We Should Seize The Present Hour For Action

At the beginning of this month I bought the special director’s cut of the Michael Mann film Collateral.  I don’t usually buy movies, having learned from past experience that it makes more sense to rent them.  But every rule should have exceptions; and it is a good thing to collect those movies that transport you to a specific place or mood.  And when you recall the mood, you revisit certain pleasurable sensations.  There is just something about the way Collateral is shot, the way it glimmers, that gives it a cool but intense patina.

There is a great scene in the film where the philosophizing hit man (Tom Cruise) hectors his captive cab driver, Jamie Foxx, about the necessity of not wasting time in life.  Life is short, says Cruise; and one day, it is gone completely.  Timid procrastination is not just bad policy, he tells him, it is an offense against life itself.  Listen to the dialogue that begins around the 3:00 mark:

Cruise is correct, of course; and we’ve heard this before.  But having heard this, how many of us actually have the conviction to put this knowledge to use?  How many of us seek refuge in our own comfortable excuses, delaying the hour of action until we have talked ourselves out of any action?  Some things in life require planning; but some require blind faith.  So much of the “life advice” tossed around by so-called experts really amounts to post-event rationalizations.  What I mean by this is that for many successful people, the grand leap of faith was taken first–sometimes blindly–without reference to any “business plan.”  Only later was the laundry-list of preparation points written out.  Many men like to believe that their success was due to their clear-headed powers of analysis, when more often it may be attributed to passion and circumstance.

I was reminded of this same point in another context yesterday, when reading through some letters of Petrarch.  One dated March 21, 1361 caught my eye; in it, the great humanist urges the Holy Roman emperor Charles IV to visit Italy.  With this as his starting point, Petrarch then manages to work into his letter many profound admonitions against delay and procrastination; these have lost none of their relevance and power since they were written.  He says:

Don’t you hear the words of Virgil?

Every ‘best day’ of life for miserable mortals is the first to fly away…

Don’t you hear the words of Lucan?

The hour may come when all the leaders are confounded; so prepare to die.

And in the same vein:

Oracles do not give me definite truth, but death is certain;

The brave man and the timid both must be slain.

Is it not enough that Jupiter has said so?

Unless plans truly produce something in the way of action, thinking is toothless and worries are pointless.  “Tomorrow I will begin; the next day, I will move!”  I would ask, “Why not today?”  Is the coming light more serene, and the present day more cloudy?  The first day is the best, as you heard the greatest of poets say.  The first day is here now, because we have nothing in the past except our memory, and there is no pondering about what is impossible.

In the future there is nothing except oracles and the snares of false hopes.  And even if this day and the next one are the same, who can doubt that this one is more present and more certain?  It is in doubt whether the next day will come, or whether it will discover us; but we know that the present day, when it leaves, will not come back.  Why are we always chasing after what is far away?  Let us concentrate on the present, and work hard lest it flow away from us unused.  This is expedient for everyone, but so very important to you, Caesar, that without it you will not be able to handle the affairs of your empire even using great industry or virtue…

Why should you shy away, for what reason should you waste the present while obsessing about tomorrow?  There is no place for tomorrow in the needs of the present [Nullus in hodierna necessitate crastino locus est].

Do what you have to do today:  if something else comes up tomorrow, you or some other person will take care of it.  There will be no scarcity of leaders for the times; and even if they are found wanting, you will never be held responsible for the ineptitude of another man.  Make sure you are not found wanting in your own time.  Tomorrow–which holds us in suspense and stresses us, and which we wait for as if it were imminently coming–has already gone by.  No day except the first day will not be the tomorrow of another day.  [Nullus enim, praeter primum, dies non diei alterius cras fuerit].

That last sentence is almost worth hanging on our bedroom wall.  We can never hear words like this often enough.  In the modern era, our lives have too often become comfortable arrangements of routine; and over time, we are lulled into a stupefying sense of regularity that can paralyze ambition and stifle creative designs for forward movement.  We must never permit the seductive spider-webs of complacency to entangle too completely our human drive to overcome obstacles, break through barriers, and surmount challenges.

It is true that there is something worse than death:  it is that grey, somnolent twilight zone in which life is physically lived, but has capitulated all vital force, all desire for healthy risk, and all masculine daring.


Read more about goals and objectives in my landmark translation of “On Duties”: