Paul Gauguin, D'où venons-nous, que sommes-nous, où allons-nous, 1897
Paul Gauguin, D’où venons-nous ? Que sommes-nous ? Où allons-nous ? (1897-98)

Nimis caducum simul ac superbum animal est homo, nimis alte fragilibus superedificat fundamentis. e tanta sodalium turba ad quem redacti numerum sumus, vides; et ecce, dum loquimur, ipsi etiam fugimus atque umbre in morem evanescimus, momentoque temporis abiisse alter alterum accipiet, et ipse mox previum secuturus. quid ergo sumus, frater optime? quid sumus? nec desinimus superbire. suis angoribus consternatus Cicero, in epystola quadam ad Athicum, “Ipsi” inquit “quid sumus aut quandiu hec curaturi sumus?” brevis quidem sed bona, ni fallor, questio, et salutaris et gravida atque utilibus plena sententiis, sub qua multum vere humilitatis ac modestie multumque contemptus rerum fugitivarum vigil fossor inveniet. “quid sumus?” inquam; quam gravi, quam tardo, quam fragili corpore, quam ceco, quam turbido, quam inquieto animo, quam varia quamque incerta volubilique fortuna! “qut quandiu hec curaturi sumus?” profecto perbreviter. nempe non aliud sonat, quam si diceret: “ipsi quid sumus, et hoc ipsum quandiu futuri sumus?” utique hercle non diu, cum hoc idem nostrum esse, ut diuturnum esse non potest, sic nunc possit inter verba desinere, neque si accidat, miri aliquid acciderit. utrunque igitur bene et graviter queris, Marce Tulli; sed, queso te, ubinam tertium reliquisti, et eventu periculosius et quesitu dignius? postquam hic esse desierimus, quid futuri sumus? o rem magnam et ambiguam, sed neglectam! vale.
(Petrarca, Epist. Fam. 8.7.23-26)

Man is both too mortal and too proud a creature, and builds too high on brittle foundations. YOu see the small number to which we have been reduced from so great a group of friends, and even as we talk we ourselves are fleeting and disappearing like a shadow, and in a moment of time one of us will learn that the other has departed, destined himself soon to follow his predecessor. O best of brothers, what are we? What? And yet we do not abandon our pride. Cicero once, overwhelmed by anxieties, wrote in a letter to Atticus: “Who are we, really, or for how long will we concern ourselves over these woes?” A short question, but a good one, if I am not mistaken, one beneficial and loaded with useful thoughts, that will force the wakeful investigator to find much true humility and modesty and much contempt for fleeting affairs. I say again, what are we? How heavy, slow and fragile is our body, how blind, how troubled, how disturbed our mind, how shifting and unsure and mobile is Fortune. Or how long shall we care for these troubles? Surely only for a very brief time. To me this does not sound any different than if Cicero were saying: “Who are we, really? And how long shall we be the same person?” In any case, not for long, since our identities cannot last for long and can come to an end now as we speak, and if it happened this would be nothing strange. So you do well and wisely to ask both questions, Marcus Tullius; but I ask you, where did you leave that third possibility, more dangerous in outcome and more worthy of investigation? After we have ceased to exist here, what shall we become? What a great and problematic issue, but one overlooked! Farewell. (tr. Elaine Fantham)

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