On the shortness of Life

Seneca's insights into how we use our time

Seneca (c. 4 BC – AD 65) was a Roman Stoic philosopher. Seneca was ordered to commit suicide after being implicated in a famous plot to kill Nero, though it is believed Seneca was innocent. This article contains quotes from his book On the shortness of life. This book was original titled De Brevitate Vitæ (in Latin) and was written in 49 AD.

According to Cooper (2010) Seneca focuses - in this written letter to his friend Paulinus - on how much time we’re given in which to live our lives and how well we do and do not make use of this time.

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"It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it." (p. 1)

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"Just as when ample and princely wealth falls to a bad owner it is squandered in a moment, but wealth however modest, if entrusted to a good custodian, increases with use, so our lifetime extends amply if you manage it properly." (p. 2)

Seneca quotes an unnamed one "of the greatest of poets: 'It is a small part of life we really live.'" (p. 2)

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"Assuredly your lives, even if they last more than a thousand years, will shrink into the tiniest span: those vices will swallow up any space of time. The actual time you have -which reason can prolong though it naturally passes quickly- inevitably escapes you rapidly: for you do not grasp it or hold it back or try to delay that swiftest of al things, but you let it slip away as though it were something superfluous and replaceable." (p. 9)

"You will see how their activities, good or bad, do not give them even time to breathe." (p. 9)

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"Living is the least important activity of the preoccupied man; yet there is nothing which is harder to learn." (p. 10)

"Learning how to live takes a whole life, and, which may surprise you more, it takes a whole lif to learn how to die." (p. 10)

"It's impossible to live. Of course i'ts impossible." (p.10)

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"Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present. But the man who spends all his time on his own needs, who organizes every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day. For what new pleasures can any hour now bring him?" (p. 11)

"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." (p. 11)

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"No one will bring back the years; no one will restore you to yourself. Life will follow the path it began to take, and will neither reverse nor check its course. It will not lengthen itself for a king's command or a people's favour. As it started out on its first day, so it will run on, nowhere pausing or turning aside. What will be the outcome?" (p. 13)

"Can anything be more idiotic than certain people who boast of their foresight? They spend their lives in organizing their lives." (p. 13)

"But putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune's control, and abandoning what lies in yours." (p. 13)

"The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately." (p. 13)

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Listen to the cry of our greatest poet:

Life's finest day for wretched mortals here
Is always first to flee

'Why do you linger?' he means. 'Why are you idle?' If you don't grasp it first, it flees.' And even if you do grasp it, it will still flee. (...) The poet is telling you about the day - and about this very day that is escaping. (p. 14)

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Used sources
- On the shortness of life, life is long if you know how to use it. // Seneca (c. 5 BC - AD 65)
- http://peterc.org/pedia/seneca-shortness-of-life/

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