What are the psychological consequences of living forever? The Italian writer Cesare Pavese helps us to understand how immortality would impact the human psyche.
defined as a, “mmortality is state of unending existence.” From a biological point of view, it means living forever without encountering death. Although some simple organisms are considered to be potentially immortal—and, a few species of fungi and some plant species can live for thousands of years—humans live on average no longer than 72.6 years, globally.
Nevertheless, for a human being, is it really desirable to live forever?
In a hypothetical scenario in which humans became biologically immortal, they would have to cope psychologically with their eternal condition. With a few examples taken from Greek mythology and subsequently revisited by the Italian writer and poet Cesare Pavese, we might dissect the impact of immortality on the state of the human psyche.
Patroclus, or the Boy
As narrated in Homer’s Iliad, Patroclus was an Achaean hero and a close friend to Achilles, who took part in the Trojan war. Given that Achilles refused to participate in the battle, Patroclus took command of the Myrmidon army in his place, wearing Achilles’ armor. However, Patroclus was killed by Hector, prince of the Trojans. This event persuaded Achilles to return to battle, changing the fate of Troy.
In his Dialogues with Leucò, Cesare Pavese imagines the last conversation between Achilles and Patroclus. In this context, Achilles pronounces a specific formula, which describes Patroclus’ way of approaching life. This formula is as follows: “You are really like the boy who drinks, Patroclus.”
In Pavese’s dialogue—while Achilles is presented as a fragile, exhausted hero who incessantly dwells on the inevitable approach of his death—Patroclus does not seem to experience the same; he is focused on the present.
Achilles is the archetype of the mortal. As he ages, he experiences more and more the progression of time, ultimately becoming ensnared in a psychological dimension where most of his “mental space” is occupied by the nostalgia of the idealized old days. As the moment of his death approaches, he realizes that he has little time left to plan and design a future that may never materialize. Under these conditions, Achilles has no way to psychologically experience his present. Although pushed to its extreme, this is the situation we—as mortal human beings—happen to face every day.
Patroclus is different. It seems as though he never grew up. Here is how Achilles, in Pavese’s imagined dialogue, describes the psyche of a young man: “A boy can kill himself, but he doesn’t know what death is.” Also: “A boy’s like an immortal, he looks and laughs. He doesn’t know what things cost. He doesn’t know the sweat and the bitterness. His fighting is a game. He throws himself down on the ground and plays dead, then he laughs and goes on with the game.”
A boy—but especially an infant—completely adheres to his present experience. If we look an infant in the eyes, we see a glance that is totally lost in what it sees, as if blindly recording the surrounding reality. Given that the infant’s mental space is totally committed to each moment, he is not dragged into the rhetoric of the past—and cannot plan a future. The infant does not perceive aging, and the infant does not perceive the progression of time because his psyche is just present moments. In this sense, a child lives as if he were immortal. Given that he does not sense the approach of death, he also cannot die in the human sense. He can only biologically perish.
This psychological condition ultimately explains the evident paradox of the aforementioned expression, “…the boy who drinks.” Given that Patroclus cannot expect himself to die, he dedicates his entire mental space to life. He, therefore, gets drunk with life—because he is perpetually in full contact with every experience he lives. In Pavese’s re-interpretation of Patroclus’ destiny, this is the reason why the Achaean hero wore Achilles’ armor fearlessly and lost his life on the battlefield.
An immortal does not value his biological existence. He has no sense of self-preservation, instead consistently putting his life at risk without ever realizing it. The Greek Gods, who used to play with the lives of mortals and correspondingly believed that life was a game, did not grasp the difference between existence and annihilation.
Calypso, or the Horizon
As narrated in Homer’s Odyssey, the nymph Calypso imprisoned the Achaean hero Ulysses for seven years on her island Ogygia, where she attempted to make him her eternal partner, offering Ulysses immortality.
In his Dialogues with Leucò, Pavese imagines a conversation between Calypso and Ulysses, in which the nymph describes her conception of immortality: “Let’s say that I’m immortal. But if you don’t renounce your memories and your dreams, if you don’t put your longing aside and accept the horizon, you’ll never escape that fate you know so well.”
Calypso’s philosophy is, “to accept the horizon.” She lives on an island. Every day she wakes up—and, sitting in front of the ocean—she looks at the point where the sky touches the waves. What is the “new” that she could possibly find in the horizon? Nothing. Every day everything appears untouched, as it was the day before.
Given her immortal essence, Calypso eventually ends up “exhausting” all possible experiences that a mortal might ever dream of encountering. In this context, every new experience is a mere revival of something already experienced. She can only have “dead,” unoriginal experiences that do not enrich her relationship with reality. She lives a present that is the eternal reappearance of the known. Thus, her life loses any meaning.
What do we learn from Patroclus and Calypso?
The main issue with immortality is the absence of a psychological perception of the passage of time. Both Patroclus and Calypso are imprisoned inside an eternal present, which renders the former reckless and the latter melancholic. While Patroclus represents the highest form of impulsivity, which does not leave room for reflection and critical thinking, Calypso represents the highest form of renunciation, which leaves no room for exploration and novelty. In both cases, the psychological dimensions of past and future are absent, and both characters cannot make a project of their lives.
The conclusion is that Patroclus and Calypso, though in many ways opposites, are in a constant, inevitable psychological contact with reality. This condition—clogging their entire mental volume—does not allow them to fruitfully live. The reason why gods envy humans is because humans clearly see their being mortals, the thinning of their future. And only when they see where they end can they value their existence.
Simone Redaelli is a molecular biologist working on his PhD at the University of Ulm in Germany. He is Vice-Director at Culturico, where his writings cover literature, sociology, philosophy, and science.