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 thoughts on “Seneca and the Condemned Prisoner

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