Lessons from Lucius Seneca’s “On The Shortness Of Life”

One interesting topic I’ve come across this year in a few podcasts I listen to is Stoicism. William Irvine introduced the school of thought in an episode of the Art of Manliness podcast and Ryan Holiday wrote a practical guide about it for entrepreneurs on The Tim Ferriss Show. It has practical applications in daily life, and because of that I’d like to eventually learn more about what to practice and its how’s and why’s. For now though, I thought that reading up on Seneca’s essay ‘On the Shortness of Life‘ would be a good starting point.

Here are some notes from the essay:

  • It’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it’s been given to us in generous measure for accomplishing the greatest things, if the whole of it is well invested. But when life is squandered through soft and careless living, and when it’s spent on no worthwhile pursuit, death finally presses and we realize that the life which we didn’t notice passing has passed away. So it is: the life we are given isn’t short but we make it so; we’re not ill provided but we are wasteful of life.
  • Look at those whose prosperity draws crowds: they are choked by their own goods. How many have found their wealth a burden! How many are drained of their blood by their eloquence and their daily preoccupation with showing off their abilities! How many are sickly pale from their incessant pleasures! How many are left with no freedom from the multitude of their besieging clients!
  • What foolish obliviousness to our mortality to put off wise plans to our fiftieth and sixtieth year, and to want to begin life from a point that few have reached!
  • The person who devotes every second of his time to his own needs and who organizes each day as if it were a complete life neither longs for nor is afraid of the next day. For what new kind of pleasure is there that any hour can now bring? Everything has been experienced, everything enjoyed to the full. For the rest, fortune may make arrangements as it wishes; his life has already reached safety. Addition can be made to this life, but nothing taken away from it – and addition made in the way that a man who is already satisfied and full takes a portion of food which he doesn’t crave and yet has room for.
  • I am always astonished when I see people requesting the time of others and receiving a most accommodating response from those they approach. Both sides focus on the object of the request, and neither on time itself; it is requested as if it were nothing, granted as if it were nothing. People trifle with the most precious commodity of all; and it escapes their notice because it’s an immaterial thing that doesn’t appear to the eyes, and for that reason it’s valued very cheaply – or rather, it has practically no value at all.
  • The greatest waste of life lies in postponement: it robs us of each day in turn, and snatches away the present by promising the future. The greatest impediment to living is expectancy, which relies in tomorrow and wastes today. You map out what is in fortune’s hand but let slip what’s in your own hand. What are you aiming at? What’s your goal? All that’s to come lies in uncertainty: live right now.
  • There is a common saying that it was not in our power to choose the parents we were allotted, and that they were given to us by chance; yet we can be born to whomever we wish. There are households of the most distinguished intellects: choose the one into which you’d like to be adopted, and you’ll inherit not just the name but also the actual property, which is not to be hoarded in a miserly or mean spirit: the more people you share it with, the greater it will become.
  • Honors, monuments, all that ostentatious ambition has ordered by decree or erected in stone, are soon destroyed: there’s nothing that the long lapse of time doesn’t demolish and transform. But it cannot harm the works consecrated by wisdom: no age will efface them, no age reduce them at all. The next age and each one after that will only enhance the respect in which they are held, since envy focuses on what is close at hand, but we more freely admire things from a distance.
  • It is nevertheless better – believe me – to know the balance sheet of one’s own life than that of the public grain supply.
  • In this mode of life much that is worth studying awaits you: the love and practice of the virtues, forgetfulness of the passions, knowledge of how to live and to die, and deep repose.
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