On Saving Time

O

Continue to act thus, my dear Lucilius – set yourself free for your own sake; gather and save your time, which till lately has been forced from you, or filched away, or has merely slipped from your hands. Make yourself believe the truth of my words, – that certain moments are torn from us, that some are gently removed, and that others glide beyond our reach. The most disgraceful kind of loss, however, is that due to carelessness. Furthermore, if you will pay close heed to the problem, you will find that the largest portion of our life passes while we are doing ill, a goodly share while we are doing nothing, and the whole while we are doing that which is not to the purpose.

What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily? For we are mistaken when we look forward to death; the major portion of death has already passed. Whatever years lie behind us are in death’s hands. Therefore, Lucilius, do as you write me that you are doing: hold every hour in your grasp. Lay hold of to-day’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon to-morrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by.

Nothing, Lucilius, is ours, except time. We were entrusted by nature with the ownership of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who will can oust us from possession. What fools these mortals be! They allow the cheapest and most useless things, which can easily be replaced, to be charged in the reckoning, after they have acquired them; but they never regard themselves as in debt when they have received some of that precious commodity, – time! And yet time is the one loan which even a grateful recipient cannot repay.

You may desire to know how I, who preach to you so freely, am practising. I confess frankly: my expense account balances, as you would expect from one who is free-handed but careful. I cannot boast that I waste nothing, but I can at least tell you what I am wasting, and the cause and manner of the loss; I can give you the reasons why I am a poor man. My situation, however, is the same as that of many who are reduced to slender means through no fault of their own: every one forgives them, but no one comes to their rescue.

What is the state of things, then? It is this: I do not regard a man as poor, if the little which remains is enough for him. I advise you, however, to keep what is really yours; and you cannot begin too early. For, as our ancestors believed, it is too late to spare when you reach the dregs of the cask. Of that which remains at the bottom, the amount is slight, and the quality is vile. Farewell.

Seneca the Younger, Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, Letter #1

This should give you an immediate sense of Seneca, he’s incredibly straight forward, blunt at times, but nothing but eloquent with his words. He’s a man who means business in a way, and seems to be quite stern at times, but over time, you will come to understand why he’s such a well-regarded Stoic writer. He wasn’t perfect, he had a lot of contradictions in his life, if you remember my conversation with James Romm a few months ago, you’ll know some of those contradictions and there’s no need to recount them here, suffice to say, there were contradictions, but he wanted to be a great Stoic, and I think he came close, even if he didn’t always embody his ideals, he knew when he was failing.

We’re talking about death, which is, of course, a common theme in many Stoic writings but Seneca is far more prescriptive than Marcus ever was, and we get some great advice from him here—rather, Lucilius does.

The most disgraceful sort of loss is that due to carelessness.

And why do you think he feels this way about lost time? Because our attitudes towards time, our thoughts and actions regarding it and within it, are within our control and so when we waste time due to carelessness this is a choice we are making. Compare this to traffic, it’s not our fault traffic is wasting our time, but when we lie in bed for 4-hours doom scrolling TikTok, that is in our control, and we’re elective wasting our time, we’re giving it away without any regard for its unknown total quantity, without any regard for its non-renewable nature.

While we are postponing, life speeds by.

We put off those things which are important, either to the Cosmopolis or to ourselves, and we do so without considering that we are not promised the chance to return to it! We lie on our deathbeds, angry, depressed, regretful, because we didn’t do the thing, or things, we knew, deep down in our hearts, or, if you prefer, our souls, were important to us. We might postpone our attention, our duties, or our aims in life, but when we do so we are not placing a dam in the middle of the river of time, interrupting it’s flow, we are doing something more like falling asleep in our canoe, waking months later to find we are a little more dead than we were when we first fell asleep.

What fools these mortals be! They allow the cheapest and most useless things, which can easily be replaced, to be charged in the reckoning, after they have acquired them; but they never regard themselves as in debt when they have received some of that precious commodity, – time!

This hits home a bit, doesn’t it? How many things do you fret about making you pay for? “Uh oh, I’ve got to save $X of dollars this month to pay my Netflix bill or my account will get disconnected!” But have you ever felt this urgency in concern to your life debt? You’ve been gifted, in a way, the most precious of all commodities, but do you approach your day, do you approach the responsibility to DO SOMETHING in your waking hours that really matters, with this same urgency or zeal? You care that your endless, mindless entertainment will be cut off, you care that you’ll be seen as a deadbeat that doesn’t pay their bills, but when have you ever felt this concerned about paying your debt to nature for it’s loan of life? Have you ever considered that this debt is a debt paid in doing kind and just things? In the development of Virtue and a virtuous character?

My situation, however, is the same as that of many who are reduced to slender means through no fault of their own: every one forgives them, but no one comes to their rescue

So what you are poor? And here I think Seneca means poor in his remaining time, not in wealth as it is fairly well known that Seneca had plenty of money—so what you are poor? People will pity what little time you have left, and they’ll be too polite to blame you for it, but they can’t do anything to fix what you wasted, they can’t give you more time, they can’t teach you how to make the most of what’s left. This is on you, you’re the only one to blame for this, you’re the only one who can change it, the only one who can make what time you have left be wasted less frequently than what has been true of your waste in the past.

For, as our ancestors believed, it is too late to spare when you reach the dregs of the cask. Of that which remains at the bottom, the amount is slight, and the quality is vile.

The original Latin here, and Seneca is writing in Latin not Greek, is more like “late thrift”—if you’re waiting until late in life to make this change, it is a stage of late thift and you will have less time with which to be thrifty, and the quality of that time, due to illness due to age, will be lower in nature. Lucilius is young, presumably, and Seneca is pointing that out.

Something interesting to keep in mind here is that we don’t have any of Lucilius’s letters to Seneca. Some people posit that this is because Lucilius wasn’t a real person, or was pen name, or that the Epistles were written with future distribution in mind and that these letters are more like a frame-tale of sorts so Seneca could discuss these things. So if you were wondering, when going through the letters “why don’t we have any of the letters he’s responding to” the answer could be, because this is a frame-tale-esque approach to writing on morality, or because Seneca threw them in the trash. As a lover of mythology and literature, I rather like the former idea.

So after this first Seneca episode, perhaps you are excited to hear more from our man from Cordoba. If you are, I’m glad, because Tuesdays are not dedicated to Seneca. See you tomorrow.

About the author

Tanner Campbell

Hi, I'm Tanner. I spend most of my time writing in the philosophy space and I'm the host of the Practical Stoicism podcast. When I'm not writing, I'm reading or recording. In rare moments when I'm not writing, reading, or recording, I'm spending time with my partner and our dogs.

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