From The Pleasures of Life, by Sir John Lubbock, Bart., M. P., F. R. S., D. C. L., LL. D.; New York : John B. Alden, Publisher, 1887; pp. 59-61.
THE VALUE OF TIME.1
“Each day is a little life.”
ALL other good gifts depend on time for their value. What are friends, books, or health, the interest of travel or the delights of home, if we have not time for their enjoyment? Time is often said to be money, but it is more — it is life; and yet many who would cling desperately to life, think nothing of wasting time.
Ask of the wise, says Schiller in Lord Sherbrooke’s translation,
“The moments we forego
Eternity itself cannot retrieve.”
And in the words of Dante,
“For who knows most, him loss of time most grieves.”
Not that a life of drudgery should be our ideal. Far from it. Time spent in innocent and rational enjoyments, in social and family intercourse, in healthy games, is well and wisely spent. Games not only keep the body in health, but give a command over the muscles and limbs which cannot be over-valued. Moreover, there are temptations which strong exercise best enables us to resist.
It is generally the idle who complain they cannot find time to do that which they fancy they wish. In truth, people can generally 60 find time for what they choose to do; it is not really the time but the will that is wanting : and the advantage of leisure is mainly that we may have the power of choosing our own work; not certainly that it confers any privilege of idleness.
For it is not so much the hours that tell as the way we use them.
“Circles are praised, not that excel
In largeness, but th’ exactly framed ;
So life we praise, that does excel
Not much in time, but acting well.”2
“Idleness,” says Jeremy Taylor, “is the greatest prodigality in the world; it throws away that which is invaluable in respect of its present use, and irreparable when it is past, being to be recovered by no power of art or nature.
“A counted number of pulses only,” says Pater, “is given to us of a variegated aromatic life. How may we see in them all that is to be seen in them by the finest senses? How can we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?
“To burn always with this hard gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. Failure is to form habits; for habit is relation to a stereotyped world . . . while all melts under our feet, we may well catch at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems, by a lifted horizon, to set the spirit free for a moment.”
I would not quote Lord Chesterfield as generally a safe guide, but there is certainly much shrewd wisdom in his advice to his son with reference to time. “Every moment you now lose, is so much character and advantage lost : as, 61 on the other hand, every moment you now employ usefully, is so much time wisely laid out, at prodigious interest.”
And again, “It is astonishing that any one can squander away in absolute idleness one single moment of that small portion of time which is allotted to us in the world. . . . Know the true value of time; snatch, seize, and enjoy every moment of it.”
“Are you in earnest ? seize this very minute
What you can do, or think you can begin it.”3
I remember, says Hillard, “a satirical poem, in which the devil is represented as fishing for men, and adapting his bait to the tastes and temperaments of his prey; but the idlers were the easiest victims, for they swallowed even the naked hook.” The mind of the idler indeed preys upon itself.
“The human heart is like a millstone in a mill; when you put wheat under it, it turns and grinds and bruises the wheat to flour; if you put no wheat, it still grinds on — and grinds itself away.”4
It is not work, but care, that kills, and it is in this sense, I suppose, that we are told to “take no thought for the morrow.” To “consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin : and yet even Solomon, in all his glory, was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to-day is, and to-morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?” It would indeed be a mistake to suppose that the lilies are idle or imprudent. On the contrary, like all plants, they are most industrious, and store up in their complex bulbs a great part of the nourishment of one year to 62 quicken the growth of the next. Care, on the other hand, they certainly know not.5
Wasted time is worse than no time at all; “I wasted time,” says Richard II., “and now doth time waste me.”
“Hours have wings, fly up to the author of time, and carry news of our usage. All our prayers cannot entreat one of them either to return or slacken his pace.” “The misspents of every minute are a new record against us in heaven. Sure if we thought thus, we should dismiss them with better reports, and not suffer them to fly away empty, or laden with dangerous intelligence. How happy is it when they carry up not only the message, but the fruits of good, and stay with the Ancient of Days to speak for us before His glorious throne.”6
“He that is choice of his time,” says Jeremy Taylor, “will also be choice of his company, and choice of his actions; lest the first engage him in vanity and loss, and the latter, by being criminal, be a throwing his time and himself away, and a going back in the accounts of eternity.”7
If we deduct the time required for sleep, for meals, for dressing and undressing, for exercise, etc., how little of our life is really at our own disposal !
“I have lived,” said Lamb, “nominally fifty years, but deduct from them the hours I have lived for other people, and not for myself, and you will find me still a young fellow.”
It is not, however, the hours we live for other people which should be deducted, but those which benefit neither oneself nor any one else; and these, alas ! are often very numerous.63
It is wonderful, indeed, how much innocent happiness we thoughtlessly throw away. An Eastern proverb says that calamities sent by heaven may be avoided, but from those we bring on ourselves there is no escape.
Some years ago I paid a visit to the principal lake villages of Switzerland in company with a distinguished archæologist, M. Morlot. To my surprise I found that his whole income was £100 a year, part of which, moreover, he spent in making a small museum. I asked him whether he contemplated accepting any post or office, but he said certainly not. He valued his leisure and opportunities as priceless possessions far more than silver or gold, and would not waste any of his time in making money.
Just think of our advantages here in London ! We have access to the whole literature of the world; we may see in our National Gallery the most beautiful productions of former generations, and in the Royal Academy and other galleries works of the greatest living artists. Perhaps there is no one who has ever found time to see the British Museum thoroughly. Yet consider what it contains; or rather, what does it not contain? The most gigantic of living and extinct animals, the most marvellous monsters of geological ages, the most beautiful birds and shells and minerals, the most interesting antiquities, curious and fantastic specimens illustrating different races of men; exquisite gems, coins, glass, and china; the Elgin marbles, the remains of the Mausoleum : of the temple of Diana of Ephesus; ancient monuments of Egypt and Assyria; the rude implements of our predecessors in England, who were coeval with the hippopotamus and rhinoceros, the muskox, and the mammoth; and beautiful specimens of Greek and Roman art. In London we may 64 unavoidably suffer, but no one has any excuse for being dull.
And yet some people are dull. They talk of a better world to come, while whatever dulness there may be here is all their own. Sir Arthur Helps has well said : “What ! dull, when you do not know what gives its loveliness of form to the lily, its depth of color to the violet, its fragrance to the rose : when you do not know in what consists the venom of the adder, any more than you can imitate the glad movements of the dove. What ! dull, when earth, air, and water are all alike mysteries to you, and when as you stretch out your hand you do not touch anything the properties of which you have mastered; while all the time Nature is inviting you to talk earnestly with her, to understand her, to subdue her, and to be blessed by her ! Go away, man; learn something, do something, understand something, and let me hear no more of your dulness.”
Time, indeed, is a sacred gift, and each day is a little life.
1 The substance of this was delivered at the Polytechnic Institution.
5 the word used μεριμνήσητε is translated in Liddell and Scott “to be anxious about, to be distressed in mind, to be cumbered with many cares.”
7 Jeremy Taylor.