When I was writing the mission statement for this site (“Why does death matter?“), I used the words mortality and mortals. It occurs to me now how unfashionable these words have become, particularly the latter.
In ancient literature, particularly in mythologies where humans existed alongside gods, titans, demons and other immortals, humans were characterized by their one universal difference from these other life forms. The others lived forever, or returned eternally in the case of titans, whereas we mortals were condemned to die, unpredictably and after only a brief earthly existence.
What was so obvious to the ancients, indeed the primary attribute of humanity, has become invisible to us. We have created, or better, enlarged an existing blind spot in our metaphysical vision. The ancients understood better, more objectively, for what unites all human beings is our common equalizing mortality. We are all mortals – some of us get given a few more years, some even a few more happy years than others. But in the end, we are all pathetically equally mortal. In comparison with the lifespans of the universe, of the earth, of the species and even of many of our own artworks, we are blips on the cosmos’s radar screen, indistinguishable one from the other and of fleeting permanence.
Our awareness of ourselves as mortals humbled us with respect to the immortals – to the gods, to the earth, to nature, to art. It imposed sensible limits on our ambitions in their realms. And our common mortality made us respect those who were equally mortal with us – our fellow human beings and the other inhabitants of our earth, the animals. An acute awareness of being mortal also created the basis of our hunger for immortality – you can only hunger for what you are aware of not having. Religions were formed to answer these hopes, some better, some more honest than others – but all in all humanity lived in hope of something more than a short brutish life on earth (and this is not the place to argue about all the admittedly detrimental effects of false or corrupted religions!)
Since losing all hopes for any form of eternal after-life, as well as all external frames of reference for immortality such as gods, we have become our own subjective frame of reference when it comes to life. We thus take the trivial differences in longevity and fortune existing between men as all-significant and desperately attempt to equalize what is relatively speaking already equal: to the gods, to the earth, to the human species, there is no significant difference between one measly human life and another.
Our loss of an objective frame of reference for life has other negative effects: We feel ourselves infinitely superior to our non-human fellow mortals, the animals, and lord it over them as gods. We instinctively refrain from building or planning anything for the long term, since anything beyond our own short existence no longer has psychological reality for us. We are less interested in history and art, since they are also symbolically connected with transcendence over time and thus immortality of a sort. And we expend enormous sums and efforts in medical research, health care, sanitation etc in order to extend our lives for a few, more often than not miserable, years in nursing homes.
How the immortals – and indeed those humans who still aspire to true, spiritual immortality – must chuckle at our foolish vanity!
It would be a very positive sign for the world if we became mortals once again!