Memory Rethought

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“Everything is only for a day, both that which remembers and that which is remembered.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.35

Rounding out what seems to have thus far been a week about remembering our temporality, Marcus is reminding us, once more, of our temporality. But he’s focusing on one specific aspect of it hits time around, and perhaps making us think in a way that finds us finally understanding the idea of temporality fully.

It’s not just the things which people remember who are eventually forgotten, it’s the people who remember the things. No matter how famous you become, every generation remembers you a little less because fewer individual people will have cause to remember you. As I’ve said before, your kids will remember you, their kids too, but those kids’ kids? You’ll be a photograph on the mantel, a search result on Ancestory.com, and those kid’s kid’s kids? You’ll be even less than that, nothing about you will be remembered because the number of people capable of remembering you will, over time, dwindle.

There’s this idea, I can’t remember what culture it’s from, but it’s somewhat incorporated into the Pixar film “Coco” (which I absolutely love) where a person dies two deaths, the first is the sort we’re all familiar with, and the second is when the last person on earth who remembers you, dies, leaving no one on Earth capable of having any real memory of you. And if we think of memory like that, as a thing one has to have first hand knowledge of, not just, “Oh I remember Marcus Aurelius, he wrote that book” then not even Marcus Aurelius is remembered.

I mean think about what Marcus’s wife would remember about him, and his children, and his grandchildren, but what would his great great grand children remember? Nothing, nothing direct. Marcus might be infamous, he might seem eternally famous or remembered, but he’s not remembered at all because remembering something is recalling your direct relationship with it, isn’t it?

For example, you couldn’t say, “I remember the day my grandparents met for the first time.” No you don’t. You might well remember the story, perhaps you’ve heard it a thousand times, but you don’t remember their meeting, you remember the story of their meeting. So do we remember Marcus Aurelius? Not really, we remember nothing of him that he didn’t write down, and if people hadn’t created marble busts of him, or paintings, we wouldn’t even know what he looked like… we’d just be familiar with his writing… is that remembering someone?

I think it’s interesting to think of memory this way… the ancient Greeks might have looked at it this way. “What do you mean do I remember my great great great great great grandmother? Of course I don’t! I never knew her, how could I remember her?”

When we think of memory as only being something one with direct history with us can have it’s even easier to understand how quickly we become irrelevant because we aren’t the sum total of our parts are we? Marcus was an emperor, he wrote the Meditations, we know some things, but what do you think is more likely? That we know more than we don’t, or that we don’t know more than than we do know? Certainly we know almost nothing of Marcus. How did he laugh? How did he hold his wife? What sort of nervous ticks did he have? What was his favorite fruit? How did he start his day exactly? What cute little things made Marcus Marcus that we’ll never know… the last person capable of remembering those things died a very long time ago.

And when you die, no one will remember how funny you were for very long. Nor how mean a serving of avocado toast you could make, nor how you made them feel when you paid attention to them, nor how you helped them when you did, because those people will be dead very soon—then it’s all secondhand recollection, and poorer and poorer secondhand recollection as the generations roll on.

Again, looking at memory this way is a really helpful way of understanding our half-life as far as our legacy is concerned. Any legacy we’re hoping to build, any lasting fame we’re trying to have, it must be in the impact we have on others in order for any legacy or lasting fame to matter in any concrete way.

You invited the lightbulb? Great, you’re not remembered (in the way we’ve defined) for any longer than anyone else, but you’re legacy is certainly more useful to the world in an ongoing and fundamental capacity that a legacy of playing Nintendo all day—people still play Nintendo, right? Or is it all xbox now? Either way, I hope I’m making sense. Legacy does matter, or at least we should envision that it matters but not because people remember our name or something silly like that, we should view it as mattering because it continues to be helpful. If we view legacy and fame as utility, I think the Stoics might have said chasing such a thing was a preferred indifferent.

Think about your memory as legacy, think about your legacy as lasting utility, and perhaps make it a goal of your life to have a lasting utility—that, I think, is a fame worth chasing!

About the author

Tanner Campbell

Hi, I'm Tanner. I spend most of my time writing in the philosophy space and I'm the host of the Practical Stoicism podcast. When I'm not writing, I'm reading or recording. In rare moments when I'm not writing, reading, or recording, I'm spending time with my partner and our dogs.

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