Most Are Forgotten Immediately

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”The words which were formerly familiar are now antiquated: so also the names of those who were famed of old, are now in a manner antiquated, Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Leonnatus, and a little after also Scipio and Cato, then Augustus, then also Hadrian and Antoninus. For all things soon pass away and become a mere tale, and complete oblivion soon buries them. And I say this of those who have shone in a wondrous way. For the rest, as soon as they have breathed out their breath, they are gone, and no man speaks of them. And, to conclude the matter, what is even an eternal remembrance? A mere nothing. What then is that about which we ought to employ our serious pains? This one thing, thoughts just, and acts social, and words which never lie, and a disposition which gladly accepts all that happens, as necessary, as usual, as flowing from a principle and source of the same kind.”

In the first two lines it’s clear that we’re getting a reminder of what Marcus told us yesterday, but he’s adding some color in the third line when he says,

“And I say this of those who have shone in a wondrous way. For the rest, as soon as they have breathed out their last breath, they are gone, and no man speaks of them.”

Ouch, right? In other words the people we remember did really great things, or, at least really impactful things (positive or negative). We, comparatively, aren’t doing much are we? I mean I’m creating a podcast about Stoicism and you’re listening to it… look what we’re spending our days doing, you think anyone is going to mention either of us in the history books? “Tanner Campbell, such a great man, created a podcast about Stoicism, so we erected a statue of him in the center of every country’s capital city.” That seems pretty far fetched. Maybe you’re a waiter, or a hostess, or a nurse, or a surgeon, or a Twitch streamer, or maybe you create a podcast about something you’re passionate about as well. But these sorts of things, unless we’re the creme de la creme of our respective professions, and maybe no even then depending on the profession, do not get into the history books.

“Open your 21 century history books, please, class, to page 202, ‘important people of the early 2000s’, and let’s start at the top of the list: Jennifer Black, a talented attorney in Savannah Georgia who had two kids, was great mom, and died at the age of 78. Okay, that’s all we have on her, let’s move on to John Doe.”

The most boring history book of all time, 1-star, would not recommend.

But even if you are in that top .00001% of human beings who are remembered through the ages, eventually you’re doomed to be a lost memory as well. We remember Marcus, no doubt, and his writings do more for the proliferation of Stoicism today than to Zeno’s or those of Epictetus, but how long do you think we’ll remember any of these men? Another 1000 years? Another 2000? If someone starts a Nuclear war tomorrow and a lot of people die, do you think it’s possible that the people left won’t know who the hell Marcus Aurelius even was?

The point isn’t that you’re not important, or that Marcus wasn’t, it’s that in spite of your importance, whether that’s very local or very global, eventually you’re nothing and most of us are nothing very quickly. Maybe you’ve got kids, if you die today they’ll remember you, and their kids will have a vague concept of you, but what about their kids? You’ll just be a name in a list of Ancestory.com search results. So the point really is, “YO, WAKE UP, You’re temporary, and you better make it count, and you’d better make it count not for the sake of lasting renown, but for the sake of yourself and others and the cosmopolis.

And then, and I love this, Marcus says, and so what if people do remember you forever? What is the value of that to you? You’re friggin’ dead! If there’s a statue of you in the center of every town square on Earth, Mars, and whatever’s going on on Alpha Centauri, what good is that to you right now as you live and what good is it to once you’re dead? You can’t be any more or less dead just because there are statues of you everywhere. And maybe you’ll say “Oh but the memory of me will live on and that will be so…” So what? So totally useless to you? So vane a thing to prioritize in your living life?

There are just over 100 known portraits and statues of Marcus Aurelius, but it’s unclear if he commissioned any of them himself. Most that I can find the history on seem to be commissioned by others in recognition of Marcus, and it’s easy to believe based on how Marcus write in his meditations that he wasn’t the kind of guy who would have very frequently, if ever, said “Ah, you know what would be great here? An image of me in all my glory an splendor, yes, being work on it immediately and make it larger than the Colossus!”

But even if he had, the reason his statues survive where others didn’t, has a lot to do with how well-loved he was. The Italians, to this day, feature Marcus on one of their coins, the $0.50 piece if I’m not mistaken. And my point in saying this is that if you’re actively working in life to make sure people remember you, and by that I mean you’re demanding you’re important, you’re demanding you’re remembered, no one is going to remember you for very long once remembering you becomes options. But if you’re like Marcus, and you spend your life in service to whatever your great love is… for Marcus that was his family, his people, and his country, you’ll be electively remembered… and no, it won’t make you immortal, but living a life in service to others is perhaps the only way to be remembered longer than most people are remembered—and hey, if you want that kind of thing, somewhat lasting renown and fame, that’s an indifferent—but, I think Marcus would agree, if the way you chase it is being in service to others and living according to your own nature, ever walking the path of the Prokopton, it’s definitely a preferred indifferent.

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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