On the mortality of reputation.
Yesterday, I came across a strange document on the Internet. It was an old 19th century paper on Irish genius, by geographical distribution. It was more of a list of “great” people than anything else, since there was relatively little analysis in it. What interested me most about it, was the tale it told about reputations.
Each of the people referred to, was held up as an example of “talent” or “genius”. Each person was spoken of as if their greatness would be apparent to the reader, with little explanation. Many were declared as if the reader would know them, for sure. Words such as “worldwide reputation” were appended to people whose names, most curiously, are utterly unknown to me. Of one author, for instance, the writer said: “I am sure his work shall be forever known”…or words to that effect. Yet, I had neither heard of the work, nor the author. It could, in fact, have been a work of fiction, for all the familiarity the names had for me. I recognized perhaps one name in several hundred. That is, much less than 1 % of these people, whose reputations were great enough in the 19th century, to be held up as examples of enduring “talent” or “genius”, were now known to me. All the others, their entire works, their lives, their names, had faded utterly from memory. It was as if they had never been.
Now, I am sure that the 19th century is no exception in this matter. The phenomenon that can be observed in this paper, in which the list of “great names” is now without any meaning or substance at all, will, most assuredly, apply to our own times, too. Look around you at all the names offered up to us, by the media, as examples of “talent” and “genius”. Look at all the “famous” people, now spoken of as if they truly matter. Were a list of them to be compiled, by an academic today, and published, as the 19th century paper was, then, by the 23rd century, anyone reading it, as I have the other paper, would experience the very same sense of puzzlement: who, on Earth, were these people? Why did they matter in their own time? Were they truly special? Has the passage of time made their works unimportant, or were they not so important to begin with?
What struck me particularly, was the air of confidence, of the writer, that the names he offered up, were truly worthy. The writer was clearly an Irishman (one D. J. O’Donoghue!) – and he was clearly boasting of the greatness of his countrymen. Yet, today, almost none of these people matter to us. Almost every one of them, has been forgotten.
Almost all of the public figures who are now respected, eulogized, famed and courted, will be completely forgotten in a similar span of time, as the 19th century figures. When seen in this context, modern fame doesn’t really matter. It is so fragile, so fleeting, so perishable, that it is almost as if it were not there at all. Very, very few, of the people now thought “important”, will be seen so, with the passage of a century or two. Only true giants will be remembered – and, of them, there are very, very few. In a few centuries time, only a handful of people from our era, will be known to the common man: everyone else, no matter how “famous” now, will have been completely forgotten. Thus, it can be seen, that “fame” is not really fame, unless it endures for the future course of human history. If a person is known, however brightly, for a brief time – like, say, Tom Cruise is likely to be – then that person is not truly famous. Their familiarity to us, now, is a temporary aberration that will soon pass. I cannot tell you how many people have arrived on my blog asking, for instance, “What did Patrick Swayze do for a living?” and “How did MacCaulay Culkin become famous?” Even relatively recent cultural figures soon begin to be forgotten. It doesn’t take centuries, to become unremembered – it only takes a couple of decades.
Would people seek fame so strongly, if they knew it would pass, almost as quickly as it had come? I am not sure. Some only think in a short term manner: they see their fame NOW, as evidence of their “success”. They choose not to look ahead, to the future time, possibly within their own lifetimes, when they will have been forgotten.
I think it is an interesting exercise to consider the achievements of famous people, today and ask: what will future Man remember? What will they see as important enough to recall? Is anyone, today, doing anything significant enough to be known, by the common man, of five hundred years from today?
The answer, I think you will find, is that, for very few of the presently famous, is it so, that their lives and works will be worthy of remembrance. What they are doing is not truly significant – it is just well marketed. That marketing will not continue, long after they are dead – and long after anyone cares about them. So, in time, their “fame” will be no more. They will become as those puzzling names in the Irish genius paper: totally unknown.
Many people are envious of the famous. They need not be, however, for this understanding of the true nature of fame and its fragility, shows that what the famous have, for the most part, is illusory. It is a possession that will evaporate with the passing of a few decades. In truth, the “famous” are no more famous to posterity, than the average man, with very few exceptions. History has a great facility for forgetting, all but the most memorable.
Of course, this meditation leaves a problem for those who wish their lives to have lasting meaning: what can any of us do, to make an enduring effect upon the world? The simplest way, of course, is to have children for that can connect our lives to all future history and make of us, part of the web of human life, forevermore. So it is that the ordinary family man, can leave a more lasting impression on the future, than all but the most famous childless “star”.
Some are fortunate to endure in both reputation, and descendants – but very, very few. Whom do you think, living today, or having lived in the last century or so, will be remembered five hundred years from today? How will they be remembered and thought of? What will they be remembered for?
Please reflect on these questions and give your answers below.
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