A common motto for some educational insitutions is “Vitai Lampada Tradunt.” The phrase is generally interpreted to mean “[They] Deliver Torch of Life.” It comes from an epic philosophical poem by Lucretius, who lived in the early 1st century BC, called De rerum natura (On The Nature of Things) where he describes Epicurean ideas around atomism, worldly phenomenon, and concious experience. While many of these ideas had been expounded and explained by his predecessors (such as Democritus’ teaching of Atomism), the poem is well known for it’s employment of flowy metaphors tailored to the Roman audiance. The Latin text is as follows:
augescunt aliae gentes, aliae minuuntur,
inque brevi spatio mutantur saecla animantum
et quasi cursores vitai lampada tradunt.
The nations wax, the nations wane away;
In a brief space the generations pass,
And like the runners hand the lamp of life
One unto other.
So things by turns increase, by turns decay,
Like Racers, bear the Lamp of Life, and live:
And their Race done, their Lamps to others give.
Some nations increase, others are diminished,
And, in a short space of time, the tribes of living creatures are changed by successive generations,
And, like the racers, deliver the torch of life from hand to hand.
Who are “the runners”? For an explanation, we turn to John Potter’s The Antiquities of Greece:
At this time there was a Race with Torches in the Academy; the manner of which was thus: The Antagonists were three Young Men, one of which being appointed by Lots to take his turn first, took a lighted Torch in his Hand, and began his Course; [even] if he the Torch was extinguished before he arrived to his Journey’s end, he delivered it to the second, and he in like manner to the third. The victory was his that carried the torch lighted to the race’s end: but if none could perform that, the victory was not adjudged to any of them.
If any of the contenders, for fear of extinguishing the torch by too violent a motion, slackend his course, the spectators used to strike him with the palms of their hands…
To the successive delivering of the torches from one to another, there are frequent allusions in authors, who usually compare it to the turns and vicissitudes of human affairs, and the various changes and successions that happen in the world.
Nowadays, when we run relay races, we usually consider it to be a team affair — where we all share in the glory (unless you do something like this). After all, everyone put in an equal amount of effort. Yes, one person actually won the race, but everyone gets a medal… As a runner, why run – and risk failing – without a chance for a share in the reward? Why take the option that doesn’t necessarily maximize your personal utility? The point of the story is to say: Life is not fair. We are essentially runners, with our time and roles chosen by lot.