On On the Shortness of Life
Reflections and Inspirations
Sharing here a few excerpts from Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life, sorted by theme.
On toiling in vain
Feeble old men pray for a few more years; they pretend they are younger than they are; they comfort themselves by this deception and fool themselves as eagerly as if they fooled Fate at the same time. But when at last some illness has reminded them of their mortality, how terrified do they die, as if they were not just passing out of life but being dragged out of it. They exclaim that they were fools because they have not really lived, and that if only they can recover from this illness they will live in leisure. Then they reflect how pointlessly they acquired things they never would enjoy, and how all their toil has been in vain. But for those whose life is far removed from all business it must be amply long. None of it is frittered away, none of it is scattered here and there, none of it committed to fortune, none of it lost through carelessness, none of it wasted on largesse, none of it superfluous: the whole of it, so to speak, is well invested. So, however short, it is fully sufficient, and therefore whenever his last day comes, the wise man will not hesitate to meet death with a firm step.
Should nature demand back what she previously entrusted to us we shall say to her too: ‘Take back my spirit in better shape than when you gave it. I do not quibble or hang back: I am willing for you to have straightaway what you gave me before I was conscious — take it.’ What is the harm in returning to the point whence you came? He will live badly who dares not know how to die well.
…there is no evil in poverty, as anyone knows who has not yet arrived at the lunatic state of greed and luxury, which ruin everything. For how little is needed to support a man! And who can lack this if he has any virtue at all? As far as I am concerned, I know that I have lost not wealth but distractions. The body’s needs are few: it wants to be free from cold, to banish hunger and thirst with nourishment; if we long for anything more we are exerting ourselves to serve our vices, not our needs. We do not need to scour every ocean, or to load our bellies with the slaughter of animals, or to pluck shellfish from the unknown shores of the furthest sea.
On caution and the grace of God
‘What can happen to one can happen to all.’ If you let this idea sink into your vitals, and regard all of the ills of other people (of which every day shows an enormous supply) as having a clear path to you too, you will be armed long before you are attacked.
On randomness and regression to the mean
Whatever comes our way by chance is unsteady, and the higher it rises the more likely it is to fall. Furthermore, what is doomed to fall delights no one. So 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. New preoccupations take place of the old, hope excites more hope and ambition more ambition. They do not look for an end to their misery, but simply change the reason for it.
On the present
Life is divided into three periods, past, present and future. Of these, the present is short, the future is doubtful, the past is certain. For this last is the one over which Fortune has lost her power, which cannot be brought back to anyone’s control. But this is what preoccupied people lose: for they have no time to look back at their past… The present time is extremely short, so much so that some people are unaware of it. For it is always on the move, flowing on in a rush; it ceases before it has come, and does not suffer delay any more than a firmament or the stars, whose unceasing movement never pauses in the same place. And so the preoccupied are concerned only with the present, and it is so short that it cannot be grasped, and even this is stolen from them while they are involved in their many distractions.
Can anything be more idiotic than certain people who boast of their foresight? They keep themselves officiously preoccupied in order to improve their lives; they spend their lives in organizing their lives. They direct their purposes with an eye to a distant future. But 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. Listen to the cry of our greatest poet, who as though inspired with divine utterance sings salutary verses:
“Life’s finest day for wretched mortals here / Is always first to flee.”
We should also make ourselves flexible, so that we do not pin our hopes to much on our set plans, and can move over to those things to which chance has brought us, without dreading a change in either our purpose or our condition…
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. Life has left some men struggling at the start of their careers before they could force their way to the height of their ambition. Some men, after they have crawled through a thousand indignities to the supreme dignity, have been assailed by the gloomy thought that all their labors were but for the sake of an epitaph.
On our supperiors
…let us not envy those who stand higher than we do: what look like towering heights are precarious. On the other hand, those whom an unfair fate has put in a critical condition will be safer for lowering their pride in things that are in themselves proud and reducing their fortunes as far as they can to a humble level. Indeed there are many who are forced to cling to their pinnacle because they cannot descend without falling; but they must bear witness that this in itself is their greatest burden…
In no respect has nature put us more in her debt, since, knowing to what sorrows we were born, she contrived habit to soothe our disasters, and so quickly makes us grow used to the worst ills. No one could endure lasting adversity if it continued to have the same force as when it first hit us. We are all tied to fortune, some by a loose and golden chain, and others by a tight one of baser metal: but what does it matter? We are all held in the same captivity, and those who have bound others are themselves in bonds — unless you think perhaps that the left-hand chain is lighter. One man is bound by high office, another by wealth; good birth weighs down some, and a humble origin others; some bow under the rule of other men and some under their own; some are restricted to one place by exile, others by priesthoods: all life is servitude. So you have to get used to your circumstances, complain about them as little as possible, and grasp whatever advantage they have to offer: no condition is so bitter as a stable mind cannot find some consolation in it.
On ill fortune
When a shipwreck was reported and he heard that all his possessions had sunk, our founder Zeno said,
‘Fortune bids me be a less encumbered philosopher.’
The best thing about escalators is they don’t break, they just become stairs. ~Mitch Hedburg
…we should make light of all things and endure them with tolerance: it is more civilized to make fun of life than to bewail it. Bear in mind too that he deserves bettter of the human race as well who laughs at it than he who grieves over it; since the one allows it a fair prospect of hope, while the other stupidly laments over things that he cannot hope will be put right. And, all things considered, it is the mark of a greater mind not to restrain laughter than not to restrain tears, since laughter expresses the gentlest of our feelings, and reckons that nothing is great or serious or even wretched in all the trappings of our existence.
…extract yourself from the crowd, and as you have been storm-tossed more than your age deserves, you must at last retire into a peaceful harbour. Consider how many waves you have encountered, how many storms — some of which you have sustained in private life and some you have brought upon yourself in public life. Your virtue has for long enough been shown, when you were a model of active industry: try how it will manage in leisure. The greater part of your life, certainly the better part, has been devoted to the state: take some of your own time for yourself too. I am not inviting you to idle or purposeless sloth, or to drown all of your natural energy in sleep and the pleasures that are dear to the masses. That is not to have repose. When you are retired and enjoying peace of mind, you will find to keep you busy more important activities that all those you have performed so energetically up to now. Indeed, you are managing the accounts of the world as scrupulously as you would another person’s, as carefully as your own, as conscientiously as the state’s. You are winning affection in a job in which it is hard to avoid ill-will; but believe me it is better to understand the balance-sheet of one’s own life than of the corn trade.
…men travel far and wide, wondering long foreign shores and making trial by Alden and sea of their restlessness, which always hates what is around it. ‘Let’s now go to Campania.’ Then when they get bored with luxury — ‘Let’s visit uncultivated areas; let’s explore the woodlands of Bruttium and Lucania.’ And yet amid the wilds some delight is missing by which their pampered eyes can find relief from the tedious squalor of these unsightly regions. ‘Let’s go to Tarentum, with its celebrated harbour and mild winters, an area prosperous enough for a large population even in antiquity.’ ‘Let’s now make our way to the city’ — too long have their ears missed the din of applause: now they long to enjoy even the sight of human blood. They make one journey after another and change spectacle for spectacle. As Lucretius says, ‘Thus each man ever flees himself.’ But to what end, if he does not escape himself? He pursues and dogs himself as his own most tedious companion. And so we must realize the our difficulty is not the fault of the places but of ourselves.
The mind should not be kept continuously at the same pitch of concentration, but given amusing diversions. Socrates did not blush to play with small children; Cato soothed his mind with wine when it was tired from the cares of state; and Scorpio used to distort that triumphal and military form in the dance, not shuffling about delicately in the present style, when even in walking men mince and wriggle with more than effeminate voluptuousness, but in the old-fashioned, manly style in which men danced at times of games and festivals, without loss of dignity even if their enemies were watching them. Our minds must relax: they will rise better and keener after a rest.
There is also another not inconsiderable source of anxieties, if you are too concerned to assume a pose and do not reveal yourself openly to anyone, like many people whose lives are false and aimed only at outward show. For it is agonizing always to be watching yourself in fear of being caught when your usual mark has slipped. Nor can we ever be carefree when we think that whenever we are observed we are appraised; for many things happen to strip us of our pretensions against our will, and even is all this attention to oneself succeeds, yet the life of those who always live behind a mask is not pleasant or free from care. On the contrary, how full of pleasure is that honest and naturally unadorned simplicity that in no way hides its disposition!
…whether we agree with the Greek poet that ‘Sometimes it is sweet to be mad,’ or with Plato that ‘A man sound in mind knocks in vain at the doors of poetry,’ or with Aristotle that ‘No great intellect has been without a touch of madness,’ only a mind that is deeply stirred can utter something noble and beyond the power of others.
This is water
But 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 realize too late that for all this time they have been preoccupied in doing nothing. And the fact that they sometimes invoke death is no proof that their lives seem long. Their own folly afflicts them with restless emotions which hurl themselves upon the very things they fear: they often long for death because they fear it. Nor is this a proof that they are living for a long time that the day often seem long to them, or that they complain that the hours pass slowly until the time fixed for dinner arrives. For as soon as their preoccupations fail them, they are restless with nothing to do, and all the intervening time is wearisome: really, it is just as when a gladiatorial show has been announced, or they are looking forward to the appointed time of some other exhibition or amusement — they want to leap over the days in between. Any deferment of the longed-for event is tedious to them. Yet the time of the actual enjoyment is short and swift, and made much shorter through their own fault. For they dash from one pleasure to another, and cannot stay steady in one desire.
It was nature’s intention that there should be no need of great equipment for a good life: every individual can make himself happy. External goods are of trivial importance and without much influence in either direction: prosperity does not elevate the sage and adversity does not depress him. For he has always made the effort to rely as much as possible on himself and to derive all delight from himself. So what? Am I calling myself a sage? Certainly no. For if I could claim that, not only would I be denying that I was wretched but I would be asserting that I was the most fortunate of all men and coming close to god. As it is, doing what is sufficient to alleviate all wretchedness, I have surrendered myself to wise men…
On useless knowledge
…those people are busy about nothing who spend their time on useless literary studies: even among the Romans there is now a large company of these. It used to be a Greek failing to want to know how many oarsmen Ulysses had, whether the Iliad of the Odyssey was written first, and whether too they were by the same author, and other questions of this kind, which if you keep them to yourself in no way enhance your private knowledge, and if you publish them make you appear more a bore than a scholar. But now the Romans too have been afflicted by the pointless enthusiasm for useless knowledge.
On moderation in studies
Even in our studies, where expenditure is most worthwhile, its justification depends on its moderation. What is the point of having countless books and libraries whose titles the author could scarcely read through in his whole lifetime? The mass of books burdens the student without instructing him, and it is far better to devote yourself to a few authors than to get lost among many. Forty thousand books were burned in the library at Alexandria. Someone can even praise it as a sumptuous monument to royal wealth, like Titus Livius, who calls it a notable achievement of the good taste and devotion of kings. That was not good taste or devotion but scholarly self-indulgence — in fact, not even scholarly, since they had collected the books not for scholarship but for display. In the same way you will find that many people who lack even elementary culture keep books not as tools of learning but as decoration for their dining-rooms.
…if you devote to your studies the time you would have taken from your public duties you will not have deserted or evaded your task. For the soldier is not only the man who stands in the battle line, defending the right and left wings, but also the one who guards the gates and has the post, less dangerous but not idle, of keeping the watch and guarding the armory: these duties, though bloodless, count as military service. If you apply yourself to study you will avoid all boredom with life, you will not long for night because you are sick of daylight, you will be neither a burden to yourself nor useless to others, you will attract many to become your friends and the finest people will flock about you. For even obscure virtue is never concealed but gives visible evidence of herself: anyone worthy of her will follow her tracks.
But nothing delights the mind so much as fond and loyal friendship. What a blessing it is to have hearts that are ready and willing to receive all your secrets in safety, with whom you are less afraid to share knowledge of something than keep it to yourself, whose conversation soothes your distress, whose advice helps you make up your mind, whose cheerfulness dissolves your sorrow, whose very appearance cheers you up!
Books that were referenced here or otherwise inspired this post:
On the Shortness of Life — Seneca
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The photographs in this piece were taken in downtown Houston as well at André Smith’s Mayan chapel in Maitland Florida.
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