Immortality, from antiquity to the transhumanists.


Making the history of immortality feeds the paradox: if immortality were effective, it would not be subject to any historicity. History, process, evolution: so many notions contrary to immortality.

It is obviously not about immortality - about which we know nothing - but about the thought of immortality and its great milestones. To attempt to make a history of it - which we cannot do here exhaustively, nor in the manner of a historian of ideas - is to seek, under the thought of immortality, the relationship of man to himself, of man to the other than himself (transcendence, the back worldsThe Church is a sign of the human spirit (its place in the society of men, in history, etc.) and of man in his relationship with others (his place in the society of men, in history, etc.).

It goes without saying that the thought of immortality will evolve according to scientific discoveries, changes in paradigms and representation of the world, the evolution of the relationship to time, beliefs, secularization, etc. In other words, it cannot be made into a story out of context.

Nevertheless, if it is an invariant, it is this desire for immortality which moves men, as a whole, as a human hope - to endure, to resist natural disasters, the apocalypse, on earth or elsewhere, etc., and man in particular, that individual who is doomed to death, and whose incessant activity tends to push back the end of it, or to surpass it by inscribing for future generations a trace of its passage.

Desire of immortality: the invariant; around which immortality changes form according to the times. In order to show this, we will therefore renounce a story strictly speaking, in favour of three figures.

Immortality among the Greeks

Hannah Arendt has reported on the former in several of her books, but we will mainly cite the "concept of history" published in the Culture Crisis. She speaks of "immortalization", the action that bears a name in Greek that is difficult to translate [αθαυατιζειυ], and which involves three types of activity: the object that immortalizes my action (a work, an epic, a monument...), the action itself, inasmuch as it is heroic, glorious, and therefore memorable, and finally the choice of philosophical life that consists in living alongside immortal things (the objects of thought).

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Immortality among the Greeks is therefore a sign towards the work, the memorable action, or the philosophical life. But in order for this action of immortalizing to be possible, it was necessary to " an imperishable space that guarantees that "immortalization" will not be in vain "The political space in which these actions appear. There is thus an organic link between the desire for immortality and the political community, because only it guarantees the very possibility of survival.

In order to understand this idea - far removed from our own conception of the political community - it is necessary to recall that for the Greeks the political body was the answer to man's need to go beyond the mortality and transience of things:

"Outside the body politic, human life was not only or even primarily threatened because it was exposed to the violence of others; it was devoid of meaning and dignity because under no circumstances could it leave any traces. »

And Arendt to continue:

"This was the reason for the anathema thrown by Greek thought on the whole sphere of private life, whose "idiocy" consisted in that it was concerned only with survival" and to summon Cicero for whom "only the building and preservation of political communities can allow human virtue to equal the actions of the gods. »

Here's the polished promoted as a place of the common, where free men try to make manifest that which alone can make them eternal: value, example, justice, etc., which would equal the Olympus of the gods.

Immortality is thus associated with a common space that allows freedom to unfold. Politics is intrinsically linked to the possibility of immortality, that is, for the Greeks, a form of memory that exalts the values of humanity.

The immortality of Christians, a paradigm shift

Since immortality is the post-mortem reward of a life lived through faith and spiritual exercise - to put it bluntly - the relationship to the present time, to the time of life, is altered. And not only the relationship to time, but also and above all to political space. It is demoted in relation to the divine kingdom.

Immortality is certainly indexed to a certain type of behaviour, obedience, fervour - sometimes even fervour of predestination like Calvin'sor election just like LutherThe fact remains that the report to the policy becomes an appendix, or even an accessory. Salvation will not come from the world of men, including or even less from their political community, but from the soul; and if there is to be a community, it can ultimately be thought of as a religious order, which vows to cut itself off more or less radically from the world.

There are many theological modalities, infinite variations within the Christian space: what remains is this partition between earth and heaven, body and soul, mortality and immortality. And more than a partition, it is a split.

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Louis Janmot, "Le Poème de l'âme 16", The flight of the soul.

It may be that the word of the gospel incites us to do good around us, to organize a more just society, it may be that the message of Christ joins revolutionary action, it may be that the interpretation of texts has an efficiency here and now; nevertheless, real life is elsewhere. It may be that the interpretation of texts is effective here and now; nevertheless, real life is elsewhere. This allows us to nourish a form of interior resistance to tyranny, to survive the organized horror of men, to revolt against iniquities, but it is always in the name of something else.

Transcendence carries more promise than immanence. The afterlife is more rewarding than the here below. Why change the world when the real world is elsewhere? The sacrifice of the first Christians, today's suicide bombings in the name of another religion of the book, show the disinterest in earthly life in favor of eternal life.

With transhumanism, a consumerist immortality...

An even more radical paradigm shift: immortality in the age of transhumanism. The desire is still there, intact, to endure beyond oneself, to never die. But immortality has completely changed its face: it is no longer a question of heroic deeds whose memory serves to build up the younger generations and create a bridge between the different ages of humanity; nor is it a question of despising the goods of this world, with the conviction that a paradise beyond death awaits us.

Certainly, history has gone through this, scientific progress has taken us from a closed and oriented world, to an infinite universe where man is nothing but dust, but where he regains his dignity through his faith in God and his discovery of consciousness, and then to a world that is potentially finite since man has modified it without any possible return, to the point of creating with the help of the laws of nature weapons that can destroy it. The conception of time has also changed: it has been cyclical for the Greeks, then oriented towards infinite progress in modernity, it has been subject to what men thought they could create - their history. Belief in progress gave way to the apocalyptic perspective of the end: the destruction of natural resources and global warming are all signs of an irreversibility that is changing the very idea of the future.

Today, the weather getting tangled In a present that is constantly restarted, it has accelerated to the point of stuttering, it opens up to a permanent flow of information that is untemporized by remaining on the web, or barely mentioned, to be replaced by others. A desynchronized time, which no longer follows the revolution of the planets nor the rhythm of the seasons, which no longer follows a common rhythm: but a time when man remains mortal, and this obstacle to the progress of science - and to thehybris which is constitutive to him - appears to him as a humiliation.

Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell. Allociné/Paramount Pictures

The human being desires immortality: but now for himself. As a living being and no longer as a hero who would leave to meditate an action bearing values; an immortality that would not consecrate the efforts of his soul, nor that would be the result of a promise based on belief alone: immortality is needed here and now. This immortality is no longer sought through what was immortality among the Greeks, and in a way among Christians: immortal values, whether human or divine, natural or metaphysical, beyond passing individuals and ephemeral lives. Values that could make community, and memory of community.

Transhumanism, on the other hand, proposes an immortality that is only biological continuity, even if biology itself is modified - we remain in the field of the living and not in that of values. The fight for euthanasia shows that there is one thing that is superior to life: dignity. Transhumanism is a eugenics project...which makes life the supreme value. The immortality that science promises is a consumer immortality, a good that can be acquired for money. It does not escape the economic reign of a monistic capitalism: it even manifests its truth, or what makes the singularity of our time. There is no need to inscribe a trace - all traces fade away, and there is no more political space to preserve it: the only places of memory tend to become this immense memory of the big data: everything is preserved there in the same way. It is the trace that takes precedence over what it is the trace of. It is part of a continuous flow - whether it is the trace of an individual fact or of collective action. Both are data, and if they give rise to comments, these in turn become data. The value of things is levelled, reduced to their factual status.

If facts no longer have value and if there is no longer any space where this value can be questioned, criticized, shared, if there is no longer a back world, or if the risk is too great to delegate immortality to a simple belief, in a regime where insurance companies calculate the ratio to risk as advantageously as possible, if finally life has a price that can be converted into currency, then immortality too: it is no longer this incommensurable that guides, it is a commensurable that can be calculated. Since it is nothing more than life. The simple fact of life. Survivor logic. Last as long as possible. Achilles had preferred a short life, but a life worth living. Privileging for this reason the blow to the private life, of which - I recall the words quoted above, "idiocy" consisted in that she only cared about survival ...

Choices are no longer made in the same way. It is the very framework of questioning that has changed. The notion of immortality is one of its symptoms.

Mazarine Pingeot is an associate professor of philosophy, University of Paris 8 - Vincennes Saint-Denis
The original text of this article was published on The Conversation.


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