(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, January 31, 2016.)
Yesterday I wrote about the impending death of the great neurologist and author Oliver Sacks. I was particularly struck by this line from Sachs’ public goodbye: “I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential.” This brought to mind the Stoic philosopher Seneca who touched on a similar theme in his short piece, On the Shortness of Life:
It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing.
Seneca believed that life is long enough, if we use it properly, but that we often squander our time, mistakenly believing we have plenty in reserve. We distract ourselves, we don’t immerse ourselves in the present, and we live for a future that may never come. At the end of our lives, even if we have lived long, we may not have lived wisely. We may have been obsessed with achievement and ambition rather than with living.
It is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil. They achieve what they want laboriously; they possess what they have achieved anxiously; and meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return.
To care for our time is to care for ourselves because how we spend our time is how we spend our lives. Our time is the most precious thing we have, and someday we’ll have no more of it.
Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.
There is much to recommend in Seneca, but I have always liked one particular piece of his advice. He says that we should seek the counsel of good mentors as substitutes for deficiencies in our education or upbringing. He makes this point in a moving passage:
We are in the habit of saying that it was not in our power to choose the parents who were allotted to us, that they were given to us by chance. But we can choose whose children we would like to be. There are households of the noblest intellects: choose the one into which you wish to be adopted, and you will inherit not only their name but their property too. Nor will this property need to be guarded meanly or grudgingly: the more it is shared out, the greater it will become.
We can all learn much from Buddha, Seneca, Epictetus and other sages. From Seneca we have learned: be mindful, live now, and keep good company. What wonderful advice from a Stoic sage.
Here’s a brief video about Stoicism in general. Its pretty good, but I disagree about its interpretation of the Stoics view of hope. The Stoics weren’t pessimists, they were realists. (In the next few days we’ll cover the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and a few days later we’ll cover Admiral James Stockdale on how the thoughts of Epictetus may have saved his life. Also there is an audiobook of On the Shortness of Life.)