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021 - On Posterity - Moral Letters for Modern Times

We want some part of us to continue, to survive the ages.
Red, white, and blue sailboats on a calm lake - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

“How will I be remembered?” Is this what is keeping you from letting go of your position, Deuteros? I ask you, are you making a mark only insofar and for so long as you are holding the reins of power? There is no end of powerful people who are forgotten the moment they step foot out their office doors. But you would be mistaken in thinking that it is your office that makes you memorable.

Let’s consider what makes someone noteworthy not just in the moment, but for posterity. We can all bring to mind great literature and art, and often, though not always, this is intimately tied to the name of its creator. Renown declines rapidly when we consider music, where there is but a handful of composers from just the last few centuries whose work remains. And what shall we say of movies, television, and speechmaking? Even though only a few will make their names here, still these entertainments are fleeting and ephemeral, holding influence for a generation or two before fading.

Things that people find enduringly valuable are valuable because they speak across time. Paintings of the hunt drawn on a cave wall 25,000 years ago call to us today because they contain a fundamental truth: we are part of nature, and we must fight for our position in the world. The Venus of Willendorf fertility statute of a similar age carries a similar message: we want some part of us to continue, to survive the ages. What better way than passing our genes through our children and their children? Every person alive today can trace their ancestry back to a common parent, if we unravel the tapestry of genealogy sufficiently far back.

Fiction in the form of plays and theater amuse us for an evening. Those that endure are the ones that elaborate on fundamental aspects of human nature. Tragedy, comedy, pride, these we can recognize immediately, though they are acted out on a stage thousands of years old. Shakespeare’s renown is unmatched, not only or even chiefly because he wrote so well, but because he wrote with insight about our true passions and desires, of the human condition in all its folly, foibles, and majesty.

Philosophy is aimed at uncovering enduring truths. The human condition has changed little since the first civilizations emerged. People were worried about living a good life thousands of years ago, and chances are good that they will be interested in this question a few thousand years from now. What is human thought, what drives human motivation, what guides human interaction? Address these questions, Deuteros, and you will never lack for an attentive audience.

History will enshroud almost all of us in murkiness as surely as death shrouds our worn-out bodies. Most or all of what we do will be lost. Make your efforts meaningful to the human condition and you may extend you renown beyond your lifetime, if that is what you want.

Of the billions who have gone before us, precious few have made a lasting mark, and even fewer because of the office they briefly held. If you wish to represent more than a ripple from a pebble tossed in a pond, bend your efforts towards answering questions of basic human motivation. And to do this, you need less of the company of your fellow man, not more of it. To think deeply and correctly, you need solitude. You need to make space for your thoughts to ramble, you need stillness for your voice to be heard.

We all know, my dear Deuteros, that one cannot serve two masters well. When you are about the affairs of state, you cannot state the true nature of affairs to yourself, let alone others. Rather than watching your pebbles vanish into the depths, carefully place your foundation on solid ground. Lay your stones one atop another, until the tower you have erected can be seen from the horizon and stand for the ages. This is surely difficult for all of us, and it is the reason that so few manage to make a lasting impression.

I will pay you today with a cornerstone, on which you may continue to build. For this stone may be used over and over, by builders of every kind. It comes from the workshop of Epictetus, whose chisels rang out with this truth:

Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.

I have drilled this lesson into you to such an extent that I need not elaborate. Today I urge you to note that you may apply the principle of this proverb to many areas of human endeavor.

Do you wish to accomplish great things? Do not attempt to do more, but focus on less. Better pick a single priority and focus on it until you have found success than to spray your efforts like mist in a hurricane. Do you yearn for better relationships? Rather than numbering your Facebook friends in the hundreds, lavish your time and attention on your family. Are you looking for the perfect vacation or trip or experience? It is folly to cast your nets wildly in every direction in the hopes of catching a prize. Bait a single hook and sit quietly in one place until you have calmed your mind. You will realize that satisfaction cannot be fished up by dredging anywhere other than within you.

TLDR (too long; didn’t read)? I leave you with a gift from the Greek tragedian Euripides, which encapsulates the lessons of this letter:

Our lives ... are but a little while, so let them run as sweetly as you can, and give no thought to grief from day to day. For time is not concerned to keep our hopes, but hurries on its business, and is gone.

Euripides advises us to pay no heed to what bothers us daily, for fear the daily troubles become thieves of our happiness. His words survived for centuries because he spoke of human values, not because he was aiming for fame.

Be well.

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