Thoughts on Time from a College Library

Note: This was written by my brother Keith, and he did not originally post it online but sent it to our family members. For being a younger brother, he brings a hell of a lot of wisdom to the table, and I think this thought-provoking epistle deserves to be shared more widely. I am publishing it here, with permission:

From Keith:

I learn a great deal from my family.  The facts, figures, and articles that commonly result from discussing and arguing with each other are a reward in and of themselves.  As might be expected, many of these experiences and facts are soon forgotten, making way for new debates.  Once in a while, however, when discussing a topic, we–or I–stumble upon an insight which radically changes, clarifies, or re-enforces my understanding.

In recent months, I had two routine, incidental, and unrelated conversations, one with my brother, and the other with my sister.  The conversation with my sister did not start during some contentious economic debate, but when we were eating dinner together.  Offhand, my sister said to me:  “Keith, I have really come to appreciate the ideas from your econ classes you told me about, like opportunity cost, especially the opportunity cost of time spent on one task being a loss of all other possible actions.  When I applied those ideas to my everyday life, I saw a marked improvement, because I had become more efficient, simply from valuing my time appropriately.”  We often complain that few people these days recognize how econ is not a theory of how society works but of how math can represent human reality at any level. This is one case where there are real, personal benefits from understanding the math of limited lifespan.

My second recent conversation of note did not concern this day and age, in fact, it concerned the ideas of a wealthy 2000-year-old Roman by the name of Seneca.  My brother had recently been translating his Epistulae morales ad Lucilium (literally “Moral letters to Lucilius” in Latin, courtesy of Wikipedia), and had stumbled upon Roman intellectual gold.  Any attempt of mine to summarize the ideas in the letter would be less than adequate, so I shall copy it here.  I know that it is long, and rather Latin-ish, but I would encourage anyone to take the time to read it, if only because reading it will pay your time back, with interest:

Greetings from Seneca to his friend Lucilius.

Continue to act in the way you described, my dear Lucilius: set yourself free for your own sake; gather and save your time, which till lately has been forced from you, or stolen 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 of lost time, 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. 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 be 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 today’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon to-morrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by. 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 that even a grateful recipient cannot repay.

You may desire to know how I, who preach to you so freely, am practising. I confess frankly: my time 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: everyone forgives them, but no one comes to their rescue.

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

After listening to my brother dictate the whole of this letter, I felt genuine chills.  The truth it contains is so blatant, a simple calculation could yield the same result:  life is made up of a limited number of hours, therefore life is time.  Whenever you work, you are giving up your time for money (hence the old adage that time is money).  This means that whenever you waste time, or money, you are wasting your life, and wasted life is death.  This single fact horrifies me every day, because like most every other human, I waste an obscene amount of time.  Time watching a movie I have already seen, trolling through Facebook without really reading any of the posts, or having the same argument all over again:  rarely, when I am doing these things do I think about what else I could be doing.

Therein lies the link, which most will have already seen, between my two conversations.  Our time is not free.  Every moment we spend sleeping, eating, studying, etc., has a cost–an opportunity cost–and once it has been spent, if it was not truly the best way to spend it, then some small part of your life has been lost without reward.

I see this nearly everywhere:  students doze off in class or idly check their email or texts, they, when “studying” in the library, will spend a majority of the time effectively idle.  Writing this, I am in a college library, and with sample size n=11, I may, without prying too much, say that ~7/11ths  of my fellow computer users are not doing what they came intending to do.  They are wasting time they will not get back.

And so I say to you, whoever you may be reading this (perhaps idly), much the same as what Seneca might say to you, only I will say it less eloquently, and more directly:  value your time.  Do not waste it.  Work on being efficient not for the sake of productivity, but for the sake of leisure, for we all have our jobs to do, and if we get them done faster then there is more time for enjoyment.  If you spent less time complaining, you might spend that time actively addressing your problems, solving them rationally and thus eliminating your cause for complaint.

Vale.

Expanding the Liberty Canon: Seneca on Mercy and on Anger

Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger (4-65 CE) was born in the Roman Spanish city of Cordoba. Southern Spain was one of the most Romanised parts of the Roman Empire outside of Italy, so it is not surprising that Seneca made his way to Rome where he became a writer and, it seems, a money lender. He was also tutor to and then adviser to the Emperor Nero. He had previously been in conflict with the Emperor Claudius, for unknown reasons, and was exiled to Corsica for a while as a consequence.

Seneca’s writing career covered philosophical essays, tragedies, and letters which amounted to an exploration of his philosophical interests. He followed the Stoic school of philosophy, which goes back to the Greek philosopher Zeno of Citium (334-226BCE), and was influential on the Roman upper classes. So much so that the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180CE) wrote his Meditations with regard to Stoic thinking on character and ways of living. It was written in Greek, indicating how far Roman thought on ethics, politics, and other topics was continuous with, or at least engaged with, ancient Greek thought.

Seneca’s relations with Nero turned out to be even more destructive than those with Claudius. Seneca tried to educate and advise Nero to be honest, just, and restrained in the use of power. However, Nero turned out to be one of the most infamously cruel, paranoiac, and violent Emperors. These negative tendencies were turned on Seneca, so that even after Seneca had retired to the countryside to avoid the bad atmosphere around Nero, he was forced to commit suicide on suspicion of complicity with a conspiracy to assassinate Nero. (Nero himself was overthrown and pressured to commit suicide three years later.) Suicide was a relatively honourable form of death for Romans, and it was a privilege to be allowed to commit suicide rather than face execution, nevertheless Seneca and Nero can be said to have both met sorry ends as a result of political turmoil initiated by Nero.

Nero’s behaviour was really the direct opposite of that recommended to rulers by Seneca’s essays on anger and on mercy, and was a painful failure for Seneca who had tried to educate him from childhood for a moderate self-restrained use of power. Seneca’s approach to politics is to advise an absolute ruler in the use of power, so he might seem a bit paradoxical as part of a series on liberty. However, Seneca was considered as a major supporter of republics, of government based on individual liberty in the early modern period, so that Thomas Hobbes, the authoritarian-minded philosopher and political thinker, considered his thought a danger to sovereign state power.

Seneca’s thought certainly did mark the death of the Roman Republic, which was essentially abolished in substance (after a historical phase of hollowing out) by Julius Caesar in his period of absolute power from 49BCE until his assassination in 44BCE. The failure of the assassins to restore the republic led to the absolute power of Augustus and the inauguration of the autocratic emperor system.

Seneca refers unfavourably to those who use the Greek idea of ‘parrhesia’, that is free and critical public speaking, to excess, going against what had been taken as central to the liberty of citizens. The reason Seneca can be placed in the liberty tradition is that even when criticising excess in free speech, he praises a Macedonian-Greek king on the receiving end for the restraint of his reaction. Living in an age of absolute rulers, Seneca’s main concern is that they rule as the foundation of individual rights rather than as a source of arbitrary power over citizens.

The essays on mercy and anger bring together the fields of personal virtue and the best ways of governing. Virtue for Seneca, as was normal for ancient thinkers, was deeply embedded in ideas of self-restraint and moderation. From this point of view anger damages the angry person, as an example of self-harming extreme behaviour. Anger is a negative painful state of mind and to act under its influence leads to great harm.

Seneca is not simply saying that a ruler should follow general moral virtue in the manner of ruling. He places a particular responsibility on the ruler to resist anger and show mercy. The individual may harbour resentment against some enemy who caused harm, but the ruler must avoid such resentment. The ruler who publishes and executes all those regarded with suspicion as present or future enemies harms the state and the public good. Harsh treatment of individuals by rulers leads to those individuals becoming angry with the ruler so conspiring against that person. Executions will only stimulate further rebellion by those who were closest to the executed and leads to an increasingly violent period of rule. All the violence and revenge has negative consequences for the public good as well as for those persecuted.

The ruler should regard all individuals as part of the state, which he should be trying to manage responsibly. The state is harmed if any individual within the state is harmed, as the state exists to promote the public good. The ruler who cannot restrain desires for cruelty and who ignores the rights of individuals is suffering from a self-harming weakness of character and is likely to suffer violent revenge. Seneca mentions the third Roman Emperor, Caligula, in this context, who was assassinated in 41CE, four years after succeeding Tiberius.

The best thing the ruler can do is show mercy. Those who receive mercy, even after plotting assassination, are likely to start supporting the ruler, and even work for the ruler. It is better to forgive and try to integrate a conspirator than kill the conspirator so that others will wish to avenge that murder. The ruler should obey laws as much as ordinary citizens, and should be mild in applying laws. Everyone is guilty of some fault, of some minor breach of law, at some time, so that punishing all wrong-doers will lead to the destruction of a society, as nearly all inhabitants of the territory of the state disappear.

While Seneca assumes that political power rests with one person, he argues that the continuing exercise of the power rests both on reliable justice with regard to the execution of laws and restraint from the most extreme or obsessive punishment. The powers of the state are understood as different from those of an individual, and as such must be much more limited in use than the power of citizens. The rights and welfare of citizens depend on a ruler who follows law and assumes less power than individuals, which makes a worthy contribution to thought about liberty.