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Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization [Kindle Edition]

Stephen Cave
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (86 customer reviews)

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Book Description

A fascinating work of popular philosophy and history that both enlightens and entertains, Stephen Cave’s Immortality investigates whether it just might be possible to live forever and whether we should want to.  But it also makes a powerful argument, which is that it’s our very preoccupation with defying mortality that drives civilization.
Central to this book is the metaphor of a mountaintop where one can find the Immortals.  Since the dawn of humanity, everyone – whether they know it or not – has been trying to climb that mountain.  But there are only four paths up its treacherous slope, and there have only ever been four paths.  Throughout history, people have wagered everything on their choice of the correct path, and fought wars against those who’ve chosen differently.
While Immortality takes the reader on an eye-opening journey from the beginnings of civilization to the present day, the structure is not chronological.  Rather it is path driven.  As each path is revealed to us, an historical figure serves as our guide. 
In drawing back the curtain on what compels humans to “keep on keeping on,” Cave engages the reader in a number of mind-bending thought experiments.  He teases out the implications of each immortality gambit, asking, for example, how long a person would live if they did manage to acquire a perfectly disease-free body.  Or what would happen if a super-being tried to round up the atomic constituents of all who’ve died in order to resurrect them.  Or what our loved ones would really be doing in heaven if it does exist.  Or what part of us actually lives in a work of art, and how long that work of art can survive. 
Toward the the book’s end, we’re confronted with a series of brain-rattling questions: What would happen if tomorrow humanity discovered that there is no life but this one?  Would people continue to care about their favorite sports team, please their boss, vie for the title of Year’s Best Salesman? Would three-hundred-year projects still get started?  If the four paths up the Mount of the Immortals lead nowhere -- if there is no getting up to the summit -- is there still reason to live?  And can civilization survive?
Immortality is a deeply satisfying book, as optimistic about the human condition as it is insightful about the true arc of history.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews


“Informed and metaphysically nuanced…Cave presents his arguments in a brisk, engaging style, and draws effectively upon a wide-ranging stock of religious, philosophical, and scientific sources, both ancient and contemporary.”
--Weekly Standard

“In his survey of the subject, Stephen Cave, a British philosopher, argues that man’s various tales of immortality can be boiled down into four basic “narratives”… For the aspiring undying, Mr Cave unfortunately concludes that immortality is a mirage. But his demolition project is fascinating in its own right…If anything, readers might want more of Mr. Cave’s crisp conversational prose.”
--The Economist

“A must-read exploration of what spurs human ingenuity.  Every once in a while a book comes along that catches me by surprise and provides me with an entirely new lens through which to view the world…Such is the case with Stephen Cave’s book Immortality…Cave presents an extremely compelling case – one that has changed my view of the driving force of civilization as much as Jared Diamond did years ago with his brilliant book Guns, Germs and Steel.”
--S. Jay Olshanksy, New Scientist magazine
"Cave explains how the seeking of immortality is the foundation of human achievement, the wellspring of art, religion and civilization...The author is rangy and recondite, searching the byways of elixirs, the surprises of alchemy, the faith in engineering and all the wonder to be found in discussions of life and death...Luminous."
--Kirkus Reviews
“A dramatic and frequently surprising story of the pursuit of immortality and its effects on human history.”

“A beautifully clear and entertaining look at life after death. Cave does not shrink from the hard questions. Bold and thought-provoking.”
—Eric Olson, author of The Human Animal and What Are We?
Immortality plumbs the depths of the human mind and ties the quest for the infinite prolongation of life into the very nature of civilization itself. Cave reveals remarkable depth and breadth of learning, yet is always a breeze to read. I thoroughly enjoyed his book—it’s a really intriguing study.”
—David Boyd Haycock, author of Mortal Coil and A Crisis of Brilliance
I loved this. Cave has set himself an enormous task and accomplished it—in spades. Establishing a four-level subject matter, he has stuck to his guns and never let up. As he left one level and went to the next, I was always a little worried: Would he be able to pull it off? This was especially true as he approached the end. There is a sense in which each level, as he left it smoking in the road, looked easy as he started the next. In fact, the last level, while it is the most difficult, is the best, the most satisfying. I am happy to live in the world Cave describes.”
— Charles Van Doren, author of A History of Knowledge
“Cave is smart, lucid, elegant and original. Immortality is an engaging read about our oldest obsession, and how that obsession propels some of our greatest accomplishments.”
—Greg Critser, author of Eternity Soup
“In Immortality Stephen Cave tells wonderful stories about one of humanity’s oldest desires and comes to a wise conclusion.”
— Stefan Klein, author of The Science of Happiness and The Secret Pulse of Time
“Cave has produced a strikingly original and compelling exploration of the age-old conundrum: Can we live forever, and do we really want to?”
—John Horgan, science journalist and author of The End of War

About the Author

Stephen Cave holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Cambridge University and, before turning to full-time writing, worked as a diplomat.  He writes regularly for the Financial Times and also contributes to the New York Times.

Product Details

  • File Size: 1377 KB
  • Print Length: 338 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: B009IAKALC
  • Publisher: Crown; 1 edition (April 3, 2012)
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #394,770 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
78 of 88 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Immortality from the secular view. March 21, 2012
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Stephen Cave's "Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization" is a well-organized, meticulously argued, elegantly written book. Cave's thesis is to descirbe what he calls the world's four "Immortality Narratives"--"Staying Alive" (prolonging physical life via medical and technological means), "Resurrection" (the traditional Christian teaching that we are reborn in the same body), "Soul" (the idea that our individual consciousness survives bodily death), and "Legacy" (gaining immortality through great deeds or our descendants). Using the stories of Nefertiti, St. Paul, Dante and Beatrice, the Dalai Lama, Alexander the Great and Gilgamesh to organize his book and argue his points, Cave demonstrates in a clear, intelligent style how each of these narratives informed society and led to great advances in art, literature, law and politics.

However, Cave--a philosopher, and thus a logician, by training--also uses scientific evidence to assess the chances of any of the Immortality Narratives being true. He concludes that all of them are almost certainly false. He is particularly scathing toward the idea of the soul, the Immortality Narrative most of the world's residents accept: "(E)verything the soul was supposed to explain--thoughts, consciousness, life itself--has been shown to be dependent on the body. We therefore have every reason to believe that all these faculties--from memory to emotion to the most basic form of awareness--cease when the body ceases. There is simply nothing left over for the soul. As a hypothesis, it is redundant."

In place of the soul, Cave offers this as consolation: "We do not linger like uninvited guests at our own funeral, nor are we plunged into the lonely void. We stop.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Everlasting Book! Fantastic! April 8, 2012
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization by Stephen Cave

" Immortality" is the fascinating and thought-provoking book about life, death and civilization. It's about humankind's quest by one or a combination of four paths that promise immortality and whether any of these paths can deliver on that promise. Finally, with the newfound wisdom it's about following a philosophy of life that provides us with a meaningful existence. Stephen Cave holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Cambridge University and a writer who skillfully provides the reader with a gem of a book that is enlightening and a joy to read. This 338-page book is broken out into four parts that correspond to the four narratives of immortality and a conclusion: Part I. Staying Alive, Part II. Resurrection, Part II. Soul, and Part IV. Legacy.

1. A well written, accessible book for the masses.
2. A mesmerizing topic: immortality. The author treats the topic with utmost care and respect.
3. A fantastic format that follows logically with the author's overall thesis.
4. The four immortality narratives: Staying Alive, Resurrection, Soul, and Legacy. The entire book revolves around these four main paths.
5. The author clearly presents three main goals upfront and thoroughly succeeds in achieving them.
6. Each chapter begins with an interesting historical vignette in which the author highlights the main topic of the chapter.
7. In the first path of immortality the author goes through a number of examples that clearly show how the determination to stay alive and reproduce is one thing that all life forms have in common.
8. The Morality Paradox. The immortality narratives were created to resolve the paradox.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Like any other unprovable assumption September 1, 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Stephen Cave's book on Immortality deserves to be read and digested by anyone who sincerely wonders about the possibility of a post-death existence. According to Cave, that would be nearly all of us. Those who have already drawn a conclusion based on whatever belief system they have should stay away, given that they want to preserve their belief system. Cave methodically picks apart then discards each of the four major immortality narratives one by one.

However, he may be wrong. His scientific biases show up throughout the book and his materialism assumption is ever-present. I would have preferred an upfront admission of his underlying premise that scientific materialism is the only valid source of knowledge. Like any other unprovable assumption, regardless of how rational it may feel, it requires a large measure of faith in it to move forward with whatever argument one is weaving.

While Cave does a nice job of presenting each immortality narrative, at the end it seems that he set up four strawmen in order to knock them down and to present his fifth narrative, the Wisdom Narrative, as the champion. He may not be entirely wrong but it's a bit transparent.

That said, it is easy to agree with Cave that the Resurrection Narrative has exhausted any currency it may have once had in our collective cultures. Likewise, it is not difficult to accept the Legacy Narrative as a poor proxy for immortality.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Articulate and smart
Good read. Articulate and smart.
Published 1 month ago by Michele Gray
3.0 out of 5 stars Read it and Weep
This could be the most depressing book you've ever read. The basic premise is if you've ever entertained the notion that there might be life after death you're delusional, you and... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Liam
4.0 out of 5 stars Thought-provoking
Thought-provoking read with wonderful little historical excerpts along the way. I give it a four instead of a five only because I thought he got repetitive along the way. Read more
Published 2 months ago by BBRemmes
5.0 out of 5 stars Very accessibly written and well researched.
Stephen writes about deep philosophies with accessible language. I was a bit intimidated to read this book to begin with, but very quickly, his humor and personality shine through... Read more
Published 3 months ago by John M McLellan
4.0 out of 5 stars The author presents very good arguments showing there is no soul
A very well-written book. The author presents very good arguments showing there is no soul, no reincarnation and no immortality. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Show-Me Skeptic
3.0 out of 5 stars Great topic and interesting anecdotes from history and legend
Great topic and interesting anecdotes from history and legend. The history and legends were a little blended together for my tastes making this sort of a fiction/non-fiction... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Derek Underwood
3.0 out of 5 stars Someone Beat Cave to his Thesis 12 Years Ago
The thesis of Stephen Cave's book is that our guest for immortality is what drives civilization. I agree. Read more
Published 6 months ago by David Spence
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
Clear, interesting and well argued.
Published 9 months ago by lmphila
5.0 out of 5 stars A fantastic, thought provoking book
Considering the weightiness of the subject matter, this book was truly engaging. Indeed, I had a difficult time putting it down, due in large part to the author's thoughtfulness... Read more
Published 11 months ago by DitPun
5.0 out of 5 stars So good I read it twice
Immortality, eternal life, life after death are topics which I find very interesting and subjects which I read a lot about (40+ books and counting) and I found Stephen Cave's book... Read more
Published 14 months ago by M. Cunningham
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More About the Author

Stephen Cave writes on a wide range of philosophical, ethical and scientific subjects, including for the Financial Times, New York Times, Wired and others. His first book Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization was published in spring 2012 and was described by The Economist as "fascinating" and by the New Scientist as "a must read" and a "best book of 2012".
Stephen earned a PhD in philosophy from the University of Cambridge, then subsequently spent some years as a diplomat for Her Britannic Majesty before taking up writing full time. He now lives with his wife and daughters in Berlin.

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