On the Shortness of Life


This past week, although fun, has been TOTALLY INSANE for me. What with driving up to the out-of-town wedding of some close friends, preparing for and attending an art opening showcasing my knitted work, getting to witness two amazing dance performances (one of them by ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov!), going with David on a fantastic professional photoshoot, and various dinners out with friends and family, I've barely had time to read at all, let alone write about my reading. In fact, in the past ten days I've barely had time to get through this first slim volume of the Penguin Great Ideas series: Seneca's On the Shortness of Life.

Which is actually kind of fitting. Seneca would point out that I obviously need to heed his advice if I'm finding myself so overwhelmed with commitments that I lack any time for myself. One of the central tenets of his first essay (the titular "On the Shortness of Life") is that taking time for leisure and reflection, for communing with the works of philosophers and meditating on one's own past, is absolutely essential in order to feel, at the end of one's life, that one has lived a long and full existence. Most people, Seneca says, have only truly lived a fraction of their actual time on earth: the rest has been spent in "preoccupation," which I interpreted (possibly a little loosely) as any form of mental busy-ness that fails to bring a person into closer contact with the deeper truths of themselves and the universe. (Heady!) So, he classes those addicted to vice as "preoccupied" (drunks, misers, the avaricious, the lazy, the gluttonous), but also those who are so blindly ambitious or just busy that they can never stop to look back, reflect, or ponder. These people, he says, fear death and try not to think about it, spending their time as if it were infinite, and are then panic-stricken when the death they have not prepared for comes for them at last. But those with tranquility of mind, who have spent their time in "learning how to live" and becoming mature mentally, can face death with equanimity. Life will not have seemed short to them, because they lived it fully, and learned from it what they needed to know.

Most human beings, Paulinus, complain about the meanness of nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, and because the 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. [...] 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. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death's final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing.

And again:

So you must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long. For suppose you should think that a man had had a long voyage who had been caught in a raging storm as he left harbor, and carried hither and thither and driven round and round in a circle by the rage of opposing winds? He did not have a long voyage; just a long tossing about.

I adore, by the way, the rhythm of that opening line: "Most human beings, Paulinus, complain about the meanness of nature..." Those old Roman rhetoricians really knew their stylistic stuff. The mid-sentence apostrophe-to-actual-person is one of my favorite rhythmical and rhetorical devices; it is, of course, used famously by Shakespeare ("There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy"), but it's also central to one of my favorite Charles Bukowski poems, which begins:

William Saroyan said, "I ruined my
life by marrying the same woman

there will always be something
to ruin our lives,
it all depends upon
what or which
finds us
we are always
ripe and ready
to be

I imagine Bukowski leveling his intoxicated yet withering stare at Saroyan while his gravelly voice pauses on that "William," like a stern teacher who has caught a pupil in wrongdoing. It tickles me to trace such a tiny rhetorical thread all the way from Seneca to Bukowski - not that the latter necessarily read the former, but he swam in a cultural soup that was still seasoned with Roman stoicism, even if he himself was severely "preoccupied" by Seneca's standards.

And speaking of that: I really liked how Seneca divided the world into "tranquil" and "preoccupied," rather than "good" and "evil" or "righteous" and "sinful." Even though his rubric wasn't actually any more value-neutral than any other (believe me, he's really down on the preoccupied), it seemed more usefully descriptive to me: I can feel when I'm becoming preoccupied; I experience preoccupation on a day-to-day basis, and I can take concrete steps to avoid it in a way I don't feel is true about becoming more "evil" or "sinful." I don't say to myself "I'm feeling a little evil today," but I've often remarked that I'm feeling a little preoccupied. Sin and evil are such huge and fraught concepts, involving as they do entire belief systems that I may or may not share, that their presence can often be distracting if all an author really wants to talk about is preoccupation. But I'm not sure if this would be true for a reader more accustomed to thinking about sinfulness as part of their everyday life.

One of my favorite ideas from Seneca's essay is that of one's past as a precious possession, that, if one has lived well, will be richly rewarding to summon into one's mind. I connected deeply with this passage as a way of talking about virtue in a secular world. Religious philosophers sometimes claim that without fear or hope for an afterlife, people will fail to act honorably, but I think this is an excellent counter-argument: I want to feel satisfied with the net effect of my presence on earth, and with the person I know myself to be, regardless of any other factors.

The man who must fear his own memory is the one who has been ambitious in his greed, arrogant in his contempt, uncontrolled in his victories, treacherous in his deceptions, rapacious in his plundering. And yet this is the period of our time which is sacred and dedicated, which has passed beyond all human risks and is removed from Fortune's sway, which cannot be harassed by want or fear or attacks of illness. It cannot be disturbed or snatched from us: it is an untroubled, everlasting possession. In the present we have only one day at a time, each offering a minute at a time. But all the days of the past will come to your call: you can detain them and inspect them at your will - something which the preoccupied have no time to do. It is the mind which is tranquil and free from care which can roam through all the stages of its life: the minds of the preoccupied, as if harnessed in a yoke, cannot turn round and look behind them. So their lives vanish into an abyss; and 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; it escapes through the cracks and holes of the mind.

As I am by nature a thoughtful introvert, this argument really struck a chord with me, and made me wonder why I was spending so much time amid the hubbub of other voices. Which leads me to the place where "On the Shortness of Life" falls, um, short: it doesn't really address the fact that things like relationships with other people, doing hard jobs or challenging oneself in one's art, are all valuable experiences that DO bring people more in tune with larger universal truths - provided, of course, that they have the occasional opportunity to look back at the process and learn from their experience. I got the impression that Seneca was addressing a lack he perceived in those around him: not enough people were taking time out to philosophize and reflect. The whole piece is addressed to Paulinus, after all, who has lived a full life in the public eye, and whom Seneca is now advising to retire into a life of reflection. Taken out of context, though, it seems like he's recommending that nobody should do anything BUT reflect and philosophize - advice which would lead to quite the navel-gazing culture if we all acted on it together. Reading and thinking about philosophy is great, but ideally we should be absorbing those theoretical constructs and comparing and applying them to our rich and multifaceted extra-literary existences. I'm pretty sure Seneca would agree with me; after all, he was a Roman magistrate and tutor of the young Emperor Nero. One just needs to take him in a larger context in order to understand his intentions.

The other two essays in this volume - "A Consolation to Helvetia," which attempted to console Seneca's mother upon his exile from Rome; and "On Tranquility of Mind," an imagined dialog with his friend Serenus - didn't grab my fancy as strongly as the first, but they were occupied with many of the same themes: the power of attitude to change perception, the importance of a tranquil and reflective mind, the benefits of living a life of semi-retirement and making the most of your limited lifespan. This was one of those books that came along just at the right time: a slim volume that reminds me to make time for larger ones.


  • Seneca probably had servants or slaves to do the drudge work, so he had more time to really live.

    We, on the other hand, have to choose our time carefully. However, your fun activities can actually stimulate intellectually.

    Will you post pictures of your work in the exhibition?

  • So where are those pictures of your knitting, eh?

  • I could have sworn I had a copy of this book somewhere. Unread. Hmmm.

    It seems like if Seneca had lived today, he would be considered a self-help guru! Seriously, though, the thoughts you put out here fascinate me -- I have a tendency to become preoccupied myself; and for me spending time in my studio helps cure that, but I don't seem to ever have enough time! I don't know if today's technology has done that to us; but that maybe too many of us just let ourselves become distracted.

    Anyway, I'm rambling! I should hunt down my copy... hope I can find it.

  • I liked the opportunistic way you approached Seneca, Emily, as sort of a covert blog bait-and-switch to introduce a Bukowski poem into the mix. You're one very sneaky pagan! All kidding aside, I think there's a lot of wisdom to be found in Seneca's essay(s) and in your post...and it's always exciting for me to confront the great minds of the ancient world's past precisely because they weren't shackled to a Judeo-Christian worldview that we know all too well in the 21st century West (no knock against Judaism or Christianity, but the contrasts are illuminating and often instructive to boot). Thanks for the review!

  • Fascinating post Emily. It gave me a lot to think about, and while it may be awhile before I can get to Seneca, I am very intrigued, having come from a Christian upbringing where thinking about sinfulness as part of everyday life was what we did. I'm always curious about other ways to approach life and the meaning in it - Seneca would be freshly illuminating I think. Thanks for the excellent review!

  • The Penguin Great Ideas series is off to a good start! How fitting that you read Seneca after your busy week. But your busy week sounds marvelous. I think as long as we take time to slow down and reflect on a regular basis we are doing ok. I like the tranquil/preoccupied division, it gives us a different way of looking at ourselves in the world.

  • I'm curious about the art opening you mentioned. Planning must have been fun!

    I agree with you that Seneca definitely falls short when it comes to "preoccupation" by failing to address how human relationships and hard work can contribute to overall quality of life. I think I have the exact opposite problem: I think I spend too much time thinking and reflecting and not enough time doing other stuff. This books sounds like a fascinating read, but I also think that one can have too much of a good thing.

    Dante's Inferno, drawing from Aristotle, considers virtue to be moderation: "walking between the wet bank and the dry." In one of his outer circles of Hell (forgot which) he puts the hoarders and squanderers in the same place and has them constantly opposing each other for all eternity. His point was that even though their sins were opposite, they were nevertheless the same thing. Obviously, to be fair, Seneca lived long before either Aristotle or Dante, but I also think he intends to address the "preoccupied" and not those who already spend a lot of time being "tranquil." But still, it does sound like something's missing.

  • Isabel: Yes, excellent point; Seneca did have slaves, and actually his definition of a "simple life" is one where you only have one or two slaves, rather than a whole houseful. So...grain of salt. :-)

    Lu (and Isabel): Knitting! It's all the stuff over at my other online home, the Family Trunk Project. The show was fun!

  • Valerie: Actually, the combo of my super-busy week + reading Seneca inspired me to have a day-of-rest from the computer every week, starting this one. I think in modern life technology definitely contributes to a lack of tranquility. On the other hand, it's interesting that people so long ago were already dealing with chronic preoccupation, so it's not JUST technology that's the problem, which is good for me to keep in mind.

    Richard: Haha, any chance to wriggle in a Bukowski reference! Reading philosophy is always an interesting balancing act for me because I tend to focus a lot on style, and that's still true even if I also need to focus on Ideas with a capital I. And it's cool to find parallels between ancient and modern that might not be so obvious as, I don't know, "Ode on a Grecian Urn."

  • Sarah: I'm glad you found it interesting! Yeah, I'd be interested to hear a take from someone more steeped in Judeo-Christian philosophy. I'll be transitioning to that mindset in my journey through the Penguin Great Ideas series, and it will be more of a leap for me, I think, than reading the more ancient Seneca.

    Stefanie: The busy week was super-fun! That said, I am grateful that this week has been slightly more laid back. Even if everything you're doing is crazy fun, you start to get frazzled after a while!

  • EL Fay: I think you're right that "On the Shortness of Life" is addressed to the preoccupied, and that the ideal is a path of moderation. Seneca even goes on to say something of the kind in "On Tranquility of Mind." I laughed at the Dante reference, since I have a fantasy about forcing Harold Bloom and Doris Lessing into a similar eternal face-off. :-D

  • What a fascinating post! I love how you read this essay by Seneca at such an appropriate moment in your life! I think you have valuable points. While being overwhelmed and distracted by *things* isn't always a good thing, building memories with families and friends does do something for us. Thanks for this. Must read more Seneca.

  • Well, apparently I am far more shallow than your other readers. I was hoping you would write about the book itself and the others you ordered. Are they as alluring in person as they looked online--the size, the cover, the pages, the print? Are you still excited about the entire series? About how long did it take you to read it?

    That written, I was fascinated by this review--the discussion of "preoccupied," the mid-sentence apostrophe-to-actual-person, and the past as a possession, as well as how you put his writings in context. Nice.

  • Rebecca: Thanks, I'm so glad you enjoyed it. It's funny when reading and life line up like that, isn't it?

  • Cynthia: Oh. my. goodness. I totally meant to address the shallow aspects of these books, but somehow I neglected it! I'll write more about them in my Marcus Aurelius post, but the short answer is YES, they are EVEN MORE APPEALING than I'd anticipated. Their size is small and compact, and their printed pages are just right: not so dense that you feel like you're laboring uphill, but substantial enough that there's meaning on every page. I love them! I can't wait to order my second installment of four, but I've promised myself I'll finish the first set before I do. :-)

  • I like your critique of the essay and the way you point out what Seneca leaves out (the value of interactions with others) because for me, the dilemma is what the right balance should be and how to find it. I have no trouble valuing reading and contemplation, and sometimes I think I can spend too much time doing those things and not enough time out in the world. I fight against being busy, which I think is a good thing, but sometimes being busy means I'm busy doing really valuable things.

  • Dorothy - Yes, I'm the same way, always trying to find the best balance. Although, it's actually still helpful to me to be reminded of the value of solitude now and then, because otherwise I start thinking I'm just being selfish refusing to go out so much. Of course, NEVER going out is hardly the answer either.

  • Well being able to "look back, reflect, and ponder" is certainly one of the wonderful joys of life. So not doing so would be pretty much like swallowing food without chewing and digesting.

    And I also think, Emily, that the rhetorical device you mentioned is something quite pleasant to listen to. And thanks to you, I now have a name to call it with: a mid-sentence apostrophe-to-actual-person device :)

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography