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"The Burden and Blessing of Mortality" Hans Jonas


Hans Jonas's paper, "The Burden and Blessing of Mortality" was published in Hastings Center Report in 1992, a year previous to his death, 1993. This is the "swan song" of Hans Jonas. Jonas tries to insist that death is both painful and mercy to us mortals. His old fashioned English was not easy to read through for a non-native speaker like me, but I was deeply moved by his speculation and his style.

He distinguishes two facts: "we can die" and "we must die," and he says that the former is the burden and the latter is the blessing. We can easily understand that the former is a burden to us mortals, but why is the latter a blessing?

In the first half of his paper, he discusses the importance of metabolism for organisms. This part is a resume of his philosophy of organism. In this paper, he writes, "Life says yes to itself" because life maitains itself by continued metabolism (p.36). His philosophy of life is really interesting and queer. He is probably one of the most important philosophers in the 20th century.

In the latter half of his paper, he talks about why radical life extension is problematic to humans. Firstly, it interferes "the ever-repeated turnover of generations." He borrows the term "natality" from Hannah Arendt and says as follows:

It denotes the fact that we all have been born, which means that each of us had a beginning when others already had long been there, and this endures that there will always be such that see the world for the first time, see things with new eyes, wonder where others are dulled by habit, start out from where they had arrived. Youth with its fumbling and follies, its eagerness and questioning is the eternal hope of mankind. (p.39)

Secondly, radical life extension is not desirable for an individual. Even if our vital functions continued unimpaired, "there are limits to what our brains can store and keep adding to." Hence extended life will be either life without the past memories, or living only in the past without a real present (p.40).

Hans Jonas does not clearly state why mortality is blessing for us, but I feel he wanted to say that only "death" can prevent us from experiencing such miserable life described above, hence death appears as a blessing to us mortals which are apt to follow the temptation to live as long as possible even if their life is actually miserable.

Reading Jonas, I have come to think that one of the most important topics in the age of life extension would be how to pursue a sort of death, or suicide, without despair, that is to say, that with self-affirmation from the bottom of one's heart. This is not what Jonas wanted to say, but I believe he must have thought about it in a corner of his mind when he wrote this paper just before his death.

Related post: Is More Life Always Better? The New Biology of Aging and the Meaning of Life, David Gems

Photo: White stork, Toyo'oka, Hyogo, Japan

  -- M.Morioka www.lifestudies.org

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Hello Masahiro, I took a quick look at your page, the last post I read is very interesting. Especially I liked the idea, that our brain will become confused when we grow too old. I think this is a very important discussion, not just sth. fiction loving people are in. Thanks Masahiro for the nice post, your Arash.

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