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Ronald Dworkin – Death and Immortality

I should say something, though I will not say much, about death. When Woody Allen was told that he would live on in his work, he replied that he would rather live on in his apartment. Most godly religions hold out the hope of something that should seem even better than that: an eternal living on in the most unimaginably wonderful circumstances. Quite literally unimaginable. Great painters show good people rising filled with helium, and popular cartoonists draw quite ordinary people sitting on clouds or pleading before a white-bearded man with a key. Silly evasions like these are inevitable because the question of what life after death actually means cannot even begin to be answered. Nevertheless the bare offer undoubtedly enhances the appeal of those religions that make it. Life after death doesn’t have to be imaginable – we don’t have to decide what we will look like or whether we can see without eyes or move without limbs or what, if anything, we will remember-because the intense visceral appeal of the idea is entirely negative. Life after death actually only means something – anything – that is not what we desperately dread: the total, obliterating, itself unimaginable, snuffing out of everything. . .

What should we count as immortality? The literal meaning supposes staying alive forever, perhaps on Olympus or even in an apartment. But nothing will give us that: not even the most beneficent Sistine God. Acolytes of that god do speak of life in the clouds, but we can make no real sense of that. . .

Where else might we turn? Woody Allen’s admirer might have had two different things in mind. He might have meant that, like Homer and Shakespeare, Allen would be celebrated for many centuries. . . . Or the admirer might have had something quite different in mind: not a prediction but an assessment. He might have meant that Allen’s films constituted a timeless achievement that evolution, history, or fate cannot change: like other works of art they are an out-of time achievement just in having been made, whether or not they continue to be admired or even survive.

We might think of a life that way. The Romantic poets said we should try to make our lives into works of art. Perhaps they thought only about artists or other people differently creative. But what they said can be applied to any life someone self-consciously leads supposing it to be a life lived well according to a plausible view of what that means. Someone creates a work of art from his life if he lives and loves well in family or community with no fame or artistic achievement at all.

Does all that strike you as silly? Just sentimental? When you do something smaller well-play a tune or a part or a hand, throw a curve or a compliment, make a chair or a sonnet or love – your satisfaction is complete in itself. Those are achievements within life. Why can’t a life also be an achievement complete in itself, with its own value in the art in living it displays?!

If we do crave that kind of achievement, as I believe we should, then we could treat it as a kind of immortality. We face death believing we have made something good in response to the greatest challenge a mortal faces. That may not be good enough for you: it may not soften even a bit the fear we face. But it is the only kind of immortality we can imagine; at least the only kind we have any business wanting. That is a religious conviction if anything is. It is available to you whichever of the two camps of religion, godly or godless, you choose to join.

Excerpt from:
      Ronald Dworkin. Religion Without God. Harvard University Press. 2013.
            Chapter 4: Death and Immortality, pages 149-150, 156-159.