"In the long run, we are all dead." — John Maynard Keynes
What is the point of it all, then?
Death is defined as the unequivocal and permanent end to our existences, and Thomas Nagel has argued that it is undesirable primarily because it deprives us of life and brings all pleasures that it offers to an end. It seems to naturally follow that immortality is desirable, as we no longer need to subject ourselves to the deprivations that death demands. Yet, should our conclusions on the desirability of both death and immortality necessarily be so intuitive?
The Tedium of Immortality: “The Makropulos Case”
In contemplating this, let’s consider the Czech play, “The Makropulos Case” by Karel Čapek. Reflecting on immortality, the play depicts the protagonist, Elina Makropulos, having consumed a mysterious elixir of life as per her father's instructions for the past three centuries, thereby enabling her to live well beyond the expected human life span.
At age 342, Elina's seemingly endless life causes her to be in a state of perpetual boredom, indifference and coldness; everything has become joyless to her. In fact, she laments, “In the end, it is the same.” The play ends with Elina's inevitable death when she refuses to take the elixir.
The Makropulos case suggests that death is not necessarily undesirable. More importantly, it hints at the possible benefits of not having to live an eternal life. An endless life would indubitably lead one to realize that the immortal man would ultimately face an incurable state of extreme ennui, not unlike that of Elina's.
The Tedium Of Immortality: Our Evolving Experience Of Time
In the same vein, many have debated the perceived acceleration of passing time as humans age. In “Principles of Psychology,” William James remarked on the increasing monotony of life with each birthday that passes.
“The same space of time seems shorter as we grow older,” James wrote. “Each passing year converts some of our experience into automatic routine which we hardly note at all.”
A mathematical perspective with which we can consider this perceived phenomenon is that our experience of time is proportional to our age. That is, one year that a 10-year-old child experiences is far greater in vibrancy, diversity and novelty than a year that a 100-year-old adult experiences.
For a 10-year-old, a year represents 10 percent of life; whereas, for a 100-year-old, it only represents one percent.
Extending this logic to that of the immortal man, an additional year of experience — in stark contrast to the infinite length of his life — would be even more insignificant to him. His engagement in any activity would seem meaningless and even superfluous at some point.
In economics, the law of diminishing marginal returns states that as a person increases consumption of a particular product, the person derives a decrease in marginal satisfaction (returns) from consuming each additional unit of that product.
Based on this train of thought, the immortal man would thus arrive at a particular point in which an additional year of experience would no longer yield any further utility to him. Such a scenario is succinctly depicted by Friedrich Nietzsche:
“This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you… The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”
The Impact Of The Idea Of Immortality
Beyond the seemingly incurable state of ennui that is bound to befall the immortal man, the idea of immortality can have a sinister effect on one's perspectives and approach to life.
Immortality can alter one’s attitudes on life, as the motivation to strive toward meaningful goals can appear to be much less urgent or critical, given that the finite time constraint of a life span is now whisked away.
An immortal man now enjoys the luxury of limitless time in which he can pursue his goals, thereby leaving ample time for procrastination. This presents a loss of value creation not only to himself but also to society at large; the cumulative opportunity cost in terms of the delay, or more likely, the acute loss of original contributions would be staggering.
The Desirability Of Death
In light of this, death, by contrast, serves to remind us of the humbling state of our mortality. This enables us to make better use of the limited, valuable time we have on this earth to make lasting impacts in the world through ways we — individually and collectively — are able and desire to do.
Rather than being seen as a limiting factor that deprives us of opportunities, we can choose to perceive death to relieve us from the shackles that we find to be undesirable.
In the long run, we will indeed all be dead. Also in the long run, however, we will all become stories that can inspire and uplift us, transcending boundaries of time and space.
It is precisely because of this fact that we face the urgency and critical need to pursue our passions and dreams and strive to leave behind not insipid, uninspiring lives, but rather, manifestations of our true ideas that will far outlive our actual lives.
Photo via We Heart It