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Food for Thought

Forward to Methusaleh

Tim Madigan hopes to not die before he gets old.

“The goddess Dawn married a mortal named Tithonus, whom Zeus made immortal for her sake; but she forgot to ask that he might always stay young. Tithonus grew older and older, greyer and greyer, uglier and uglier, smaller and smaller, until he ended up as a grasshopper.”
Robert Graves, Greek Gods and Heroes

Thanks to more effective medical procedures and an increasing knowledge of our genetic structures, human life expectancy has dramatically increased. Compared to the beginning of the Twentieth Century, when to reach the age of 60 was an achievement, the number of people today who were born over a century ago is astonishing.

But for Tithonus, long life in and of itself was no blessing. While his immortal bride remained eternally youthful, he withered away in pain and agony, and finally begged Zeus for the gift of death. The big issue for him, and for us, is not the quantity but the quality of life. Granted that old age is a real possibility for most of us, what kind of a life can we expect?

Edward O. Wilson, the Pellegrino University Research Professor at Harvard, was recently quoted as saying “I see no reason why humanity and the species as a whole cannot be immortal, at least until the last reachable stars die.” Such comments were once solely in the realm of science fiction, or in the teachings of religious mystics who promised immortality in a life beyond this one. But Wilson is one of the world’s most respected science writers. While true immortality may still be a chimera, he thinks that for most of us achieving the age of 150 is certainly possible, adding that “If body and mind were whole and active, yes, I’d want to live that long.”

But there’s the rub. Daniel Kelves, another noted science writer and a visiting professor of bioethics at Princeton, wrote an editorial for the New York Times entitled ‘Life on the Far Side of 150’, which laid out some objections to this state of affairs becoming general. Kelves points out that “At least one huge detail remains unaddressed: whether the 200-year-olds’ mental powers will match their physical ones.” In a way, this is the opposite of Tithonus’ agony. In the myth, he was still mentally acute, but a physical wreck.

However, it is important to note that one of the research areas that will most effect the quality of life in the Twenty-First Century is understanding consciousness and the human brain. There is no need to assume that Alzheimer’s and other such debilitating mental disorders will still be a danger in the years ahead. So suppose one could retain both physical and mental health well into one’s second century of life. Why would this not be worth desiring?

Kelves raises other objections. He argues that forestalling death will only exacerbate the many social crises caused by inadequate health care, overpopulation and a disproportionate number of aged citizens. In addition, since the biotechnical procedures necessary for longevity will be expensive, the rich will be the chief beneficiaries, and there will be even greater disparities between such elites and the general public than now.

The last argument, though, can be used against any type of technology. Initially, it usually is the rich who benefit, but public demand has a way of eventually making such high-status possibilities open to a larger and larger pool. As the 20th Century began, the number of people able to afford a Model T was very small, too.

In a fundamental way, Kelves and other critics who question life-extension fail to address the basic fact that most of us would like to live longer if we could. Surely the demand for these new procedures will continue to increase. The chief opponents of life-extension technologies per se tend to favor a natural law approach to ethics, which holds that our time on earth is conditioned by nature. This is a specious form of reasoning however. One could as easily argue that nature intends us to be dead by the age of 30, after we’ve served our purpose in the great chain of being by reproducing and making sure our offspring survive. But we don’t follow this view. If one wants to give a theological argument that our natural life span is determined by God, then I would point to Methusaleh as a role model. He made it to nine hundred and sixty-nine years without any record of being bored.

My own role models are not Biblical or mythological figures, but rather two of the most brilliant and compassionate public figures of the last century. The philosophers John Dewey (who lived to the age of 93) and Bertrand Russell (who made it to 97), fought all their lives for the values of free inquiry, public education and the right to lead a fulfilling existence without reliance upon comforting superstitions. They were fortunate to have inherited good genes, but I suspect their lifestyles also helped them to hang around for as long as they did. Life was just too interesting for them to want to depart it any time soon.

Therein lies the challenge for philosophers. By accepting the fact that our time on earth will increase, and advocating this possibility for all citizens, we also need to be in the forefront of encouraging new ways of thinking about what constitutes a good life. It might have made sense when life expectancy was low for couples to have children as soon as puberty set in, and to have as many as possible, since a large percentage would not survive. But the biological clock for women can now be somewhat rewound, and the need to decide between a career and having children is no longer as urgent as it once was. With the possibility of long life, perhaps it would no longer makes sense for eighteen year olds to go directly into college after high school. Taking time to see the world, or going into public service of some sort, can be balanced with a full academic life following. The romantic ideal of a relationship lasting a lifetime might not be so appealing when those lifetimes span centuries.

The main task then, is to try to bring about a society where the elderly remain active and essential members. Modern-day Tithonuses perhaps suffer more from feeling unwanted and unappreciated than from their physical or mental disabilities. Let’s start thinking that we’re in this world for the long haul, and then start to make that long haul more exciting. The new motto could well be taken from that far-thinking visionary Gene Roddenberry: “Live long and prosper.”

© Dr Timothy R. Madigan 2006

Tim Madigan is a US Editor of Philosophy Now. He teaches Philosophy at St John Fisher College in Rochester, NY.

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