…At least once a year! Read below the book review written by our contributor Pedro de Lima
- Background to the Story
The Essay, On the Shortness of Life, from Seneca, above all else, is an essay about adequately managing and caring for one’s time & an exposition into how easily we can waste this valuable time without a second thought.
Initially, it was meant to be a letter to Pompeius Paulinus, master of Rome’s grain, a pleading attempt from Seneca for Paulinius to reconsider how he spends his time, spending less on politics and more on himself.
Right off the bat, Seneca argues that it isn’t that our lives are short – it’s that we choose to make it so by wasting most of our time. He implores the reader, originally Paulinus, now us, to examine the problems in our lives which cause our lives to seem short. Engaging in vices, giving our time entirely to others, the pursuit of meaningless goals, etc. Instead, he asks the reader to pursue meaningful goals and seek to live life to its fullest – something I consider to be most important. Not to wholly shun leisure but to refrain from being a slave to it.
2. The Importance of Time
Seneca argues that most men are ignorant of their mortality, of the preciousness of each of their days. He argues that many men are extremely frugal with their money, excessively concerned with vanity, preoccupied with trivial pursuits, yet wholly ignorant of their precious time.
He says men treat time as an infinite, abundant resource and only come to realise its scarcity when it’s far too late when their mortality is reaffirmed by the curse of old age or some illness to which they cannot avoid succumbing. He argues that men don’t see the importance of their time until it’s too little too late. Seneca urges the reader to be extremely wise with their time and spend it the best they can because they could still just as quickly die tomorrow.
3. The Futility of Glory & Living For Oneself
Seneca uses the examples of Augustus Caesar, Marcus Cicero & Livius Drusus to illustrate a crucial point. That lofty ambition and the pursuit of the highest glory comes with the price of one’s one freedom & one’s enjoyment of life. That ultimately it can be a hollow pursuit that leaves you feeling imprisoned and without control of your own life, and that the quest for power and glory is a horrible trap many fall into.
Caesar, both at the time & in modern days, was thought to be one of the most remarkable men to live in multiple aspects. Frequently idolised during his day and revered – though most were ignorant that he seldom could live for himself.
Seneca was constantly longing for the day where he could put aside his mantle of responsibility and live for himself. He longed for leisure, longed for relaxation, but even his moments of leisure were stately and oriented around some form of business.
Marcus Cicero remarked that he felt like a prisoner within his own highly luxurious estate. That none of his actions were indeed for himself and that he had no control over whether he could shirk his responsibilities. He was imprisoned to his career, and most if not nearly all his tasks somehow revolved around his political career and his estate and wealth maintenance.
Seneca uses these two to illustrate to Paulinus – and the reader, that the pursuit of glory is easily hollow & imprisoning and should not be confused for living a fruitful, whole life.
While experiencing some of the highest forms of the human experience, these men were no less mental prisoners than their lessers. Thus Paulinus’ pursuit of political prominence was a dangerous trap that would only lead to his misery.
4. Living With Purpose
Seneca argues that to truly experience a long, fulfilling life, one needs to live not only for themselves, not only for their own betterment – but with purpose and meaning. He chastises vanity and pure leisure as ultimately meaningless, fleeting pursuits that just leave men bereft of sense and feeling hollow at the end of it all. Things that get you nowhere but idling in the present & ignorant of your past or future. Seneca further argues that people like these are just as imprisoned as those preoccupied with other things such as their career like previously illustrated. He calls them “idly preoccupied”, idle and stationary in life but still preoccupied with trivialities. He considers these to be the most dishonourable of the preoccupied.
For those who chase glory, martial pursuits, or a formidable career, Seneca, at the least, grants the fact that they are reasonable, honourable delusions with at least some facet of meaning to them. But the idly preoccupied are ensnared by completely meaningless, fleeting pursuits with nothing to them other than hedon. Hence why he considers these the least worthy of respect.
Seneca urges the reader that, if they wish to live a genuinely long life, they must be sure that they’re going to live a life with meaning, a life indeed for themselves and their own betterment, a life where they can experience their existence to the fullest.
The letter, in essence, ushers the reader to treat his time with extreme care. He assures, in short, that it isn’t our lives that are short; it’s our minds that limit it to be so. If we form our decisions carefully, pursue the meaning in them, eliminate idle preoccupations, weed out delusions that will only shorten our time. We’ll have a life that is neither too short nor too long – a life that’s precisely enough. That, at the curtain’s call, we’ll be ready to expire. This stoic mindset, which has surged in popularity in the last two decades, is a stark contrast to the epicurean ideal of the 1980s & 1990s. Era’s idealised consumerism, pleasure, pursuing the “highest” of thrills & the extent of the human experience, while still contenting yourself with the simple joys. Considerably more relaxed & certainly an ideal which encouraged the surrendering of specific higher ambitions, especially ones stressed by the stoics, such as zealous self-improvement and growth. Despite what values the reader may hold, it’s undeniable that there’s a candle of truth to be seen in Seneca’s words. Time, regardless of who you are or what you believe, is your most valuable resource.