Read Immortality Online

Authors: Stephen Cave


BOOK: Immortality

Copyright © 2012 by Stephen Cave

All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Crown Publishers,
an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group,
a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

and the Crown colophon are registered trademarks
of Random House, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Cave, Stephen.
Immortality : the quest to live forever and how it drives
civilization / Stephen Cave.—1st ed.
p.   cm.
Includes bibliographical references.
1. Immortality (Philosophy)  2. Immortality.  I. Title.
BD421.C38     2011
129—dc23                    2011023912

eISBN: 978-0-307-88493-0



For Friederike


is a book about life, death and civilization.

I aim to show how we, like all living things, are driven to pursue life without end; but also how we, alone of living things, have in the process created spectacular civilizations, with stunning artworks, rich religious traditions and the material and intellectual achievements of science.

All of this, I argue, we have done through following four paths that promise immortality. The final aim of this book is to ask if any of these paths can deliver on that promise and what the answer means for how we should live.

“History is Philosophy teaching by examples,” wrote Thucydides. I am a philosopher by training, but I have also drawn widely on the examples of history, as well as on insights from many other disciplines, from anthropology to zoology and most in between—universities might divide up neatly into subjects and faculties, but life does not. When making such excursions into other fields, I have attempted broadly to follow consensus opinion—though I
have also not shied from taking a stand when necessary for my own argument.

I am aware of the immodesty of making sweeping claims about such grand matters. Experts will shudder at my simplifications of complex debates, some of enormous antiquity. But it was always my intention to keep the book short and succinct, and I hope that some readers at least will be stimulated to go farther down alleyways of knowledge to which I could only briefly point.



tried to destroy her. Hammers swung to smash the elegant nose and break her long and graceful neck. All across the kingdom, the statues and busts of the great queen were pounded to dust. Her name was chiseled from the monuments, its utterance banned. This embodiment of regal womanhood was never to be seen or spoken of again.

It was a sentence made to last for eternity: no cult would tend her tomb, keeping alive her soul with incense and offerings; she would not be preserved in dignity so that she might reign in the Otherworld. Her brief dynasty was extinguished. By systematically erasing her from history, the new pharaoh was not only purging Egypt of her ideas and influence—he was knowingly consigning her to cold, endless oblivion. Or so he thought.

Three thousand two hundred and thirty years later, Ludwig Borchardt, Egyptological attaché of the German Reich, hurried across a dusty, pockmarked plain. His young assistant was waiting impatiently at the entrance to one of the many excavation pits; he explained that they had found the remains of a buried house—though
it was once grand, it had seemed that thieves and the passage of time had left little of value. Then a local workman, clearing away thousands of years of muck and rubble, had found a section of wall that seemed bricked up in haste. The age-old blocks had given way at the touch of his chisel, falling into blackness on the other side.

Borchardt climbed into the ditch and made his way hastily through the dust and shadows to this secret chamber. Reaching the opening cleared by the workmen, he stepped carefully over the broken bricks. Pushing his torch ahead of him, he peered into the small room—and froze. Rows of stone heads gazed out at him like ghosts, lines of shimmering faces, each one unique, each perfectly rendered with the kinks and scars of life—a furrowed brow, a wrinkled smile. It was as if an assembly of these ancient people had gathered to pass on a message from the other side.

Then he saw her: on the floor, half hidden by a fallen ledge. With his bare hands, Borchardt thrust aside the debris to pull her out. When he held her up to the torchlight, he became the first man in over three thousand years to look upon the full beauty of Nefertiti.

Back in his office that night, December 6, 1912, Borchardt scribbled in his diary, “absolutely outstanding; describing is useless, must be seen.” Then he began plotting how he could bring the great queen back to his kaiser.


living things seek to perpetuate themselves into the future, but humans seek to perpetuate themselves forever. This seeking—this will to immortality—is the foundation of human achievement; it is the wellspring of religion, the muse of philosophy, the architect of our cities and the impulse behind the arts. It is embedded in our very nature, and its result is what we know as civilization.

Although magnificent in the scale and sophistication of its expression, ancient Egypt’s obsession with eternal life was otherwise
no different from that of every society, ancient or modern, Eastern or Western. The dream of some kind of life without end is a universal feature of human experience, common to all cultures across time and place—and still today driving us on toward new achievements that surpass even the pyramids.

This book will do three things: First, it will show that beneath the apparent diversity of stories about how immortality is to be attained there are just
basic forms—what I will call the four
immortality narratives
. All attempts at everlasting life that have ever been made—and ever will be—follow one or another of these four. From Egypt to China, New York to New Delhi, people today are following these narratives in the belief that they will deliver them from death, just as people always have. We can imagine them as four paths leading toward the mythical Mount of the Immortals.

These narratives are responses to fundamental constants in the human condition. Yet different cultures at different times have shown enormous ingenuity in elaborating these basic frameworks; they are a continuous source of inspiration, innovation and creativity. They are the ways in which we channel our most simple urge—to live on—yet they have led to our most sophisticated intellectual, religious and artistic achievements. The second aim of this book is to show how our efforts to clear these four paths and prepare for the ascent up the Mount of the Immortals have thrown up what we know as civilization—the institutions, rituals and beliefs that make human existence what it is.

But although the summit of everlasting life is where these four paths are pointed, whether they get there is an altogether different question. The peak remains above the clouds; those who reach it do not return to tell the story. Today we are in a far better position than any of our ancestors to map out this terrain and assess whether any of these paths reach their destination. Modern science is giving us fresh insights into the origins of life and the end of the universe; we can peer into brains in search of the soul, and we are developing
new technologies that promise to defeat aging. Therefore the third thing this book will do is draw on these new insights to examine which of these four narratives have a real prospect of taking us to where we might live forever.

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