On The Shortness Of Life By Seneca – Book Review

Name: On The Shortness Of Life
Author: Seneca
Series: Great Ideas 
Genre: Philosophy
ISBN: 978-0-14-101881-2
Pages: 112
Language: English
Format: Paperback
Publisher: Penguin Group
Edition/ Impression / Year of Publication: 2004 Edition
Cover Artwork: Phil Baines
About: Taken from the Penguin Classics edition Dialogues and Letters, translated and edited by C. D. N. Costa

De Brevitate Vitae, translated as On The Shortness Of Life, is a letter to Paulinus, a friend of Seneca‘s. He wrote the letter to Paulinus, to inspire within him a longing towards the higher forms of knowledge and to break free of the pseudo-educational, pleasure-oriented and fame centered systems that the society has created and to live life to its fullest without losing tranquility. Time is the central axis through which he touches upon all the above ideals.

Michael  Foucault‘s reading of Seneca has infused a new interest in the long blurred philosophies of Seneca. Foucault establishes that the thoughts of Seneca although two millennia old suits best to the need of current times, his ideas have not become outdated but instead now is the most appropriate to think of them. Foucault states that Seneca‘s understanding of the Delphic Greek inscription Gnothi seauton, which means Know Thyself in English, is more in-depth and even closer to the actual meaning of the Delphic inscription.

Seneca, born c. 1 BCE, was a Roman Philosopher whose thoughts inspired and contributed later to the Stoic Philosophy. He became the mentor of Emperor Nero when Nero was an adolescent and then remained his close advisor until his death on the false charges of conspiring to kill Nero. Nero ordered him to commit suicide, an order which Seneca lawfully accepted and severed many of his veins as a result of which he died of the slow loss of blood discharged out through his body. Before his death, he consoled his family by saying, ‘Never mind, I leave you a treasure that is far more valuable than the material riches, an exemplary virtuous life.’

Seneca begins his writing to Paulinus by referring to those people who believe that a very short span of time is given them to live, to which he states that it is not the time that is less, but these people do not know how to utilize it wisely.

Seneca mocks at the utter ignorance and stupidity of the masses, who uses time so lavishly as if it costs nothing. These same people who have not utilized the time wisely are then threatened by death when it comes to their door, and they pray to their doctors prepared to spend all that they have earned at the cost of their valuable time to extend the time that they have long lost making the same.

The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy,’ writes Seneca, he adds ‘which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today.’ Seneca is amused by the stupidity of those who live as if there is an overflowing supply of time and as if they are destined to live forever. He warns Paulinus that this day that one had planned to devote to something or somebody could be the last. He asks Paulinus to decide wisely, and not to shift the most important things in life to the day when one would retire because life would not follow the course as one would arrange and neither does death follows those arrangements.

It is only death that is certain, and it never comes tomorrow, just death happens today, whensoever it happens one die in the present and never in the tomorrow, but we are stricken by death when we hear that our closed one has died as if it was not meant to happen ever. Time flies fast, and we see that when the old men die they exhibition their mental childishness and now when death overtakes them, they realize how unprepared and unarmed they are. Learning how to live takes a whole life, and, which may surprise one more, it takes an entire life to learn how to die.

Life is divided into three periods, past, present and future. Of these present is short, the future is doubtful, and the past is certain. Preoccupied people, he says always find life too short. The reason that he gives is that they have no time to look back at their past and reflect on their lives and even if they did, it is an unpleasant experience to recall the activities they are ashamed of.

The present is available only for an instant, and then a moment is added unto it. However, the past is open throughout, and one can inspect the past at one’s will, something which the preoccupied has no time to do. Seneca says, ‘The man who fears his own memory is the one who has been ambitious in the greed, arrogant in his contempt, uncontrolled in his victories, treacherous in his deceptions, rapacious in his plundering and wasteful in his squandering. Moreover, yet this is the period of our time that is the most sacred, and it cannot be taken away from us, it is an untroubled and everlasting possession.’

All these preoccupied people when they grow old always comfort themselves by the deception that they are younger than they are. Moreover, when the point of departure comes, death terrifies them as if they are not passing out of life but being dragged out of it. In their last moments, they would reflect how they have not lived and have been busy acquiring things they never really wanted. They always existed thinking they were alive and then death breaks apart their illusions.

The question emerges ‘who then is really alive?’ and how can we change our perspective towards death and this life and utilize every moment of life with sensitivity and sensibility. Seneca to this replies, ‘Of all people, only those are at leisure who make time for Philosophy, only those are really alive.’ He adds, ‘We can argue with Socrates, express doubt with Carneades, cultivate retirement with Epicurus, overcome human nature with the Stoics, and exceed its limits with the Cynics.’

The best company he says is the one when one has closest friends like Zeno, Pythagoras, Democritus, and all the other high priests of liberal studies, and Aristotle and Theophrastus. Why he says it, he explains because, ‘None of these will force you to die, but all will teach you how to die. None of them will exhaust your years, but each will contribute his years to yours. With none of these will the conversation be dangerous, or his friendship fatal, or attendance on him expensive. From them you can take whatever you wish: it will not be their fault if you do not take your fill from them. What happiness, what a fine old age awaits the man who has made himself a client of these! He will have friends whose advise he can ask on the most trivial matters, whom he can consult daily about himself, who will tell him the truth without insulting him and praise him without flattery, who will offer him a pattern on which to model oneself. They are at home to all mortals by night and by day. These men will offer you a path to immortality and raise you to a point from which no one is cast down.’

Most of us curse the validity of a free will that it was not in our power to choose our parents who were given to us, but we have the free will to choose whose children we would like to be. We must decide wisely by whom we would like to be adopted because that adoption changes our whole life and our attitude towards it. Seneca says of the Philosophers, ‘Time demolishes the monuments, the honors, the civilizations but time is impotent to damage the works which Philosophy has consecrated: no age will wipe them out, no age diminish them.’ And adds, ‘The life of a Philosopher extends widely: he is not confined by the same boundary as are others. He alone is free from the laws that limit the human race, and all ages serve him as if he were a god.’

Now here those would find a bit of a difficulty who understands a Philosopher, and the discipline of Philosophy through the eyeglasses of Early Greek Philosophers including Plato and Aristotle defines. Seneca did not believe in the works of Plato and precisely his Theory of Forms, but he emphasized the importance of reading Plato that would be of immense help for the complete development of one’s being and help us become a better person.

For Seneca Philosophy is a life form and it inherits within itself a longing to be understood. Seneca‘s philosophy is not like a dead thesis where one fist expounds, explains and then ultimately concludes. Philosophy, for Seneca, is a way that should make life more meaningful and must add up to the quality of life. He stresses that one must not accept any philosophy without trying, experimenting and analyzing the results that come thereof. There has to be an intuitive insight developed for philosophy.

And so my dear Paulinus,’ he ends ‘extract yourself from the crowd, and as you have been storm-tossed more than your age deserves, you must, at last, retire into a peaceful harbor. You must retire to these pursuits that are quieter, safer and more important.’ Seneca inspires Paulinus to take up the sacred studies, from which one learns the substance of God, and his will, his mode of life, his shape. The fate that awaits one’s soul; where nature lays us to rest when released from our bodies. What is the force which supports all the heaviest elements of this world at the center, suspends the light elements above, carries fire to the highest part, and sets the stars in motion with their proper changes – and learn other things in succession which are full of tremendous marvels?’

Seneca also advises that when you see a man among other who feels pride for what he has, who has gained and gathered enough money and property, do not envy him; these things are won at the cost of living. So that one year may be dated from their names they will waste all their own years.

It is only because of not understanding life and its relation to the time that the whole society is looming around the YOLO concept, You Only Live Once. Having an infinite number of desires and the finite attribute of the body has taken the peace out of the lives of many and still, they think when all their wishes would be fulfilled their life would have been a success. Death scares them because their desires remain unfulfilled and such is the nature of desires that they always remain unfulfilled. Living once is enough if you have lived wisely.

Life is short only to those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future.

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