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On the Shortness of Life: Life Is Long if You Know How to Use It (Penguin Great Ideas) Paperback – September 6, 2005
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About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
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.
- Item Weight : 3.04 ounces
- Paperback : 105 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0143036327
- ISBN-13 : 978-0143036326
- Dimensions : 0.09 x 6.14 x 9.21 inches
- Publisher : Penguin Books; 1st edition (September 6, 2005)
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #26,023 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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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;"
Essay 1: We will all die, and here are the many ways people waste what life they have. Do better.
Essay 2: A letter to his mother about his being exiled, and how he feels his life will still be richer than those who are wealthy
Essay 3: Peace of mind, and having confidence in the path one is leading based on introspection and action
Some of my favorite quotes:
“You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire.” -- As in, people tend to avoid what makes them uncomfortable yet put off the things that they really wish to to and achieve as though they will live long enough to experience them eventually.
An extension of that:
“Can anything be more idiotic than certain people who boast of their foresight? They keep themselves officiously preoccupied in order to improve their lives; they spend their lives in organizing their lives. They direct their purposes with an eye to a distant future. 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?”
“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.”
“So let those people go on weeping and wailing whose self-indulgent minds have been weakened by long prosperity, let them collapse at the threat of the most trivial injuries; but let those who have spent all their years suffering disasters endure the worst afflictions with a brave and resolute staunchness. Everlasting misfortune does have one blessing, that it ends up by toughening those whom it constantly afflicts.”
“Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only those are really alive. For they not only keep a good watch over their own lifetimes, but they annex every age to theirs. All the years that have passed before them are added to their own. Unless we are very ungrateful, all those distinguished founders of holy creeds were born for us and prepared for us a way of life.”
And an extension of the above:
“We are in the habit of saying that it was not in our power to choose the parents who were allotted to us, that they were given to us by chance. But we can choose whose children we would like to be. There are households of the noblest intellects: choose the one into which you wish to be adopted, and you will inherit not only their name but their property too. Nor will this property need to be guarded meanly or grudgingly: the more it is shared out, the greater it will become.”
Anyway, there is much more within. Definitely grab a copy, and get a good read in.
Top reviews from other countries
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While "On the Shortness of Life" definitely isn't one of the longest books ever written (paperback edition has 111 pages), it isn't one of the easiest-to-read books ever written as well. The message is often very condensed and it requires a lot of concentrated effort to fully comprehend it. I think this might be one of the most philosophical books I've read in a while, while luckily not being very philosophical (as compared to distant memories of reading Hegel's Phenomenology of the Spirit for my high school philosophy assignments).
I must admit that this is the most highlighted book in my collection. There are many different insights worth remembering and contemplating upon, and I think I might keep doing this for at least a while.
I don't think that this is the type of a book that you can read and expect it to change the entirety of your life (nor I think that you can expect this from anything, for that matter), yet it can definitely have an effect on how you live your life. I'd say this the kind of a book that falls into your hands when you are ready. You must have already started contemplating on life and changing your life in order to even be searching for such literature.
Already on the first page, Seneca writes that "it is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it." To refer back to the point I'm trying to make is why would one even care about the inevitable shortness of life or wasting of time in the first place, unless one was pursuing a hard-to-achieve goal and/or struggling on their own path to excellence?
I believe that simply the best way to properly describe this book is by quoting a fellow Amazon reviewer, who said:
"A must read for anyone who needs a jolt to kick you in the right direction."
Highly recommended to everyone interested!
Where he is not so good, another reason for four stars, is in advising what one should do with one's time, and that's partly because - to my thinking - he never settles in his own mind the criteria for deciding who we should be happy to give some of our precious time to supporting. It shouldn't go solely on private pleasure, should it? How much of it should go on good works, helping others less well placed than ourselves, maybe through public office? And what about the close up decisions about the gift of our time in partnerships?
But he sets you thinking. And probably the best philosophers set you thinking for yourself, which he does, if you give his book the time it deserves.