If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.
Thursday 27 September 2012
Read gnomica 1-100 here!
If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?
Steve Jobs (24 Feb 1955 – 5 Oct 2011)
That’s not a bad question to ask yourself when you wake up in the morning? If I do have an agenda for the day, is it the best one I can have going for myself? I suppose it applies even if you are thinking about going to work: I mean, is this the work you want to be going to, or, if not, can you change the situation? Probably not, but you could always ask yourself what you might be able to change within the limited scope of what must be – or what you plan to get — done today.
If I take this quote with sufficient seriousness that I actually set myself to wondering, I’ll admit I come up short on an entirely satisfactory answer. In fact, do I have any kind of answers to that question?
Would the first thing I’d probably want to do instead of “what I am about to do today” be to try very, very hard to figure out some possible way to make today not “the last day of my life”. That’s probably cheating in terms of the tacit understanding I have with the question – after all, if the protasis — the conditional premise (“If today were the last day of my life”) — were invalid, then the apodosis – the main clause (“would I want to do what I am about to do today?”) — would be rather meaningless, beyond any kind of coherence. But surely it would be a likely contender for how to spend that last, desperate day. And one could hardly fault me for trying.
So, then, that adynaton out of the way, now what?
Perhaps, unthinkingly, one’s inner hedonist would opt for some unimaginative if delightful operations like the following: spend all the money I have, fly Singapore Airlines in a first class ‘suite’ to Dubai or fly Emirates Air in a first class ‘suite’ to Singapore , hire a private jet and fly to New York for lunch at Le Bernardin, test drive a Jaguar, and many similarly shallow but probably not uninteresting things. But where would I drive in the Jaguar, what would I do after jetting to lunch in New York, what’s to see in Singapore, in Dubai, buy what with all the money I have left?
Again, perhaps more thoughtfully, one’s inner rationalist would write a bunch of checks to send to one’s closest and dearest, and a few universities and institutions? call a few of those people and just chat, unalarmingly? Maybe spend a few hours reading Homer’s account (Iliad 6.390-502) of Hektor’s final meeting with Andromakhe his wife and Astynax his son? think about one’s family – the ones who came before, the ones you share(d) your life with, the ones who will survive you? go for a final walk in the brilliant Iowa sun late that fall day? do a stranger a kindness? make love for the last time?
The more I think about this – not in a morbid sense, but just as a kind of attractive exercise – the more I believe I come back to the idea that I probably wouldn’t do all that much all that differently from pretty much what I do every day of my life right now. That wouldn’t be the worst possible way to handle that “last day of my life” that, reasonably and thankfully, I wouldn’t even be aware was under way.
I close with a few lines from a very fine Greek poet, Bacchylides [6th-5th century BCE], that are perhaps the best answer – indirectly addressing the matter though they do — I can come up with to Steve Jobs’ question:
Θνατὸν εὖντα χρὴ διδύμους ἀέξειν
γνώμας, ὅτι τ’ αὔριον ὄ-
ψεαι μοῦνον ἁλίου φάος,
χὤτι πεντήκοντ’ ἔτεα ζω-
ὰν βαθύπλουτον τελεῖς.
Ὅσια δρῶν εὔφραινε θυμόν· τοῦτο γὰρ
Since you are mortal you have to nurture twin
notions: both that tomorrow’s light
of the sun will be the last you’ll see,
and that you will live out
fifty years of life in great wealth.
Act with piety and gladden your heart – for this
is the highest of gains.