On the shortness of life – Seneca

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Disclaimer:- This short article is based on https://thedailyidea.org/seneca-passage-on-the-shortness-of-life/.

Seneca was a Roman stoic philosopher. He wrote this famous essay titled ‘On the shortness of life’ to his father-in-law Paulinus.

‘Life is short’- this has to be one of the most often quoted phrases we witness around us and yet Seneca argues it isn’t entirely true. He posits ‘It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste most of it’. Take a moment for that to sink in. Isn’t it true?

Interestingly, only a few of us understand time. For instance, if you’re asked to distribute some of your wealth amongst others what would your reaction be? ‘Do I look mad? Of course not.’ We guard our wealth with all our might and yet when it comes to the most valuable asset a human has at his disposal, time, we fail to exercise the same vigilance with which we preserve our wealth. Time is treated like it is endless. For instance, if your property is marred even so by as little as an inch, you fight tooth and nail for it. But our time is always usurped by forces outside us- people, desires, society, soulless work- and yet we choose to not take notice of it as actively as a precious commodity like time warrants.

Most of us complain about the cruelty of nature- the shortness of life. However, Seneca tells, if invested properly, one’s time should be sufficient.

It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measures to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested. But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing. So it is—the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it. Just as great and princely wealth is scattered in a moment when it comes into the hands of a bad owner, while wealth however limited, if it is entrusted to a good guardian, increases by use, so our life is amply long for him who orders it properly.

Seneca talks about a million endeavours we undertake for some or the other reason but without actually living them.

Why do we complain of Nature? She has shown herself kindly; life, if you know how to use it, is long. But one man is possessed by an avarice that is insatiable, another by a toilsome devotion to tasks that are useless; one man is besotted with wine, another is paralyzed by sloth; one man is exhausted by an ambition that always hangs upon the decision of others, another, driven on by the greed of the trader, is led over all lands and all seas by the hope of gain; some are tormented by a passion for war and are always either bent upon inflicting danger upon others or concerned about their own; some there are who are worn out by voluntary servitude in a thankless attendance upon the great; many are kept busy either in the pursuit of other men’s fortune or in complaining of their own; many, following no fixed aim, shifting and inconstant and dissatisfied, are plunged by their fickleness into plans that are ever new; some have no fixed principle by which to direct their course, but Fate takes them unawares while they loll and yawn—so surely does it happen that I cannot doubt the truth of that utterance which the greatest of poets delivered with all the seeming of an oracle: “The part of life we really live is small.” For all the rest of existence is not life, but merely time.

What does one do then?

One needs to understand the concept of time. Because it is incorporeal many of us don’t treat it like we treat wealth. Seneca wrote all of this some 2000 years ago. However, with the knowledge of modern economics, we are well aware of how time is money. If not the deeper meaning, we at least understand the time value of money. We know the money we invest today will grow tomorrow. But when it comes to time, we often fail to show this kind of attitude. We process time within as abundant and unending subconsciously, even though we might know time is limited, and hence one day when the time to bid goodbye comes, we are caught unawares, that is the moment one perhaps learns to live, perhaps a little too late. This attitude needs correction. The answer then to ‘What does one do?’ lies in developing an unwavering attitude towards time that it is a limited resource. The subconscious must know this too. The attitude also has to keep us alert in guarding our time grudgingly. ‘If no or rather less time was filched from us, we would live enough’ – this is what Seneca wants Paulinus to realize.

A few days back, I had made a rudimentary diagram of my understanding of time.

Chasing that sweet spot where you’re both investing your time in something meaningful towards a better future and also enjoying the present can be elusive. Nonetheless, if we are doing any one part of it, let’s ensure at least we don’t ensconce ourselves in the ‘bad’ parts of the Venn diagram.


Credit where it’s due – The article this is based on was shared with me by my dear friend Devi.

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