Seneca on Understanding the Shortness of Our Lives

 

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Seneca. Via: (Daily Stoic)

 

Lately I have been pondering about time–how it moves swiftly but quietly through our lives. The scariest realization of its fleetingness is when we use it lavishly. At the end of the day, we wonder: where did time go? What did we do all day? Even for people who have treated their time as their most valuable resource, time will keep on moving, unconcerned of what we do. Once it vanishes, time won’t come back to us.

I was reminded of this strange nature of time by an essay that I read called “On the Shortness of Life”, one of the three moral essays compiled and translated into English in a book titled Seneca: On the Shortness of Life (Public Library) (Amazon). This essay was written by Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BC – AD 65), one of the most well-respected stoic philosophers, for his friend, Paulinus, around 49 CE. This was the year when Seneca returned to Rome after his exile in Corsica. What makes this essay compelling to me is Seneca’s crisp and precise articulation of the nature of time can still be evocatively felt by this generation though this letter was written more than two thousands years ago.

Translated by C.D.N Costa, the essay powerfully begins:

“Most human beings, Paulinus, complain about the meanness of nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, and because of this spell of time that has been given to us rushes by so swiftly and rapidly that with very few exceptions life ceases for the rest of us just when we are getting ready for it.”

Stoicism is philosophy that promulgates living in conformity with nature’s laws. This idea is very present in most of writings of stoicism, especially in this letter. Then the question becomes: what does it mean to live in line with nature’s laws? Robin Campbell, the editor and translator for a book called Seneca: Letters from a Stoic (Amazon) said that living according to nature’s laws means “not only questioning convention and training ourselves to do without all except the necessities (plain food, water, basic clothing, and shelter) but developing the inborn gift of reason which marks us off as different from the animal world.” (Massimo Pigluicci, Professor of Philosophy from CUNY, also thoroughly explored the meaning of living according to nature in Stoicism on his blog.)

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The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali. 1931. Via: (Artstor)

 

Returning to our main topic on the swiftness of our time, Seneca continues to offer a wise and yet harsh reminder for us:

“It’s 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 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.

[…]

Many are occupied by either pursuing other people’s money or complaining about their own. 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.’ Indeed, all the rest is not life but merely time.”

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Alarm Clock by Diego Rivera. 1914. Via: (Artstor)

 

What Seneca says in the following sentence is something that we do all the time. We are more terrified of the risk of losing something replaceable such as money or our personal properties than losing something that is inherently irreplaceable, which is our time:

“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.”

I remember I asked my childhood friend what he wanted to have for his tenth birthday. He said jubilantly: “A time machine!” I asked why and he explained he wanted to foresee his future faster than anybody else.

It was a serious thing to be uttered from the mouth of a nine year old boy.

Reflecting on what my friend said, I think his underlying meaning behind his longing was he wanted to be able to mitigate any risk in his future life.

We are all eager to know what will happen to our lives in the future so that we can use our time wisely and do the things we need to do immediately. But we cannot predict our future because it will always dance with uncertainty and mystery.

Seneca captures this longing of foreseeing our future in the letter:

“But nobody works out the value of time: men use it lavishly as if it cost nothing. But if death threatens these same people, you will see them praying to their doctors; if they are in fear of capital punishment, you will see them prepared to spend their all to stay alive. So inconsistent are they in their feelings. But if each of us could have the tally of his future years set before him, as we can of our past years, how alarmed would be those who saw only a few years ahead, and how carefully would they use them! And yet it is easy to organize an amount, however small, which is assured; we have to be more careful in preserving what will cease at an unknown point.”

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Walentas Clock Tower by Glen Hansen. 2011. Via: (Artstor)

 

Someone wisely said, “Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity.” Another wise man also said, “Start small, start now.” However, being present is not an easy thing to do in our age of endless distractions. Though procrastination done strategically could enhance our creativity, procrastination is still one of the biggest obstacles that can hamper the progress of our work. This topic of procrastination found in this letter remains as fresh as when it appeared thousands of years ago. Seneca writes:

“But putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. 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?”

With everything that he has said, Seneca has one last urgent request for all of us:

“The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”

Carl Sagan on the Power of Science and Popularizing Science Through Books

 

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Carl Sagan sitting on a barrier in City Hall Plaza, March 1972. Photographer: Jeff Albertson. Via: (UMASS Amherst)

 

“The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history or fiction. It seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.”

This was the speech delivered by marine biologist and one of the finest science writers of the twentieth century, Rachel Carson, when her book The Sea Around Us (Amazon) (Public Library) won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1952. The rest of the speech, she talked about the value of science and her aim as a writer to write truthfully and enchantingly about science.

Carson was not alone in her ambition to popularize the importance of science to public. One of our greatest scientists, Carl Sagan, arrived in our public consciousness and intensified Carson’s ambition unflinchingly through all of his work he did when he was alive–more than 700 articles and 20 books on science, an award winning TV series called Cosmos, and his work for NASA and Cornell University. Just like Carson, Sagan always had a missionary’s zeal about pushing science into the public arena.

In one of those articles he wrote, there’s one titled “Describing The World As It is, Not As It Would be”–a short but robust article on the importance of understanding and applying science into our lives. I found this article in Marie Arana’s book titled The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work (Public Library) (Amazon)–featuring fifty six writers reflecting on the craft of their writing and the trajectory of their lives as a writer.

Our time is far more advanced than the time when Sagan lived. Science has increasingly altered the way we interact to each other and helped us to solve unsolvable issues in the past. Behind this glorious achievement, some of us still perceive that science only belongs to those white-coated people, especially men, who sit hours on high lab stools looking at a microscope. This belief is destructive and something that Sagan wanted to reconstruct. He wrote:

“We’ve arranged a civilization in which most crucial elements–transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment and protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting–profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. We might get away with it for a while, but eventually this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

The demand of scientifically driven minds are increasingly desired. Sagan argued that science must reach beyond academia. He wrote:

“. . . it’s insufficient to produce only a small, highly competent, well-rewarded priesthood of professionals; some fundamental understanding of the findings and methods of science must be available on the broadest scale.”

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The great comet of 1881. Observed on the night of June 25-26 at 1h. 30m. A.M. Painted by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

What was it about science that Sagan cherished? Sagan explained some of the powerful values that science can bring into our lives:

“It alerts us to subtle dangers introduced by our world-altering technologies, especially to the environment.

It teaches us about the deepest issues of origins, natures and fates–of our species, of life, of our planet, of the universe. In the long run, the greatest gift of science may be in teaching us, in ways no other human endeavor has been able, something about our cosmic context, and about who we are.”

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 This narrow-angle color image of the Earth, dubbed “Pale Blue Dot,” is a part of the first ever “portrait” of the solar system taken by Voyager 1. © NASA/JPL

 

Sagan peered beyond his scientific mind to trace the value of science. On the connection between national economy and science, Sagan said:

“It [science] makes the national economy and the global civilization run. Other nations well understand this. This is why so many graduate students in science and engineering at American universities–still the best in the world–are citizens of other countries. Science is the golden road out of poverty and backwardness for emerging nations. The corollary, one that the United States sometimes fails to grasp, is that abandoning science is the road back into poverty and backwardness.”

With his deep intuitive mind, Sagan saw the commonalities between science and democracy. He wrote:

“The values of science and the values of democracy are concordant, in many cases indistinguishable. Science confers power on anyone who takes the trouble to learn it. Science thrives on the free exchange of ideas; its values are antithetical to secrecy. Science holds to no special vantage points or privileged positions. Both science and democracy encourage unconventional opinions and vigorous debate. Both demand adequate reason, coherent argument, rigorous standards of honesty and evidence. Science is a baloney detector, a way to call the bluff of those who only pretend to knowledge. The more widespread its language, rules and methods, the better chance we have of preserving what Jefferson and his colleagues had in mind. But democracy can also be subverted more thoroughly with the tools of science than any pre-industrial demagogue ever dreamed.”

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Carl Sagan’s reading list, fall 1954. Via: (Library of Congress)

 

Once Sagan famously said, “Books are key to understanding the world and participating in a democratic society.” His profound relationship with books since he was a kid made him believe that the best way to popularize science is through books. He said:

“With books, you can mull things over, go at your own pace, revisit the hard parts, compare texts, dig deep. As a youngster, I was inspired by the popular books of George Gamow, James Jeans, Arthur Eddington, J. B.S Haldane, Rachel Carson and Arthur C. Clarke. The popularity of well-written, well-explained books on science that touch our hearts as well as our minds seems greater in the last 20 years than ever before, and the number and disciplinary diversity of scientists writing these books is likewise unprecedented. Among the best contemporary science-popularizers, I think of Stephen Jay Gould, E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins in biology; Steven Weinberg, Alan Lightman and Kip Thorne in physics; Roald Hoffman in chemistry; and the early works of Fred Hoyle in astronomy. Isaac Asimov wrote capably on everything. (And while requiring some calculus, the most consistently exciting science popularization of the last few decades seems to me to be Vol. I of Richard Feyman‘s Introductory Lectures on Physics.) Nevertheless, current efforts at science popularization are clearly nowhere near commensurate with the public good and the national need.”

In this digital world, we have invented some alternatives that can help us to enlarge our understanding of the world. Though books are still beloved by a lot of us, the rise of blogs, podcasts, Ted Talks, have made knowledge acquisition much easier and more accessible than before. Sites such as: Brain Pickings.org, Farnam Street, Ted Talk, Ted Radio Hours, It’s Okay to be Smart, Open Culture, On Being, Radio Lab, Science Friday, Aeon.co, Khan Academy, Kids Should See This; they have revolutionized our education system, especially freely teaching science to public.

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Carl Sagan with the planets. 1981. Via: (Library of Congress)

 

Everything that Sagan said in this article remains as fresh as when it was written in the middle of 90’s. At the end of the essay, through the question he posed, Sagan invited us to imagine the possibility that science can have for our future generation:

“What kind of society would it be if, instead, we drummed into them science and a sense of hope?”

Nobel-Winning Psychologist Daniel Kahneman On the Danger of Overconfidence

 

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Nassim Taleb and Daniel Kahneman speaking at NYPL. 2013. Via: (FLICKR)

 

In a conversation with Krista Tippett, Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in economic science in 2002, the author of Thinking Fast and Slow, talked about the danger of overconfidence.

The transcript:

Krista Tippett: One thing you’ve also said is that if you had a magic wand, overconfidence is the thing you would banish. Would you explain that?

Daniel Kahneman: Well, and I’m–I did say that, but I’m not sure I was right. But what I meant to say was that when you look globally at people’s actions, overconfidence is endemic. I mean we have too much confidence in our beliefs, and overconfidence really is associated with a failure of imagination. When you cannot imagine an alternative to your belief, you are convinced that your belief is true. That’s overconfidence. And overconfidence–whenever there is a war, there were overconfident generals. You can look at failures, and overconfidence had something to do with them. On the other hand, overconfidence and overconfident optimism is the engine of capitalism. I mean entrepreneurs are overconfident. They think they’re going to be successful. People who open restaurants in New York think they’ll succeed; otherwise, they wouldn’t do it. But at least two-thirds of them have to give up within a few years–more than two-thirds, probably.

Krista Tippett: Well, and too, what’s also baked into that is, we reward overconfidence. We celebrate it.

Daniel Kahneman: Absolutely, we want people to be overconfident. We want our leaders to be overconfident.

To devour Kahneman’s insights on the mystery of human thought and behavior, listen to the podcast below:

 

Maybe, after all, what we need to tell people, especially aspiring creators, is that confidence is not the prerequisite for any creative endeavor. It is courage that counts–the engine that propels us to take the first step of anything unfamiliar and scary. In a conversation with Chase Jarvis, Debbie Millman, who got inspired by Dani Shapiro’s notion of confidence, said eloquently about the necessity to be courageous. She said:

“I believe that the act of being courageous—taking that first step—is much more critical to a successful outcome than the notion of feeling confident while engaged in the process. Courage requires faith in your ability before you experience any repeated success. But that doesn’t mean taking that first step will be easy. It won’t. Taking ANY step for the first time is difficult and there is a tremendous amount of vulnerability and nervousness you are likely going to experience. But experiencing that vulnerability and nervousness doesn’t give you an excuse not to take the step.”