Edward Qiu

Computer Science Student

Thoughts on Moral Letters to Lucilius: Letter 1 - On Saving Time

The structure of the following post will be a series of quotes from the letter followed by my notes. Please correct any of my misunderstandings or if you have any other interpretations in the comment section below. I hope you find my notes useful!

The letter can be found here for reference (Credits to Tim Ferriss). An audiobook version of the letters can be found here. The citations are in the format (Letter.Paragraph.Sentence)

“The most disgraceful kind of loss, however, is that due to carelessness.” (I.2.3)

If one cannot recognize loss of time or how one allocates one's time, one allows one's time to slip away. Since our time is the only thing we truly own/have control over, it is in our best interest to manage the finite resource of time rigorously.

Peter Drucker states "what's measured improves". In other words, if something is measured, it can be improved. The application Drucker's quote to Seneca's statement is if one measures how one allocates time, one can manage where to use time (improve one's management of one's only finite resource).

“Furthermore, if you will pay close heed to the problem, you will and 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.” (I.2.4)

Question: What does Seneca mean by "the purpose"? How does Seneca define purpose?

“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.” (I.3.2-3)

Death is defined by the time we have no control over. Death is the time that is gone. In other words, the past is equivalent to death. Every moment is slowly arriving in death's hand; this gives us a sense of urgency to take action on the things we say we will do now.

Question: Should we look back at or reflect on our past if it is not something we have control over? More generally, do the stoics believe we should think about things we can't control?

“Therefore, Lucilius, do as you write me that you are doing: hold every hour in your grasp.” (I.4.1)

Do as you say and seize every moment. Don't postpone, because when we postpone the task, we are either doing ill, nothing, or something that is not to the purpose

“Lay hold of today’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon tomorrow’s.” (I.4.2)

If one completes the task at hand today, you will not need to depend on your abilities tomorrow. Completing the tasks of today most likely will reduce the chance of one worrying about tomorrow, because one occupied completing the tasks of today. Reducing the possible things one can worry about tomorrow tasks/situations make it easier to focus on staying in the present.

In terms of planning, one must complete the task today in order to move a plan toward.

“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.” (I.5.1-2)

Our time is only resource we have control over, but it is easy let time slip out of our control. All we know is that we have time, but we don't know how much is left.

“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!” (I.5.4)

People easily give up the only thing they own (time) for useless things and people whether by not accurately calculating value or discounting the value of time.

Time is most precious commodity we have. Other things come and go, but once time is lost, it is lost forever.

“And yet time is the one loan which even a grateful recipient cannot repay.” (I.5.5)

One should appreciate it when others give their time, since they are giving you some of the only thing they own.

“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.” (I.6.3)

Seneca states that even he wastes time, but he is not careless and he knows where his time is allocated.

“I do not regard a man as poor, if the little which remains is enough for him.” (I.7.2)

If a man feels like he has enough, he is not poor.

Question: Under the model of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, a man is not poor if he has satisfied the first four tiers? What is enough? How does one define enough? Enough is defined as not wanting more?

“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.” (I.7.4-5)

It is too late to save the liquid in the cask when you arrive at the bottom. Liquid in the cask is time, because that is the only thing we can own. Once one realizes one is running out of time, it is too late to save time. When one is almost out of time, our quality of life during the remaining time is vile. (Ex: Elderly people with health complications, procrastinated on a deadline and having to sprint to finish, etc.)

Summary: View time is the most precious resource and the only resource you own. Be strict with your time, know where your time is spent and appreciate others giving you their time. Seneca talks about how not to spend your time.

Question: What should one use time on?

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