Seneca the Younger (5 BC – 65 AD) was a Stoic philosopher and advisor to the emperor Nero. His fascinating life came to a rather abrupt halt when he was told to commit suicide following accusations of his involvement in a famous plot to kill Nero, although it is commonly accepted that Seneca was probably innocent. His book ‘On The Shortness Of Life’, rather poetically, concerns the way in which humans might make proper use of the ample time nature provides us with to live a fulfilled life. We never quite know when everything will come to an end. If you have not read the book, I urge you to do so and I’ve provided a link to grab a copy above. Anyhow, enjoy my review of Seneca’s ‘On The Shortness Of Live’ in a 21st Century context.
What is ‘On The Shortness Of Life’?
Originally written in the form of a letter, Seneca’s ‘On The Shortness Of Life’ was addressed to his friend, Paulinus, who held the crucial role of supervisor to the grain supply of Rome. The book discusses some quite heavy-going topics, and challenges many of the notions you might yourself hold.
What is ‘On The Shortness Of Life’ about?
Alternatively known as ‘De Brevitate Vitae’, the book (or originally letter) makes the central claim that although in an academic sense we all know we will die, we do not believe it in practice. We are not convicted in the same way we are about the fact that the sun will rise tomorrow, or that 2 + 2 = 4. For Seneca, this is the cause of the central problem of human life.
“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.” – Seneca.
In reading this quote it’s clear that Seneca thought we needed to accept the premise of our own expiration date, and begin to act as if our time on this earth is limited.
We throw away what little time we do possess. We chain ourselves to our jobs, even giving up parts of ourselves to others, and will likely die as children, never having learned how to live.
Seneca uses the example of Cicero – one of Rome’s most celebrated politicians and orators, who once said he felt like he was ‘half a prisoner’ whilst relaxing in his lavish estate, shackled almost by the responsibility and expectation of the public life he led.
That’s all very good, but what should I do instead?
We know that we must not overlook the reality of mortality, and we know that we must not give ourselves up to our professional endeavours. So, Seneca, what should we be doing instead?
Seneca believed, in alignment with his stoic worldview, that “The only people really at leisure are those who take time for philosophy. They alone really live.”
It is important not to misunderstand the point Seneca makes here. Given the lack of structured philosophical schools etc. Seneca is not telling us to go and enrol on a course. Seneca is emphasising the requirement to pursue knowledge and wisdom in a general sense above all else.
“There is nothing that the lapse of time does not dilapidate and exterminate. but the dedications of philosophy are impregnable; age cannot erase their memory or diminish their force.” – Seneca.
Is Seneca’s message legitimate in the 21st Century?
By now you should have a somewhat diluted understanding of the sentiment of Seneca. But is it true that his message has stood the test of time? Let’s look at a real-world example.
The United Kingdom is currently going through one of the biggest political shifts in its history. What would happen if Theresa May (or whoever the Prime Minister may be going forward) picked up Seneca’s ‘On The Shortness Of Life’ and realised that she’d been shackled by her profession, only to give it up in exchange for the pursuit of intellectual enlightenment? What if every MP in the land decided to do this? There’d be catastrophic consequences! It is here where Seneca needs to be careful.
Of course, there is value in Seneca’s message about using our limited time on this earth efficiently – should we be watching television idly or socialising and building on relationships? Should we be relaxing in bed or should we be developing ourselves in some other way (maybe by going for a run!)?
However, the point is this. In order for our society to function in a vaguely optimal manner, there must be genuine value placed on performing our societal function. Theresa May, while not striving for philosophical insight, is still ‘really living’ in a meaningful sense – she is (albeit contentiously) improving lives and this sort of action I believe Seneca has overlooked as objectively valuable.
A bottom line on Seneca’s letter
By way of a TLDR (too long, didn’t read) here’s my take-away from Seneca’s ‘On The Shortness Of Life’.
Death is not to be feared. In doing so we are frustrating our ability to lead happy, fulfilled lives without even impacting upon the thing which we are fearing. Life should be lived as if it coming to an end, because it just might be (ask Seneca!).
The tax returns and expense reports of this world must be put to one side every now and again, for these are the things which hinder our ability to live our lives in the way that Seneca believed Nature requires us to.
Finally, when we die (note the ‘when’ not ‘if’) we should die with a smile on our faces, knowing that we did it the way we should have.
Alongside the primary text for this article, I took inspiration from a great post I found on the work of Seneca which you can see here. The author’s use of analogy really helps bring alive the points I am wishing to get across to you.
If you’ve got your own take on Seneca’s writing, agree or even disagree with the points I’ve raised above, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.