I think it’s most likely that as long as humans have had conscious thought, the ability to wonder, we have questioned the possibility of an afterlife. Every religion and most philosophies with which I am acquainted speak of it. Paths to get there are interesting considerations. The only “sure” thing, however, has been to be remembered, whether in fame or infamy.
Our race is quite young in the existence of the universe, or even in the geologic record of the planet. All sorts of imaginative analogic scales have been developed so that we might wrap our minds around the brevity of human existence. For example, “compress the Earth’s 3.7 billion years existence to a 24-hour time scale, the first human species appeared about 47-94 seconds before midnight, and our species (Homo sapiens) appeared roughly 2 seconds before midnight.” (https:// letstalkaboutscience.wordpress.com/tag/analogies/) Recorded history is even shorter than that.
The ancient civilizations, at least the ones I’ve studied even a little, held the belief that immortality—or an afterlife—was simply just being remembered. Those who did heroic deeds made sure a poet/scop/bard/minstrel was around to record their glories so that their memory would live on. Oh, sure, they told stories about Elysian Fields and Valhalla and other places where they would go to tell stories to one another and celebrate after death, or various forms of Hades where they lived out eternity as mere shades or statues. What they wanted more than anything, however, was fame so that their memories would live on among those whose lives were familiar to them.
We build statues, buildings, monoliths, pyramids, and any number of other crumbling structures to honor our famous (or merely wealthy) brothers and sisters. Those who truly live on in our memories, however, do so in words. As the Sahara claims the tombs of the pharaohs, no matter how many times their remnants are excavated, they don’t mean anything at all until someone discovers the Rosetta Stone that allows us to decipher the tales of their lives. Odysseus, Agamemnon, Achilles, the whole lot of them owe their immortality to a blind poet who recited their adventures and taught the “Iliad” and “The Odyssey” to others. Arthur and his crew, the great samurai, Charlemagne, Attila. The list goes on and on because it is a list that has been written down. Sure, we question the veracity of the tales, and with good reason, but always we find some kernels of truth in the impossibilities. The city of Troy itself was discovered using Homer’s descriptions.
Fame gives us models of virtue, bravery, righteousness. Infamy gives us models of deceit, cowardice, slaughter…but those names live on, too. Do you think Hitler will be remembered less than Patton? The names of the heroes of WWII are legion, but we’ll probably remember Hitler, Hirohito, and Mussolini as long or longer than Bradley, MacArthur, or even Eisenhower. Every one of those we put on pedestals stands on the dastardly deeds of those who made them pick up their shields and risk their lives.
The news media these days has finally come to the realization that many of those corrupt individuals who do such infamous acts do so for the notoriety they receive, so newspaper and television and radio sources have stopped—or at least curtailed—providing them with as much reportage as possible. It’s sort of like the streakers or drunken fools who run onto the playing fields who are no longer shown on TV. Not as many of those instances occur any more since the networks changed their policies. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could stop a war by simply not providing megalomaniacs their fifteen minutes of fame?
Of course, one of the problems with that scenario is that sometimes the rebels who seem so evil easily become the heroes when they win the wars. I doubt there would be that great obelisk in Washington, D.C. (or even the city on the Potomac), if King George III had been less of an idiot.
Still, Washington and Franklin and Jefferson and the rest would probably be remembered today even if we were still British subjects because the multitude of songs, poems, stories, and newspaper articles written about them would be there for us to read or hear. Our attitude would simply be different, as well as our accent.
How many nanoseconds on that twenty-four hour clock will be devoted to your life? Does it matter? What is your purpose? Maybe we should be thinking about the heroics it is going to require to assure the existence of our species. No one will remember any of us when we’re all vanished due to our combined stupidity.
I’m a bit late for Earth Day, but I didn’t know I was going to write this. Enjoy the spring. Think about each day as a gift to you, but also think about how you might be a gift to the day. Will your “immortality” be fame or infamy?
Share with your friends if you think this is worthwhile. I could use the fame….