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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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1. Problems of longevity play a central part in mod-
ern debate about the human condition. This concern
stems from the decline since the Renaissance of faith
in supernatural salvation from death; concern with the
worth of individual identity and experience has shifted
from an otherworldly realm to the “here and now,”
with intensification of earthly expectations. One cur-
rent of thought is the belief that the length of life can
be extended significantly by increasing human control
over natural forces, i.e., through biomedical science.
In 1956, Gruman termed this concept “prolongevity.”
Prolongevity is a subsidiary variant of meliorism, the
belief that human effort should be applied to improving
the world. The antonym to meliorism is apologism,
which condemns attempts to alter earthly conditions;
in this essay apologism stands for the idea that pro-
longevity is neither possible nor desirable.

“Length of life” (or longevity) may refer to either
of two different concepts. “Life expectancy” is the
average expectation of life at birth (or at any specified
later age), and, during the course of history, the mean
expectation of life at birth has increased greatly, espe-
cially since 1800. Increased life expectancy reflects
advances in controlling infectious and food-deficiency
diseases, and the rate of increase seems to have reached
a plateau as biomedical science operates in the area
of cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and “aging.”

The other meaning of length of life is “life span,”
the extreme limit of longevity. Statisticians estimate
the maximum human life span at about 110 years; this
has not increased during the course of history. The
concept is valuable in challenging complacent opti-
mism that foresees an automatic increase in longevity
as a by-product of social and scientific progress. But
the concept of life span is not absolute; statisticians
acknowledge numerous assumptions involved in their
analyses (Spiegelman, 1968), and some gerontologists
believe the slope of the Gompertz curve can be
changed (Strehler, 1967).

What constitutes a “significant” extension of lon-
gevity? It is helpful to take into account the scien-
tific and philosophical background of the time. In the
present era, the question focuses on the nature of the
life span: the issue concerns the possibility of some
medical or scientific breakthrough in the field of aging,
and an increase in the healthful and productive period
of life, not merely an extension of time per se.

2. It is useful first to examine apologism. Apologist
thought is based not only on assumptions as to the
possible but also includes value judgments concerning
the desirable. A statement that, at the present time
old age and death are inevitable, almost always goes
on to make a virtue of necessity. In a curious way,
this concern provides a basis for the optimism of pro-
longevity. Indifference to aging and death would be
much more subversive to prolongevitism. In contem-
porary Western culture, a crisis concerning death
occurs about the age of five; later the problem is sup-
pressed from consciousness. Of pertinence is the con-
cept of “cognitive dissonance”: after reaching an
uncomfortable decision, an individual will subcon-
sciously refashion his beliefs to support its “reason-

In myth and legend, Gilgamesh exemplifies recurrent
apologist ideas; rebellion against mortal fate is futile,
and man should concentrate on immediate enjoyments
of this life. Hellenic apologist themes are provided in
Hesiod: Prometheus is punished directly, and mankind
is chastised by Pandora, who brings a “jar” with old
age and death. Hesiod also presents the legend of
Tithonus, one condemned to suffer the infirmities of
age forever. This theme appears frequently (Juvenal,
Swift, Tennyson, Wilde, A. Huxley). According to
Frazer, comparative folklore indicates the Hebrew
Eden myth originally revolved entirely on immortality,
but the written version is more apologist and concerned
with salvation from evil.

In Greco-Roman philosophy, Epicureanism and
Stoicism emphasize attainment of serenity by develop-
ing a proper attitude towards death. Lucretius argues
that it is childish to believe that the dead suffer. The
key to Epicurean apologism is the “fullness of pleas-
ure”; without belief in progress, there is nothing to
look forward to, and prolongevity is not desirable.
Marcus Aurelius carries Stoicism to an ascetic position,
advising one to think often about death and despise
the body.

The gerontological thought of Aristotle, Galen, and
Avicenna is apologist in tendency. “Innate moisture”
(like the oil of a lamp) burns out, and the body becomes


cold and dry. The cold-dry hypothesis of senescence
is not, of itself, apologist. But in Aristotle's cosmology,
the contrast between decay on earth (four elements)
and the eternal celestial bodies (fifth element) is too
great, so that Galen recoils from the “impiety” of
prolongevitism. Also the teleological bent of Aristotle
leads to the precept that nature does everything for
the best; therefore, Galen asserts old age cannot be
a “disease.” Avicenna's theological commitments in-
cline him to state the physician's role is “not the art
of... securing the utmost longevity possible.”

In religion, Buddhism seems thoroughly apologist,
but there are bases for prolongevity, e.g., Tantrism. As
to Hinduism, Vedanta, and Yoga, most scholars focus
on apologist interpretations, but another can assert
India provides “the best Oriental example of prolon-
gevitism.” Apologist statements in Taoist religion and
philosophy did not prevent the flourishing of a prolon-
gevity school. The Bible is predominantly apologist,
but the Old Testament does value long life on earth
as a reward to the righteous (Job 42:16-17).

Thomas Aquinas' explanation of death blends Aris-
totelianism with Christianity (Summa theologica 1. 3,
qu. 97, art. 1 and 2. 2, qu. 164, art. 1). A supernatural
power bestowed on Adam's soul by divine grace kept
the opposing elements in harmony. After original sin,
the body is abandoned to sexual lust, old age, and death.
Later, some proponents of prolongevity seek to reassert
the rule of mind over body (Godwin, G. B. Shaw). Also
significant for prolongevity is Augustine's theory of
history (The City of God, Book 12, sec. 13-17) as a
meaningful process which involves salvation from
death: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (I
Corinthians 15:26).

3. Prolongevity legends may be divided into three
groups. First is the “antediluvian”: that people lived
much longer in the past. In Genesis 5, 9:29 are spans
as high as 969 years (Methuselah). Antediluvian tradi-
tions are subsidiary variants of primitivism.

The “hyperborean” theme is based on Greek legends
of long-lived people in the North. The Greeks also had
Isles of the Blest, usually in the Atlantic. “Hyperbo-
rean” legends are significant in China, because they
strengthened Taoist prolongevitism. The most vivid
hyperborean-type legends were Celtic: a land of youth
in Western islands, and a “magic cauldron” (the medi-
eval Holy Grail). Such legends stimulated exploration;
e.g., Columbus' search for a new route to the East.

The “fountain” theme is typified by the Fountain
of Youth. This story has been traced to the Hindu
legend of Cyavana (before 700 B.C.) which blended
with Hebrew legends, the Christian Fountain of Life,
and Greek legends of Glaukus, who became immortal
by eating a marvelous herb. Alexander the Great's
search for a fountain in the East, in Arabic legend,
features el Khidr, “the Green One,” modeled on
Glaukus (Koran, Sura 18:61-95). The Alexander legend
attained finest expression in twelfth-century French
romance, and, by the time of Ponce de León, Spanish
explorers certainly might think of a fountain of youth
in “the Indies.” Aside from the waters of a fountain,
there are mentioned in folklore a multitude of other
substances with the power of prolonging life because
of divine, magical, or empirical properties.

Miscellaneous prolongevity themes include the
challenging phoenix theme that there exist animals
enjoying greater length of life than man, and the
Endymion theme that youth might be preserved by
trance-like sleep.

4. In regard to prolongevity, there is a striking con-
trast between China and the West. In ancient Western
civilization, there are religious and magic forms of
prolongevity and examples of natural prolongevity: but
these tendencies remain fragmentary, while in China
they occupy a central position. As Max Weber ob-
served, Taoism for the first time in history fashioned
the vagaries of prolongevity magic and folklore into
a rationalized and disciplined system.

Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, and Lieh Tzu provided an
intellectual framework for Chinese prolongevity
(350-250 B.C.). First, the tao (the basic natural process)
is a single force. Distinctions between various phe-
nomena remain blurred; this supports “trans-
formation”; a human can change into an immortal
hsien. Second, “naturalistic pantheism” (Needham)
endows every individual with a spark of the divine.
Third, mysticism urges communion with the vivifying
tao. Fourth, “effortless action” conserves vital forces
and bestows remarkable powers over nature. Fifth,
primitivism glorifies primeval sages, immune to aging.

Institutional forms for prolongevitism were contrib-
uted by the Taoist religion (A.D. 184). The priesthood
tried to lead every member into the practice of pro-
longevity techniques—a gigantic health cult. As the
techniques became more complex, the pursuit of im-
mortality became restricted to monasteries. This
breakdown in communication between adept and lay
members caused the decline of religious Taoism. The
adepts underwent a sort of indirect apotheosis (“deliv-
erance of the corpse”); prolongevity techniques change
the body to imperishable substance, and the hsien
abandons the “cocoon.” Another analogy is to the
development of an embryo in the womb.

There were four major physiological techniques for
prolongevity. Respiratory techniques are central be-
cause of the possibility of contact with the heavens.
The long-term goal is to get enough nourishment from
the spirit-like air to dispense with grains, the products


of earth. It was believed the stomach extracts an es-
sence or “breath” from foods, and this food-breath can
be replaced by the more spiritual airbreath. Dietary
techniques are associated with respiratory ones; grains
and many other foods are prohibited. Drama is added
by an enemy inside the vital centers: the “Three
Worms” explain conflicts and dreams. Anoxia is com-
plicated by malnutrition, and it is necessary to use
hsien medicines. The adept tries to ingest substances
richest in tao-like essence. Taoist gymnastics definitely
influenced Western medicine. Taoist purposes of the
exercises are to aid the circulation of the breath and
“essence” (repiratory and sexual techniques).

Taoists encoraged controlled sexual activity to in-
crease yet conserve the ching, identified with semen
and menstruum but ethereal. Observing that these
become scanty in the aged, Taoists assumed that reten-
tion of the ching is revivifying. It is necessary to bring
many partners to orgasm, while the adept himself
“returns the ching to the brain” (manually blocking
the urethra). Despite the secular semblance of such
techniques, adepts usually were religious and believed
material transformation must be accompanied by moral
and spiritual improvement.

Historians are coming to recognize the significance
of Chinese contributions to Western science and tech-
nology, and these achievements owe much to Taoism
motivated by the desire for prolongevity.

5. Chinese alchemy was tied to Taoism: about ten
percent of the titles in the Taoist scriptures refer to
alchemy. Characteristic of Chinese alchemy is its dedi-
cation to prolongevity, seen in Ko Hung (ca. A.D. 320)
who assumes everyone agrees on the desirability of
longer life. His concern is the possibility of prolongev-
ity, and he edges toward an idea of progress. Every-
thing includes some vital spirit, and alchemy prepares
substances rich in “essence” for increasing the life-
force. Cinnabar (mercuric sulphide) has reactions
which can suggest survival powers. Instead of “dead”
ashes, the application of heat produces a shuttling from
a “living” (red) mineral to a “living” (fluid) metal. Ko
Hung details the preparation of “sublime” cinnabar
which can cause immortality.

The first systematic alchemy in the West (Alexandria,
ca. fourth century) evolved in a way somewhat similar
to the Chinese; instead of Taoism, there is Neo-Plato-
nism. But Owsei Temkin finds little significant associa-
tion between Hellenistic alchemy and medicine. The
first medical alchemy in the West appears in Arabic
writings, especially those ascribed to Jabir (eighth cen-
tury). Indeed, the literature of Arabic alchemy includes
such vivid biomedical imagery that the lack of explicit
concern with prolongevity poses an intriguing problem
for students of comparative history.

Latin alchemy, personified by Roger Bacon, is the
first systematic prolongevitism in Western civilization.
Bacon consciously opposes the traditional regimen of
Galen and Avicenna which aimed to “protect” the
aged; Bacon desires to “free” them. He suggests one
might attain 150 years, and later generations might
reach three to five centuries. His explanation of aging
is similar to that of Avicenna (decay of “innate” mois-
ture), but the process can be reversed.

Paracelsus is the last of the great alchemists; deeply
concerned with the prolongation of life, he organizes
iatrochemistry and directs it towards chemotherapy.

6. Luigi Cornaro's Discorsi della vita sobria (1558)
represents a Renaissance combination of Cicero's ide-
alization of senescence and a simplified Galenic
regimen. Anyone can expect a span of 100 to 120 years
of healthy, happy life. The Discorsi are suffused with
a joie de vivre unknown in comparable Greco-Roman

Cornaro's Discorsi serve as the prototype of “pro-
longevity hygiene”: the belief that longevity can be
extended significantly by simple reforms in the indi-
vidual's habits of life. The primitivist assumption that
man is long-lived “by nature” was reinforced by
credulity about supercentenarians; e.g., Harvey's au-
topsy report on Thomas Parr (d. 1635), who, according
to the physiologist, had attained nearly 153 years. The
romantic physician Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland (Art
of Prolonging Life,
1796) aims at 200 years via preser-
vation of a “vital power” (analogous to electromagnet-
ism); also he cites the “law” of comparative biology
of Albrecht von Haller that an animal lives eight times
as long as its period of growth.

The individualism and simplistic pathology underly-
ing prolongevity hygiene were eroded by the rise of
social hygiene and the development of sophisticated
etiological concepts and powerful therapeutic methods
(Shryock, 1936). And William J. Thomas (Human
1873) established criteria which effectively
challenged the validity of traditional cases of super-

7. With the idea of progress, prolongevity makes
its way to the center of the stage in Western civili-
zation. According to Becker (Heavenly City..., pp.
119ff.), the great ideas of the Enlightenment are based
on a secularization of the Christian drama of salvation,
its transformation into advance towards a “heaven” on
earth. No sooner does man's confidence in supernatural
salvation begin to weaken than energies are diverted
to an intensified effort to lengthen life.

Although Descartes differs from Bacon on method-
ology, he holds similar views in favor of meliorism,
including prolongevity. In the concluding section of
the Discourse on Method (1637), he pledges his talent


to finding ways of retarding or overcoming senescence.
Buoyed by confidence in his philosophic method, he
has an intense desire to lengthen his life, and there
is evidence that at times he hopes to gain for himself
100 to 500 years (Gruman [1966], pp. 77-80). At other
times, he is torn by deep religious conflicts and favors
apologist ideas.

With the triumph of Newtonian science, the writings
of Francis Bacon took on a sort of prophetic sanctity
which gave new prestige to prolongevity, the “most
noble” goal of medicine. In the Advancement of
(1605) he admonishes physicians to cherish
this part of their work, and in the New Atlantis (1624)
he depicts his savants adding to longevity, experi-
menting in resuscitation of persons “dead in appear-
ance,” and replacing vital organs. By comparison, his
History of Life and Death (1623) is disappointingly

Esteemed by Condorcet as “the modern Prome-
theus,” Benjamin Franklin witnessed so many “ad-
vances” that he felt a strong desire for greater longevity
and expected science to prolong life beyond the patri-
archal 969 years. Franklin speculated about anabiosis
(as did the surgeon John Hunter who attempted to
preserve animals by freezing them), and he encouraged
research into resuscitation of persons apparently dead
(Gruman [1966], pp. 83-84). The Enlightenment
movement for resuscitation attained institutional form
in the Humane Societies, pioneers of artificial respira-
tion and other “heroic measures” of modern medicine.

The Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) of
William Godwin includes the idea that a “free” indi-
vidual can exert the supremacy of mind over matter
and bring bodily processes under conscious, rational
control. Life will be lengthened by one's cultivating
benevolent and optimistic attitudes and a clear, well-
ordered state of mind (cf. Aristotelian “harmony”).
Bodily processes increasingly can be made subject to
the will until sleep, aging, and death are banished. In
reply, Malthus' Essay on the Principle of Population
(1798) not only disparages the possibility of significant
control of body by mind but also raises the spectre
of overpopulation.

In his History of the Progress of the Human Mind
(1795) and his unpublished commentaries on Bacon's
New Atlantis, M. J. de Condorcet envisions an almost
limitless extension of longevity through improvement
of the environment, inheritance of acquired charac-
teristics, and a comprehensive program of scientific
research supported by the government. The last prop-
osition is the most important, for Condorcet realizes
the limitations of eighteenth-century medicine and
looks to the future for the reliable data needed for
prolongevity. Malthus (Essay..., 1798) criticizes all
three points and attacks Condorcet's advocacy of birth
control. Also Malthus points out (as Becker does later)
that the philosophes are not skeptics but men of faith,
and he attacks (as neo-orthodox writers still do) the
injustice of progress which benefits only some future
generation of supermen. But the essentials of modern
beliefs about prolongevity had become widespread by
the time of Condorcet; Napoleon could state in 1817
that, viewing the progress of science, a way will be
“found to prolong life indefinitely.”

8. Most utopian works include at least a brief refer-
ence to prolongevity; however, such remarks are lim-
ited. One might think utopians would be the most
radical of prolongevitists, but this is not the case, nor
should it be if one defines utopianism as the belief that
a near-perfect society can be introduced quickly by
means which are already available. By accepting these
conditions, utopians focus attention more on changing
internal attitudes than external conditions. Inhabitants
of utopian communities are depicted as not suffering
from infirmities of age, but this often is due to their
acceptance of the “inevitable.” However, there also
are utopian writers who are strongly prolongevitist:
e.g., J. A. Etzler, The Paradise Within the Reach of
All Men

If utopians are not as prolongevitist as usually
thought, the romantics have undergone an opposite
distortion by intellectual historians who associate
romanticism with the cult of death. There are inclina-
tions toward prolongevity in romantic writings by
Goethe, Shelley, E. Darwin, C. W. Hufeland, and even
Novalis, and there are romantic tendencies in the
prolongevitist thought of Kirk, Reade, Metchnikoff,
and Stephens. The most far-reaching romantic prolon-
gevitist is Nicholas F. Fyodorov (1828-1903)—his
writings began to circulate about 1868 and a collection
was published posthumously as The Philosophy of the
Common Task
(1906). Fyodorov calls for a fusion of
Christian ethics and scientific methods to bring about
complete salvation from death (including resurrection):
recent philosophers consider it possible that “future
science will recognize Fyodorov as a 'prophet' of its
own achievements” (Edie, et al., 1965).

The idea of progress was given renewed vigor by
Darwinism, and the cautious Darwin himself pictures
a future “progress towards perfection.” However, just
as Social Darwinists divide into apologists and melio-
rists, so also in biomedicine there is a division. The
apologist spokesman August Weismann, who claims
senescence is essential to the evolution of higher spe-
cies, influenced the psychoanalytic concept of a “death
instinct” (see Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Sec.
6). The best known meliorist was Élie Metchnikoff who
argues that man can overcome “premature” aging by


cell-stimulating sera and by combatting “toxic” intes-
tinal bacteria. Others in the prolongevity group in-
cluded William Sweetser (Human Life, 1867); Wynne-
wood Reade (The Martyrdom of Man, 1872), who faces
the ethical problem of “expendable” generations in
progress towards a super-race; Hyland Kirk (The Possi-
bility of Not Dying,
1883); and C. A. Stephens (Natural
1903), who states clearly the religious origins
of his prolongevitism and attempted to establish the
first institute of gerontology.

Prolongevity is a standard theme in Marxist litera-
ture. The Soviet government has encouraged prolon-
gevitism, and the first international gerontology con-
ference was held at Kiev in 1938. However, in
communist thought there appears also a subordination
of the individual to the collective, and the longevity
of a person (or even a generation) may be sacrificed.

No school of prolongevity thought has been so con-
troversial as the one which attempts to secure a return
to youth by repairing deficiencies in sex-gland function.
Already in Taoism (see above) there had been efforts
to retain sexual fluids. More specific to mid-nineteenth-
century France was the Comtean (positivist) doctrine
that conservation of a sexual substance would
strengthen body and mind. A biomedical basis for this
was provided by experimental investigations by Claude
Bernard and his successor Brown-Séquard whose an-
nouncement (1889) that he had injected himself with
testicular extracts caused a phenomenal increase of
interest in internal secretions and established a basis
for modern endocrinology (Olmsted, 1946). Serge
Voronoff in 1922 caused a new sensation with his claims
for successful grafting of ape and monkey testes; the
idea of organ transplants has continued.

In the twentieth century, the most important devel-
opments are the rapid creation of the specialties of
geriatrics and gerontology, the accelerating rate of
research of all aspects of aging, and the increasing
private and public support for this research. Some
developments in biomedical research relevant to pro-
longevity are: “immortality” of tissue cultures, prolon-
gation of life by underfeeding or cooling, studies of
atherosclerosis, isolation of “status quo” hormones,
discovery of protective action of glycerol and dimethyl
sulphoxide in freezing (the “cryonics” movement and
the first interment at ultra-low temperature in 1967).

In the modern dilemma about longevity, P. B.
Medawar (1960) points out that nature is “indifferent”
with regard to aging. The “worth” of the individual
is not so much a fact as a goal; i.e., a product of
meliorism. And social scientists find that meliorism is
an essential part of modern culture. This meliorism is
causing an “aging population” (which, in turn, causes
increased biomedical research). In 1900 in the United
States there were 3 million persons over sixty-five years
of age, 4 per cent of the population. By 1975 it is
estimated the number of the aged will be 21 million,
about 10 per cent of the population (U.S. Bureau of
Census, 1967). In a “welfare state,” society, of neces-
sity, is committed to prolongevity. Indeed, it may be
argued (A. Harrington), that such a society risks spirit-
ual disintegration if it wavers in the struggle against
suffering and death.


The most comprehensive historical study is G. J. Gruman,
A History of Ideas About the Prolongation of Life: The
Evolution of Prolongevity Hypotheses to 1800
1966), with documentation and bibliographical lists; in most
libraries this work will be listed under “American Philo-
sophical Society,” (Transactions, N. S. 56, 9). The best his-
tory of gerontology and geriatrics is M. D. Grmek, On Aging
and Old Age
(The Hague, 1958). An exhaustive series is
N. W. Shock, ed., A Classified Bibliography of Gerontology
and Geriatrics
(Stanford, 1951ff.). See also G. J. Gruman,
“An Introduction to Literature on the History of Gerontol-
ogy,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 31 (1957), 78-83;
and R. L. Grant, “Concepts of Aging: An Historical Re-
view,” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 6 (1963),
443-78. On statistical concepts, see M. Spiegelman, Intro-
duction to Demography
(Cambridge, Mass., 1968). On
theories of aging, see A. Comfort, Ageing: The Biology of
(New York, 1964). On prolongevity in China, see
J. Needham, Science and Civilization in China (Cambridge,
1954ff.). On Arabic medical alchemy, see P. Kraus, Jabir
ibn Hayyan,
2 vols. (Cairo, 1943); and O. Temkin, “Med-
icine and Graeco-Arabic Alchemy,” Bulletin of the History
of Medicine,
29 (1955), 134-53. On Latin prolongevity al-
chemy, see R. P. Multhauf, “John of Rupescissa and the
Origin of Medical Chemistry,” Isis, 45 (1954), 359-67; and
W. Pagel, Paracelsus (Basel and New York, 1958); and also
writings of A. G. Debus. On Enlightenment prolongevity,
see C. L. Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-
Century Philosophers
(New Haven, 1932); and R. H.
Shryock, The Development of Modern Medicine (Phila-
delphia and London, 1936). On Fyodorov and a selection
from his writings, see J. M. Edie, et al., ed., Russian Philoso-
Vol. 3, (Chicago, 1965), 11-54. On radical prolongevi-
tism, see R. C. W. Ettinger, The Prospect of Immortality
(New York, 1964); and A. Harrington, The Immortalist (New
York, 1969). See also J. M. D. Olmsted, Charles-Édouard
(Baltimore, 1946); P. B. Medawar, The Fu-
ture of Man
(New York, 1960); and remarks by B. L. Strehler
in “Mortality Trends and Projections,” Transactions of the
Society of Actuaries,
19 (1967), D428-D493.


[See also Alchemy; Death; Health and Disease; Primitivism;
Progress; Sin and Salvation; Utopia.]