In the past few years, my regular reading and podcast listening included:
- Peter Brown’s The Cult of the Saints, a book on the role played by saints in the spread of Christianity in its early years (upto 1000 CE, mostly)
- Two EconTalk episodes on transhumanism and the singularity: this one interviews Robin Hanson, who thinks it will happens and that it’s desirable. This one interviews Richard Jones, who is much more skeptical about the whole thing.
- This New Yorker article about the efforts by American (and particularly Silicon Valley gajillionaires) to invent immortality or at least life extension. I discovered it when a disgruntled biologist tweeted about it disparagingly, wishing that people would stop thinking of biology as software.
- Hannu Rajaniemi’s Jean Le Flambeur trilogy1, which is scifi set in a world where death has ended because everyone can upload their consciousness as digital data and clone themselves as required. This is played for horror as well as wonder.
And a few months ago, I realised that all these books and articles and episodes, which I had read as part of regular subscriptions, or unconnected curiosity, shared a common theme, and a theme, in fact that was linked to my reading from ten years ago: the Harry Potter series. That theme is the quest for immortality, and the pushback against it.
This will require a little bit of detail. Allow me to explain, because summing up will be inadequate. Let’s start with the Peter Brown book.
Reading The Cult of the Saints, you find out just how weird early Christianity was2. There were all sorts of different sects, any holy person could wander off and start his own, and, of course, there was the role the saints played after their lives.
According to The Cult of the Saints, the fact that Christianity made room for saints rather than just holy men was one of the things that helped it spread far and wide (even if with inconsistent practices), especially compared to Judaism. Judaism enjoined you to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which was an onerous task in the ancient world. But with Christianity you could always go to the closest shrine of a saint.
What truly connects the early saints to everything else I mentioned, though, is what people believed about their lives and deaths. Which was this: that the saints weren’t as dead as ordinary people.
The gleaming white shrouds, the incense, the strict control of demonstrations of grief were a triumphal reminder of Christ’s triumph over “black death.”
The “shining way to Paradise” of Christian art and liturgy had in no way rendered translucent the facts of death for the average Mediterranean man.
Hence the emotional force that thrust the graves of the martyrs into prominence. Here, at least, were the graves of the very special dead. They had died in a special way; they lay in the grave in a special way; this fact was shown by the manner in which all that was most delightful and most alive in late-antique life could be though of as concentrated in their tombs and even (perhaps, as we shall see, particularly) in detached fragments of their dead bodies.
The late-antique cult of the martyrs represents, therefore, a consistent imaginative determination to block out the lurking presence, in the cemeteries of the Mediterranean world, of “black death.”
Their holiness meant that their remains didn’t decay3, and that their extant, non-decaying remains made their gravesites sources of powerful holiness that you could tap into to get your wishes fulfilled.
Peter Brown writes further that eventually – with the Protestant reformation and especially the Puritans – Christians came to look on death as natural and sweet grace, but this was very far from how Christianity had started out:
… the distance between early-modern Christian attitudes to death and those applied in late antiquity to the cult of the martyrs. The martyrs had triumphed over death; the iconography of the saints in late antiquity made no attempt to encompass “grim death” and “sweet grace” in one symbol. As Andre Grabar has written, “The imagery of a martyr’s relics is never in any case an imagery of the memento mori; rather it strives by all means in its power to proclaim the suppression of the fact of death.”
This was the first connection I drew: that the attitude of early Christians towards martyred saints was much like the admiration a Death Eater would feel towards Voldemort for managing to overcome death4.
I, who have gone further than anybody along the path that leads to immortality. You know my goal – to conquer death.
And it was the early modern Christians who took up a more Dumbledorish view of death:
And then he greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly, and, equals, they departed this life.
Did the obsession with longevity or immortality transitioning into an acceptance of peaceful death happen only with Christianity? I haven’t read enough to say about, for example, Judiasm, Islam, or East Asian religions. But in India, Jainism talks about Tirthankaras having extraordinarily long lives; so a conflation of holiness and immortality is there too. And in Hinduism, where you find all sorts of contradictory statements depending on where you look, we have:
- The claim that lifespan keeps dropping as we move from the Satyuga into the Kaliyuga; so that longevity is a desirable thing, but one that is associated not just with individual effort, but with the age and environment as a whole
- As a counterpoint, we have the Mahabharata where Aswatthama is cursed with three thousand years of immortality; in which he will suffer all manners of disease and wounds; while also being isolated from any human contact – again, echoed by Voldemort’s shadow existence in the Harry Potter books.
I suppose that the closest Greek myth comes to immortality and warning against it is the story of Orpheus trying to pull Eurydice out of the underworld and failing. But as I said, I’ve not read enough.
Let’s move on now to Hannu Rajaniemi’s trilogy. Because of his simultaneously admirable and frustrating way of never spelling things out so that you, the reader, have to do a lot of the work, it took me some Googling and Wikipedia reading to realise that the Jean le Flambeur trilogy is set in a world that took the ideas of early twentieth century Russian cosmists and set about making them real:
Fedorov argued that evolutionary process was directed towards increased intelligence and its role in the development of life. Humanity is the culmination of evolution, as well as its creator and director. Humans must therefore direct evolution where their reason and morality dictate. Fedorov also argued that mortality is the most obvious indicator of the still imperfect, contradictory nature of humanity and the underlying reason for most evil and nihilism of humankind. Fedorov stated that the struggle against death can become the most natural cause uniting all people of Earth, regardless of their nationality, race, citizenship or wealth (he called this the Common Cause).
Achieving immortality and resurrection of all people who ever lived are two inseparable goals, according to Fedorov. Immortality is impossible, both ethically and physically, without resurrection. We can’t allow our ancestors, who gave us life and culture, to remain buried, or our relatives and friends to die. Achieving immortality for individuals alive today and future generations is only a partial victory over death – only the first stage. The complete victory will be achieved only when everyone is resurrected and transformed to enjoy immortal life.
Fedorov stated that people needed to reconcile the difference between the power of technology and weakness of the human physical form. The transition is overdue from purely technical development, a “prosthetic” civilization, to organic progress, when not just external tools, artificial implements, but the organisms themselves are improved, so that, for example, a person can fly, see far and deep, travel through space, live in any environment. People must become capable of “organodevelopment” that so far only nature was capable of.
Clearly, Fedorov took things much further than the early Christians (who believed that only saints could conquer death) or the Harry Potter mythos (in which anybody can conquer death but only Voldemort did); and prescribed conquering death for everybody. Without giving detailed spoilers, let me say that Rajaniemi’s books are about how the consequences of this actually happening are horrible.
And more interestingly, the Wikipedia page claims that Fedorov and the other Russian cosmists are the link between Christianity (though the Russian Orthodox flavour and not so much the Mediterranean late-antiquity flavour) and current day transhumanism. That is to say, the cosmists started off from Russian Orthodox Christianity, and came up with cosmism; and cosmism then inspired modern day transhumanists.
I won’t quote in detail from the New Yorker piece or EconTalk episodes, because the links above are free to read or listen; but current day transhumanists and life-extenders certainly do give off a vibe of having decided that any technological means necessary to end death are worth pursuing. To be fair, the article and the podcast both do draw distinctions between the sort of transhumanists who want to increase the quantity of good health and the ones who want to eliminate death altogether, but even so, there is a substantial number of people out there who seem unwilling to accept the finiteness of life.
The New Yorker piece does end with an equivocation about how the human race has always wanted to live longer while also seeing beauty in death; but I think the Peter Brown quotations above show that the two impulses may not have been equal at all times, but ebbed and flowed.
But it has certainly been there for a very long time, I realised recently. Because, in the period of laziness between realising this connection, and actually writing it up, I coincidentally came across one more literary work where the tension between chasing immortality and accepting death, and that literary work is supposedly the first ever piece of human literature: The Epic of Gilgamesh. The In Our Time episode on The Epic of Gilgamesh describes how Gilgamesh, horrified by the death of his friend (and perhaps lover) Enkidu, journeys across the world to find the immortal Utnapishtim and learn how to be immortal himself; only to be told that immortality is no longer on the shelf, and to be content with a life well lived. And Gilgamesh accepts.
Perhaps the transhumanists are right, and this time is different. But if they are, they will be running up against, and overturning a preoccupation that has been with us as a species since we created culture, and one where for the most part, we’ve been on the side of accepting death. Who knows just what painful changes we’ll need to make, to adapt to life without death?
- Full disclosure: I thought the trilogy was great fun to read, because it has gentleman rogues, amoral gods, and cheeky maths jokes. But I couldn’t understand it. First, I couldn’t understand the plot because Rajaniemi leaves so much between the lines that you need to reread many times to figure out the chain of events and causes. And secondly, I couldn’t understand the maths underlying the MacGuffins, because it’s been almost twenty years since I learnt any maths, and even that was two dimensional calculus, not quantum mechanics.
- That is, by the standards of current day Christianity. Christianity is weird enough at any point of time by the standards of other religions, agnosticism, or atheism.
- This is still a current belief at the shrine of St Francis Xavier in Goa
- The important difference, of course, is that Voldemort did this by torturing and killing other people, and that the martyrs did this by getting tortured and killed.