SUB SPECIE AETERNITATIS
From all this it now follows that the content of ethical problems can never be discussed in a Christian light; the possibility of erecting generally valid principles simply does not exist, because each moment, lived in God’s sight, can bring an unexpected decision. Thus only one thing can be repeated again and again, also in our time: in ethical decisions a man must consider his action sub specie aeternitatis and then, no matter how it proceeds, it will proceed rightly.”
England’s Elizabeth II is the longest-reigning monarch in British history. By all accounts she has held her role with deep regard for its responsibility to history and the British people. She is famously private and guarded of her personal beliefs and emotions.
In 2004, artist Chris Levine, while commissioned to take her official portrait, caught the image shown here in between takes as she rested her eyes. The meditative state of repose is engaging because it makes her somehow more accessible, more human. We can almost sense her thoughts. If you know a little about her, you might know of her beloved Corgis. The dogs have been associated with the Royal Family for years. Queen Elizabeth says she enjoys her Corgis because they don’t know she is Queen.
“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” wrote Shakespeare in King Henry the Fourth, and we get it. It’s the feeling of modern adulthood. We are jugglers, plate spinners and multi-taskers in the kingdom of our own making. No matter how hard we try to surround ourselves with props and material possessions to make us feel successful and accomplished, we all know that, as Montaigne said, “on the loftiest throne in the world we are still only sitting on our own rump.”
The Germans have a word for this condition: Zerrissenheit (loosely, “falling-to-pieces-ness”). This is the loss of internal coherence that can come from living a multitasking, pulled-in-a-hundred-directions existence. This is what Kierkegaard called “the dizziness of freedom.” When external constraints are loosened, when a person can do what he wants, when there are a thousand choices and distractions, then life can lose coherence and direction if there isn’t a strong internal structure.
It’s what happens when we make ourselves our own God.
The folly of this lifestyle can only be remedied by seeing the world through God’s eyes – sub specie aeternitatis – under the aspect of eternity.
In plain talk, what that means is that only God’s perspective matters. Regardless of what other people think of us (good or bad) or what society says is right or wrong, the only measure of our life is how obedient we are to God.
All of the importance and significance we seek in pleasures and material possessions is completely misplaced. We are the pinnacle of God’s creation and our self worth is realized through the reconciliation of grace back into His fellowship.
Only when our heads are bowed before Him do we feel the touch of His hand on our chin, lifting us up to see His face – the face of our father, the King.
1 Corinthians 1:26–31
For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption—that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.
Art: Lightness of Being, by Chris Levine, 2004
Literature and Liturgy: Sub specie aeternitatis
Latin for “under the aspect of eternity”, is, from Baruch Spinoza onwards, an honorific expression describing what is universally and eternally true, without any reference to or dependence upon the temporal portions of reality.
In clearer English, sub specie aeternitatis roughly means “from the perspective of the eternal”. Even more loosely, the phrase is used to describe an alternative or objective point of view.
Spinoza’s “eternal” perspective is reflected in his Ethics (Part V, Prop. XXIII, Scholium), where he treats ethics through a geometric investigation that begins with God and nature and then analyzes human emotions and the human intellect. By proceeding sub specie aeternitatis, Spinoza seeks to arrive at an ethical theory that is as precise as Euclid’s Elements. In the history of philosophy, this way of proceeding may be most clearly contrasted with Aristotle’s manner of proceeding. Aristotle’s methodological differences in his “philosophy of human affairs” and his natural philosophy are grounded in the distinction between what is “better known to us” and things “better known in themselves,” or what is “first for us” and what is “first by nature” (discussed, among other places, at Metaphysics Z.3, 1029b3–12), a distinction that is deliberately discarded by Spinoza and other modern philosophers.