Seneca: Slowing Down Time

“Life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear for the future.”

A bust of Seneca in Seville. Seneca was born in modern Spain and is regarded as a local hero in Córdoba. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

At the beginning of Annie Hall, Woody Allen, speaking to camera, relays an old joke: two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of them says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.”

“Well,” Allen says, “that’s essentially how I feel about life — full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.”

Seneca would beg to differ. Life, the Roman philosopher remarked, is long if you know how to use it. Moreover, there is nothing more precious than time. What good is anything without the time to enjoy it?

Seneca the Younger (4 BCE — 65 CE) was a Roman dramatist, a senator under the reign of Caligula, a Stoic philosopher, and a tutor and later a political advisor to Nero. A high achiever by any measure. He was a well-connected member of the Equite — or Knight — second tier aristocratic class, and well educated in rhetoric and philosophy.

Despite his association with the tyrannical Nero, Seneca came to be revered in the Christian world as a kind of pre-Christian saint thanks to the popularity of his Stoic writings on virtue.

As well as having a political career and becoming (possibly) the richest man in the Roman world, Seneca was prolific in his writings. He wrote satires and tragedies for the stage, public speeches for Nero and a number of essay-letters to friends and family that have become Stoic classics.

Two notable letters deal specifically with time and how to use it.

“On the Shortness of Life” was written around the 40s to a family member, Paulinus, and “On Leisure” was written to a friend Serenus, at the time that Seneca was retiring from public life.

These letters, written two decades apart, are a valuable lesson on time. Seneca challenges anybody who feels life passes too quickly to make the most of the hours we are blessed with, to not squander them, and also put them to the service of your self-betterment and the benefit of society.

Nero as a boy. Seneca found himself at the centre of Roman power when was brought back from exile to teach the young Nero. Nero became emperor as a teenager after his uncle Claudius’s suspicious death. (source: Wikipedia)

On the Shortness of Life

Life is only short to those who waste it. There are two ways in which time is wasted: by our squandering and by other people or preoccupations taking up our precious time.

It amazed Seneca that people were frugal with their personal property and money, but not with the thing they should be most stingy with: their time.

“Men do not let anyone seize their estates, and if there is the slightest dispute about their boundaries they rush to stones and arms,” Seneca wrote, but “allow others to encroach on their lives — why, they themselves even invite in those who will take over their lives.”

It’s true, the one thing that is most finite to all of us is time. Money and property can increase and decrease depending on luck or effort, our time is fixed. Whatsmore, our lifespan is unknown to us.

Imagine if your only income was one gold coin dispensed every 24 hours from a machine. The machine held a limited amount of gold coins but you didn’t know how many. How would you treat those coins?

You’d cherish them, invest them wisely. Well, those are days: we get one every 24 hours and we have no idea how many are left. Why do we squander so many hours to laziness, or give them away so easily?

This can only lead to regret. “We are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realise that it has passed away before we knew it was passing,” Seneca wrote.

The two dangers are spending too much time in indulgence (“soaked with wine”) or dedication to useless tasks.

Careerists should take note that they will fare no better than the lazy when time creeps up on them. To be worn out by “political ambition” or “hope of profit” is no better than being lazy, since careers are “at the mercy of others”.

The successful politician should not be envied, because their success has come at the “cost of life.” All the labours of the careerist (including crawling through a “thousand indignities”) are only for the “sake of an epitaph.”

Fickleness in our goals, shifting focus and priority leads to dissatisfaction. The same can be said for those who have no control over their desires, and those who allow themselves to be depended upon by too many others. Popularity may be nice but social obligations will pull you in different directions and fritter your life away.

Planning may be a good idea, but there are also those who excessively plan, those who “spend their lives organising their lives.” Expectancy “hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in fortune’s control and abandoning what lies in yours.”

Time as a Commodity

For people who fall into these traps, Seneca makes the point that “life” is but a small part of what they really live, the rest is “just time.” Seneca makes the distinction between living and merely existing.

White hair and wrinkles is a sign of a long existence, not necessarily a long life. The sailor that sea storms has driven in circles has not been on a long voyage, just a long time tossing about.

“Life” is good use of time: a commodity to be guarded.

It is perhaps because he is writing to the praefectus annonae (“Prefect of the Provisions”) — the man who controlled the grain supply into the city of Rome — that Seneca writes of time as a commodity. Seneca draws allusions between the management of time and the management of grain.

“Time,” the philosopher wrote, “is not open to inspection” in the same way a commodity like grain is, “and therefore reckoned to be cheap.”

Seneca writes of preoccupied people who are in ill company with themselves, who waste time on trivia and pointless knowledge, obsessive hobbies and collecting or people who just “cook themselves in the sun.” Death creeps up on time wasters, people who assume time is cheap.

Slowing Time

But time is also relative. Seneca enlightens us to a number of ways that time can be condensed or slowed down to our benefit. “Wealth however modest, if entrusted to a good custodian, increases with use, so our lifetime extends amply if you manage it properly.”

We accumulate knowledge over time, but books allow us to accumulate the time the writers have given us. Think of books as condensed time.

Distilled and compressed in the pages of books are years, decades and even centuries of knowledge and wisdom. If you read a good book, you are concentrating the time you have.

“Of all people only those are at leisure who make the time for philosophy, only those that are really alive. For they not only keep a good watch over their own lifetimes, but they annex every age to theirs. All the years that passed before them is added to their own.”

To make his point, Seneca likened reading the philosophers to paying them a visit. A book is always happy to receive a visitor. “None of [the great philosophers] will be too busy to see you,” he wrote. “They are at home to all mortals night and day.”

Nero’s Torches, Henryk Siemiradzki, 1876. (source: Wikimedia Commons). After the great fire of Rome in 64 CE, Nero deflected blame on the early Christian community. Christians were rounded up and burned alive or fed to animals. The persecution of Christians is an example of Nero’s excessive cruelty after Seneca had lost his influence over the emperor.

Leisure and Service to Mankind

The Latin word “otium” means “leisure time” or “freedom from business”. To the Roman upper classes, otium was the best way to live. It meant that your accounts were managed and you had the free time to pursue whatever edifying or exercising activity that pleased you.

To Roman aristocrats, “the hustle” and “entrepreneurship” was vulgar. Money making was best automated (usually from owning property), and business time best minimised to make way for otium. (Easy for Roman aristocrats, you may say.)

Time working was called negotium (literally: “lack of leisure”, the negation of otium). This is where we get the modern word “negotiate” from since negotium is having to compromise one’s time to benefit others. There’s a lack implied in negotium.

The Romans reversed the priority of time. Work time was the negation of time well spent, whereas most modern people see time out of work as “downtime”.

Seneca was old when he wrote On Leisure, he spent more time in semi-retirement. The dilemma Seneca faced as a Stoic was that Roman Stoicism taught that all time should be spent in the service of society, usually through politics or military service.

Retirement or any otium was seen as not an option to Stoics. He even quotes Virgil: “We [Stoics] conceal our grey hair with our helmets.”

But Seneca makes the point that otium isn’t about laying around doing nothing. He made it clear in “On the Shortness of Life” that we must make the best use of time.

The point was that you were free from obligatory work to pursue your own goals. Otium was about building character and studying. Time well spent pursuing your own benefit can also benefit society, as long as your own benefit was virtuous.

Last days

It’s ironic that Seneca disdained political ambition since he was at the centre of power for so long. It was his power that became his undoing. Nero had become emperor as a teenager, and Seneca, his tutor, became his advisor and speechwriter.

During the first years of Nero’s reign, Seneca seemed to have an enormous amount of influence on the young emperor. The worst excesses of Caligula and the weakness of Claudius seemed to be a thing of the past. Nero governed sensibly and judiciously.

But five years into Nero’s reign he began to behave erratically. He had his own mother assassinated (Seneca had to justify the action in the Senate) and began a lavish programme of public works that raised taxes. The emperor became immensely unpopular.

Seneca lost his influence on Nero and requested retirement. He was turned down twice. When Seneca finally settled into his extended otium, an unwelcome letter arrived from the emperor.

Manuel Domínguez Sánchez, The Suicide of Seneca, 1871 (source: Wikimedia Commons). Seneca’s death is often depicted as heroic as the death of Socrates.

Seneca was accused of being part of the “Pisonian Conspiracy” to topple Nero. The tyrant demanded Seneca’s suicide.

Since noble Romans believed suicide to be preferable to execution, Seneca slit his wrists in a hot bath attended by his friends. His death was painful and prolonged due to his old age. The sage didn’t yield enough blood and was eventually suffocated by the steam of his bath. He dictated his last words to a scribe but they are now lost.

While many have accused Seneca of hypocrisy and self-aggrandisement over the centuries, the philosopher’s writings have endured regardless. Seneca was no saint, but a worthy prophet.

Senecan Lessons for the modern world

Seneca may have been rich enough to take as much time out as he liked, but his lessons still stand up. Most of us have to work in the modern world, but Seneca’s idea of “otium” is nevertheless an interesting way to look at our free time.

We live in an unprecedented information age where millions have access to information, entertainment and leisure. The average working week is lower than it has ever been in the western world. We can maximise our otium with some simple measures based on Seneca’s advice.

1. Read books, ditch the news

The news is designed to make you anxious. Newspapers and TV news seem to catastrophise everything to get our attention, to make us feel dependent on it as a news source. Media carries advertisements that are designed to make us feel inadequate unless we buy what they are selling us.

It’s only when you take a “media diet” that you realise how much the noise of the media occupies our thoughts, makes us feel helpless, and grinds down our self-esteem. Stay informed through conversation with friends and family who have different perspectives on events, or read high-quality, cool-headed analysis in books or magazines.

Good books have been written in the service of you. The knowledge and wisdom they hold is condensed time. Time compressed into their pages adds to your time.

2. Bracket work

Even if you enjoy your day job (I do), keep time spent working at a minimum. Presenteeism is stealing your precious time. You’ll never get those overtime hours back, they are gone forever.

How many of us spend that precious one-hour lunch break eating at our desk? Make good use of your lunch breaks: read, write or exercise. If you work in a city, visit a museum or gallery. Maybe start an office reading group that can meet at lunchtimes. This will also ensure you read more.

3. Avoid Gossip, TV, Social Media, Games and Useless Information

If time is like grain then the gaming industry is a swarm of locusts. Playing a video game with no particular merit is throwing time away, time you could be developing a useful skill, exercising or edifying yourself with literature, art or music.

The same can be said of social media, like other open-ended forms of entertainment, social media is designed and optimised to consume your time.

Don’t habitually or “binge” watch TV, just watch specific shows that interest you for good reason. Many TV shows are great, Madmen and The Wire, and comedies like The Office and Seinfeld have a lot to teach us about being human.

When I gave up habitually watching TV, my productivity exploded.

4. Wake up early

I wake up at 6:30 am and write for an hour every weekday. That’s five hours a week, 260 hours a year: 11 whole days writing, the length of a long vacation. That time adds up. Whatever you do with that time, you’ll get better at what you’re doing and faster too.

5. Relax

Give yourself permission to relax, but don’t believe the myth that time out of work is mere “downtime.” When I say read good books, I don’t mean you have to sweat over the pages of Tacitus, Proust or Wittgenstein, just avoid junk. Don’t read fiction to “escape”, read to expand and invigorate your imagination.

6. Guard your time jealously

As Seneca argues, you should guard your time like you guard your property. Carve out “me time” and don’t let anybody else have any of it. This sounds selfish, but time spent making yourself a better person — Seneca’s idea of otium — will ultimately benefit everybody around you.

Like grain when the threat of famine is ever present, we must treat time as precious. But time is also malleable: while some indulgencies swallow up time fast, worthwhile pursuits will gift you time. But invest it wisely and guard it like it’s gold, because we never know when it will be our time to go.

“Now while the blood is hot you should make your way with vigour to better things. In this kind of life you will find much that is worth your study: the love and practice of the virtues, forgetfulness of the passions, the knowledge of how to live and die, and a life of deep tranquillity.”

Thank you for reading, I hope you learned something new.


If you enjoyed this article, you may also like my article on Stoicism and Marcus Aurelius. This is an introduction Stoicism, explaining the concepts behind the philosophy.