Woody Allen once said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”. By my count, there are ten kinds of immortality, and Allen is focusing only on one — literal immortality. Of course, no one has ever actually achieved literal immortality — unless you believe certain episodes of Star Trek — but I think it’s fair to say someone alive now might. Given the pace of scientific advance, it’s possible that someone will come up with a way to make some people live, say, ten years longer; then, in those additional ten years, someone else will find a way to extend life another twenty years; and so on, and so on, until a person could literally live forever. I don’t know much about who that person could be except this: he or she will have to be very, very rich.
So, what are the options for the rest of us? It almost goes without saying that spiritual immortality is on the list for a lot of people. Like literal immortality, spiritual immortality is a personal attribute — the self carries on without the need for others. Maybe that explains their appeal to the billions of us looking forward to heaven, reincarnation, or perhaps some benign or malevolent haunting — you get to be immortal, and you get to be there when it happens.
But in most forms of immortality, our consciousness does not survive (“Well, what good is that?” cries Woody Allen) and only part of us lives on, usually through others. Genetic immortality, for example, is sometimes a comfort to us parents — knowing that in a real sense, part of what makes us us will live on in our children. At least it is comforting when we see in our kids our own striking blue eyes or keen mind for figures. Less so when we see our wonky teeth or pathological inability to organize.
Hopefully we will also achieve memorial immortality with our children and other people we know. As long as they remember us, then we haven’t really died. But that’s not usually a very durable immortality; once every who knew us dies, we’re effectively erased from existence. That’s not terrible, but I imagine some people would just prefer to die after everyone they know.
For a few people, though, memorial immortality is extended, because the people who knew them tell stories to other people. A second- or third- or twelfth-hand version of you gets passed along, and you achieve legendary immortality. It may not be the real you, but do you care? Of course not! You’re remembered! And you’re too dead to care in any case, unless you are Vlad the Impaler (now remembered in legend as Dracula), but even then only if the legends are true (paradox!).
Related to this false remembrance is the empty remembrance of nominal immortality. This is when your name, and maybe even some tidbit of detail about your life, are remembered only because something was named after you. Who was the “Anderson” in Andersonville, or the “Tyson” in “Tyson’s Corner”? No idea, but I know they existed. Sometimes nominal immortality grows out of one’s work — Harper’s Ferry, for example, was the place where Mr. Harper operated a ferry — which probably rubs Woody Allen the wrong way. But maybe we wouldn’t always wanted to be remembered for our work in this way. Henry Shrapnel might have been proud of his work in artillery when he was 23 and invented a new kind of explosive shell, but did he really want his name attached eternally to a medium of death and destruction?
With Mr. Shrapnel, though, we are edging more into the area of historical immortality — people who are actually remembered for the part they played in the march of humanity. They may or may not have played a good part, and their effects may or may not have been lasting; but whatever fame they achieved at the time was enough to get them recorded as part of our historical timeline. This is probably the broadest and fuzziest of immortality categories; it’s necessary, because there really are some people remembered today whose actual lasting effect is negligible, but many of the greatest historical immortals also achieved other types of immortality — often through their works.
There are those who have given us their thoughts — philosophies, ideologies, methods of doing business, memes — ideas that have gotten into humanity’s head and stayed there, like a kind of cognitive “It’s A Small World After All”. Whether or not these people have achieved historical immortality, they have achieved ideative immortality, because the thoughts they shared will not be extinguished. Other people have moved past that, outside their heads, and achieved creative immortality, by inventing new tools, writing or sculpting or composing new works of art — putting into all of our hands the things that make our lives more efficient, more interesting, more bearable. Still others have done things that have changed their worlds — no matter how small or large in scope — and have had lasting effect on those around them. They may have settled continents or built roads, tended the injured back to health or taught a child to read; all of them have done something positive to achieve constructive immortality.
When we hear the term “immortal”, we may sometimes only think of those who have done grand things, and so achieved, along with their ideative, creative, or constructive immortality, a large measure of historical immortality. Mozart, Churchill, Pasteur. But even if we don’t attain historical immortality in our own works, we all still have the potential to pass along a novel idea, to create something new and useful or beautiful, or to complete a worthwhile endeavor — to do something that makes the world better for others — and thereby achieve at least a modest measure of immortality. Or, in the words of Albert Pike — who achieved ideative immortality, if not nominal immortality (for his quote is widely misattribued to Albert Pine): “What we do for ourselves alone dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal.”