On the shortness of life

Hiding behind my copy of On the Shortness of Life
Seneca – On the Shortness of Life

This set of three essays by Seneca has been on my list for a long time. A death in the family moved me to buy it and read it now.

But the titular essay isn’t really about death at all. It’s about this:

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.

The key to understanding Seneca’s thesis is the phrase, “highest achievements.” Seneca gets around to this later, but first he’s got a lot to say about what activities are not the highest achievements.

Seneca hears lots of people complaining about how little time there is in the day. Sound familiar? I know I’m guilty.

There’s more to distract us today than ever before. Seneca destroys the argument that people have too little time for living. Truth is, we don’t protect our time the same way we protect our material possessions:

Men do not let anyone seize their estates, and if there is the slightest dispute about their boundaries they rush to stones and arms; but they allow others to encroach on their lives — why, they themselves even invite in those who will take over their lives. You will find no one willing to share out his money; but to how many does each of us divide his life!

Bosses, family, friends, pets, websites, news, politics, government — to whom are you giving your time away?

Seneca uses the examples of Augustus (“he knew from experience how much sweat those blessings gleaming through every land cost him, how many secret anxieties they concealed”) and Cicero (“he had neither peace in prosperity nor patience in adversity”): men who achieved fame and fortune but never got a chance to actually enjoy living. Seneca has a great term for these temptations — preoccupations. Fame, money, power; anything keeping a person from truly living.

Living is the least important activity of the preoccupied man; yet there is nothing which is harder to learn.

Preoccupations look seductive, but only until you possess them and find them more trouble than they’re worth. We’re quick to toss away years of toil for the promise of some future pension, but when we’re threatened with terminal illness, suddenly every day becomes important. It’s the illusion of the unknown: we discard our time like it’s nothing when we’re not sure how much of it we have left, even acting like it’s infinite, but we value it supremely as soon as our days are numbered.

To avoid preoccupation? Stop worrying so much about the future, and focus on each day as it comes. Not to say don’t plan at all, but make the most of today to execute on your plans for tomorrow.

Another weakness of preoccupation is that it prevents you from thinking more about your past. Not regretting it, but learning from it:

This is the period of our time which is sacred and dedicated, which has passed beyond all human risks and is removed from Fortune’s sway, which cannot be harassed by want or fear or attacks of illness. It cannot be disturbed or snatched from us: it is an untroubled, everlasting possession…

Just as it is no use pouring any amount of liquid into a container without a bottom to catch and hold it, so it does not matter how much time we are given if there is nowhere for it to settle; it escapes through the cracks and holes of the mind.

The preoccupied person is rushing through life from one thing to the next, always crying out for more time. But life is plenty long if you only do what you want to do: if you find ways to live intentionally and invest your time where you choose.

Back to Seneca’s “highest achievement:” it’s simple — to study philosophy. Ideas and wisdom are timeless, only increasing in value through the ages, while honors and monuments and fame are quickly dissipated. Hedonistic pleasure, too, is always temporary: once you have it, you can’t help but fear for it to be taken away. It’s scarier to fear loss of great power than it is enjoyable to possess it:

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.

If you follow sports, you’ll notice that the top athletes and coaches rarely take much time to enjoy their accomplishments. The most hardassed workaholic coaches especially wear a perpetual scowl, always focused on what’s coming next. This may be a winning strategy on the field, but is it a winning strategy for getting the most out of life? I don’t know. But I wouldn’t want to find out:

So when you see a man repeatedly wearing the robe of office, or one whose name is often spoken in the Forum, do not envy him: these things are won at the cost of life. In order that one year may be dated from their names they will waste all their own years.

In ancient Rome, the consul was the highest office of the state; every year two different men served, and instead of referring to the year by date, Roman citizens knew it by the names of the consuls of that year. But in order to become a consul and achieve such fame — coming up through the political ranks and paying one’s dues for decades — one had to give up their own lives.

It may have been prestigious to get a year named after you, with your name on every tongue, but what is that worth today? How many Roman consuls can you name?

Isn’t it better to live your life for yourself, and for the people you choose to be part of it? My favorite line in the essay sums up how best to live by describing the ideal posture toward its three periods:

Life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future.


Note: There are two other great essays in my version of the book. They’re pretty awesome and I might write about them sometime later.