Category Archives: Time

Summary of Seneca, “On the Shortness of Life”

Duble herma of Socrates and Seneca Antikensammlung Berlin 07.jpg

 Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 4 BC – AD 65)

(This is one of my most popular articles with almost 70,000 views. It originally appeared in this blog on March 5, 2015. I’m reposting it because I’ve been writing about aging lately.)

As they age wise persons often lose interest in the inessential. The Stoic philosopher 
Seneca touched on a similar theme in his 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 if we use our lives properly they are long enough. Unfortunately, we often squander our time, mistakenly believing that we have plenty in reserve. We distract ourselves and we don’t immerse ourselves in the present, living 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 I have learned to 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.)

Does Time Speeds Up As You Age?

The above video suggests that time speeds up as you age. On first reflection, this seems true. I’ve just turned 60, and time seems to pass faster now than when I was younger. As a child a day in school seemed to take forever, but so too did summer vacation. Today a school year seems to fly by for this professor. When I was a kid I thought something twenty years ago was prehistoric, now twenty years ago was 1995. And 1995 seems downright futuristic compared to the 1960s I remember. 

Richard A. Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry at the Weill Cornell Medical College has also found that the idea that objective time is speeding up as you age is illusory. “On the whole, most of us perceive short intervals of time similarly, regardless of age.” However, “when researchers asked the subjects about the 10-year interval, older subjects were far more likely than the younger subjects to report that the last decade had passed quickly.” So “Why … do older people look back at long stretches of their lives and feel it’s a race to the finish?”

Friedman’s answer is similar to Hammond’s. When you learn something for the first time, says a child, it takes time to learn and “you are forming a fairly steady stream of new memories of events, places and people.” Then as an adult when “you look back at your childhood experiences, they appear to unfold in slow motion probably because the sheer number of them gives you the impression that they must have taken forever to acquire.”

But this is merely an illusion, the way adults understand the past when they look through the telescope of lost time. This, though, is not an illusion: almost all of us faced far steeper learning curves when we were young. Most adults do not explore and learn about the world the way they did when they were young; adult life lacks the constant discovery and endless novelty of childhood.

“Studies have shown that the greater the cognitive demands of a task, the longer its duration is perceived to be,” so perhaps ” learning new things might slow down our internal sense of time.” This may also be part of the solution to the apparent speeding up of time as we age:

if you want time to slow down, become a student again. Learn something that requires sustained effort; do something novel. Put down the thriller when you’re sitting on the beach and break out a book on evolutionary theory or Spanish for beginners or a how-to book on something you’ve always wanted to do. Take a new route to work; vacation at an unknown spot. And take your sweet time about it.

I think this is right. We can squeeze a bit more out of life by continually developing. After all, the art of staying young is in large part a matter of continually learning new truths, and unlearning old falsehoods.

How Should We Spend Our Time?


(This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, September 17, 2014)

[I have promised posts on the topic of “truth and justice” and “cognitive bias.” I will deliver in the next few days on the former topic, but I won’t have time for the latter. For those interested, two sites about cognitive bias are: Overcoming Bias, the blog of Professor Robin Hanson of George Mason University,  and Less Wrong, the brainchild of Eliezer Yudkowsky, a researcher at Machine Intelligence Research Institute.]

Speaking of a lack of time, today, as I was reading multiple threads on multiple topics by members of the research group with whom I’m affiliated, (Evolution, Complexity and Cognition Group in Belgium) I was struck by the importance of deciding what one will read, think, and do in one’s lifetime. Why? Because there is too much material to read and think about for any one person to be acquainted with, much less master. It would be a full-time job just to digest all the material on my email threads. Moreover, at the moment there are at least 20 topics in my blog post que, and ten books waiting to be read. It is overwhelming. One must pick and choose, so that one doesn’t waste their precious time on triviality. Life is short. But according to what criteria do we pick and choose?

My main criterion is to pursue, as far as possible, timeless topics like the meaning of life and love, the importance of truth and justice, the advancing science and technology, and the course of cosmic evolution. Obviously these topics are themselves much too broad–one is going to have to specialize further to make much progress. Still I remember reading Isaac Asimov’s advice that we eschew specialization so that we can be polymaths. I think there is much to this. If our focus is too narrow, we miss the proverbial forest for the trees. Nonetheless no advice is truly adequate here. There is an almost infinite amount of existing knowledge which increases daily, and our minds are finite.  As I’ve said many times our best hope for synthesis of this knowledge is to increase our mental capacities. Until then I would advise thinking about as many timeless things as possible while maintaining physical vigor and mental health.

In addition to intellectual life, there are also obligations to family, to making a living, to bettering the world, and more. Here too we must make choices—there are more things to do than we can do. But we should do what we generally enjoy, with the caveat that we are bad at predicting our own happiness. Still life is too short to make ourselves and others miserable by pursuing some supposed, but despised, duty.

In the end we must strike a balance. This idea was well captured in the opening pages of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. There, David Hume penned this remarkable paragraph:

Man is a reasonable being; and as such, receives from science his proper food and nourishment: But so narrow are the bounds of human understanding, that little satisfaction can be hoped for in this particular, either from the extent of security or his acquisitions. Man is a sociable, no less than a reasonable being: but neither can he always enjoy company agreeable and amusing, or preserve the proper relish for them. Man is also an active being; and from that disposition, as well as from the various necessities of human life, must submit to business and occupation: but the mind requires some relaxation, and cannot always support its bent to care and industry. It seems, then, that nature has pointed out a mixed kind of life as most suitable to the human race, and secretly admonished them to allow none of these biases to draw too much, so as to incapacitate them for other occupations and entertainments. Indulge your passion for science, says she, but let your science be human, and such as may have a direct reference to action and society. Abstruse thought and profound researches I prohibit, and will severely punish, by the pensive melancholy which they introduce, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you, and by the cold reception which your pretended discoveries shall meet with, when communicated. Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.

Closing Time

It has occurred to me that an individual post often may be my last statement on a given topic. I thought this when I finished my recent post on abortion, a subject I am unlikely to revisit since it bears little relationship with my main concerns—evolution, transhumanism, and the meaning of life. But how do I feel about the fact that I will never revisit a topic?

My first feeling is sadness. It is often sad when things come to an end. I will never read and think about some topic again, just like I may have heard a song on the radio for the last time or caught my last baseball. But for a thinker, to know that your thought time is up pierces heart. Why is there not enough time to find our answers? Second I feel inadequate. A lifetime is insufficient to probe the depth of some topics, and others will not be thought about at all. In the ocean of thoughts, our minds explore areas the size of atoms; from an infinite smorgasbord of ideas, we sample only a few.

So my visceral responses to endings and finitude are sadness and inadequacy. Yet the stirring words of Tennyson best capture the proper attitude:

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!

I will probe the issue further in my next post with a discussion of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

The Brevity of a Human Life

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying. ~ T. S. Eliot

(This article was reprinted in ,” Humanity+ Magazine, June 30, 2014)

I came across the interesting visuals found below—which convey the briefness and fleetingness of a human life—at the blog Some may find them depressing. Perhaps they enjoy their lives and don’t want to contemplate their brevity, or maybe they detest their lives and realize how little time they have to change them. Others may find the visuals uplifting. Perhaps they help them realize a life is precious and shouldn’t be wasted, or maybe they find consolation that some suffering they endure is not interminable. Whether you find the visuals depressing or uplifting, they communicate the reality of the brevity of a human life is. So remember life is short. Enjoy it and try to help others or your time has been wasted. Here are the visuals.

This is a long human life in years.

A Human Life in Years

This is a long human life in months.

This is a long human life in weeks.

Each row of weeks makes up one year. That’s how many weeks it takes to turn a newborn into a 90-year-old. It feels like our lives are made up of a countless number of weeks. But there they are—fully countable—staring you in the face.

Before we discuss things further, let’s look at how a typical American spends their weeks:

American Life in Weeks

Conclusion – Well there it is; that’s your brief life. You may think that having 20 or 40 or 60 years to live is a long time, but that’s only 240 or 480 or 720 months. And a month goes by quickly. Enjoy your life while you can and help others. If you do you will have few regrets.