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102 - On What Survives Us - Moral Letters for Modern Times

Serving as an example is more powerful than lingering in memory.
102 - On What Survives Us - Moral Letters for Modern Times

In our last exchange I gave you the argument for making plans for the future and doing your best to execute your plans. You have reminded me of what I usually remind you, namely that we can take nothing with us past our own deaths. This leads naturally to the next question you have posed, “Does anything of our works survive after we are gone?” If you grant me leave to first broaden your question somewhat, Deuteros, I will give you my answer. The broader topic I wish to address is whether anything survives us, and if so what.

I have said that when we pass on our possessions remain. This was in the context of acknowledging that we cannot take material things with us into the immaterial zone beyond life. So it seems that while we do not survive our possessions they survive us. We know not what will be made of them, though we may will them to others via our testamentary disposition. Do we know if our wishes will be honored? We do not. You know I will continue on to say it does not matter, at least as far as the deceased is concerned.

Some of our friends and acquaintances can be expected to survive us, and children too if we have brought them into the world. They will each carry memories of us with them for a time. We act according to reason for the sake of acting properly, and not to burnish our reputation. But if we have acted properly in our lives, it is appropriate for people who knew us well to hold positive memories of us after we have passed on. Our conduct can also serve as an example to all those we encountered during our lifetimes. Pray let it be an example of good conduct rather than an example of what to avoid!

Serving as an example is more powerful than lingering in memory. The memory serves to remind someone of what we once did, whereas your example is an exhortation for what they are to do now. If we are to be remembered, I would rather it was for conduct serving as a good example than merely memories of fine times and glad doings.

“What of our work,” you ask, “and the things we have laid down in writing? Surely this is a more permanent record that will survive our demise.” I am not so sure, Deuteros. I have seen many people come and go in the work setting. Some are tempted away by greener grass elsewhere, others lured into early retirement. Though the colleagues are soon gone their files remain stubbornly behind. Lawyers and accountants in particular trail great masses of paper behind them, like the wake of a supertanker.

The ranks of forests have been thinned if we take as evidence the organized rows of binders you are likely to find in the office of the tax specialist, to say nothing of the voluminous case files chronicling once important disputes shepherded along by lawyers. These materials may be no more than a decade old. Have a stranger leaf through the volumes and they will be as indecipherable as hieroglyphics were to generations of Egyptologists.

“Well what of our good deeds,” you wonder, “and the things we have set in motion with our planning? Do our plans necessarily come to naught because we ourselves necessarily do?” This is a more interesting question, and again calls to mind some differences between our modern times and those of the ancients. If our ancestors made it seem that everything ended with their own existence it is because it must have seemed so to them. When generals conquered territories, only to have them retaken a short while later, and Emperors could not rest easy on their thrones for a moment, what hope did the average person have that their works would endure?

We have been experimenting with different forms of society and political community for some time. At least since the enlightenment we have created some that are more enduring than others. The rule of law has been introduced and entrenched. It has brought with it the fantastic concept that we are nations ruled not by the whims of people but by written laws. No person is above the law and as a result the creations of the law cannot be so easily undone by the undoing of a single person. I refer to legal entities like corporations or foundations.

A legal entity is a real thing, Deuteros, at least as real as our hopes, fears, and dreams. And they have greater power than the thoughts that course through our minds, because they can accomplish tangible things in the world through the human agents that work in their service. A corporation may survive a succession of CEOs, each carried out the door by mandatory retirement age if not carried off before then by some other corporate intrigue. Though twenty CEOs have come and gone, the corporation is as vital as ever.

You can argue whether people dead for generations should have continued influence on the living, for example through their foundations. But you cannot argue that nothing of their will has survived their deaths. The Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel died in the 1890s, but before leaving the mortal world he decreed the bulk of his fortune be used for the annual award of the Nobel Prize. It is given in multiple disciplines to persons who “have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind.” What a legacy!

I could say the names Rockefeller, Wallenberg, and Duke; or Ford, Nemours, and Lilly, and chances are most people will have heard of at least some of them. Foundations created by them all, with billions in endowment. They were created by people no person living today ever met, but they live on in their good works. So yes, our good deeds that we have set in motion with our planning can indeed survive us, and for long after our deaths.

Your aim in setting long-term plans is not to enhance your reputation. Your reputation will be gone not long after you are. No, you should make your plans to take advantage of the power of time to deliver the greatest good to the greatest number. This can indeed bring you wide renown and many generations may know your name. Does it matter that you will not know it and your beneficiaries will never know you?

Be well.

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