The Measure of a Man

Leonardo da Vinci: Art, Family & Facts - HISTORY

One hundred years from today, I will be long dead.  This is a fact whose veracity exists completely independent of my attitude or concern towards it.  Before I am accused of youthful nihilism, let me make it clear that my guaranteed death sometime in the coming decades does not cause me much grief, or fear, or pessimism; after all, the way I see it, once I’m dead I will not have the capacity to even care one way or the other.  The only intent I have with mentioning my own mortality is to focus my young mind on the way in which individuals are remembered by succeeding generations.  Or, more fittingly, how they are not remembered.

In history, very few individuals are ever really remembered.  If one was to compare the names of individually known figures, to the names of the unknown masses, the former would not even tip the scale in ratio to the latter.  Which is why, I suppose, we have a tendency to often define eras and concepts in history by the measure of their most imposing personalities (i.e. Pre-Socratic philosophy, Napoleonic Era, Darwinian science, Keynesian economics).  In times where no single individual can quite reach the notoriety needed to be the zeitgeist’s neologism, the individuals who make up the era are left to be defined by the perception later generations have of them as a collective mass (i.e. the Dark Ages, where any individual accomplishment that may have been produced is overshadowed by the popularly understood inaction of the historical era as a whole).

This bit of information leaves me with little doubt that, as a content member of the unknown masses, the faults (and, of course, the strengths) that will come to define the age I happen to live in, will eventually be the standard by which future generations measure my merits and contributions as an individual (on account that my individuality is entirely tied in to the merits of the social structure I happen to have been born into).  This means that just as we today may pitifully look back at the anonymous peasant of the 11th Century–who thought the sun revolved around the earth and that witches were ruining his crops–long after I am dead, I will continue to exist in the consciousness of the yet-to-be-born public, as a pitiful, anonymous representation of all the bigotries and delusions that are too prevalent in my current society for me to even fully acknowledge; regardless of whether I personally subscribed to such sentiments or not.

Some might see this as a compelling reason for why one must speak out against perceived errors of one’s day, but I’m skeptical to how much of a deterrence this has against the prevailing generalizations of history.  Certainly speak out when you see fit, new media forums have made that easier now than ever, and the chance exists that your voice will stand out from the crowd.  But it should be kept in mind that back in the 11th Century, there must have been at least one peasant who did not hold to witchcraft as a plausible phenomenon, and perhaps didn’t even subscribe to a geocentric model, but her/his voice is still irrelevant to the greater historical narrative of her/his social era.  Because even when dissenting voices are acknowledged to have existed within the nameless public, they are usually treated by history as minor anomalies in the larger framework.

Maybe this should give us reason enough to collectively strive to do better as a society, so that the faults of our generation don’t become the eventual measure of us as individuals.  But such worries can seem almost too laughably idealistic to even the most astute observer (how on earth can we correct faults we don’t even notice we have, yet?).  Not to mention, this is only a concern to me because I’m still alive (and plan to stay so for some time to come).  If I was dead…well, I refer the reader to my statement on mortality at the beginning of this post.

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