Every so often I feel a sense of weary purposelessness at the thought that nothing I create will last. Even the greatest of creations will one day crumble and be forgotten, but at least they survive the generations, not only the physical realm but in the memories of man, but I feel that what I create is so minor and amateurish that none of it will survive my death. I’m sure that it’s natural to feel this way. After all, out of six billion human beings, how many of them can be expected to become cherished creators? From the entirety of the pre-Medieval western world, how many people can you name? How many can you accurately describe what they did?
One of my favorite historical footnotes is Sostratus, a Greek trader. He is a hapax legomenon. That is, he is only mentioned once in the extant historical record, and so all that we know of him must come from this single source. As you can imagine, this is a bit frustrating for anyone interested in the hapax legomenon. (Another hapax legomenon is gopher wood in the Bible, the wood from which the ark is made. Due to this, we have no idea what the wood actually was, and most probably never will. Keep this is mind when you hear that a replica of the ark is being made.)
Anyways, Herodotus mentions Sostratus in comparison to some other traders. The mentioned traders made a profit of sixty talents, which is the value of approximately 1560 kilograms of silver, which at today’s (December 2014) silver prices is $842,400. According to Wikipedia, a talent in 377 BCE, admittedly much later than Sostratus must have been, was the value of nine man-years of skilled labor, meaning that the profit from the traders’ single voyage could employ 54 skilled laborers for a decade.
And Herodotus says that Sostratus, son of Laodamas, made such a profit that no one else can compare to him.
Here was a man whose profit was so axiomatic for Herodotus that he did not even feel it necessary to explain how he made it. And why should he? Can you imagine an educated individual in today’s society being unaware of why Bill Gates is wealthy? Would you bother to explain the intricacies of software sales if you mentioned Gates in a book? And yet despite this, all other knowledge of Sostratus faded away with the ages, so that now, all we know is this. It is humbling.
Perhaps it should also be reassuring. All memories pass from the memory of mankind. Why worry over the inevitable? Or we might ask, like the skull of Zhuangzi, how do you know it’s bad to be forgotten? I suppose, especially for an atheist, with no other afterlife to hope for, that it’s only human nature to desire to be remembered, an urge not lessened by a lifelong love of history. Even Ogedei Khan, son of Genghis Khan, valued not gold or horses or land. When his advisors complained of his largesse, he replied:
“You curs wish to stop me from gaining the only wealth that is lasting in this world: a good standing in the memory of men. Of what use is money to me, when my subjects themselves are wealthy? It brings only worry and trouble, for it must be guarded against thieves and bandits.”
Maybe I should use this feeling as motivation. If one wishes to be remembered, do something memorable! Let’s hope I don’t seek out inspiration from Herostratus.