The Ephemera: An Emblem of Human Life
From Benjamin Franklin to Madame Brillon, of Passy
You may remember, my dear friend, that when we lately spend that
happy day in the delightful garden and sweet society of the Moulin
Joly, I stopped a little in one of our walks, and stayed some time
behind the company. We had been shown numberless skeletons of a
kind of little fly, called an ephemera, whose successive generations,
we were told, were bred and expired within the day. I happened to
see a living company of them on a leaf, who appeared to be engaged
in conversation. You know I understand all the inferior animal tongues.
My too great application to the study of them is the best excuse
I can give for the little progress I have made in your charming
language. I listened through curiosity to the discourse of these
little creatures; but as they, in their national vivacity, spoke
three or four together, I could make but little of their conversation.
I found, however, by some broken expressions that I heard now and
then, they were disputing warmly on the merit of two foreign musicians,
one a cousin, the other a moscheto; in which dispute they spent
their time, seemingly as regardless of the shortness of life as
if they had been sure of living a month. Happy people! thought I;
you are certainly under a wise, just, and mild government, since
you have no public grievances to complain of, nor any subject of
contention but the perfections and imperfections of foreign music.
I turned my head from them to an old gray-headed one, who was single
on another leaf, and talking to himself. Being amused with his soliloquy,
I put it down in writing, in hopes it will likewise amuse her to
whom I am so much indebted for the most pleasing of all amusements,
her delicious company and heavenly harmony.
"It was," said he, "the opinion of learned philosophers of our
race, who lived and flourished long before my time, that this vast
world, the Moulin Joly, could not itself subsist more than eighteen
hours; and I think there was some foundation for that opinion, since,
by the apparent motion of the great luminary that gives life to
all nature, and which in my time has evidently declined considerably
towards the ocean at the end of our earth, it must then finish its
course, be extinguished in the waters that surround us, and leave
the world in cold and darkness, necessarily producing universal
death and destruction. I have lived seven of those hours, a great
age, being no less than four hundred and twenty minutes of time.
How very few of us continue so long! I have seen generations born,
flourish, and expire. My present friends are the children and grandchildren
of the friends of my youth, who are now, also, no more! And I must
soon follow them; for, by the course of nature, though still in
health, I cannot expect to live above seven or eight minutes longer.
What now avails all my toil and labor in amassing honey-dew on this
leaf, which I cannot live to enjoy! What the political struggles
I have been engaged in for the good of my compatriot inhabitants
of this bush, or my philosophical studies for the benefit of our
race in general! For in politics what can laws do without morals?
Our present race of ephemera will in a course of minutes become
corrupt, like those of other and older bushes, and consequently
as wretched. And in philosophy how small our progress! Alas! art
is long, and life is short! My friends would comfort me with the
idea of a name they say I shall leave behind me; and they tell me
I have lived long enough to nature and to glory. But what will fame
be to an ephemera who no longer exists? And what will become of
all history in the eighteenth hour, when the world itself, even
the whole Moulin Joly, shall come to its end and be buried in universal
To me, after all my eager pursuits, no solid pleasures now remain,
but the reflection of a long life spent in meaning well, the sensible
conversation of a few good lady ephemer�, and now and then a kind
smile and a tune from the ever amiable Brillante.