In the early 1790s, the London intellectual scene was convulsed with the fervor of the ongoing French Revolution. Sympathizers and counter-revolutionaries engaged in a ferocious pamphlet war, initiated by the Unitarian minister Richard Price, rejoined by Edmund Burke in his masterpiece of reactionary rhetoric, Reflections on the Revolution in France, and rejoined again by such writers as Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine. Political organizations arguing for electoral reform, including the London Corresponding Society and the Society for Constitutional Information, flourished. The resulting conservative backlash culminated in government suspension of habeas corpus and suppression of the free press and free assembly. The decade following the revolution was, all told, a time of tremendous political creativity and turbulence in the Anglophone world.
Among the most influential contributions to these debates was a complex philosophical tome titled Enquiry Concerning Political Justice by a former dissenting minister named William Godwin. Godwin was as radical as Wollstonecraft (his future wife) and Paine, but less political and confrontational, and his response to the revolution therefore took a decidedly intellectualized cast. The book’s final section, “Of Property,” was particularly influential in its strict egalitarianism: It provided inspiration to the utopian socialist and Chartist movements in the early nineteenth century and was being reprinted by radicals as late as 1890. Godwin’s arguments for equality of property, however, provoked a strange set of reflections on the perfectibility of other aspects of human life, leading in the book’s final pages to a notorious conjecture: “Why may not man one day be immortal?”
Godwin’s conviction of the possibility of immortality, which only a few years ago might have seemed quixotic and a bit embarrassing, has come back into fashion. It enjoys special favor with a very particular constituency: West Coast tech capital. Funded by Silicon Valley’s bottomless coffers, a flotilla of biotech startups and foundations dedicated to anti-aging research have appeared on the scene. The Google-affiliated California Life Company (Calico for short) is notoriously secretive but thought to be looking for the deep genetic bases of aging by studying naked mole rats and yeast. Led by the charismatic TED-talk virtuoso Aubrey de Grey, a foundation called SENS (Strategies for Engineering Negligible Senescence) takes a more symptom-oriented approach, developing methods for independently treating various aging processes at the cellular level. And the maverick geneticist Craig Venter (most famous for nearly succeeding in patenting the human genome) runs Human Longevity, Inc., which is undertaking an ambitious genetic sequencing and machine learning project. Venter’s company also offers genetic health consultations for a mere $25,000.
Despite the diversity of approaches, these companies, along with many others, share a surprisingly strong conviction that aging is a malleable process. In some cases, the objective is modestly stated as the prolongation of a healthy lifespan; in others, the true quarry is called by its name: eternal life. Witness the oracular peroration with which de Grey concludes his 2008 book Ending Aging: “I shall look forward to shaking your hand in a future . . . where we enjoy dramatically extended lives in a new summer of vigor and health, the dark specter of the age plague driven away by the sunshine of perpetual youth.”
If any human longing is universal, it is that for immortality. Yet, among a certain class of West-coast capitalists, this longing has taken on a peculiar intensity. Silicon Valley has become persuaded that death (or at the very least aging) is a treatable disease, and is pumping capital into private-sector labs dedicated to finding the cure. At times, this movement seems consonant with a broader and unmistakably Californian tradition of virtue ethics. (The hard-right tech mogul Peter Thiel, for example, hopes to live forever using the new technologies, but maintains a paleo diet with plenty of red wine just in case.) At others, it faintly resembles a religious revival. (Christianity, after all, is the West’s original and most successful Strategy for Engineering Negligible Senescence.)
Above all, the new immortalism is rooted in a conviction of invincibility proper to those who have accumulated untold wealth from the new information technologies. One needn’t be a Luddite to recognize that West-coast futurism is rooted not just in scientific progress but also in a sense of class entitlement. For those who have landed decisively on the winning side of recent history, it may be hard to accept that the privileges of wealth are bounded by the finitude of the human body.
While healthy skepticism is surely in order, it is important not to respond to the immortalists in a reactionary manner. Whatever their motivations and delusions, they are investing heavily in anti-aging biotechnologies, some of which may eventually produce health benefits and some of which may eventually be available to the non-rich. The entire field, however, is shot through the by the tech sector’s inexhaustible optimism about the private sector’s ability to produce technological progress. The free flow of private capital, the story goes, disrupts outmoded business models and quaint cultural norms and pushes us toward a more connected and prosperous future.
Yet, as David Graeber has pointed out, our technological progress falls far short of mid-twentieth-century expectations, and has largely been confined in recent years to communications technologies. We were promised inter-planetary travel, automation of housework, and new multi-dimensional media, and all we got is Uber, Grubhub, and Netflix. The internet is, of course, a revolutionary development, but one created by decades of significant public investment and only privatized just as it became viable for widespread use. Meanwhile, perhaps the one potentially transformative technological breakthrough of the past decade—the gene-editing technique known as CRISPR—is the work of research universities, not deep-pocketed disruptors. And as the recent Juicero debacle revealed, elite venture capitalists are perfectly capable of mistaking hucksterism for innovation.
However misplaced the faith in private-sector investment, the belief in life extension is real, and the amounts of capital invested in it vast. A curious genre of anti-mortality polemic has arisen to justify this investment. The immortalists, very particularly de Grey, are quite eloquent in making a negative-utilitarian case for life extension: Death is a terrible form of suffering, and we can prevent it, so we must. They are far less articulate about what we might do with our eternal lives, or about why living them would be a good thing. Thiel, when asked such questions in an interview with the Washington Post, offers a typical response: “I’m not sure . . .” though he might use his time to “go back into some specific technical research area.”
While the dream of immortality is old as the hills, tech capitalism’s obsession with anti-aging research is unusual in its ethic of Enlightenment positivism. In this aspect, it inverts one of the Enlightenment’s longstanding theses. For Sigmund Freud, for example, religion’s promises of an immortal soul and divine providence were wish-fulfillment fantasies, designed to fend off rational conviction of the essential helplessness and finitude of the human body. The new immortalists, on the contrary, view the body’s immortality as a scientifically deduced fact, and accuse skeptics of delusive absorption in a “pro-aging trance.”
They are not, however, the first rationalists to embrace immortality. The curious fervor of their movement merits a return to an older form of Enlightenment idealism. The new immortalism both resembles and profoundly differs from a strange and, for non-specialists, forgotten chapter in the history of British philosophy and literature: William Godwin’s preoccupation with the idea of eternal life.
Godwin’s political philosophy emerged in the 1790s in the context of the English response to the French Revolution. Though retiring and bookish in his personal habits, Godwin’s thought was as radical as any that emerged from that tumultuous period. He advocated for minimal government and was deeply suspicious of political collectivism, rejected “rights of man” arguments in favor of impartial distributive justice, argued for the abolition of marriage, and viewed inequality of private property as an abomination. Above all, he thought genuine change came about not through revolution but through the gradual development of reason.
This combination of commitments makes Godwin difficult to place in relation to current ideological schisms: He might be plausibly claimed by anarchists, utilitarians, radical democrats, Marxists, feminists, humanists, and libertarians. In the strangest and most ambitious passages of Political Justice—his central philosophical treatise—Godwin resembles another contemporary breed of ideologue: the utopian futurist. Anti-aging futurists are fond of citing Francis Bacon, Benjamin Franklin, and the Marquis de Condorcet, but have neglected what was perhaps the most systematic and uncompromising critique of mortality to emerge from the Enlightenment.
Though sympathetic to the Revolution, Godwin was uneasy with its noisier proponents as well as its ideological armature. He backed away from “rights of man” rhetoric, and the eighteenth-century tradition of natural right more broadly, to propose an account of political justice that we would now call distributive, or even utilitarian: “If justice have any meaning, it is just that I should contribute every thing in my power to the benefit of the whole.” Though critical of the idea of discretionary rights, Godwin fiercely defended the liberty of “exercise of private judgment.” Political justice, he thought, would be most effectually sought not through political domination but through gradual progress toward intellectual consensus.
This quietist, anti-revolutionary strain in Godwin’s thought, ironically, stems from his most radical commitment: a belief in a boundless human capacity for improvement. If Godwin declined to endorse the removal of oppressive states and unequal property distribution by force, it was because he viewed humanity as naturally tending toward justice. “Perfectibility,” he wrote, “is one of the most unequivocal characteristics of the human species, so that the political, as well as the intellectual state of man, may be presumed to be in a course of progressive improvement.” In his insistence on human perfectibility, Godwin anticipates the ethos of utopian futurism: The capacity to reason makes it not only possible but inevitable that things will get better.
The final book of Political Justice, titled “Of Property,” is where we find Godwin in his most utopian mode, sketching the tendencies of a perfectible society. Foremost among these is equalization (rather than collectivization) of property. Commentators have at times tried to assimilate Godwin to the classical liberal tradition, but such efforts have never been convincing. His dismissal of property rights is peremptory and absolute:
What is the criterion that must determine whether this or that substance, capable of contributing to the benefit of a human being, ought to be considered as your property or mine? To this question there can be but one answer—Justice.
There is a sense, for Godwin, in which all accumulations of property beyond sufficiency constitute “monopoly”: engrossment of goods from which others might benefit, and which are therefore due to them. Unequal distribution, which grants some individuals undue power over others, is the principal impediment to social progress. Godwin was not a Jacobin, but even less was he a liberal.
Godwin makes a number of startling predictions about the social developments that will follow equalization of property and the flourishing of reason it will permit. It is here that his utopian futurism starts to emerge. In uncanny anticipation of our contemporary economic predicament, Godwin predicts extensive automation of labor:
When we look at the complicated machines of human contrivance, various sorts of mills, of weaving engines, of steam engines, are we not astonished at the compendium of labour they produce? Who shall say where this species of improvement must stop?
Godwin anticipates self-operating ploughs and entire orchestras played by a single performer. For Godwin, as for contemporary left-accelerationists, automation is not to be dreaded but greeted with open arms. In anticipation of a burgeoning genre of anti-work polemic on the left in our own moment, Godwin eagerly looks forward to “a final close to the necessity of manual labour.”
Godwin, however, was not a luxury communist. In a free and equal society, he anticipates, intellectual capacities will triumph and the pleasures of the senses will atrophy, with luxury consumption and erotic enjoyment withering away. Accumulation of wealth and its expenditure on vices will cease, not because they are prohibited, but because their absurdity will become common knowledge. Cohabitation will be abolished, and all love will be free, marriage being “the most odious of all monopolies.” The “intercourse of the sexes,” however, will consist primarily in conversation, with the propagation of the species fading to a mere afterthought. Godwin’s utopian vision is thus a strangely ascetic one.
Godwin’s austere optimism, however, was yet more ambitious. If the mind can master both the external world and the body, he asks, what’s to stop it from eliminating the ultimate limit on embodied existence? “In a word, why may not man one day be immortal?” After all, “mind modifies body involuntarily,” as in fits of strong emotion, so why should its modification of the body not be made both intentional and permanent? Godwin conjectures, following this logic, that maintenance of a cheerful, benevolent, and inquisitive disposition may have the power to keep the body in youthful vigor. Death, conversely, is ultimately a choice: “We are sick and die, generally speaking, because we consent to suffer these accidents.” The triumph of reason over matter is thus, almost by definition, the triumph over death.
Godwin does temper these views by relegating human immortality to the deep future. We are likely, he thinks, to overcome sleep, “death’s image,” far earlier. Curiously, in revised editions of Political Justice, Godwin excised his prediction of a sleepless future, but maintained a highly sanguine, if more guarded, view about the extension of healthy life. And with good reason: This position, though at moments bizarre, is in fact the utmost logical extension of Godwin’s optimistic voluntarism, which views social and natural life as things to be chosen rather than endured. (This position does appear to be in tension with his adoption, earlier in Political Justice, of David Hume’s argument against free will, but that’s another story.) The passages on immortality may be embarrassing in retrospect, but they also unfold from a tenet of Godwin’s thought that is worth preserving: an insistence on human perfectibility. The backlash against the perfectibility thesis turned out, ironically, to be his most influential legacy to the post-Enlightenment world: Thomas Malthus’s pessimistic Essay on the Principle of Population, today much better known than Political Justice, arose as an attack on precisely this element in Godwin’s thought.
Godwin, then, was a futurist as audacious, or more so, than any of our own. In particular, he was perhaps among the earliest thinkers to definitively shake off the “pro-aging trance.” As a motto, he cited Benjamin Franklin’s conjecture that “mind would one day become omnipotent over matter.” This is the central conviction of futurism, and more broadly of a tradition of radical Enlightenment optimism: that reason is omnipotent and nature malleable. The contours of Godwin’s futurism, however, contrast sharply with that found among contemporary tech capitalists. For the former, the achievement of social and economic equality is an indispensable first step in the triumph of mind over matter. For the Silicon Valley futurists, the path to the future lies through further concentration of private wealth and erosion of the common. Futurism isn’t what it used to be.
Godwin’s continued preoccupation with immortality, in fact, produced a fascinating literary thought experiment that anticipated this accommodation between the futurist impulse and private capital accumulation. After the 1794 success of his novel Caleb Williams, Godwin prepared two revised editions of Political Justice before returning to fiction, publishing a novel called St. Leon in 1799. A complex generic mix of historical, gothic, and speculative fiction, St. Leon recounts the story of a down-and-out French nobleman in the sixteenth century who comes into possession of an alchemical formula for procuring infinite youth and wealth: the philosopher’s stone.
The resulting fictional scenario provides an oddly precise allegory for the situation that tech capitalists often envision for themselves. The eponymous protagonist impoverishes his family with a gambling habit, and they undergo years of precarious existence before settling into a bucolic lifestyle near Constance. St. Leon’s Rousseauvian retirement is interrupted by a mysterious stranger who entrusts him with the secret of eternal life and infinite wealth, on the condition that he share it with no one else. From this incipit, the novel pursues a thought-experiment: What might it mean to experience infinite personal security in a world systematically unable to afford security to anyone else? The immortal St. Leon wanders a Europe mired in poverty and torn apart by conflict between the Hapsburgs, France, and the Ottomans. Like a venture capitalist on a seastead or in a doomsday bunker, his ability to insulate himself from the precarity of existence in such a world is exactly what cuts him off from it.
With almost cruel single-mindedness, Godwin’s novel tracks the failure of the philosopher’s stone to procure happiness for its protagonist. As he is forced to keep his secret even from his wife and family, St. Leon’s formerly intimate domestic life decays into distrust. Moving from Constance to Pisa to Madrid, he is hounded everywhere by suspicion about his inexplicable wealth, alienated from his son, jailed by an extortionate turnkey, and finally imprisoned by the Spanish inquisition. As the novel drives home again and again, technological superiority only means so much when its wielder is hemmed in by social conditions like superstition and corruption.
One of the novel’s most notable episodes takes a turn toward political economy by explicitly contrasting St. Leon’s effortless generation of wealth with the slow, arduous process of social improvement. After escaping from the inquisition and rejuvenating his withered body to youth, St. Leon makes his way to Hungary, at the time ravaged by constant territorial conflict between the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires. His intention is to use the philosopher’s stone to mitigate the dreadful poverty produced by these imperial wars. St. Leon’s attitude in pursuing this project is reminiscent of our own effective altruists: He wants to expend his surplus wealth on social improvement, but is more concerned with optimization of outcomes than with distributive justice.
St. Leon settles in Budapest and sets out on a program of improvement (or as we now call it, economic development) by funding the construction of new housing. The circulation of the workmen’s wages, coupled with some grain imports and direct philanthropy, stimulates the economy into new activity. We could say that his program is an infrastructure spending package funded by magical quantitative easing. The philosopher’s stone, it seems, has finally found a socially beneficial application, even if its owner remains isolated.
Having mastered economic forces, however, St. Leon runs afoul of political ones. Increasingly distrusted and harried by the populace for his evidently boundless wealth, he turns to the local bashaw for protection. The Ottoman official extorts protection money for military support of St. Leon’s projects, and the altruist effectively becomes an agent of an occupying imperial army. In this position of political prominence, he forms an alliance with a misanthropic Hungarian warlord named Bethlem Gabor, only to have Gabor turn on him in retribution for a favor to a longstanding enemy.
St. Leon is immured in Gabor’s dungeon for months, and the novel thus transitions abruptly from one of the eighteenth-century’s most enlightened genres—political economy—to its most retrograde—the gothic. St. Leon’s infinite resources and economic know-how cannot extricate him from the political impasses produced by imperial politics. As we later learn, St. Leon’s cooperation with the bashaw, though motivated purely by humanitarian concerns, has made him reviled throughout Hungary. Godwin anticipates a lesson that subsequent generations of technocrats have failed to master: The reduction of politics to administration prepares the way for the return of the political in its malignant, gothic guise.
Having punctured each of St. Leon’s projects to use his life-extension technology to personal or collective advantage, the novel ends on a note of cruel irony. After finally being liberated from Gabor’s dungeon, St. Leon encounters his long-estranged son Charles, who is serving as an officer in the Hapsburg armies. Now biologically younger than his son, he is taken under his wing, and learns that Charles is courting Pandora, a young woman without a suitable dowry. St. Leon arranges a false inheritance for Charles’s intended using the philosopher’s stone, but his attentions are mistaken by Charles for lascivious interest in Pandora. The novel ends with St. Leon fleeing the prospect of a duel with his own son. As Godwin arranges things, his protagonist’s very ability to command infinite resources and time cuts him off from the most intimate form of social belonging: His attempt to secure an inheritance for his family is mistaken for a hostile act.
In a curiously open-ended denouement, St. Leon continues to wander the world in the knowledge that he is both his son’s economic benefactor and sworn enemy. His immortality ensures the impossibility of tidy narrative closure. It also ensures the insolubility of the impasse that structures the novel: tension between technological omnipotence and social impotence. Godwin uses the device of the philosopher’s stone to imagine an absolute technological solution to the problems of death and scarcity. He then proceeds to show how this technological fix is powerless to solve a succession of social and human problems: the obduracy of superstition, politics, and ethnic antagonism, the corroding effects of a lie on an intimate relationship.
As the literary scholar Andrea Charise has pointed out, there is a clear shift in Godwin’s attitude to immortality between the first edition of Political Justice and St. Leon. The state that Godwin envisions in the former as the logical endpoint of human perfectibility becomes, in the latter, a condition of unbearable isolation. Charise may be correct that there is a shift in Godwin’s medical framework for understanding aging, but the discrepancy can also be understood in terms of his radical politics. In Political Justice, the extension of lifespan is part of a larger project of collective human improvement, a project whose first step is the pursuit of social and economic equality. St. Leon sets out to demonstrate systematically what life as a perfected individual in an unjust society might be like. Where social relations remain imperfect, the novel argues, so must any individual life. Human perfectibility cannot, for Godwin, be pursued through technology alone, even one as marvelous as the philosopher’s stone.
Ten years after publishing St. Leon, Godwin revisited the question of immortality once more, in an odd (and oddly moving) pamphlet titled Essay on Sepulchres. The pamphlet proposes a public works project: modest wooden plaques and crosses placed at the burial places of all individuals of distinction. These sepulchers will be maintained at public expense and catalogued in an “Atlas of those who Have Lived.” Godwin’s motivation for this quixotic project seems to have been a desire for community beyond death:
The men that have lived, are they less important than the men of the present day? . . . To him who is of a mind rightly framed, the world is a thousand times more populous, than to the man, to whom every thing that is not flesh and blood, is nothing.
Godwin imagines a hyper-populated world in which the dead are included in the community of the living. At times, this desire for transhistorical human solidarity takes the form of an almost aching longing for physical contact with the dead. The sepulchres will provide this contact by establishing a form of immortality in the very matter composing the earth: “Perhaps every particle of mould which now exists, was once kneaded up into man, and thought and felt and spoke as I do now.” An aging Godwin thus remained committed to the idea of immortality as a component of enlightenment and progress. He now sought, however, to bring about the triumph of mind over matter through a more traditional technology: collective memory.
The writings produced by Godwin’s preoccupation with the idea of immortality, in this way, can serve as an eerily apposite critique of Silicon Valley’s vision for lifespan extension: optimized individual health without optimized social health. But St. Leon, by coupling the dream of eternal youth with that of infinite wealth, may provide yet another inroad to understanding the extraordinary surge of interest in life extension among elite capitalists. The philosopher’s stone, providing infinite youth and wealth, takes aim at two of the most bemoaned aspects of the human condition. It is therefore easy to understand as a crude wish-fulfillment fantasy. But it may also be a fantasy with a specific meaning in rationalized capitalist cultures, in which—as Benjamin Franklin put it—time is money.
Gennady Stolyarov II’s Death is Wrong, an odd piece of anti-mortality polemic aimed at children and adolescents, makes the logic of the philosopher’s stone explicit:
You could become extremely rich by putting your money in the bank and letting it earn interest over a very, very long time. If you put only one dollar in the bank today and let it sit there, and the bank paid you just 1% interest each year, you would be a billionaire 2083 years from now. At 2% interest, it would only take 1047 years.
The bank account or stock portfolio of an immortal being would know no limits, and might continue to grow exponentially forever. Though the fantasy Stolyarov lays out is particularly crude, real-world analogues might arise: If the mega-rich of today were able to keep investing for even fifty years beyond the normal human lifespan, they might achieve astronomical levels of capital accumulation. And, more pragmatically, the gains to be reaped by the first start-up to effectively cure death—if such a thing every happens—will surely be vast. The prodigy venture capitalist Laura Deming, for example, has estimated that longevity medicine may become a “two-hundred-billion-dollar-plus” industry.
This, then, may be the ultimate basis for Silicon Valley capital’s obsession with life extension. Whether they are prescient or delusional, tech moguls glimpse the philosopher’s stone: eternal life and infinite wealth. The dream, in Godwin’s novel and now, is that of unlimited accumulation over an unlimited timespan. As Max Weber argued, one of the central problems of capitalist culture has always been how to accommodate the demand for infinite production with the finitude of lived human time. If time is money, one can only make as much money as there is time. Monetized indefinite life extension, in theory, would remove this dilemma, and open up at last capital’s Elysium: infinite and eternal accumulation.
Godwin and Google can both be situated within a long historical arc of rationalist optimism holding that the material finitude of the human body can be overcome. Such optimism fits within the broader constellation that the intellectual historical Jonathan Israel calls “the Radical Enlightenment”: a tradition of uncompromising rational inquiry and egalitarianism that originated in seventeenth-century Europe and which, according to Israel, we have been fighting about ever since. According to the tenets of the radical Enlightenment, schemes for reshaping the material world go hand in hand with schemes for equalizing and democratizing the social world. For Godwin, the path to immortality lay through equality. The new immortalists, on the other hand, claim to have shaken off the “pro-aging trance” but remain enthralled by an illusion just as timeless: the pro-inequality trance.
An earlier moment in utopian Enlightenment thought thus contrasts tellingly with the new campaign against death. Godwin demanded immortality but also equality and freedom; indeed, he saw the three as inextricably linked. Our own futurists, for all their bombast, are less ambitious: They want immortality now, but aren’t in a rush to achieve free and equal societies of immortal beings. It is far from guaranteed that the tech moguls will succeed in significantly extending their lifespans, let alone achieving immortality. Skepticism is probably the safest position. One thing, however, is quite clear: If Silicon Valley capital does discover the fountain of youth, it will be private property. The tech monopolists appear to view biotechnology as the next great arena of capital accumulation, and they intend to commodify it. Severing the radical Enlightenment’s commitment to technological improvement from its commitment to social progress, our futurists give up on the future.
Sam Rowe is a Humanities Teaching Fellow in the English department at the University of Chicago, where he received his PhD in 2017. His writing appears in the Chicago Review and Full Stop as well as in the academic journals ELH and Romantic Circles Praxis.