Seneca on Understanding the Shortness of Our Lives

 

Seneca

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.”

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