On the Shortness of Life by Seneca

Apr 28, 2020

★★★★

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This collection of essays by Seneca is direct and powerful. We often hear that life is short, but Seneca’s message is more optimistic. He argues that life is actually long enough if we choose how spend our time and appreciate the present moment.

[A]ll save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live… It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it.

One of the hardest-hitting passages for me was his criticism of people who are constantly starting projects but never finishing them. Many engineers and entrepreneurs struggle with this. By constantly starting and scrapping ideas, they remain dissatisfied, and ultimately never accomplish something meaningful.

[M]any, following no fixed aim, shifting and inconstant and dissatisfied, are plunged by their fickleness into plans that are ever new…

At its core, the essays criticize those who are so engrossed in work that the beauty of life passes them by. Seneca writes that even those whose hard work is rewarded are often overcome with anxiety about maintaining their new status.

By great toil they attain what they wish, and with anxiety hold what they have attained; meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return. New engrossments take the place of the old, hope leads to new hope, ambition to new ambition.

That said, I don’t think Seneca has a problem with diligent work, so long as it’s something we deliberately choose (if we’re fortunate enough to do so).

Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested.

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My sole complaint is that the essays are mostly focused on criticizing how Romans spent their time, without balanced suggestions for how one ought to spent it. With that, Seneca has a few humorous passages describing the inane activities of the Roman upper-middle class.

Do you call a man leisured who arranges with anxious precision his Corinthian bronzes, the cost of which is inflated by the mania of a few collectors, and spends most of the day on rusty bits of metal? … Who sorts out the herds of his pack-mules into pairs of the same age and color?

Overall, however, I enjoyed this collection and plan to re-read it. It’s short enough to get through in an afternoon, and my copy is now dense with highlights.