On the Shortness of Life by Seneca

I’ve been reflecting a lot the last month on this year. And this book keeps coming back up. It’s a collected edition featuring this letter and Consolation to Helvia (Seneca’s mother)and On Tranquility of Mind. I think about this quite a lot in the context of 4000 Weeks by Oliver Burkeman because this essay is a significant source.

Here are the four things I learned from it

One. Don’t treat your life like a job. This echoes Stephen King, “Art is for life, not the other way around.” Really understand that comparison is also the thief of joy, and understand that on the grand cosmic theme of life there are tiny bits of your time that are your own.

people want to know how short their lives are, let them reflect how small a portion is their own.” Like compassion is the thief of joy.

Two. Seneca also seems to condone a deep life, not on trivialities like money and position because those are out of control which is the starting point for Stoicism.

“So many of the finest men have put aside all their encumbrances, renouncing riches and business and pleasure and made it their one aim up too the end of their lives to know how to live.” (10)
“Mark off, I tell you, and review the days of your life: you will see that very few—the useless remnants—have been left to you. One man who has achieved he badge of office he coveted longs to lay it aside, and keeps repeating, ‘Will this year never end?’ another man thought it a great coup to win the chance of giving games but having given them he says, ‘when shall I be rid of them?’
“You will find to keep your busy more important activities than all those you have performed so energetically up to now.” (29)

Three. Seneca also condones that the midlife crisis is really a perfectly healthy thing, but to put off that crisis is a problem. You should spend the bulk of your time doing enriching stuff for yourself.

“how stupid to forget our mortality and put off sensible plans to our fiftieth and sixtieth years, aiming to begin life from a point at which few have arrived!”? (8)

Four. Finally, we should subvert our expectations of life success in the sense that what we do with our time is really not all that important in the grand scheme of things. So really, it should, like Burkeman says in his chapter on Cosmic Insignificance Therapy that fundamentally speaking, the universe and other people are out of our control. Usually, both of those things don’t give a shit about what we do with our time, so you might as well do something significant to you—that helps other people, that improves your life through doing something complicated, that conveys some knowledge you have to others to help them along on this one-way trip.

“We are in the habit of saying that it was not in our power to choose the parents who were allotted to us, that they were given to us by chance. But we can choose whose children we would like to be.” (25)
“Now while the blood is hot you should make your way with vigor to better things. In this kind of life you will find much that is worth your study: the love and practice of the virtues, forgetfulness of the passions, the knowledge of how to live and die, and a life of deep tranquility.” (31)
“Life has left some men struggling at the start of their careers before they could force their way to the height of their ambition…is it really so pleasant to die in harness? That is the feeling of man people: their desire for their work outlasts their ability to do it…Meanwhile, as they rob and are robbed as they disturb each other’s peace as they make each other miserable, their lives pass without satisfaction, without pleasure, without mental improvement…

Many seem to think that the first quote is about finding a mentor. I don’t think I have a specific mentor, but I have many people who have served as a kind of mentor for me. From my swimming coach to the writers, I worked with in college and graduate school, to what I’m reading now to sharing what I’ve learned from what I’ve read on this blog. It’s a good use of my time. And so has this book that I’ve been reading slowly from when the pandemic began to just before my five-year-old son got his first shot of the vaccine. It’s what has helped me become a better father, husband, and writer who practices Stoicism to be physically and mentally healthy. I hope you’ll give it a chance.

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