Sunday, December 25, 2011

Seneca on the Past

For Seneca, time is divided into three parts:
  • The present which is transitory,
  • The future which is uncertain and
  • The past which is unalterable.
So much is commonplace. What is not commonplace is how Seneca evaluates the different divisions. "The present is fleeting, to the degree that to some it seems non-existent. It is always in motion, it flows on headlong; it ceases to be before it has come, and will no more brook delay than the firmament or the stars, whose incessant drive never allows them to remain stationary. It is only with the present that busy men are concerned, and the present is so transitory that it cannot be grasped; but because their attention is distracted in many directions they are deprived of even this little." The future is uncertain. To worry about it is less useful than most people think. It is the past that is most important for him because
this is the part over which Fortune has lost her power, which cannot be subjected to any man's control. But this part men preoccupied lose, for they have no leisure to look back on the past, and if they had there would be no pleasure in recollecting a regrettable episode. They are unwilling to call to mind time badly spent, therefore, and have no stomach for traversing again passages whose faults are obvious in retrospect though they were disguised at the time by the pander pleasure. No one willingly turns his mind back to the past unless his acts have all passed the censorship of his own conscience, which is never deceived; a man who has coveted much in his ambition, behaved arrogantly in his pride, used his victory without restraint, overreached by treachery, plundered out of avarice, squandered out of prodigality, must inevitably be afraid of his own memory. And yet that is the part of our time which is hallowed and sacrosanct, above the reach of human vicissitudes and beyond the sway of Fortune, impregnable to the vexations of want and fear and the assaults of disease; it is the part which is not subject to turmoil or looting; its possession is everlasting and free from anxiety. The days of our present come one by one, and each day minute by minute; but all the days of the past will appear at your bidding and allow you to examine them and linger over them at your will. Busy men have no time for this. Excursions into all the parts of its past are the privilege of a serene and untroubled mind; but the minds of the preoccupied cannot turn or look back, as if constricted by a yoke. And so their life vanishes into an abyss. However much water your pour on will do no good if there is no vessel ready to receive and hold it; and similarly it makes no difference how much time is given you if there is no place for it to settle and it passes through the cracks and holes of the mind.[1]
This is about as much opposed as it gets to what GTD and other "time management" systems tell us today. The all focus on the present with a view to the future. They all focus on the uncertain and transitory. History gives depth to our lives. It is what we should try manage at least as much as the present and future.

Mind you, Seneca's concentration on the past has consequences for the way you live your live in the present. It tells us to live in such a way that we will be remember it with an untroubled mind. Taking note is a necessary condition of the possibility of such memories and the prevention of time passing through "the cracks and holes of the mind." And don't just think of the "weekly" or "monthly review" here either.

I am usually not given to preaching and I hope this is not too preachy.[2]



1. Seneca is, of course, aware of the fact that while the past may be unalterable, our usual interpretation of it is anything but. Some people have made a virtue out of this shortcoming. And this is what he is resisting. The text is from "On the Shortness of Life" (sect. 10).

2. See also Seneca on Gathering Ideas, written four years ago.

2 comments:

JWS02459 said...

Thanks for posting this. There's a lot here to (dare I say?)"digest." Is this from the Epistles as well? I'm ashamed to say that I know rather little about Seneca.

MK said...

Thanks for the response. No, this one is from "On the Shortness of Life" (sect. 10).