I cannot recall where I first encountered this quote by Seneca. It comes from his writings in Natural Questions, Book 7 from around the first century. It’s possible that I came across it when reading Our Oriental Heritage or The Life of Greece by Will Durant. Where I encountered it, it stuck with me, and I come back to it in awe every now and then, awed by its keen perception, and by how similar it is to how I think today. It is, in its way, almost a mantra for futurists and science fiction writers, but it is also so much more. It is an acceptance of reality.
The time will come when diligent research over long periods will bring to light things which now lie hidden. A single lifetime, even though entirely devoted to the sky, would not be enough for the investigation of so vast a subject… And so this knowledge will be unfolded through long successive ages. There will come a time when our descendants will be amazed that we did not know things that are so plain to them… Many discoveries are reserved for ages still to come, when memory of us will have been effaced. Our universe is a sorry little affair unless it has something for every age to investigate… Nature does not reveal her mysteries once and for all.
I try to picture Seneca writing these words. It is perhaps one of the purest examples of that adage of wisdom that says she is wise who knows there are things we don’t know. There are many things that have been brought to light that were hidden in Seneca’s days. Knowledge has indeed unfolded over long successive ages. We are sometimes amazed at the things our ancestors did not seem to know. And there are things today that we strive to learn the answers to, which will not be answered in our lifetime.
In science fiction stories where time travelers go back in time and pluck some famous person from history into their time, it is usually someone like Ben Franklin, the assumption being that Franklin would be understand much of what he sees–or at least be capable of understanding. I think Seneca would be a much better choice. He understood in the abstract that there are things future generations would know that would remain forever unknown to his world.
Maybe this is part of the reason science fiction literature has always appealed to me. The stories allow us to pretend to know what might come, to play the game of speculation, and wonder at what future generations will know that we will never know. The final scene of Isaac Asimov’s Forward the Foundation embodies this, although I suspect it is overlooked. Hari Seldon is an old man, about to die. He has spent his whole life pursuing the mathematics of the future in order to get a glimpse of what it might be like. Even in that final moment, when he is surrounded by the equations of psychohistory, what he really knows is that the tools are there to learn more, but that he, Hari, will not benefit from that future knowledge.