“People who are excited by posthumous fame forget that the people who remember them will soon die too. And those after them in turn. Until their memory, passed from one to another like a candle flame, gutters and goes out.” ― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.19
After Marcus Aurelius took the throne, he sometimes thought about the 15 emperors that had preceded him and their respective eras. He recalled all the remarkable people that had served the state — ambassadors, generals, advisers, merchants, courtiers, philosophers, and artists.
He looked back at the life of his adopted father and knew that he had big shoes to fill in. The responsibility was huge and required a great deal of courage, discipline, and maturity. He had to not only fulfill his obligations and responsibilities but also not let the absolute power in his hands corrupt him and repeat the mistakes of his predecessors.
In order to humble himself, to protect himself against getting “stained” by his position like so many other Caesars had, Marcus often reminded himself — as he wrote in his private journals which later became Meditations — that despite all their fame, status, and incredible accomplishments, most emperors had already been forgotten. No one remembered them, their reign, and their feats, even though it had only been a few generations. Their once glorious names had become unfamiliar, even antiquated and unpronounceable. Their stories had been lost, their statues had crumbled, their legacies had dissolved, and their memories had faded away from the collective consciousness.
Moreover, to further instill the pointlessness of fame and influence in his psyche, he even contemplated the present times and what lay ahead for him: “Consider the lives led once by others, long ago, the lives to be led by others after you, the lives led even now, in foreign lands. How many people don’t even know your name. How many will soon have forgotten it. How many offer you praise now—and tomorrow, perhaps, contempt. That to be remembered is worthless. Like fame. Like everything.”
The point of this exercise was not to devalue every accomplishment. It was meant as a reminder, a gentle warning: Keep your ego in check. Don't kid yourself that fame and recognition will make a difference. Don’t let power play with your mind. Turn the switch off. Do your job and be an embodiment of goodness.
As American filmmaker and comedian Judd Apatow highlights in his book Sicker in the Head, “There’s a feeling that you get when you get older, where you realize, like, kids don’t remember M*A*S*H. They don’t remember Cheers or Family Ties. And pretty soon, they won’t remember Friends. You feel everything is going off the cliff in a very Buddhist way. Whether you like it or not, you start feeling the texture of the nature of everything disappearing and that you are really only alive in this moment.”
Just focus on the present, on the things you can control. Persist and persevere regardless of what’s happening on the outside. Like Marcus, concentrate like a Roman and do the task in front of you as if it was the last thing you were doing in your life. Maintain your intensity, sharpen your ingenuity, and preserve your intentionality. If people applaud you, great. And if they don’t, well, you already know how much weight to give to their comments and accolades.
In the end, what truly matters is living a virtuous life in the present. To properly use our talents and gifts as we work for the common good, and to live, as Dr. Norman Vincent Peale puts it, in accordance with the censor within us. In essence, to think right and do right come whatever may; to do and give our best while being fully aware of the fact that we’ll soon be forgotten. After all, this is our primary objective as human beings.
The mutation that causes light skin in Northern Europeans happened only 5,800 years ago, and it took millennia to spread throughout the population.