On the Shortness of Life (by Seneca)

Lucius-Annaeus-SenecaMy Thoughts On Using Time Wisely

Many of you have already heard me describe my (perhaps idiosyncratic) perspective on life and the method I’ve developed to help me utilize my time wisely.  For those of you that have not, allow me to summarize briefly in hopes that it might be beneficial for you as well.  I offer this perspective not as a panacea, but as a simple template which you might tailor to better fit the particular circumstances of your particular life.  In short, I hope that my thoughts on this topic might function as a plow, clearing the way of some impediments and leaving you with a relatively less obstructed boulevard down which you might travel.  I offer nothing groundbreaking here; only practical steps which have benefited me.

In light of the fact that I am a finite and ephemeral human being, graced with an uncertain time on earth, it is imperative that I make the most of the time that I am given.  Plato was on to something in declaring that the only life worth living is one which is closely examined.   I have often speculated that Plato chose the phrase “examined life” because it speaks to a proactive approach to life–a life lived with forethought–with the necessary corollary being that time (and life itself), if not examined, tends to pass us unawares.  It seems that time, like currency, finds its value in those things for which it is expended (desiderata); time is a means to some specific end(s).

A necessary element of using one’s time wisely is to develop criteria whereby one can distinguish between those things which are more or less valuable.   I think the best way to go about this is to think backward from the end of life.  I imagine a man on his death-bed is hit by many regrets, but I also imagine he is ambushed by many thoughts and memories, which, in light of his current circumstances, now take upon a shade of worthlessness.  For example, I highly doubt that a very elderly person would honestly say to themselves “I wish I watched more TV” or “I wish I spent more time entertaining myself.”  On the other side of the coin, there must necessarily be things in which we wish we would have invested more time, and these things are usually of a higher, more noble nature.

Accordingly, I try to ask myself (1) whether a given choice or action is something which, looking back from the end of life, I would deem as an appropriate use of my finite allotment of time, and (2) whether a given choice or action results in my learning something valuable.  When viewed from this perspective, I can guarantee you that certain things will grow “strangely dim” in light of things of true importance.  Human ephemerality need not beget the transitory, in fact, it begs for actions, desires, and thoughts which transcend the moment.  The examined life is the life which tries to invest each moment wisely toward some specific telos, or end.

I think we moderns tend to “kill” time, rather than to “invest” it  — a most unfortunate tragedy.  Here, as is often the case, a phrase of common parlance betrays a crucial deficiency of culture.

Seneca’s Thoughts on Using Time Wisely

One unfortunate side effect of my continued reading of classic texts is that my thoughts, which I once assumed were novel, are, at best, echoes of past authors who expressed them with greater lucidity than I could ever muster.  Such is the case with Seneca’s De Brevitate Vitae (On the Shortness of Life).  Writing nearly 2,000 years ago, Seneca taught his Stoic disciples–in this case, Pausinias–a way of life which combated the excesses of Roman society.  His forebodings are quite applicable to those living in Twenty-First Century America–a culture that might not be so far removed from First Century Rome.  Seneca, more than simply arguing against wasted time, establishes a beautiful vision of a life well-lived.  I will have succeeded in my present endeavor if I can convince even one of you to read Seneca’s letter or to take serious the topic of human ephemerality.  Let us now take a look at his thoughts on the topic.

Beginning at an unexpected point, Seneca argues against the nearly universal opinion that life is simply too short.  In perhaps the most memorable quote of the book, he says,

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.  Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested.  But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, 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.  Just as when an ample and princely wealth falls to a bad owner it is squandered in a moment, but wealth however modest, if entrusted to a good custodian, increases with use, so our lifetime extends amply if you manage it properly.”

Seneca would suggest that life is wasted in a variety of ways.  While “insatiable greed” and “laborious dedication to useless tasks” are certainly things to avoid, for Seneca, the most common enemy of time well-spent is a fickle nature — something which he asserts is pathological in humanity.  He says, “Many pursue no fixed goal, but are tossed about in ever-changing designs by a fickleness which is shifting, inconstant and never satisfied with itself.  Some have no aims at all for their life’s course, but death takes them unawares as they yawn languidly — so much so that I cannot doubt the truth of that oracular remark of the greatest of poets: ‘It is a small part of life we really live.'”  Like Seneca, I often think that mankind has been born with  what I have termed “temporal myopia”, getting caught up in day-to-day survival, rather than setting our eyes upon and seeking out the good, the true, and the beautiful.  Even if we know what we should be, we often lack the ability/willpower to live each passing day in accordance with that goal.

To Seneca, our temporal myopia stems from a life lived in service to the passions, to the natural desires. In true Stoic fashion, Seneca argues that our desires are by nature fickle, changing, and aimless.   It is rationality which allows us to transcend the ephemeral and to actively pursue things of a higher nature, and habituation, which allows us to implement this sublime vision in our day-to-day lives.  In this way, Seneca’s Stoic ethics are clearly influenced by Aristotle’s conception of virtue (as presented in the Nicomachean Ethics).

Seneca goes on to describe man’s paradoxical greed over trifling things in contrast with his flippancy in giving away that which is most valuable: time.  He says,

“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.  So, I would like to fasten on someone from the older generation and say to him: ‘I see that you have come to the last stage of human life; you are close upon your hundredth year, or even beyond: come now, hold an audit of your life….You will realize that you are dying prematurely.” 

To substantiate this claim, Seneca cites Cicero and Augustus, some of Rome’s most “accomplished” figureheads, and shows that, for all their years of striving and achieving, they were not at all happy or contented.  At the end of their lives, these men wished, as must countless others, that they had spent their time less on gaining political power or fame, and more on those things which fall under that beautifully complex word of Greek origin: leisure.  (More on the topic of leisure in a forthcoming post…)

To Seneca, there is an art to living, which must be learned, and can only be learned, by the active exertion of the mind.  In a passage reminiscent of Plato’s famous statement that philosophers always pursue death and dying, Seneca says, “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.”  He goes on to say,

“Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present.  But the man who spends all his time on his own needs, who organizes every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day….  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.  For suppose you should think that a man had had a long voyage who had been caught in a raging storm as he left harbor, and carried hither and thither and driven round and round in a circle by the rage of opposing winds? He did not have a long voyage, just a long tossing about.” 

Often we conflate a long life with a good life, even though, as Seneca shows, these things are minimally related.  Often one can live long, but rare indeed is the one who can be said to have made life long.

Betraying his obvious Stoic perspective, Seneca suggests that we not fight the past nor the future, but live in the present, which is the proper domain of human agency.  He says, “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.”  Naturally, in asking how to effectively live, Seneca comes to the conclusion that one must seize the day (carpe diem), taking advantage of each passing moment.  However, his is not an appeal to what is expedient or to what one simply desires at a given moment; Seneca would suggest that one must reflect on the past which enables one to choose what is beneficial in the present, and, in so doing, lay the foundation for a promising future.

“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, and ever if they did, it is not pleasant to recall the activities they are ashamed of….  And yet this is the period of our time which is sacred and dedicated, which has passed beyond all human risks and is removed from Fortune’s sway, which cannot be harassed by want or fear or attacks of illness.  It cannot be disturbed or snatched from us: it is an untroubled, everlasting possession.”

Necessary to making wise choices in the moment, is the contemplation of what it is to live well, and this requires both reflection and leisure.  There is a balance that must be sought between reflection and action, as reflection allows for a depth or meaning of action, and action translates potential energy into the kinetic variety.  Even in this, Seneca is careful to distinguish between a calm, reflective leisure and life of indolence: “Some men are preoccupied even in their leisure…. You could not call theirs a life of leisure, but an idle preoccupation.”  This phrase “idle preoccupation” is paradoxical in just such a way as to help us understand that curious state in which mankind often finds itself.

Being a philosopher, Seneca obviously upholds the life of philosophy as the model which is best able to understand, and therefore best able to utilize, one’s finite allotment of time.  He says,

“Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only those are really alive.  For they not only keep a good watch over their own lifetimes, but they annex every age to theirs.  All the years that have passed before them are added to their own.  Unless we are very ungrateful, all those distinguished founders of holy creeds were born for us and prepare for us a way of life….  We are excluded from no age, but we have access to them all; and if we are prepare in loftiness of mind to pass beyond the narrow confines of human weakness, there is a long period of time through which we can roam.  We can argue with Socrates, express doubt with Carneades, cultivate retirement with Epicurus, overcome human nature with the Stoics, and exceed its limits with the Cynics.  Since nature allows us to enter into a partnership with every age, why not turn from this brief and transient spell of time and give ourselves whole-heartedly to the past, which is limitless and eternal and can be shared with better men than we?”

Speaking of communing with the great thinkers of the past, Seneca goes on to say,

“None of these will be too busy to see you, none of these will not send his visitor away happier and more devoted to himself, none of these will allow anyone to depart empty-handed.  They are all at home to all mortals by night and by day.  None of these will force you to die but all will teach you how to die.  none of them will exhaust your years, but each will contribute his years to yours….  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.  There are households of the noblest intellects: choose the one into which you wish to be adopted, and you will inherit not only their name but their property too.”

In contrast with the person who communes with the past and uses his time wisely, life is short for those “who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future.”  Not only a life of fear, but a life of anticipation can itself paradoxically unravel the future: “They lose the day in waiting for the night, and the night in fearing the dawn.”   Finally, Seneca goes on to argue that a life of acquisition results in a very short life because that which is acquired must be guarded by even greater toil, leaving an individual no time for the enjoyment of life.  Similarly, life, lived by default, seems to be a “succession of preoccupations” which stifles the enjoyment of life itself.

After he provided his student with a list of things to avoid, Seneca finally comes to his positive suggestions for a life well-lived: promise “higher and greater things of yourself.”  He suggests that Pausinias take up “sacred and lofty studies” including “the substance of God, his will, his mode of life”, “the love and practice of the virtues”, “forgetfulness of the passions,” “the knowledge of how to live and die,” and a “life of deep tranquility.”  Seneca would say the same to us.


Forsaking the trivial in favor of higher things is exactly what we need to hear.  Like Pausinias, we have been blessed with a sufficient amount of time and sundry other gifts; let us not waste what has been given to us.  Let us use our positions of relative richness to pursue virtue and magnanimity.  Perhaps we could learn from the Stoic perspective on life, not being  anxious of the future nor stuck in the past, and always utilizing the present to establish those character traits and virtues which are the proper desire of people striving for excellence.  We are blessed with exactly the amount of time we need…if we choose to utilize it. It requires great wisdom indeed to calculate the proper equilibrium of action and reflection which results in human flourishing, but it is well worth it.  Life tends to constrain itself to the lowest common denominator if it is not actively and purposefully shaped, so it is imperative that we examine our lives to see what is important, and live each day with those goals in mind.

As I discussed at the outset, I think the best way to begin is by identifying those specific things in your life which are worth the investiture of your finite allotment of time.   Live not in the past, nor in the future, but keeping both in mind, live immediately; live well.

Memento mori et vivere.

-Jacob Wolf


1 Comment

Filed under Classics, Philosophy

One response to “On the Shortness of Life (by Seneca)

  1. This is an excellent post Jake. I am constantly battling the stress of whether or not I’m using my time wisely. I feel like I lose that battle more often than not, but through your post I realize a lot of that is from a lack of planning. Organization has been an under-utilized quality in my life, but I guess it’s time to grow up. Planning out each and every day is now going to be a priority of mine. Thanks, I appreciate this perspective and keep it coming sir!

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