The Latin phrase Sub specie aeternitatis, which was coined by Baruch Spinoza, translates to “under the aspect of eternity.”
I encountered sub specie aeternitatis for the first time only just recently and have since fallen in love with it. While many, like Bernard Williams, have interpreted the mantra negatively, I find it empowering.
“Philosophers,” Williams wrote, “repeatedly urge us to view the world sub specie aeternitatis, but for most human purposes that is not a good species to view it under.”
Thomas Nagel offers his take on sub specie aeternitatis in The Absurd:
If sub specie aeternitatis there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that does not matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.
These, however, are severe misinterpretations.
To me, To live life “under the aspect of eternity” is to live life freely. It endows us with the ability to construct and pursue the subjective meaning and purpose of our own individual lives in our own individual way.
Nagel is wrong to suggest that living life sub specie aeternitatis means to believe that nothing matters — it only means that nothing matters objectively. It’s true that, as far as the universe is concerned, nothing matters. But so what? That might sound flippant. But when you think about it, it isn’t. I mean why should the fact that the universe or God or whatever doesn’t care about my goals have any impact on my pursuit of them? Objective meaning is not inherently better than subjective meaning.
I want to — intend to — become a great writer. It shouldn’t matter to me one way or the other whether that goal has any objective value, the whole point of living “under the aspect of eternity,” is to understand and accept the fact that nothing has any objective value. And that’s fine, subjective value (and inter-subjective value) is what matters most. If something is valuable to me then it’s valuable, period.
Living under the aspect of eternity is also important because it enables you to put your pains and struggles into perspective. If I’m having a hard time in the gym, for example, or struggling with a chapter in my book I can remove myself from the situation and look at it from afar. In doing so I can realize just how silly and minute my struggles are under the aspect of eternity.
Living sub specie aeternitatis is both motivating and liberating.