Monthly Archives: August 2017

Summary of Cicero, “On Old Age”


Marcus Tullius Cicero

Cicero (106 BC – 43 BC) was a Roman politician and lawyer who is considered one of Rome’s greatest orators and prose stylists. “On Old Age” is an essay written on the subject of aging and death. It has remained popular because of its profound subject matter as well as its clear and beautiful language.

The treatise defends old age against its alleged disadvantages: “first, that it withdraws us from active pursuits; second, that it makes the body weaker; third, that it deprives us of almost all physical pleasures; and, fourth, that it is not far removed from death.” He examines each claim in turn.

Charge #1 – “Old age withdraws us from active pursuits  …” 

Cicero replies that older people remain active, just in different ways than their younger counterparts. While they may less physically adept, they may do more for their community, or they be more introspective and philosophical. As he puts it:

Those… who allege that old age is devoid of useful activity… are like those who would say that the pilot does nothing in the sailing of his ship, because, while others are climbing the masts, or running about the gangways, or working at the pumps, he sits quietly in the stern and simply holds the tiller. He may not be doing what younger members of the crew are doing, but what he does is better and much more important. It is not by muscle, speed, or physical dexterity that great things are achieved, but by reflection, force of character, and judgment; in these qualities old age is usually not … poorer, but is even richer.

So for Cicero, the prudence and wisdom that accompanies aging more than compensates for declining physical vigor. (Research has found that elders outperformed younger adults in understanding and solving complex social situations.) He says that for Homer, Sophocles, Pythagoras, Plato, and others, old age did not “destroy their interests or take away their powers of expression.” Old age can be a busy time where we continue lifelong projects or develop new interests.

Charge #2 – Old age “makes the body weaker …”

Cicero acknowledges that aging negatively affects the body, but

At my age, I don’t yearn for the physical vigor of a young man … any more than in my youth I yearned for the vigor of a bull or an elephant. Use whatever you have: that is the right way. Do whatever is to be done in proportion as you have the strength to do it … Use the advantages you have while you have them; when they are gone, don’t sit around wishing you could get them back.

He then proceeds:

enjoy the blessing of strength while you have it and do not bewail it when it is gone unless… you believe that youth must lament the loss of infancy, or early manhood the passing of youth. Life’s race-course is fixed; Nature has only a single path and that path is run but once, and to each stage of existence has been allotted its own appropriate quality; so that the weakness of childhood, the impetuosity of youth, the seriousness of middle life, the maturity of old age — each bears some of Nature’s fruit, which must be garnered in its own season.

He also notes that we can lessen aging’s impact through exercise, moderation in food and drink, and by caring for our intellect. Ideally, we should care for our body throughout our lives so that they remain strong into old age. Often our bodies betray us in large part because we have mistreated them in our youth.

Still, it is our intellect that we should cultivate as we age. Physical vigor is good, and we should try to be healthy, but “much greater care is due to the mind and soul; for they, too, like lamps, grow dim with time, unless we keep them supplied with oil.” So achieving wisdom in old age is paramount.

Charge #3 – Old age “deprives us of almost all physical pleasures …” 

Cicero responds that eating and drinking still give sensual pleasure and that he finds that he enjoys meals with friends even more than he did as a youth. But to the extent that old age detracts from enjoying such pleasures, this is mostly beneficial:

the fact that old age feels little longing for sensual pleasures not only is no cause for reproach, but rather is ground for the highest praise. Old age lacks the heavy banquet, the loaded table, and the oft-filled cup; therefore it also lacks drunkenness, indigestion, and loss of sleep. But if some concession must be made to pleasure, since her allurements are difficult to resist, … then I admit that old age, though it lacks immoderate banquets, may find delight in temperate repasts.

Regarding sexual pleasure he writes:

… granting that youth enjoys pleasures of that kind with a keener relish … although old age does not possess these pleasures in abundance, yet it is by no means wanting in them. Just as (a great actor) gives greater delight to the spectators in the front row at the theatre, and yet gives some delight even to those in the last row, so youth, looking on pleasures at closer range, perhaps enjoys them more, while old age, on the other hand, finds delight enough in a more distant view.

So while the intensity of sensual pleasure diminishes with age, it can be appreciated in new ways.

Charge #4 – Old age “is not far removed from death …”

Cicero responds by dismissing the fear of death:

death should be held of no account! For clearly (the impact of) death is negligible if it utterly annihilates the soul, or even desirable, if it conducts the soul to some place where it is to live forever. What, then, shall I fear, if after death I am destined to be either not unhappy or happy?

As for the hopes of younger versus older people Cicero states:

the young man hopes that he will live for a long time and this hope the old man cannot have. Yet (the old man ) is in better case than the young man, since what the latter merely hopes for, the former has already attained; the one wishes to live long, the other has lived long.

In fact, death should be seen as something to look forward to after a life well-lived:

Therefore, when the young die I am reminded of a strong flame extinguished by a torrent; but when old men die it is as if a fire had gone out without the use of force and of its own accord, after the fuel had been consumed; and, just as apples when they are green are with difficulty plucked from the tree, but when ripe and mellow fall of themselves, so, with the young, death comes as a result of force, while with the old it is the result of ripeness. To me, indeed, the thought of this “ripeness” for death is so pleasant, that the nearer I approach death the more I feel like one who is in sight of land at last and is about to anchor in his home port after a long voyage.

Cicero conclusion reinforces the above themes:

…my old age sits light upon me…, and not only is not burdensome, but is even happy. For as Nature has marked the bounds of everything else, so she has marked the bounds of life. Moreover, old age is the final scene … in life’s drama, from which we ought to escape when it grows wearisome and, certainly, when we have had our fill.

Recap – Cicero’s Lessons on Successful Aging 

1. A good old age begins in youth  – Cultivate the virtues that will serve you well in old age
—moderation, wisdom, courage—in your youth.

2. Old age can be a good part of life – You can live well in old age if you are wise.

3. Youth and old age differ  – Accept that as physical vitality declines, wisdom can grow.

4. Elders can teach the young – Older people have much to teach the young, and younger people can invigorate older persons.

5. We can be active in old age, with limitations. – We should try to remain healthy and active while accepting our limitations.

6. The aged should exercise their minds. – We should continually learn new things.

7. Older people should be assertive. – Older people will be respected only if they aren’t too passive.

8. Sex is overrated – We should accept physical limitations and enjoy other aspects of life.

9. Pursue enjoyable, worthwhile activities. – Happiness derives in large part from doing productive work that gives us joy.

10. Don’t fear death. – Don’t cling to life—a good actor knows when to leave the stage.


A new book on the topic that I recommend is Greenstein and Holland’s Lighter as We Go: Virtues, Character Strengths, and Aging (Oxford University Press).

Modern Philosophers on Human Nature

The Reformation: Where Lies the Authority for Faith? – Christianity dominated the social, political, and religious life of Europe for more than a 1000 years, from the fall of Rome till at least the 17th century. The first major division of Christianity occurred with the schism of 1054 when the Eastern Orthodox Church broke from the western Catholic Church. But four successive cultural movements slowly unraveled the hegemony of the Catholic Church in Europe: the Renaissance, the Reformation, the 17th century scientific revolution, and the Enlightenment.

The Renaissance refers to the flowering of reason and humanism, literally “the rebirth” or rediscovery of Greek and Roman thought. The next great cultural movement was the Reformation, begun when Martin Luther posted his ninety-five thesis of the door of his German church. There had been other reforming voices before Luther, such as John Wycliffe and John Hess, but Luther’s protest really sparked the Reformation. [Both Wycliffe, who was one of the first to translate the Bible into English, and Huss met terrible fates. Huss was burned at the stake, while Wycliffe was declared a heretic whose remains exhumed and burned. William Tyndale, another of the early translators of the Bible was also burned at the stake.]

Luther had many disagreements with the Church, especially with their selling of indulgences which allowed people to believe they could buy their way into heaven. Theologically Luther believed that one is save by faith and grace alone, thus there was no need for the Church to act as an intermediary between god and humans. He also rejected reason which he famously called a whore. [He rejects the Church, its scholasticism (using reason in theology) and the rise of reason associated with the Renaissance.] And he emphasized the scripture as a truer source of religious truth than the Church.

This religious reform—especially the emphasis on faith and the authority of the Bible—spread throughout northern Europe. The emphasis on scripture was particularly strong in the thought of John Calvin. He helped develop a theocratic state in Geneva, and his ideas spread with the puritans to England and then to America where the doctrine of the infallibility of the Bible was developed. Of course this hardly settled matters as the issue of interpretation of the Bible arose. In response some sects like the Quakers placed more emphasis on religious experience. All of this led to centuries of violent conflict and genocide between various religious groups. [Today Europe is almost completely secular, while America is much more overtly religious.]

The Rise of Science: How Does Scientific Method Apply To Human Beings? – The 17thcentury scientific revolution changed the world. [Look around you anywhere and you see the overwhelming evidence of its influence.] The combination of an experimental method [most associated with Francis Bacon] and the mathematical reasoning utilized by Galileo and Newton showed that science could explain the heavens and earth. Consequently appeals to the Bible and the Church in matters of science began to seem futile. But how far can a scientific approach go in explaining human beings? Are humans material only or is there some immaterial component to them?

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1659) – Hobbes was a materialist [one who believes only matter exists] who rejected dualism [the idea that both matter and mind/soul exist.] He argued that the idea of an immaterial soul made no sense, espousing instead a materialistic explanation for all states of body and brain—human nature is exclusively materialistic. Hobbes also argued that humans are selfish, desiring wealth, power, fame, food, clothing, shelter and more for themselves. But as all these things are in limited supply, humans are at war with each other in an effort to obtain them. To avoid this state of war humans accept a coercive political authority to adjudicate their disputes—they trade some of their freedom for the security of the state. This is ultimately in each individual’s interest, inasmuch as it helps them survive. Hobbes was also an atheist who wanted the churches subordinate to the state.

Rene Descartes (1596 – 1659) – Descartes is probably the most famous exponent of the dualist view—human nature is composed of a material body and an immaterial mind/soul. The body occupies space and is studied by science; the mind/soul doesn’t occupy space and can’t be studied by science. This immaterial component can exist without the body. While one can doubt the existence of the body and the external world—perhaps you are dreaming the world or some evil demon is making you think there is one—you cannot doubt your own consciousness. [Even if you are deceived about the existence of your consciousness, you must be to be deceived. Thus “I think therefore I am.] In this way Descartes could remain a Catholic and a and scientist at the same time.

Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677) – Spinoza attempts to reconcile dualism and materialism. Spinoza is a pantheist—god and nature are identical. [This begins to reconcile the material and immaterial.] He also advocated the dual-aspect theory of mind or human nature. For Spinoza mind and matter are two aspects of one underlying reality. Mental events are the same as brain events but we can describe these events as either mental or physical. In other words mind is what the brain does. [This is a bit more materialistic than dualistic.]

The Enlightenment: Can Science Be Our Guide To Life? – As science became accepted as the only cognitive authority in the world [religion and science basically has switched places since the middle ages] the question of apply these insights to human nature arose. Could reason and science explain human beings and improve the human condition? [The evidence is in … the answer is YES.] Could scientific explanations replace religious, philosophical, poetic explanations of human beings? Gradually rational approaches, especially in politics, replaced religious explanations.

David Hume (1711 -1776) – Hume was an empiricist, one who believes that knowledge derives from sense experience. Reason tells us about the relationship between logical and mathematical ideas, but sense experience tells us how the world works. Our ideas are derived from impressions, either sense impressions or introspective reflection of one’s own mind. What we call matter is just a bundle of perceptions—and so are we. There is no soul or self, only a flow of consciousness, a succession of mental states. We are simply a bundle of perceptions, a continual flow of perceptions without any underlying substance. [This is similar to the doctrine of no self in Buddhism.] Needless to say there are no religious overtones to Hume’s thought, as he was a thorough going atheist and freethinker.

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) – Rousseau is famous for his belief in the goodness of humans before the corrupting influence of civilization [the so-called “noble savage.”] He also believed that children have a good intrinsic nature that is corrupted by society. Like most romantics he believed that the natural was good. [This is quite dubious.] However he doesn’t allow for the innate selfishness so characteristic of the human race.

All these strains of thought will lead to Immanuel Kant, the crowing figure of the Enlightenment.

Bob Dylan’s “Only A Pawn in Their Game” and Charlottsville VA

Bob Dylan plays a guitar and sings into a microphone.

Bob Dylan’s song, “Only A Pawn In Their Game,” came to mind while watching the neo-Nazis and white supremacists at Charlottesville VA. Let me say that race is a social construct, not a genetic or biological one, and none of the protestors are really white, whatever that means. Their DNA is from all over the world. Furthermore, not only did modern humans originate in Africa, but all of us living today outside Africa today have small amounts of Neanderthal DNA! Moreover, our DNA is about  99% identical with chimpanzee DNA. Simple observation of humans should confirm this last fact.

But here’s what interesting about the protestors. They vilify African-Americans, Jews, Hispanics and others, not realizing their real oppressors are people like their racist President, who has a long history of scamming the working classes.

The plutocrats have always divided the rest of us, distracting us from the fact that they oppress us. (They try to enact laws that shred the social safety net and keep wages down along with their taxes.)They encourage racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia and other forms of bigotry so that we see our fellows as the enemy. In other words, divert attention away from themselves by redirecting anger toward scapegoats. But its wealthy bankers and wall street and corporations that make most of our lives hard—not immigrants, atheists, blacks or LGBT folks.

It’s straightforward. If you have power, you want to keep it. But you might create a revolution if you oppress or exploit your subjects. So instead you direct your subject’s anger away toward those they should be aligned with—other oppressed people.

The lyrics of the song are below. Medgar Evers gave his life in the struggle for justice, and I fear he won’t be the last.

A bullet from the back of a bush
Took Medgar Evers’ blood
A finger fired the trigger to his name
A handle hid out in the dark
A hand set the spark
Two eyes took the aim
Behind a man’s brain
But he can’t be blamed
He’s only a pawn in their game

A South politician preaches to the poor white man
“You got more than the blacks, don’t complain
You’re better than them, you been born with white skin, ” they explain
And the Negro’s name
Is used, it is plain
For the politician’s gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game

The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid
And the marshals and cops get the same
But the poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool
He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
‘Bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game

From the poverty shacks, he looks from the cracks to the tracks
And the hoofbeats pound in his brain
And he’s taught how to walk in a pack
Shoot in the back
With his fist in a clinch
To hang and to lynch
To hide ‘neath the hood
To kill with no pain
Like a dog on a chain
He ain’t got no name
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game

Today, Medgar Evers was buried from the bullet he caught
They lowered him down as a king
But when the shadowy sun sets on the one
That fired the gun
He’ll see by his grave
On the stone that remains
Carved next to his name
His epitaph plain
Only a pawn in their game

Summary of Medieval Philosophers on Human Nature

(This is my summary of a chapter in a book I often used in university classes: Twelve Theories of Human Nature, by Stevenson, Haberman, and Wright, Oxford Univ. Press)

Our discussion of theories of human nature will now move from the ancient worlds to the 18th century with Immanuel Kant. Needless to say, a lot happened in the interim. In order to make the transition of almost 2000 years, here is a brief description of a few of the major thinkers during this long period including: Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, and Rousseau. [This is a good representative sample. Notable omissions include: Bacon, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Voltaire, and Hegel.]

Augustine – St. Augustine was the most important link connecting the ancient world and the Christian medieval world. Augustine affected a philosophical synthesis of Plato, the Neo-Platonists and Christianity. [Plato’s idea of the good became divine illumination; Platonic forms became ideas in God’s mind, the cave became the story of the soul’s journey to god and more. Moreover, the idea of the Trinity owes much to a similar 3 fold distinction in the philosophy of the neo-Platonist Plotinus.] Despite the influence of Greek rationalism, Augustine said: “I believe in order to understand.” In other words, faith comes first and an exercise of will is necessary for belief since reason by itself always fall short.

Augustine also believed that humans are sinful and that nothing we do can save us—our salvation depends on God’s grace. Thus we are predestined to be saved or not, we cannot merit salvation. This was the source of his dispute with Pelagius who argued we can save ourselves by our free acts. This is still a vexing issue in Christian theology. Augustine particularly identified sin as sexual, an idea which has had a profound influence on Christianity to this day. He also believed in a “city of god,” the ideal destiny where God’s will is fulfilled. The relationship between the church and this final destiny is ambiguous. [I think the idea is that the church helps bring about this final destiny, although if you are only saved by grace it is hard to see how this can be—which was Martin Luther’s point.]


 The Islamic Philosophers –  There were a number of prominent Islamic philosophers from the 9th through 13th centuries. They had discovered and preserved the work of Aristotle, which had been lost to the West, and their translators introduced Aristotle in Spain in the 12th century. [This would eventually make its way to Aquinas at the University of Paris.] Islam, like Christianity, assumes the authority of their religion is based on divine revelation, but this also suggests that issues of the relationship between faith and reason are prominent. The most important of these thinkers were Avicenna, who believed that god (Allah) spoke through both the intellect and imagination of Muhammad; Al-Ghazali, a Sufi mystic who emphasized mysticism rather than philosophical arguments; and Averroes, who reasserted the primacy of reason in interpreting the Koran. Each of these philosophers had considerable influence on the West.

Thomas Aquinas – While many in the Catholic Church tried to ban Aristotle, Aquinas embraced his thought and tried to synthesize it with Christianity. “Though controversial in its time, it has since become Roman Catholic orthodoxy, backed by papal authority.” Aquinas placed a greater emphasis on reason than had Augustine. Like Aristotle, he believed that knowledge begins with the senses and that the intellect recognizes types or forms of things in order to categorize the world. This leads to a distinction between rational and revealed theology, the former using unaided reason to prove God’s existence, while the latter depends on the Bible and the Church.

Like Aristotle, he believed we have a rational soul or structure which includes perception, intellect, reason and free will. He identifies the idea of eudaimonia with knowledge and love of God. [Is it better to know God or love him was a famous medieval dispute.] The most important virtues are the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Aquinas believed that immortality would involve the resurrection of the body, but tried to also maintain that the disembodied soul somehow survived between death and resurrection. Still, despite his emphasis on reason, the authority of the Church was paramount and like Augustine he was prepared to use force against dissent, arguing that heretics should be killed.

Review of Andrew Stark’s, “The Consolations of Mortality: Making Sense of Death”

Andrew Stark’s new book, The Consolations of Mortality: Making Sense of Death, addresses those who disavow belief in an afterlife. So what consolation might these non-believers find when confronting death? Stark argues that traditionally there are “four distinct ways of persuading us to accept, maybe even appreciate, the fact that we will die.” (1)The book investigates and defends of each of these four consolations. (Stark knows that science may eventually defeat death, but he says that for most of us alive today that won’t happen soon enough—perhaps not for centuries.)

The first consolation says that “death itself is actually a benign or even a good thing.” (2) Many have made such an argument. For example, Epicurus famously said that when we are alive death is not present, and when we are dead we are not alive to suffer from it. Consolation arises from understanding that we never encounter death. In addition, most existentialists claim that only if we are aware of our finitude we will feel the urgency to make the choices that define a true self. If we dawdle we won’t create our selves, so death is essential for having a self. And Buddhism tells us there is no self, so death is really nothing. If the self is just conscious experiences, then those will continue on in others after we die. So these disparate philosophies all share the idea that death is basically benign.

The second consolation states that “within mortal life as it is, we can acquire all the intimations of immortality we could ever desire.” (3)The idea is that all the good things of death’s alternative, immortality, are available now, so death doesn’t deprive us of anything. Most importantly, we want to preserve the contents of our consciousness, and we want to help shape the future. But we have consciousness and we can shape the future now. So, even if we were immortal, we wouldn’t gain anything that we don’t have now, or so the argument goes.

The third consolation states that “immortality itself would actually be an awful fate … ” (4) For example, if we have memories of all our experiences,  then we might become bored after having done and seen everything. But if your oldest memories slowly vanished, and your character continually changed, then it would be as if you were periodically dying and being reborn, which is like being mortal. Now suppose your immortal self retained its memories and character, and continual novelty eliminated boredom. Yet then you might find that your self became antiquated as time moved on. And, if your memories and character continually disappear, then that hardly seems like an enviable immoral life. Perhaps we’re lucky we don’t have to be forever.

The fourth consolation claims that “life, with its losses, is itself nothing but an intimation of death.” (6) In other words, life already gives us all the bad things we associate with death, so death isn’t worse that life. For example, we dread leaving behind all the people and things that we love. But we lose homes, keepsakes, places, comforting ideas, and people we love throughout life–goodbyes are part of life. Of course death also means that our own consciousness vanishes, but that happens when we sleep too.

Stark begins his discussion with two aveats. First, he will discuss whether death is a good thing for relatively healthy people who have lived a normal lifespan of about 80 years, not whether death might be a welcome relief to suffering. And second, he won’t discuss whether lives of two hundred or two thousand years are bad; he is talking about an endless life, or at least one long enough to feel that way to the person living it. With these caveats in place the rest of the book explores whether the four consolations are sufficient.

Stark rejects the first consolation—death is benign, good for us, nothing to us—because Epicurean, existential, and Buddhist notions of self all deny “the reality that cries out for consolation; we are selves who move inexorably through time … while the moments of our lives flow incessantly through our fingers … back into the past.” (95) Rejecting these conceptions of self, he necessarily rejects the consolations they offer.

He also rejects the second consolation—mortal life provides the good things that immorality does. Technology might allow us to record our entire lives for others to view, or we might learn to be so connected with others that the continuation of their lives provides comfort. But none of this is enough. For “to believe that our mortal selves and mortal lives could even begin to give us the good things that their immortal versions would, we have to pretend that those selves and lives are bare shadows of what they actually are. We have to pretend that they are already half-dead.” (147)

Stark agrees that even the best immortality scenarios are unappealing, so he finds solace in the third consolation. Dissolving in time, subsisting in time, uniting with time, or uniting with a great ocean of being—none of this satisfies. For we “unavoidably see our selves as moving forward relentlessly in time … while the experiences of our lives flow remorselessly backward in time …” (189) So mortality is a blessing after all, if for no other reason than that immortality seems like a curse.

At this point in the text Stark addresses the issue of optional immortality, where we could live forever, but could opt out if we wanted to. But he rejects this option. If immortal life were so bad that we would want to opt out, wouldn’t that mean that such a life wasn’t a good one? Of course most mortals think their lives are worth it even they will end unpleasantly. But, according to Stark, option immortals would end their lives because they were bored, their memories prevented them from experiencing novelty, or for other reasons that made immortality unbearable. Stark doubts that option immortals would, in retrospect, value a life that had become so pointless that they wanted to end it.

Stark now investigates the final consolation—that life already gives us all the bad things that death does. Every second we move forward in time while the moments of our lives slowly slip away from us. It seems we are losing our lives every moment. But, surprisingly, he says this comforting because the alternative is being immortal and watching others die. And if events persisted longer then, when they ended, the grief over their loss would be greater than if events and experiences were more fleeting. Summarizing Stark says, “these two features of mortal existence—that our selves move together relentlessly into the future while the events of our life ceaselessly disappear into the past—are finally what bar life’s losses from ever resembling death’s. And while that fact doesn’t console me about death, it does console me about life.” (225) In short, it is good that life is fleeting.

Stark now reiterates that immortality isn’t desirable—we would either grow bored, if we remained the same, or our selves would die continually by always changing—and in this he finds consolation. As he concludes:

Either we die or we are immortal. And either our selves move relentlessly forward in time while the moments of our lives slip continually backward out of reach, or else we gain the capacities to stop moving forward in time and to keep the precious moments of our lives from flowing backward in time beyond our grasp. Of all the possibilities, none is better than the one we have. We die, and our selves move inexorably forward in time while the moments of our lives ineluctably vanish into the past. In fact, it may be the option that contains the least amount of death.

At that most fundamental level, the bundle of ego and anxiety that dwells within me feels consoled about our mortal condition. Not cheered. But consoled. I—you, we, humankind—got the best deal imaginable. (231)

Reflections – I am a transhumanist who has argued vehemently that death is an ultimate evil and that death should be optional. ( I have written almost 50 posts on various aspects of death.) So it is hard to put aside some of my preconceived ideas, and give Stark’s book a fair hearing. But I have tried. Still, while I find many of Stark’s arguments puzzling or unconvincing, there is a big problem with the book that undermines its basic argument.

The book suffers from a shocking lack of imagination. If we must either die or live forever, and if living forever is terrible, then dying is preferable. That’s his argument in a nutshell. But his conceptions of immortality are so limited. He offers but a few immortality scenarios which compare unfavorably with dying, when we cannot even comprehend what immortality might be like or how many immortality scenarios there may be. So yes, dying is better than living forever in hell or being infinitely bored, but there are an infinite number of other possibilites, many now unimaginable.

His argument against optional immortality perfectly displays this lack of imagination. Somehow the lives of beings for whom death is optional would be so bad that they would be better off without that option. Really? He feels so good about life transitoriness that he doesn’t even want the option to live longer? If he were given a death sentence and were otherwise healthy, he wouldn’t want the option to have the order rescinded? I doubt it.

People who reject the option of not dying also suffer from a lack of imagination. Since they don’t think they can have it, they reject it. This is an example of “adaptive preferences,” when you adapt your preferences to what you can get. I can’t get a date with Scarlett Johannson, so I say I don’t want her anyway. I can’t get a billion dollars, so I say I don’t want it anyway.

Death is like having a time bomb strapped to your chest; it will eventually go off, we just don’t know when. Actually its worse since we might die quite slowly. So, you really don’t want the option of having it turned off, even if you have the option of setting it off yourself if you get tired of living?

Here’s one thing you can bet your life on. When an effective anti-aging pill becomes available at the drug store … it will be popular! When the dying are given the option to take a shot which makes them completely healthy, many will take the shot! 

Finally, this lack of imagination reveals itself most clearly in the book’s final lines. It is hard not to choke when reading: “Of all the possibilities, none is better than the one we have … I—you, we, humankind—got the best deal imaginable.” This is Leibniz’ assertion that this is the best of all possible worlds without Voltaire to lampoon it. But I can. Stark simply can’t believe dying and the loss it entails is “the best deal imaginable.” The only way to honestly draw this conclusion is if you can’t realistically imagine anything better. But I can. And so can many others.