The Empire Business

“You asked me if I was in the meth business or in the money business. The answer is neither. I’m in the empire business.”
-Walter White, Breaking Bad

There was a time in my life when I wanted to build an empire, to create something that would last beyond my life for which I would be remembered (and adored). The industry wouldn’t have mattered–an empire is an empire. For somebody who sets out to build an empire, it rarely matters what kind. Indeed, it could have been a meth empire, or a technology empire, or a finance empire. I like to think that it wouldn’t have been a meth empire, but there is something about that lust for grandeur that betrays our stated system of ethics and supposed sensibilities.

The problem is that the world, and the human race in particular, is naturally opposed to empires of all kinds, be they business, political, or cultural in nature. Empires serve an Emperor, universally at the expense of everybody else. The Emperor may give patronage to the people who help him build it and maintain it, and certainly those beneficiaries of such patronage are immensely better off than everybody else as well (though not as much as the Emperor himself), but those benefits are not widely distributed, and they are only by chance predicated on merit. Even then, merit is defined in the narrow terms of what is contributed to the expansion or preservation of the empire, a poor metric for the Christian and the humanist alike.

One might inquire, what about the business empire? Surely this can be morally sanctionable given that its success is tied directly to meeting customer needs fastest, cheapest, and best. Unfortunately most business empires do not meet such criteria by entirely honest or competitive means. Even Apple, the most vaunted example of business empire in our day, resorts continually to nasty legal tactics to prevent its rivals from competing with it, and approaches upstart competitors with the intent of destroying them before they can become a threat. Their labour conditions in China are an entirely more egregious matter. This is the ethos of empire, any empire.

In our age of the ‘meritocracy’ it seems everybody is encouraged to engage in empire-building. Nothing could serve as a better example of the cultural call for society’s most able minds to become emperors than the famous line from Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network where Justin Timberlake’s Sean Parker says to the fictional Zuckerberg “A million dollars isn’t cool anymore. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.”

There is a fear amongst many (if not most) smart and talented people that they will be forgotten in death, unremembered by history. The fate of Shelley’s Ozymandias is a clear and present threat to the ego:

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 shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

And yet, the best of us would do well rival Ozymandias. King Solomon, immortalized in the account of his life in the Hebrew Scriptures, recognized the vanity of his pursuits–building houses and gardens, consuming all his eye could see, gaining great wisdom–all of which he called ‘vanity of vanities’ and ‘striving after a wind.’ The quest of empire is just such an elusive striving. Solomon was the wealthiest man the world has ever known, and yet, even with such privileged historical status in the holy texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, he is ultimately known for his descent into idolatry, and his ultimate legacy was leaving the Kindgoms of Israel and Judah divided.

How quickly a legacy is undone. Walk around America’s universities and see the buildings and lecture halls and fountains named after dead men, who believed they were immortalizing themselves by bequeathing their wealth to some institution that would put their name on brass plaques. We may call something “Smith Hall,” but this is not a memory of Smith. The name fades into mere vernacular usage–not a thought is truly given to the dead man behind it.

This drive to build an empire comes from our attempted revolt against our own humanity. We refuse to recognize that we are but 1 out of 7,000,000,000 living human individuals, 1 out of 108,000,000,000 humans who have ever lived. To leave a legacy that will remain a thousand years from now, in the top 1,000 most memorable people, we would need to esteem ourselves in the upper 0.00000001% of all of the people who have ever lived. Even then, it is a rapidly moving target, for we will have to outdo the billions yet unborn, who will find their place on earth during our own lifetimes and in the years following.

The Genesis narrative of the Garden of Eden shows the fall of man taking place because of a desire by man to possess the knowledge of good and evil–on par with God. It was an attempted revolt against the reality of our human finitude. The desire to build an empire is hardly different.

It is little wonder, then, that we can think of few Emperors for whom we have much fondness, whether in commerce or politics. Those who are remembered are remembered in infamy, not for their magnanimity. Yet most of the acts of kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and love are to be credited to those whose memory will fade with the passing of their own grandchildren, if they are so lucky.

The Good must almost necessarily be self-effacing, not self-promoting. When we seek to promote ourselves and our interests, even if we do so in the name of some other cause that we self-righteously proclaim to be ‘greater than ourselves,’ we cannot possibly hope to have done something worthy of recognition. Indeed–the first will be last, and the last will be first.

In such context, it seems we are left to the conclusion that if we are to leave the world a better place than we found it, we must very likely be forced to leave it anonymously.