In the 13th century BCE, Ramses II was the most powerful man in Egypt. Over the course of his reign, the great pharaoh, also known as Ozymandias, was beloved by his subjects. From the Delta to Nubia, Ramses built grand monuments to immortalize his greatness. So obsessed was he with preserving his legacy that he constructed more statues of himself than any other monarch. But today what remains of this once legendary leader? a brief mention in our history lesson on ancient Egypt? perhaps an entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica? Despite his egotistical efforts to defeat eternity, time- as always- triumphed: three thousand years later, nothing remains of Ramses’s worldly accomplishments, as romantic poet Percy Shelly wrote in his 1817 poem “Ozymandias,” but a “shattered visage.”
It is a cruel irony that we squander so many of our limited hours on earth trying to acquire power and prestige when, in the end, neither much matters. Much like Ramses hopelessly attempting to erect an everlasting monument to his earthly success, we in the modern age hysterically scramble for status: envy-inducing job titles, degrees from esteemed Ivy Leagues- anything that signifies we are worthy of admiration and respect. When we’ve captured that majestic-if elusive- butterfly of professional, material success, we feel like who we are may finally be enough. But if that butterfly manages to slip from our grasp or if- god forbid- we never catch its shimmering wings in our nets, we’ll never respect ourselves. Because we in the modern meritocracy attach moral significance to social standing, if we fall from the social ladder or never ascend to its highest rungs, we’ll contend our underachievement is a result of a character deficiency. “Why did we fail to make something of ourselves?” we’ll wonder, “had we been lazy? or had we simply not been intelligent/talented enough?” This is why over-achieving straight-A students leap in front of trains when they’re rejected from Harvard: to go to a lesser school- they’ve been told- is to be lesser. And if you’re lesser, why live at all?
This may be a drastic example, but similar feelings of inferiority at one time or another beset us all. According to erudite and edifying explorer of human history Alain De Botton, the same brilliant mind who elucidated how status is a construction of culture and expectation causes malaise and discontentment, status anxiety, or the worry that we’re nobodies in the eyes of others, is “capable of ruining extended stretches” of our existence. If we’re unsuccessful in our quest to secure the love of the world, if we never receive its tokens of affection, renown and distinction, we foresee one shameful word engraved on our tombstones: “failure.” Believing achievement equates to worth, we hustle to gain admission to the most exclusive universities, land that million dollar book deal and make six figures. We fritter away a significant portion of our lives either chasing validation or fretting that what we have accomplished is still not good enough.
So how can we cure ourselves of this destructive notion that the world is divided between winners and losers? How can we alleviate the psychological anguish that accompanies the belief that we’re only as lovable as our accomplishments? In his immeasurably interesting Status Anxiety, De Botton offers an unexpected remedy: gaze upon the decaying beauty of ancient ruins. Thousands of years ago, Ramses II’s commanding statue beheld the ancient world’s most magnificent civilization- today, both his statue and kingdom have disintegrated to dust, as insignificant as a speck of Saharan sand. At the height of Rome’s power, the Forum bustled as the cultural and political epicenter of the world’s mightiest empire- several millennia later, only the skeletons of a few buildings remain, their pillars looking out at the decay with the solemnity of defeated kings. Instead of host lavish banquets for dignified statesman, today the Forum is just another “must-see” for pushy, poorly dressed tourists in cargo shorts and jeans. As Genesis 3:19 so poetically says, “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
That we all return to dust seems to validate the bleak nihilistic belief in life’s inherent meaninglessness. Yet the fact that all things must end is not cause for despair. The crumbling fragments of ancient Rome and the declining figure of Ramses II make us conscious of our ultimate insignificance, yes, but- if anything- this awareness puts our petty status anxieties into proper perspective. No matter how brave our military exploits or how vast our lands, the disquieting truth is no one will remember them a thousand years hence. Countless important figures have been lost through the ages: once influential world leaders dim into the oblivion of irrelevance and obscurity, all-powerful empires topple over, nations’ borders are drawn and redrawn. Because our mortal accomplishments inevitably perish in the almighty face of eternity, De Botton suggests it’s pointless to worry too much about our status in society:
“Ruins reprove us for our folly in sacrificing peace of mind for the unstable rewards of earthly power. Beholding old stones, we may feel our anxieties over our achievements- and the lack of them- slacken. What does it matter, really, if we have not succeeded in the eyes of others, if there are no monuments and processions in our honor or if no one smiled at us at a recent gathering? Everything is, in any event, fated to disappear, leaving only the New Zealanders to sketch the ruins of our boulevards and offices. Judged against eternity, how little of what agitates us makes any difference.
Ruins bid us to surrender our strivings and our fantasies of perfection and fulfillment. They remind us that we cannot defy time and that we are merely playthings of forces of destruction which can at best be kept at bay but never vanquished. We enjoy local victories, perhaps claim a few years in which we are able to impose a degree of order upon the chaos, but ultimately will slop back into a primeval soup. If this prospect has the power to console us, it is perhaps because the greater part of our anxieties stems from an exaggerated sense of the importance of our projects and concerns. We are tortured by our ideals and by a punishingly high-minded sense of the gravity of what we are doing.
Christian moralists have long understood that to the end of reassuring the anxious, they will do well to emphasize that contrary to the first principle of optimism, everything will in fact turn out for the worst: the ceiling will collapse, the statue will topple, we will die, everyone we love will vanish and all our achievements and even our names will be trod underfoot. We may derive some comfort from this, however, if a part of us is able instinctively to recognize how closely our miseries are bound up with the grandiosity of our ambitions. To consider our petty status worries from the perspective of a thousand years hence is to be granted a rare, tranquillising glimpse of our own insignificance.”
In the poem “Ozymandias,” Ramses II declares, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings. Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” But, as Shelley observes in the next line, a few millennia later, “nothing beside remains.” Ramses II’s ruins remind us of the futility of acquiring worldly fame as, in the end, nothing is eternal: somebodies will become nobodies just as surely as buildings will be reduced to rubble.