“How many of these do you suppose will be alive at this time to-morrow?” asked Sir Henry.
I shook my head and looked again at the sleeping men, and to my tired and yet excited imagination it seemed as though Death had already touched them. My mind’s eye singled out those who were sealed to slaughter, and there rushed in upon my heart a great sense of the mystery of human life, and an overwhelming sorrow at its futility and sadness. To-night these thousands slept their healthy sleep, to-morrow they, and many others with them, ourselves perhaps among them, would be stiffening in the cold; their wives would be widows, their children fatherless, and their place know them no more for ever. Only the old moon would shine on serenely, the night wind would stir the grasses, and the wide earth would take its rest, even as it did æons before we were, and will do æons after we have been forgotten.
Yet man dies not whilst the world, at once his mother and his monument, remains. His name is lost, indeed, but the breath he breathed still stirs the pine-tops on the mountains, the sound of the words he spoke yet echoes on through space; the thoughts his brain gave birth to we have inherited to-day; his passions are our cause of life; the joys and sorrows that he knew are our familiar friends—the end from which he fled aghast will surely overtake us also!
Truly the universe is full of ghosts, not sheeted churchyard spectres, but the inextinguishable elements of individual life, which having once been, can never die, though they blend and change, and change again for ever.
I hope the context was understood enough from the excerpt; but essentially it is the night before the group fight a force 3-4 times their number, and while they have the high ground victory is not obvious nor is who will remain after. In that context, Quatermain looked around and saw Death already counting his gruesome numbers. A sobering, yet beautiful thought. In his sorrow Quatermain saw the ineffect we have while we live on this earth. “Only the old moon would shine on serenely, the night wind would stir the grasses, and the wide earth would take its rest, even as it did æons before we were, and will do æons after we have been forgotten.” As men, as one in multiple billions present and multiple billions of past history (let alone the billions/trillions to come) we are surely forgotten quickly in history. Few men make it into the history books, and the ones who do aren’t always the best types. The worst rise to the top as Hayek stated with respect to the political game, but it applies often enough to history as well.
Is man being lost to history a bad thing? Not really, it isn’t even sad I suppose. Most of us don’t live lives worthy of talking about for generations. Just a fact of life, if we all did then our future generations would be able to do nothing else but talk about us and then they would lead uneventful lives. If we are lucky, our grandkids will remember us fondly and occasionally tell stories about us. If we are lucky and skilled, our grandkids will talk about us and have a legacy to participate in. Sadly, my own grandparents died or become somewhat feeble when I was relatively young so while they raised great kids (my parents and aunts and uncles) as a powerful legacy I remember them as being “old” and don’t really have stories worth passing on.
However sobering the above thought is, it isn’t something to really take to heart. We all know deep down that our individual contributions to society and the world will be forgotten by most men. What we should take to heart is that while it may be forgotten, it will never be reduced to zero. We live and have lived on this Earth. Our very existence has made a change to the face of the planet. “Truly the universe is full of ghosts, … the inextinguishable elements of individual life, which having once been, can never die“. Not only does our very life make a change, but every action we do ripples across time. Having kid’s is the easiest example. Even the things you produce over your life through your employment change the world, even if in a small way. Like the clichéd butterfly that causes a hurricane. Our actions may be small, but combined with the fascinatingly complex humankind, we will have a legacy. Might as well work to make it one worth being proud about.
Who knows, maybe our grandkids will even talk about us to their kids.
This post is the continuation of a short series of commentary based on quotes pulled from King Solomon’s Mines by Henry Rider Haggard. Haggard wrote a fantastic book in an amazingly short time-frame. Here are some quick links to posts related to this book: Short review of the book itself, all the quotes in one place, and a list of other commentary like this one.