SUB SPECIE AETERNITATIS; vraag en antwoorden op wiki.

The other night, unable to sleep, I was letting my mind wander when it stumbled over the phrase sub specie aeternitatis, which I use (mostly to myself) as a fancy way of saying "taking the long view" or "in the broader scheme of things." I've known it as long as I can remember and always liked it, but it suddenly occurred to me that I had no idea what it literally meant, or whether I was using it correctly—it's one of those things I picked up in my precocious reading and assimilated without investigating too closely. I looked it up in my Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases in Current English, where I found: "[Lat.] (considered) in relation to the one eternal Substance; without consideration of local or temporal conditions. 20c. Spinoza Ethics (1677) V xxxi: sub aeternitatis specie." Well, the second part of the definition suggested I had been using it right, but I didn't understand the "one eternal Substance" part; however, it seemed likely that that had something to do with Spinoza's philosophy, and I figured the internet would help me out. Unfortunately, the Wikipedia article is pretty much useless (I left a querulous note about it on the Talk page), so I turn to you, the Varied Reader. Surely one of you can tell me about Spinoza's use, and how that got picked up in the last century and popularized (to the extent that it's popular)? Professor Google got me the actual passage in Spinoza:

...but that doesn't do me much good, and I'm too lazy to immerse myself in a protracted study of Spinoza just to understand what he means by species.
Posted by languagehat at January 17, 2012 07:51 PM
Well, species means "look, aspect, appearance," for what that's worth.
Stuart Hampshire:
"All our ordinary time-determinations, our tenses and temporal predicates such as 'past' and 'present' are merely 'aides to the imagination' (auxilio imaginationis'), and they will not occur in expressions of the highest level of knowledge; for at the highest level of knowledge Nature is presented sub specie aeternitatis; Nature must be understood not as a temporal sequence of events, but as a logical sequence of modifications necessarily connected with each other. ... it is a timeless, logical necessity that the order of nature should be what it is..."
-- Spinoza, Harmondsworth, 1951, p. 174
H.A. Wolfson:
"Imagination sees things only in their fragmentary and unrelated condition, or it puts together 'diverse confused ideas which belong to diverse things and operations of nature.' It is the imagination, too, through which 'we look upon things as contingent with reference to both the past and the future.' But reason (ratio) ... sees things in their necessary and eternal aspect ...
These necessary and eternal aspects of things, Spinoza proceeds to say, are the immediate infinite modes: motion and rest under extension, and absolutely infinite intellect under thought. These infinite modes, again, are what Spinoza calls 'fixed and eternal things' " ... without which one cannot conceive of individual things.
-- The Philosophy of Spinoza, Cleveland, 1958, ii, p. 161
So if you are considering things in their eternal, logical relations with other things, rather than as accidents in time, you are looking at them sub specie aeternitatis.
(Meanwhile, I still cannot get over the idea of spending 60,000 yen for a Yiddish-Japanese Dictionary.)
Posted by: Evan at January 17, 2012 08:30 PM
I would gloss the phrase as 'the universal point of view', one that is not particular to a certain part of space or time.
Posted by: John Cowan at January 17, 2012 09:41 PM