"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, February 15, 2016

Legacy–The Vanity Of ‘Leaving Something Behind’

Many famous men when asked how they would like to be remembered disingenuously reply, “As a good father…loving husband…faithful Christian…compassionate man”. They will go on to say that  of course they hope they have had an influence on jurisprudence, foreign affairs, technology, or social justice, but that will be for history to decide.

Most people, however, will give only a fleeting thought to their legacy.  Either they have stumbled their way through a ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” life,  have led ‘lives of quiet desperation’ and know that anything they leave behind is simply a clutter for someone else to put in order; or they are so concerned about where they are going that what remains after them holds no interest.


The Death of Ivan Ilyich, a novella by Leo Tolstoy, tells the story of a man who on his deathbed wonders how and why he has come to such an ignominious end? Not only is he facing eternity absolutely alone, but his carefully constructed life, configured to avoid risk, intimacy, responsibility, and entanglement now appears to be meaningless.  His dismissal of personal, professional, or social value has now left him more alone and despairing than he ever had considered.  Once those congenial colleagues who showed him affection, respect, and camaraderie knew of his terminal illness, he became nothing more than an empty office and a position to be filled.  His wife, dismissed and ignored for the entirety of their marriage, could not be expected to show compassion or concern let alone love.

Ivan’s thoughts were not about what his legacy would be, or what people thought of him.  Of that he was certain.  Their estimation of him during his life had been based on the flimsiest of social premises; and the more he reflected on it, the more their expediency resembled his own.  His wife had always been a scratchy, unpleasant woman who nevertheless fulfilled her expected family functions; and if truth be known, he had not been any different.


In his final hours Ivan only wondered how, given his acceptably moral, if not particularly respected behavior, he could find himself at a relatively young age about to die.  He refused to accept the will of God, but could not possibly accept the premise that a random, purposeless, and meaningless Fate had left him so coldly on the curb.

As he approached his end, his obsession with the past faded, and he turned his attention to what was to come.   He did not face death with equanimity but with a feeling of absolute terror.  He was going to die.  His meaningless life would end unceremoniously.  Worse than being extinguished was the thought of nothingness, a frightening void with no lines to shore, no light, no warmth, no points of familiar reference.

In his final moments, he has an epiphany.   “Aha”, he said. “So that’s all”.  Death was coming.  He had been afraid for nothing.

“We all die alone”, Ivan had said when he saw how no one cared whether he lived or died; and how death, the most personal and individual of human events, could be experienced with no one else.  If the ultimate  moment of life had nothing to do with the past, then how could legacy have any importance whatsoever?

A good Lutheran is one who is judged not by his works but by his faith.  His salvation is dependent only on God’s grace.  A good Hindu places no value on good works per se but on their karmic importance and how they can shorten periods of reincarnation.  One’s legacy is meaningless, for without spiritual evolution, one will always be consigned to the world of false hopes and illusions.


A nihilist understands that life has no meaning; that it is a collection of random occurrences.  Morality is relative, goodness a social construct.  Legacy has no salience whatsoever, for any assessment of it must necessarily be based on subjective and therefore inconclusive if not erroneous judgment.

Nietzsche felt than in such a purposeless life, only the expression of will validated the individual.  Only a few Supermen would ever rise above the herd and would act for action’s self-valuation, not for any purpose or legacy.  He was the most principled of nihilist philosophers and dismissed Epicurean claims as flaccid and accommodating.


Most people have regrets about what they have not accomplished, goals not reached, risks not taken, or lovers not pursued; and most are content to put them aside after they realize that it is too late to do anything about it; or such missed opportunities weren’t that important in the first place.  And if the missed opportunities aren’t worth much in the grand scheme of things, than opportunities taken have no particular value either.

Every action is conditioned by every other.  The billiard balls of chance have been clacking for eons, creating this DNA sequence or that, making some people squeamish and others crazy; and dealing out intelligence and stupidity with equal randomness.  It makes no logical sense whatsoever to be overly proud of achievement, talent, insight, or ambition if these attributes have been dealt out of an infinite deck.  And if primping and posturing because of good looks, brains, talent, or strength is nothing but vanity, then what does that say about legacy?

Evolutionary theorists explain that extreme confidence and will are indeed essential for weeding out the weak and infirm. If everyone were infected with nihilism, Hindu fatalism, or Protestant grace,  we would never get anywhere.  Ego and achievement always go together.  Losers, by and large, have small egos. 

Thorstein Veblen was the first economist to give ‘Conspicuous Consumption’ its name; and he understood that the acquisition of unnecessary but status-conveying goods was essential to capitalism and a very predictable expression of human nature. The creation of self-image and a lifetime of burnishing it is part of the Darwinian imperative.  The closer we get to the end of our productive lives and once whatever icon of ourselves we have fashioned gets moved farther and farther back on the shelf, the less we should become interested in our legacy.


The very fact is that before we are dead and buried we can see that whatever great ideas, projects, or designs for which we are known become quickly superseded, supernumerary, and irrelevant.  Time marches on. Youth will have its day, and as Buddhists say, “There is no change but change.”  Legacy is irrelevant.

I suppose it is a good thing that such philosophical ignorance persists; because thanks to the persistent belief in legacy, we all benefit from the financial largesse of wealthy industrialists who want everything from hospital wings to museums named after them and whose money creates as much after death as before.

“Ah”, you might well say, “then legacy is important.”

 Bishop Berkeley, the famous metaphysician and phenomenologist, asked “If a tree falls in the forest, and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?” If the tree makes no sound, and that anything beyond an individual’s consciousness and perception does not exist, then everything ceases to exist when one dies.  Hence legacy is irrelevant.   Hindus believe that the world is maya or illusion anyway, so such metaphysical arguments have no resonance.  There is no question in their minds that no matter how you slice it, worry about legacy is nothing but pure vanity.


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