The Internet Vagabond

Letter 1: On Time

Original Text

Greetings from Seneca to his friend Lucilius.

1. 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. 2. 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 be 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. 3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.


Time management. I'm pretty bad at time management. It's interesting re-reading this letter after having read ahead a few. This one reads much less personal than his later letters. Perhaps an indication of a developing relationship.

Much of the letter emphasizes the importance of being present, and aware. One of the most impactful parts of this letter epitomizes this: "Whatever years be behind us are in death's hands." The acceptance of death as a necessary and constant part of life is a Stoic theme, but this sentence reminds us of this reality without remorse. Replace 'years' with 'time', and the letter's theme is laid bare: time is an expense account you can only hope to balance, and never credit. Seneca himself makes this comparison, noting that he only balances his by being aware of his expenditures. To him, it seems being aware of the waste is enough to balance the waste itself, which I find interesting.

Seneca's account of how we spend our time strikes me as a tad cynical: "...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." Essentially, we spend most of our life not doing what we intend to do, either because we fail to act, or we "[do] ill". If I interpret "doing ill" to mean not pursuing Stoic virtue, I can extrapolate "the purpose" to mean living a virtuous life. I think the statement seeks more specific examples than the entirety of life's pursuit, though, and in those cases "doing ill" could mean doing that which does not benefit the specific pursuit. This could be playing video games instead of cleaning my house, for example. In this case, it seems apt to define "doing ill" as procrastination, and "the purpose" being whatever our goal is at that particular moment. Though an interesting third option is more of a relativity approach: we feel that life passes us by fastest while "doing ill" or doing nothing, and in general life seems to pass by faster when we are not focusing on our task than when we are. The ol' "Time flies while you're having fun" chestnut. Not to say "doing ill" is having fun, though. Rather, "doing ill" is like partying until 4am, and wondering how it got so late.

Live in the moment, be aware of how you spend your time, and always act to spend it wisely. Just be aware: no matter how carefully you budget, your account will always be indebted to death.


Moral Letters to Lucilius, Letter 1 on Wikisource

Bill Niblock 2018-01-15
[ philosophy ]