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c. 55 / Rome

Back to the Future

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I am always surprised to see some people demanding the time of others and meeting a most obliging response. Both sides have in view the reason for which the time is asked and neither regards the time itself—as if nothing is being asked for and nothing given. They are trifling with life’s most precious commodity, being deceived because it is an intangible thing, not open to inspection and therefore reckoned very cheap—in fact, almost without any value. People are delighted to accept pensions and gratuities, for which they hire out their labor or their support or their services. But nobody works out the value of time: men use it lavishly as if it cost nothing. But if death threatens these same people, you will see them praying to their doctors; if they are in fear of capital punishment, you will see them prepared to spend their all to stay alive. So inconsistent are they in their feelings. But if each of us could have the tally of his future years set before him, as we can of our past years, how alarmed would be those who saw only a few years ahead, and how carefully would they use them! And yet it is easy to organize an amount, however small, which is assured; we have to be more careful in preserving what will cease at an unknown point.

No one will bring back the years; no one will restore you to yourself. Life will follow the path it began to take and will neither reverse nor check its course. It will cause no commotion to remind you of its swiftness, but glide on quietly. It will not lengthen itself for a king’s command or a people’s favor. As it started out on its first day, so it will run on, nowhere pausing or turning aside. What will be the outcome? You have been preoccupied while life hastens on. Meanwhile death will arrive, and you have no choice in making yourself available for that.

Can anything be more idiotic than certain people who boast of their foresight? They keep themselves officiously preoccupied in order to improve their lives; they spend their lives in organizing their lives. They direct their purposes with an eye to a distant future. But putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately. Listen to the cry of our greatest poet, who as though inspired with divine utterance sings salutary verses: “Life’s finest day for wretched mortals here/Is always first to flee.” “Why do you linger?” he means. “Why are you idle? If you don’t grasp it first, it flees.” And even if you do grasp it, it will still flee. So you must match time’s swiftness with your speed in using it, and you must drink quickly as though from a rapid stream that will not always flow.

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  • Words fail me. I have just read the essay by Seneca and there's a person who looked at life from both sides), and Sappho. Universal is the word. Bring back the classics is the next word. Thank you Lapham's quarterly for publishing these authors.

    Posted by Kate Schnyder on Fri 18 Nov 2011

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The Future
About the Author

Seneca, from “On the Shortness of Life.” Born around the same time as Jesus Christ, Seneca led a tumultuous political life: Caligula desired to kill the senator, whom he called a “mere textbook orator,” and Claudius later exiled him to Corsica in 41. Recalled to Rome in 49 after the death of the latter, he was named quaestor by Agrippina the Younger, mother of Nero, and became the future emperor’s tutor. Seneca also wrote tragedies and a series of influential epistles and essays on stoicism.

The day the world ends, no one will be there, just as no one was there when it began. This is a scandal. Such a scandal for the human race that it is indeed capable collectively, out of spite, of hastening the end of the world by all means just so it can enjoy the show.
Jean Baudrillard, 1987
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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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