Would You Want To Live Forever?

Excerpt: Homer, The Odyssey

(Introductory Note: The Odyssey is an ancient epic poem attributed to Homer. Odysseus, “the man of many wiles”, was a mythical hero of ancient Greek civilization. The Odyssey is the story of Odysseus’s 10-year struggle to get back to his home in Ithaca after the Trojan War. In this section Odysseus has been shipwrecked onto the island Ogygia where the goddess Calypso lives. Calypso has kept Odysseus there for 7 years, offering to make Odysseus immortal if he will stay and become her husband. But Calypso’s offer of immortality is hardly a temptation for Odysseus, who lives as a prisoner on her island. He spends his days sitting by the sea weeping for his homeland and his family, especially his wife Penelope. Finally Calypso is commanded by the more powerful god Zeus to set Odysseus free. Calypso is addressing Odysseus at the beginning of this passage.)


‘Are you, Odysseus, man of many wiles,
Laertes’ godly son, still keen to leave
straightway? Is it your native land you need,
your dear home? Though you go, I wish you well.
But if your mind were to divine the trials
that fate will have you meet before you reach
your country, you would choose to stay, to keep
this house with me—and live immortally.
This you would do despite your longing for
your wife, for whom you yearn each day. And yet
I’m sure that I am not inferior
to her in form or stature: it’s not right
for mortal women to contend or vie
with goddesses in loveliness or height.’

Odysseus, man of many wiles, replied:
‘Great goddess, don’t be angered over this.
I’m well aware that you are right: I, too,
know that Penelope, however wise,
cannot compete with you in grace or stature:
she is not more than mortal, whereas you
are deathless, ageless. Even so, each day
I hope and hunger for my house: I long
to see the day of my returning home.
If once again, upon the winedark sea,
a god attacks, I shall survive that loss:
the heart within my chest is used to patience.
I’ve suffered much and labored much in many
ordeals among the waves and in the wars;
to those afflictions I can add one more.’



Trans. Allen Mandelbaum (New York: Bantam Books, 1991), Book V: 101-2.


Through this tale of Odysseus’s plight, Homer prods us to consider our wish for immortality more carefully. Exactly what is it that we want when we want to live forever? A detailed, personal answer to that question, to the conditions under which we would say ‘yes’ to immortality, can tell us a lot about who we are and what matters to us. What are the things we would literally not want to live without, for the sake of which we would, like Odysseus, even pass up immortality?

Though it may seem obvious why a person would want to live forever, it can be revealing to consider exactly what it is about life that makes us want it to never end. On the one hand, there is a biological drive to survive, a simply instinctual desire to avoid death. But human beings also have the capacity to live for a reason. And bringing our personal ‘reasons’ to light can help us move beyond the primal desire simply to keep living, to the spiritual desire to live well. Paradoxically, many thinkers have claimed that the better we live our lives, the less intense our fear of death becomes. Perhaps the wish for immortality is partly a wish to keep living until we have a chance to ‘get it right’. The questions suggested by Homer’s story may help us figure out what ‘getting it right’ means for us.

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche takes this thought experiment further. Putting a twist on the idea of immortality, Nietzsche asks us to consider how we would react to the prospect of our lives being repeated over and over again: “‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence . . .’”1 If the idea of living forever is appealing, but the idea of reliving your life over and over again is not, the question is: what could you do to make your life good enough that you would be willing to live your entire life over again? Although there might have been terrible moments, perhaps terrible years, that would make us hesitate to relive our lives, this is Nietzsche’s challenge: Live the rest of your life in a way to create the years, the moments--perhaps even just one “tremendous moment”2--that would make you welcome the thought of reliving your life into eternity.



© 2004 by The Daily Philosopher
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Posted: June 2004

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