The Ridiculousness of Forever: on immortal characters

Bernard Williams, one of my favorite philosophers, is not well known outside philosophical circles. Inside them, he’s mostly known as an ethicist and moral philosopher, although properly speaking he was not a philosopher at all but a classicist, which is different. He didn’t espouse an ethical theory and in fact was skeptical one was possible — which of course didn’t stop him from looking.

I was introduced to him in college. He was ‘Against’ in a colloquium piece I was assigned called “Utilitarianism: For and Against,” which is what cured me of that affliction. His major contribution to ethical theory was the poking of very large holes in the popular theories of others (Kant, G.E. Moore, John Rawls, etc.) in a work entitled “Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy,” which is not a book I would recommend unless you get a hard-on for moral philosophy like I do.

Toward the end of his life (and just after), his wife organized his many published papers thematically and published them in a series of books, most of which are not for the beginner. Since he was a first-rate intellect, his writing was dense and many of his paragraphs bear re- and re-re-reading (sometimes out of necessity, sometimes for want of an equally challenging editor).

In one of those papers, he dissects the idea of living forever. He meant it in the religious sense, but the line of thought applies to an advanced technological future as well. For reasons stated above, there is no pithy three-sentence summary of the argument, but as a point of reference, he points out that even if there were an infinite number of things to do, if one lived forever, one would still do all of them an infinite number of times — very much like Groundhog Day on the scale of the universe. At some point, existence itself would become a burden, and you would just want out!

The Roman orator Cicero made the converse point in a famous essay translated “On Old Age.” He likened life to a race, and in having run his, he said, he had no interest in going back and starting over. Whatever triumphs and missteps befell him, the race was his and his alone, and he cherished his life as you might cherish a three-legged cat or a slow child — warts and all.

If one lived forever, that would not be the case. It’s not just that the race would never end, which sounds exhausting; it’s that you would bear no intimate relation to your finite past since it would be ever dwarfed by the wide-open spaces of your infinite future. Putting it in terms of land — which is valuable because, as the saying goes, “they’re not making any more” — value requires a fixed supply. Where land is infinite, any random parcel becomes near-valueless because at every point of scarcity, you have merely to take a step and there’s another parcel and another parcel and another parcel.

Because our life is finite, we have the natural impulse to curate it. An immortal would likely have no such burden. Their life is a museum of endless halls. At some point, it would hardly be worth it even to keep up with the dusting, let alone to arrange and rearrange the displays! They would become like sociopaths, in fact. Other people would be like ants — transient things always scurrying about chasing after what never seems to matter.

We see similar behavior already in trust fund kids. Children of great wealth are often listless and shallow for there is hardly any reason for them to struggle and no reason at all to sacrifice. There is no hard-won accomplishment that will leave them better off than simply doing nothing, so there is no reason to, for example, suffer an insufferable job while putting a family member through school and so to feel that great sense of pride when, the deed being done, you watch them walk the aisle at graduation.

This is why the narrator of the fifth course of my occult mystery is trying at the beginning to excise some painful memories. It’s as if they have no value. She’s been “cursed” with her heart’s desire, which is to be young and beautiful forever, and since experience for her is infinite, the pain of the past is only bitter, never bittersweet, and lessons that you or I might cram efficiently into a lifetime for her fill the space of centuries.


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