“On the Shortness of Life” Seneca

Read Seneca’s “On the Shortness of Life”.  Most of it was about how we waste time and thus make life short.  The way to make the most of life is to study philosophy – not just one, but many.  If you find something you like or agree with and then attach yourself to it and it alone, you risk stagnating and being wrong.  Can you be open to everything?  But I digress, that’s not what Seneca said, that’s where I took off — that is tried to think for myself.

Now I’ll reread it perhaps more carefully.  (After I finish “The Happy Life”)

In Chapter I he writes that the problem is not that life is short, the problem is that we waste time.  “When time is squandered in the pursuit of pleasure or in vain idleness, when it is spent with no real purpose, the finality of death fast approaches and it is only then, when we are forced to, that we take a good hard look at how we have spent our life — just as we become aware that it is ending.”

Our focus is wrong, life is not short, it only seems short, especially when we look back on it, because we waste it.

Chapter II:  We waste time because of greed, trivial activities, drink, laziness, obsession with career, laziness, love of business and making money, anger, obsession with sports or macho, fear of harm, not having a purpose and being always rootless and dissatisfied.  Nice epigram:  “The amount of life we truly live is small.  For our existence on Earth is not Life, but merely time.”  Vices entice us “overwhelming our senses and making us a prisoner of the pleasures of the flesh.”  He goes on to say that the casualties of vice rarely fully recover.  That’s a hard one, for aren’t we all, to some degree, casualties of our vices?

Chapter III:  The paradox of human nature, according to Seneca, is that we are stingy about giving money away, but seem more than happy to give our time away.  However, money can be replaced, time cannot.

Chapter IV:  How those with excessive ambition “moan about never taking a day off” and end up badly.  “You let it (time) slip away as if it were something unimportant that could easily be replaced.”

I get a little confused here at what Seneca is getting at.  He seems to be talking about taking time off, relaxing, taking a vacation.  Is this using time well?  Perhaps so.  Perhaps it would be useful for me to make a list of what it means for me, right now, to make good use of my time, as well as what amounts to letting time slip away.

Chapter V:  Criticism of Cicero for associating with avowed enemies and dubious friends, and  complaining that he is “half a prisoner in his villa”.  Good Quote:  “he who possesses an undiminished and stable liberty, being free and his own master, towers over all others.  for what can possible be above a man who has mastered his life and is above fortune?”

Chapter VI:  On Drusus who’s ambition and talent were evident, and was intensely driven, but ended in an early and questionable (murder or suicide) death:  his intensity resulted in personal and public misfortune.  What is important?

Chapter VII:  The worst people are those who waste their time in drinking and lusting, and those ruled by green or anger.  “those who are ruled by the delights of the stomach and groin bear a stain of dishonor.”

Chapter VIII:  “Men are frivolous with the most valuable thing in the world, blind to its value because it is intangible because it can not be seen, and for this reason it is considered a very cheap thing — even of almost no value at all.”  So, I wonder if this is true?  Is it because time is intangible, or could it be because we don’t value ourselves?  That somehow rings equally true.

Chapter IX:  “Is there anything more ridiculous than a person talking with certitude about the future?”

“Such people devote their energy on creating a better life for themselves — spending their life preparing for life!”

“They are motivated by thoughts of a distant tomorrow, but postponing life is the greatest waste of time; it deprives them of each new day life brings, it steals from the present with the promise of the hereafter.”

“Everything that is to come is steeped in uncertainty, live now.”

Here I am beginning to understand what he means by wasting time, and by living now.  I think.  Maybe I am getting my own ideas about it?  Start the other way:  what does it mean to live now?  Aren’t we all alive now?  Don’t we all live while we are alive?  Does it mean to enjoy life?  To be aware of life?  To choose how you spend your time, rather than float along, looking at and doing whatever comes up?  Does he mean “live for today and don’t worry about tomorrow?”  Certainly that is not Stoicism.

There begins to be a glimmer of how to live life, a chosen life.  There is a tension between living life and planning.  A good life plan involves living now in such a way that you have the tomorrow you hope for.  It involves knowing that the tomorrow you hope for may not happen, even if you do your best.  When you have a plan and are working for it, you are “living” as Seneca means the word?  Or at least as I currently want him to mean “living”.

He says: “The greatest obstacle to living a full life is having expectations, delaying gratification based on what might happen tomorrow which squanders today.”  Something in me reacts emotionally against this.  Maybe I dislike the words, “delaying gratification” used negatively.  Isn’t that a good thing to practice?  Isn’t that a Stoic practice?  It brings out the need for philosophy or reason:  we do have a present and we can enjoy it.  We should also use it to create a better future for ourselves and others.  Living is when we choose how we use our time.  It could be talking to a friend, it could be learning a language, it could be eating a peach, it could be writing in a blog that may never be read.  This is why we need goals or plans or reasons to do some things.

If I want to learn French and I plan to relocate to Spain, will I really want to learn French?  Or will I revolt against it as a waste of time.  Then I won’t enjoy it.  If I plan to move to France, perhaps I will enjoy studying the language?  If I want to write a novel will I enjoy working on my style, reading novels that I admire, learning grammar?  If I think I lack any talent or imagination will I enjoy those things?  Probably not.

So part of “living” as I want Seneca to mean it, is to prepare for a future that you know may never happen.  Keeping in mind that it may never happen reminds you to enjoy the present.  Knowing that it might indeed happen is an aid in delaying gratification.  Thinking about the two sides of this coin, is one of the uses of philosophy.

Chapter X:  This is a great one.  The unexamined life is not worth living.  In one sentence:  The busy man has no time to examine his life.  But there is much more.

Fabianus, a natural philosopher, not a sophist, said that we must fight our passions like soldiers in battle, our passions are enemies that must be crushed.  (Passions here, I think, refer to the harmful passions, not all emotions.)  He also says that those who are ruled by the passions are not to be reproached; they are to be instructed, not criticized.

Then he points out that there are three parts to any life:  past, present, and future.  Fate rules over present and future, but the past is fixed.  Examining life means to study the past, your past.  Busy people do not make time to do this, further they are squandering the present making the same mistakes they made in the past.  They are so busy indulging those pleasures they have no time to examine them.  Most of us are not prepared to “submit his acts to the court-room of his conscience, which can never be fooled”.

Our past is a treasure.  It is fixed an unchangeable, so we can look back at it and learn how we really are (as opposed to speculating).  Busy people cannot find time to do this.  It allows us to create a foundation of who we are and who we want to be.

I’m going to add here the the prokopton studies his or her self as well as the writings of the great philosophers.

Chapter XI:  Again railing against those who waste their lives and are not prepared for death.

Chapter XII:  Busy here means “busy being idle.”  In this chapter Seneca describes those who he calls “busy”.  Clearly “busy” has a special meaning for Seneca, at least for the purposes of this book.  He is referring to those who waste their time and their lives in trivial matters or worse.  For example, the man reclined on his couch mentally counting his money is not at leisure, but busy.  There is a fun reference to those whose only contribution ti to provide material for comics to mock them.  They are not the leisure class, but the littered class (because the are carried about on litters).

Chapter XIII:  The wasteful concern with triviality.  Including such time wasters as “how many oarsmen Ulysses had” or obsession with trivial matters that seem important such as whether or no Pompey was the first to use elephants in battle.

Chapter XIV:  On learning from past masters; on studying the past masters; on appreciating what they have to say, on being grateful for what they did for us, on reading a variety of philosophers.  They will not be too busy for us!

Chapter XV:  Philosophers will teach you how to die, they add the wisdom of their years to yours.  Take what you want and can, squeeze as much from their writings as you can.  The reader of philosophy has mentors and colleagues to help her through the largest or smallest of difficulties, companions always ready with counsel without praise or blame or flattery.  Selected a genius and make yourself an adopted child.

“Age cannot wither nor destroy philosophy which serves all generations.  It’s vitality is strengthened by each new generation’s contributions to it.”

Chapter XVI:  Here he adds to his description of the “busy man”.  One who works hard by day and then looks for distraction.  Work and distraction.  No time for leisure, which to him, I think means reading and doing philosophy.  Particularly he reproaches those who live for pleasure.

Chapter XVII:  “Ironically the pleasure of these men are usually plagued by distractions and concerns as to how long the pleasurable feeling will last.”  I like this one:  We lesson our pleasure by fretting that it won’t last.  Generally, pleasure, (ephemeral, sensual pleasure) is fleeting and unsatisfactory.  It can even by a source of fear.  Of course when it ends they feel sad.  Then they look for the next exciting thing.  “Happy or unhappy people will always worry.  toil never ebbs; we pray for leisure but true leisure never comes.”

Chapter XVIII:  Good chapter here.  He is saying that busy does not mean idle.  Busy means so caught up in daily life that one doesn’t take time to examine it.  The unexamined life is not worth living.  Leisure does not mean sleeping all day.  He is not saying do not engage in life, he is saying take time to think about your life and go back to the past geniuses and see what they have taught you.

Chapter XIX:  Seneca defines this self-examination thus:  “your time is better spent in the more noble and divine study of yourself, the nature of God, and what you might expect in the future”.

“Nature permits us respite only when we are free from the desires of the flesh.  It sustains us and is a serious principle at the heart of all existence.”

“People studying the liberal arts or those whose lives are devoted to their careers are never free to see life for what the truly long, blissful blessing that it is.”  !!  Perhaps he is a little optimistic, as all Stoics are in thinking that we can be truly beautifully happy if we only study enough philosophy and learn to apply it to our lives?

Last post:  now to review and redo:

Chapter XX:  When we look at someone enjoying success, we can also look at someone who has traded time for that success.  He goes on to talk about those who continue to work long after they could have retired, in some cases beyond competence. He also reproaches humanity for wishing to be remembered after death.  Maybe that is not true, maybe he reproaches those who do so in a trivial or meaningless manner.

There is also the marvelous story of the crazy loon, Turannius.  When he was released from his duties at age ninety, he conceived the amazing plan of being laid out in his bed as though he were dead; then, surrounded by his family, received visitors and had the entire household kept in mourning for him.  I guess he wanted to experience his own funeral and the adulation that he thought he deserved.  I suppose he had attended funerals and observed that the sometimes excessive respect and love we humans pay to the deceased.

 

 

 

 

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