Sunday, November 28, 2004

Immortality, Part II

In a previous post, I dealt with the issue of physical immortality, and the likelihood that some sort of electronic immortality would be achieved within my probable lifetime. Yet even if physical immortality becomes possible, there will still be a higher form of immortality.

In a future where everyone is immortal, we will still reserve a special place for those who achieve immortal fame. And in the present, immortality through one's works is still the only game around.

The problem is that not all vocations are created equal when it comes to immortal renown. Indeed, our modern world seems biased against it. A culture in which everyone gets 15 minutes of fame is unlikely to produce an eternal fame for any of its members.

To help understand this kind of immortality, I'm posting a list of five "immortals" in each broad category, with a few of my conclusions tossed in along the way. This list is drawn solely from my own memory--doing research contradicts the very experiment--though I have tried my best to eliminate cultural biases. Feel free to propose your own candidates!

The Immortals

Alexander of Macedon (when you can convince someone to spend $150 million to make a movie of your life over 2,000 years after your death, you've made it, even if the movie turns out to be a turkey)
Napoleon Bonaparte
Genghis Khan
Attila the Hun
Adolf Hitler (nobody said that immortal fame had to be positive!)

Being a great conqueror is one of the best ways to achieve immortal fame. Unfortunately for would-be conquerors (but fortunately for the rest of us), ruling the world is now left to fictional supervillains.

Isaac Newton
Charles Darwin
Galileo Galilei
Leonardo Da Vinci
Albert Einstein

Another classic category, but again, another category where it's increasingly difficult to do something remarkable enough for the world to remember your name. The Stephen Hawkings of the world study subjects too abstruse to capture the imagination of the people. All bets are off, however, if someone discovers time travel, anti-gravity, limitless energy, or warp drive.

Vincent Van Gogh
Leonardo Da Vinci (Leo becomes the first man to make two appearances on this list; they won't be his last.)
Pablo Picasso

"Ars longa vita brevis," as the expression goes, but it's increasingly difficult to make a name for yourself in the art world. Even the fame of such luminaries as Andy Warhols and Jackson Pollacks will be extinguished in a few short centuries.

Johan Sebastian Bach
Ludwig Von Beethoven
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Elvis Aaron Presley
Bob Dylan

Thanks to "Classical" stations and PBS, the three immortals at the top of the list seem pretty locked in, though I still feel bad for Bach. Rather than getting his own movie like Mozart or Beethoven, his name was appropriated by Skid Row frontman Sebastian Bach. I also think Elvis has a chance to move up this list if he becomes a religious figure.

Christopher Columbus
Marco Polo
Ferdinand Magellan
John Glenn
Jacques Cousteau

There just isn't much to explore these days. John Glenn makes it on the list instead of Neil Armstrong or Yuri Gagarin because of his post-space fame.

John D. Rockefeller
Henry Ford
Bill Gates
Warren Buffett
Andrew Carnegie

The sad fact is that it's hard to achieve immortal fame as a businessman. Tycoons like Rockefeller and Carnegie are now known solely for their philanthropy. The average person has no idea where they made their fortunes (oil and steel). Ford was wise enough to name his company after himself, but his fame has certainly fallen since the days Aldous Huxley speculated that he would be worshipped as a God.

Lao Tse

Before Prince, before Madonna, the philosophical triumvirate of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle made the single name cool. Alas, like art, modern philosophy is too esoteric to achieve lasting fame. I dare you to find 10 people who can tell you who John Rawls is, and name one of his books.

Religious Leaders:
Jesus of Nazareth
Siddhartha Gautauma (the Buddha)
Martin Luther

If you can start a religion, you've hit the jackpot. Not only will you earn everlasting fame, you'll have an excuse to build an entire organization to preserver and proselytize your memory. It's tough to do, but folks like John Smith, Brigham Young, and L. Ron Hubbard have proven that it's possible, even in today's modern era. If I had to choose a single category to strive for to achieve immortality, I'd pick religion.

Muhammed Ali
Michael Jordan
Babe Ruth
Jackie Robinson

While athletes achieve fame an adulation in their time, that fame is fleeting. Can anyone name the top wrestler of Ancient Greece? The rise of television may help the cause of athletic immortality, but I wouldn't bet on any of these guys being remembered 1,000 years from now.

William Shakespeare
Dante Alighieri
The Brothers Grimm

Perhaps the pen is mightier than the sword. I would argue that the immortals in this category outstrip those of every other category, with the exception of the religious leaders. It is important to note that all of these authors were popular authors, not literary authors writing for a tiny audience. I would argue that immortality is better achieved through the bestseller list than the Booker Prize. Who knows? In 500 years, perhaps Stephen King or JK Rowling will make the cut.

Thomas Edison
Johannes Gutenberg
Leonardo Da Vinci
Orville and Wilbur Wright

In many ways, I'd argue that the inventors and scientists are the immortals who had the most lasting impact. Perhaps someday contemporaries like Tim Berners-Lee will make the list.

The upshot is that immortal fame is difficult to achieve, and even more difficult in certain categories. All vocations are not created equal, and today's world is less conducive to eternal renown. Finally, how about a special congratulations to Leonardo Da Vinci, who made the cut in three categories--he was truly a renaissance man.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Don't know about the earlier inventors, but Edison and the Wright Brothers were also showmen and shrewed businessmen and I think their ability to promote their achievements were a primary reason they are remembered.

Edison had two contemporaries that were in his fields: Joseph Swan (Incandescant light bulb) and Nikola Tesla (Electric distribution), and although Tesla is known in the scientific space, both of them are relatively unknown to the general public now.

As for Berners Lee, although I think he will be remembered as the guy who "founded" the Web, I don't think he would be as remembered in the same regard as Edison I had thought Marc Andresseen had that possibility to be one, but alas after Netscape flamed out, we never really heard of him after that either.

So although I can think of many current businessmen in technology who could achieve Immortality...Bill Gates, Ellison, Bezos, (Jerry Yang and Pierre Omidayar possibly when they start to publicly endow foundations), I can't think of a single modern day Inventor who can stand head-to-head with the "legends".