I now conclude my series of comments on Martin Hägglund’s stimulating and fascinating This Life. My final point of disagreement with Hägglund has to do with a theoretical possibility: eternal life. Against traditional Christians, neither Hägglund nor I believe that eternal life is possible. But I think Hägglund is right to highlight the question of whether it is desirable.
On his answer, however, I think Hägglund is quite wrong; this is the point where his argument is at its worst. When he rejects the aspiration to eternal life, the rejection appears to rest on surprisingly bad argument. I would agree with rejecting such an aspiration on Stoic or Epicurean grounds – that it is futile to aspire to what we know we can never have. It is wisdom to know that we cannot change the finitude of our life, and so we should seek the serenity to accept that sad fact, as no amount of courage will change it. (There is a hugely significant difference between a 25-year life and a 100-year life, but both remain entirely finite.)
Hägglund, however, rejects the aspiration to eternal life on entirely different grounds:
An eternal life is not only unattainable but also undesirable, since it would eliminate the care and passion that animate my life…. there is nothing to be concerned about in heaven. Concern presupposes that something can go wrong or can be lost; otherwise we would not care…. Far from making my life meaningful, eternity would make it meaningless, since my actions would have no purpose. What I do and what I love can matter to me only because I understand myself as mortal…. (4-5)
I do not think any of this is true.
Hägglund’s claims might be true about a life that was perfect. If everything was exactly as we wanted it to be, life could lose its meaning. But an eternal life is absolutely not that. We always face many gut-wrenching concerns that are not about life and death – about who we will love and who will love us, about how we will be recognized and what we will be known for. Consider in this regard Hägglund’s further claim:
If you and your beloved did not believe that your lives were finite… you could feel no need to make an effort on behalf of the relationship, since you would have no apprehension that the other person could leave you or that your relationship could break down. (43)
This is simply bizarre. Of course your lover could leave you if you did not believe your lives were finite – and you them. It’s bad enough to spend a finite life with someone who’s not right for you – imagine spending an eternity! Eternal life does nothing to stop a bad relationship, nor the risk of heartbreak.
Hägglund goes on to make an even more bizarre claim: “The activity of self-maintenance—e.g., eating, drinking, sleeping—would have no purpose if the living being were not subject to disintegration.” (32) Excuse me, what? Prof. Hägglund, the pleasures of eating and drinking do not even occur to you as a purpose? What are you, Leon Kass? In a philosophy as self-consciously worldly as Hägglund’s, the omission of pleasure here is inexplicable. Maybe one could claim that the pleasures of food would get old in eternity – a claim I frankly doubt – but even so they would hardly be purposeless.
Nor would an eternal life lose meaning in a more existential sense, as Hägglund claims:
Since your life could never end, you would never be able to ask yourself what to do with your life, and you could never sacrifice your life for something that mattered more to you than your own existence. Most fundamentally, you would have no horizon of death against which you could give any direction to your life.
But you could still always ask what you were going to do when, what you would do next. For it matters who does what first – there is no glory in being the second person to invent the wheel. You could also ask what you would not do, what you would never do. An endless life could easily be spent in torture or deceit; one’s choices not to do such things would still make a difference. Most choices in life – nearly all of them – come down to a lot more than whether to sacrifice your life.
That isn’t even to mention the love of knowledge. Aristotle, in the final book of the Nicomachean Ethics, notes that the gods, being infinite, would have little need of most of the virtues – but they are still blessed and flourishing. How can this be? Because they contemplate: “The activity of the god, which surpasses all others in blessedness, must be contemplative; and of human activities, therefore, that which is most akin to this must be most of the nature of happiness.” (X.8) In an eternal life, there would always be more to know, for things are always changing. Especially there is creativity: even if we had lived long enough to know the whole universe as it existed, others would still be inventing new works of art and philosophy and science – and each such creation invites new ways to respond to it, which in turn invite new responses from other creators.
It is true, the finitude of life can make our concerns more pressing, more important, than they would otherwise be. But that doesn’t mean the finite life is better, let alone that the concerns are unimportant in an infinite life. If we only have a few days’ vacation, we need to be a lot more careful and selective about what we spend it doing – but that’s exactly why we would rather it be longer.
So I find nothing convincing about Hägglund’s views that an eternal life as such would be undesirable. Here, his hostility to “religion” is at its worst. We do have reason to desire a life without end, just as we have reason to desire a life without suffering. A key difference between the two is that the latter seems attainable, as exemplars like Thich Quang Duc suggest. But as Hägglund rightly notes, there are at least places where the absence of suffering might well conflict with our other goals, such that we have reason to put other goals above it; I do not think he has provided reason to think that that is the case about a finite lifespan.
For all that, I have found Hägglund’s book a very valuable read. It is an all-too-rare delight these days to find someone write a full work of constructive philosophy, a work that aspires to be in a category with Plato’s Republic or Kant’s Critiques. And it has helped me think through the core constructive questions that have animated my work since my dissertation, questions at the intersection of Buddhism and Nussbaum’s thought. The world of ideas is richer for Hägglund’s contribution.