Questions on a Very Long Life

[This letter is part of the Little Letter Republic, a project whose purpose is to build community in St. Louis]

Dear Hamuel,

About 10 years ago my grandmother and I leaned on a balcony under moonlight in Florida. The black ocean licked sand so white that beneath the pale moon the sand glowed like an enormous, bioluminescent eel, a littoral Jörmungand waiting to be scratched by the bare toes of vacationers. My grandma said to me that summer night, “You know though I’m 68, in my heart I still feel like I’m 17.” When she was 17, she had her first kid, and thus that was the year of her adulthood. The implication was that the body ages but the soul still savors life, still loves youth and laughter, friends and song. If the eyes didn’t dim, and the mind didn’t go, and the knees didn’t ache, would we want to retire to eternal rest? Or would the sweetness inherent in life keep us here?

You and I discussed at length previously the passage in De Anima in which Aristotle posits that it is not vision which fails, and the soul does not grow old, and the intellect has the capacity to be eternal.

The case of mind is different; it seems to be an independent substance implanted within the soul and to be incapable of being destroyed. If it could be destroyed at all, it would be under the blunting influence of old age. What really happens in respect of mind in old age is, however, exactly parallel to what happens in the case of the sense organs; if the old man could recover the proper kind of eye, he would see just as well as the young man. The incapacity of old age is due to an affection not of the soul but of its vehicle, as occurs in drunkenness or disease. Thus it is that in old age the activity of mind or intellectual apprehension declines only through the decay of some other inward part; mind itself is impassible. – De Anima 1.4 408b

As per our previous conversation about the immortality of the soul, I have some follow up questions about long-livedness. Let’s imagine, as an intuition pump, that you will live out your body’s 40’s over the course of about 500 years, during your last 50 years of life you will age normally. (A small population of people also partaking in the thought experiment may also live this long, but not very many as we don’t have FDA approval for mass testing). Given a much longer life span what would change?

  1. Would you change your behavior in life? If so, how and why?
  2. Would the nature of the good life change? No? But the requirements you would need to procure a good life would change, right? And if the necessary accidents for securing a good life change, then in what sense are they accidents if they are necessary? There’s a bit of a puzzle here.
  3. Do you think human psychology can adapt to deal with such an extended lifespan? Why or why not?
  4. If you could adjust the number of years you will live in those long 40s to any round number what is farthest you would be willing to go?

As always, I cast the questions in the most misleading and equivocating manner I could. Avoid the traps and hooks and take the best bait you can without getting reeled in.

Good swimming,

1 thought on “Questions on a Very Long Life

  1. One would in fact need to be an eel in order to space himself properly between the coral reef-like layers of your questions, but I’ll endeavor to posit some answers that aren’t too shocking. Admittedly, my intuition is pumped in two conflicting directions by your thought experiment – I’ll do my best to fill both containers.

    Your grandmother, it seems to me, is on to something true, albeit only partially – if we are to trust self-reporting on the matter. There are some who, “on the threshold of old age,” speak in harmony with your grandmother – perhaps our earliest representative of this way of thinking in the Western Canon is the character of Cephalus from Book I of the “Republic.” Recall how Socrates gracefully requests that Cephalus tell him what it is like being so old; recall also how Cephalus responds with good spirit, reflecting happily on the liberating nature of the dissipation of his desires. As an old man, he reports, his body no longer controls his actions and he can fill his time with contemplation and philosophy – one can almost see the wrinkles on his forehead pronounce themselves as he spins this account. Yet one can also nearly see Cephalus’ eyebrows raise in horror as he realizes he’s a bad contemplator once Socrates plays his usual game, showcasing Cephalus’ ignorance on the very matters he declares most important. This character’s brief appearance in Plato’s most famous work is easy to overlook – but so too is the value of the contemplative life when one is young and spry.

    There are others who would seek to refute your grandmother – I can think of a handful of good old people whose lives have been filled with difficulty and heaps of misery. Some of these aged folks whose bodies have not begun disintegrating have instead experienced psychological disintegration – the life of the mind is not sweet for them, but rather something to reckon with, to bury away or bluster about. I believe these are important considerations to hold in place as we probe your questions, for their general theme seems to be: How would life be if we could extend the life of the soul 400 years beyond the human body’s usual expiration date?

    1) *Would I change my behavior in life?* Why yes, I would, but I am not sure I can answer how. There’s a problem that would arise in many domains, but let’s just zoom in on ethical conduct or behavior. If you agree that we need role models who inspire our decision making, and you agree that these are integral to any healthy sort of ethical development, then what recourse do you think that our 500 year-long-livers will have with respect to becoming better people? How would one even begin to consider either the proper way to form long-term intentions or the far-reaching consequences of their actions? This is unsettled territory – and with a glib invocation of the causal likeness principle, I can surmise that the life lived in these circumstances would be unsettling.

    Sitting here in my body that I can only hope will endure for 90 years, the prospect of living 500 is tantalizing: think of all that I could spend my time doing, prepping early for a life of contemplation by setting up passive income streams in my first 100 years, making as much room for leisure as possible. But upon further reflection, I must note that the prospect appears like it’d be a source of intense psychological paralysis. I’ve heard tell of a Soviet spy in the US who thought he’d been tricked when he encountered an average grocery store with apparently limitless options; he turned himself in, only to learn that most of the grocery stores in the US were of the same sort. It is easy to imagine him paralyzed in indecision, in aisle 12, face to face with brand after brand of breakfast cereal. I bring this up because it seems instructive for our present purposes. Imagining comparatively limitless options from the vantage point of intense constraint is one thing, and perhaps joy-inducing; finding oneself face to face with limitless options is another thing all together – what do you do when you get there, and how do you even begin organizing your thoughts in the moment?

    2) *Would the nature of the good life change?* Yes, and it would be harder to achieve. The twists and turns of fortune and chance are enough to rip happiness from people who would otherwise attain it in an 80 year lifespan. Can you imagine the cumulative rolls of the dice that would attend a 500 year life? One can hardly plan well enough for the traffic that impedes showing up on time for work – how well can one plan for the obstacles in the way of actualizing a life-plan that spans centuries? From our vantage point, would it be better to consider that a 500-year-liver would live multiple lives, constantly re-inventing himself? If not, what’s to stop the average 500-year-life from appearing as a patchwork of different eras or a succession of different lives? Wouldn’t the person who found out how to actualize a complete, singularly-oriented, 500-year-life be incredibly rare? I think that there would be fewer happy 500-year-olds than there are happy 100-year-olds at present (and these are already scarce).

    Your puzzle about necessary accidents eludes me – here’s a necessary accident: dogs all must have hair of a certain color (having colored hair is on the side of the necessary, but which color the hair is sits on the side of the accidental).

    3) *Do I think that human psychology can handle the increased lifespan?* This question touches on part of where my initially conflicting intuitions arose from – I do not think that the average person could handle all of a sudden having an extra 400 years or so to live. At first, it would be amazing to consider the limitless opportunities; on second thought, it would be awfully difficult to decide what to do or where to start. I suppose the answer to this question depends on the answer to the following one: Do average people have midlife crises because they know time is running out, or do they have midlife crises because they feel they have wasted the time they have already spent? In other words: do people fear that they have not fulfilled a purpose because they will die someday soon, or do they fear it because they haven’t fulfilled a purpose in the time they’ve already had to live?

    4) *Well-adjusted 40s?* I am not sure why you have extended the 40s in your original thought experiment – would it make a difference if you extended the 30s instead, or the 50s? Which time of life would benefit most from maximizing its experience? If I could re-frame the experiment, I’d extend the 20s or 30s to 450 years since these are psychologically more plastic. If we wanted the subjects of our experiments to have the best chance to survive psychologically through this 500 year journey, then I think placing the majority of those years earlier in the stages of their lives would prove most successful.

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