Seneca On the Proper Use of Time

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, January 31, 2106.)

Yesterday I wrote about the impending death of the great neurologist and author Oliver  Sacks. I was particularly struck by this line from Sachs’ public goodbye: “I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential.” This brought to mind the Stoic philosopher Seneca who touched on a similar theme in his short piece, On the Shortness of Life:

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing.

Seneca believed that life is long enough, if we use it properly, but that we often squander our time, mistakenly believing we have plenty in reserve. We distract ourselves, we don’t immerse ourselves in the present, and we live for a future that never comes. At the end of our lives, even if we have lived long, we may not have lived wisely. We may have been obsessed with achievement and ambition rather than with living.

It is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil. They achieve what they want laboriously; they possess what they have achieved anxiously; and meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return.

To care for our time is to care for ourselves because how we spend our time is how we spend our lives. Our time is the most precious thing we have, and someday we’ll have no more of it.

Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.

There is much to recommend in Seneca, but I have always liked one particular piece of his advice. He says that we should seek the counsel of good mentors as substitutes for deficiencies in our education or upbringing. He makes this point in a moving passage:

We are in the habit of saying that it was not in our power to choose the parents who were allotted to us, that they were given to us by chance. But we can choose whose children we would like to be. There are households of the noblest intellects: choose the one into which you wish to be adopted, and you will inherit not only their name but their property too. Nor will this property need to be guarded meanly or grudgingly: the more it is shared out, the greater it will become.

We can all learn much from Buddha and Seneca and Epictetus and other sages. From Seneca we have learned: be mindful, live now, and keep good company. What wonderful advice from a Stoic sage.

Here’s a brief video about Stoicism in general. Its pretty good, but I disagree about its interpretation of the Stoics view of hope. The Stoics weren’t pessimists, they were realists. (In the next few days we’ll cover the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and a few days later we’ll cover Admiral James Stockdale on how the thoughts of Epictetus may have saved his life. Also there is an audiobook of On the Shortness of Life.)

14 thoughts on “Seneca On the Proper Use of Time

  1. “But we can choose whose children we would like to be. There are households of the noblest intellects: choose the one into which you wish to be adopted” I agree wholeheartedly with this statement. I have been looking for the past ten years for a mentor but couldn’t find one. I wish it was that easy to connect to these noblest intellects, but it is not. I came to the conclusion that the best way available is to read books written by such people, which means you cannot ask questions when they arise or have any kind of interaction. Until I find a way into one of those noblest intellects households, this blog is my mentor.

  2. Thanks again for the nice comments. And you are right about that one deficiency with reading the works of great thinkers—its not quite as good as having them there. But one can go to a Buddhist or Hindu temple, if you can find a good one, or join a meditation group for instance. Good luck.

  3. In response to Sana.

    Truth is not a state of affairs but a state of consciousness which can only be achieved by using your own understanding not that of others. I refer you to Emmanuel Kants essay on enlightenment, Emerson’s essay on self-reliance and to Nietzsche “You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist”. Also, Jena Krishnamurti “Truth is a pathless land”.

    Truth or enlightenment is egoless and only attainable as a result of impersonal curiosity not the desire or ambition to achieve it. Such desire or ambition is ego-based and counter-productive (as also is reliance on others). That which you seek can only be found within and requires that you accept nothing heard, read or learnt from others as true (it may well be, but you need to establish that for yourself).

    Everything (including this advice) needs to be questioned and the answers must come from you.

    “If the way which I have pointed out as leading to this result seems exceedingly hard, it may nevertheless be discovered. Needs must it be hard, since it is so seldom found. How would it be possible, if salvation were ready to our hand, and could without great labour be found, that it should be by almost all men neglected? But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.”
    (Spinoza – Ethics)

  4. Thanks for the comment. You refer to some good pieces and the quote at the end I’ve used in this blog many times. However I think your statement “Truth is … a state of consciousness which can only be achieved by using your own understanding not that of others” is self-evidently false. First it smacks of relativism and second we do gain insight from others or education would be pointless. Furthermore you next few sentences contradict your claim as you appeal to other for truth. I do believe in self-salvation but that doesn’t imply radical individualism.

  5. Thanks for a good reminder, thinking about the end makes things clearer a lot for me.

    Random fact: I’ve discovered today that Nero was tutored by Seneca

  6. With regard to relativism and education, I draw your attention to the distinction between information (universal) and knowledge (particular). Aristotle called these sophia and phronesis respectively and wrote:

    “…although the young may be experts in geometry and mathematics and similar branches of knowledge [sophoi], we do not consider that a young man can have Prudence [phronimos]. The reason is that Prudence [phronesis] includes a knowledge of particular facts, and this is derived from experience, which a young man does not a possess; for experience is the fruit of years.”

    Education relates to information (sophia) whereas experience (phronesis) is personal and therefore subjective as also consciousness (the subject of which experience is the object). Information (sophia) can be communicated but experience (phronesis) can not. Philosophy relates to phronesis not sophia therefore the idea that it can be communicated is misguided.

    My understanding was not gleaned from the sources quoted and I mention them only as references to avoid lengthy explanation.

    Being is necessarily individualistic and the only alternative to radical (is there any other form?) individualism is dogmatism.

  7. And Nero evidently didn’t turn out that well. But then you can’t always blame teachers for what students do.

  8. Perhaps you mean the Macedonian King Alexander III (Alexander the Great) not Nero.

    Incidently, there is also the biblical saying “The truth will set you free”. This obviously relates to a state of consciousness not an obscure fact to be found in somebody’s book or the information on you tax return.

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