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Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization
by Stephen Cave


Stephen Cave argues in his latest book that it is mankind’s obsession with living beyond the body’s death that drives civilization. From the great monuments to the pharaohs built by the Egyptians to modern cryogenics, innovation and civilization result from the quest for immortality. Cave explores four major routes to immortality and whether he thinks they are achievable. They are:
  • Staying Alive: prolonging the lifespan of the physical body
  • Resurrection: the idea that the dead will one day be reanimated in their physical bodies
  • Soul: the individual consciousness survives in a form beyond death
  • Legacy: living on in human memory or through descendents

For each immortality narrative, he looks first to history for examples of men and women who believed this version of extending life or an afterlife, and then looks to modern technology and the future to see what humanity is able to do. Cave also studies art, literature, poetry and other aspects of society for the influence of these narratives.

I liked many of the examples Cave chose to illustrate his four main ideas. For “Resurrection” he looked to St. Paul and the early Christian church, who believed that the physical body would be brought back to life, just as Christ’s body was resurrected after three days in the grave. Alexander the Great’s conquest and his emulation of the hero Achilles frame the arguments for “Legacy”.

Depending on your point of view, this is either an extremely pessimistic or optimistic book. As a philosopher, Cave’s weapon of choice is logic, and he uses this to destroy each of the four narratives. Or, to put it more gently, he sticks purely to scientific evidence when seeking proof of the viability of each scheme, so when it comes to concepts like that of a ‘soul’, he rejects it because there is no physical evidence for it. But a soul as most people understand it wouldn’t be provable scientifically.

While the book is moves with a smooth rhythm, with even a little humor thrown in, every once in a while Cave becomes very patronizing, as he did during the discussion of souls: “No doubt some people are muddling along just fine with, for example, their reassuring belief in an immortal soul.” The word choice rubbed me the wrong way, but I generally enjoyed the book and was glad to read it, because it made me really consider some of my deepest-held beliefs.

4 out of 5 stars

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