Is it possible to escape time? This subject appeared in the philosophy examination of the 2019 literary French baccalaureate. In this post, I would like to propose a Stoic answer based on Seneca, who studied the question of time in his treatise On the Shortness of Life (De Brevitate Vitae). This post is not an answer key to the question, but a freely inspired exercise that seeks to articulate the stoic philosopher’s reflection on the issue raised.
In Stoicism, time is described as incorporeal. It is not possible to act upon it, neither can it be affected by the interaction of another body. It escapes the causality of the world, just like gravity, the void, or the sayables. So, it seems impossible to influence it. The march of the stars as well as the aging of our bodies do not depend on any particular will.
However, beyond scientifically defined time, the time that makes each second equal to the next, there is a subjectively lived time: 8 hours of sleep do not have the same subjective duration as 8 hours of wakefulness; 3 minutes in a dream may only represent 3 seconds in reality; 1 hour of boredom is not worth 1 hour of leisure, etc. Some control seems possible over this second type of time.
In the context of practical philosophy, the subject must be problematized in relation to its existential implications. We can, with Seneca, distinguish different times: the time of life and the time of non-life. Seneca does not use these terms but talks about the lifestyle of the occupied (occupati) and the lifestyle of leisured people (otiosi). The former are alienated and allow themselves rather than living, while the latter are fully in control of their existence. Many human beings exist without living, that is to say, they alienate themselves in occupations unnecessary – if not harmful – to their natural happiness. They do not escape time, but rather it is time that escapes them. On the other hand, otiosi, those who lead a philosophical life, have a use of time that allows a certain existential detachment.
Given these considerations, we can therefore ask ourselves if appropriating time allows us to free ourselves from it. It will first be necessary to clarify the proper use of time and then to understand whether or not this makes it possible to free oneself from it. Throughout the development process, it is the angle of practical philosophy, the one that supports concrete action, that will be maintained.
I. Of Good Use of time
Time is one of the things that does not depend on oneself, like gravity, body health, reputation, wealth, weather, place of birth, etc. And yet, Seneca affirms that “the life we are given isn’t short, but we make it so” (I. 4). To what extent would it then be possible to influence the duration of our personal experience?
1. Time is a value too often overlooked
First, we must distinguish between time, which follows its course independently of our will, and the use of time, which is specific to each individual. On this point, Seneca notes that most human beings misuse time: we spend it on activities useless to our happiness. We lose it in useless or even harmful company. We spend it as if it were infinite. The Stoic author is surprised that we are stingier with our money and material goods than with our time. He says:
Men are thrifty in guarding their private property, but as soon as it comes to wasting time, they are most extravagant with the one commodity for which it’s respectable to be greedyIII.1
To use our time well, it is therefore necessary to be aware of its value. Every lost second is a lost second. It is not equivalent to money, which can come back, or other forms of material goods. For these reasons, Seneca criticizes those who wish to wait until retirement age to engage in truly human activities (meditation, contemplation, studies…), and those who suddenly and tragically become aware that they have not lived when they are on the death bed.
2. To exist is not the same as to live
Seneca then distinguishes existence and life. To live is to follow our human nature. To exist is to ignore this human nature. For the philosopher, all those who alienate themselves in a particular activity, the occupied, waste their lives:
They are too busily preoccupied with efforts to live better ; they plan out their lives at the expense of life itself. They form their purposes with the distant future in mind. Yet the greatest waste of life lies in postponement : it robs us of each day in turn, and snatches away the present by promising the future.IX.1
The occupied or foolish are slaves of time, worried for example that their pleasures will one day end, that their bodies will age, that their fortune will disappear… Seneca does not run out of illustrations: drunks, lazy people, avaricious people, debauched people, but also unsuccessful courtiers, idle people, those who lose too much time in bodily care, those who live only following a passion, those who engage in a work of erudition that does not help one know how to live, and so on. They miss their lives without even knowing it.
3. What does living mean?
To live precisely, we must be aware of our human nature. We are beings endowed with reason and, for the Stoics, it is the path of reason that leads us to happiness. Once again, we do not choose to exist but we choose the way we exist, the way we spend our time. A bad way of existing, one that alienates us, that develops in us vices or an ignorance of our own human condition, will considerably reduce the quality of our existence and, at the same time, the duration of our lived experience. On the other hand, a good way of existing, one that develops virtues in us – excellence of character, a mind structured by reason – and an awareness of our role in Nature, will allow us to live fully, even beyond our singular existence:
Of all people, they alone who give their time to philosophy are at leisure, they alone really live.XIV.1
It is in philosophy that we begin to live and that the duration of our experience is then measurable. Otherwise, we remain in bare existence without value.
In short, quality of life is more important than life span. An old man may have lived less than a young man. This is because subjectively, the philosopher or wise person, even a young one, will necessarily be satisfied with the length of his existence.
To live, in the philosophical sense proposed by Seneca, is therefore to appropriate the time of one’s existence to make it a duration of no importance in relation to our serenity. To what extent, however, do philosophy, and by extension wisdom, free us from the singular time of our existence?
II. Does using your time well allow you to free yourself from it?
What matters, then, is the evolution of the soul rather than that of the body. Practical philosophy develops an art of living. Does the evolution of the soul allow us to go beyond the temporal framework of our existence? Would wisdom – the purpose of practical philosophy – be a point of immortality that would elevate us beyond our mere presence in the world?
1. Spiritual exercises to appropriate time
In his treatise, Seneca indirectly mentions two spiritual exercises: self-attention and self-examination. The first helps to be aware of your actions and the movement of your soul. When anger comes, for example, it allows us to pause the internal dynamics that lead to passion, and to evaluate, with reason, whether or not it is wise to let this dynamic come to an end.
The second exercise helps to evaluate past thoughts and actions to see if I have done the right thing, done the wrong thing or missed the opportunity to do better. In relation to the subject, the self-examination allows me to have an insight into the quality of my existence, a quality optimized by self-attention:
Look back and recall when you were ever sure of your purpose; how few days turned out as you’d intended; when you were ever at your own disposal; when your face showed its own expression; when your mind was free from disturbance; what accomplishment you can claim in such a long life; how many have plundered your existence without your being aware of what you were losing ; how much time has been lost to groundless anguish, foolish pleasure, greedy desire, the charms of society; how little is left to you from your own store of time. You’ll come to realize that you’re dying before your time.III.3
An existence without self-examination and without self-attention is a life that will necessarily be brief. If spiritual exercises are important, it is because they bring us closer to wisdom. In Stoicism, wisdom, once acquired, remains anchored in ourselves until our death. With it, life is long enough. The happiness it brings is infinite, outside of any temporal preoccupation. A wise man would be happy for 10,000 years if he could live that long. He would also be for 10 hours if he only had 10 hours left to live. It is therefore a first response to our question : the appropriation of our time of existence by philosophy allows us to free ourselves from certain temporal concerns by delivering an atemporal happiness. We do not free ourselves from time but we structure our mind on an archetype that detaches itself from it.
2. Joining the noosphere of wisdom
Seneca, however, speaks of immortality in a slightly more sibylline sense:
if we want to transcend the narrow limitations of human weakness by our expansiveness of mind, there is a great span of time for us to range over.XIV.2
What the author seems to mean here is that our mind can agree, through philosophy and its purpose, wisdom, on infinite and eternal ideas that we have in common with the best of men:
We can debate with Socrates, entertain doubt with Carneades, be at peace with Epicurus, overcome human nature with the Stoics, and go beyond it with the CynicsXIV.2
The Russian mineralogist and chemist Vladimir Vernadsky might talk here about joining in thought a kind of noosphere of the wisdom. It is another form of appropriation of time beyond our temporary existence. Seneca even believes that the company of these great men leads to eternity and can change our mortal state into immortality. The hypothesis of an esoteric meaning where it is the transcendence of the self through philosophy that leads to mystical immortality is not to be excluded. But more prosaically, wisdom necessarily leads to a changed perception of time.
3. The relationship to time in the wise man
The author does not really elaborate on this, but, in the wise man’s case, “the combining of all times into one makes his life long” (XV.5). Where the occupied and other foolish fall into a fatal triptych: “forget the past, disregard the present and fear for the future” (XVI.1), the wise recollects the time spent by memory, uses the present time and anticipates the future. The past is in memory for the self-examination and to remain aware of the path taken to wisdom; the future is seized in advance in the sense that the soul of the wise is prepared for all events of destiny; the present is the time of self-attention.
This is the exact opposite of the use of time by the occupied. In the life of the wise man,
none of it is made over to another, none scattered in this direction or that; none of it is entrusted to fortune, none wasted through neglect; none is lost through being given away freely, none is superfluous; the whole of life yields a return, so to speak. And so, however short, it is amply sufficient; and for that reason, whenever his last day comes, the sage will not hesitate to go to his death with a sure step.XI.2
In concrete terms, the wise person appropriates all time, past, present and future to merge them into one, the present, in his mind. By doing so, he frees himself from the worries of the past and the future into which so often the unwise fall.
Time is a precious value and the use we make of it determines the quality of our existence. An alienated life, of pleasures, or idleness goes against our rational and reasonable state of being. This existence will necessarily be brief because it lacks density. The mind will remain unsatisfied and will fear death. It is leisure life, in the most philosophical sense of the word, that transforms our time of existence into a lived experience. Thus, the appropriation of time through philosophical discipline makes it possible to change the plan.
This life, the life of the wise man in the highest point, has necessarily a satisfying duration. The wise man does not escape time, his body ages, but he transcends it in thoughts through a wisely structured soul. He lives beyond temporal preoccupations, in the present time, and joins the atemporal universe of the greatest minds. To appropriate time thus makes it possible to free oneself from it only insofar as the appropriation is philosophical and that the liberation is that of the soul.
Jean-Baptiste Roncari has a masters in political sociology from the Institute of Political Studies of Strasbourg. He is active in the French-speaking Stoic association Stoa Gallica, and he shares his experience with Stoicism on the blog Un Regard Stoïcien (Facebook page here) and through his Instagram account @unregardstoicien.