I have been going through Seneca’s famous Moral Epistles, written to his friend Lucius, so it’s time to begin covering them on this blog. This is the first of a good number of occasional entries which will cover the full range of topics in the Letters, though not every single entry. Most of these posts will be short commentaries with excerpts, since many of the letters are brief. The translation I am using is the classic 1916 one by Richard Gummere. A very recent, excellent, new translation has just been published, by Margaret Graver and Anthony Long. The reason I’m using Gummere’s is because of my purely aesthetic preference for a slightly more old fashioned language.
There are 124 letters in the collection, and they were all written toward the end of Seneca’s life, so they represent his more mature thought. Moreover, even though they are actual letters to a real life friend, they were also clearly written with a broader audience in mind, which is why they are considered to be Seneca’s philosophical testament.
I don’t have to re-hash here the controversy concerning just how Stoic (or hypocritical) Seneca was. Interested people have two recent biographies (one by James Romm, the other by Emily Wilson) to choose from in order to make up their minds about his life and deeds. My own take is that Seneca was a clearly flawed man who, however, was also dealt a near impossible hand by Fate. He can at the least be credited with realizing — and clearly and repeatedly admitting to Lucius — his own limitations and failures. He is also a great writer, whose eclectic take on Stoicism simply cannot be ignored by anyone seriously interested in the philosophy.
So here we go, beginning with letter I, on saving time. The letter begins with a plead to Lucilius to use his time wisely, because most men just don’t understand that we “die daily” (hence the title of Romm’s biography). More specifically, Seneca says:
“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.” (I.1)
I must acknowledge that this sort of warning has been forefront in my mind way before I began studying and practicing Stoicism. Throughout my life and career I’ve always had a sense of urgency that has led me to pay as little attention to distractions and unimportant things as possible, and to focus instead on what I deem worthy or interesting. This, of course, doesn’t just include my academic career, but also my family and friends, and even my leisure time. Con earning the latter, for instance, I never watch reality tv or cooking shows, only solidly good productions, be they dramas, comedy or documentaries (no, I’m not going to make specific endorsements or suggestions on this blog). Here is Seneca’s take on the above mentioned sense of urgency:
“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.” (I.22)
Later in the letter, the author tells his friend that he is rather baffled by just how little people seem to appreciate that the most valuable thing they can borrow from him is time itself, since they cannot possibly pay it back:
“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.” (I.3)
This could be interpreted as a rather obnoxious remark, made by someone who thinks his own time is too valuable to waste it on others, but I think that would be an uncharitable reading. Seneca clearly thinks everyone’s time is precious, and that everyone should use it wisely.
This setting of priorities, of course, becomes even more important as one nears the end, and the essay closes with a metaphor that draws a parallel between life and a cask of wine:
“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.” (I.5)
Though it must be said that since the Letters to Lucilius were drawn from the dregs of Seneca’s cask, he was clearly wrong about the inferior quality of what remained in him.