Friday, February 8, 2008

Mortality as a blessing?

I was reading George Weigel's, Letters to a Young Catholic last night, when I came across quotations from an article by Leon Kass entitled, "L’Chaim and Its Limits: Why Not Immortality?" It's very long but very good, so if you have the time, please read the whole thing. In light of the news a few days ago about scientists creating a three-parent embryo, I found it enlightening. Our culture is afraid of death and suffering, perhaps largely because our culture doesn't believe in eternal life and happiness. Below are a few points explored in the article:

"Conquering death is not something that we can try for a while and then decide whether the results are better or worse-according to, God only knows, what standard. On the contrary, this is a question in which our very humanity is at stake, not only in the consequences but also in the very meaning of the choice. For to argue that human life would be better without death is, I submit, to argue that human life would be better being something other than human. To be immortal would not be just to continue life as we mortals now know it, only forever. The new immortals, in the decisive sense, would not be like us at all. If this is true, a human choice for bodily immortality would suffer from the deep confusion of choosing to have some great good only on the condition of turning into someone else. Moreover, such an immortal someone else, in my view, will be less well off than we mortals are now, thanks indeed to our mortality.

"It goes without saying that there is no virtue in the death of a child or a young adult, or the untimely or premature death of anyone, before they had attained to the measure of man’s days. I do not mean to imply that there is virtue in the particular event of death for anyone. Nor am I suggesting that separation through death is not painful for the survivors, those for whom the deceased was an integral part of their lives. Instead, my question concerns the fact of our finitude, the fact of our mortality-the fact that we must die, the fact that a full life for a human being has a biological, built-in limit, one that has evolved as part of our nature. Does this fact also have value? Is our finitude good for us-as individuals? (I intend this question entirely in the realm of natural reason and apart from any question about a life after death.)

"To praise mortality must seem to be madness. If mortality is a blessing, it surely is not widely regarded as such. Life seeks to live, and rightly suspects all counsels of finitude. “Better to be a slave on earth than the king over all the dead,” says Achilles in Hades to the visiting Odysseus, in apparent regret for his prior choice of the short but glorious life. Moreover, though some cultures-such as the Eskimo-can instruct and moderate somewhat the lust for life, liberal Western society gives it free rein, beginning with a political philosophy founded on a fear of violent death, and reaching to our current cults of youth and novelty, the cosmetic replastering of the wrinkles of age, and the widespread anxiety about disease and survival. Finally, the virtues of finitude-if there are any-may never be widely appreciated in any age or culture, if appreciation depends on a certain wisdom, if wisdom requires a certain detachment from the love of oneself and one’s own, and if the possibility of such detachment is given only to the few. Still, if it is wisdom, the rest of us should hearken, for we may learn something of value for ourselves."

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