is no longer a matter of submitting to death, but of attacking it head-on. This is what the supporters of transhumanism propose. In radical opposition to Heideggerian Being-toward-death, as well as to the laisser-faire attitude of the Epicureans and Stoics, they claim that death is only an accident in the living being's process, in short, that it is only an organic defect. One can be cured of death and reach, as it were, the dreamed-of goal of immortality. Certainly, we are not talking about immortality in the strict sense of the word, but rather about a sort of a-mortality in which the only death that occurs is accidental, for reasons that are external to the living being. [End Page 1222]

My purpose here is not to elaborate the arguments of the philosophers who, following Bernard Williams and Hans Jonas,3 are currently debating whether immanent (this-worldly) immortal life is desirable. Nor do I wish to present the transhumanists' methods of escaping death, such as human–machine hybrids, "digital" or virtual immortality, and so on, or to examine...