Writer B.D. McClay was prompted to ask the question in the above headline by remarks from Jason Stanley (Yale), who on Twitter said, “I would regard myself as an abject failure if people are still not reading my philosophical work in 200 years. I have zero intention of being just another Ivy League professor whose work lasts as long as they are alive.”
Stanley is not the only philosopher who has as an aim and standard for their work that it have an influence well into the distant future. (Stanley might have talked about his work being read in 200 years, but he probably didn’t mean just 200 years—presumably he’d be upset if his work lasted 200 years but then was completely forgotten a day after that.) I recall one established philosopher telling a group of graduate students at a workshop, “I am not writing for today; I am writing for posterity,” and others in various conversations over the years taking as their goal to have their writings talked about through the ages.The desire to leave a mark on posterity, to seek immortality through one’s works, can be a powerful one. Its danger is the theme of fiction from ancient myths up through today’s literature. Here’s a character summing it up in a rant to his son in Steve Toltz’s marvelous 2008 novel, A Fraction of the Whole:
“Humans are unique in this world in that, as opposed to all other animals, they have developed a consciousness so advanced that it has one awful byproduct: they are the only creatures aware of their own mortality. This truth is so terrifying that from a very early age humans bury it deep in their unconscious, and this has turned people into red-blooded machines, fleshy factories that manufacture meaning. The meaning they feel becomes channled into their immortality projects—such as their children, or their gods, or their artistic works, of their businesses, or their nations—that they believe will outlive them… The irony of their immortality projects is that while they have been designed by the unconscious to fool the person into a sense of specialness and into a bid for everlasting life, the manner in which they fret about their immortality projects is the very thing that kills them… This is my warning to you… So what do you think?”
“I have no idea what you just said.”
One needn’t understand the lethality of the desire for immortality literally— it may just be that pursuing its satisfaction may involve sacrificing the actual goods of your life for the merely possible goods of your work’s afterlife.
Whether, as the storytellers insist, the quest for immortality is congenitally ironic, there remains the question: is “being important in the distant future” a standard to which we should hold our work, our projects, or ourselves?
I don’t think it is. On this, I find myself largely in agreement with Brooke Alan Trisel, who takes up the matter in the thoughtful “Human Extinction and the Value of Our Efforts,” (2004). Trisel writes:
The problem in allowing an unrealizable desire, such as immortality, to become part of a standard for judging whether our efforts are worthwhile or important is that it predetermines that we will fail to achieve the standard. Furthermore, it can lead us to lose sight of or discount all of the other things that matter to us besides fulfilling this one desire.
Since there is no way to satisfy the desire for quasi-immortality, one may fall into a state of despair, as did Tolstoy. Furthermore, because the desire may be concealed in the standard, the person may be unable to pinpoint the source of the despair and, consequently, may be unable to figure out how to overcome it. The person may believe that he or she has a new perspective on life that suddenly revealed that human endeavors are and have always been futile, when, in fact, the only thing that changed was that this person increased the standard that he or she had previously used to judge significance. Therefore, it is crucial to recognize when an unrealizable desire, such as the desire to have our works appreciated forever, has infected our standards and, when it has done so, to purge it from these standards. The original standard that we used to judge significance was likely realistic and inspiring before it became corrupted with the desire to achieve quasi-immortality.
Suppose that there is a god who created humanity and who told us that our efforts would be “significant” only if we create works that will last forever. Suppose also that humanity will not last forever and that we live in a universe that will not likely last forever. Thus, there is a clear, “objective” standard for judging whether our efforts are significant. If this were the standard handed down to us by this god, would we try to achieve the standard, or would we reject, as I believe, the standard on grounds that it is unreasonable, assuming that we were not compelled by this god to try to achieve the standard? Ironically, we are free to choose a reasonable standard to judge what is significant, yet some people unwittingly adopt, or impose upon themselves, a standard that they would reject if it had been imposed upon them by an external entity.
Though Trisel writes about the impossibility of immortality, the points are almost as compelling when read as being about the unlikelihood of being thought important in the distant future. I recommend the whole essay, an ungated version of which is available here.
Instead of a direct longing for immortality (or distant impact), one might think that the standard we should hold our writing to is not that it be read through the ages, but rather that it have some other qualities that, as it turns out, make it more likely to be read through the ages. One might hope that one’s work is wise, for instance, and think that if it is wise, it will be discussed for generations to come. If that’s the case, it seems it would be better to focus on and articulate which qualities we have in mind, rather than one’s impact on posterity. One reason for this is that there are less desirable qualities that might contribute to a work’s longevity, such as it being maddeningly unclear, or especially evil. Another is that we may wish to avoid holding ourselves to standards the meeting of which is largely out of our control; I can’t dictate what future generations do, but maybe I can make what I do good in some way—and isn’t that enough?
There are a constellation of issues here about which I’m sure there’s a variety of opinion. Discussion welcome.
(Note: this is not a discussion about Jason Stanley or his work. Comments about him will be deleted.)