One question that is going to be of great interest is how aging baby boomers will confront aging and death. Where previous generations have found peace in religion and silent resignation, there are reasons to believe that this generation will not be so complacent. The baby boom generation, or at least those who have shaped contemporary culture and politics, have been more secular and less inclined to accept the constraints of nature (as evidenced by the obligatory contempt for views that allow some degree of biological determinism). In a review for the Financial Times, Stephen Cave reports on no fewer than four new books on the topic of death:
In universities around the world, professors are now arguing that the Dark Angel deserves more respect. Contrary to Epicurus, Death is justly to be feared, say today’s academicians – the common folk had it right all along; we should humbly hand him back his scythe and then run for our lives. Four new books insist that we are right to panic when the reaper comes – and that our very civilisation depends upon it.
There is a lot at stake here. Will the dominant opinion become that death gives “meaning” to life, or will death be seen as an outrage that can be pushed back by modern science? As is evident from this review, both perspectives are represented in these books. It almost seems obligatory for philosophers who write about death to present contrived arguments against immortality. Stephen Cave even talks about the “paradox of immortality,” “the fact of death imbues our life with passion and urgency, but it is that very passion for life that makes death tragic.” But what is a paradox (even a “fact”) to some, is the lack of imagination of a rationalist philosopher to others. It is hard to imagine that (secular) academic pro-death views will persist when medical science has advanced enough to make these rationalizations less important, but it cannot hurt to be vigilant and turn the tools of logic against them.
In the history of Western thought, the interpretation of death has run the whole gamut from the notion of a mere natural fact, pertaining to man as organic matter, to the idea of death as the telos of life, the distinguishing feature of human existence. From these two opposite poles, two contrasting ethics may be derived; On the one hand, the attitude toward death is stoic or skeptic acceptance of the inevitable, or even the repression of the thought of death by life; on the other hand the idealistic glorification of death is that which gives “meaning” to life, or is the precondition for the “true” life of man.
The authoritarian economic and political ideas of Marxists like Marcuse have little to offer to those inclined to critical thinking, but it is time for baby boomers to face the prospect of radical life extension and engage in direct action to fight the grim reaper.