Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Short-Term Hopes

Horace's sweet ode to Leuconoe (Odes 1.11) contains the poet's best-known phrase, carpe diem or "seize the day." The poem begins, in David Ferry's translation from the Latin, "Don't be too eager to ask / What the gods have in mind for us, / What will become of you, / What will become of me ...." 

The warning echoes the Greek poets' cautious disregard for the future--the whole notion of "future" was one that the ancients seemed dead set on ignoring. Nothing can be known for certain until it is finished, they believed, with deliberate and agnostic lack of foresight. "Call no man lucky till he's dead," in the last lines of Sophocles' Oedipus

Horace's lines also anticipate Jesus's teaching, "Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof" (Matt. 6.34, King James Version). Jesus's admonition is based on the conviction that "heaven and earth" were about to "pass away" ... and very soon: "this generation shall not pass, till all these things be done" (Mark 13.29-33). 

Horace admits this scenario as a possibility (happily not a certainty, though):
Or else Jupiter says
This winter that's coming soon,
Eating away the cliffs
Along the Tyrrhenian Sea,
Is going to be the final
Winter of all. (lines 12-17; lines 4-6 in the succinct Latin)
Horace's and the Greeks' main concern was not "the evil thereof," but the real possibility of wasting one's life in dreamy contemplation (and hopeful preparation for) a future that could not be reliably predicted or, even if predicted as in Oedipus's case, could not be understood.

"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans," sang John Lennon by way of Mary Worth cartoonist Allen Saunders. For Horace, looking to the future is both hubristic and a waste of present resources, all of which have extremely short shelf-lives: "It is better not to know"--Ut melius quicquid erit pati (line 3)--literally, "Better to endure whatever will be."

If the boundaries of the Tyrrhenian Sea aren't certain, what can be? "Be mindful. / Take good care of your household. / The time we have is short." Or Sapias, vina liques, et spatio brevi / spem longam reseces"--literally,  "Be wise, strain the wine, and keep your hopes short term." Or as the wise Turk informs Candide at the end of Voltaire's comic masterpiece: "I have but twenty acres. ... I cultivate them with my children. Work keeps us from three great evils: boredom, vice, and need" (Roger Pearson translation). From which, Candide concludes, with ancient wisdom, in reply to Pangloss's philosophically grandiose and overly optimistic take on how cause-and-effect works, "That is well put ... but we must cultivate our garden."

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