No Ones Reputation is Immortal: Reflections on Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I recently had a discussion with a friend about how no one’s reputation is immortal. It doesn’t matter if you’re the ruler of a vast empire or owner of the largest newspaper and magazine business in the world. Erosion will relentlessly wear down physical artifacts of your existence and the sands of passing time will make sure that memories of you eventually fade away.

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Some examples in history which the vast majority of people today wouldn’t know:

Ozymandias – was another name for Ramesses the Great, Pharaoh of the nineteenth dynasty of ancient Egypt. I first came across the poem Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley at the beginning of Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”.

Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley - I met a traveller from an antique land, Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone, Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand, Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things, The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed. And on the pedestal these words appear:

Ogedai Khan (Khagan of the Mongol Empire, Supreme Khan of the Mongols, King of Kings) – successor to Genghis Khan.

William Randolph Hurst – at his peak the most powerful media mogul in the world, perhaps more so than Rupert Murdoch is now.

Futurama episode - A Pharaoh to Remember

A much more recent example in pop culture is the Futurama episode “A Pharaoh to Remember” in which Bender grows concerned that he will be doomed to obscurity, and sets off to rectify the situation.

Bender’s efforts on Earth fail but when the Professor assigns the Planet Express crew to deliver a giant sandstone block to the planet O’Cyrus IV (Osiris IV) Bender engineers events to become the most ruthless, tyrannical Pharaoh ever.

Excerpt from the script:

BENDER: Citizens of Me! The cruelty of the old Pharaoh is a thing of the past. Let a whole new wave of cruelty wash over this lazy land.

[The crowd cheers then realises what he has said.]

LEELA: What did he say?

BENDER: Hear the word of Pharaoh. Build unto me a statue of ridiculous proportion. One billion cubits in height……that I might be remembered for all eternity. And be quick about it!

[The slaves are whipped.]

Construction proceeds but in predictable fashion the episode ends with the Planet Express ship fleeing O’Cyrus IV as the statue explodes in a gigantic fireball. Bender’s reign of terror is unlikely to be remembered as the statues explosion will probably have destroyed all life on O’Cyrus IV.

6 thoughts on “No Ones Reputation is Immortal: Reflections on Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley”

  1. So true. Even if your name is remembered, for good or ill, what does that really mean? It’s the people around you that matter and the imprint you leave on the world. Perhaps the key is to try to leave it more enriched than you found it.

  2. That’s really true. No one could tell when your reputation will be gone. If you can’t handle the responsibility that comes with, it will surely be destroyed.

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