Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life
Why we continue to waste time, and how to stop!
I had a brief Facebook conversation with Massimo Pigliucci about my decision to fritter away a morning watching the rain and petting my cat. He said, “It’s up to you to determine whether your morning was wasted or not. But from a Stoic perspective the good use of time comes when one is doing something virtuous.” And I started wondering further about what specifically counts as wasted time. So I turned to a thorough re-reading of Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life. Here are the bits that stood out to me with chapters noted after each quotation:
Seneca points out that people complain about the cruelty of nature because life is short, even Aristotle did, but it’s not short, it’s just that we waste much of it (1). Then he lists many examples of what a waste of time looks like:
“soft and careless living…no worthwhile pursuit….held in the grip of voracious avarice….diligence that busies itself with pointless enterprises….sodden with wine….slack with idleness….tired out by political ambition, which always hangs on the judgment of others….desire for trading…in hope of profit….passion for soldiering….striving after other people’s wealth….thrown…by a fickleness that is shifting” (2).
Generally, any time we’re caught up in following passions without rational thought intervening we’re wasting our life away: “Vices…don’t allow us to…lift our eyes to the clear discernment of truth; but they press down on them, keeping them lowered and fixed on mere desire” (2). And he takes to task the wealthy in particular: “they are choked by their own good…drained of their blood by their eloquence and their daily preoccupation with showing off their abilities” (2).
He says we know enough to be careful with wasting our money, but we’re idiots when it comes to wasting time:
“No one lets anyone seize his estates…but people let others trespass on their existence….Men are thrifty in guarding their private property, but as soon as it comes to wasting time, they are most extravagant with the one commodity for which it’s respectable to be greedy” (3).
And, one thing we should all be doing regularly is to keep in mind that death is just around the corner instead of planning for all manner of activity after retirement, when we’re even more likely to drop dead:
“Your sort live as if you’re going to live forever, your own human frailty never enters your head….What foolish obliviousness to our mortality to put off wise plans to our fiftieth and sixtieth year”(3).
He criticizes a few famous guys who didn’t get it quite right because they were just working for the weekend, praying for the day they could finally have a break:
“Augustine…would relieve his toils with this sweet, even if illusory, consolation, the thought that one day he would live for himself….he was happiest in looking forward to that day on which he would lay aside his greatness….this was the prayer of the man who could grant the prayers of other men….[Cicero] bemoans his former life, complains about the present, and despairs of the future…but the sage will…never be half-free but will always enjoy complete and unalloyed liberty….For what can there be above the man who rises above fortune?…[Drusus] is said to have cursed the life of constant activity that he’d left from its very beginnings, saying that he was the only person who had never had a holiday even as a boy” (4–6).
Complaining about the shortness of life seems a sure sign that it’s not being lived well. Then he gets back to specific time-wasting activities: wine, women, and other passion-fueled distractions.
“Among the worst cases I count also those who give their time to nothing but drink and lust; for these are the most shameful preoccupations of all….It is those abandoned to the belly and lust who bear the stain of dishonor….Scrutinize every moment of such people’s lives…you’ll see that their affairs, whether good or bad, allow them no time to draw breath….Everyone agrees that no one area of activity can be successfully pursued by someone who is preoccupied…since the distracted mind takes in nothing really deeply but rejects everything that is, so to speak, pounded into it….Learning how to live takes a whole lifetime, and — you’ll perhaps be more surprised at this — it takes a whole lifetime to learn how to die” (7).
He gets further into the idea that we must take care of our time and the vital importance of ensuring every minute is our own, not under the control of another. This bit starts to feel a little selfish to me. It’s not the kind of virtuousness that I’m used being raised to believe, as a good Christian (since lapsed), that time spent virtuously is spent doing for others as much as possible. This is just a snippet, but he goes on at length here and later to caution us against having people take up our day helping them with their own affairs. I can’t help thinking, what’s the point if we’re not sharing our talents with others?
“It’s the mark of a great man, and one rising above human weakness, to allow no part of his time to be skimmed off….None of it lay fallow and uncultivated, and none of it was under another’s control….All those who engage you in their business disengage you from yourself” (7).
But then he gets to an idea I can latch on to — organizing each day to the fullest:
“Everyone sends his life racing headlong and suffers from a longing for the future, a loathing of the present. But 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” (7).
We need to be awake when we’re awake and get the most our of every minute, always in mind that each moment could be our last. I like this metaphor of a life being tossed at sea:
“There’s no reason to believe that someone has lived long because he has gray hair and wrinkles: he’s not lived long but long existed. For suppose you thought that a person had sailed far who’d been caught in a savage storm as soon as he left harbor, and after being carried in this direction and that, was driven in circles over the same course by alternations of the winds raging from different quarters: he didn’t have a long voyage, but he was long tossed about” (7).
Then he’s back to warning us against letting others use up our time:
“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 side on time itself” (8).
I think of this when I’m asked to join a committee that I predict will be fruitless, or, perhaps offensive to some, when I’m invited to a social event where I predict most conversation will be gossipy or trivial. I accept invitations carefully. But I do accommodate any request for help to do something, to the point that an acquaintance once got me over with a fictitious plea for help, only to trap me for an afternoon of “And how has your summer been?”
But it feels arrogant to say that, to imply that it’s acceptable to skirt out invites from people who are less entertaining to us. Seneca might offend less when he writes off everyone as a waste of time — except philosophers, of course.
He pities people who “habitually say to those they love most intensely that they are ready to give them some of their own years. And they do give them without knowing it’ but they give in such a way that, without adding to the years of their loved ones, they subtract from themselves” (8). This part also suggest a very different version of virtue than I’m used to.
He urges us against procrastinating or obsessively planning for the future:
“Can there be anything sillier than the view of those people who boast of their foresight? They are too busily preoccupied with efforts to live better; they plan out their lives at the expense of life itself….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 on tomorrow and wastes today….Just as conversation or reading or some deep reflection beguiles travelers and they find that they’ve reached their destination before being aware of approaching it, so with this ceaseless and extremely rapid journey of life, which we make at the same pace whether awake or sleeping: the preoccupied become aware of it only at its end” (9).
And we always have to keep on our toes to guard against the passions because they’re sneaky:
“Fabianus…a true philosopher of the old-fashioned sort, was in the habit of saying that we must battle against the passions with a vigorous attack, not with nicety of argument; the enemy line is to be turned by a full-frontal assault, not by tiny pinpricks” (9).
It’s common advice to avoid wasting too much time planning life, and I’ve always thought of stoicism as a philosophy that focuses on the present, but Seneca writes of the importance of a retrospective life. He worries about people who lose the past in regret. The problem with succumbing to vices is that you can’t look back without it being painful.
“They’re unwilling to turn their minds back to times badly spent, and they dare not revisit the past because their vices become obvious in retrospect….No one gladly casts his thoughts back to the past except for the person whose every action has been subjected to his own self-assessment, which is infallible….It takes a tranquil and untroubled mind to roam freely over all the parts of life; but preoccupied minds, as if under the yoke, cannot turn around and look backward. Their life therefore disappears into an abyss….it makes no difference how much time we are given if there’s nowhere for it to settle, and it’s allowed to pass through the cracks and holes in the mind….The preoccupied are concerned with the present alone, and it is so fleeting that it can’t be grasped, and even that little amount is stolen away from them because they’re pulled in many different direction” (10).
He makes it pretty clear that it’s not a waste of time to contemplate our lives to this point, which is counter to general ideas of Stoicism having more of a present-focus.
He wants us to stay away from business as much as possible. Working for another appears to be a waste of our lives, and few would disagree, yet then how do we manage? I suppose having only necessary possessions would help to ensure we work as few hours as possible each week. In this text, he doesn’t get into how to survive without giving our time to business.
“Enfeebled old men beg in their prayers for an additional few years….they reflect on how uselessly they made provision for things they wouldn’t live to enjoy, and how fruitless was all their toil….[Spend life “far removed from all business… [so that,] none of it is made over to another, none scattered in this direction or that; none of it is entrusted to fortune, none wasted through neglect; none is lost through being given away freely, none is superfluous; the whole of life yields a return, so to speak. And so, however short, it is amply sufficient” (11)
But worst is a life that’s preoccupied, allowed to slip by barely noticed by the owner of it. And he pretty much describes hanging out on the couch petting the cat all morning. At least I’m not troubling company for myself.
“Even the leisure of some people is preoccupied: in their country retreat or on their couch, in the midst of their solitude, and even though they’ve withdrawn from everyone, they are troubling company for themselves; their existence is to be termed not leisurely but one of idle preoccupation” (12)
He specifically admonishes people who arrange trinkets and collections, or watch sport and categorize the athletes, or waste time grooming themselves:
“Do you call those people leisured who spend many hours at the barber’s while any overnight growth is trimmed away, solemn consultation is taken over each separate hair, and disheveled locks are rearranged or thinning hair is combed forward from both sides to cover the forehead? How angry they get if the barber has been a little too careless, as if he were cutting a real man’s hair! How they flare up if anything is wrongly cut off their precious mane, if a hair lies out of place, of if everything doesn’t fall back into its proper ringlets! Which of those people wouldn’t rather have their country thrown into disarray than their hair? Who isn’t more concerned about keeping his head neat rather than safe? Who wouldn’t rather be well groomed than well respected? You call leisured these people who are kept busy between the comb and the mirror?” (12).
Or are absorbed in learning songs:
“The voice, whose best and simplest flow is naturally straightforward, they twist into sinuous turns of the most feeble crooning. Their fingers are always snapping in time to some song that they carry in their head, and when they’ve been asked to attend to serious and often even sorrowful matters, you can overhear them quietly humming a tune. Theirs isn’t leisure but idle occupation” (12).
Or have parties where they anxiously arrange everything such that they’re…
“on tenterhooks to see how the boar turns out…how attentively wretched little slave boys wipe away the spittle of drunks. By these means they seek a reputation for refinement and sumptuous living, and their evils follow them into every corner of their lives to such an extent that they cannot eat or drink without ostentation” (12).
Then there’s those who obsess over their trivial knowledge of facts — dates, places, who wrote which books. He berates their “vacuous enthusiasm for acquiring useless knowledge” (13).
“It would be a long business to run through the individual cases of people who’ve spent their whole lives playing checkers or playing ball, or baking their bodies in the sun. People whose pleasures put them to considerable work are not at leisure. For instance, nobody will doubt that those who devote their time to useless literary questions…are busily engaged in doing nothing…..questions which, if you keep them to yourself, do nothing to improve your private knowledge; and if you divulge them, you’re made to appear not more learned but more annoying” (13).
And some of the darker subjects are better forgotten, like that Pompey was first to use elephants to fight people at the circus so crowds could watch them be crushed to death: “It would certainly be preferable for such stuff to be forgotten, for fear that some future strongman might learn of it and be envious of an utterly inhuman episode. O what darkness great prosperity casts on our minds!” (13).
At this point I clearly run afoul of his prescription for the best kind of life. I was excited to learn about all the trivial things he thought we should forget! Who knew about that elephant thing!?! And I rarely feel my days are wasted alphabetizing my record collections, baking in the sun a bit, then getting cleaned up to have a party in order to play music and drink with friends, impressing one another with random facts. Granted I’m never anxious about the quality of the food I offer because you can’t go wrong with beer and chips, but I feel like he’s pretty much describing my life and telling me how much I suck at living!
So what should we be doing with out time? Studying philosophy, of course:
“Of all people, they alone who give their time to philosophy are at leisure, they alone really live. For it’s not just their own lifetime that they watch over carefully, but they annex every age to their own; all the years that have gone before are added to their own. Unless we prove most ungrateful, those most distinguished founders of hallowed thoughts came into being for us, and for us they prepared a way of living. We are led by the work of others into the presence of the most beautiful treasures, which have been pulled from darkness and brought to light….if we want to transcend the narrow limitations of human weakness by our expansiveness of mind, there is a great span of time for us to range over” (14).
Again, work is horrible, and philosophy won’t fail to be a great way to spend the day:
“How many will avoid going out through a reception hall packed with clients and make their escape through a door that’s hidden from view, as if it were not even cruder to deceive them than to refuse them admittance! How many, half- asleep and weighed down by the effects of yesterday’s drinking, will yawn with utter disdain and address those wretched clients, who cut short their own sleep in order to wait on another’s, by the right name only after it’s been whispered to them a thousand times over by lips that hardly move! Do we suppose these clients spend time on morally commendable duties? But we can say as much of those who’ll want to have Zeno, Pythagoras, Democritus, and the other high priests of philosophical study, and Aristotle and Theophrastus, as their closest companions every day. None of these will ever be unavailable to you, none of these will fail to send his visitor off in a happier condition and more at ease with himself. None will let anyone leave empty handed; they can be approached by all mortals by night and by day” (14).
AND, don’t forget about death. It’s vital to learn about death from these philosophers who outlive us all with their compelling ideas:
“From them you’ll take whatever you wish; it will be no fault of theirs if you fail to take in the very fullest amount you have room for. What happiness, what a fine old age lies in store for the person who’s put himself under the patronage of these people! He’ll have friends whose advice he can seek on the greatest or least important matters, whom he can consult daily about himself, from whom he can hear the truth without insult and receive praise without fawning, and who will provide a model after which to fashion himself” (15).
“For those who forget the past, disregard the present, and fear for the future, life is very brief and very troubled. When they reach the end of it, they realize too late, poor wretches, that they’ve been busied for so long in doing nothing….When their usual preoccupations fail them and they are left with nothing to do, they fret without knowing how to apply their free time or how to drag it out. And so they move on to some other preoccupation and find all the intervening time burdensome….Any postponement of something they look forward to is long to them. But the time of actual enjoyment is short and fleeting, and made far shorter by their own fault; for they desert one pleasure for another and cannot persist steadily in any one desire….They lose the day in looking forward to the night, the night in fear of the dawn” (16).
If this is the primary concern, that we’ll regret our time, not know what to do with ourselves when our preoccupations aren’t available, and lose the ability to enjoy the moment, then I think the occasional party is not going to ruin me for myself. I can allow some moments of preoccupation and then also turn to philosophy. I think it can be both. And, after a year of losing my dad and fighting cancer, I don’t think I’ll soon lose touch with the reality that death is around the corner.
Attitude is key. I completely agree we have to get on top of worry about potential losses in life:
“The extent of their prosperity gave them no pleasure, but the prospect of its eventual end terrified them….and what of the fact that even the joys of such people are anxiety ridden? This is because they don’t rest on stable causes but are disrupted as frivolously as they are produced….Everything that comes our way by chance is unsteady, and the higher our fortunes rise, the more susceptible they are to falling. But what must inevitably collapse gives no one pleasure; and so the life of those who acquire through hard work what they must work harder to possess is necessarily very wretched, and not just very brief….New preoccupations take the place of old, hope arouses new hope, ambition new ambition….They don’t look for an end to their wretchedness, but change the cause of it….We’ve given up the vexation of being a prosecutor? We take on that of being a judge…Life will be driven on through one preoccupation after another; we shall always pray for leisure but never attain it” (17).
He implores a friend, Paulinus (this guy?), to rise about the crowd. He’s too smart for his line of work, so he should leave it: “Slow-moving pack animals are far better suited to carrying heavy loads than thoroughbred horses; who ever hampered the fleetness of these well-bred creatures with a weighty burden?” (18). This implies a hierarchy of minds — that it’s not for all of us to pursue philosophy, just for the thoroughbreds among us. So, work is for the feeble minded, and philosophy is for the wise.
He advocate early retirement:
“Retire to those pursuits that are calmer, safer, and more important….Now, while enthusiasm is still fresh, those with an active interest should progress to better things. 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” (19).
“It’s a disgraceful end when the man who’s sooner worn out by living than by working drops dead in the middle of his duties; and a disgraceful end when a man dies in the act of going over his accounts and draws a smile from the heir who’s long been kept waiting….Is it really such a pleasure to die preoccupied? Yet many have that same attitude, and their desire for work lasts longer than their capacity for it….it’s harder for people to obtain retirement from themselves than from the law….No one holds death in view, no one refrains from distant hopes. Indeed, some people even make arrangements for things beyond life — huge tomb structures….yet in truth, the funerals of such people should be conducted by the light of torches and wax tapers [like children], as if they’d lived for the briefest span” (20).
This bit makes me think of many teacher who refuse to retire even though they could collect a pension that’s more than the average wage. They’re terrified of boredom and losing their sense of purpose because they’ve tied their entire lives to their work. This is perhaps who this book best serves.
The re-read of his short and entertaining book has some useful cautions, and I can see that frittering away time with the cat might be later regretted as time wasted — maybe, but time spent helping others with their affairs and time spent playing parlour games to impress one another are still entertaining enough that I’m not convinced they’re time wasted. When I look back on those times, I have no sense of regret. They haven’t distracted me enough to forget that our time here is very short so we must make the best of it.
ETA: Here’s a bit about his life, and his wealth and noted hypocrisy, who some followers see as “a hypocrite and a force of moral restraint.” I think we should never toss out ideas because they’re not well-followed by their founder. They might still be good ideas regardless how poorly they were carried out. But I admit it does make me feel a bit better about also failing to live by these standards.
Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. On the Shortness of Life. Translated by Gareth D. Williams. Archive.org.