Seneca, On The Shortness of Life
I really love the Penguin Great Ideas series of nicely designed skinny paperbacks. (I particularly like the Montaigne edition.)
I didn’t finish this one, only read 2 out of the 3 essays. (One of the promises I’ve made myself this year is that I won’t continue on with a book if it’s become a chore reading it.) But I liked the title essay (well, not really an essay, but a letter to Seneca’s friend, Paulinus).
On guarding your time (“Nobody works out the value of time: men use it lavishly as if it cost nothing.):
Men do not let anyone seize their estates, and if there is the slightest dispute about their boundaries they rush to stones and arms; but they allow others to encroach on their lives — why, they themselves even invite in those who will take over their lives. You will find no one willing to share out his money; but to how many does each of us divide up his life! People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.
This is followed by a passage that haunts me, when Seneca says to “hold an audit of your life”:
Call to mind when you ever had a fixed purpose; how few days have passed as you had planned; when you were ever at your own disposal; when your face wore its natural expression; when your mind was undisturbed…
On not mistaking age for wisdom or a well-lived life:
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.
The case for reading:
[Those who read] not only keep a good watch over their own lifetimes, but they annex every age to theirs. All the years that have passed before them are added to their own…. We are excluded from no age, but we have access to them all.. why not turn from this brief and transient spell of time and give ourselves wholeheartedly to the past, which is limitless and eternal and can be shared with better men than we?
On climbing your own family tree (realizing now I basically plagiarized Seneca for Steal Like An Artist):
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. There are households of the noblest intellects: choose the one into which you wish to be adopted, and you will inherit not only their name but their property too. Nor will this property need to be guarded meanly or grudgingly: the more it is shared out, the greater it will become.
On worrying about your “legacy”:
Some men, after they have crawled through a thousand indignities to the supreme dignity, have been assailed by the gloomy thought that all their labors were but for the sake of an epitaph.
And some good one-liners:
- Life is long if you know how to use it.
- We are not given a short life but we make it short.
- You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire.
- Learning how to live takes a whole life, and, which may surprise you more, it takes a whole life to learn how to die.
- The man who… organizes every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day.
- The present is short, the future is doubtful, the past is certain.
- Life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future.
- They lose the day in waiting for the night.
Filed under: my reading year 2014