Practice your Latin

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

I. SENECA LUCILIO SUO SALUTEM

[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

Related articles

Halloween special in Latin #6 – The Ring

Halloween special in Latin #6 – The Ring

Last year we went to France in the mid 1600's for Halloween. This year we have turned to good old Swedish ...
Four Stories of Alexander the Great | Latin Book Club

Four Stories of Alexander the Great | Latin Book Club

Short introduction to the legends of Alexander the Great Alexander the Great was subject to an enormous amount ...
Rare and Ancient Latin words

Rare and Ancient Latin words

Latin is an old language, a very old language. Today we might think of it as one language, frozen in time. ...