Seneca and the Condemned Prisoner

To begin with Seneca and take on board the problems that motivated his philosophical writings, we can start with the concluding paragraph of his first letter to Lucilius. The paragraph begins with the question: “What is the state of things, then?” to which Seneca answers that we are not to “regard a man as poor, if the little which remains is enough for him,” and then he directly advises Lucilius “to keep what is really yours.” The problem then for Seneca is a problem of loss, and of keeping and having enough, and that which can and is most frequently lost and which we seem never to have enough of, and yet which is most ours, is time. “Nothing, Lucilius,” Seneca urges, “is ours, except time.” This problem, however, is a substantial problem, a problem of substance and being (ousia), and connected to this problem is a relationship to time, to that which belongs to us more than anything else, and yet it is time that is least appreciated and most frequently lost. Thus the subject of Seneca’s first letter is to caution Lucilius to be wary of the ease with which we lose time, and hence lose ourselves.

In listing the various ways in which we lose time, Seneca notes that “certain moments are torn from us, some are gently removed, and that others glide beyond our reach.” Loss of time due to illness or other factors beyond our control may leave us unable to make use of the time we have. The needs of a friend or other duties and obligations that we have taken on may result in our gently giving of our time to others. Conversely, Seneca points out that when we are on the receiving end of such gifts of time we never regard ourselves as “in debt…[for] that precious commodity,–time!” Such losses of time are inevitable, but “[t]he most disgraceful kind of loss…is that due to carelessness.” When it comes to what is most essentially ours, therefore, we must be careful with the time we are given and not fill this time with petty pursuits – lost hours surfing the web; watching mindless television; etc. We ought, instead, to avoid “doing that which is not to the purpose.” But what, then, is to the purpose; what is the careful use of the time we are given?

It is at this point where Seneca meditates upon death, remarking that the longer we live the more of our life is already “in death’s hands” and we are therefore “dying daily.” But who understands this point? To draw from a more recent source in answering this question, we could say that the condemned prisoner understands this point. The condemned prisoner awaiting execution understands more than perhaps anyone, as Camus argued in his celebrated “Myth of Sisyphus” essay, that what is most essentially ours is this life in the present – it is not the past nor is it some hoped for future we busy ourselves trying to bring about that is essential; it is the life as we live it today, pushing our stone up the hill. Similarly for Seneca he encourages Lucilius to “Lay hold of today’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon tomorrow’s.”

But is today’s task to be a constant meditation on death, a continual realization that we are constantly dying each and every day? To the contrary, for Seneca and Camus today’s task is to be a meditation on and affirmation of life. The consciousness (as Camus repeatedly stresses) of our mortality and continual dying each day is to serve the purpose of reminding us of the preciousness of life and of the time of our life. With this shift in perspective we will receive the gift of time as the “precious commodity” that it is; and for Camus we will live with the consciousness of the condemned man on the night before their execution.

What we do once we have taken hold of time, or what we do with our time when it is put to proper purpose and treated with care, this will become the subject of Seneca’s subsequent letters.

4 responses to “Seneca and the Condemned Prisoner

  • Befriending Thought | Aberrant Monism

    […] recognize, in light of the fact that we are “dying daily,” that our time is precious (see this post), the second letter cautions Lucilius to avoid what is no doubt a likely consequence of this […]

  • Facebook Friends | Aberrant Monism

    […] – in short, if one makes it one’s own (as I discuss this theme in my reading of Letters 1 and 2) – then one becomes a friend of the text. In subsequent letters we will begin to gain […]

  • On Sudden Death | Aberrant Monism

    […] point. No death, Seneca argues (in Letter 4 [for my discussions of Letters 1, 2, and 3 see here, here, and here]), ought to come as a complete surprise. For the sake of “improving [our] mind […]

  • A Higher Life; or No Future Revisited | Aberrant Monism

    […] The overarching concern that motivates Seneca’s fifth letter is that philosophy, by its very nature, is already contrary to the customary concerns of the “multitude.” Philosophy, in other words, is untimely and at odds with the concerns and motivations that are common to the time in which one lives. It is for this reason, no doubt, that Seneca recognizes that philosophy is already “an object of sufficient scorn,” and hence the philosopher would be best served by avoiding reinforcing this prejudice by willfully living contrary to the norms of society. Unlike the philosopher who broadcasts their untimely status through “repellent attire, unkempt hair, [and a] slovenly beard,” the philosopher should inwardly be “different in all respects” but outwardly “conform to society” if they are to encourage others to the benefits of philosophy. And benefits indeed are to be had, Seneca argues, for philosophy enables a person to live a higher life, a life that is different from the common life, the life of the multitude, but a life that is not contrary to the “fellow-feeling with all men” that comes with the “sympathy and sociability” that philosophy can engender. Philosophy, in short, enables a higher level of adaptability to the present in that it encourages one to think through the relationship with ourselves and others in the present, to take what is “most essentially ours” and “lay hold of today’s task” rather than live with excessive thought for the events of the past or future (see my discussion of letter 1) […]

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