On the Shortness of Life: Seneca on How to Live and Die

On the Shortness of Life is one of the great texts of Stoic philosophy. It was originally a letter from Seneca the Younger to his father-in-law Paulinus. Almost 2000 years on, it’s amazing how relevant the content of his letter is to the problems we encounter in daily life in the 21st century.

It reads much like an essay, and is only about 30 pages long. I highly recommend it.

Seneca starts with a bombshell of a truism:

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it… We are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… So our lifetime extends amply if you manage it properly.”

He then invites us to contemplate how much time we spend really living, and how much time just simply passes by:

“Some have no aims at all for their life’s course, but death takes them unawares as they yawn languidly… It is a small part of life we really live. Indeed, all the rest is not life but merely time.”

Seneca writes that while time is our most precious commodity, no-one acts that way. He pleads us to take an objective look at how we have been living, and points at the maladies that can come from too much stress or boredom:

“Men do not let anyone seize their estates, and if there is the slightest dispute about their boundaries they rush to stones and arms; but they allow others to encroach on their lives… You will find no one willing to share out his money; but to how many does each of us divide his life! People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy… Come now, hold an audit of your life… Consider also the disease which we have brought on ourselves, and the time too which has been unused.”

Seneca reminds us that there is no way of knowing how long we will live, and that when people get told that they are dying is when they are shocked into living for the first time (reminding me of Heisenberg in the TV show Breaking Bad). He also points the finger at people who defer their happiness and fulfilment for an arbitrary year of their life that they have no guarantee of reaching:

“You are living as if destined to live for ever; your own frailty never occurs to you; you don’t notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply – though all the while that very day which you are to devoting to somebody or something may be your last… And what guarantee do you have of a longer life? Who will allow your course to proceed as you arrange it?… How late it is to begin really to live just when life must end! How stupid to forget our mortality, and put off sensible plans to our fiftieth and sixtieth years, aiming to begin life from a point at which few have arrived!”

However, Seneca does concede that it would take an extraordinary person to live their life without wasting any of their time. The difficulty of learning how to live (and die) takes a lifetime:

“But learning how to live takes a whole life, and, which may surprise you more, it takes a whole life to learn how to die… Believe me, it is the sign of a great man, and one who is above human error, not to allow his time to be frittered away: he has the longest possible life simply because whatever time was available he devoted entirely to himself.”

Seneca separates the act of living with just existing:

“So you must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long.”

Seneca provides us once again with food for thought. By meditating on our own mortality and by seeing the big picture of our lives, it would hopefully alarm us into living life with care:

“But if each of us could have the tally of his future years set before him, as we can of our past years, how alarmed would be those who saw only a few years ahead, and how carefully they would use them!”

Procrastination was something that people in Romans times suffered from too, and Seneca describes poetically how harmful it is. He highlights how important it is to be focused on what is in our own control, finishing off with a short command:

“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… Live immediately.”

Seneca personifies time to give us a mental picture of how we can deal with it best. He also champions self-awareness and laments preoccupation with a very identifiable metaphor:

“So you must match time’s swiftness with your speed in using it… Old age overtakes them while they are still mentally childish, and they face it unprepared and unarmed… Just as travelers are beguiled by conversation or reading or some profound meditation, and find they have arrived at their destination before they knew they were approaching it… the preoccupied become aware of it only when it is over.

Seneca warns that a life filled with vice will make a man fear his own memory. He goes on to inform us that the preoccupied are much too busy and foolish to take a step back to look at the past in order to create a better future:

“The man who must fear his own memory is the one who has been ambitious in his greed, arrogant in his contempt, uncontrolled in his victories, treacherous in his deceptions, rapacious in his plundering, and wasteful in his squandering… But all days of the past will come to your call: you can detain them and inspect them at your will – something which the preoccupied have no time to do.”

The dignity that a man meets his death is a sign of strength and virtue. It’s often seen in the hardened criminals that are awaiting Death Row. Seneca writes:

“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.”

Seneca reminds us once again that we can control which direction our life goes even if we weren’t born in fortunate circumstances. Maternal death was much more common 2000 years ago, and Seneca’s grandmother died while giving birth to his mother. He writes:

“We are in the habit of saying that it was not in our power to choose the parents who were allotted to us, that they were given to us by chance. But we can choose whose children we would like to be.”

Seneca highlights the ever-present dangers of waiting, killing-time, and living in anticipation of a future event:

“Nor is this a proof that they are living for a long time that the day often seems 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, not knowing how to dispose of their leisure or make the time pass. And so they are anxious for something else 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. And deferment of the longed-for event is tedious to them… Their days are not long but odious: on the other hand, how short do the nights seem which they spend drinking or sleeping with harlots!… They lose the day in waiting for the night, and the night in fearing dawn.”

Seneca also describes that even when that future event comes, we then spend our energy worrying about when it will end. This reminds me of the Buddhist concept of impermanence, and the equanimity that can alleviate this suffering. He writes:

“Even their pleasures are uneasy and made anxious by various fears, and at the very height of their rejoicing the worrying thought steals over them: ‘How long will this last?’ This feeling has caused kings to bewail their power, and they were not so much delighted by the greatness of their fortune as terrified by the thought of its inevitable end.”

Seneca describes the misery that comes from ambition and achievement through willpower and labor alone, and the realization that it takes even more willpower and labor to keep the riches or status that they so craved:

“Whatever comes by way of chance is unsteady, and the higher it rises the more liable it is to fall… So it is inevitable that life will not just be very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil. They want to achieve laboriously; they possess what they have achieved anxiously; and meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return.”

Seneca reminds us that there will always be problems no matter how rich or powerful you are:

“There will always be causes for anxiety, whether due to prosperity or to wretchedness. Life will be driven on through a succession of preoccupations: we shall always long for leisure, but never enjoy it.”

Seneca also articulates that plenty of people spend their lives doing other people’s tasks, oblivious to their own life:

“If such people want to know how short their lives are, let them reflect how small a portion is their own.”

Finally, Seneca describes the example of a old man businessman who doesn’t know how to retire, dying while still preoccupied with work:

“Disgraceful too is it when a man dies in the midst of going through his accounts, and his heir, long kept waiting, smiles in relief… Men find it more difficult to gain leisure from themselves than from the law.”

I found this moral essay beautiful to read, thought-provoking and incredibly wise. What was the biggest takeaway for you?

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British-born Chinese guy who wants to inspire and help others by sharing wisdom and learning through one's own experiences. Main interests are health and fitness, psychology, sales and sports.

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