On The Shortness Of Life

4 min read
On The Shortness Of Life

Author: Lucius Seneca (Seneca the Younger)

Published: 2004 (106 pages)

Started reading: 29.September.2016

Finished reading: 29.September.2016

Brief description

On the Shortness of Life: Life Is Long if You Know How to Use It (Penguin Great Ideas) is a collection of three letters written by Seneca, the Roman senator, advisor to Emperor Nero, and stoic philosopher, who lived from 4 BC to 65 AD.

The first letter, titled “On The Shortness Of Life”, is written to his friend Paulinas. Famously, Seneca reminds him that the problem with life is not that it is too short but that people waste so much of it.

Seneca injects us with a sense of urgency. He asks Paulinas to imagine we can count forward, to the date of our death, similar to the way that we count backwards to add up our age. How many people, in light of that knowledge, would carry on as they currently do?

Which people would be confronted with the news that theirs are going to be short lives? Maybe you. In modern, western countries, statistics can leave us complacent about our life spans. But we are, all of us, only one highway microsleep, or doctor’s visit, or travel mishap, away from ending up on the wrong side of the bell-curve. If you’ve lost a friend or family member you know this clearly.

This is not a gloomy realisation. It encourages you to live immediately, vividly, fully, and for yourself, not to postpone enjoyment for retirement.

We are given sufficient time on earth to accomplish many great things, says Seneca. We can enrich our lives and make them seem to expand by doing important things that we will remember proudly; by avoiding mindless busyness and trivial worries; by not putting things off; by being present and not anticipating or fearing the future; and by reading great books, which can ‘annex’ the lives and past experiences of other people to our own.

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

– Seneca, On The Shortness Of Life

The third letter in the collection is from Seneca to his friend Serenus, and contains plenty of practical insight about keeping a balanced mind and avoiding material avarice. But it’s the second letter, from Seneca to his mother Helvia, that I found the most touching of the three.

To read the love between a mother and son, as Seneca consoles Helvia from exile, is poignant and a privilege, all the more because I’m almost certain that he never envisioned the letter being read in English some two thousand years later by a young man sitting in a cafe in Canberra with a Macbook and a latte. One of the joys of reading ancient writers is exploring the minds and personal lives of people who lived millennia ago, in a world so far removed from our own that it is almost alien yet, at the same time, jarringly familiar in its humanity.

Actionable insights

>Start valuing your time more than money, especially if you earn more than ∼ $75, 000 USD (∼$100, 000 AUD) per year (the threshold beyond which research by Nobel prize-winning economists has shown that further increases in income don’t produce commensurate increases in happiness). As Seneca notes, people are possessive of their material wealth but careless with their time. If anything, we should be the opposite: generous from our wallets but stingy about who monopolises our moments. Unlike money, which decreases in marginal utility the more of it that you earn, time increases in marginal value as you grow older. Young adults dream away months in idleness while, to quote Seneca, “Feeble old men pray for a few more years.”

> Practice poverty once in a while. You could, for example, sleep on the floor, eat flavourless, unseasoned food, shower with cold water, underdress or wear ridiculous clothes in public, take public transport if you normally drive, exercise on little or no sleep, fast for a few days. Of course, these small sacrifices will sound risible to someone in real poverty: the advice is targeted more at people living in the first world. Seneca enjoins Serenus to relinquish the need for luxury (though not to refrain from relaxing when needed). This seems to be for three reasons. Firstly, we can get by on far less than we might think, whether that’s simple food or basic clothes. If you choose not to feel hurt or undignified by a relatively impoverished existence, then you are not harmed in actuality. Secondly, extravagance was morally repugnant to Seneca. However, I think we can focus less on this reason. (Romans prized rustic lifestyles and austere behaviour as (traditional) virtues. Nowadays, I think it’s fine and fun to experiment with being a bon vivant – just like many (non-traditional) Romans did.) Thirdly, we enjoy many windfalls in life, but bad luck can strip them from us just as quickly (see The Black Swan). As such, it’s important not to form attachments to material possessions – the true source of our misery. Practising poverty (in whatever form) prepares us psychologically for those inevitable moments in life where we will suffer loss, including, ultimately, death.