Legacy, is this something we should work towards? This reflection will delve into the topic of legacy and whether it is important. The stoics can give us a lot of information on how to approach this matter. And it is one we should discuss since so many people find this to be their sole purpose in life. To leave a good and big legacy behind for when they are gone.
That’s why we will look at this controversial idea through a Stoic lens. And examine what our attitude should be toward it. There are many questions we can ask about our legacy. What is it that we should leave behind? How long should it be remembered? How do you know what your legacy will be? These are a few of them, but we will address a wide range of points related to legacy.
Marcus and his reputation
“To see them from above: the thousands of animal herds, the rituals, the voyages on calm or stormy seas, the different ways we come into the world, share it with one another, and leave it. Consider the lives led once by others, long ago, the lives to be led by others after you, the lives led even now, in foreign lands. How many people don’t even know your name. How many will soon have forgotten it. How many offer you praise now – and tomorrow, perhaps, contempt. That to be remembered is worthless. Like fame. Like everything.”Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, Book 9.30
A reality check to himself and now, through the centuries to us. The ironic part of this is that we still remember him. However much he wanted to keep himself away from focusing on a legacy, we are still reading his thoughts. Not only his words or a biography, but his deepest and most intimate thoughts. But he also knew that even this would be gone at one point. Nothing lasts forever, except for change. “To be remembered is worthless,” is one of the phrases he ended his quote with. But that is a difficult idea to come to terms with.
Whether you think there is something after death or not, the fact remains that the life we live right now will be gone. Even the idea of what people remember us by will be different from who we were. The only person who knows who we are, if this person has done their best to discover it, is ourselves. This brings us to our first question and one that most of us have asked ourselves.
What do you want to be remembered for?
Epictetus never wrote anything. What we know of his teachings has reached us through the notes of one of his students. This disciple of his, Arrian, wrote his takeaways down and they have now survived. Even here a filter is placed between the real Epictetus and us as a reader. Not to mention all the translations that have been made. But I can’t imagine Epictetus being busy with his legacy, not so much as someone like Seneca. He wrote his works with the idea to last beyond his death. Such as his letters and plays and he took care that these would be preserved.
But what can we be remembered for and who is supposed to see our legacy? I for one can’t think of anything that I will do in my life, that would lead to anyone mentioning my name in a hundred years or so. When I look at the small space I occupy in the world. Without making any significant changes in the world, so far. And I’m fine with that. It is not up to me to decide what my legacy will be. Look at Marcus Aurelius. Do you think that he would have thought that his personal meditations would now be a bestseller worldwide? He most likely knew that his actions as an emperor would last longer than the average person, but not this. Not to be known as the closest embodiment of Plato’s philosopher king.
When we look at Marcus Aurelius, Newton, Einstein, and any other big names we can remember from the past, we are looking at macro legacies. Those that last generations or centuries. Even the movie stars of past generations are now lost in the minds of present-day moviegoers. Empires have come and gone and some are now forgotten. Then who are we to think that our footprint will be seen as a lasting legacy?
But we can take it back a step and look at what we have to leave behind in the now. To the people around us. However this is still out of our control because we are talking about externals. But we can look at how we would like our presence to be perceived by those around us. This is when we are talking about a micro-legacy. We can do this by living the best way possible, not by words but by actions. Our example will show the world who we are and that it is possible to live this way. This micro-legacy is left in the now and in close proximity.
How long should a legacy last?
A micro-legacy is one that doesn’t last long. It might be an instant or a lifetime, but even that isn’t noteworthy in the grand scheme of things. But how long should our legacy last if we have our heart set on leaving one? The simple answer is that it isn’t up to us and we should thus not even worry about it. But back to the question, there might be an equation to be thought of. If we look at the impact one has on humanity, then the bigger it is, the longer one will be remembered. And even so, with the end of the human race, so will this legacy end.
“So many who were remembered already forgotten, and those who remembered them long gone.” Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, Book 7.6Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, Book 7.6
To those who are eager to leave a legacy, Marcus Aurelius keeps reminding us of what it means. He is reminding himself of what the impact he is leaving means to posterity. He knows his duty in the moment, but zooming out to the bigger picture he understands how little it matters. We can see this when we go back into his mind and find him looking at other greats in history.
“Alexander the Great and his mule driver both died and the same thing happened to both. They were absorbed alike into the life force of the world, or dissolved alike into atoms.”Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, Book 6.24
When in doubt, look at your peers. How much we can compare these two is something for someone else to look at. But in the annals of history, they are pretty close. And Marcus knows that what happened to Alexander the Great and his mule in the end was the same. And this will also happen to him and his underlings. Death will be the great equalizer.
Our legacy and us
These are my thoughts on whether we should focus on our legacy. Or even to attempt to leave one. To me, it is not important, but it was earlier in my life. When I had the feeling that I was destined for something great. Who knows, it might still happen, but that is not up to me. The only thing that I can do is to focus on the now and do what is best. To try and live according to Stoic philosophy and find my nature. If I do so, I can inspire someone around me to improve their lives. That is the micro-legacy I could be able to leave in the near future. But it is not my focus. Living a good life is difficult enough, I need all my attention pointing to this goal.
Ask yourself what legacy means to you and find out how you define it for yourself. But you will see that if you can let this go, you will open up a lot more time and energy to making the most out of your life right now. Your legacy is not up to you, what is up to you is how you view the present. Don’t get lost in the uncertain future. You might not even want to know how you are remembered in fifty years. Examine this subject and see how and if it affects your actions. If it does, then let it go.
“Or is it your reputation that’s bothering you? But look at how soon we’re all forgotten. The abyss of endless time that swallows it all.”Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, Book 4.3