What Dante, Tolkien, and Harry Potter Fan Fiction Can Teach Us about the Contemporary Quest for Immortality
by Joseph Simmons
From Dante to Tolkien to Harry Potter fan fiction, mankind has been tempted by the desire to transcend human limitations. This impulse is dangerous, but its dangers are not inexplicable.
In the opening canto of the Paradiso, Dante sings: “To soar beyond the human cannot be described / in words.” This is the translation provided byRobert and Jean Hollander. The Italian verb Dante invents in these lines, “trasumanar,” is more naturally rendered “tranhumanize,” as in some older translations. To put it so today would be somewhat misleading.
The spiritual metamorphosis Dante here describes differs greatly from contemporary “transhumanism,” a movement obscure elsewhere but influential in Silicon Valley, which seeks the technology to make us smarter, stronger, and (almost) immortal: in the words of Eliezer Yudkowsky, prominent AI researcher and tranhumanist, “A million-year lifespan? If it’s possible, why not?”
The possibility seems farfetched, and so the question idle. We move on—but in doing so offer our implicit assent, and only through inarticulate disgust avoid agreeing to customize our genome, to upload our minds to computers, to invent artificial intelligence. We ought not dismiss Yudkowsky's rhetorical question, but rather—what his rhetoric did not anticipate—respond to it, and to the infinite desire it attempts to describe.
Dante, though he knew little of technological quests for million-year lifespans, has wisdom to offer us, for he knew much of how the human desire for the infinite expresses itself—for both good and ill.
Dante’s Inferno and the Rhetoric of Immortality
An ancestor of contemporary transhumanism can be found in Canto XXVI of the Inferno. There the pilgrim encounters Ulysses, of Homer’s Odyssey, and the Italian poet places in the Greek hero’s mouth a coda to his homeward voyage:
‘Not tenderness for a son, nor filial dutytoward my agèd father, nor the love I owedPenelope that would have made her glad,Ulysses and his crew sail through the pillars of Hercules, beyond the boundaries of the known world, all the way to the island-mountain of Purgatory—any further, and they could have stormed the gates of paradise on earth. Instead, a whirlwind descends, their ship capsizes, and they drown.
Could overcome the fervor that was mineto gain experience of the worldand learn about man’s vices, and his worth.
And so I set forth on the open deepwith but a single ship and that handfulof shipmates who had not deserted me.’
Though he erred both in his indifference to his father, wife, and son, and in his transgression of divinely ordained limits, Ulysses has been placed not in the circle of the blasphemers, nor that of the traitors to family, but in that of the fraudulent counselors. His worst crime, in Dante’s depiction, is his use of manipulative rhetoric to convince his fellows to follow him into sin:
‘“O brothers,” I said, “who, in the courseof a hundred thousand perils, at lasthave reached the west, to such brief wakefulnessThis powerful speech makes participation in the polis, traditionally a space for human virtue, appear fit for only “brutes or beasts.” It presents a brutish indulgence of a solitary lust for novelty as if it were the only truly human life. It achieves this transvaluation so fully that many readers misread Ulysses’ hubris as magnificence.
“Of our senses as remain to us,do not deny yourself the chance to know—following the sun—where no one lives.
“Consider how your souls were sown:You were not made to live like brutes or beasts,but to pursue virtue and knowledge.”’
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