Tag Archives: Shortness of Life

Stoic Week – Day Two: On the Shortness of Life

The morning reflection this morning was an excerpt from Seneca’s letter to Paulinus usually called “On the Shortness of Life.” There is a free audiobook version at Librivox that rewards listening. The reader is a bit quiet, but I feel like he captures some of the nuances.

It struck me today that time is like many other things that are indifferent. We stress about how we’re going to spend time, how we’ll ever find the time, and where the heck the time went. As a solo lawyer who works on a largely billable hour basis, I understand exactly how time=money. When you break down your time into 6 minute blocks as a professional habit, it really hammers home just how much time is spent on different tasks. (And just how much escapes without being put to a productive use–but that is a topic for my business plan, not for a philosophy blog.)

But there is another side to time=money. A Stoic side.

Time, like money, is an indifferent. It is neither Good nor Evil, but it can be turned to different purposes. Possessing it does not contribute to developing virtue; lacking it does not detract from the pursuit. The important thing with Time, as with all indifferent things, is how one uses it.  That is a theme that comes up so often in Stoic writing that it is easy to miss it, if you don’t know how much it means.

For example, in the evening reading, notice how Lucan describes Cato as taking enjoyment in the meanest things:

By Prioryman (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Bust of Cato from Archaelogical Museum of Rabbat, Morocco

In his eyes to conquer hunger was a feast, to ward off winter
with a roof was a mighty palace, and to draw across
his limbs the rough toga in the manner of the Roman citizen of old
was a precious robe, and the greatest value of Venus
was offspring …

Lucan, The Civil War. That passage could be read to mean that Cato was a tough and old-fashioned grump, who did not believe in the luxuries that began to be publicly enjoyed by the patricians during the late Roman Republic (and I believe my Roman History professor suggested to read it that way). But thinking about Cato as a Stoic,  a Sage according to some, another interpretation comes to mind. Cato treated meager quantities of indifferents as another might treat riches. He took full measure of each of those things in just the same way that Seneca later urged Paulinus to do with time. By doing so, he used the indifferents presented to him by Fate as objects through which to exercise his virtue.

Erik Weigardt described the same idea in The Stoic Handbook  (Second Edition), through a metaphor that I found helpful when struggling with the idea of indifferents: 

It’s like the potter sitting at his wheel. The indifferents are like the clay. How can the potter be indifferent to his clay? Without the clay he has nothing to do but watch the wheel spin around. The potter cares about his clay. The skill of the potter in working with his hands to form a beautiful and useful vessel from this lump of clay is like the skill of the Stoic in working with the cardinal virtues in forming a noble character. The Stoic’s clay is made up of the indifferents. Without the clay and the indifferents, the potter and the Stoic have nothing upon which to  practice their skills.

So that’s what I tried to do today with Time. I endeavored to exercise the virtues– wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice–with respect to Time. How I spent my time was in large part a matter of justice: how is my limited time most ethically distributed? But courage came into play more than I expected. After all, sometimes the best use of time is not the most desirable, so an unpleasant task must be faced and cannot be put off any longer. And moderation was also a concern. Surely, it is preferable to spend time in luxury or relaxation when it is available. But just as surely, it is important to spend time laboring when that time comes along. Practicing moderation (or decorum) through Time is a matter of knowing when the time is appropriate for one thing or another, keeping in mind all the time that the way time is spent in general has no necessary ethical value.

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Olivia Alcock, “Time is Money”

I didn’t do this perfectly. I spent too long at lunch with my wife to complete my entire task list. And I spent enough time working on my new firm’s website that I nearly ran late to pick up my daughter. But (except for some momentary anger at myself when I anticipated being late to pick up the kid), I managed to embrace making the most of time without falling into the trap of becoming entangled in managing time as a passion.

This would be a worthwhile exercise to repeat until it becomes a habit, lest I become a slave to the billable hour.