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How not to waste time according to Seneca | Latin Book Club

This article has been reviewed in accordance with our editorial policy.

Real­iz­ing that you’ve wast­ed time, that you’ve spent an entire after­noon doing some­thing you can’t recall for instance, is noth­ing new to the mod­ern world. In a let­ter from Seneca the younger he advices Lucil­ius Junior about time and how not to waste it.

A very short introduction to Seneca the Younger

Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, or Seneca Minor, or Seneca Philoso­phus was born in Spain in 4 B.C. as the sec­ond of three sons to his name­sake Lucius Annaeus Seneca, more com­mon­ly known as Seneca the Elder or Seneca Maior.

Seneca the Younger was sent from his home­town Cór­do­ba as a young boy to be edu­cat­ed in Rome and he became inter­est­ed in phi­los­o­phy (and famous for his Sto­icism) but also in pol­i­tics. He led an event­ful life, becom­ing a sen­a­tor, an ora­tor so great that emper­or Caligu­la want­ed him exe­cut­ed, exiled for adul­tery and stuck on Cor­si­ca for eight years, tutor to future emper­or Nero and advi­sor of the same. He died after hav­ing been ordered by his old pupil to com­mit suicide.

Inbe­tween pol­i­tics, phi­los­o­phy and intrigue, Seneca wrote. And thanks to the Ear­ly Chris­t­ian Church who deemed his works impor­tant (and safe enough as a lot of the Sto­ic phi­los­o­phy share traits with Chris­tian­i­ty) and thus sub­ject to preser­va­tion and copy­ing, we have quite a lot of his works left.

In today’s Latin Book Club, we shall return to the work we read from in an ear­li­er episode: His col­lec­tion of 124 let­ters writ­ten to Lucil­ius Junior, Epis­tu­lae morales ad Lucil­i­um. The 124 let­ters span over 20 books, though Aulus Gel­lius (c.130–170 A.D.) quotes a 22nd book (12.2.3) which indi­cat­ed that the orig­i­nal col­lec­tion was even larger. 

Last time we read the sec­ond of these let­ters and got the advise not to read too many books (you can find that episode here). Today, we will read the first of the let­ters, and learn a lit­tle bit about wast­ing time. 

If you want to lis­ten to more Seneca, and per­haps read along to some of his let­ters syn­chro­nised with audio, you will find our first book with select­ed let­ters from Seneca in our app Leg­en­tibus. You can learn more about it here.

Video in Latin: How not to waste time, Seneca to Lucilius Junior

Latin Text

Seneca Minor, ep 1.1


[1] Ita fac, mi Lucili: vin­di­ca te tibi, et tem­pus quod adhuc aut aufere­batur aut sub­rip­iebatur aut excide­bat col­lige et ser­va. Per­suade tibi hoc sic esse ut scri­bo: quaedam tem­po­ra erip­i­un­tur nobis, quaedam sub­du­cun­tur, quaedam efflu­unt. Turpis­si­ma tamen est iac­tura quae per negle­gen­ti­am fit. Et si volueris atten­dere, magna pars vitae elabitur male agen­tibus, max­i­ma nihil agen­tibus, tota vita ali­ud agen­tibus. [2] 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; quidquid aetatis retro est mors tenet. Fac ergo, mi Lucili, quod facere te scribis, omnes horas com­plectere; sic fiet ut minus ex cras­ti­no pen­deas, si hodier­no manum inieceris. [3] Dum dif­fer­tur vita tran­scur­rit. Omnia, Lucili, aliena sunt, tem­pus tan­tum nos­trum est; in huius rei unius fugacis ac lubri­cae pos­ses­sionem natu­ra nos mis­it, ex qua expel­lit quicumque vult. Et tan­ta stul­ti­tia mor­tal­i­um est ut quae min­i­ma et vilis­si­ma sunt, certe repara­bil­ia, imputari sibi cum impe­tra­vere patiantur, nemo se iudicet quic­quam debere qui tem­pus accepit, cum inter­im hoc unum est quod ne gra­tus qui­dem potest reddere.

[4] Inter­ro­gabis for­t­asse quid ego faci­am qui tibi ista prae­ci­pio. Fate­bor ingenue: quod apud lux­u­rio­sum sed dili­gen­tem evenit, ratio mihi con­stat impen­sae. Non pos­sum dicere nihil perdere, sed quid per­dam et quare et que­mad­mod­um dicam; causas pau­per­tatis meae red­dam. Sed evenit mihi quod plerisque non suo vitio ad inopi­am redac­tis: omnes ignos­cunt, nemo suc­cur­rit. [5] Quid ergo est? non puto pau­perem cui quan­tu­lum­cumque super­est sat est; tu tamen malo serves tua, et bono tem­pore incip­ies. Nam ut visum est maioribus nos­tris, ‘sera par­si­mo­nia in fun­do est’; non enim tan­tum min­i­mum in imo sed pes­si­mum remanet. Vale.

English Translation

Seneca the Younger, letter 1.1

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

Trans­la­tion by Richard M. Gum­mere, 1917

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren, M.A. and co-founder of Latinitium, is a published author, illustrator and historian. She specializes in daily life, has a soft spot for historic curiosities, and works as a museum educator at the world’s oldest open air museum, Skansen.
Written by Amelie Rosengren

Written by Amelie Rosengren

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