Tag Archives: Seneca


Here’s an ‘around the water cooler’ post for assiduous readers today on time, that familiar stranger in our lives. How did the topic come about? Every so often-which is, at it turns out, once every couple of months-I pick up some donuts and head out to say hi to the boys at my old work, Bayside Mechanical out in Sidney. For one it’s fun to catch up on how everyone is doing. And then it’s a good excuse to jump on the bike. Pedal bike that is. If only they could make cars as dependable as bicycles. A bike can sit unused for years: just pump up the tyres (notice saucy British spelling!) and away you go. Built in climate control: if it’s hot slow down. If it’s cool, push the pedal to the metal! Beautiful machines. They make life efficient. No need for gym membership! But what was I talking about…ah…time.

‘What Do You Do With All Your Time?’

One of the things my colleagues say is: ‘Man, what do you do with yourself? I wouldn’t know what to do with all that extra time! I’d go nuts’. Well, that’s not quite what they say, but something along those lines. For those readers just hopping aboard, I used to work at Bayside Mechanical full time up till November last year. The routine was: out the door to catch the bus at 6:30AM and get in the door at 6PM. All-in with the commute (and I think that’s the proper way to calculate how long work takes) that’s almost twelve hours or half the day. So the way my colleagues are seeing it, well, I have a whole lot more time on my hands!

Accounting for All That Extra Time

Let’s see how things have changed. Before I used to go to bed around 11PM and get up 5:30AM. Now it’s more like bed at midnight and get up at 8AM. So I’m sleeping 1-1/2 hours more. What else? Grocery shopping used to be once a week. A big shop on Saturday at Fairway Markets. Now I go between Market on Yates, Fairway, and Fisgard Market in Chinatown for best pricing. This probably knocks 3 bucks off the weekly grocery spend of ~$55. It wouldn’t have been worth it to do this last year, that’s for sure. Milk and specials at the Market, meat and most staples at Fairway, and fruits and veggies in Chinatown. So shopping consumes another, say, 15 minutes a day on average (shopping is not every day but since everything is being calculated by day, keeps the numbers apples to apples). Then the library. Walking to the library and back again, coming home for lunch, going back… That’s gotta be another hour a day right there. Then blogging. That’s the amazing one. Blogging is actually very time intensive. This blog right here will probably take 2 hours altogether (I work on it on and off). Actually, maybe even more. It’s getting faster with practise though. Remember Seneca’s aphorisms? Witty things like ‘upon the author crimes come back?’. Well, these didn’t just ‘come’ to Seneca. In his educational treatises, he advises students of oratory to come up with one or two sententia each day. Blogging requires practise too. And hey, blogging is good for writers. Its an exercise to get your thoughts out there right here right now as opposed to labourious writing in the ‘academic’ style that is constantly written and rewritten. So, what are we at? Almost 5 hours. 7 hours of ‘regained’ time are still unaccounted for. That must be the time I’m writing and reading. Oh, and snacking. Good thing there’s time to work out because I snack a lot more. Also cooking more at home and eating out a lot less. But really, that should be time neutral: the time saved by going out is burnt by well, going and and coming back.

The Nature of Time

The strange thing is, it doesn’t seem like there’s all that extra time. There must be something psychological in how time flows. Actually, there is. And as project managers, we know this: give a worker a task, and he will fit his day to it. Time and productivity are like a gas in a container. If the container is small, the gas will fit but be at a higher pressure. If the container is large, the gas will also fit but be more ‘relaxed’. Operating at high pressures for too long, and something’s going to blow up. Operate at low pressures for too long, and the container might even implode out of boredom. The trick is to find a happy medium.

So, for those of you fearing that when you retire, there’s going to be too much time, well, don’t worry. That’s not going to be a problem. The one thing that is hard to understand is that once time becomes your own time why its considered to be time wasted or time off the grid. Why shouldn’t time be worth more when it is your own time?

There’s a really good book that I read years ago that shaped my thinking on work and time. It’s called Your Money or Your Life. It’s by Robin and Dominguez. It’s one of the few books that I’ve read multiple times. Do you know what actually happens when you get paid? Well, you’re actually trading in your life for money, which you spend on other things. By consuming, you’re actually consuming your own life. Ever talk to the old guys? You hear they say lots of things, but have you ever heard an old guy say, ‘I wish I had spent more time in the office?’. Betcha you haven’t. And if you have, I’d sure like to know why!

My Efficiency Rating

So, it would seem in hindsight that when time is my own time, I’m less efficient than before. Or that I’m underutilized. Grocery shopping in multiple places. Sleeping more. Walking more. But that’s an illusion. Sometimes you hear people saying we only use 10% of our brains. Well, that’s an illusion too, because if someone lopped out the 90% that is not being used, I’m sure the brain would not work at all! So, I’m at, taking a guestimate, 75% efficiency compared to before. But it’s in my downtime that the ideas appear: during walks, taking a break, hey, even in my dreams sometimes! And I think this is true not only of me, but also of a lot of artists and, dare I say it, scientists as well? For the Curies to have experimented enough to discover radiation or for Mendel to have come up with genetics, they must have had a lot of spare time. But really, its not ‘spare’ time! It’s ‘spare’ only in the sense of ‘we’re only using 10% of our brain’!

So, although from a purely quantitative perspective, my production is down, it is the way it has to be. A certain amount of leisure is necessary in the production of art, or *gasp* even science. But though the production seems down, my days are still too short. As Seneca said in another aphorism: no day is too long for the busy. It.s already 7:42PM and I still must finish Plato’s Phaedo and the Ion tonight and start on something else. Maybe finish Schiller’s The Robbers which has eluded me for a month now.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and there is much to do when one is Doing Melpomene’s Work.

Tragic Epochs

Flowerings of Tragedy

Tragedy is one of those arts which comes and goes. This post takes a look at tragic epochs of the past–that is to say, periods in which the art form of tragedy flourished–to see if they share some sort of common denominator. Some art forms have an unbroken lineage. Take sculpture or painting. One would be hard pressed to find a period in which these activities were not going on. The practise of other art forms such as history, philosophy, and comedy appear to be relatively continuous as well. Take philosophy, for example. From its beginnings in the 6th century BC, you had Thales and Heraclitus. The 5th century saw Socrates and Plato. The 4th Aristotle. The 3rd Zeno and Epicurus. Carneades in the 2nd. Lucretius and Cicero in the 1st. Seneca on the other side of the 1st. And so on. Tragedy is completely different. Tragic epochs seem to flower into a lush bloom and then die out just as fast.

Tragic Epochs

The list starts with the big three in the 5th century BC: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Although tragedies continued after the 5th century, it’s not until the 1st century AD that they really come back with Seneca. Around the time of Seneca the emperor Augustus and the orator Maternus also worked on tragedies, though they do not survive. If that gap of almost 500 years seems long, the next of the tragic epochs doesn’t dawn until 16th century Elizabethan England. Here you had luminaries such as Kyd, Webster, Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Jonson. Again, probably a 50 or so year flowering. In the 17th century across the Channel France could boast Corneille and Racine, who provided a temporary home for the spirit of tragedy. The next of the tragic epochs is not until the late 18th century in Germany (who actually thought they were Greeks with Classicism in full swing): Goethe, Schiller, Holderlin, and others. From there, the torch goes north to the Scandinavian countries in the 19th century with Ibsen and Strindberg. And in the 20th, it’s been the American century with the likes of O’Neill and Miller.

That’s seven tragic epochs in the last 1500 or so years.

The End of Tragic Epochs

Goethe, in his conversations with Eckermann, once mused on the death of tragedy. It had occurred to him as well that tragedy flowers just as quickly as it dies. His thought was that the big three of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides had written so many that there was little left to say. Goethe was thinking more about 5th century Athens than the whole history of tragedy up to his day, though. I like this explanation. Although only thirty of so tragedies by the big three survive to this day, they had actually written hundred. At the City Dionysia each year, three dramatists would be expected to produce three plays each. Tragedy usually takes its stories from myth, so there’s only so many ways you can spin the stories. Think of Hollywood and how it ‘reboots’ movie franchises. Right now at the theatres they.re playing Terminator Genisys. There’s only so many ways you can spin the story of a time travelling robot who says, ‘I’ll be back’. But yes, I probably will rent this when the library gets it…

Goethe’s explanation works for 5th century Athens. But what about Elizabethan or Jacobean England?–there they were not limited to myth. They could use history (e.g. Macbeth) or legend (e.g. King Lear) as well. To answer that, let’s go and see how tragic epochs begin.

The Birth of Tragic Epochs

Now to find a common theme in the tragic epochs. Empire perhaps? 5th century century saw the rise and fall of the Athenian Empire. Seneca was writing in imperial Rome. Elizabethan England saw the arms race with Spain end with the destruction of the Spanish Armada. France was busy colonizing the New World during the time French Classical drama was being written. Germany during the time of Schiller and Goethe, while not a military powerhouse (too fragmented and Napoleon too powerful riding around in his red cape), was a cultural powerhouse boasting the likes of Kant, Hegel, Beethoven and others. The thesis does not work very well for Ibsen and Strindberg though. But it does for Miller and O’Neill, who were writing in the ‘American Century’.

So far, the argument seems to suggest that tragedy is involved with the study of power. Kings and queens have traditionally been the subject of tragedy. Common people are more generally found in comedy. Another thing about this period is that people were generally doing well. This suggests that tragedy flourishes when people are flourishing: the ability to stomach tragedy is a sort of luxury. When tragedy is too close, it is not welcome: Phrynicus staged the tragedy The Fall of Miletus shortly after the Persians sacked the allied city in 494 BC. He was fined for reminding the Athenians of their sorrows. More recently, films which had or were perceived to contain elements too close for comfort after the 9/11 attacks were either delayed or modified. You can write a tragedy about the Black Plague, but not during the Black Plague.

Because tragedy is about choice and paying the price (hence the title of my book will be Paying Melpomene’s Price), tragedy can also be an exploration of the consequences of action during times of upheaval. Sophocles’ Antigone can be interpreted as an exploration of the rights of the state versus the rights of the individual and the price the protagonists pay to make their point. When Anouilh produced his Antigone in occupied France during WWII, his treatment of choice and the horrible consequences of paying the price for choosing were such that both the Nazis and the Free French enthusiastically applauded the performance: the Nazis for Creon and the Free French for Antigone.

As a starting point then, perhaps this can be said of the tragic epochs. Tragedy requires a certain minimum standard of living to happen. Generally, things have to be going well (lots of exceptions such as Anouilh). Things have to be going so well that power can become concentrated somehow in such a way that the protagonist has to make a decision that involves some kind of sacrifice. It’s not the sort of decision that a serf can make, because a serf doesn’t have enough to sacrifice. The decision has to have some kind of contemporary significance. So, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House couldn’t be written in a patriarchy. It had to wait for a time of great social change. So here we have it: power, high standard of living, and societal sea change. These are the preconditions of tragic epochs. Agree or disagree?

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I am always Doing Melpomene’s Work, even under the sweltering noonday sun when I would rather be doing siesta.