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.”

The Danger of Stereotyping by Greek Philosopher Seneca

 

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Seneca by Peter Paul Rubens. Via: (Artstor)

 

If there is a book that I treat like a sacred text, it is Letters from a Stoic (Public Library)–a collection of letters originally penned by Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4BC – 65AD), one of the most towering figures in the ancient Greek school of philosophy, Stoicism. Every once in a while when I find myself mortified over trivial things such as a WiFi outage and when a cyclist overtakes me on the road, I think of Seneca and this book. This book, which I revisit frequently, will always bring me solace in the midst of chaos and some new teachings that are extremely practical. Although Seneca was penning all the letters between 4 BC and 65 AD for his own private reflection and for the people that he loved, they surprisingly have survived two millennia later against all odd and have helped modern people to comprehend the notion of what it means to live a meaningful life.

In one of those letters in the book, I came upon a letter titled Letter CXXIII that addresses the problem that is so common in our modern world. It is our chronic habit to be seduced by stereotypes. Stereotyping someone is not only a pathway to racism, but according to Seneca, once we plant the seed of it in our lives, “the evil would follow us, to rear its head at some time or other in the future”. The letter is not only advising us to avoid the act of stereotyping but also to avoid the people who spread this harmful and misleading association.

Writing the letter to his friend, Lucilius, after a long exhausted journey that he had, Seneca wrote:

[…]

“With all such people you should avoid associating. These are the people who pass on vices, transmitting them from one character to another. One used to think that the type of person who spreads tales was as bad as any: but there are persons who spread vices. And association with them does a lot of damage. For even if its success is not immediate, it leaves a seed in the mind, and even after we’ve said goodbye to them, the evil follows us, to rear its head at some time or other in the future. In the same way as people who’ve been to a concert carry about with them the melody and haunting quality of pieces they’ve just heard, interfering with their thinking and preventing them from concentrating on anything serious, so the talk of snobs and parasites sticks in our ears long after we’ve heard it. And it’s far from easy to eradicate these haunting notes from the memory; they stay with us, lasting on and on, coming back to us every so often. This is why we must shut our ears against mischievous talk, and as soon as it starts, too; once such talk has made its entry and been allowed inside, it becomes a good deal bolder. Eventually it reaches the stage where it says that ‘virtue and philosophy and justice are just a lot of clap-trap’.”

[…]

 

More on Seneca and Stoicism:

  • School of Life, one of my favorite intellectual channels on YouTube discussed this school of philosophy, Stoicism, in a very catchy visual and understandable language:

 

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Tomb of Seneca by Charles Le Brun. Via: (Artstor)

 

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Sokrates and Seneca. This sculpture is owned by Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (Germany). Via: (Artstor)

 

The Great Stoic Philosopher Seneca on the value of time

 

 

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Seneca. Via: (Classical Wisdom)

 

Something extraordinary happened last week. One of my favorite thinkers, and a self-proclaimed “human guinea pig” aka Tim Ferriss, the author of The 4-Hour Workweek, gave away freely three volumes of pdf version of some of the most remarkable Stoic writing, starring Lucius Annaeus Seneca or Seneca the Younger. Seneca was born circa 4 BC in present day Spain, and grew up to be one of the most towering figures in the ancient Rome. From being a Nero’s advisor, successful playwright, one of the wealthiest people in the Roman empire, until he was being exiled to the island of Corsica for eight years on the premises of supposed adultery with the emperor’s niece; Seneca had experienced the sweet taste of success and the bitter taste of failure. 

In this first volume of the book titled The Tao of Seneca: Practical Letters from a Stoic Master, there is a letter that shifted the way I think about the value of time. Written centuries ago for Seneca’s friend, Lucilious, the substance of this letter is timely and timeless, reminding us that our time in this world is very short and yet most people are squandering it as if it were replaceable. This letter is a poignant reminder of what we know so deeply but chronically fail to put into practice.

Seneca wrote:

“Continue to act thus, my dear Lucilius–set yourself free for your own sake; gather and save your time, which till lately has been forced from you, or filched away, or has merely slipped from your hands. Make yourself believe the truth of my words–that certain moments are torn from us, that some are gently removed, and that others glide beyond our reach. The most disgraceful kind of loss, however, is that due to carelessness. Furthermore, if you will pay close heed to the problem, you will find that the largest portion of our life passes while we are doing ill, a goodly share while we are doing nothing, and the whole while we are doing that which is not to the purpose.”

Seneca was absolutely correct when he said, “Make yourself believe the truth of my words–that certain moments are torn from us, that some are gently removed, and that others glide beyond our reach”. Sometimes we have tried to protect our time but once in a while something beyond our control steals it from our possession. It is normal and occurs all the time. However, Seneca, extracting exclusively from the core of stoicism, wanted us to think critically about the distinction between the things that we can control and we cannot control. Stoicism, the school of Hellenistic philosophy that was founded in Athens in the early 3rd century BC, teaches us to accept what we cannot change, and control what we can control–ourselves and our responses.

Touching on humans’ chronic habit to procrastinate, Seneca wrote:

“Therefore, Lucilius, do as you write me that you are doing: hold every hour in your grasp. Lay hold of today’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon tomorrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by.”

Thinking differently than Seneca, Adam Grant, one of the most influential management thinkers of the 21st century, has counter-intuitive thoughts on the topic of procrastination. In his recent remarkable book titled Originals: How Non-comformists Move The World argued that “strategic procrastination” is necessary to formulate more creative ideas.

 

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Grant, one of Fast Company’s 100 most creative people in business, wrote:

“Along with providing time to generate novel ideas, procrastination has another benefit: it keeps us open to improvisation. When we plan well in advance, we often stick to the structure we’ve created, closing the door to creative possibilities that might spring into our fields of vision.”

In another page of the book, Grant wrote:

“Great originals are great procrastinators, but they do not skip planning altogether. They procrastinate strategically, making gradual progress by testing and refining different possibilities.”

His video below from Ted-Talk is a worth to watch.

 

 

Returning to our main topic, Seneca, he continued to speak about humans’ chronic habit to waste time. It is funny to ponder that we, humans, are heavily obsessed with protecting our replaceable material possessions such as cars, money, phones, from being lost and stolen. The irony is we are rarely thinking of protecting the most precious and irreplaceable resource that we have, which is our time. 

Seneca wrote:

“Nothing, Lucilious, is ours, except time. We were entrusted by nature with the ownership of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who will can oust us from possession. What fools these mortals be! They allow the cheapest and most useless things, which can easily be replaced, to be charged in the reckoning, after they have acquired them; but they never regard themselves as in debt when they have received some of that precious commodity–time! And yet time is the one loan which even a grateful recipient cannot repay.”

 

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Seneca

 

Seneca, just like the rest of human beings, was far from perfect, but he knew how to articulate his imperfection. The rest of the letter he spoke about his own failure to be in control of his own time and continued to offer his unshakeable truth about the value of time to his dear friend, Lucilious. He wrote:

“You may desire to know how I, who preach to you so freely, am practicing. I confess frankly: my expense account balances, as you would expect from one who is free-handed but careful. I cannot boast that I waste nothing, but I can at least tell you what I am wasting, and the cause and manner of the loss; I can give you the reasons why I am a poor man. My situation, however, is the same as that of may who are reduced to slender means through no fault of their own: every one forgives them, but no one comes to their rescue.

What is the state of things, then? It is this: I do not regard a man as poor, if the little which remains is enough for him. I advise you, however, to keep what is really yours; and you cannot begin too early. For, as our ancestors believed, it is too late to spare when you reach the dregs of the cask. Of that which remains at the bottom, the amount is slight, and the quality is vile. Farewell.”

 

 

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The Death of Seneca, 1773 – Jacques-Louis David. Via: (Wikiart.org)