Sunday, April 29, 2012
If virtue is its own reward then morality must only be for a moment, what is forgotten serves as an example for no one. Simply to be born is a distinction now, we expect merit we may not deserve. If someone commits an act of kindness you're sure to hear about it, for not to hear about it is the same as if it had not happened at all.
Everyone is entitled to a sense of unique perfection. We count our youth as but the oracle of great things to come, and see old age as the recitation of our deed's. When age at last does come it is often accompanied by disillusion, and the thought catching up to us like stragglers in a race, the gasp of recognition that the race is almost done. Then we turn to thick religion in desperation, seeking for an anchor to slow our progress, and abase ourselves before conformity to spare us from our thought.
On the other side of the mortality divide, we have the dreamer. Those individuals who still hope for distinction though it may never come. Who wait for their discovery among a million other souls and never stop to think and ask if it was worth it. Even the conformers must grant them this, that it for some must be worth a try, as unkempt rows of tombstones remind them Sundays when they go to place flowers on family graves. To live to be forgot is like to be a king for but a day.
In this, as in so much else, we share a special kinship with the Greeks, who viewed, more honestly than us, an afterlife full of doubt and shadows and felt by intimation that he who lives has already lost. “Those whom the gods love, die young.” wrote Menander. Tellingly a comic not a tragic poet. It was naturally expected that only those who had accomplished something of distinction were worthy of remembrance, but as to the character of those accomplishments the rules were less than clear.
Out of a desire for fame Alexander made war on Persia, and Euripides sang of war's regret. Whether one act is more virtuous than the other seems a small matter, both are remembered and both remain stubborn facts of the sometime failure of history to teach by example.
Socrates spoke against the relativism of his age by writing nothing and saying much. Virtues were not things that you could grasp but stood apart in another realm. That we remember this, however, is due to Plato's pen. This is irony, the one gift Greece has given us it did not intend to give.
Of all ironies the greatest must be, that without the spur of fame there is little to provoke the great experiments of life, when the action's of a few serve as benchmarks and pull us up collectively as if like a chorus to sing their praise. Investments in posterity, if left to the banker's risk aversion, the human race would scarcely dare to breed. Yet, as too often is the case, these consequences were unintended. What is praiseworthy in benefits of accident born of some self-centered goal that hardly took the time to consider its aid to man? And so the selfless act is hollow if unknown, and if known rings hollow.
There is a folly like all the others history records, of two men who dreamed of fame. Pericles, the first in time if not in merit, had built the Parthenon on Athens Acropolis, the other burnt the Temple of Artemis to the ground, a wonder of the world. When this second was asked the cause of such a barbarous act, as there could never be a reason worthy of term, he replied he did this to preserve his name and, despite the best efforts of his judges, that name, Herostratus, stands.
Greek fire urged one man to build a temple, and another to burn one. Whatever the initial spark the intent appears much the same.