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Great Ideas On the Shortness of Life (Penguin Great Ideas) Mass Market Paperback – International Edition, February 1, 2005
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About the Author
Lucius Annaeus Seneca, statesman, philosopher, advocate and man of letters, was born in Spain around 4BC. He rose to prominence at Rome, pursuing a double career in the courts and political life, until Claudius sent him into exile exile on the island of Corsica for eight years. Recalled in AD49, he was appointed tutor to the boy who was to become, in AD54, the emperor Nero. Seneca acted for eight years as Nero's unofficial chief minister until Nero too turned against him and he retired from public life to devote himself to philosophy and writing. In AD65, following the discovery of a plot against the emperor, he and many others were compelled by Nero to commit suicide. C.D.N. Costa has spent most of his working life at Birmingham University, where he is Professor of Classics and Chairman of the School of Antiquity. Among other works, he has written commentaries on the works of Seneca, Letters, Dialogues and the tragedy Medea.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
On the Shortness of Life
Most human beings, Paulinus,* complain about the meanness of nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, and because 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. Nor is it just the man in the street and the unthinking mass of people who groan over this - as they see it - universal evil: the same feeling lies behind complaints from even distinguished men. Hence the dictum of the greatest of doctors:† 'Life is short, art is long.' Hence too the grievance, most improper to a wise man, which Aristotle expressed when he was taking nature to task for indulging animals with such long existences that they can live through five or ten human lifetimes, while a far shorter limit is set for men who are born to a great and extensive destiny. It is 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.
* A friend of Seneca’s.
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Seneca, being one of the better known philosophers at the time, delves into our thoughts as well as others thoughts from across the generations. Even though his musings were made back in the early 1st century, he still had valid points. My favorite take-away from this book: "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." He does what any good philosopher is supposed to do: make you think. How quick are we to dismiss someone who is asking us for $100, while we will gladly give away an afternoon at an event that we did not want to attend?
We all have birth certificates, so we know how long we have existed, but how much of that time is actually spent living? Also, if we knew what the other end was, our death date, how differently would we live? If we knew that we only had 50,000 hours left on earth, how stingy would we be with our time?
I reread this book all the time.
Philosophy is supposed to, more than anything else, teach us how to live better lives. On the Shortness of Life is my favorite introductory material to figuring out how to do just that.
The core takeaway is simple. Be mindful of and purposeful with your time.
Time is our most precious commodity and it is too easy to lose sight of it while we go through our daily routines of work, family, and social life plus all the little distractions that tend to fill up the day up. We become preoccupied with interpersonal drama and day-to-day stresses that our lives quickly go by and before you know it we end up old men with much regret.
Seneca's suggested fixes are 1. Awareness and 2. Acceptance.
We need to be aware of how we spend our time and ideally anticipate how best to spend it in the present and future. Again, most of us spend it unwisely as if it's more plentiful than it actually is.
Acceptance is key to how we think about death. We tend to avoid confronting the fact that we're going to die, which builds up a lot of anxiety about it. Seneca discusses how learning how to die is just as important as learning how to live. We die well by accepting the fact we're going to die and not hiding from it. This will naturally lead to a great appreciation for the time we have which will lead to taking more purposefully action instead of filling up the day with too much idle preoccupation.
There's plenty more to think through in the book. I highly recommend picking it up. I can't think of a person who could not benefit from reading it. I'll leave you with a few of my favorite quotes from it.
"Life is short, art is long."
"But you never deign to look at yourself or listen to yourself. So you have no reason to claim credit from anyone for those attentions, since you showed them not because you wanted someone else's company but because you could not bear your own."
"But learning how to live takes a whole life, and, which may surprise you more, it takes a whole life to learn how to die."
"Just as it is no use pouring any amount of liquid into a container without a bottom to catch and hold it, so it does not matter how much time we are given if there is nowhere for it to settle;"