Inspired by Seneca’s book On the Shortness of Life I mixed the title with the Italian version of the text to try to merge the thoughts that came to me as I read the book in my native language. I picked up the short volume while on vacation in Rome to spend the Christmas break with my family, between my school term and co-op, looking for something light to read. “Never judge a book by its cover”, or its length for all that matters. So they say. This widely used proverb couldn’t have been more right as the thirty pages or so could not have been filled with more thoughts and reflections on life that made me ponder on them for many days. In most cases, I believe that in life, questions matter more than answers, as they expand our creativity and horizons, stretching the biological boundaries of our limitless imagination, providing the unstoppable human drive to figure out what stands on the other side of the question mark. That’s just what Seneca tries to give the reader: a guide to a different perspective on life, a tool to analyze one’s way of living that once realized we’re in possession of, we wouldn’t know how we had lived without beforehand.
The message that Seneca tries to convey is that life is, as a matter of fact, not too short, as many of us start to contrarily think as we reach the digits that the French like to pronounce completely differently. Even though it makes sense how quatre vingt dix means ninety, as the latter is in fact four times twenty plus ten, I don’t see why they can’t just do it like the Belgians and have nonante, which is much more similar. The philosopher’s thesis is all about the way in which we end up spending most of our time that causes us to think that our life’s days are so little. We spend so many hours wasting time that once we don’t have more of it left, we regret our lazy, poor decisions.
Now, the concept of wasting time is one of the main topics of the messages that Seneca is aiming to explain to his friend and reputable public figure in the Imperial Rome of two thousand years ago, Paolino. The knight was in fact so busy and taken with his job that he was slowly forgetting what life was all about. Conducting surveys on the quantity of grains used by the families of Rome, visiting farms around the city to ensure they were producing enough baskets to feed the city, traveling to neighboring localities to mitigate tensions and improve commerce, dealing with internal issues and everlasting disputes in the Senate…Paolino had no time to dedicate to himself: to Seneca, he wasn’t living at all.
“ There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living: there is nothing that is harder to learn”
This, I believe, is a crucial message. By working too hard, too much, too long, stressing out and taking in all the frustration that comes with work, we forget about life, about the human side that we all possess, and instead, slowly, unknowingly, we become more and more like senseless machines. As important as Seneca regarded this two millennials ago, it’s as valuable as ever in today’s society, where we have gotten to the point where being a workaholic is actually a thing! We need to instead learn how to have more balance in our lives, in order to appreciate the other aspects that make living, worth living. I’m not saying to not put effort into work, nor to turn down all ambitions to a prosperous career or disengage from any sort of challenging activity. All I advocate for is balance. This balance is definitely a subjective concept to each one of us, although in my mind it represents a routine that incorporates diligent work, continuous study on interests and passions, time to self reflect and to spend with friends and family, working out and pushing to the limits of the mind and the body. Knowing when too much is too much, and remembering that there is more to life than fame and success.
Work is not the only activity that Seneca mentions. In his letter he is really talking about any sort of activity that deprives us of experiencing and enjoying every single moment we’re given to live. In his mind, those who do nothing and ponder on life are the wisest and those that truly are spending their time in the best way. I wouldn’t exactly agree to those terms, especially because most ancient Greek philosophers came from wealthy families that could allow them to precisely do nothing for all their life but simply “enjoy it”. This I believe also gave them a sort of biased view on the world and how life was to be lived, in a context where duties were optional for survival. In the modern world this is of course not the reality, and to be fair, we should all live in a way that is sustainable for society and that pushes its members towards innovation in all fields and sectors. This of course requires work, and simply looking at the sky and pondering about it, even if it makes us wiser, won’t definitely help. (Sorry Lucius…).
“…therefore, and not merely short, must the life of those be who work hard to gain what they must work harder to keep. By great toil they attain what they wish, and with anxiety hold what they have attained; meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return.”
Life is most certainly a complicated topic to discuss for a multitude of reasons that if I even attempted to give it justice…I just could not. Yet life is always associated with death, as the presence of one implies the nonexistence of the other. So how should you live your life? If you were waiting for me to actually answer that for you I’m terribly sorry, I really don’t have an answer to that, as there is no right response to such an open ended question. Questions…precisely what we need! If there’s one thing we can all take from Seneca is to keep on thinking about the way we live, reflecting on how our day is going and appreciating the little things that make each and every one of them unique. Only then we will truly be living, moment by moment, focusing on the present and realizing that we are alive NOW and that NOW is the time to make the best of it, almost like Seneca said. Life is short only if we are not there to experience it, so as the Latins often said, Carpe Diem.
“It’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.” — Lucius Annaeus Seneca
You can find the online version of the letter here: https://tim.blog/2009/04/24/on-the-shortness-of-life-an-introduction-to-seneca/ (Thanks Tim!)