Seneca: on the shortness of life

Sundial at Pompei

Seneca wrote his 20-sections On the Shortness of Life in 49 CE, the year he returned to Rome from his exile in Corsica, as a moral essay addressed to his friend Paulinus.

It begins: “The majority of mortals, Paulinus, complain bitterly of the spitefulness of Nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, because even this space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live.” Seneca immediately goes on to argue that it isn’t really the case that human life is short, but rather that most people waste of a lot of it.

“The part of life we really live is small. For all the rest of existence is not life, but merely time.”

In section III he makes the observation that we tend to guard carefully the sort of goods that can be traded for money, and yet we are incredibly wasteful of the only thing for which people cannot pay us back: time.

“Look back in memory and consider when you ever had a fixed plan, how few days have passed as you had intended, when you were ever at your own disposal, when your face ever wore its natural expression, when your mind was ever unperturbed, what work you have achieved in so long a life, how many have robbed you of life when you were not aware of what you were losing, how much was taken up in useless sorrow, in foolish joy, in greedy desire, in the allurements of society, how little of yourself was left to you.”

After which passage Seneca chides Paulinus for setting aside for the pursuit of wisdom only the spare bits of his life that are leftover after he takes care of ordinary business.

At VIII he says that he reserves particular contempt for those who waste their life in the pursuit of physical pleasures, like wine and lust — I guess he wasn’t a fan of the Cyrenaics! (Though Seneca himself elsewhere writes that wine and other pleasures are, of course, perfectly acceptable for the Stoic, so long as one exercises temperance.)

“It takes the whole of life to learn how to live, and — what will perhaps make you wonder more — it takes the whole of life to learn how to die.”

There are several passages in On the Shortness of Life where Seneca’s ability to write clearly and evocatively really shine through. Here is one of the best, in my opinion:

“There is no reason for you to think that any man has lived long because he has grey hairs or wrinkles; he has not lived long — he has existed long. For what if you should think that that man had had a long voyage who had been caught by a fierce storm as soon as he left harbour, and, swept hither and thither by a succession of winds that raged from different quarters, had been driven in a circle around the same course? Not much voyaging did he have, but much tossing about.”

In VIII Seneca makes an interesting observation, wondering why it is that when people ask others for a favor, the attention of both parties is focused on the specifics of what is being asked, but not on the time that it will take to actually accomplish it. As an academic who often finds himself short of time and besieged by all sorts of commitments, I can relate (indeed, I could relate even more when I was a Department Chair for five years!).

And he goes on to observe also that the same people — if threatened by disease or the possibility of the death penalty (not a rare thing in those days) — will not hesitate to spend all their riches in order to gain themselves some more time. Ah, the inconsistency!

Seneca says that postponing things is a great waste of life’s resources and that “the greatest hindrance to living is expectancy, which depends upon the morrow and wastes to-day.”

What happens when people get old and finally do approach the inevitable finishing line? “Old age surprises them while their minds are still childish, and they come to it unprepared and unarmed, for they have made no provision for it; they have stumbled upon it suddenly and unexpectedly, they did not notice that it was drawing nearer day by day.” (IX)

At X, Seneca says that life can be divided into three major parts: “that which has been, that which is, that which will be. Of these the present time is short, the future is doubtful, the past is certain.”

The wealthy elite, to which of course Seneca himself belonged, is not spared. On the contrary: “And I would not count these among the leisured class either — the men who have themselves borne hither and thither in a sedan-chair and a litter, and are punctual at the hours for their rides as if it were unlawful to omit them, who are reminded by someone else when they must bathe, when they must swim, when they must dine; so enfeebled are they by the excessive lassitude of a pampered mind that they cannot find out by themselves whether they are hungry!”

At XIII Seneca takes a swipe at the games so beloved by the Romans, and which rich patrons paid for in order to gain favor and political clout with the people: “Pompey was the first to exhibit the slaughter of eighteen elephants in the Circus, pitting criminals against them in a mimic battle? He, a leader of the state and one who, according to report, was conspicuous among the leaders of old for the kindness of his heart, thought it a notable kind of spectacle to kill human beings after a new fashion. Do they fight to the death? That is not enough! Are they torn to pieces? That is not enough! Let them be crushed by animals of monstrous bulk!”

What, then, is a good way to spend your life? Not surprisingly, Seneca suggests engaging in conversation with philosophers of all ages, as I’m doing here with him: “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. … We may fairly say that they alone are engaged in the true duties of life who shall wish to have Zeno, Pythagoras, Democritus, and all the other high priests of liberal studies, and Aristotle and Theophrastus, as their most intimate friends every day. No one of these will be ‘not at home,’no one of these will fail to have his visitor leave more happy and more devoted to himself than when he came, no one of these will allow anyone to leave him with empty hands; all mortals can meet with them by night or by day.”

[Note the “overcome human nature with the Stoics, exceed it with the Cynics” bit, reminiscent of Epictetus’ later praise for the Cynics (Discourses III.22).]

And what are we to gain from spending our precious time in this fashion? “No one of these will force you to die, but all will teach you how to die; no one of these will wear out your years, but each will add his own years to yours; conversations with no one of these will bring you peril, the friendship of none will endanger your life, the courting of none will tax your purse. From them you will take whatever you wish; it will be no fault of theirs if you do not draw the utmost that you can desire. What happiness, what a fair old age awaits him who has offered himself as a client to these! He will have friends from whom he may seek counsel on matters great and small, whom he may consult every day about himself, from whom he may hear truth without insult, praise without flattery, and after whose likeness he may fashion himself.” (XV)

Moreover, should you be interested in such things, this is your true and only ticket to immortality: “This is the only way of prolonging mortality — nay, of turning it into immortality. Honours, monuments, all that ambition has commanded by decrees or reared in works of stone, quickly sink to ruin; there is nothing that the lapse of time does not tear down and remove. But the works which philosophy has consecrated cannot be harmed; no age will destroy them, no age reduce them.” Which, of course, is very much the case for this very same essay that Seneca wrote so long ago.

And at XVIII, Seneca advises his friend to set himself free from the business of ordinary life, “believe me, it is better to have knowledge of the ledger of one’s own life than of the corn-market.”

On the Shortness of Life has become one of my favorite essays by Seneca. It is easy to read (the 20 sections are all very short), chockfull of captivating prose, imaginative analogies, and incisive commentary on the human existence. It is also a source I go back to every time someone makes what I think are unreasonable demands on my own time…

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13 thoughts on “Seneca: on the shortness of life

  1. One of my favorite passages about time:

    “Quod autem nunc liquet et claret, nec futura sunt nec praeterita, nec proprie dicitur: tempora sunt tria, praeteritum, praesens et futurum, sed fortasse proprie diceretur: tempora sunt tria, praesens de praetcritis, praesens de praesentibus, praesens de futuris. sunt enim haec in anima tria quaedam, et alibi ea non video: praesens de praeteritis memoria, praesens de praesentibus contuitus, praesens de futuris expectatio, si haec permittimur dicere, tria tempora video fateorque, tria sunt. dicatur etiam: tempora sunt tria, praeteritum, praesens, et futurum, sicut abutitur consuetudo; dicatur. ecce non curo nec resisto nec reprehendo, dum tamen intellegatur quod dicitur, neque id, quod futurum est, esse iam, neque id, quod praeteritum est. pauca sunt enim, quae proprie loquimur, plura non proprie, sed agtioscitur quid velimus.” – Augustine

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  2. On our main living area wall we have the following “Life is Long” when you look more closely you will see “if you know how to live it” under the Illuminated word of LIFE. I love this piece that Michel designed and printed on our humble home printer. Whenever I lose focus it is a wonderful reminder of what is important and all of the lessons that can be learned from this essay of Seneca’s.

    Pamela Daw

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  3. The difference between existing and living is one of the great existential questions.

    In my particular field the existential issues in psychotherapy were captured by Yalom who characterized them as death anxiety, freedom, isolation and meaningfulness. These are common to people with anxiety and depression that are often based on theoretical considerations.

    It precludes living and can lead to a miserable existence.

    Great stuff Massimo…

    George Dawson

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  4. Marvellous. I have boarded an intellectual tour bus taking me through all the best intellectual viewpoints with the tour guide being none other than the noted Massimo Pigliucci. I could wish for no better tour or tour guide. I might not always agree with the tour guide but I always value the disagreements because they are so stimulating. Every week I look forward to discovering the next destination.

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  5. the spitefulness of Nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, because even this space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live.

    The mistake is made because we count our life in the wrong way, from our individual birth to our individual death.

    But we are not an individual, we are a body made from many and the body is the sum of our contributions. Our body was born some 70,000 years ago with the birth of cognition and language and will live on for at least the next 10 million years. We are the collective memory of all generations before us. Our job is to build the collective memory so that the next generations have a better collective memory. My life time is as long as the collective memories before me and will live on in the collective memories after me. We are like a rope woven from many tiny strands. Our contributions remain in that rope, giving it enduring strength. I have a responsibility to ensure that my brief contribution to this long collective memory, the rope of life, is valuable and enduring. The contribution that each one of us makes changes the future.

    No animal species except us can do this. They have no collective memory and they cannot change the future. Their history is the result of blind, inexorable forces. We alone have this awesome privilege. We alone have this deep sense of continuity and otherness. We should take pride and joy in fulfilling the potential of this magnificent privilege. That is our destiny.

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  6. For this vision to work we must have a keen awareness of our history, a keen awareness of others and a keen awareness of how we may build the future. But certain things work against this. They are the things that make us obsessively concentrate on our immediate pleasures, to the neglect of others and the neglect of continuity. These are the vices, some of which were listed by Seneca.

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  7. Seneca said:
    Vices beset us and surround us on every side, and they do not permit us to rise anew and lift up our eyes for the discernment of truth, but they keep us down when once they have overwhelmed us and we are chained to lust. Their victims are never allowed to return to their true selves;

    To most such talk of vices is quaintly old fashioned. That is because we are developing a culture of untrammelled freedom which we also believe is the right to our own vices, but, in a convenient mental sleight of hand, we no longer call them vices.

    I blame Roy Rogers, it all started with him 🙂

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  8. Seneca said

    (XIV)”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 ever age to their own; all the years that have gone ore 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.

    (XV) “No one of these will force you to die, but all will teach you how to die; no one of these will wear out your years, but each will add his own years to yours;

    This are extraordinary insights. We should annex every age to our own. All the years that have gone before are an addition our own store of knowledge. Seneca says we have only really lived when we have done this.

    He then lists examples of the empty ways they fill their lives and it sounds exactly like today.

    (XIV)”But we may fairly say that they alone are engaged in the true duties of life who shall wish to have Zeno, Pythagoras, Democritus, and all the other high priests of liberal studies, and Aristotle and Theophrastus, as their most intimate friends every day.

    But here I think he is wrong. The sculptor who creates a marvellous bust from raw marble is also a great gift. The playwrights, poets, dramatists and other authors have hugely enriched our lives. The humble carpenter who lovingly fashions a beautiful table is also a gift. The plumber who patiently restores an ancient boiler to good working order is another gift.

    His “true duties of life” are too narrowly focussed and too specialised on the world of thought. I applaud the intention but deplore the elitism.

    I would rather put it this way. Our true duties in life are to be creative. We have lived worthwhile lives when
    1) we have made enduring creative contributions to the life of our species
    and
    2) we have contributed to supporting or enabling other people to make creative contributions of their own.

    Our creative contributions can be practical, functional, ethical, aesthetic or intellectual. We are driven to create the True, the Good and the Beautiful, in small ways and in great, according to our circumstances or ability. If we do this we are performing the “true duties of life“.

    Examining and celebrating the great intellectual contributions of others is one way of doing this, but it is only one way and there are many other ways.

    I know a highly qualified geologist who gave up his profession and spent six arduous years training as a blacksmith. Today he fashions marvellous works from wrought iron in his smithy. He is creative in a muscular, arduous way that uses little of his fine intellect but all of his fine aesthetic judgement. I admire him more than the cynical, hyper-critical, self-admiring head of our local department of philosophy.

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  9. Coel,

    Yes, plenty of people “think that.” Lawrence Krauss, for instance. And E.O. Wilson, if we don’t want to pick just on physicists.

    But I also have to agree with Dan that when people talk about supervenience or “meshing with” they aren’t really saying anything. Sure, so far as we know no explanation in economics, psychology, etc. violates any laws of physics, nor would I expect them to.

    But physics is entirely irrelevant to explanation in many (though not all) of the special sciences.

    If that’s the case, then it seems to me that any insistence at all that physics is more fundamental, or physical explanations more basic, is nonsense, perhaps even nonsense on stilts.

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