No one disputes the cautionary admonition “tempus fugit” – “time flies”. It is frequently conjoined with “carpe diem” – “seize the day”. The message in both cases seems painfully clear – Enjoy it while you can! However, the original Latin phrase is borrowed from the 4-book poems Georgica written by the Roman poet Virgil around 29 BC: “sed fugit interea fugit irreparabile tempus” – “but it flees meanwhile: irretrievable time flees”. This expresses concern that one’s limited time is being consumed by something which may have little intrinsic substance or importance. In the context of Virgil’s agricultural poems dealing with ploughs, the hostile world of nature, husbandry and the life and habits of bees, the focus of chief importance was the contribution of labor to the success or failure of mankind’s endeavours. Agriculture was a model for human society. Bees in particular were thought to resemble man in that they labor, are devoted to authority and dedicate their lives to the good of the community.
To the modern reader such preoccupation – though not entirely superfluous – is far less compelling. Quite apart from the assumed and quite unfashionable subservience of mankind we cannot possibly dedicate every moment of our lives to fruitful endeavours (even if one were to presume to identify them). In any event no matter what we do, it is invariably true that the resource will amortize. The adage is therefore not so much a warning against sloth and procrastination as a mere comment, one which nonetheless bears repeating as it captures the non-stop motion of the world and may at least instil hedonism if not altruism (“time flies when you’re having fun”). If one were to press the aphorism for meaning it might be extended to remind us that time is eventually lost, that nothing can reverse it and there is no turning back. As trite as the observation”Time Flies” initially appears, its appeal to our psyche lies in the fact that it freezes what cannot be frozen. It is paradoxical that the saying stops what never ceases, as though it were a gem picked from the nebulous sky. As undeniable as it is, none of us is aware of the passage of time except in retrospect and even then our intelligence is less about what it is than what it isn’t. As a fact it is as edifying as watching the hands of a clock move.