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Seneca on the Shortness of Life

Seneca’s writing induced a fundamental paradigm shift for me, especially in what to fret about. For most of my adult life, I have always been concerned that I wouldn’t achieve what I dreamed of. During a conversation with a friend over dinner in which I vented about my fears, my friend recommended that I read this book instead. According to Seneca, I shouldn’t worry about what he calls greatness. I should worry exclusively about wasting time.

“Seneca on the Shortness of Life” is a foray into Stoicism and its belief in overcoming human nature. Some interesting notes:

  • The most powerful/highly-stationed men desire leisure above all else. In a society that worships the status and power of these men, they want nothing more than their own free time.
  • We squander time through “groundless sorrow, foolish joy… the seductions of society; how little of your own was left to you.” This resonated with me, thinking about the countless hours I’ve spent in angst over problems made up in my own head.
  • “But the man who spends all his time on his own needs, who organizes every day as though it were his last, neither longs nor fears the next day… [he has] enjoyed everything to repletion.” “Whatever time was available… none of it lay fallow and neglected, none of it under another’s control.”

According to Seneca, humans get enough time, but we squander most of it, and so long as we do that, it doesn’t matter if we live a thousand years, as that time will never be enough. In order to make the most of our time, we must guard and plan our time scrupulously.

Also according to Seneca, poor uses of time include drinking, lust, sports, obsessing over possessions, beauty, laziness, music, banquets, useless knowledge. He claims that only philosophy is truly alive. Time eradicates all other signs of greatness (monuments, wealth) but does not damage philosophy that is transferred like memes to future generations, and that through the studying philosophy, you can make the most of your own life and extract the greatest value from the time you are given.

I highly recommend this read, particularly for anyone who finds themselves preoccupied or worried about how to make the most of their life. It’s a short read. Just an hour with this book can alter your perspective on what matters.


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