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.)

6 thoughts on “Summary of Seneca, “On the Shortness of Life”

  1. I was just re-reading the Meditations and enjoyed it even less than before. I think I’ve become allergic to appeals to deity and although it’s not a huge thing he made an early appeal that made the whole edifice look weak. From a lesser internet edition, a foreshadowing of Pascal and then a similar cop-out:

    “Since it is possible that thou mayest depart from life this very moment, regulate every act and thought accordingly. But to go away from among men, if there are gods, is not a thing to be afraid of, for the gods will not involve thee in evil; but if indeed they do not exist, or if they have no concern about human affairs, what is it to me to live in a universe devoid of gods or devoid of Providence? But in truth they do exist, and they do care for human things, and they have put all the means in man’s power to enable him not to fall into real evils. And as to the rest, if there was anything evil, they would have provided for this also, that it should be altogether in a man’s power not to fall into it. Now that which does not make a man worse, how can it make a man’s life worse? But neither through ignorance, nor having the knowledge, but not the power to guard against or correct these things, is it possible that the nature of the universe has overlooked them; nor is it possible that it has made so great a mistake, either through want of power or want of skill, that good and evil should happen indiscriminately to the good and the bad. But death certainly, and life, honour and dishonour, pain and pleasure, all these things equally happen to good men and bad, being things which make us neither better nor worse. Therefore they are neither good nor evil. ”

    Perhaps it’s reading Voltaire’s Candide and being inoculated against this sort of hogwash but the lunacy of Pangloss’ all for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

    That said I also just read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and didn’t particularly enjoy it either, so I’m probably in the wrong frame of mind. I thought most of the problems wouldn’t exist if just talked to his son or others. The whole “hiding the ball” thing got old really fast. How self-centered do you have to be to take thousands of miles to realize your son on the back can’t see the road and you’re just dragging him along like luggage?

  2. I’ve read your great post on aging and enjoyed in immensly. Love the use of the beads as a visual for life’s passing. Perhaps I can do a post on it. thanks as always for the comment.

  3. Thanks for posting this. I am new to stoicism but everything I am learning resonates strongly with me. I am naturally excellent at budgeting which is being conscious of what you spend your money on to provide you with the most fulfillment in your life.

    What you have written about Seneca is essentially the same thing but with your time. This is something that I am currently working on, as I have some bad habits in this area and reminders like your article help me refocus my use of time.

    Thank you!

  4. Really appreciate your comments. And I see the analogy. Never thought about it that way. Thanks.

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