Monday, October 3, 2016


On the Shortness of Life by Seneca


We all, ordinary people and very famous people, complain how short life is and that we should fill it to the brim with things to do and things to experience. But the great Roman philosopher, Seneca, says that we waste life in "heedless luxury and no good activity." He then goes on to say that time is passing away almost before we know it is passing. It is only when death is imminent that we feel like we've wasted all this time. However, "our lifetime extends amply if you manage it properly."

On the Shortness of Life is an essay that is written as a monologue by Seneca directed at his friend, Paulinus; very much in the mode of teacher to student. The translation by C.D.N. Costa is superb—articulate, nuanced, and succinct.

Seneca goes to list, at length, all the things people do to fritter their lives away. Some people achieve great success but work themselves into an early grave, others are controlled by sloth and other vices, some are slaves to others' whims, and yet others toil ceaselessly for no gain. Not a one of these know true leisure. Pursuit of hedonistic pleasures isn't leisure; it's more wearisome toil.

No matter where a person is in their life, everyone, universally, complains that they have no time for themselves, no peace. Trifling with an intangible but precious resource like time, which is considered so cheap it is lavishly used up with no reckoning, is a crime in Seneca's book.

And yet people let time pass them by without caring. "People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time, they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy." They allow people to encroach on their time and they, in turn, generously give time to everyone around them. Such a person in our world would be called exemplary. But Seneca says:

"You are living as if destined to live for ever; your own frailty never occurs to you; you don't notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply—though all the while that very day which you are devoting to somebody or something may be your last."

And the sad part of this exemplary person's life is that their secret lament is that they have no time for themselves and life is passing them by. To Seneca, it is unthinkable that such a paradox should occur. This is not an exemplary life by his standards. This is a wasteful life, one of respectable delusion. He believes that no activity can be successfully pursued by an individual who is preoccupied, since the mind when distracted absorbs nothing deeply but rejects everything which is, so to speak, crammed into it." (Heh! Tell us how you reaaaally feel, Seneca.)

There are a few digressions in his soliloquy where he rants about certain people or certain events. It's amusing to see him realizing that he has digressed, but he takes none of his mean-spirited comments back. Alas, every great person also has their weaknesses.

Ultimately, we get to the main point of his speech. What, then, is the ideal form in which you should spend your hours in order to have said that you have lived life to the fullest? Well, you should spend your time in the pursuit of the study of philosophy. Bien sûr! What else would one do? And not just the study of philosophy, but do it in solitary splendor, answerable to no one and spending time on no one other than yourself. He lauds what we would call selfish behavior, boring even.

But solitariness as the path to happiness, tranquility, and success in life is not new. Many writers and philosophers have touted its virtues. Most of us don't have the luxury of enveloping ourselves in this much-desired way of life, so we are, perhaps, doomed to lead an unfulfilled life full of strife, joy, sorrows, and tangible achievements. And we will remain in the rut of: "Too much to do, too little time."


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