I have discussed that some have a strong desire to want to live on in some capacity forever, and thus yield to the temptation to believe in an immortal soul that exists in an afterlife in heaven or is reincarnated in some way. But others who may not believe that may still seek to find ways to make their names live on even after they have died, to be at least remembered forever.
But very few achieve that goal. Of all the people in the distant past, even those who may have been extremely famous in their own time, we remember only a handful, like Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Newton. Such philosophers, writers, and scientists were probably driven by goals other than merely to seek reputational immortality. Their names live on because their ideas live on and ideas are the only truly immortal things. If their ideas cease to be seen as having any value, their names will also be forgotten. But the fact that their achievements has given their names such longevity has assuredly inspired others to try to achieve similar things purely for the sake of their names living on long after them.
Others, such as explorers and athletes try to achieve something unique, like being the first to achieve something that will result in their names being forever associated with that event. For example, the fact that I can name the first people to reach the summit of Mount Everest (Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary) and the first person to run the mile under four minutes (Roger Bannister) means that those people have achieved an immortality of sorts, but they too will be forgotten in a generation or two. I suspect that my children’s generation would not be able to identify those people.
These things may have inspired some people to break similar records to achieve something that no one else has done. Of course, this can descend into exercises that are parodies of the original intent. Some people spend extraordinary amounts of time and effort to get into the Guinness Book of World Records for categories like the most cockroaches eaten or dancing nonstop. I find such ambitions hard to understand.
There are other models for making one’s name last longer. Some people try to achieve such a form of immortality by doing things to make themselves rich and famous, hoping that their current notoriety will make them memorable forever, that their achievements in life will have a lasting impact so that there is no question that their lives mattered. Some have buildings named after them or create other such monuments or have relatives create huge gravestones in their memory. Such attempts are futile. They will be forgotten just like everyone else. One sees names on buildings and streets and products and few bother to ask about the people they were named after.
Hedge Fund manager Andrew Lahde retired from his work unexpectedly early and had some parting words for those who go on and on:
I am content with my rewards. Moreover, I will let others try to amass nine, ten or eleven figure net worths. Meanwhile, their lives suck. Appointments back to back, booked solid for the next three months, they look forward to their two week vacation in January during which they will likely be glued to their Blackberries or other such devices. What is the point? They will all be forgotten in fifty years anyway. Steve Balmer, Steven Cohen, and Larry Ellison will all be forgotten. I do not understand the legacy thing. Nearly everyone will be forgotten. Give up on leaving your mark. Throw the Blackberry away and enjoy life.
If the fear and dread of death is because people fear that their lives don’t matter and that they will be soon forgotten, what can be done to overcome it? Should we even try?
One way to combat this existential dread is to convince ourselves that every person’s life does matter, even if they are not remembered by name. In a practical sense, each of us present here on the Earth now are here by virtue of many people in the past. Each of us has a huge number of direct ancestors. If any one of them had died without leaving any children, we would not be here. We should be grateful to them for having lived, even if we do not know their names.
But does that mean our only lasting legacy is propagating the species? Does that mean that those who died in the past without leaving children do not matter? If so, that would rule out the childless Isaac Newton and few would argue that his life did not matter.
Perhaps it is better to come to terms with the idea that wanting to be remembered forever, to feel that our lives are important, to be always around, is nothing more than vanity, a conceit that we should abandon. By seeking to be remembered forever, we may be doing more harm than good because this can be the source of drives for more possessions or other shallow forms of success.
If we can improve our own part of the world by doing things that make it a better place, then we can die in peace knowing that we moved things along in a positive direction. As Plato said, “To philosophize is to learn how to die.”