ENGLISH 2 WRITTEN EXAM
Read the article below (it is an interview with Andrew
Keen, author of The Internet is not the Answer) and
then answer the three questions at the end.
Watching the Ashley Madison hack unfold would make even Pollyanna doubt human virtues.
The Internet service itself—a tool for partners to cheat on their significant others—was bad
enough. But then hackers stole and leaked private data of 30 million users, leaving an
aftermath of shattered families, unconfirmed suicides and devastated careers. Extortionists are
now adding fuel to the inferno, falsely promising to expunge records for AM users who
haven’t yet been outed.
The scenario highlights the digital dark side that author and entrepreneur Andrew Keen
criticizes in his latest book The Internet Is Not the Answer. Keen, who reaped the Web’s
benefits as the founder of Audiocafe.com and an employee at various technology companies,
has turned sour on Internet culture. “Rather than making us happy,” he writes, “it’s
compounding our rage.” Keen is director of FutureCast, a series of salon-style discussions
with tech influencers, and hosts Internet chat show “Keen On,” where he bills himself as the
“Antichrist of Silicon Valley.”
While Keen takes big swipes at the Net’s impact on humanity, he doesn’t completely sidestep
tech’s benefits; rather, he wants humans to take more responsibility for shaping the
technology that shapes us. We asked Keen to expand on those views for #maketechhuman.
What excites you about where we’re headed with technology?
I’m excited by technology that can really solve profound problems like educating people who
have had no chance historically and who might have a chance if they learn to read. I was just
reading The Economist, which has a story about $1-a-week schools.
Technology that solves core problems like global warming… While I’m dubious in some
ways of self-driving cars, because of the big-data element and the idea that we can be tracked
wherever we go, the idea and the principal notion of self-driving cars can solve a lot of our
environmental problems and also be a tremendous lifesaver.
Most aspects of technology excite me—and that we have enough problems in the world for it
to address. What doesn’t excite me is the way in which some people, particularly in Silicon
Valley, think all solutions are technological.
What worries you?
The thing that most worries me is the way in which technology is on the verge of destroying
jobs. More and more technology is replacing labor whether it’s drivers or people who work in
stores and I think that we’re on the brink of a profound crisis in labor.
I also think about privacy. We’re not literally in public but I think it’s harder and harder to
maintain a really private life in the big-data age where companies like Google and Facebook
know everything about us and their business model is mining our data. It doesn’t mean
they’re evil. They’re not Big Brother. This isn’t 1984. It’s something different, but it’s still
Why are you such an outspoken critic of Internet culture?
The idea of there being technology and culture, or technology and society, or technology and
the individual, and technology shaping those things is very problematic. Technology is part of
a complex web of things that are determining our identity. Technology itself wasn’t delivered
by a stork. It comes with cultural assumptions and biases of its own. It comes out of a specific
place, particularly in Northern California. So rather than seeing technology as the cause of
narcissism or isolation or loneliness or ignorance, it’s both a cause and a consequence of both
the great strengths and weaknesses of our culture.
There’s no doubt that there’s a lot of remarkable creativity and energy, vitality, vibrancy on
the Internet, but on the other hand, it’s also compounding the narcissism of our culture.
Narcissism wasn’t invented by the digital revolution. Greeks were the ones who invented the
idea of it. We’ve always been a little bit in love with ourselves, but selfie culture certainly
compounds that. It’s creating a culture of what Nicholas Carr calls “the shallows,” where we
can’t concentrate on anything. Where we’re forever obsessed with the latest new thing.
Douglas Rushkoff calls it the “culture of now,” where we’ve lost both our ability to remember
and to forget. Many of the things which I think are troubling people are themselves
problematic about the Web, and I think one has to be very careful not to fall into the trap of
blaming everything on the Internet.
You’ve said the Internet needs a “Bill of Responsibilities.” What would you include?
When I talk about a bill of responsibilities, I’m contrasting that with the idea of a bill of
rights, which Tim Berners-Lee calls for. The idea of a bill of responsibility is it’s part of a
social contract. When we go on there, we have certain obligations. One thing would be to treat
other people decently, not to steal other people’s content. We have a bill of responsibilities
towards ourselves not to be addicted to this thing, so we don’t spend 12 hours a day checking
our Facebook updates, and our Twitter updates, and our email. The idea of responsibility is
something that’s lacking broadly in our culture and it’s certainly lacking on the Internet.
That’s what troubles me about, say, the network neutrality debates—the idea that they’re
taking the Internet away from us. As if the Internet is this thing that was delivered to
everybody on Christmas because we behave well, which is nonsense.
We don’t deserve the Internet. Most of us don’t deserve the Internet because we’re abusing it.
I like the idea of a bill of responsibilities as something that gets to the core of what’s going on.
That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have rights on the Internet, but I think that
responsibilities are more important than rights, and if we were more responsible in our use I
think [the Internet] would be a better place.
How you do think about the Internet in your personal life?
As a communications tool, as an information resource, it’s invaluable. I couldn’t do one
percent of what I do without the Internet.
We have to get beyond this idea that either one is against technology and living in a cave or
one is super-networked. The reality is that most of us are super-networked, but we’re also
ambivalent about some of the technology and that’s the camp I would put myself in. I’m
anything but a Luddite. One of the things that annoys some of my critics is that they cannot
believe that I’m both an entrepreneur and a critic. You can be—and actually the best ones are,
like Jaron Lanier. He invented virtual reality and now he’s very critical of technological
How do you imagine our digital society will evolve?
One of the dangers of my kind of work and position is that we can fall into this generational
trap. We turn into a generational island and say there’s people like myself who appreciate
books and movies, and then there’s young people who are ignorant and stupid and wasting
their time on Twitter and Facebook. The reality is that all of us, whether we’re 60 or 16, are
wrapped up in a lot of this nonsense.
My belief is that we’re going to be led out of this by young people. We’re still in the 1950s
with all this technology. We’re still in the Eisenhower years, where we never had it so good.
We’re on the brink of the ’60s—the rebellion. The kids who are growing up now and have
been given iPhones since they were two, who are being surrounded with all this technology,
they’re the ones who are going to rebel. People who’ve grown up in purely digital culture are
going to rediscover the book; they’re going to rediscover physical newspapers; they’re going
to rediscover the physical meeting.
Write out the ten passages underlined IN YOUR OWN
Write a summary of the whole article in about 300 words
Do you agree with the argument in the concluding
paragraph in italics? Write an answer in about 300 words
ENGLISH 2 EXAM
Read the article below and then do the following THREE things.
1. Put the passages underlined into your own words. (10 pts)
2. Summarise the main points of the article (10 pts)
3. Comment upon the article giving your own views of its
arguments (10 pts)
Do we really want to live forever – or even for an extremely long
It might seem that this is something we would relish. After all, we have
a strong instinct of self-preservation. Danger rarely raises a yawn, while to
be saved from death brings gasps of relief and a new appreciation of life. 1
Suicide is rare, and frequently provoked by intolerable conditions of health
or life. Therefore it would appear that we love life and want as much of it
as we can get. This is the point at which Miguel de Unamuno seems to
arrive in his Tragic Sense of Life:
What we really long for after death is to go on living this life,
this same mortal life, but without its ills, without its tedium
and without death. Seneca, the Spaniard, gave expression to
this in his Consolatio ad Marciam (xxvi); what he desired
live this life again: ista moliri. And what Job asked for (xix
was to see God in the flesh, not in the spirit. And what but
the meaning of that comic conception of eternal
issued from the tragic soul of poor Nietzsche, hungering for
concrete and temporal immortality?
Unamuno thinks that what we desire is this life with a few
unpleasantnesses shaved away - illness, chores and death. That is why, in
his view, writers as different as Seneca, Job and Nietzsche all want to
ground their views of the hereafter in what they are already experiencing
here on earth.
'How well the Spiritualists bait their hook', writes C.S.Lewis. '"Things on
this side are not so different after all." There are cigars in Heaven. For that
is what we should all like. The happy past restored.'
But is that true? In the sense that Lewis, grieving after the loss of his
wife, wanted her back again, it might have been true. But is a future that
stretches this life out to eternity, while peeling away a few discomforts,
really what we long for in any afterlife? Lewis may not be right in the view
that we just want the happy past restored and then extended indefinitely.
One could tire of an endless supply of cigars, even if it no longer mattered
that they were a health hazard.
Mortality as a Friend
One of the most famous accounts of the supposed bitterness of
immortality is provided by Jonathan Swift in 'Gulliver's Travels'. Swift
introduces us to the immortals of Luggnagg, called Struldbrugs, who are
born with a red spot on their foreheads over their left eyebrows, a
characteristic that marks them out to live forever.
Gulliver is asked what he thinks of the Struldbrugs. His initial reaction is
that theirs is an enviable state. They are 'born exempt from that universal
calamity of human nature ... without the weight and depression of spirits
caused by the continual apprehension of death.'
Gulliver's hosts are interested in this remark, and ask him what he would
do if he were himself a Struldbrug. Gulliver replies that he would amass
wealth and learning, acquiring an encyclopaedic knowledge so as to
become a 'living treasury of knowledge and wisdom'. He would observe
with unceasing interest and wonder the path of history, seeing 'ancient
cities in ruins and obscure villages become the seats of kings'. He would
be able to record the advance of science and, if not moral advance (Swift
does not seem to allow for this - he talks of 'barbarity overrunning the
politest nations, and the most barbarous becoming civilised'), at least the
changing fortunes of different countries. He would cease to marry after 60
(by which time he would presumably be a widower) and would concentrate
upon educating the young with the wisdom born of his ever-lengthening
experience of life. We may conclude that Gulliver sees himself as an
eternally happy boulevardier of human existence, marking it, recording it
and from his greater knowledge of it instructing others.
Gulliver's reaction causes great amusement among the Luggnaggians.
They point out to him that countries without any Struldbrugs of their own
always fear death and see it as the greatest of evils. In such lands
'whoever had one foot in the grave was sure to hold back the other as
strongly as he could'. In Luggnagg, however, it was generally recognised
that immortality was a fate worse than death. Gulliver had forgotten the
effects of age. He was imagining himself forever in the prime of youth,
with the mental vigour and physical health that attend it. He should bear
in mind that the perpetual life the Struldbrugs lead comes with 'all the
usual disadvantages which old age brings along with it'. By the age of
eighty they have 'all the follies and infirmities of other old men', made
worse by the knowledge that there would be no escape from them to
death, the 'harbour of rest to which they themselves can never hope to
arrive'. Envy and impotent desires are their prevailing passions. Their
failing memories mean that they can hardly be the repositories of
knowledge and wisdom that Gulliver imagines them to be. 2 Over the
centuries senility steadily sets in, until they are robbed of the power of
reading - since by the time they reached the end of a sentence they have
forgotten how it began - and even of talking, since language has by then
changed out of recognition, making them foreigners in their own country.
As for their fellow human beings, they tend to despise these immortals. At
the age of eighty they lose their property to their heirs, have no
employment and are left to eke out a miserable existence on a pittance.
Their immortal lives are a misery to every one of them, except perhaps the
lucky minority who have relapsed into complete dotage. If in Gulliver's own
country there still exists a fear of death, his hosts tell him, he might like to
take one or two Struldbrugs with him in order to educate his fellow
Gulliver meets a few Struldbrugs and is persuaded that theirs is indeed a
miserable existence. He concludes that 'no tyrant could invent a death into
which I would not run with pleasure from such a life'.
Despite Swift's comments, there are plenty of people who seem
determined to live on, even as a Struldbrug. The last chapter mentioned
the interest in cryonics, a technique for keeping bodies at sub-zero
temperatures until a way can be found of reviving them. But even were it
to succeed, it would still raise all the problems of Swift's Struldbrugs.
Certainly it might be exciting to come back in a hundred years' time and
see how the world had changed - it would carry some of the excitement of
being whisked off in a time machine. But the seventy-year-old cancer
victim who is 'frozen' in, say, 2010, and spends two hundred years in
suspended animation, effectively comes back in 2210 as a seventy-yearold who has recovered from a two-hundred-year-long operation and now
has to find a way of continuing his or her life in an entirely unfamiliar
environment. He or she would continue to age, might well fall victim to
other diseases requiring further periods of suspended animation, and
would eventually lose so many faculties that at the age of a hundred and
ten or a hundred and twenty the option of coming back might not seem so
However, we might feel that Swift's account is less about the horrors of
immortality than the horrors of old age. Part of his satire concerned the
treatment of the elderly, and might well resonate in the twenty-first
century where the old are constantly portrayed in negative terms as a
drain upon the exchequer. 3 Immortality, we might feel, would indeed be
terrible if it was attended by the ever-increasing infirmity of old age. We
would be left, in the famous words of Jaques as he concludes his soliloquy
on the seven stages of human life in Shakespeare's As You Like It, 'sans
teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything' - and in the Struldbrugs
case sans an end to it all as well.
But there are other ways in which we might conceive of immortality. We
might, for instance, live forever at a particular age. The elixir of life, after
all, is one of eternal youth. If we were forever young, wouldn't immortality
then be the sort of unending delight that Gulliver at first imagined it to be?
Don't those people who keep hoping that somewhere in our genetic
makeup there lies the instructions for ageing and death have a justifiable
aim? They want to cut out the undesired instructions for ageing from the
corresponding strand of DNA and enable us to remain young indefinitely.
The argument therefore becomes that mortality is only a friend to those
who have to endure the terminal illness which we call ageing. If we could
be forever thirty years old, (the age often chosen by Christian writers
speculating about the afterlife, and taking the age when Jesus began his
ministry as the moment when a person is at the height of their powers)
what sort of a friend would mortality be to us then?
The Makropoulos Case
Interestingly, even the prospect of eternal youth has not led all writers
to embrace the prospect of living forever with relish. In 'The Makropoulos
Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality' Professor Bernard Williams
concentrates not on the question of whether we are immortal but, in his
words, 'what a good thing it is that we are not'. Though he regards death
as an evil, he also believes that 'from facts about human desire and
happiness and what a life is, it follows ... that immortality would be, where
conceivable at all, intolerable.'
'The Makropoulos Case' is the title of a play by the Czech writer Karel
Čapek. The play is less well known than the opera based upon it by Czech
composer Janaček. Its central character is a woman on whom the court
physician to a sixteenth century emperor has tried out the elixir of life. At
the time of the action she is 342 years old and her unending life has
resolved itself into boredom and coldness. She refuses to have anything
more to do with the elixir and dies; meanwhile a young woman destroys
Elina Makropoulos was 342 because she had been 42 for 300 years, so
her problem was not that like the Struldbrugs she had grown old and
decrepit. Through the repeated patterns of social contact that make up her
life, she increasingly finds that experiences happen to her without
affecting her, making her increasingly detached and withdrawn.
Everything is joyless to her.
Of course we may say that such a reaction depends on the character of
the person making it. We may also note, as Williams points out, that an
environment where everyone was immortal might have a different effect
to one in which, as in the Makropoulos case, only one person is. But he
does not think that these qualifications affect his main argument. '...to
suppose more generally that boredom and inner death would be
eliminated if everyone were similarly becalmed, is an empty hope: it would
be a world of Bourbons, learning nothing and forgetting nothing...' Elina
Makropoulos descends into 'boredom and distance from life'; these 'both
kill desire and consist in the death of it.' They show that the prospect of
immortality can be of no comfort to those 'who want to live longer because
they want to live more'.
Swift referred to the ageing Struldbrugs as becoming 'incapable of
friendship' and 'dead to all natural affection'. The suggestion of Čapek,
picked up by Williams, is that this might come from mere longevity, and
not through the ever-increasing mental and physical incapacity that
attends growing old. We would not lose our physical and mental virility,
but we would be drained of feeling and love. Life would be the endless
pleasure that ultimately cloys.
Wordsworth provides a slightly different variant of the idea that life loses
its vitality as we grow older:
There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;Turn whereso'er I may,
By night and day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
Wordsworth, unlike Williams, has a strong sense that we have come from
God ('trailing clouds of glory do we come/From God who is our home'), and
therefore that the magnificence we have lost is something which we once
had, as if life simply took us further and further away from the glorious
past we had in the direct presence of our Maker.
The poem is not, perhaps, entirely settled in its view. On the one hand
Wordsworth feels increasingly detached from nature and his childhood
vision, a sentiment that suggests Elina Makropoulos and her increasing
distance from life. On the other hand the poet strikes an optimistic chord
too. He is still linked to that childhood vision through memory and thought
- 'O joy! that in our embers/Is something that doth live' - and age does not
obliterate it - 'Though inland far we be,/ Our souls have sight of that
immortal sea/Which brought us hither'. Such a power of reawakening past
glory through the exercise of reflection can be compared to Wordsworth's
famous account of poetry as 'emotion recollected in tranquillity'.
Nevertheless, some of the most powerful passages of Wordsworth’s
poem present an inescapable sense of loss, of something that is either
irrecoverable or only recoverable second-hand, as if the person who fell
out of love had now to be content with reading about the passions of
others. 4 When the child grows up and 'fits his tongue' to 'dialogues of
business, life or strife', he is already parted from this early glory. He has
become 'the little Actor' who 'cons another part';
Filling from time to time his 'humorous stage'
With all the Persons, down to palsied Age,
That life brings with her in her equipage;
As if his whole vocation
Were endless imitation.
Endless life in the popular imagination
On a lighter but still significant note, the supposed boredom of endless
life has been a regular theme in science fiction. The only two of Terry
Pratchett's novels to centre upon science fiction themes, Strata and Dark
Side of the Sun, both suggest the tedium of immortality. In Strata rich
people don't die of old age; they pay for a regular operation. But 200-yearold Kin Arad, beneficiary of a surgical company that pays in 'days' rather
than cash (days added to life by surgical improvements), is the Struldbrug
tiring of life in this novel. Indeed as death becomes more avoidable, so the
willingness of people to go on dangerous, 'death-defying' expeditions
increases. All that happens through the great strides taken by medical
science to prevent people dying is an increasing take-up of backpacking
expeditions on the wrong side of Saturn.
In Dark Side of the Sun death is avoided through a technologically
guaranteed capacity to predict the future and thereby avoid all risks, with
similarly unrewarding results. Douglas Adams' Life, the Universe and
Everything has a similar theme with the 'infinitely prolonged Wowbagger',
who is made immortal by accident and can't cope with his 'good luck'.
Though Adams' book implies that there are immortals who do know how to
cope with endless life, we don't discover anything about how they do so. It
is Wowbagger's feelings, dreading yet another turgid Sunday afternoon,
that are given full rein.
It is not difficult to think of characters from literature with no end to their
lives in sight who are presented in a state of suffering, like the endlessly
wandering Flying Dutchman, captain of a ghostly ship doomed to sail the
seven seas forever, and for whom the 'land' he yearns for might as well be
the end of his life. Why else is the literary creation of the 'undead' seen as
a punishment rather than a reward? Dracula knows better than any the
endless wandering, the sadness of never-ending life. Such literary
creations appear to echo Mark Benecke’s view that ‘if death does not curb
life, life loses its value' He seems to think that continuous living here on
earth would make us feel like the pusillanimous souls in Dante’s Inferno
who are rejected by Heaven and Hell alike:
They are without even the hope of death;
Their blind existence is of such abjection
That they are envious of every other fate
Given the treatment it is given in much popular literature, we might be
inclined to feel some sympathy with the position of Professor Williams,
who died himself at the age of 70, keeping strictly to the requirements of a
biblical threescore years and ten. If suicide is, as this chapter began by
arguing, a rare event and most people relish the living of life, it is because
they are aware that it is relatively short. Were endless centuries of living
suddenly to stretch out before human beings, suicide might rapidly
become the most common cause of death.
Mortality as an enemy
Williams makes a powerful case for the potential staleness and ennui of
living forever, 5 which will be taken up and developed further in the
chapter on Heaven. However, some have questioned the creative impulse
brought by mortality as much as others have undermined that brought by
immortality. It should not be assumed, they suggest, that the coming of
death 'concentrates our minds wonderfully', as Dr. Johnson famously
remarked concerning the prospect of a hanging, or that somehow knowing
that the symphony will end enables us to enjoy the music even more. The
prospect of an inevitable end to our lives might instead drain us of energy
or immobilise us. Death might be the shocking reality round the corner
that saps us of our will to live or react. In other words, it might be
romanticising death to see it as the spur to creativity or even intensity of
feeling in this life.
An example of this view would be Philip Larkin's poem Aubade. The first
lines make it clear that the prospect of death has a negative rather than a
positive effect on the subject of the poem. Rather than being
'concentrated wonderfully' by the prospect of death, the mind of this
individual is distracted and upset by it.
I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
There is no sense here of the prospect of death somehow being
stimulating. Far from it. Death, which constantly 'stays just on the edge of
vision' as an 'unfocused blur' is described as 'a standing chill that slows
each impulse down to indecision'. Death does not encourage creativity. It
freezes it out, mesmerising the person who is moving closer every day
towards an unavoidable dissolution. Like an animal frozen by headlights in
the dark, the ageing individual can think of nothing else than impending
death. It could even be said that Larkin himself exemplified this, in that his
output dried up in middle age. Aubade, written in 1977 when he was 55,
was one of very few that he managed in the decade before his death.
Perhaps death had become the one thing that he could still write about.
The horror of death, the poem insists, has nothing to do with remorse for
things done or not done ('time torn off unused'), but rather concerns the
prospect of 'total emptiness forever', of 'the sure extinction that we travel
to and shall be lost in always'.
Religion, the poem goes on, offers no solution in its pretence that we
never die. Nor is there solace to be had in the Lucretian observation that
there is nothing to fear in death since we will not be there to regret the
situation we are in. For it is precisely the fact that we will not be there that
so upsets us, so that 'realisation of it rages out in furnace-fear when we
are caught without people or drink'. The phrase 'furnace-fear' suggests
imagery of hell, but a hell brought into this life precisely by the fear of
death. The only answer is to have recourse to distractions, like the
monarch described in Pascal's Pensées, forever demanding endless
entertainment from his court jester - in modern 'democratic' times
everyone has their personal court jester in the form of a television set.
Even courage in the face of death serves no purpose, because 'being
brave lets no one off the hook. Death is no different whined at than
Not only has it been claimed the prospect of death robs life of its
creativity, but it has also been claimed that it robs it of meaning. In Being
and Nothingness, Sartre examines the idea that ‘death becomes the
meaning of life as the resolved chord is the meaning of melody’. The
metaphor recalls the idea of a finite life as the only tolerable one, much as
even the most beautiful music can be heard once too often. However,
Sartre’s understanding is very different. Finitude, for him, is a very
different matter to death. Finitude is bound up with the fact that human
existence involves choices, and whatever we choose means inevitably
rejecting a different pathway through life. Sartre’s existentialism is
strongly based upon the idea of human freedom; not simply the pathway
we choose through life but our personality itself is a project made by our
will (he quotes approvingly Alain’s idea that ‘character is a vow’).
Death is not the basis or a condition of this freedom. It is an absurd
(Sartre’s own word to describe death) intrusion. In almost all cases it does
not appear ‘at the right time’ in order to round off a life, but (as the Bible
itself tells us – see Matthew 25:1-13, the parable of the ‘foolish virgins’)
like a thief in the night – ‘Keep awake then; for you never know the day or
Sartre compares us to a condemned prisoner (again there is the
suggestion of Dr. Johnson’s condemned man whose mind is being
‘concentrated wonderfully’) who prepares in his prison cell for the end to
come the next morning, only to be suddenly carried off prematurely by
‘flu. In another analogy Sartre offers, a good first book may show that
someone can be a great writer; or it may show that this writer had only
one good book in him or her. But if the person dies, it is impossible to tell,
and the sacrifices which this person made to art can never be properly
assessed. They might have been mediocre and destined never to write
better books; or they might have been a Balzac who died before Les
If the end were truly to be like the last chord of a symphony, then it
should not arrive by chance but be part of the melody as such. It is not,
however. There is what Sartre calls a ‘perpetual appearance of chance at
the heart of my projects’, 7 and this can never be apprehended as my
possibility – in other words taken up by me as part of my own project for
my life. Death can be part of no one’s life plan.
Thus death is never that which gives life its meanings; it is, on the
contrary, that which on principle removes all meaning from life. If we must
die, then our life has no meaning because its problems receive no solution
and because the very meaning of the problems remains undetermined.
Sartre’s strong sense of human freedom highlights something
important about the nature of death – something arguably closer to the
parable of the ‘foolish virgins’ in Matthew 25 than to the naïve assumption
that we are somehow entitled to our threescore years and ten (or more),
that medicine or ‘civilisation’ has somehow provided us all with a lifetime
guarantee. Death remains the unwelcome visitor who chooses his moment
rather than the welcome guest – as even Sartre puts it, ‘the Christian
death comes from God. He chooses our hour….’
This chapter raised the issue of whether an indefinitely prolonged life
would be experienced as increasingly unpleasant until we wished for an
end to it. Citing Swift, it suggested that were we to become increasingly
older and more frail, life would clearly become intolerable, but what if, like
Čapek's Elina Makropoulos, we stayed forever (at least so far as our
physical constitution was concerned) at one age, as in the mediaeval
dreams of an 'elixir'? Could life then be endlessly blissful as we met the
challenge of new projects, or is there some kind of built-in spiritual entropy
so that, like it or not, we become gradually more and more removed from
and tired of life, more separated from the 'glory' it once had (whether or
not we associate that 'glory' with childhood in quite the way Wordsworth
did)? Such considerations prepare us for the attempt to describe Heaven,
the traditionally 'dull partner' in attempts to visualise Heaven and Hell.
Does Heaven need to be more than life as it is, purged of a few
inconveniences and ailments? Though some might be ‘satisfied’ with that,
it seems that for others such a ‘heaven’ would very soon grow tiresome
and might even turn into its opposite.
This is not to say that extinction is to be embraced as a welcome
alternative to an indefinitely prolonged life. 8 We might be as unwilling to
see life end as to see it continue indefinitely. We may be caught between
two highly undesirable options – the end of everything and the
continuation forever of what we have.
For it could perfectly well be argued that Williams, Larkin and Sartre all
have perfectly valid observations to make about death, which are
compatible with one another. Larkin is a lugubrious character who
cultivates his own discontent, but it is not difficult to reconcile his outlook
with Williams' view of the cloying implications of endless life. 9 We might
be equally unable to cope with an end to life (Larkin) and with its being
endless (Williams). We might say that since it is all we have, we prefer it to
nothing at all; but that does not mean we can cope with too much of it.
However, there is a further argument to be made. This chapter has
focused exclusively upon the idea of whether endless life would be a
continuous source of pleasure, or whether it would inevitably grow stale
and wearisome. It might well be argued that such an approach neglects
the crucial moral dimension to human existence, the sense in which we
are not here simply to ‘enjoy ourselves’ but in order to contribute to
making the world a better place, even at the cost of suffering and hardship
(as in the injunction of Christ to ‘take up thy cross and follow me’; the
cross being one of the first century’s most effective instruments of
physical torture, this was hardly a recipe for a life of endless fun). Some
people will probably read the Bernard Williams article and feel
uncomfortable with it. They will suspect a self-indulgent listlessness, the
sin of 'accidie' (traditionally one of the seven deadly ones) which is so
much more than sloth because it includes a numbness, a lack of emotional
concern (the Greek root of the word means lack of caring), a failure any
longer to connect with the world around - perhaps 'torpor' is the single
word which conveys the state of Elina Makropoulos best. However, it might
be argued that such torpor is avoidable at any age if one continues to care
about others and has learned to develop the moral habit of compassionate
Whatever way one chooses in order to respond to this approach, it is
surely reasonable to argue that there is a moral quality to life, though it
easily becomes entangled in the discussion of life’s enjoyments. In an
address to a conference on 'Happiness and the Meaning of Life' at the
University of Birmingham in May 2007, for instance, Tim Chappell of the
University of Birmingham gave a talk entitled 'Infinity Goes up on Trial: Is
Heaven Boring?' He takes issue with Williams by stressing the importance
of the motivation and zest for life that comes from having projects, new
ones starting as old ones finish and some always in the process of being
realised. He seems to imagine that one could be endlessly drawn along the
road of existence by having new challenges ahead. In the abstract to his
talk he writes:
Our lives are meaningful insofar as they contain worthwhile projects
and commitments; insofar as we value these projects, and the
possibility of taking further equally valuable projects, we have reason
to value the prospect of immortality as a way of continuing to pursue
On the one hand we might be a little unpersuaded by Tim Chappell
relishing his ‘projects’ and doubtless parading endlessly round the
academic conference circuit like a Flying Dutchman purged of his regret.
On the other hand, we might feel that the point about ‘worthwhile
projects and commitments’ is well made, insofar as they refer to things
which we feel passionately committed to managing (or to which we would
at least like to contribute before we die).
Should Williams' concerns about the intrinsic dullness of endless life,
then, be rejected as the self-indulgent positioning of someone who refuses
to 'get a life'? 10 Or is it a profound reflection upon the intrinsic
limitations of finite life which become ever more apparent to us as we
grow older but which do not simply appear because we grow older?
Should we decide that life is wonderful while it lasts, and only because it
doesn't last forever, even though at the same time we couldn't bear to be
without it, in which case we are trapped between two awful alternatives,
each of which appears intolerable? Or is there a sense in which
consideration of the moral quality of life can lift us out of this dilemma?