Tuesday, August 9, 2011

On the shortness of life

The Roman philosopher Seneca has become a minor sensation on the Internet, a mere 2000 years after his death. I’ve seen his writing pop up unexpectedly on several occasions recently, including on blogs like mine. Among his moral essays that survive, “On the Shortness of Life” is one of the most popular, full of practical wisdom and a benign form of pre-Christian humanism.
Having read the essay several times, I’m repeatedly struck by the many echoes of Seneca I hear in the writing of more contemporary authors, most notable Henry David Thoreau. Here are a few of his pearls of wisdom. See if you don’t agree that his thoughts about the brevity of life are both profound and familiar
  • It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficient measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested.
  • The part of life we really live is small. For all the rest of existence is not life, but merely time.
  • You will hear many men saying: “After my fiftieth year I shall retire into leisure, my sixtieth year shall release me from public duties.” And what guarantee, pray, have you that your life will last longer? Who will suffer your course to be just as you plan it? Are you not ashamed to reserve for yourself only the remnant of life, and to set apart for wisdom only that time which cannot be devoted to any business? How late it is to begin to live just when we must cease to live! What foolish forgetfulness of mortality to postpone wholesome plans to the fiftieth and sixtieth year, and to intend to begin life at a point to which few have attained!
  • There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living; there is nothing that is harder to learn.
  • Can anything be sillier than the point of view of certain people—I mean those who boast of their foresight? They keep themselves very busily engaged in order that they may be able to live better; they spend life in making ready to live.
  • The fairest day in hapless mortals’ life is ever first to flee.
  • Very wretched, and not merely short, must the life be of those who work hard to gain what they must work harder to keep. By great toil they attain what they wish, and with anxiety hold what they have attained; meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return.
These and other writings of Seneca expose the traditional themes of Stoic philosophy: the universe is governed for the best by a rational providence; contentment is achieved through a simple, unperturbed life in accordance with nature and duty to the state; human suffering should be accepted and has a beneficial effect on the soul; study and learning are important. He emphasized practical steps by which we might confront life's problems. In particular, he considered it important to confront one's own mortality. Consideration of how to approach death dominates many of his letters.

We all find different ways to “wear out our years,” as Seneca has put it. Most of us do so in vain pursuit of things that don’t really matter, although we don’t typically know that at the time. The satisfaction in reading Seneca is that he wrote this particular essay late in a long life that had granted him perspective and wisdom. That he wrote it when Caesars ruled the world hardly seems to matter.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If only we could all live as though money doesn’t matter. Then we could live more for today than working for tomorrow. Family, friends and citizenship demand and warrant planning for the future but also should demand that life is fully realized. Frequently the later is never met.