In the feast laid out at Alcibiades’ house Terpander posed for us the question, “Why is it that time flows backwards?” Discussion continued on this topic for a while till the much-travelled Timon broadened our understanding with his sketch of the Menandroi, a people who live in a region of India that is constantly being invaded by the future.
“The Menandroi see clearly the past and the future but have great difficulty perceiving or understanding the present. To them a deep mist coils itself around where they are and the present is a core of blackness that travels everywhere with them. They spend much time writing letters to people dwelling in the remote past or a long way off. No sooner is one such letter written than they are busy writing another. Now they live on high platforms raised above the ground to discourage people from visiting them, but equally these platforms serve as convenient resting places for the highly trained pigeons that transmit their messages. From time to time it happens that those who receive their letters make the mistake of visiting them, for the Menandroi cannot perceive anyone who is present, but always fix their attention on elsewhere. In this tribe women conceive with great difficulty and rapidly lose all interest in their offspring. Accordingly it falls to the elderly and grandparents to protect children. For some reason it is only towards old age that the notion of the present dawns within the Menandroi. Sadly, as it has been said, for them the words ‘now’ and ‘here’ fuse into the word ‘nowhere’.
“The Pravati, on the other hand, live entirely in the present, asserting that anything more than five minutes into the past or future has no reality. Likewise they claim that reality only extends as far as a man can throw a not too heavy stone. In their estimation beyond that distance things turn to water – or rather, so they claim, language ceases to be applicable as all elements merge into a soupy texture they call ‘that’.”
Socrates said, “It seems, then, if we dwell only in the past and future we lose reality, while if we dwell only in the present we lose understanding and soon become a shadow. Likewise with what is here and what is distant. Must we, then, spread ourselves like some thin paste so we grasp and clutch tightly at all times the distant, the present and the approaching? Must we be always pouring back and forth the luminosity of now, the diverse hints of then and the steady light of what will be tomorrow? But how can ‘here’ and ‘now’ be always different things, never the same for two people? If we had a house like that or a tree or a loaf of bread, what good would it do anyone?”
Proteon, a pupil of the illustrious Zeno, who was visiting at the time, said, “Both are illusions – that is all.”
But sitting in the corner all the while was Zamindar, the one sent as a deputy to Athens by the fire dwellers from beyond the Indus. Now he had resurrected sky books from the deep wells where they were hidden and knew how to read what stones say and in his childhood, transfigured by the beauty that lies beyond speech, he had understood the difficult prediction poems spoken by birds. He began then, as if the room was strangely empty, his voice reaching us with the softness of someone very close and very far:
“Where I was born, in the infinite dimensions that blended in my village, lived both those ignorant of the present, obsessed with tomorrow and yesterday, and those who could perceive nothing beyond themselves and the narrow corner of light that fell directly on them. After watching them for many days I realised they were identical. Since then I have travelled much. The high platforms rented by those obsessed by what was and what approaches will all be reclaimed every two years as another fashion obliterates them. The dwellers in only now die out, incapable of sustaining their voice. Yet the not-altogether absent or present, those who travel between places, are real. ‘Here’ and ‘now’, ‘past’ and ‘present’ are real – it is the gathering that makes them real. They are real because we are not one being but many beings.”
(from Xenophon, Conversations from the last years of Socrates)