A Point of View: Would you want to live forever?

Elderly man with surfboard

Are people foolish to crave everlasting life? Writer Theodore Powys' reflections on immortality capture the paradox - and downsides - of living forever, says philosopher John Gray.

"The longest life may fade and perish," wrote Theodore Powys, "but one moment can live and become immortal."

It's an arresting thought, and never more so than today when so many people are doing whatever they can to live longer. There's nothing new in the quest for longevity. Ancient Chinese and early modern European alchemists dreamt of an elixir that would give perpetual life. In Mary Shelley's novel, Dr Frankenstein pursues the dream by reanimating bodily parts of the dead.

But it is only in recent times that the dream has captured masses of people, with millions following diets and exercise regimes in the hope that they can put off dying for as long as possible. There are a few who go further - groups of immortalists, who have their cadavers frozen until technology develops to a point where they can be resuscitated or who stuff themselves with hundreds of vitamins every day while looking forward to a time when they can upload their minds into cyberspace and escape death altogether.

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John Gray
  • John Gray is a political philosopher and author of False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism

It would be rash to assume that such far-fetched ideas will never be feasible. We're living longer than any previous human generation, and there's no obvious limit to this process.

A more interesting question is why anyone would want to live forever. Wanting more years of healthy longevity is natural enough - which of us, if offered a pill that would ensure 30 more such years, wouldn't take it?

Wanting to live forever is different. In trying to escape death, we are attempting to transcend the natural world. Long before using technology to overcome mortality became scientifically conceivable, most of the world's religions promised some kind of afterlife to their followers.

But this only pushes the question one step further back. Why do so many religious people want so fervently to believe that death isn't the end?

Theodore Powys was a religious writer who was happy to believe that death is the end. An author once admired by some of Britain's leading writers and critics, but who until recently was almost forgotten, he was born in Derbyshire in 1875 the son of a clergyman and one of three brothers who were writers - the other two being John Cowper Powys and Llewelyn Powys, also well-known writers in their day.

Life and times of Theodore Powys

TF Powys
  • Born in Derbyshire in 1875
  • Son of clergyman, siblings included writers John Cooper Powys and Llewelyn Powys
  • Shied away from modern world
  • Also known as TF (Theodore Francis) Powys
  • Set tales in exaggerated rural landscapes, reducing people to barest elements
  • Mr Weston's Good Wine (1927) is best-known novel - also wrote Unclay and short story collection Fables
  • Religion coloured his writings
  • Influenced by Nietzsche and Bunyan
  • Died in 1953

Theodore made an unsuccessful attempt at farming in East Anglia and then spent the rest of his life in semi-seclusion in a succession of remote villages in Dorset, where he married a local girl and devoted himself to a life of writing and contemplation. Though everything he wrote had in some way to do with religion, there is no reason to think he had any religious beliefs.

Throughout his life, he went to the village church, but when asked why answered, "Because it's quiet". His novels and short stories - fables and allegories of recurring human passions etched against a background of country life - show the influence of the King James Bible and John Bunyan, but he was also a close reader of Nietzsche and Freud. He didn't reject Christianity as much as use it to express his own, highly original view of life.

This originality is nowhere clearer than in Powys' attitude to death. Published in 1927, Mr Weston's Good Wine, his best-known novel, tells how a wine merchant called Mr Weston arrives one dull November evening in an old, mud-spattered Ford van in the Dorset village of Folly Down, accompanied by an assistant called Michael.

Mr Weston is a short, stout man dressed in an overcoat and wearing a brown felt hat under which his hair is "like white wool", who has come to the village to sell his wines. The wine merchant "had once written a prose poem that he had divided into many books", Powys tells us, only to be surprised when he discovers "the very persons and place that he had seen in fancy had a real existence in fact" - in Folly Down.

Red wine Dark wine of death, anyone?

Mr Weston turns out to be the creator not only of Folly Down, but of the world, though he lacks many of the attributes that are given to God in religious tradition. At times, he's sad and lonely, he isn't infallible or omniscient - his assistant Michael is shown as being more knowledgeable about human ways - and while he looks on the human beings he has brought into being with a kindly eye, he also envies them.

Powys never explains why Mr Weston has come to sell wine in Folly Down, but we are told that there are two good wines for sale - the light white wine of love and the dark wine of death. When asked if he drinks the dark wine himself, Mr Weston replies, "The day will come when I hope to drink of it, but when I drink my own deadly wine the firm will end."

Mr Weston may have created the world, but he wants nothing more than a human life. He and Michael - a tall, handsome fellow with an eye for the village girls - delight in the comedy and the beauty of the earthly scene.

Scene from 1957 film The Curse of Frankenstein, featuring Peter Cushing as the baron and Christopher Lee as the monster Dead or alive: Frankenstein's monster

The wine merchant has no illusions about human beings - how could he, since he created them? He knows all about their greed and cruelty, but still he envies them. What he brings his creations is what he wants himself. At the end of the story, having dispensed his wines in the village, he is driven to the summit of Folly Down hill, where the engine stops and the car's lights go out. He and Michael talk for a while, until Mr Weston politely asks his assistant to drop a burning match into the petrol tank.

"Michael did as he was told. In a moment, a fierce tongue of flame leaped up from the car; a pillar of smoke rose above the flame and ascended into the heavens. The fire died down, smouldered and went out. Mr Weston was gone."

What human beings possess that Mr Weston lacks, until he achieves it at the end of the novel, is mortality - the very prospect of final death that religions have promised to deliver us from.

That immortal beings might envy humans is not a new thought - you'll find it in Greek myths, where the gods meddle in human affairs in order to savour something of the transient joy of mortal life. Expressing the same thought by using Christian imagery, Powys captures a paradox at the heart of our thinking about death and the afterlife - there's a kind of immortality that only mortals can enjoy.

Previously in the Magazine

Lit candles on a birthday cake

There are people frantic for eternal life. A few years ago I met people who were vesting their savings in the cryogenic movement - a movement that undertook to freeze your body after you were dead and keep it until such time as science came up with the solution to whatever had killed you, at which moment you could be defrosted, cured, and resume your life.

Little attention was being paid to two serious disadvantages: what might the world be like when you emerged from the deep freeze, would they still have iPods and aeroplanes, supermarkets and killer heels. And secondly, why would anyone bother to defrost you when you had already paid up and had no possible means of redress?

Theologians and mystics distinguish between eternal life and everlasting existence. Human immortality, they say, doesn't mean going on and on in perpetuity - it means leaving time behind, and joining God in eternity. What these religious thinkers have never explained is how humans can exit from time without becoming unrecognisably different from all that they have ever been.

The immortal soul that supposedly survives death isn't the quirky, fleshly human being that we have been in life. A faded image of what we once were, it's a kind of ghost. The same is true of the uploaded minds envisioned by those who seek an escape from death in cyberspace. A computer-generated phantom floating in the ether isn't a human being, just a high-tech shadow. The shade might persist forever, but the human individual would be dead and gone.

Theodore Powys had no interest in that sort of immortality, and neither do I. Powys' delightful fable - so much more subversive of conventional religion than the sermons of the new atheists - points to immortality of a different kind, one that we can experience without losing our human identity. If Mr Weston thinks his deadly dark wine is good for human beings, it's because only creatures that live in passing time can know moments of undying value.

There are no such moments in a life that can never end. In such a life, there's nothing to treasure, nothing that has value because it cannot come again. Our lives have meaning because they are bounded by death. That's why, at the end of the book, Mr Weston chooses to join the mortals he has created and vanishes from the scene.

The paradox is that it's only because we die that we can know what it truly means to be immortal.

Here is a selection of your comments.

The idea of immortality in concept for me would concentrate more on a natural/unique gift to an individual or individuals, or a very long extended period of life granted by medicine. Attempting to obtain a few more years of life by sacrificing things in your natural lifetime, for example with strict diets, would be foolish as experiences, such as fine food, drink or other activities which might be considered dangerous, are what life is best lived for. However the notion that a longer lifetime in itself is foolish is to me wrong. If experiences are what life is for then it logically follows that the more life you have (without giving up said experiences) the more you can enjoy. Life is constantly throwing up activities to partake in or even at a simple level, more television programmes to watch and, unless you are very well off, it would be difficult to complete most bucket lists within a natural lifespan.

David, Essex

John Gray writes: "The immortal soul that supposedly survives death isn't the quirky, fleshly human being that we have been in life. A faded image of what we once were, it's a kind of ghost." This is not true of Christianity, as the soul will have a new body according to 1 Corinthians 15. When Jesus rose from the dead he had a physical body and ate with his disciples. He says in Luke 24:39 "Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have." The Bible clearly teaches that we will likewise have physical bodies in Heaven.

C Dubghaill, Berlin

Whilst I'm not sure I want to live for eternity, although I could then be sure of a table at the restaurant at the end of the universe, I certainly wouldn't mind living long enough to see some of the possible futures sci-fi has envisioned. Being able to live forever doesn't mean you could see everything (you'd have to be omniscient for that), but you could see far more than an ordinary life span allows. I wouldn't like to see "C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate".

Simon , Birmingham

I think most religions (including pagan beliefs of "primitive" societies) held the concept of an afterlife for reasons different than the overweaning narcissism of today's aging immortalists. This article neglects the fact that vast majority of humans (and animals) who ever existed never really had a chance at life at all. They certainly never had much opportunity to experience moments of undying value. If you carefully read the afterlife beliefs of most major religions, the primary purpose of an afterlife is not immortality so much as justice and opportunity for all. For those who suffered mostly misery in this life, who died as infants or young children, who never really had an opportunity to know true joy or love, the afterlife offered a second chance and a way to address the unfairness of this life. It offered a place where the oppressed could finally experience freedom and joy, and where the wicked, corrupt, and powerful could finally experience justice for their crimes against humanity. The afterlife, more importantly perhaps, also offered the opportunity to see again the loved ones who had gone too soon (remember that up until the 20th century most mothers lost numerous children, most men lost beloved wives in childbirth, most people barely knew their parents because of early death, etc.). So a belief in an afterlife was necessary to carry on. Even now, the vast majority of the world still seems to need this belief. I don't know if such a belief could be reality or not, I am an agnostic. But the hope is all that keeps many people going. BTW - such a hope does not preclude working for social justice in this life - it never has if you look at the behavior of many who do believe in an afterlife (now and historically).

Kathy, Washington DC

I have thought what it be like to live forever. The body would not be my problem, but the mind. I can only conclude that if I were to live for ever I would go mad.

David Jones, Moston, England

The preservation of consciousness in a cyber dimension, bound by digital walls and free from all physical attributes or exchanges, is I grant you not ideal. Yet, given a choice of this and nothingness, I will eagerly upload myself to the central server, with the option to power off should the experience become worse than anticipated. At least here, haunting SSD or fiber channel disk I have something left. And inevitably I will hope for a day when my cyber ghost can be united with a body. Something nice.... clone rather than cadaver.

Mike Benso, London

It's untrue that an existence past the normal life span in a cyber world would not be real. Our environment will change our perception of self, but if the actual circuitry of our electro-chemical brain impulses is replicated closely, there is no logical reason to suggest a cyber being would not be the same self aware individual as the one in the human body. I doubt a person currently using a pacemaker would suggest he is only a phantom because part of his heart is digitised.

David Coe, St Helens

Douglas Adams, in his Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series, imagined a character inadvertently becoming immortal and unable to handle it because of the terrible listless boredom of Sunday afternoons. Imagine that... an eternity of Sunday afternoons drawing away from you to infinity of time. Who wouldn't go a little mad from it?

T Talbot, Ibstock, Leicestershire

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