Thrice Removed
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Thrice Removed

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:

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:

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:

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:

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.

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?

But then he gets to an idea I can latch on to — organizing each day to the fullest:

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:

Then he’s back to warning us against letting others use up our time:

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:

And we always have to keep on our toes to guard against the passions because they’re sneaky:

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.

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.

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.

He specifically admonishes people who arrange trinkets and collections, or watch sport and categorize the athletes, or waste time grooming themselves:

Or are absorbed in learning songs:

Or have parties where they anxiously arrange everything such that they’re…

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).

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:

Again, work is horrible, and philosophy won’t fail to be a great way to spend the day:

AND, don’t forget about death. It’s vital to learn about death from these philosophers who outlive us all with their compelling ideas:

Because…

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:

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:

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.

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Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. On the Shortness of Life. Translated by Gareth D. Williams. Archive.org.

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