Seneca, that champion essayist of antiquity, began his collection of moral epistles to Lucullus with an urgent plea:
Persuade yourself that the matter stands as I write: some time is stolen from us, some is drawn off, and some just flows away. The most shameful loss, though, is the one which occurs through negligence. If you wish to take note, you will see that a large part of life slips away from those who act badly, the greatest portion slips away from those who do nothing, and all of life slips away from those who are busy doing something else. What person can you cite who places a price upon his time, who takes an account of the day, who understands that he is dying every day? We are deceived in this, that we look forward to death: a large part of it has already gone by, and whatever part of our lives is in the past is death’s property now. Therefore, act as you claim to do, and embrace every hour; thus it will happen that you weigh out less of tomorrow, if you throw your hand upon today. Life runs away when it is delayed. All things, my Lucilius, are foreign to us: time alone is ours. Nature has granted us the possession of this one fleeting, slippery thing, from which she expels whoever wishes it. The stupidity of humans is so great that they allow the smallest, most worthless things (certainly, those which can be retrieved) to be added to their account when they have accomplished them, but no one thinks that he owes any debt when he receives time, though this is the one thing which no one is able to pay back readily. [Moral Epistles, 1.1]
If Seneca’s advice sounds modern and well-fitted to our age, it is perhaps only because one could easily imagine hearing it from any of today’s podiums of self-righteous assholery, from the TED stage to a podcast. Seneca was not, however, addressing a generation born into wage prostitution. Readers and audiences may be fascinated by accounts of the pleasure/utility maximizing routines of tech and finance bros, and Stoicism may have taken off among the aforementioned douchenozzles, but Stoicism as a practice can only ever really appeal to the wealthy. Anyone who can practice abstinence and denial must necessarily exist among some kind of surplus.
But to return to Seneca and that invidious monster, time. There is no doubt that many of us are wasting our time in the sense that we are employing it upon activities which we would not freely choose. Though we may have some apparent choice about what we do (though far less than we ostensibly do), the fact is that we must have jobs which will require a certain amount of time (not production) from us. As a teacher, I have sold my time to the school, and am paid regardless of how much students learn (or don’t) on the basis of the fact that I am there during my contract hours. Other career options may lie open, but how many of them would differ from my current job in this crucial respect?
Moreover, the very idea of the wage system is based upon the premise that no one would work entirely of their own accord. Consider this exchange from the most important cinematic creation of all time, Office Space:
PETER: Our high school guidance counselor used to ask us what you would do if we had a million dollars and didn’t have to work. And invariably, whatever we would say, that was supposed to be our careers. If you wanted to build cars, then you’re supposed to be an auto mechanic.
SAMIR: So what did you say?
PETER: I never had an answer. I guess that’s why I’m working at Initech.
MICHAEL: No, you’re working at Initech because that question is bullshit to begin with. If that quiz worked, there would be no janitors, because no one would clean shit up if they had a million dollars.
Elsewhere, Peter claims that if he had a million dollars, he would do nothing. Though many of us can surely think of something which we would do if freed from the dread bondage of working life, I doubt that many people would continue to work at their jobs if they did not have to. Seneca himself was rich, and though he held various official positions, these were not strictly necessary to his pecuniary survival. Seneca could afford for all of his time to remain his own. Moreover, Seneca’s leisure was built upon a system of brutal slavery, and so his life may not serve as the most edifying model.
Yet, independent of class concerns, the old clichés about time so popular among the old Roman elites are perhaps even more salient today than they were in antiquity. Consider for a moment those famous lines of our main man Horace:
Cut back long hope. While we speak, a hateful age will have escaped. Seize the day, trusting as little as possible to tomorrow.
spem longam reseces. Dum loquimur, fugerit invida
aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero. [Odes, 1.11]
This has always been good advice in light of the brevity of human life, but how much more compelling is it at the end of civilization? The further we stumble into the future, the more dire the warnings about the earth’s future inability to support human life become. That is of course wholly independent of the geopolitical shitshow in which any misstep in the carefully calibrated shit choreography could instantly precipitate a war of global extinction. In an increasingly globalized yet simultaneously fragmented world, one in which democracy is rapidly being subverted by authoritarianism and oligarchy, perhaps Seneca’s claim is true – perhaps the only thing which is truly ours is our time.
Thus it is that I declare myself a Plus-Temporist. What is Plus-Temporism? A general sense that in addition to rectifying other social injustices inflicted by capitalism, we should as a society reclaim our time – from employers, from advertisers, from the hucksters selling us time-sucking but vacuous entertainments. Computerization and, more recently, wholesale automation promised a reduction in human labor, but have instead resulted in greater working hours for those people with traditional jobs (i.e. not gigs), as they struggle to stave off the threat of being replaced entirely by soulless automata.
For my own part, I used to assign homework to my students on occasion, but I recently told them that I had come to the conclusion that homework is immoral. As it stands, they spend eight hours in school every day – is that not enough? Seneca oversimplifies the solution by suggesting that one should simply opt out and reclaim their time on their own, but the individual retreat from impositions on one’s time is a privilege exclusively reserved for the rich. Is the forty hour (or worse) work week not just an absurd anachronism? And so, perhaps we should make a larger cooperative effort to reduce the amount of time which people have taken from them. We may not know what tomorrow will bring, but once it arrives, we know that today has departed and taken with it another twenty four hours of our limited lives.
One thought on “From Senecan’t to Senecan”
Seneca committed suicide, in the end. Perhaps his modern TED disciples should follow their master’s excellent example.