It is Latin Thursday, and I thought I would bring about some Seneca. We have some letter which Seneca wrote to an individual named Lucilius. Although we are not sure if the individual was a real person or just a rhetoric device used for the development of philosophical thought the letters are some of the best examples of stoic philosophy we have. In this example, Seneca has just spoken about proper usage of time, and closes with the following sentence:
Fac ergo, mi Lucili, quod facere te scribis, omnes horas conplectere. Sic fiet, ut minus ex crastino pendeas, si hodierno manum inieceris. Dum differentur, vita transcurrit.
Hence do, my Lucilius, which you yourself write about doing, to encompass every hour. Thus it will be done, so that you will depend less on things of tomorrow, if things of today will be held in hand. Since it is scattered, life, as it runs along.
Por lo tanto hazlo, mi Lucilius, aquello que tu mismo escribes, de abrazar toda hora. Así será hecho, para que dependas menos en el mañana, si las cosas de hoy tienes en mano. Ya que es esparcida, la vida, al pasar de largo.
Carpe diem (Horace wrote that, by the way), right? Certainly. There is a reason why the Romans have several verbs representative of doing. I spoke, recently, of how important ‘to do’ was in Roman Culture. Romans even have an entire noun case (the Ablative) that basically emphasizes who or what is doing an action. Pronouns are especially important in Latin; after all, we wouldn’t want someone to be accredited with something they didn’t do, right? Similarly, mos maiorum, the traditions, were past deeds proven to have been the benefit of a family or the state. This is why I love how Seneca begins this paragraph: “Fac ergo.”
If you are looking for a family motto, this may be a good one for you. It is not about laying idle, not even about getting up in the morning; it isn’t even about starting the day right. It is about doing something once you are up, about making use of the time you have now (that you have accomplished waking up early) given yourself, about using the advantages of a good breakfast to accomplish something. I also love the use of ergo to denote the result of ponderous pondering. Ergo represents the conclusion of a lifetime thinking about this, of Seneca wondering about the meaning of life and deeds. Thus, ‘do’ is not just a nice little thing we do; logic has dictated ‘doing’ is the best course of action. “Carpe diem” certainly has this connotation. For is it in the active seizing of the day that we find most things can be accomplished. Of course, Fac (my favorite verb in Latin because it sounds so much like one particular word in the English language – Facio, ‘to do’ is nice, but facit, ‘it has been done,’ has a tone of disdain in Latin and in English. Remember ‘c’ in Latin is a ‘k’ sound when you pronounce it.) is also in the Imperative mood, meaning Seneca is commanding us, or Lucilius, to do this thing.
Alas, we are far from done with Seneca’s statement; we have just seen the tip of the iceberg, and must now dive to see the rest. Seneca endears himself to his audience by calling his subject “mi Lucili.” This use of the possessive as a term of endearment (think of the English ‘my (little) girl’ or ‘my dear’) softens the blow from the Imperative we saw earlier. Seneca is admonishing (admoneo) out of love, not hate. The reason for this admonition is made clear next, for it was us who said we would do the thing we are being told to do. There are things we have not completed in our lives, things that we put off due to excuses or actual lack of time; now we are being called to an accounting for our lack of action. This emphasis in doing is better understood in a literal translation of that sentence:
“Do, hence, do, my Lucilius, that which to do, yourself, you wrote about.”
Seneca points the finger, unashamedly, to the person he is speaking to. Notice, also, the use of the personal pronoun for emphasis in order to remove the engendering of the idea from himself, and remind the person he was the one who first suggested it. What was that idea? “To encompass every hour.” Ah, here is our true “carpe diem” statement. The verb ‘conplectō’ is a close relative of the English ‘complete.’ In a society such as the Roman whose roots were agrarian, to complete was basically the same as to include. ‘Includō’ (to include) literally meant to enclose something around something else and yourself, such as a pen for pigs; everything inside the enclosure was thus included. ‘Conplectō’ had the same idea, except you were surrounding and closing to attach yourself to someone, or something, with your arms; hence the meaning as embrace/encompass. Funny how, to the Romans, you included by shutting everything else out. Inclusion was a process of cutting from something else, not adding to a whole. We are strange people.
Seneca now feels he must explain, once again, why this matters. He feels our skepticism, after all. The Future Perfect tense of ‘facio’ is used here. The deed not having been done yet Seneca says it will be done if, and only if, you put your mind to the task; with the result that “minus ex crastino pendeas.” ‘Minus’ is easy enough to identify as ‘less;’ ex (out) is self-explanatory. ‘Cras’ is a bit more complex. It is some ancient Latin word for ‘tomorrow,’ and which I like to remember as ‘crashing.’ ‘Cras’ is the root to ‘procrastinate’ (pro ‘for’ + cras ‘tomorrow’ + tinat(e) ‘thing held’) and ‘pendeo’ literally ‘leaving pending.’ In other words, you will be less dependent on what tomorrow may bring if you do now and don’t procrastinate. You have to love Latin for its simplicity, and yet wonder at its intrinsic complexity. At this point, all said and done, Seneca includes a metaphor. The deed is that which, being on your hand (held), is fact. Done. Ended. Look at your hand, see the deed there, done; that is how you gain independence from tomorrow, from the unknown. You go to bed with a quiet mind, and you are able to rest properly knowing that tomorrow will bring doings of a different kind, but things of doing none the less.
Finally, a moral, a pun to tidy things up nicely. I feel exhausted, mentally drained by the work Seneca has put me through; I am sure you feel the same. I think of the work Seneca has done, though. Putting so much care in every word; everything picked for Lucilius, for us, me and you. We wonder, aloud, why this matters so. All this grammar and construction, the endless myriad of meaning concocted by the alchemist and made into a potion so complex and yet so simple. We see it, in front of us, in a cup filled with generic-seeming ambrosia and yet now we know its composition; its complexities. There we are, reader, at the crux of life. Should you drink or should you pass? Should you move away or closer to what Seneca and the Stoics offer? While you decide, consider the philosopher’s last sentence:
“Because it is scattered, life, as it runs along.”
Go back to that image of the hand. See life in its palm, melting away at the passing of time, scattered by the very fingers that are meant to keep it together. Life runs, like water and sand through every small crevice, unstoppable, like time itself.
Seize it now, reader.
Do not watch time
slip along idle fingers.
Do, act, seize, be, take;
not tomorrow, but today.