By Matthew Roser
If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth writing.” – Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac
How often do we catch ourselves or others quoting the immortal words of Shakespeare, Aristotle, or even the Bible? And among these, the many other scientists, philosophers, artists, and thinkers who have forever changed our world? The testament of their power is in the centuries and even millennia that they have survived and flourished. Power and resources are little without direction and focus, as is evidenced in our daily society. The masses hunger for celebrity, yet the same name will be forgotten within the next season. Only an enduring mark will outlast this lust; only a thing of genuine beauty – above entertainment and cheap laughs – will build the moral character of the generations to come. After all, why should we hum a Taylor Swift tune when we have heard Mozart?
The truth about legacy lies in two distinctions: one is catchy while the other is immortal. The former will cross our mind every so often once its popularity has run its course. But the latter will burn through us and shape our future like an ancient river that once carved deep valleys.
Yet leaving our perennial signature is more nuanced than mere superb work. It is breathing life into our endeavors so that we are born into these labors. Our heritage should reflect our own image – but in a mirror that pierces past the sharpness of our eyes and meager grimaces, to reveal the scaffolding of our very humanity. It is this humanity – this very basic building block that we hear in the strings and keys of Mozart. It is this humanity we read in the words of Christ and Plato’s simple longing to understand.
No. Productivity is not nearly enough. If we want to be remembered, we will have to enrich the world with something more selfless and authentic. Emerson remarks on this simple truth through his poem The Rhodora:
Rhodora! the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing,
Then Beauty is its own excuse for being:
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask, I never knew:
But, in my simple ignorance, suppose
The self-same Power that brought me here brought you.
And whether one or a million years pass, the rhodora shall always remain beautiful. Can the same be said for your legacy? Beauty endures.
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