On the shortness of life – Seneca

Life is short , art is long – Hippocrates

“Life is short ” is an all too familiar bemoan but it is not that our time on this earth is too short but rather we waste too much of it on useless activities, i.e needless luxury or spent on no good activity . We are not given a short life but we end up making it short through our own choices. Wasting life due to insatiable greed , a laborious dedication to useless tasks  , worn out by political ambition which is at the mercy of others whims , by dangers which are courted or self imposed servitude to thankless attendance of the great, complaining about others money or fortune or their own . Most pursue no fixed goal so death takes them unawares as they yawn languidly “It is a small part of life that we truly live”, vices surround and assail our every sense and if one is not able to overcome them then one is in danger of losing their true self .

We do not allow anybody to seize our estates or our money and yet we are overly generous with our time , which is the scarcest resource of all . Call to mind when you had a fixed purpose , how few days passed as you had planned , when you are at your own disposal , when your face is wearing its natural expression, what work have you achieved in such a long life , who have plundered your life while you were unaware , how much time was lost in groundless sorrow , foolish joy, greedy desire , seductions of society, how little of your own was left to you. this is the reason we die prematurely . We live as we are destined to live forever , our own frailty never occurs to us. We squander time as though we have an ever flowing and abundant over supply of it We act like mortals in all that we fear and immortals in all that we desire . How often we hear that somebody is going to start doing such and such when they retire ? what guarantee do we have of long life . This essentially means that we are dedicating to ourselves only a paltry leftover .  Vices such as lust , drinking , envy and avarice will swallow up a life of even a thousand years  and leave nothing of value . Learning how to live takes up a whole life but so does learning how to die . We see people who have achieved what they want and are now tired of it , the politician who runs for office and is now tired and yearns for leisure , the man who has a mistress that seems to consume him and demand things . We use time lavishly as though it costs nothing and yet when afflicted by a life threatening disease , we will spend everything in our power to get every iota of time we can get . This inconstancy of feeling costs us a lot . It is easy to organize an amount however small which is assured , we have to be careful in preserving what will cease at some unknown point . No one can bring back the years , no one can restore you to yourself . life will follow the path it will take and will neither reverse nor check its course . No starter will fire a gun to remind you that the race has started , there are no reminders of its swiftness but glide on swiftly and silently nor will life lengthen itself for a kings command  .

According to him , worse are the folks who officiously preoccupy their own time to improve their own lives and thereby spend all time organizing for the unknown future . I am not sure what this means . I am guilty of buying an inordinate number of books that I plan to read in the future but one does need to organize their lives especially since unlike Seneca we do not have slaves . But putting things off for another day is a waste of life because it snatches away each day as it comes and denies us the present. The whole future lies in uncertainty , live for the immediate moment.


“Lifes’ finest day for wretched mortals here is always first to flee ” . Vices cannot be overcome by logic but need to be crushed by force . Seneca informs us that the past needs to be examined carefully and adjustments made accordingly  , but the preoccupied have to no time for that . Brings to mind “The unexamined life is not worth living” .

He also makes a point of informing us that useless knowledge is futile too. But other than offering general examples , he does not proceed to elaborate . According to him only people who make time for philosophy are truly at leisure . He wants us to argue with Socrates , express doubt with Carneades (Skeptics), cultivate retirement with Epicurus , overcome human nature with the Stoics and exceed its limits with the Cynics . He tells us to make friends with these great minds . We cannot choose our parents but we can choose whose children we would want to be  . Life is short and anxious for those who forget the past , neglect the present and fear the future .

He advocates that we understand the balance sheet of our own life than of mediocre and mundane day to day activities , he gives the example of the corn trade . Our vigorous mind , supremely capable of dealing with the greatest responsibilities when forced to deal with mundane activities is like a thoroughbred horse who has to subdue his speed to endure a heavy burden .

Takeaways – Dont waste time because that is the stuff that life is made of . The same message is delivered in Pink Floyd’s “Time” or Iron Maiden’s Wasted Years , the other important take away was make friend with the eminent dead , same advice that Charlie Munger offers in the Poor Charlie’s Almanac . This is a short penetrating read with useful insights .


6 thoughts on “On the shortness of life – Seneca

  1. Again another good piece. Consistency is key to success and you’ve got spunk, but are you spunky enough to leave your mark? If you dare come into the conversation that’s going on right now at Gastradamus. We have people from all over the world commenting and we would like to personalize invite you to do the same. If you could comment on my website it will bring you a lot if traffic, your opinion is much appreciate, keep it going and the Flow will come.

    Liked by 1 person

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