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A Stoic’s Key to Living with Presence: Seneca on Balancing the Existential Calculus of Time Spent, Saved, and Wasted

“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. Nothing… is ours, except time.”

A Stoic’s Key to Living with Presence: Seneca on Balancing the Existential Calculus of Time Spent, Saved, and Wasted

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her abiding insistence on choosing presence over productivity. But how do we really spend our days? In our era, the average human lifetime will contain two years of boredom, six months of watching commercials, 67 days of heartbreak, and 14 minutes of pure joy.

This devastating arithmetic of time wasted versus time meaningfully spent may seem like a modern problem, but while the nature of our cultural technologies has undeniably exacerbated the ratio, the equation itself stretches all the way to antiquity, with only the variables altered. (Lest we forget, books were derided as a dangerous distraction in 12th-century Japan.)

That equation, and how to balance it more favorably toward a life of substance and presence rather than one of waste and want, is what the great first-century Roman philosopher Seneca examined at the end of his life in Letters from a Stoic (public library) — a collection of 124 letters he composed to his friend Lucilius, which also gave us Seneca on true and false friendship, overcoming fear, and the antidote to anxiety.

seneca
Seneca

Fittingly, the first letter addresses the most urgent subject haunting human life: time, and more particularly, the existential calculus of how we spend or waste the sliver of time allotted us along the continuum of being. Fifteen years after he composed his timeless treatise on filling the shortness of life with wide living, Seneca, now in his final years, counsels his friend:

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… Certain moments are torn from us… some are gently removed… others glide beyond our reach. The most disgraceful kind of loss, however, is that due to carelessness.

The most perilous carelessness, Seneca argues eighteen centuries before Kierkegaard bemoaned the absurdity of busyness and Walt Whitman contemplated what makes life worth living, is that of sliding through life in a trance of expectancy, always vacating the present moment in order to lurch toward the next — a kind of living death. He writes:

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… 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. Nothing… 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.

Art by Ohara Hale from Be Still, Life

Reflecting on how he himself practices what he is preaching, Seneca writes with Stoic self-awareness:

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… 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. Of that which remains at the bottom, the amount is slight, and the quality is vile.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Complement this particular fragment of the timelessly rewarding Letters from a Stoic with Ursula K. Le Guin’s gorgeous ode to time, Bertrand Russell on the relationship between leisure and social justice, Margaret Mead on leisure and creativity, and Emerson on how to live with presence in a culture of busyness, then revisit Seneca on what it means to be a generous human being and his Stoic key to peace of mind.

BP

Seneca on Gratitude and What It Means to Be a Generous Human Being

“I am grateful, not in order that my neighbour, provoked by the earlier act of kindness, may be more ready to benefit me, but simply in order that I may perform a most pleasant and beautiful act.”

Seneca on Gratitude and What It Means to Be a Generous Human Being

“Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes,” Annie Dillard wrote in her beautiful case for why a generosity of spirit is the greatest animating force of creativity.

Two millennia earlier, great Roman philosopher Seneca examined this notion and its broader implications for human life in his correspondence with his friend Lucilius Junior, later published as Letters from a Stoic (public library) — the timeless trove of wisdom that gave us Seneca on true and false friendship, overcoming fear, and the antidote to anxiety.

seneca
Seneca

In his eighty-first letter to Lucilius, Seneca writes under the heading “On Benefits”:

You complain that you have met with an ungrateful person. If this is your first experience of that sort, you should offer thanks either to your good luck or to your caution. In this case, however, caution can effect nothing but to make you ungenerous. For if you wish to avoid such a danger, you will not confer benefits; and so, that benefits may not be lost with another man, they will be lost to yourself.

It is better, however, to get no return than to confer no benefits. Even after a poor crop one should sow again; for often losses due to continued barrenness of an unproductive soil have been made good by one year’s fertility. In order to discover one grateful person, it is worth while to make trial of many ungrateful ones.

True generosity, Seneca argues, is measured not by the ends of the act but by the spirit from which it springs. He writes:

Benefits, as well as injuries, depend on the spirit… Our feeling about every obligation depends in each case upon the spirit in which the benefit is conferred; we weigh not the bulk of the gift, but the quality of the good-will which prompted it. So now let us do away with guess-work; the former deed was a benefit, and the latter, which transcended the earlier benefit, is an injury. The good man so arranges the two sides of his ledger that he voluntarily cheats himself by adding to the benefit and subtracting from the injury.

Illustration by Jacqueline Ayer from The Paper-Flower Tree

In a delightful reminder that even the most serious of thinkers can regard themselves with a sense of humor, Seneca adds a remark he cheekily qualifies as “one of the generally surprising statements such as we Stoics are wont to make and such as the Greeks call ‘paradoxes'”:

The wise man… enjoys the giving more than the recipient enjoys the receiving… None but the wise man knows how to return a favour. Even a fool can return it in proportion to his knowledge and his power; his fault would be a lack of knowledge rather than a lack of will or desire.

In a sentiment which Henry Miller would come to echo two thousand years later in his reflection on the intricate balance of giving and receiving, Seneca considers the meaning of generosity and the proper object of gratitude:

Anyone who receives a benefit more gladly than he repays it is mistaken. By as much as he who pays is more light-hearted than he who borrows, by so much ought he to be more joyful who unburdens himself of the greatest debt — a benefit received — than he who incurs the greatest obligations. For ungrateful men make mistakes in this respect also: they have to pay their creditors both capital and interest, but they think that benefits are currency which they can use without interest. So the debts grow through postponement, and the later the action is postponed the more remains to be paid. A man is an ingrate if he repays a favour without interest.

At the heart of his message is the insistence that true generosity is not transactional and that gratitude, in turn, ought to be calibrated to the intrinsic rewards of the generous act rather than to the veneer of a transactional favor:

We should try by all means to be as grateful as possible. For gratitude is a good thing for ourselves, in a sense in which justice, that is commonly supposed to concern other persons, is not; gratitude returns in large measure unto itself. There is not a man who, when he has benefited his neighbour, has not benefited himself, — I do not mean for the reason that he whom you have aided will desire to aid you, or that he whom you have defended will desire to protect you, or that an example of good conduct returns in a circle to benefit the doer, just as examples of bad conduct recoil upon their authors, and as men find no pity if they suffer wrongs which they themselves have demonstrated the possibility of committing; but that the reward for all the virtues lies in the virtues themselves. For they are not practised with a view to recompense; the wages of a good deed is to have done it. I am grateful, not in order that my neighbour, provoked by the earlier act of kindness, may be more ready to benefit me, but simply in order that I may perform a most pleasant and beautiful act; I feel grateful, not because it profits me, but because it pleases me.

Letters from a Stoic remains one of the most potent and enduring capsules of wisdom our species has produced. Complement it with Susan Sontag on what it means to be a decent human being, Rebecca Solnit on generosity of spirit in difficult times, and Simone Weil — one of our civilization’s most underappreciated sages — on attention as the highest form of generosity, then revisit Seneca on the key to tranquility of mind and how to fill the shortness of life with wide living.

BP

On the Tranquility of Mind: Seneca on Resilience, the Trap of Power and Prestige, and How to Calibrate Our Ambitions for Maximum Contentment

“That man lives badly who does not know how to die well.”

On the Tranquility of Mind: Seneca on Resilience, the Trap of Power and Prestige, and How to Calibrate Our Ambitions for Maximum Contentment

“Wherever life can grow, it will. It will sprout out, and do the best it can,” the poet Gwendolyn Brooks wrote in her abiding ode to perseverance. But in our quest to do the best we can, we are apt to defeat ourselves by pushing against life with the brute force of uncalibrated ambition, razing our peace of mind on the sharp-edged sense that there is always more to achieve. If the object of life is not mere resilience but flourishing, attaining it may be less a matter of wild pursuit of favorable outcomes that leave us perpetually dissatisfied and reaching for more than of wise acceptance that allows us to do the best we can with the cards we’ve been dealt.

That is what the great first-century Roman philosopher Seneca examines in a dialogue titled “On the Tranquility of Mind,” included in the indispensable 1968 volume Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters (public library).

seneca

Seneca, translated here by classics scholar Moses Hadas, admonishes against the trap of power and prestige:

We are all chained to fortune: the chain of one is made of gold, and wide, while that of another is short and rusty. But what difference does it make? The same prison surrounds all of us, and even those who have bound others are bound themselves; unless perchance you think that a chain on the left side is lighter. Honors bind one man, wealth another; nobility oppresses some, humility others; some are held in subjection by an external power, while others obey the tyrant within; banishments keep some in one place, the priesthood others. All life is slavery. Therefore each one must accustom himself to his own condition and complain about it as little as possible, and lay hold of whatever good is to be found near him.

Illustration from Six Dots, the illustrated story of how blind child inventor Louis Braille changed the world

Two millennia before Holocaust survivor and humanitarian Viktor Frankl proffered his hard-earned conviction that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances,” Seneca writes:

Nothing is so bitter that a calm mind cannot find comfort in it. Small tablets, because of the writer’s skill, have often served for many purposes, and a clever arrangement has often made a very narrow piece of land habitable. Apply reason to difficulties; harsh circumstances can be softened, narrow limits can be widened, and burdensome things can be made to press less severely on those who bear them cleverly.

In a complement to his famous advice on our mightiest self-defense against misfortune, Seneca highlights the other side to this notion of not letting ill fortune dispirit us — the importance of also not letting our desire for good fortune imprison us into a state of endless striving:

With the omission of those things which either cannot be done, or can only be done with difficulty, let us follow the things which are placed near at hand and which offer encouragement to our hopes; but let us remember that all things are equally unimportant, presenting a different appearance on the outside, but equally empty within.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Louis I, King of the Sheep
Art from Louis I, King of the Sheep, an illustrated parable of how power corrupts.

He cautions against envying those who rank higher than we do and who hold positions of power, for power is its own trap and ambition, as David Foster Wallace observed two thousand years later, a double-edged sword:

Whatever seems lofty is dangerous… Those whom an unfavorable fortune has placed in a critical position will be safer if they eliminate pride from their proud circumstances and bring down their fortune as much as possible to a lowly state. Indeed there are many who must of necessity cling to their high position, from which they cannot descend except by falling: but they testify that … they are not raised to their high position, but chained to it: let them prepare, by means of justice and human clemency, with a kind and liberal hand, many means of assistance for a safe descent, on the hope of which they can rest more securely. Yet nothing will free us from these disturbances of the mind so well as always fixing some limit to our advancement.

Art from Beastly Verse by JooHee Yoon

Untamed ambition, Seneca admonishes, stands in the way of meeting life on its own terms with calm consent — acceptance that is the supreme prerequisite for tranquility of mind. The most we can do, he argues, is accept every card life deals us, be it winning or losing, as temporarily borrowed from the deck to which it must ultimately return. The measure of wisdom and the key to peace of mind is the nonresistance and graciousness with which we return what we have borrowed when the time of our loan is up:

The wise man … does not need to walk about timidly or cautiously: for he possesses such self-confidence that he does not hesitate to go to meet fortune nor will he ever yield his position to her: nor has he any reason to fear her, because he considers not only slaves, property, and positions of honor, but also his body, his eyes, his hands, — everything which can make life dearer, even his very self, as among uncertain things, and lives as if he had borrowed them for his own use and was prepared to return them without sadness whenever claimed. Nor does he appear worthless in his own eyes because he knows that he is not his own, but he will do everything as diligently and carefully as a conscientious and pious man is accustomed to guard that which is entrusted in his care. Yet whenever he is ordered to return them, he will not complain to fortune, but will say: “I thank you for this which I have had in my possession. I have indeed cared for your property, — even to my great disadvantage, — but, since you command it, I give it back to you and restore it thankfully and willingly…” If nature should demand of us that which she has previously entrusted to us, we will also say to her: “Take back a better mind than you gave: I seek no way of escape nor flee: I have voluntarily improved for you what you gave me without my knowledge; take it away.” What hardship is there in returning to the place whence one has come? That man lives badly who does not know how to die well.

Complement the altogether magnificent Stoic Philosophy of Seneca with Seneca on the antidote to anxiety, his insightful advice on distinguishing between true and false friendship, and Marcus Aurelius — another Stoic sage of timeless wisdom — on the key to living fully.

BP

A Stoic’s Key to Peace of Mind: Seneca on the Antidote to Anxiety

“There are more things … likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”

A Stoic’s Key to Peace of Mind: Seneca on the Antidote to Anxiety

“The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is,” Kurt Vonnegut observed in discussing Hamlet during his influential lecture on the shapes of stories. “The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad,” Alan Watts wrote a generation earlier in his sobering case for learning not to think in terms of gain or loss. And yet most of us spend swaths of our days worrying about the prospect of events we judge to be negative, potential losses driven by what we perceive to be “bad news.” In the 1930s, one pastor itemized anxiety into five categories of worries, four of which imaginary and the fifth, “worries that have a real foundation,” occupying “possibly 8% of the total.”

A twenty-four-hour news cycle that preys on this human propensity has undeniably aggravated the problem and swelled the 8% to appear as 98%, but at the heart of this warping of reality is an ancient tendency of mind so hard-wired into our psyche that it exists independently of external events. The great first-century Roman philosopher Seneca examined it, and its only real antidote, with uncommon insight in his correspondence with his friend Lucilius Junior, later published as Letters from a Stoic (public library) — the timeless trove of wisdom that gave us Seneca on true and false friendship and the mental discipline of overcoming fear.

seneca
Seneca

In his thirteenth letter, titled “On groundless fears,” Seneca writes:

There are more things … likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.

With an eye to the self-defeating and wearying human habit of bracing ourselves for imaginary disaster, Seneca counsels his young friend:

What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as if they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly have not yet come.

Accordingly, some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.

Day 63
Illustration by María Sanoja from 100 Days of Overthinking

Seneca then offers a critical assessment of reasonable and unreasonable worries, using elegant rhetoric to illuminate the foolishness of squandering our mental and emotional energies on the latter class, which comprises the vast majority of our anxieties:

It is likely that some troubles will befall us; but it is not a present fact. How often has the unexpected happened! How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering? You will suffer soon enough, when it arrives; so look forward meanwhile to better things. What shall you gain by doing this? Time. There will be many happenings meanwhile which will serve to postpone, or end, or pass on to another person, the trials which are near or even in your very presence. A fire has opened the way to flight. Men have been let down softly by a catastrophe. Sometimes the sword has been checked even at the victim’s throat. Men have survived their own executioners. Even bad fortune is fickle. Perhaps it will come, perhaps not; in the meantime it is not. So look forward to better things.

Art by Catherine Lepange from Thin Slices of Anxiety: Observations and Advice to Ease a Worried Mind

Sixteen centuries before Descartes examined the vital relationship between fear and hope, Seneca considers its role in mitigating our anxiety:

The mind at times fashions for itself false shapes of evil when there are no signs that point to any evil; it twists into the worst construction some word of doubtful meaning; or it fancies some personal grudge to be more serious than it really is, considering not how angry the enemy is, but to what lengths he may go if he is angry. But life is not worth living, and there is no limit to our sorrows, if we indulge our fears to the greatest possible extent; in this matter, let prudence help you, and contemn with a resolute spirit even when it is in plain sight. If you cannot do this, counter one weakness with another, and temper your fear with hope. There is nothing so certain among these objects of fear that it is not more certain still that things we dread sink into nothing and that things we hope for mock us. Accordingly, weigh carefully your hopes as well as your fears, and whenever all the elements are in doubt, decide in your own favour; believe what you prefer. And if fear wins a majority of the votes, incline in the other direction anyhow, and cease to harass your soul, reflecting continually that most mortals, even when no troubles are actually at hand or are certainly to be expected in the future, become excited and disquieted.

But the greatest peril of misplaced worry, Seneca cautions, is that in keeping us constantly tensed against an imagined catastrophe, it prevents us from fully living. He ends the letter with a quote from Epicurus illustrating this sobering point:

The fool, with all his other faults, has this also, he is always getting ready to live.

Complement this particular portion of Seneca’s wholly indispensable Letters from a Stoic with Alan Watts on the antidote to the age of anxiety, Italo Calvino on how to lower your “worryability,” and Claudia Hammond on what the psychology of suicide prevention teaches us about controlling our everyday worries, then revisit Seneca on making the most of life’s shortness and the key to resilience when loss does strike.

BP

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