We’ll never die, and neither will vulgarity

You must have heard anti-Semites say “some of my best friends are Jewish?”, hoping to exonerate themselves from a charge of bigotry.

Public house philosophy is still going strong

Well, I use a similar stratagem to claim I’m tolerant of intellectual dissent. Some of my close friends are atheists, some – even worse – are agnostics, others – still worse – are empiricists.

However, none of them is vulgar. If they were, they wouldn’t be my friends because I agree with Oscar Wilde that “all vulgarity is a crime”. Breaking bread with an atheist is one thing, doing so with a vulgarian is another.

This explains why I read papers like The Times, even though their opinion pages hardly ever feature valid opinions. However, though most of their columnists write rubbish, at least they tend not to impersonate a voice speaking out of the burning bush.

And it also explains why I never sully my hands with either The Guardian or The Times Literary Supplement, and it’s not because they are left-wing. It’s just that the former is produced by smug pseuds with ill-founded cultural pretensions, and the latter, by smug pseuds who have turned their ill-founded cultural pretensions into a cult. Both are irredeemably vulgar.

If I all of a sudden began to waver in this assessment, the TLS article The Last Mortals by Regina Rini would instantly get me back on track. The article came to me courtesy of a friend, and I read it as a courtesy to the friend.

Miss Rini is identified in the heading as a philosopher. Not just that, but she actually won the 2018 Marc Sanders Award in Public Philosophy.

Now each time I hear the term ‘public philosophy’, I wonder what it means. Is it distinct from private philosophy? I’m grateful to Miss Rini for elucidating the point, albeit unwittingly.

Judging by her long article, ‘public philosophy’ is short for ‘public house philosophy’. It’s the kind of fanciful twaddle one overhears in a pub where a couple of chaps are on their tenth pints.

Every writer tends to address some target readership. The readers Miss Rini evidently sees in her mind’s eye are intellectually challenged individuals who read mostly science fiction and who are in the thrall of parallel universes, UFOs, green aliens with feelers on their heads, and J. R. R. Tolkien.

She sets her stall by saying that regular advances in medical science are such that in some near future the problem of death will be solved. Life expectancy is steadily growing, and we now live twice as long as the contemporaries of Byron and Shelley.

Give it another few decades, and no one will ever die. Why, a recent study “detected a strong correlation between unusual human longevity and a genotype called FOXO3A. The pieces seem to be there; perhaps it is only a matter of time before we learn how to fit them together.”

And, “if you are currently under the age of forty, then you can plan to meet young people who will live to see 2157,” while by that time the only people who’ll ever die will be those who’ll want to, or else victims of accidents or global warming.

Now if Miss Rini were an expert in biology, rather than philosophy, all this popular science for the masses would be moderately interesting to Tolkien buffs, among whom I proudly don’t count myself.

But being a philosopher, she needs to philosophise, and that’s where the roof caves in. Her piece outlines in broad strokes the plight of the last mortals who will overlap with the immortals, the way Neanderthals overlapped with Cro-Magnons.

Imagine you’re a decrepit 130-year-old knowing you’ll soon peg it. Yet all around you are sprightly 110-year-old youngsters who are immortal beneficiaries of the scientific advances that came just a tad too late for you. Wouldn’t you be upset?

“It’s better never to have a crack at immortality than knowingly to miss it by the tiniest margin,” she writes, establishing the philosophical premise and forging on from there. 

First, from the height of the dizzying progress philosophy has made over centuries, Miss Rini disagrees with Seneca and Diogenes that death is no big deal. Life is wonderful, hence the more of it, the better.

Anyway, the type of immortality she has in mind “is not a magical one where death is strictly impossible. But it is the practical removal of death’s certainty. Biological immortals would no longer expect to die within any relevant time frame.”

Unless, of course they’ll want to die, “what with growing climate catastrophes and rampant overpopulation by the long-lived.” But not to worry: “they could always choose to end their lives when there is nothing new left to them.”

I’m sure that within the time-frame Miss Rini envisages, a visit to Dignitas will no longer be necessary. Your friendly local pharmacy will by then carry pre-loaded DIY syringes guaranteeing a painless passage into oblivion, a development I’d guess she’d welcome.

Indeed: “To have the option of living healthily a very long time, possibly for as long as one could want (but no longer), seems like an unmitigated blessing.”

Being a philosopher, Miss Rini co-opts support from other great thinkers, not just Seneca and Diogenes, but also Epicurus, Freud, Borges, Simone de Beauvoir and Bill Murray who starred in the film Groundhog Day – and these are just those I’ve heard of.

Yet being a young and, more important, modern philosopher, she managed to write several thousand words on immortality without once as much as mentioning Christianity. For a Western philosopher, that takes some doing.

I’m not suggesting, God forbid, that young modern philosophers should all be Christians. That’s like suggesting that British trains should run on time – a sheer impossibility in other words.

But surely any philosopher ought to be at least aware of the critical, life-giving role the Christian concept of immortality played in the founding of our civilisation? No, perhaps that would be too much to expect from modern vulgarians.

Yet everything that happened between the Incarnation, which established an eternal link between God and man, and the Resurrection, which showed that life everlasting is implicit in that link, was the birth cry of Western civilisation, the nourishment without which it would never have been born.

I realise that this sort of thing would take Miss Rini out of her depth – why, it would probably take those who taught her philosophy out of their depth too. Nor, as I’ve mentioned, can anyone expect her to believe something she hasn’t read in a popular science magazine.

This objection would be invalid if she stayed within the boundaries of the sort of stuff such magazines are made of. She could even hold my attention for the minute or two it would take to bore me rigid.

But she’s described as a philosopher, and an award-winning one to boot. I started to tear out what’s left of my hair, but then I remembered she’s really a public house philosopher and calmed down.

I’ll have another one, landlord, and make it a double. Less ice this time please.

1 thought on “We’ll never die, and neither will vulgarity”

  1. One result of removing the biological certainty of death would be a veritable epidemic of hypochondria. Something as simple as a car ride would bring one to the brink of throwing away centuries of life!

    Now that God’s dead and buried, I thought the plan was to upload one’s consciousness to a computer where one can frolic in a virtual reality forevermore. Well, at least until the next power cut.

    I think it far more likely that some sort of neurological procedure will be devised that completely removes the fear of death from the mind. But surely existential dread is the defining characteristic of man?

    A truly pertinent question would be: is any price to high for those who wish to avoid eternal oblivion?

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