Fate and Human Transience

Today‚Äôs post will focus on Paul Manship’s elegant sundial “Time & Fates of Man,” which graced the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

Manship’s “Time & Fates of Man” (photograph courtesy of William Keys Smith)

Time and again, the Ancient Greeks appear at vital inflection points in the progression (or regression) of Western ideology (Italian Renaissance artwork and Western European Enlightenment texts immediately spring to mind). Their interwoven structures of logic, political theory, and nature-based polytheism strike chords with the human spirit and are still held by many as universal truths.

Manship uses modern craftsmanship to tell a poignant tale. Unmistakable are the olive branches that cover three women at work – these signal to onlooking crowds to put themselves back into the time of the Greeks. The hunchback spins a rope signifying the length of one’s life that is to be measured and cut by the other two. These women, The Fates, were a key part of the Ancient Greek belief system. It is from this system and this myth of The Fates that we derive the modern warning “do not test fate.”

Ancient Athens – the birthplace of ‘Western’ ideals

The geopolitical uncertainty surrounding the 1939 World’s Fair was the highest in recorded history, to that point. Europe and Asia were falling into chaos: swaths lands lay threatened from the rising tide of fascism. The end loomed for millions. The seemingly unavoidable conflict arose because a choice few in power believed they were the arbiters of life, death, and human worth.

For that reason, it is unsurprising that Manship was driven to depict this thousands-year-old allegory. Intrinsic to the human experience is a lack of control. Fate – with regards to death – is not in our hands. The Greeks understood this.

Additionally, the sundial is the perfect instrument to represent human ephemerality. It shows us that even light, the very thing that brings us life, is only temporary. For that reason, humans have used dials to track its path across our Earth for millennia.

Sundials, like this Ancient Egyptian one (c. 1300 BC) kept early civilizations in touch with daily and seasonal patterns.

It is just as natural to fear death as it is to die; but, by surrendering to that fear and recognizing death’s inevitability as a universal truth, our eyes are opened to the beauty of our world and the people around us.

-Bryce Nelson

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