Alms for Oblivion – A Post for the New Year

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Macbeth Act 5, scene 5, 19–28

Another year has passed us by; the seconds tick away inexorably and our tomorrows become today and yesterday. We too are subject to this petty pace from day to day.

As moderns, we have our lives planned by the minute. Most of us can hardly imagine living in a society that is not planned by the minute.

Try to imagine that for a moment. It probably seems very strange. Perhaps we live sunrise to sundown, without any precise means of telling time. Perhaps we tell what time it is by looking at the position of the sun and making a guess. When we make our appointments, we go by generalities; “come by sundown” or “come before dawn.”

The ancients had various creative means of telling time, from sun dials to pots of water dripping in relatively precise gradations. The most precise gradation of time the ancients appear to have is the hour. There is the Latin word, “hora” or the Greek word “ὥρα” which is essentially the same as the Latin word. The Greeks had something akin to a clock which they called the “oronomos,” of the “hour divider.”

The custom of dividing the day into 24 hours, and 60 minutes per hour goes back to the ancient Sumerians. We know that ancient peoples had ways of reckoning by the hour, such as we find in the New Testament, particularly in the Gospels.[1] However, ancient expression of time was often very approximate. Luke says, “at about the sixth hour.” This is very different from our modern age of precision: “the high-speed chase began at 2:42 pm on Saturday afternoon,” for example.

The military narrative of Thucydides finds its reckoning of time in the seasons. “In the summertime…” or “when winter arrived….” He is not often more precise than that in his reckoning of time, nor does he have to be, when the military can only campaign in the summer and not the winter. We are perhaps robbed of a little precision in our modern age, but for his more immediate audience, Thucydides was perfectly precise.

People in past ages probably didn’t spend half their day surrounded by clocks, ticking away the minutes until they had to rush off to the next event. Even so, they were just as often reminded of the passage of time.

As found in Ecclesiastes 6:12, “For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow? For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun?”[2] The wise old man of Ecclesiastes, bemoaning the vanity of our life here on earth points out its fleeting nature. He underpins the entire book of Ecclesiastes with this assumption.

In his Epistles, the Roman poet Horace says, “The years as they pass plunder us of one thing after another.”  While we may not notice the individual minutes passing us by, we can see the “ravages of time.” We age and eventually die; we are reminded of this even in the passing of the seasons. Evidence of time is all around us, which the poets have often pointed out. Anyplace where I can observe the quiet passage of autumn into winter, I always reflect on what this poetry of nature represents. The passage of time plunders spring and summer of its youth, and autumn of its rich color, and passes into frosty white winter. That is a summary of all life, within a single year.

There is also, of course, the famous “carpe diem” poem, wherein Horace exhorts his audience to seize their opportunities, because as someone many years later said, “Old Time is still a-flying, and this flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying.”[3]

Of course, no one spoke more eloquently on the subject than Shakespeare, particularly in his first few sonnets. One of the predominant themes of the sonnets is encouraging humankind to reproduce, because the only way for mere mortals to defeat the ravages of time is to produce offspring to carry our image.

The lovely Sonnet VI:

Then let not winter’s ragged hand deface,
In thee thy summer, ere thou be distilled:
Make sweet some vial; treasure thou some place
With beauty’s treasure ere it be self-killed.
That use is not forbidden usury,
Which happies those that pay the willing loan;
That’s for thy self to breed another thee,
Or ten times happier, be it ten for one;
Ten times thy self were happier than thou art,
If ten of thine ten times refigured thee:
Then what could death do if thou shouldst depart,
Leaving thee living in posterity?
Be not self-willed, for thou art much too fair
To be death’s conquest and make worms thine heir.

Shakespeare feels all too acutely the passage of time, and suggests his remedy. When Time plunders us of our youthful beauty, it is a tragedy, but can be defeated easily enough.

The coming of a new year gives us much to ponder: what we wish to accomplish, how we wish to improve, how we wish to see others improve…but most importantly, we should dwell on time itself. We haven’t long on this earth, as our poets have often pointed out. We should use our time here wisely, and not squander this precious gift.

Perhaps this is a rather grim note to end upon, but I can’t resist a little Lady Macbeth:

Things without all remedy
Should be without regard: what’s done, is done.

Macbeth Act 3, scene 2, 8–12

Time passes and there is nothing we can do about it but enjoy our short time here on Earth as best we can.

Happy New Year!

[1] e.g. Luke 23: 4

[2] ESV translation

[3] Robert Herrick (1591-1674), “To the Virgins Make the Most of Time.”