Immortality is a pursuit as old as civilization. To the ancient Greeks immortality meant renowned. Hit the world like a meteor, leave a crater so deep and wide that your name, your story, your essence, echoes in the mouths of the living for all eternity. You’re alive as long as your presence endures. There were two main ways to accomplish this. First was glory in battle, around which life revolved. Second was through your children, who carried your name everlasting. That’s why in the second Homeric epic the shade of the dead hero Achilles, brooding in the boring afterlife, wants to know just one thing from the still-living Odysseus: “is my son a great soldier?” The ghost of Achilles wanted to know if he was immortal. That’s also why Hercules, greatest of the great heroes, is recognized with literal immortality for his fleshly feats: an invitation to godhood on Mt. Olympus. The ultimate reward for the ultimate warrior.
If great warriors were granted immortality in warrior-societies, then great industrialists are granted immortality in capitalist states. Warren Buffett, the nonagenarian $100 billionaire who is to MoneyLemma what Hercules was to a Spartan Hoplite, plans to work until he croaks. “I’m tap dancing to work every day” he says, “there’s nothing more exciting than getting there.” Mark Zuckerberg, half a century younger but just as monumentally wealthy, echoes those sentiments. “Love what you do.” But, why? Why do they love these impossibly demanding jobs? How can these jobs, which likely cost everything else in life, be worth it? That the world’s most powerful people are motivated by pure, unadulterated love of the game rings false. Or at least, it rings incomplete. That love must be underpinned by something. Something that mollifies the Atlassian burden of highly-scrutinized jobs (congressional testimonies, shareholder lawsuits, paparazzi stalkers) and the Promethean sacrifice they require. Maybe CEOs chase the same thing that Achilles chased to Troy and the Pharaohs chased into the Pyramids. That class of humans that yearns to be inked in history books, tattooed on skyscrapers, burned in effigy, and tokenized as a monument share the same motivation. It’s a quest for immortality.
As Greek civilization matured, so did its concept of immortality. Socrates, about 400 years after Homer, formally expanded the menu from two to three options. Sure, Socrates said, you can carve out the entrails of a Carthaginian and wear it like a robe - that gets you immortality, no doubt. But you know what’s even cooler? Contribute something to society. Something so magnificent, so epochal, that it becomes you. Your legacy, your ticket to immortality, can be a signature dialectic method (how convenient for Socrates), the formula for a hypotenuse of a triangle, or an architectural triumph. Primitive as it sounds, the idea that immortality is a godly gift bestowed upon the highest achievers runs deep in the veins of the world. That’s why bridges are named after mayors, companies after founders, deli sandwiches after notable patrons. Why stop there? Anything with your name or your story is your legacy. A luxury purse brand, a hotel chain, a Caribbean resort, a law firm, the campus latrine. Phallic buildings, phallic rocket ships, phallic monuments, phallic anything - a life of substance is one of recognized accomplishments. Your work is your offspring, and as long as it lives, you live. Even beyond the naming of inanimate objects, there’s trophy culture. Everything has a winner: there’s always a plaque, award, or accolade given to a hero, leader or champion. Somebody always has to get credit - somebody has to get immortality. Steve Jobs gets credit for Apple, Rockefeller for Standard Oil, Bill Gates for Microsoft, Warren Buffett for Berkshire Hathaway. They made the largest impression on the world so they get immortality. Of course, none of that is real immortality. Buildings will crumble, stories will be lost, all will be forgotten. But even with its flawed logic, this ancient sense of immortality lives on because it is enticing. Who doesn’t want to believe their fleeting existence can be made eternal?
There was a third founder of Apple. Along with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Ron Wayne was in from the beginning. A few months into the venture he sold his 10% stake back to his partners for $800. He was a few decades older than the Steves and, as a career engineer, decided he didn’t have the stomach for a garage-based enterprise. “I was going to wind up the richest man in the cemetery, so I figured it was best for me to go off and do other things.” The whole world, it seems, wants Ron Wayne to be Tantalus, writhing in agony for the rest of his existence, mourning the $100 billion that could have been. But he’s not. Time and again he has reiterated that he made the best decision he could make, and has long since moved on. According to the dozens of interviews he’s given, he’s happy. No regrets. He missed his shot at immortality, but who has time for immortality anyways?
The ancient Greeks believed that immortality was awarded to those whose life made an indelible impression on the world. But a person doesn’t make a single impression with their life; they are constantly making impressions. Every spoken word, every glance, every moment spent, every onanistic LinkedIn post, each are impressions. Impressions are the substance of existence and they flow in a constant, unwavering stream. Without them, the universe is blank space, an empty movie set. Life as we know it is a sizzling jambalaya of impressions: impressions collide and combine and recombine, sliding into a continuum. Even the smallest one rattles around for infinity, its impact amplifying with each echo, like the flap of a butterfly's wings. That makes impressions immortal, and every person makes impressions. Therefore every person gets immortality. What those impressions will be is what really matters.
That was great! Something much different then what I usually get in my inbox!