What Dante, Tolkien, and Harry Potter Fan Fiction Can Teach Us about the Contemporary Quest for Immortality

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 by Robert 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 duty
toward my agèd father, nor the love I owed
Penelope that would have made her glad,

Could overcome the fervor that was mine
to gain experience of the world
and learn about man’s vices, and his worth.

And so I set forth on the open deep
with but a single ship and that handful
of shipmates who had not deserted me.’

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.

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 course
of a hundred thousand perils, at last
have reached the west, to such brief wakefulness

“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.”’

This 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.

The Literary Legacy of Dante’s Ulysses

Through such creative misreadings Dante’s invented voyager has had a long afterlife, even by the standards of the Commedia. For example, he reappears in two works from the early nineteenth century: as the eponymous hero of the young Tennyson’s dramatic monologue “Ulysses,” and as Captain Ahab of Melville’s Moby-Dick.

Both figures possess a strange ambiguity: not knowing whether we should take their rhetorical blustering at face value, critics argue endlessly over whether they should be respected or abhorred. Even stranger, the voyagers themselves—unlike both Dante and the contemporary transhumanists—do not seem to know the goal of their Last Voyage. As Ahab says:

If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough.

And Tennyson’s Ulysses, with equal uncertainty:

Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

Unlike Dante’s Ulysses, neither of these heroes hopes to gain virtue and knowledge. Unlike the Silicon Valley transhumanist, neither seeks to deflect attention from the lastness of their Last Voyage. For Tennyson’s Ulysses and Melville’s Ahab, merely to “strive” and to “strike” against the “whale” and the “Gods,” before “Death closes all,” will be “enough.”

Closer to both the contemporary transhumanist and the Dantean Ulysses is the Last Voyager of a more recent work, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Silmarillion. Yet Tolkien’s version also differs from Dante’s, in ways significant for our understanding of the transhumanist impulse.

Tolkien and Technologies of Deception

They differ, most obviously, in how Tolkien combines the Last Voyage motif and the Downfall of Atlantis, that other parable of human limits, which meet in the figure of Ar-Pharazôn the Golden, last king of the technologically advanced realm of Numenor (later called Atalantë). Ar-Pharazôn invades the island of the gods, and in doing so brings about the destruction, not just of his armada, but of his entire kingdom.

Why combine Ulysses and Atlantis? Tolkien lived, as Dante did not, in an Atlantean world already responding technologically to its inhabitants’ Ulyssean desires, and he saw that this response would not placate those desires, but inflame them. To combine the myths is a stroke of genius. Other changes he makes, however, are more dubious.

First, he splits Ulysses in two. To Ar-Pharazôn, he gives all Ulysses’ lust for endless novelty, while to his advisor, Sauron, he gives all Ulysses’ deceptive rhetoric.

Second, he alters the blessed land towards which the hero sails. Ulysses sails for Mount Purgatory, to which, if he had died well, his soul would have made its way. By contrast, Ar-Pharazôn sails for Valinor, home of the gods and elves, a place forbidden to men living or dead.

Finally, he rewrites the voyager’s fate. Ulysses sinks to his death, lost forever. Ar-Pharazôn makes landfall, only to be trapped underground, “in the Caves of the Forgotten,” where he remains preserved until the world’s end.

Much as I admire Tolkien’s writing, I suspect Dante’s original insight here to be the deeper. His Ulysses erred not in seeking “to soar beyond the human,” but in convincing his crew that immortality just meant endless novelty. Tolkien makes the desire for immortality itself the Atlantean king’s true sin. This leaves no room for the Dantean “trasumanar,” or any immortality for which the men of Middle Earth can virtuously hope. Without such a vision, it is difficult to avoid embracing the endless novelty of Ulysses.

Worse, Tolkien precludes any explanation of the transhumanist’s reliance on false rhetoric, attributing it to the inexplicably evil Sauron. Only Dante explains that, in seeking endless novelty at the expense of human virtue, we become not just victims of false rhetoric but purveyors of it. Bereft of non-prudential reasons to avoid doing so—and prudential reasons can always be overruled by exigent circumstances—those who follow the path of Ulysses quickly embrace the arts of deception. Soon after, they find those arts to offer more novel experiences than whatever source of novelty they had first sought, and for the sake of which they had first begun to deceive.

A Modern Transhumanist Tale

A fascinating illustration of this tendency can be found in the aforementioned Yudkowsky’s most recent work: Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, a Harry Potter fanfiction, the final installment of which was published on Pi Day (March 14th) of this year.

HPMOR, as its myriad fans call it, imagines a world in which Harry Potter, instead of being a normal child, is a hyper-rational (Ulyssean) transhumanist. HPMOR is notable for challenging the opponents of transhumanism on their own ground. A valorization of transhumanism would be right at home in science fiction, but fantasy is usually the preserve of a more traditional ethic—consider, again, Tolkien, as well as Rowlings’ original Harry Potter books, in which only the villain desires to escape death at all costs.

The story is genuinely entertaining, especially for those (like me) who read Harry Potter in their youth and cared enough about science to find its less than coherent portrayal of magic somewhat frustrating. It’s fun to imagine Harry experimentally investigating whatever could possibly cause certain pseudo-Latin words pronounced in the right way by the right people to bring about levitation.

But, like any transhumanist, what this Harry wants is not knowledge and virtue, but novelty and power. His “rationality” turns out to be closer to Ulysses’ rhetoric than we might at first have thought. Before long, Harry decides that he is the only sane man in an insane world, and so has no choice but to “rationalize” it. Thenceforth, all our attention is diverted to the science, or, rather, technique, of psychological manipulation.

By the story’s end, Harry is ruler of Magical Britain and about to cure death, but in a manner unconnected to his long-neglected magical-scientific researches. He has also told so many lies, and, in a highly implausible turn of events, has gotten away with so many of them, that no one else understands much of anything about what has happened. There is no suggestion that he is wrong to do so. Both hero and author, apparently, look at others not as persons to engage with, but as, in a telling phrase, “something to protect.” One feels that it is not human life, but this superior feeling of overseeing complex things, that they want to make last almost forever—much like HPMOR itself, which is over thrice the length of Moby-Dick.

The rhetorical excess is unfortunate, but not fatal. More serious is the failure of all these words to grant a plausible train of thought to those who would oppose Harry’s quest. Yudkowsky seems not really to understand what could bring anyone to desire to make such arguments, or to oppose his own real-life transhumanist quest.

The Dangers of Straw-Transhumanism

All this stands in stark contrast to Inferno XXVI. Dante allows Ulysses to infect us with his transhumanist desire; only when we look at where he is, and ask what put him there, do we see why following him would be a mistake. This pattern holds throughout the Inferno, which Dante populates not with rhetorical straw men, but with voices convinced of their own righteousness, speaking so convincingly that many readers take their side against Dante’s God. Only after understanding both the damned souls and the reasons for their damnation can the pilgrim move on to purgatory and paradise.

Dante’s refusal rhetorically to manipulate us into finding the damned abhorrent is part of what separates his trasumanar from Ulysses’, and Yudkowsky’s, transhumanism. We would do well to follow Dante’s example: Not to uncomprehendingly attack HPMOR—which would convince no one—but to understand what makes its transhumanism attractive, and what makes that attraction dangerous.

Consider what description of soaring “beyond the human” might compete with it in the transhumanist’s imagination. After all, whatever else Silicon Valley may be, it isn’t hell: people do come back from it.

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