Sunday, March 24, 2013


Backing into the Future

Lucretius 3.972-975 (tr. Martin Ferguson Smith):
Look back also and see how the ages of everlasting time past before we were born have been to us nothing. Time therefore is a mirror which nature holds up to us, showing the time to come after we at length shall die.

respice item quam nil ad nos anteacta vetustas
temporis aeterni fuerit, quam nascimur ante.
hoc igitur speculum nobis natura futuri
temporis exponit post mortem denique nostram.
James Warren, Facing Death: Epicurus and his Critics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004), p. 65 (discussing whether this passage from Lucretius is a particular version of the "symmetry argument," viz. "looking back from within a lifetime, our pre-natal non-existence is nothing to us; pre-natal non-existence is relevantly like post mortem non-existence; looking forward from within a lifetime, our post mortem non-existence is nothing to us"):
The image is of a viewer who looks back in time at a mirror in front of him.8

8 The image of someone looking backwards in time conforms to the ancient image of us 'backing into the future'. We can 'see' (i.e. remember) the past but the future is not visible. Compare the use of the Greek ὀπίσω to mean 'hereafter' (LSJ s.v. II).
Liddell-Scott-Jones, s.v. ὀπίσω (whose primary meaning is backwards, back). sense II:
of Time, hereafter, since the future is unseen and was therefore regarded as behind us, whereas the past is known and therefore before our eyes.
Cf. also Lewis and Short, s.v. post, which means "behind, back, backwards" in reference to place, "afterwards, after" in reference to time.

Warren concludes (pp. 65-67) that Lucretius is in fact offering a different version of the symmetry argument, viz. "our pre-natal non-existence was nothing to us before we were born; pre-natal non-existence is relevantly like post mortem non-existence; our post mortem non-existence will be nothing to us after our death."

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