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.

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