On Longevity

A colleague from my days in Armenia recently posted a picture on Facebook taken in a restaurant in Yerevan (the Armenian capital) called Вкусно жить не запретишь, which means “Good to live, not forbid”. It is a good slogan, and an even better name for a restaurant, and it made me think about all the people in the contemporary world who are building their reputations by telling us how to live longer on the basis of forbidding us to do all the things that make life worth living at all. It reminds me of what I once heard called “The Kingsley Amis Principle”: why give up everything you enjoy to buy an extra couple of years in a nursing-home in Weston-super-Mare (an insignificant English seaside town where people go to die)?

There are far too many people in the modern world who are building their reputations by telling us how to live longer on the basis of forbidding us to do all the things that make life worth living at all

Not to put too fine a point on it, I am completely sick of reading articles in newspapers that try to convince me that absolutely everything will kill me. Sorry, guys and gals, but I already know this, even if those of you in denial don’t: life will kill me; that doesn’t make it a Bad Thing. A few days ago some moron wrote a piece saying how the secret of living to 107 – some old biddy had managed it, though God knows why – was never to marry and never to drink alcohol. Right, okay, what are we supposed to glean from this broadcast bullshit? The only appreciable fact – and that might be questioned because these tales of excessive longevity are seldom accompanied by tried-and-tested notarized copies of birth certificates –  is that some old biddy lived a long time. She may attribute this to self-denial and spinsterhood, but there is absolutely no scientific basis for such a claim, and there would be countless millions who could claim to have followed the same régime without living beyond seventy or much less. And let’s face it, if everyone were to follow this supposed advice, there wouldn’t be any babies to grow into adults to support the curmudgeonly old farts who want to live forever by being as boring as hell.

Can we please stop this market in passive-aggressive advice? No of course we can’t. The medical profession is as blinkered as the education profession: everyone wants to maximise everything but nobody wants to ask why we care and even less whether we should care. Longevity, healthiness and well-being have become the Holy Trinity of a new humanist religion, but nobody has any answer to the question what this long healthy life is actually for.

Longevity, healthiness and well-being have become the Holy Trinity of a new humanist religion, but nobody tells us what this long healthy life is actually for or what we are to do with it.

Sorry to be boring and like the proverbial broken record, but what is striking about this modern obsession with longevity is that nobody has a meta-narrative that describes in any way at all, let alone any detail, why longevity is of any importance, or why the fact that we live twice as long as our distant ancestors matters, or why drinking or smoking or drugging ourselves to death is really such a bad idea in the absence of any coherent account of why we might want to live forever anyway.

OK, so here we are: we have shrugged off the metaphysical yoke of almost every religion (except Islam), freed ourselves from the shackles of superstition and mythology, embraced the brave new world of science and taken, accepted and even rejoiced in our rightful but utterly insignificant place in the great “reality” we call “The Universe”. So here is my question: what now?

Medics and educationalists are engaged in an unholy alliance that rests upon a double pretense: that it is obvious or at least unquestionable that living a long time is a Good Thing, which means that we all have a duty to try to live as long as possible even if that means denying ourselves all the pleasures that make life worth living at all; and that it is equally obvious, or at least unquestionable, that a good education leading to great qualifications and a place at a top university is an equally Good Thing, which justifies subjecting generation after generation to unimaginable intellectual suffering in order to enable them to acquire the qualifications that will reinforce this self-perpetuating delusion.

And before we too readily dismiss all this as irrelevant philosophical mumbo-jumbo, consider this: Hillary Clinton partly lost the 2016 US presidential election because of antipathy to her personally, but she also partly lost it because she didn’t stand for anything but the political equivalent of “live forever; health and wealth and prosperity”; Trump, on the other hand, stood against plenty of things. What was lamentably absent from that whole campaign and debate was anything that anyone was for, or any reason why “Make America Great Again” mattered at all. And this is the greaet centuries-old liberal dilemma: inasmuch as liberalism does not stand ostentatiously for anything, it is powerless to oppose the rhetoric of those who stand unrepentantly against almost everything. Nobody has any idea how to articulate the political power of the good.

Nobody has any idea how to articulate the political power of the good.

This is really all about control, and it is control that leads to our obsession with forbidding. “Good to live, not forbid” says it all: better to live life to the full yet it be short than to live life hardly at all and live forever. Yet the modern mantra is the opposite: “Good to forbid, not to live”: better to restrict enjoyment and enthusiasm and joi de vivre than to allow people to enjoy their lives albeit for no more than a short space of time. This is the ultimate triumph of quantity over quality, and it is responsible for untold misery and suffering. Time for a change.

Вкусно жить не запретишь. “Good to live, not forbid.”

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