Great Ideas Collection: Seneca

In the final review of our series exploring the books of Penguin’s Great Ideas Collection, Sophie Kingham reviews the essay ‘On the Shortness of Life’ – in its original Latin, ‘De Brevitate Vitae’ – written by Roman stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca.

Like Marcus Aurelius, reviewed earlier in this series, Seneca was of the philosophy that virtuous behaviour and high morals are the key to lasting happiness. Likewise, he believed that those who acted immorally and with poor judgement gained destructive emotions that were not helpful or beneficial.

Written to his friend Paulinus, this essay looks at how short life can appear to be, and that we need to – and can – make the most of it by seeking moral and virtuous pleasures. Throughout the essay, Seneca is adamant that it is not life that is short, but how we live that makes it seem so.

“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”

Indeed, if we use the time we have been given on this earth wisely, then life will seem its true length. Seneca felt that wasting time in frivolous activities or in pursuits that do not help towards our sense of accomplishment, joy and peace, were the worst of all things: “Life is long if you know how to use it.”

Seneca noted that people live as if they are destined to be on this earth forever: “Your own frailty never occurs to you; you don’t notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply”. As such, the aim of this essay is create a realisation of the finiteness of life and encourage people to use it in more productive ways.

“Call to mind when you ever had a fixed purpose; how few days have passed as you have planned; when you were ever at your own disposal; when your face wore its natural expression; when your mind was undisturbed; what work you have achieved in such a long life; how many have plundered your life when you were unaware of your losses; how much you have lost through groundless sorrow, foolish joy, greedy desire, the seductions of society; how little of your own was left to you. You will realise that you are dying prematurely”

Through his writing, Seneca asks that we stop misusing the time we have been given and make the most of it – if we really want to be happy. This is something that may prove difficult in the context of our modern-day life, which is so focused on technology, money, and societal opinions. However, if we shift the focus to other more virtuous pursuits, we can make ourselves happier and our life more fulfilled.

To be blunt: “That very day which you are devoting to somebody or something may be your last.” Would you be satisfied going out that way?

Seneca goes on to discuss how the majority of people make plans for their life, but asks “Who will allow your course to proceed as you arrange it? Why put off doing things when you can do them today?” He quotes Augustus, “It is more impressive to carry out these things than to promise them. Living is the least important activity of the preoccupied man; yet there is nothing which is harder to learn”.

To provide a resolution of sorts, Seneca wrote that the only way to really feel alive was to make time for philosophy. For those who do, they “not only keep a good watch over their own lifetimes, but annex every age to theirs. All the years that have passed before them are added to their own.” He makes his case simply and effectively, stating that the past is the only fixed point of time.

So: “Why not turn from this brief and transient spell of time and give ourselves wholeheartedly to the past, which is limitless and eternal and can be shared with better men than we?”


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