Wednesday, May 02, 2007


Remembering Tithonus

On the curse of immortality, Phil Flemming wrote in an email:
The topic has long obsessed me for reasons I do not fully understand.

Perhaps at our age we begin to get a taste of what Tithonian Immortality would be like if death did not mercifully intervene. We extrapolate our daily losses into an unlimited future when already we think "how little is left of me!" Our vision dims, our ears grow deaf, our palate dulls. A passion for anything (except money) eludes us. We find ourselves living that stereotype of an old man which Aristotle outlines in Rhet. II.13---and we know things can only get worse.

The Epicureans especially spend a lot of time trying to quell the fear of death. I am surprised they never said, "Just look at the opposite, look at what will become of you if you do not die." Epictetus' favorite phrase is "the door stands open" if life becomes too odious. Tithonus tried the door and it was locked. Lots of old people with strokes and terrible chronic conditions find themselves sampling Tithonian immortality as death refuses to come.

They finally lock Tithonus in a closet, do they not, while Eos and her new beau cavort. Only an occasional groan is heard.
Phil seems to be right about the Epicureans. At least I find no references to Tithonus in the indices to Lucretius and to Usener's Epicurea. After I sent Phil a link to Atul Gawande, The Way We Age Now, The New Yorker (April 30, 2007), he replied:
That sort of story just drives me crazy these days. "We just fall apart" with chapter and verse. Tell me about it!

Doesn't it feel like we are unwilling subjects in an insane medical experiment called (Tithonian) Life Extension? We are being kept alive longer, not because we can enjoy life longer, but so we can watch ourselves falling apart day by day piece by piece.

I run by an expensive nursing home most mornings. It has some kind of Graeco-Roman statuary in its courtyard. If it isn't, it ought to be a statue of Tithonus.

I propose Life Limitation. 55 and you are done, for most people. Let medical science refocus all its efforts and resources on giving us 55 good years and to hell with the rest. As it is, the ideal and objective seems to be a macabre kind of Tithonian senescence, with all of us kept breathing on life support until we are at least 100.

There is a scientifically proven way to avoid all the miseries of old age: die early.

When I see younger people back-loading their life with heavy-duty savings and retirement plans, I tell them: You are not going to like being 65 if you are unlucky enough to last that long. Live now, spend the money now, have fun now, instead of saving to pay for an old age you'll despise. Front-load your life and just don't live too long.
Phil adds a postscript:
Not that I don't make egregious orthographic errors all the time, but I see you discreetly corrected "bow" to "beau". Eos' new paramour, if I remember correctly, was named Toxophilos. So I punned VERY OBSCURELY "bow". You see what a classical education does for you: the world thinks you are an illiterate.
Toxophilos = bow lover, one fond of archery.

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