The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality
Williams (Bernard)
Source: Williams - Problems of the Self
Paper - Abstract

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Notes1 / Comments

  1. p. 82:
    • Williams believes in the “mortality of the soul” and that eternal life is meaningless because death gives the meaning to life, though not in the existentialist sense of the fear of death that does so.
    • Yet death is still an evil, which is not the same thing as whether it is to be feared.
    • Given the facts about human desire and happiness, and what human life is, eternal life without the prospect of death would be intolerable.
    • Background to the Makropulos2 Case: play by Karel Capek, opera3 by Janacek. Unending life leads to boredom, indifference, coldness, joylessness. The elixir is destroyed by a young woman, to the dismay of the old men.
  2. p. 83:
    • Death is not just not an evil as an end to suffering, but because it is best not to live too long.
    • This – that death is not necessarily an evil – is disputed by some philosophers. Those that agree do so either on the grounds that death is not the end, or that it is!
    • Lucretius seems to have feared death, and so was – by way of consolation – keen to prove it – seen as annihilation – not to be an evil. His argument concludes that the length of life – viewed selfishly – is unimportant.
    • Lucretius’ first argument is that fear of death is based on the confusion that we will – despite annihilation – still be around to contemplate our loss. Death and us are mutually exclusive.
  3. p. 84:
    • His second argument is that it doesn’t matter when we die as – if eternity is really infinite – then we’ll be dead just as long. This argument would fail if “eternity” was finite, but either way, the issue seems to be that there’s something wrong with the state of “being dead”, which is denied by the first argument.
    • However, there is something wrong with the first argument in that it would seem that a long life full of good things is better than a short one without them. In this case, dying early would be bad in some way. Longer consciousness of good things is better for the individual that a shorter life, irrespective of the fact that the dead are conscious of nothing.
  4. p. 85:
    • I prefer a situation in which I get what I desire to one in which I don’t, and death deprives us of realising any of our desires. So, even though when dead I’ll not know anything of my unsatisfied desires, the realisation that death frustrates all my desires is sufficient for it rationally to be considered an evil.
    • But are not all wants conditional on being alive, and “if one dies, all bets are off”? Some old people desire many things, yet on balance would prefer it if they and their desires were dead. And if one desires death, one cannot fail to satisfy the desire by dying.
    • Williams considers the occasional rationality of suicide, though he focusses on the case where the temptation is rationally resisted.
  5. p. 86:
    • His claim is that there can be unconditional or categorical desires that are not conditional on being alive. If I decide to go through with some unpleasant future event, rather than committing suicide, then I must have some desire that propels me on into the future, and not one conditional on being alive as it is the very desire that resolves whether or not I will be alive4.
    • There are more categorical reasons than the ascetic requires or suggests.
    • It is absurd to represent every desire as a desire to avoid its own frustration.
    • For humanity to survive, the drive to survive needs to be greater than any perceived reason so to do.
    • The minimum is something beyond the mere desire to survive – maybe the desire that my future desires will arise and be satisfied.
  6. p. 87:
    • But normally, the question never even comes up. The question of life being desirable is certainly transcendental in the most modest sense, in that it gets by far its best answer in not being asked at all.
    • Someone can think egoistically about whether it would be better or worse for him to go on living longer or less long, but not whether it would be better for him never to have existed at all.
    • The response to Lucretius’ first argument in "Nagel (Thomas) - Death" is interestingly different to the one Williams has presented. His point is that a person can suffer a misfortune even if he never knows about it (eg. if betrayed). This is not just – as any rejecter of Lucretius’ argument must admit – that we can suffer misfortunes that do not involve nasty experiences.
  7. p. 88:
    • Unlike on Williams’s account, whereby the reasons for avoiding death are based on the frustration of categorical desires, Nagel’s doesn’t even go this far (I might never have had a desire not to be betrayed).
    • Hence, Nagel is one step further from utilitarianism than is Williams, and his argument might be rejected by a utilitarian, while Williams’s cannot. Granted categorical desires, death has disutility for the agent in their non-satisfaction even though this disutility does not rest on any unsatisfactory experiences.
    • Williams takes it that it is a contingent fact that – contra Lucretius – most people have categorical desires that make death a misfortune for them. But Nagel’s argument can be taken as supplementary to Williams’s in supplying non-utilitarian reasons. Williams also doubts that categorical desires are merely contingent.
    • Neither argument against Lucretius considers possible worlds in which the agent does not exist. The shared reason is that the misfortune is X’s, which cannot be the case in a world in which X never existed.
  8. p. 89:
    • Williams further grounds X’s misfortune on his categorical desires, which cannot be had if there was never an X in that world.
    • So we should reject the Lucretian argument that it doesn’t matter when you die, and death is – cateris paribusalways5 an evil.
    • Nagel admits this, with some qualification that it is worse to die in one’s prime or failing to live out one’s natural term.
    • But – and here’s the point of all this in the context of Williams’s paper – if Lucretius is wrong, then isn’t it best to live for ever? Are we committed to wanting immortality?
    • This brings us to the “other things being equal”. Obviously, as our faculties decline, death may eventually become “a good thing”. But this decline is contingent – maybe one day it will be possible for some of us not to age.
    • So, even in the Makropulos case, might it not be the case that things are indeed equal (selfishly, anyway) and that it might always be a good thing – for oneself if not for anyone else – if one lived on for ever?
    • Williams will argue that the supposed contingencies are not such, but that an eternal human life would be meaningless and one that we would not be rational to desire. There is no desirable or significant property which life would have more of, or have more unqualifiedly, if we lasted for ever.
  9. p. 90:
    • Williams considers – as an embodied being living in the world much as it is – at what bodily age one should best eternally be. Makropulos is 342, but has lived 300 years aged 42 – which is OK for Williams6. The issue for her is not that she is eternally too old, but that she is bored, being eternally the same age. All the sorts of things that could make sense to a human being of a certain character aged 42 had already happened to her. All the passing centuries could add were more memories and a few changes of style.
    • We can raise questions about the presumed constancy of her character, and how it remains that way in the face of endless experiences. Williams suggests that the only way is detachment.
    • Makropulos differs from the general population, but this would not be the case if her “condition” became usual. Williams thinks that this generality would ot eliminate boredom and inner death – it would be a world of Bourbons, learning nothing and forgetting nothing, and it is unclear how much could ever happen.
  10. p. 91:
    • Williams argues that the boredom of immortality has little to do with the specific character of Makropulos. He claims that the only persons who could endure such an endless life would be those whose character was already shut out, and with no categorical desires they would not want everlasting life in the first place.
    • There are two conditions that need to be met by any fulfilment of the anti-Lucretian hope:-
      … 1. That the person who live for ever be me.
      … 2. That I will survive in a state adequately related to aims I have for surviving at all.
    • The second condition says that my future life must hold out some hope for the fulfilment of my categorical desires; and, the limiting case of these, is that future desires of mine may arise and be satisfied, and that it should be clear how these future desires might relate to my present character.
  11. p. 92:
    • Williams now considers a succession of lives as an alternative to the Makropulos situation. The major problem with this7 has always been recognised as the fulfilment of the first condition above, namely the preservation of identity.
    • But Williams (for the sake of the argument) assumes this condition is satisfied – by some minimal physical8 continuity. Otherwise, the situation – supposedly rebirth – cannot be distinguished from new birth.
    • Could such a series of psychologically disjoint lives provide any hope to someone not wanting to die?
    • Williams thinks this difficult, even if we were to admit the cogency of the “Future Great Pain Test” (see Click here for Note) – that one should rationally fear the future pain of someone with whom one is only bodily continuous.
    • Williams sees psychological disjointedness9 as central to the “reincarnation”10 model, and so there is a limit to what the individual can know about his series of lives. Indeed, it might need to appear to him that his present life is the only one, and that he could not be sure of what sort any future lives might be, should there be any.
  12. p. 93:
    • With no intimation of future lives, there would be no hope for those wanting to go on living. So, Williams considers a variant whereby some expectation is present.
    • In this case, the prospect of future great pain might encourage the individual to self-terminate (which Williams thinks would be possible in this “recurrence” scenario), as the psychological connection needed before future great pain appears unacceptable is minimal.
    • This aside, it is difficult to see how the survivor’s former and latter characters can be linked. If his present character is wiped out, there is no sense in saying that he has survived. To think otherwise is a muddle.
    • We are referred to "Parfit (Derek) - Personal Identity" for further discussion, in a different context.
  13. p. 94:
    • Williams thinks the serial-lives suggestion – were it to make sense – is the only one with any appeal, on the grounds that each period is at least a life.
    • Yet those who believe in eternal recurrence seem to look for release from it, which Williams sees as seeking not eternal life but “a superior sort of death”.
    • Williams considers it a fantasy to try to combine serial and continuous lives by allowing earlier, and (attractively) very varied, lives to remain in memory. He styles this the Teiresias model11.
    • The issue is that these serial lives cannot combine into a character: Tiresias is not a person but a phenomenon.
    • All this may have missed the point of those who have wished for immortality – which was not that they should never die, but that they should live on after death (or that they should not really die), and that their eternal life would not be in this world. If this is so, then maybe the frozen boredom of the Makropulos case can be escaped?
    • But even this hope has to be modelled on some more familiar unflagging activity or satisfaction. Just what would stave off eternal boredom? Williams alludes12 to the old joke of Don Juan in Hell, the tedium of heaven, and the devil having all the best tunes.
  14. p. 95:
    • Such thoughts point out the difficulty of imagining unending, but supposedly satisfying, activity based on a self-aware character already acquired in a finite life.
    • For Williams, the point is not that we have boredom in the utilitarian sense, which might be imagined away, as it is in our present life13. The point, rather, is that boredom would not just be a tiresome effect, but a perception of one’s relation to the environment. And such an unending perception, Williams thinks, has to be unthinkable.
    • This cannot be – thinks Williams – for there is nothing for a man with a developed character – that could be continually absorbing. And, merely thinking away the reaction of boredom isn’t improving the circumstances, but simply becoming less conscious of them.
    • We can make the immortal content by stripping him of all consciousness that would bring discontent. Even total absorption might do this.
    • Williams acknowledges that there can – even in this life – be necessary boredom. He gives as examples a radical bored by his party’s rhetoric or a sentry on duty.
  15. p. 96:
    • But eternal boredom doesn’t fit this mould. What would it be for?
    • Williams now turns to the philosopher’s favourite eternal pursuit – intellectual activity, which is totally absorbing and in which the philosopher can lose himself. This last thought suggests a warning to Williams.
    • He leaves aside those for whom intellectual activity has not been a focus in this life, and who would consequently require a new character to develop.
    • But even the intellectual would not be liberated by an eternity in which intellectual activity as all that was on offer. The activity must relate to the person, and not just the enquiry.
    • Williams claims that the Platonic introjection is an illusion. This14 is imagining that the satisfactions accruing from studying what is timeless and impersonal are themselves timeless and impersonal.
    • Williams rejects Spinoza’s idea that a man is most free and most himself when occupied in intellectual activity.
  16. p. 97:
    • We are referred to "Hampshire (Stuart) - Spinoza and the Idea of Freedom" as a supporter of Spinoza’s view, and Williams notes that Hampshire sees a similar trait in Freud.
    • It seems the freedom arises because in all else we’re subject to the action of unconscious memories, hence the Freudian appeal. But Williams thinks that Strawson has already committed himself to the importance of the accumulation of memories in developing the individual’s character.
    • Strawson thinks that we have maximal freedom in intellectual activity because the sequence of thoughts is maximally determined by internal considerations and the logical relation between thoughts. But this leaves out the question why the thinker is bothering with this line of thought at all. And it leaves out entirely what is going on in creative thought, where later thoughts are not supposed to be fully determined by earlier ones.
    • While all this may offer something in the way of freedom of the intellect, it is no help with freedom of the individual.
    • While freedom is rightly taken to include freedom from outside coercion15, it is not to be understood as freedom from my past, my character and my desires. This would be to pre-judge the boundaries of the self.
  17. p. 98:
    • Williams sees freedom to lie in the development and exercise of character, not in the desire to be free of character. Unconscious memories and desires fall within the boundaries of the self and are involved in the desire to persist in an active life.
    • So, contra Hampshire, an eternity of intellectual activity is no use to one concerned with individual immortality. Such ceaseless intellectual activity is fitted rather to Aristotle’s Prime Mover rather than to an individual man.
    • Williams closes with reference to Unamuno16, who gives in a cited purple passage a classic statement of the desire to go on living, come what may. He just wants the life of this self not to end, rather than wanting a Spinozist life of the intellect.
  18. p. 99:
    • Williams says that Unamuno is – rightly – at equal remove from Manicheanism and Utilitarianism, describing the latter as “the one-legged descendent of the former”.
    • Williams usefully points out that Manicheanism (also Orphism and Platonism) contrasts the spirit and the body such that the former is eternal and aims at truth and salvation, while the latter is adjusted to pleasure and is destined for dissolution. Secular utilitarianism is just the residual half of this dualism. There is no immortality, so this life should go on as long as we (or, Williams thinks, ultimately others) think it pleasant for us to be around.
    • Whatever else is wrong with Unamuno’s philosophy, Williams thinks he’s right in denying that the meaning of life consists in managing the satisfactions in a body or in an abstract immortality without one.
    • It looks like Unamuno “looked for” the resurrection of the body17, which Williams describes as the “rather brutal Catholic faith”. But his real desire is to go on irrespective of agreeable experiences. Williams quotes him as preferring Hell to nothingness.
    • Williams can make no sense of this claim. Lucretius has disproved – if too lightly (Williams says) – the rational fear of nothingness. Yet Unamuno would prefer continued existence even if it involved limitless suffering, and we are back to a categorical desire for life that can push through not just the presence but the prospect of “unpleasant times”.
  19. p. 100:
    • Williams has claimed that – while this categorical desire remains – one will not want to die. But he has also shown – he thinks – that such an eternal life will be unliveable.
    • He thinks the reason is that the categorical desire will – as in the Makropulos case – go away where I remain recognisably myself, of whom I will eventually have had too much.
    • But prior to this, Williams admits (contra Lucretius) that there can be reasons for not dying, and that death comes either too early or too late. One should die just before the horrors of not doing so become evident.
    • He suspects that technical progress may make this luck rarer18, but that currently one can be “lucky in having the chance to die”.


Also in "Fischer (John Martin), Ed. - The Metaphysics of Death".

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: Footnote 2: See also "Moore (Adrian W.) - Williams, Nietzsche, and the Meaninglessness of Immortality".

Footnote 3: Williams is an opera aficionado, so probably cam across the opera directly rather than via the philosophical literature.

Footnote 4: I do not understand this argument, and may consequently be misrepresenting Williams here.

Footnote 5: I’m not sure of the import of this qualification. Is it that future life will be on balance good? Or that we don’t have good reasons for wanting to die soon?

Footnote 6: This chapter started life as a lecture given in 1972, when Williams, born in 1929 (Wikipedia: Bernard Williams) was indeed 42.

Footnote 7: Effectively reincarnation (Click here for Note).

Footnote 8: Because this is the only option (unlikely though it seems) if psychological continuity is not allowed.

Footnote 9: Footnote 11: Williams assumes we’re sufficiently well-educated to understand the allusion. See Wikipedia: Tiresias and note the alternative spelling! It seems Tiresias had a life (or part-life) as a woman, maybe 7 lives on some accounts.

Footnote 12: As usual, without a reference. Maybe “Don Juan in Hell” (see Link), Act III of "Shaw (George Bernard) - Man and Superman".

Footnote 13: Ie. We just get on with it?

Footnote 14: I don’t know whether the Platonic introjection is a standard expression. A quick Google revealed nothing.

Footnote 15: Indeed, it seems to me that in rational enquiry I am at my least free – in that I am constrained by the evidence, or ought to be. Anyone sufficiently rational should come up with the same answer. My contribution – other than my choice of problem – is no more than a computer’s.

Footnote 16: Footnote 17: There’s a quotation – in untranslated Spanish – from a Basque tombstone.

Footnote 18: He’s not explicit, but he says “in more than one direction” – so, presumably either by cutting off life too early, or extending it too long.

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