Time Deconstructed | Seneca: Saving Time

In these series we would like to present how time can be thought of in philosophy – that is, time reflected out and through man’s experience and then put back into the experience to transform or modify it. If time is viewed as an objective essence beyond all consciousness, then we deal with a scientific view, which is not the purpose here.

Seneca: Saving time

The first reflection upon the nature of time should begin with the acknowledgement of the shortage of human life. It cannot be yet profound, and instead, it shows that people have only finite time at their disposal. As obvious it seems, the lack of such awareness is evident in a person who acts as if though he were prepared to exist forever. In other words, he does not attach any value to time or squanders it. Do not jump to the conclusion that the purpose of awareness is to rouse a person from sleep to the full potential of life and to fill the latter with excitement. For a philosopher, and especially the one we are going to talk about, the life void of proper thinking would be even worse than the day-to-day reality of opinions. As an example, we are taking a stoic who, by the very nature of Stoicism, places value only on the life of the mind.  

Thus, Seneca1in the Letter 1 urges his correspondent Lucilius to free himself via, if we are allowed to say so, time management or, now in the words of the thinker, collecting and saving time. In the place of ‘set yourself free,’2 there is the Latin verb ‘vindicare,’ which can mean both ‘to liberate’ and ‘to defend.’ In this case, Seneca may mean a gathering of time and its protection both from negligence and an attack of external circumstances, or otherwise, one may become a hostage of the latter.

The text leads us to the disclosure of two facts: personal time is restricted and typically used irrationally by people. Proper utilisation of time for a stoic would consist of contemplation and virtuous life. However, if we were to scrutinise the state of affairs, we would “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 purpose3.” 4 And all this on top of the snatched, stolen, flown away, and careless (negligent) moments.

Let’s pause for a moment. Why would one who does not spend time on intellectual and moral development become dependent? Because:

  • He will lack principles for action, that is, hectic and casual activities without guidance can put him both in moral and physical danger.
  • Collective time with others does not allow a person to be free and to do what he wants, then the only time that is left for him is time alone. But if solitude is filled with meaningless noise, then it will withdraw the only freedom he has to change his future (in collectiveness).
  • People will expect from him the same and give the same, e.g. work, based on his merit if he is not concerned to grow; and possibly one day they may decline to provide anything at all or pay less because they will quickly learn his dependency.

And yet people postpone their growth. Procrastination is the result of overlooking of the following: man is dying daily, a big portion of man’s life is already gone, and death is always reaching over the rest being in control of man’s future. In the words of Seneca:5

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 [2, p. 3].

The situation seems hopeless – time is running away, and there is almost none that is left. Thus, Seneca beseeches to embrace every hour to rely less on tomorrow. However, paying heed to his objective representation of time as something standing out there (the gift from the Cosmos or gods), it would be in vain because that objective something (time) is already in the hands of death and is not ours. Anyway, Seneca has an intuition of time, that is, that time is something interior. He says that everything is alien to us but time; that we are solely in possession of this slippery and fleeting thing, which, also, can be easily taken away from us by anybody; and still, we keep stock of trivial things while having no accountability of time.6 But because Seneca is two minds about time (either as the outer or inner), he does not show why we should fill time with intellectual activity. He just delineates the limits, and one can easily interpret his exhortation as permission to follow some passion. However, passion is, by its unsound nature, deceitful. To protect the life of the mind is to show that time is nothing less but the extension of the mind; consequently, the latter must return to itself to be in full possession of itself. Such grasp we find in Augustine’s Confessions. 

The conclusion of Seneca is edifying: it is crucial to begin to preserve time as soon as possible; otherwise, doing it while old, one can hit bottom where only the worst things are left.7 We can add that a careless old man saves with time what he already has – poor physical state and insufficient knowledge.

Hence, Seneca stresses the practical issue: one has so little time that he ought to learn how to use it to his best advantage, and philosophically understood that advantage is to live a tranquil and virtuous life. Why virtuous? Because only he who has attuned his actions to the rational order of the Universe will live happily, and neither deplore the lack nor rejoice in having what he cannot expect to make his own – externals. 

If anything should be learnt from Seneca, we should try to keep our time accountable and see how it is spent; as a result, we can make our future better.

Let’s think clearer to become practical.


Seneca IV. Epistulae Morales I. Books I–LXV // On Saving Time // Seneca in 10 volumes. Vol. IV. trans. Gummere, M. The Loeb Classical Library.

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  1. Note that we do not claim that Seneca has only this first-step-reflection about time. We simply recognize that such reflection should be among the first in the emerging out of the daily-consciousness.
  2. Ita fac, mi Lucili ; vindica te tibi, et tempus, quod adhuc aut auferebatur aut subripiebatur aut excidebat, collige et serva (Epistulae Morales I / I–1. p. 2).
  3. In Latin, there is “aliud agentibus,” which I would render as “doing something.”
  4. Et si volueris attendere, maxima pars vitae elabitur male agentibus, magna nihil agentibus, tota vita aliud agentibus (Epistulae Morales I / I–1. p. 2).
  5. Quem mihi dabis, qui aliquod pretium tempori ponat, qui diem aestimet, qui intellegat se cotidie mori? In hoc enim fallimur, quod mortem prospicimus magna pars eius iam praeterit. Quicquid aetatis retro est, mors tenet. (Epistulae Morales I / I–2. pp. 2–3).
  6. Epistulae Morales I / I–3. p. 4
  7. Epistulae Morales I / I–5. p. 4
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