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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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Now, Penguin brings you the works of the great thinkers, pioneers, radicals and visionaries whose ideas shook civilization, and helped make us who we are. Penguin's Great Ideas series features twelve groundbreaking works by some of history's most prodigious thinkers, and each volume is beautifully packaged with a unique type-drive design that highlights the bookmaker's art. Offering great literature in great packages at great prices, this series is ideal for those readers who want to explore and savor the Great Ideas that have shaped the world.
The Stoic writings of the philosopher Seneca, who lived from c. 5 BC to AD 65, offer powerful insights into the art of living, the importance of reason and morality, and continue to provide profound guidance to many through their eloquence, lucidity and timeless wisdom. This selection of Seneca's orks was taken from the Penguin Classics edition of Dialogues and Letters, translated by C.D.N. Costa, and includes the essays On the Shortness of Life, Consolation to Helvia, and On Tranquility of Mind.
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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.
- Publisher : Penguin Books; 1st edition (September 6, 2005)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 105 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0143036327
- ISBN-13 : 978-0143036326
- Item Weight : 3.52 ounces
- Dimensions : 0.09 x 6.14 x 9.21 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #22,579 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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I also liked the quote from page 27 when he says "we lose the day in waiting for the night and the night in fearing for the dawn." He is saying we are waiting for the perfect moment, or the moment of joy and pleasure. But in waiting we lose all the time preceding that moment. And as soon as the moment comes we fear it's end. It's a constant vicious cycle and we can never win.
Another great quote is on page 5 when he says "the greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. Very powerful insight. It's like we're waiting and waiting and hoping whatever we want comes our way, but in doing that, we lose the time at hand. Plus, waiting and hoping something works out is putting your money on the future which is uncertain. That's why expecting something to happen is not enough, because you're betting on luck instead of making it happen through the action you take. As Abraham Lincoln said, "the best way to predict the future is to create it."
There are many great quotes but the last one I will share is on page 56 when he says "No man is despised by another unless he is first despised by himself. An object and debased mind is susceptible to such insult; but if a man stirs himself to face the worst of disasters and defeats the evils which overwhelm others, then he wears those very sorrows like a sacred badge. For we are naturally disposed to admire more than anything else the man who shows fortitude in adversity." I think what he's basically saying is that you need to love yourself before anyone else can love you. People will show you the amount of love in proportion to the amount of love you give yourself. The two quotes that come to mind that relate are "those who stand for nothing will fall for anything" and "if there is no enemy within, the enemy outside can do no harm." If you conquer the worst of your fears, the same fears that destroys others, then you will take pride in the very thing that you feared, and people will admire and respect that you had the guts to face it, instead of chastising and scorning you. So you should feel no shame in your problems for they are the very thing that will earn you the admiration of others if you are able to conquer them, but more importantly, it will strengthen you and help you grow as a person. His other quote that piggy backs off that is "If a great man falls and remains great as he lies, people no more despise him than they stamp on a fallen temple, which the devout still warship as much as when it was standing." In other words, it's not about what happens to you or how you fall, but about how your react and carry yourself, and your character, that will resonate with others. Anyway these are just some examples of the bits of wisdom Seneca offers. Overall, there is some timeless wisdom in his essay and I believe it is worth your time to read it.
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
This is the book that, above all others, has marked, and continues to mark my life and thinking. Seneca is right, “the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it”, and that many people are far too engrossed in others’ realities to do much of what one might truly call living.
Read this, and preferably while you are as young as possible, or else it will likely be painful when you do.
This is the best translation in my option, and the more modern ones lose some of the poetic beauty of his prose.