Rohit's Realm

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July 24, 2007

Success and Anonymity or Failure and Posterity

Jon's recent articles about the impact we have with our lives, and subsequent discussions, as well as a rather involved conversation tonight about existentialism with my sister (who considers herself a fatalist) reminded me of a philosophical thought question I have been posing recently to friends at bars: Would you rather (1) live a long and materially successful life, having achieved all that you set out to, but perish in anonymity with nary an accomplishment worthy of the history books; or (2) live a miserable, wanton life filled with sorrow and failure, but produce a great work (of literature, art, whatever) that posthumously guarantees you a place in the pantheon of human thought alongside the great thinkers of yesteryear?

Now, most people will probably first wonder why I might bring up such a serious question at a bar of all places, but as I mentioned earlier, I have absolutely no qualms about introducing intellectual subjects in party settings—in fact, I thrive on it. Though this is virtually guaranteed not to win me the favor of women anywhere, as history has repeatedly shown, I have nevertheless come to appreciate interesting conversations far more than trite, meaningless sex (incidentally, is there any other kind?); the latter is easily obtained, contingent only upon one's standards, whereas the former is hard to find, and even harder to retain.

Anyway, in my opinion, the aforementioned question seems to strike squarely at the heart of an issue I have long struggled with: how do I reconcile my desire to make a difference in my (necessarily futile) life with the knowledge that material success (i.e., cash, money, hoes1) though not sufficient, is certainly a necessity for happiness. Jon argues that in the face of overwhelming student loan debt that is virtually required these days to do well, the decision to do good is often mutually exclusive of doing well, and I am in complete agreement. The question I pose above, however, goes farther, and suggests that the two are mutually exclusive, period, at least at the scale to which we are constraining ourselves, i.e., the pantheon of human thought.

Whether or not this is true per se is, of course, debatable, and I would even stipulate that some people—though few and far in between—may succeed in accomplishing both in the course of their lives. However, for most of us wretched souls unlikely to achieve either, let alone both, our response to the question should speak to our own priorities (or the meaning that we assign) to our life.

When asked to respond to my own question, I have unequivocally chosen the latter (i.e., ultimate personal sacrifice to influence posterity forever more), and yet, I know deep down inside that this is the greatest of lies I tell myself. Though I may wish it so, ultimately, I am simply too scared, and further, not sufficiently self-assured of my own genius, to throw my life away on the dubious assumption that I might create something worthy of humanity. On the contrary, I am fairly confident that the combination of my natural abilities and tireless workaholism should afford me some notion of material success, as hollow and meaningless as it may be—and thus, the self-loathing.

Mired by complacence and seduced by the relative ease of blind material pursuits, I am unwilling to risk my existence to achieve true greatness. Instead, I am (or will be, eventually) content in the banalities and platitudes of what I know to be meaningless: the biggest house, the fastest car, the best television, and the hottest spouse. If knowing that about yourself, i.e., knowing yourself to be the greatest fraud one can be, is not reason enough for potent despair and inextricable self-loathing, I am not sure what is... well, I guess if I knew myself to be stupid, that would be worse.

1 Jay-Z and DMX really have a way with words, do they not?


I would like to think you wrote this article in response to my earlier comment, and so, I felt compelled to respond. I have no qualms about choosing the first option, and here's why: I have never had any designs on history (or posterity). I think if I do indeed live a long and successful life, and achieve what I want out of it, I should count my lucky stars.

Moreover, you are not a fraud for being enamored by the concept of historical legacy, but ultimately pursuing your own (individual) happiness. Legacy may be the name of the game for some, but it isn't (nor should it be) for everyone.

Most people wouldn't even bother to consider the latter, and the fact that you do immediately sets you apart from them.

I have nevertheless come to appreciate interesting conversations far more than trite, meaningless sex

If ever one needed validation for Aldous Huxley's famous quote: An intellectual is a person who has discovered something more interesting than sex, you are the one to provide it. Either that, or you're dating some really boring people.

Thanks for the props.

The question is interesting, because 99.9% of the world's population knows they won't ever leave anything lasting or meaningful for all but (maybe) 5-10 people, and even then those "achievements" fade after a few generations.

The monotheistic tradition (especially Islam and Lutherism) sustains most of the world, since they believe in rapture/purgatory/99 virgins (but a bitch ain't one), and the redemption of living a "good," albeit mediocre existence. But for the atheists or the relativists, the nihilists, existentialists and agnostics, there exists no such comfort.

Which is why Buddhism appeals to me, the idea that suffering should be accepted and mitigated, not avoided and exploited as a motivational force.

Interesting that you should bring up Buddhism, because I have actually looked to Eastern philosophy before (I was raised under Hinduism). There are lots of answers to be had in terms of the individual, but it isn't as concerned with the larger context, e.g., whether there is such a thing as intrinsic meaning.

In any case, I agree that for a question such as the one above, religion seems to be the one way all of us without hope for legacy can sustain us, whether that be through hope of savior or understanding of our temporal existence.

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