Do we really want to live forever?
What is a human life? What is the nature of human experience if it is a mist of transience and impermanence? The Japanese concept mono no aware, “the pathos of things”, implies that every experience is coloured by a sadness that it will not and could never last. This sadness, this Being conscious of this makes the experience that much denser, textured and ultimately worth living.
In German philosopher Martin Heideggar’s complex work, Being and Time, the notion itself is very simple: being is time and time is finite. For human beings, Time comes to an end with our death. Therefore, if we want to understand what it means to be an authentic human being, then it is essential that we live our lives with a view of the horizon of our death. Heidegger calls this “being-towards-death”. If our being is finite, then an authentic human life can only be found by confronting finitude and trying to make a meaning out of the fact of our death. Heidegger subscribes to the ancient maxim that “to philosophize is to learn how to die”.
The desire to live forever is a denial of the essentially transient nature of the world. To even imagine eternal life we have to assume that we are the kinds of creatures who could persist indefinitely. But contemporary philosophers, neuroscientists, psychologists and even Heraclitus, all agree that the self is in constant flux, lacking a permanent, unchanging essence.
If you could live for a thousand years, in what sense would the you that exists now still be around then? It would be more like a descendant than a continuation of you.
There is a very real sense in which we only ever exist in the here and now. Being fully alive requires being in that present as fully as possible. Yearning for eternal life robs the Now and shortchanges actual life itself.
Belief in an afterlife can help soften the sting of death, but it will never remove it completely.
“Dogs do not have many advantages over people, but one of them is extremely important: euthanasia is not forbidden by law in their case; animals have the right to a merciful death. Nietzsche leaving his hotel in Turin. Seeing a horse and a coachman beating it with a whip, Nietzsche went up to the horse and, before the coachman’s very eyes, put his arms around the horse’s neck and burst into tears. That took place in 1889, when Nietzsche, too, had removed himself from the world of people. In other words, it was at the time when his mental illness had just erupted. But for that very reason, I feel his gesture has broad implications: Nietzsche was trying to apologize to the horse of Descartes. His lunacy (that is, his final break with mankind) began at the very moment he burst into tears over the horse.” – Milan Kundera. In a somewhat labored way, Kundera attempted to explain Nietzche’s final embrace of his terminal life in this world.
But a life is, must be lived, even fully aware of death. Like Augustine’s attitude towards chastity. Yes, I want to be mortal, but please – not yet.
Aristotle rejected the Stoics belief that death was nothing to be regretted. Instead, he felt the more we live life well, the more we “will be distressed at the thought of death”.
When you appreciate that “life is supremely worth living” you know what a grievous loss it is when that life comes to an end.