On the Shortness of Life

Manuel Domínguez Sánchez,  The suicide of Seneca  (1871),  Museo del Prado  ( Public Domain )

Manuel Domínguez Sánchez, The suicide of Seneca (1871), Museo del Prado (Public Domain)

…the life we are given isn’t short, but we make it so … life, if you know how to use it, is long.

This week, I read On the Shortness of Life by Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the Younger)—twice! The first time around, I read a translated version by Gareth D. Williams, which I downloaded for free (here) and then I listened to the Audible version, which is an updated translation by James Harris (here), to let it all sink in (it’s about $3 on Audible and it’s worth more than a cup of coffee).

Instead of a traditional blog post, I want to share my favorite lines. I’m looking forward to incorporating Seneca in future writing, but for now, I’ll let his words speak for themselves. (Quotes from the Gareth D. Williams translation)

Life leaves … us in the lurch just when we’re getting ready to live.

It’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it’s been given to us in generous measure for accomplishing the greatest things, if the whole of it is well invested.

Many are kept busy either striving after other people’s wealth or complaining about their own.

Many who have no consistent goal in life are thrown from one new design to another by a fickleness that is shifting, never settled and ever dissatisfied with itself.

Some have no goal at all toward which to steer their course, but death takes them by surprise as they gape and yawn.

All the rest of existence is not living but merely time.

Look at those whose prosperity draws crowds: they are choked by their own goods. How many have found their wealth a burden!

…you never thought fit to look on yourself or listen to yourself. And so you’ve no reason to expect a return from anyone for those attentions of yours, since you offered them not because you wanted another’s company, but because you were incapable of communing with yourself.

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.

Look back and recall when you were ever sure of your purpose; how few days turned out as you'd intended; when you were ever at your own disposal; when your face showed its own expression; when your mind was free from disturbance; what accomplishment you can claim in such a long life; how many have plundered your existence without your being aware of what you were losing; how much time has been lost to groundless anguish, foolish pleasure, greedy desire, the charms of society; how little is left to you from your own store of time. You'll come to realize that you're dying before your time.

You waste time as if it comes from a source full to overflowing, when all the while that very day which is given over to someone or something may be your last.

You'll hear many say: “After my fiftieth year I'll retire to a life of leisure; my sixtieth year will bring release from all my duties.” And what guarantee, may I ask, do you have that your life will last longer?

In reality, your life, even if you live a thousand years and more, will be compressed into the merest span of time; those vices of yours will swallow up any number of lifetimes.

…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.

So many men of the highest station have set aside all their encumbrances, renounced their wealth, their business, their pleasures, and right up to the very end of life they have made it their sole aim to know how to live.

The man who's achieved the high office he'd prayed for longs to lay it aside and repeatedly says: "When will this year end?" The man who puts on the games thought it a great privilege that responsibility for giving them fell to him. Now he says: "When will I be free of them?"

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.

…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.

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; it is requested as if it were nothing, granted as if it were nothing.

They 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.

…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.

All that's to come lies in uncertainty: live right now.

Hear the cry of the greatest of poets, who sings his salutary song as if inspired with divine utterance: Each finest day of life for wretched mortals is ever the first to flee. "Why are you holding back?" he says. "Why are you slow to action? If you don't seize the day, it slips away." Even when you've seized it, it will still slip away; and so you must compete with time's quickness in the speed with which you use it, and you must drink swiftly as if from a fast-moving torrent that will not always flow.

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.

Life is divided into three parts: past, present, and future. Of these, the present is brief, the future doubtful, the past certain.

A man who's been ambitious in the scale of his desires, arrogant in his disdainfulness, unrestrained in prevailing over others, treacherous in his deceptions, greedy in his plunderings, and lavish in his prodigality — such a man must inevitably be afraid of his own memory.

Enfeebled old men beg in their prayers for an additional few years; they pretend they are younger than they really are; they flatter themselves by this falsehood, and deceive themselves as gladly as if they deceived fate at the same time. But when some real illness has at last reminded them that they are mortal, how terrified they are when they die, as if they're not leaving life but are being dragged from it! They cry out repeatedly that they've been fools because they've not really lived, and that they'll live in leisure if only they escape their illness. Then they reflect on how uselessly they made provision for things they wouldn't live to enjoy, and how fruitless was all their toil.

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.

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 — Rome too now has a significant number of such people — are busily engaged in doing nothing. … and if you divulge them, you're made to appear not more learned but more annoying.

Of all people, they alone who give their time to philosophy are at leisure, they alone really live.

There is a common saying that it was not in our power to choose the parents we were allotted, and that they were given to us by chance; yet we can be born to whomever we wish. There are households of the most distinguished intellects: choose the one into which you'd like to be adopted, and you'll inherit not just the name but also the actual property, which is not to be hoarded in a miserly or mean spirit: the more people you share it with, the greater it will become. These will open for you the path to immortality, and raise you to an elevation from which no one is cast down. This is the sole means of prolonging mortality, or rather of transforming it into immortality.

But 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. And the fact that they sometimes pray for death need hardly be taken as evidence that their life is long. In their folly they are afflicted by fickle feelings that rush them into the very things they fear; they often pray for death precisely because they fear it.

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. Their days aren't long but hateful; yet, on the other hand, how short seem the nights that they spend cavorting with prostitutes or drinking!

They lose the day in looking forward to the night, the night in fear of the dawn.

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. They obtain with great effort what they desire, and they anxiously hold on to what they've obtained; and meanwhile they give no consideration to time's irretrievability.

The plight of all preoccupied people is wretched, but most wretched is the plight of those who labor under preoccupations that are not even their own, whose sleep schedule is regulated by somebody else's, who walk at somebody else's pace, and who are under instructions in that freest of all activities — loving and hating. If these people want to know how short their life is, let them reflect on how small a part of it is their very own. So, when you see a man repeatedly taking up the robe of office, or a name well known in public, don't envy him: those trappings are bought at the cost of life. For one year to be dated by their name, they'll waste all their own years.

Some, after they've clambered up through a thousand indignities to arrive at the crowning dignity, are assailed by the wretched thought that all their toil has been for an inscription on an epitaph.

More than luck,



Andrew J. Wilt is the author of Age of Agility, a book that addresses the skill gap between school and work. He can be reached at Andrew.wilt@sustainableevolution.com and on Twitter @andrewjwilt

AoA blog image.jpg