The Value of Life

Sunday, 21 June 2015

There is a particular Darwin quote much touted on social media, particularly Twitter which, if one were to be cynical, tells you more about its convenient length rather than promulgation of the content. Hopefully it’s popularity is a function of both, but it is noticeably one of the very few Darwin quotes that does get bandied about. When Darwin was explicating on matters at hand in his writings, he would tend to do so at length and certainly not with 140 characters in mind. His lack of laconicism was partly due to the grammatical style of the day, and partly because of his care to make his explanations palatable to all, to tease out meaning in bite-sized, digestible portions, and amass a feast of comprehension until a key conclusion was assimilated. In contrast there is this concise and pithy quote, its gravity straining the boundaries of any compact and bijou tweet within which it is conveyed. Yes, it is well out of character, not for its bearing on serious subjects, but in how succinct the statement. All right, all right, enough procrastinatory preamble, the quote in question is this,

a man who dares to waste one hour of time,
has not discovered the value of life

Pretty pithy, eh? See what you think after finding it in context. Charles was writng to sister Susan during the Beagle voyage in 1836 from Bahia, 

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Bahia, Brazil

August 4th.

My dear Susan

I will just write a few lines to explain the cause of this letter being dated on the coast of S. America.— Some singular disagreements in the Longitudes, made Capt. F. R. anxious to complete the circle in the Southern hemisphere, & then retrace our steps by our first line to England.— This zig-zag manner of proceeding is very grievous; it has put the finishing stroke to my feelings. I loathe, I abhor the sea, & all ships which sail on it. But I yet believe we shall reach England in the latter half of October.— At Ascension I received Catherines letter of October & yours of November; the letter at the Cape was of a later date; but letters of all sorts are inestimable treasures, & I thank you both for them.—

The desert Volcanic rocks & wild sea of Ascension, as soon as I knew there was news from home, suddenly wore a pleasing aspect; & I set to work, with a good will at my old work of Geology. You would be surprised to know, how entirely, the pleasure in arriving at a new place depends on letters.— We only staid four days at Ascension & then made a very good passage to Bahia.— I little thought ever to have put my foot on a S. American coast again.— It has been almost painful to find how much, good enthusiasm has been evaporated during the last four years. I can now walk soberly through a Brazilian forest; not but what it is exquisitely beautiful, but now, instead of seeking for splendid contrasts; I compare the stately Mango trees with the Horse Chesnuts of England. Although this zigzag has lost us at least a fortnight, in some respect I am glad of it.— I think I shall be able to carry away one vivid picture of intertropical scenery. We go from hence to the C. de Verds, that is if the winds or the Equatorial calms will allow us.— I have some faint hopes, that a steady foul wind might induce the Captain to proceed direct to the Azores.— For which most untoward event I heartily pray.—

Both your letters were full of good news:— Especially the expressions, which you tell me Prof: Sedgwick used about my collections.— I confess they are deeply gratifying.— I trust one part at least will turn out true, & that I shall act, as I now think.—that a man who dares to waste one hour of time, has not discovered the value of life.— Prof. Sedgwick men<tionin>g my name at all gives me hopes that he will assist me with his advice; of which in many geological questions, I stand much in need.— It is useless to tell you, from the shameful state of this scribble that I am writing against time; having been out all morning—& now there are some strangers on board to whom I must go down & talk civility.— Moreover, as this letter goes by a foreign ship, it is doubtful whether it ever will arrive.— Farewell, my very dear Susan & all of you.. Goodbye | C. Darwin—

* Darwin Correspondence Database, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-306 accessed on Sun Jun 27 2015

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Sedgewick's praise had been conveyed to him in Susan's letter 22nd November 1835,

Dr. Butler sent Papa an extract from a Letter of Professor Sedgwick's to him which was as follows about you. ``He is doing admirably in S. America, & has already sent home a Collection above all praise.— It was the best thing in the world for him that he went out on the Voyage of Discovery— There was some risk of his turning out an idle man: but his character will now be fixed, & if God spare his life, he will have a great name among the Naturalists of Europe.''

___________________________________________________________________________

It seems then that Darwin's comment on idleness is in self-rebuke, rather than a comment about others. He knows that his father is none too pleased with him, has chastised him repeatedly, calling him a wastrel and a blight on the family name (there's more about his estranged relationship with Robert Darwin in this other post A Shropshire Lad ). Darwin has shown signs of rebellion in the past, but caught at a low ebb with waning morale, he is likely feeling some regret how things turned out, even some self-loathing, as one does when down. This popular quote making the rounds is more of self-admonishment than aphorism, and more in the vein of Henry of Monmouth (future King Henry V) than Henry David Thoreau,

Henry IV. God pardon thee! yet let me wonder, Harry, 
At thy affections, which do hold a wing 
Quite from the flight of all thy ancestors. 
Thy place in council thou hast rudely lost.
Which by thy younger brother is supplied, 
And art almost an alien to the hearts 
Of all the court and princes of my blood: 
The hope and expectation of thy time 
Is ruin'd, and the soul of every man
Prophetically doth forethink thy fall. 
Had I so lavish of my presence been, 
So common-hackney'd in the eyes of men, 
So stale and cheap to vulgar company, …

Henry V. I shall hereafter, my thrice gracious lord,
Be more myself.

Here Harry, as the future king was informally known, swears to his father to sober up, distance himself from his drinking partners, including the infamous Falstaff, and act like a Prince, in preparation for one day ascending to the thrown. 

In the same vein, Charles Darwin has seen the error of his ways and sets about becoming the success expected of him, and indeed he did. Even by the time he returned to Britain just 3 months later, he had made his name. Pretty happy to be home he was too,

The "Beagle" arrived at Falmouth on Sunday evening,
and I reached home late last night.
My head is quite confused with so much delight…

Quoting him thus makes him now seem a poet,
but the rest of the line is no rhyme,
and so shown to be a sin,
ne'er paraphrase Darwin.

Julian
Edinburgh
 

 

 

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