Saturday, June 12, 2004

Seneca on Leisure and Philosophy

Of all men they alone are at leisure who take time for philosophy, they alone really live; for they are not content to be good guardians of their own lifetime only. They annex every age to their own; all the years that have gone before them are an addition to their store. Unless we are most ungrateful, all those men, glorious fashioners of holy thoughts, were born for us; for us they have prepared a way of life. By other men’s labours we are led to the sight of things most beautiful that have been wrested from darkness and brought into light; from no age are we shut out, we have access to all ages, and if it is our wish, by greatness of mind, to pass beyond the narrow limits of human weakness, there is a great stretch of time through which we may roam. We may argue with Socrates, we may doubt with Carneades, find peace with Epicurus, overcome human nature with the Stoics, exceed it with the Cynics. Since nature allows us to enter into fellowship with every age, why should we not turn from this paltry and fleeting span of time and surrender ourselves with all our soul to the past, which is boundless, which is eternal, which we share with our betters? (De Brevitate Vitae, XIV, 1-2. Trans. J. W. Basore, Loeb Classical Library, vol. 254, pp. 333-335)

Comment: Leisure (otium) is a concept almost universally misunderstood nowadays. It has nothing to do with hitting little white balls into holes, and everything to do with the disciplined use of free time in pursuit of the worthiest objects for nonutilitarian ends. Leisure in this classical sense is the basis of culture (Josef Pieper). To be able to enjoy it with a good conscience is a mark of nobility of soul. (Nietzsche).