Book of da Week: On the Shortness of Life by Seneca

Seneca - On The Shortness of Life
Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life.

This week we’re taking a look at the musings of Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger, who existed ages ago. On the Shortness of Life (De Brevitate Vitae – an essay he wrote for his father-in-law) offers eloquent and detailed insights on how to live one’s life given the ever advancing nature of time. Wouldn’t you believe it, the little book is quite the marvel, jammed full of sublime concepts.

Although he was alive thousands of years ago, it’s clear human nature hasn’t changed much. Seneca pours scorn on the greed and excess of his peers, highlighting how the true path to wealth is through intellectual development. This makes On the Shortness of Life something of a lesson from history about how to use your time wisely. Take that, egg timers!

On the Shortness of Life

How does one, in the span of around 70 years or so, ensure one has used one’s time wisely (one can stop pretentiously using “one” to describe oneself for a start)? Seneca set out to elucidate the matter in this essay, highlighting advanced notions for the time – all his arguments are (largely) grounded in humility and intelligent thought. He states:

"Life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future. When they come to the end of it, the poor wretches realise too late that for all this time they have been preoccupied in doing nothing."

What preoccupations exactly? He argues those not interested in philosophy, science, and liberal thought have wasted time. This leads him to pour scorn on the arrogance of the rich (many of his wealthy peers were renowned for their appalling extravagances) who consider their lives to be complete, or a success, due to being prosperous.

It’s increasingly pertinent for us lot, especially given how many in today’s world aspire to earning millions. It’s become something of the accepted route to achieving happiness in life. As you’d expect, Seneca deconstructs myths such as this with his stoic principles and highlights how a “man” (i.e. human – sexist bloody old git!) can make the most of her or his time:

"The man who spends all his time on his own needs, who organises every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day. For what new pleasure can any hour now bring him? He has tried everything, and enjoyed everything to repletion. For the rest, Fortune can dispose as she likes: his life is now secure. Nothing can be taken from this life, and you can only add to it as if giving to a man who is already full and satisfied food which he does not want but can hold."

His case study here is the legendary Diogenes of Sinope, who gave up all his wealth and possessions in order to live in a barrel (Alexander the Great visited Diogenes and stated he envied him) to, presumably, pontificate about stuff. Freed from the trappings of wealth and his position in society, he believed he’d made the most of his time on this Earth.

Later, in the chapter On Tranquillity of Mind, Seneca offers sage advice for us all – hang around with groovy people and “if you apply yourself to study you will avoid all boredom with life”:

"In the current dearth of good men you must be less particular in your choice. Still, you must especially avoid those who are gloomy and always lamenting, and who grasp at every pretext for complaint. Though a man's loyalty and kindness may not be in doubt, a companion who is agitated and groaning about everything is an enemy to peace of mind."

Thanks to advice such as this, along with the eloquence of his writing, the essay offers some relaxed (indeed… stoic!) outlooks on how to lead your life and make the most of the time afforded to you.

Some of his points are anachronistic (his points on slaves and how to handle them is, you know, a bit out of touch with reality – we only have three slaves at Professional Moron and we treat them with the utmost respect most of the time!), but Seneca represents himself as a wise sage who kept a level head whilst his peers became preoccupied with wealth and excess.

Conclusion

Although it’s showing its age in some respects, there’s still plenty any individual can take from the lucid statements of Seneca. In around 100 short pages he’ll prop you up with a multitude of ideas on how to calm down your insane life and find some peace of mind – essential in this 24/7 day and age.

You don’t even have to buy the book to read this one. There’s a complete PDF edition: On the Shortness of Life. We’re not demanding you read all of it, but have a scan through and pick up some wisdom along the way. This will be time which is not wasted.

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