A Higher Life; or No Future Revisited

In an earlier post I argued that one way to think of Foucault’s project is as an extension of Camus’ thought, or as I put it there, as a philosophy with no future. Just as Camus sought to encourage the recognition of the absurd as a prompt to live life with more passion and consciousness of the present, so too Foucault’s project sought, through his archaeological enquiries, to unearth from the past a problem contemporaneous to our present field of experience. For both Camus and Foucault, therefore, a philosophy that has no future is not a philosophy that denies the future, or a philosophy that denies the importance and relevance of an awareness and orientation towards a future – that is, foresight – but rather it is a philosophy that subordinates the future to the concerns of the present, to a problematization (Foucault) and consciousness (Camus) of the present, for it is in the present where life unfolds, and where change begins.

This same emphasis on the present is also found in Seneca’s fifth letter to Lucilius.

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In his second letter to Lucilius (discussed here), Seneca encourages him to linger over the texts of “master-thinkers” and “select one [thought] to be thoroughly digested that day.” (Letter 2). We are to befriend thought rather than be merely an acquaintance of thought. Yet the question arose as to how best to determine which thoughts to befriend. How do we select our thought for the day? In Letter 3 we begin to get an answer to this question when Seneca challenges Lucilius for his use of the term “friend.” When Lucillius had a friend – “as you call him” Seneca adds – deliver a letter to Seneca, Lucilius goes on in the next sentence to warn Seneca “not to discuss with him all the matters that concern you, saying that even you yourself are not accustomed to do this.” Seneca’s conclusion: “in the same letter [you have] affirmed and denied that he is your friend.” A true friend is one with whom we share everything. As Seneca puts it, “I would have you discuss everything with a friend; but first of all discuss the man [friend; jb] himself” (ipso prius).

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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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