The Merchant of Death is dead.
The year is 1888, and a French newspaper has just published the obituary of the inventor of dynamite, gelignite, and ballistite. A man “who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before”. A man whose brother was killed experimenting with nitroglycerin, and who forged on with his explosives empire regardless.
Who, then, was this cold-hearted dealer in death? For those who don’t know the story, the answer may come as a bit of a surprise. In fact, it was none other than Alfred Nobel, now perhaps more famous for establishing prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature and…Peace. A strange juxtaposition to be sure.
The key to the mystery lies in the year. The obituary was published in 1888, but Nobel didn’t die until 1896. Not Alfred Nobel, anyway. In fact, it was his brother, Ludvig, who died in 1888, and the obituary of Alfred had been published in error. Fake news! The story goes that Alfred was so horrified by his own obituary that he was spurred into action, and spent the rest of his days rehabilitating his legacy.
I was reminded of this – perhaps apocryphal – tale listening to a BBC series in which British comedian Andy Zaltzman road-tests a number of ancient philosophies, in this case Epicureanism. One of the tasks he is set in the programme is to write his own obituary. This has a dual purpose:
- Memento mori. Death is neither inherently good nor bad. It just is. But it also comes to us all, ready or not. I have always appreciated Seneca the Younger’s outlook: “it is within the reach of every man to live nobly, but within no man’s power to live long”. Active reflection on our own mortality presses this point home and encourages us to follow Nobel’s example and to do better.
2. To savour good memories. In the same way as it is healthy to practice gratitude for our current situation, it can be empowering to recall good memories. Indeed, this was a practice that gave the ailing Epicurus strength and comfort towards the end of his life.
Today, then, I want to challenge you to think about what your own obituary might say. What would your legacy be if you died tomorrow? And what would you do today to change it? As the story of Alfred Nobel goes to show, it is never too late to make a change. What is gone is gone; yet what lies ahead lies in our own hands. 2017 is gone. 2018 is here. The only question is, what is your story going to be?