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Nobel Prize for Self-Awareness

Long Live the Merchant of Death

With an unexpected posthumous flourish, Alfred Nobel’s last will & testament established annual prizes for “those who, in the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.” He had arranged for this at nearly his last minute, but had given no intimation of having done so. What had prompted such a dramatic decision?

Seven years earlier, Nobel had read his own obituary in the Paris newspapers.The headline declared:

“The merchant of death is dead.”

The deceased party was not Alfred, the famous and fabulously wealthy inventor of dynamite and blasting caps, but his brother. The experience must have been a double grief for Nobel. He realized many people thought he had become “rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before.”

Dismay at his public image likely prompted his plan to endow international prizes, including one for peace. You could say he earned himself a Nobel Prize for Self-Awareness.

Material Cooperation with Evil?

Alfred Nobel had profited by the sale of his explosive inventions, and those inventions were sometimes deployed in the killing of men.

But dynamite had saved the lives of many construction & transport workers by drastically reducing accidental explosions. Nobel could have gone in a lecture tour explaining his contributions, but he didn’t. He could have pointed out that no human invention - from the wheel to the scythe to the cotton gin - has altogether kept its innocence.

Had such a thing as a PR firm existed in the Belle Epoque, would it have counseled Nobel to save his reputation while he yet lived? Perhaps, but Nobel was interested in the long game. The surprise of the post mortem revelation, the drama of the forfeited opportunity to give thanks - this is better theater by far, and it proved one of the most successful legacy projects ever.

A person’s legacy is one’s life perceived by others through time. It can be affected by what others say and write as much as it can be engineered by one’s own efforts. Should we care about our legacies or is fussing about one’s legacy the worst form of vanity?

In cultivating one’s legacy, a person must balance detachment with witness. Remove your ego from the matter, for your legacy should be like your life. If it is possible to witness to the power of Christ’s grace through your legacy, if it is possible to evangelize a generation yet unborn, then pursue legacy projects. If you discern that your efforts would lead not to worship but simply to a greater esteem for yourself, abandon them.

A Tradition of Expiation

Nobel’s prizes update a longstanding European tradition. The medieval period saw feudal lords hedge their bets by funding monasteries and convents and thus securing even more than their earthly legacies: the monks and nuns would be bound to pray for the lessening of time in Purgatory for the founders’ souls.

It was’t a silly thing to do. Just as we are meant to tend one another’s physical and social needs, we are meant to tend to spiritual needs. We are supposed to pray for one another and to ask for one another’s prayers. The prayers after your death can only aid you if you are in Purgatory, ie, if you are definitively headed to heaven, and it is only a question of length of delay rather than whether.

Moreover, medieval monasteries were more than centers of prayer: they needed the funding because they served as hospitals, schools, inns and hostels, and homeless shelters. Without them, craftsmen and artists would not have had enough work to sustain them. The interceding happened, but the quid pro quo went very much in the favor of the living. An entire civilization was funded by self-awareness of Christians that they were sinners in radical need for prayer.

Real Reform

Can this go wrong? Certainly! If we think we can pay our way to heaven, we are simply wrong. Endowing a chantry to sing prayers for a reprieve from Purgatory is not an end run around God’s judgment. It can only aid us if we are throwing ourselves into the open arms of Christ by the means he has offered us, namely living a sacramental life, surrendering to grace, putting aside our disordered desires, letting Him heal our appetites, and actively serving our brethren, especially the least. All of this must be done anew daily.

Lent is upon us. It is the season of self-awareness. What are our bad habits, our destructive defaults, our ridiculous defenses against grace? What can we do to follow Christ closer? What is God asking of us here in this moment?

How are we using our dynamite - to make straight the way of the Lord, or to reshape the landscape in our own image?

Fellow disciples, get thee to Confession. The press was wrong about which Nobel died in 1888, but they could be right about you or me tomorrow.

Do not wait for your death. This very day, change the world by changing yourself into a truer disciple of Jesus the Light of the World and Prince of Peace.

For Further Reflection

  • Vladimir Putin is probably very, very self-aware. He accepts and embraces himself for the ruthless dictator he has become. He is a great modern example of someone very concerned with legacy but not at all about Christ.

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