Friday, September 26, 2008

The time of our lives

Some more thoughts provoked by some reactions to the Chronophage and its apparent claim that life is far too fleeting... (Incidentally, it has stopped working twice since its installation last week so we get temporary reprieves now and then.)

When I wondered whether it is in fact true that our lives are too short I was indeed thinking in perhaps overly simple global terms. There are of course various ways in which it is possible to think that parts of a life are too short (and parts of a life are perhaps too long) but all this points, I think, to a more general concern not so much with the overall length of a life as with its shape. Were we offered a longer life I think we would be very disappointed if it should turn out to grant us a life something like that of the mythical Tithonus. Dawn (sounds more classy left in the Greek, I think: Eos) got her lover immortality but not agelessness. So he hit his old age and just kept on getting more decrepit, without ever being able to die.

Clearly, a long life like that -- perhaps more so an everlasting life like that -- would be pretty crappy. What people want, I think, when they want a longer life, is just to be able to do more, to pack in more in the limited time they have. Or else they want the good bits to last longer and to edit out the worse bits. But, this is not really a question about how long a life is but a different question about how a life is to be valued and the contribution that the different values of different parts of a life make to the value of a life overall. To the extent that someone thinks that a life is better if it contains more goods then that might recommend a longer life (How long would be enough? How many goods are enough?) To the extent that someone thinks it important to do x number of things by a certain time, I suppose it might also seem a good idea to have more time (perhaps: it would seem better to have started earlier). But in both these cases the driving consideration is not really the amount of time but rather a thought about what would give value to the time we do have. In other words: one way of addressing the problem of thinking life is too short to do what you want is to want to do less.

Another thought pointed out by a Chronophage-watcher: the inscription at the bottom of the clock is this: 'mundus transit et concupiscentia eius', but it omits what comes next in I John 2:17 'qui autem facit voluntatem Dei manet in aeternum'. Add in that bit and it's not so distressing, admittedly granted some rather heavyweight additional premises...

(Thanks to RJR for scriptural assistance...)

1 comment:

Philoponus said...

I think of Tithonian immortality as a punishment more terrible than those inflicted on Ixion and Tantalus. But this isn't mythology. The problem with contemporary geriatrics is that it seems to be making progress mostly towards a Tithonian immortality. Epictetus kept assuring us that the door is open if life gets too bad, but for not a few old and sick people the door was been slammed shut by a medical establishment determined to extend life to the max. It is of course highly profitable to do so (because of the insurance system), and, we are assured, the patient does not know what is best for him.