On The Shortness Of Life

By Lucius Annaeus Seneca

NOTE:  Seneca, a Spanish-born philosopher of Rome who lived in the first century A.D., was one of the prominent sages of the Stoic school. He's chiefly remembered today for his Moral Essays, a collection of twelve articles on various ethical themes. "On The Shortness Of Life" is an essay addressed to a friend, and it is excerpted and condensed here from Moses Hadas' fine work, The Stoic Philosophy Of Seneca.

It is a general complaint among mankind, Paulinus, that Nature is niggardly: our allotted span is brief, and the term granted us flies by with such dizzy speed that all but a few exhaust it just when they are beginning to live. And it is not only the unthinking masses who bemoan what they consider the universal evil: the same sentiment has evoked complaints even from men of distinction. Hence the cry of that prince of physicians (Hippocrates), "Life is short, art long." Hence Aristotle's grievance against Nature -- an incongruous position for a philosopher: Nature has been so lavish to animals that they vegetate for five or ten human spans, whereas man, with his capacity for numerous and great achievements, is limited by so much shorter a tether.

It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much. Life is long enough and our allotted portion generous enough for our most ambitious projects if we invest it all carefully. But when it is squandered through luxury and indifference, and spent for no good end, we realize it has gone, under the pressure of the ultimate necessity, before we were aware it was going. So it is: the life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully. Kingly riches are dissipated in an instant if they fall into the hands of a bad master, but even moderate wealth increases with use in the hands of a careful steward; just so does our life provide ample scope if it is well managed.

Why do we complain of Nature? She has behaved handsomely; life, if you know how to use it, is long. One man is possessed by an insatiable avarice, another by assiduous application to trifling enterprises. One man is sodden with wine, another benumbed by sloth. One man is exhausted by an ambition which always depends on the votes of others, another is driven over every land and sea by the trader's urge to seek profit. Some are plagued by a passion for soldiering, and are incessantly bent upon threatening others or anxious about others' threats. Some are worn out by self-imposed and unrequited attendance upon the great; many busy themselves with the pursuit of other men's estates or in complaints about their own. Some follow no plan consistently but are precipitated into one new scheme after another by a fickleness which is rambling and unstable and dissatisfied with itself; some have no objective at all at which to aim but are overtaken by fate as they gape and yawn. I cannot, therefore, question the truth of the great poet's dictum, uttered with oracular impressiveness: "Slight is the portion of life we live." All the residue is not living but passing time.

On all sides we are surrounded and beset by vices, and these do not permit us to rise and lift our eyes to the discernment of truth but submerge us and hold us chained down to lust. The prisoners are never allowed to return to their true selves; if they are ever so lucky as to win some respite they continue to roll, as the sea swells even after the storm is over, and secure no release from their lusts. Do you suppose I am referring to wretches whose failings are acknowledged? Look at the men whose felicity is the cynosure of all eyes; they are smothered by their prosperity. How many have found riches a bane! How many have paid with blood for their eloquence and their daily straining to display their talent! How many are sallow from constant indulgence! How many are deprived of liberty by a besieging mob of clients! Run through the whole list from top to bottom: this man wants a friend at court, that man serves his turn; this man is the defendant, that man his lawyer, and that other the judge: but no one presses his claim to himself, everyone is used up for the sake of someone else. Investigate the personages whose names are household words and you will find they can be classified by the following criteria: A is B's sycophant and B is C's; no one shows solicitude for himself. . .

Though all the luminaries of the ages devoted their combined genius to this one theme, they could never satisfactorily expound this phenomenal fog that darkens men's minds. Men will never allow anyone to take possession of their estates, and at the slightest dispute on boundary lines they pick up stones and rush to arms; but they do allow others to trespass on their lives, and themselves introduce intruders who will eventually claim full possession. Nobody on earth is willing to distribute his money, but everybody shares out his life, and to all comers. Men are very strict in keeping their patrimony intact, but when it comes to squandering time they are most lavish of the one item where miserliness is respectable.

I should like to buttonhole one of the oldsters and say to him: "I see that you have reached the highest life expectancy and are now close to a century or more; please give us an itemized account of your years. Calculate how much of that span was subtracted by a creditor, a mistress, a patron, a client, quarreling with your wife, punishing your slaves, gadding about the city on social duties. Add to the subtrahend self-caused diseases and the time left an idle blank. You will see that you possess fewer years than the calendar shows. Search your memory: how seldom you have had a consistent plan, how few days worked out as you intended, how seldom you have enjoyed full use of yourself, how seldom your face was unflurried, what accomplishments you have to show for so long a life, how much of your life has been pilfered by others without your being aware of it, how much of it you have lost, how much was dispensed on groundless regret, foolish gladness, greedy desire, polite society --- and then realize that your death will be premature."

Why should this be? It is because you live as if you would live forever; the thought of human frailty never enters your head, you never notice how much of your time is already spent. You squander it as though your store were full to overflowing, when in fact the very day of which you make a present to someone or something may be your last. Like the mortal you are, you are apprehensive of everything; but your desires are unlimited as if you were immortal. Many a man will say, "After my fiftieth year I shall retire and relax; my sixtieth year will release me from obligations." And what guarantee have you that your life will be longer? Who will arrange that your program shall proceed according to plan? Are you not ashamed to reserve for yourself only the tail end of life and to allot to serious thought only such time as cannot be applied to business? How late an hour to begin to live when you must depart from life! What stupid obliviousness to mortality to postpone counsels of sanity to the fifties or sixties, with the intention of beginning life at an age few have reached!...

Among the worst offenders I count those who give all their time to drink and lust; that is the sorriest abuse of time of all. Though the phantom of glory which possesses some men is illusory, their error, at all events, has a creditable look. And even if you cite the avaricious, the wrathful, and those who prosecute unjust hatreds and even unjust war, these too are more manly kinds of sin. But the stain upon men abandoned to their belly and their lusts is vile. Open their schedules for examination and note how much time they spend on bookkeeping, on machinations, on protective measures, on courting the powerful, on being courted, on obtaining or providing collateral, on banquets (which have now become a business routine), and you will see how little time their distractions, call them good or bad, leave them for drawing breath. . .

The only people really at leisure are those who take time for philosophy. They alone really live. It is not their lifetime alone of which they are careful stewards: they annex every age to their own and exploit all the years that have gone before. Unless we prove ingrate, it was for us that the illustrious founders of divine schools of thought came into being, for us they prepared a way of life. By the exertions of others we are led to the fairest treasures, raised to the light out of the darkness in which they were mined. No age is forbidden us, we have admittance to all, and if we choose to transcend the narrow bounds of human frailty by loftiness of mind, there is a vast stretch of time for us to roam. We may dispute with Socrates, doubt with Carneades, repose with Epicurus, transcend human nature with the Stoics, defy it with the Cynics. Since Nature allows us to participate in any age, why should we not betake ourselves in mind from this petty and ephemeral span to the boundless and timeless region we can share with our betters?...

In the meanwhile, while [people] are robbing and being robbed, while they disrupt each other's repose and make one another miserable, life remains without profit, without pleasure, without moral improvement. No one keeps death in view, everyone focuses on remote hopes. Some even make posthumous provisions --- massive sepulchres, dedications of public buildings, gladiatorial shows, and pretentious obsequies. But the funerals of such people should be conducted by torch and taper light, as though they had in fact died in childhood.


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