Roman wine trade oxcart, from grave stele, Augsburg Roman Museum

Letter I. On Saving Time

(originally published in The Stoic Letters)

The aim of this page is to publish a full text accompanied by a short review of the classics of stoicism. That is, Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. We will start with the 124 Seneca’s famous Moral Epistles to Lucilius.

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 excellent, new translation has been published by Margaret Graver and Anthony Long.

The letters were all written toward the end of Seneca’s life, so they represent his more mature thought. Even though they are actual letters to a real friend, they were clearly written with a broader audience in mind, which is why they are considered to be Seneca’s philosophical testament.

Starting with letter I, on saving time. It is a plead to Lucilius to use his time wisely, because most men just don’t understand that we “die daily”. 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)

We’ve been given enough time, the problem is we wasted it. We value physical goods that can be returned, and we ignore the most precious:

“ 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.” (I.3)

The setting of priorities becomes even more important as one nears the end, and the essay closes with a metaphor that draws a parallel between life and a barrel 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)

— — — — — — — — — —

I. On Saving Time

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 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.
  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.[1] Of that which remains at the bottom, the amount is slight, and the quality is vile.

Farewell.

  1. Hesiod, Works and Days, 369.
  2. Image: Roman wine trade oxcart, from grave stele, Augsburg Roman Museum
  3. The books links are connected with an Amazon’s affiliate program.

Letters from a Stoic, the classic translation by Richard Gummere.

A new translation, Seneca — Letters on Ethis by Margaret Graver and Anthony Long.

The Stoic philosophy Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Quotes, sayings, and other resources to help to apply Stoicism to your own daily life.