Listen to podcast episode

“It takes the whole of life to learn how to live, and—what will perhaps make you wonder more—it takes the whole of life to learn how to die.”

Seneca articulates the many contradictions inherent in complaining of the shortness of life, and then lets out how one may live a rich and virtuous life, irrespective of the number of years they are alive.

The contradictions he points out are especially fascinating. Seneca’s argument is that one cannot lament the shortness of life if they did not know how to meaningfully use their time alive. One must have meaningful internal dialogues and lead a purposeful life before they are fit to deem their lifespan an insufficient amount of time.

“It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested.”

Life feels short not because it is, but because a lot of is wasted.

Wasted time does not just mean wasted time in the modern sense of TV and videogames; it means time spent pursuing unworthy ambitions or living for somebody else.

“Life, if you know how to use it, is long. But one man is possessed by an avarice that is insatiable, another by a toilsome devotion to tasks that are useless; one man is besotted with wine, another is paralyzed by sloth; one man is exhausted by an ambition that always hangs upon the decision of others, another, driven on by the greed of the trader, is led over all lands and all seas by the hope of gain; some are tormented by a passion for war and are always either bent upon inflicting danger upon others or concerned about their own; some there are who are worn out by voluntary servitude in a thankless attendance upon the great; many are kept busy either in the pursuit of other men’s fortune or in complaining of their own; many, following no fixed aim, shifting and inconstant and dissatisfied, are plunged by their fickleness into plans that are ever new; some have no fixed principle by which to direct their course, but Fate takes them unawares while they loll and yawn—so surely does it happen that I cannot doubt the truth of that utterance which the greatest of poets delivered with all the seeming of an oracle: “The part of life we really live is small.”

The number of years lived and the amount a person has lived are different.

One may die young but have lived long; another may die old, but have not lived much.

“And so there is no reason for you to think that any man has lived long because he has grey hairs or wrinkles; he has not lived long—he has existed long. For what if you should think that that man had had a long voyage who had been caught by a fierce storm as soon as he left harbor, and, swept hither and thither by a succession of winds that raged from different quarters, had been driven in a circle around the same course? Not much voyaging did he have, but much tossing about.”

Your actual time living is tied to knowing how to live.

“Recall your life and make a reckoning. Consider how much of your time was taken up with a moneylender, how much with a mistress, how much with a patron, how much with a client, how much in wrangling with your wife, how much in punishing your slaves, how much in rushing about the city on social duties. Add the diseases which we have caused by our own acts, add, too, the time that has lain idle and unused; you will see that you have fewer years to your credit than you count.”

To live long requires living a worthy life; a worthy life requires living for yourself.

“It takes a great man and one who has risen far above human weaknesses not to allow any of his time to be filched from him, and it follows that the life of such a man is very long because he has devoted wholly to himself whatever time he has had. None of it lay neglected and idle; none of it was under the control of another, for, guarding it most grudgingly, he found nothing that was worthy to be taken in exchange for his time.”

“The condition of all who are engrossed is wretched, but most wretched is the condition of those who labor at engrossments that are not even their own, who regulate their sleep by that of another, their walk by the pace of another, who are under orders in case of the freest things in the world—loving and hating. If these wish to know how short their life is, let them reflect how small a part of it is their own.”

To study philosophy is a gateway to a meaningful life, since to be a student of philosophy is to study and question life itself.

This is also perhaps the most beautiful paragraph in the book.

“Of all men they alone are at leisure who take time for philosophy, they alone really live; for they are not content to be good guardians of their own lifetime only. They annex every age to their own; all the years that have gone ere them are an addition to their store. Unless we are most ungrateful, all those men, glorious fashioners of holy thoughts, were born for us; for us they have prepared a way of life. By other men’s labors we are led to the sight of things most beautiful that have been wrested from darkness and brought into light; from no age are we shut out, we have access to all ages, and if it is our wish, by greatness of mind, to pass beyond the narrow limits of human weakness, there is a great stretch of time through which we may roam. We may argue with Socrates, we may doubt with Carneades, find peace with Epicurus, overcome human nature with the Stoics, exceed it with the Cynics. Since Nature allows us to enter into fellowship with every age, why should we not turn from this paltry and fleeting span of time and surrender ourselves with all our soul to the past, which is boundless, which is eternal, which we share with our betters? …This is the only way of prolonging mortality—nay, of turning it into immortality.”

To introspect is to be audience to yourself. To enjoy such introspection requires internal calm and understanding. Yet most are more concerned with what others think of them than their own thoughts.

“Can anyone have the hardihood to complain of the pride of another when he himself has no time to attend to himself? …There is no reason, therefore, to count anyone in debt for such services, seeing that, when you performed them, you had no wish for another’s company, but could not endure your own.”

It is important to consider your life and mortality, and specifically to consider how you spend your time. And the sooner this is figured out, the better: time is not waiting for you.

“Old age surprises them while their minds are still childish, and they come to it unprepared and unarmed, for they have made no provision for it; they have stumbled upon it suddenly and unexpectedly, they did not notice that it was drawing nearer day by day.”

To live in the moment, free of anxiety about the future, one must be content with their life and daily ambitions.

“Everyone hurries his life on and suffers from a yearning for the future and a weariness of the present. But he who bestows all of his time on his own needs, who plans out every day as if it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the morrow.”

Mastery requires focus on fewer things. A mind that is too divided will be unable to master what it faces.

“The mind, when its interests are divided, takes in nothing very deeply, but rejects everything that is, as it were, crammed into it.”

Seneca refers to those who do not introspect, but instead are distracted by many different ambitions and live their lives unvirtuously, as the engrossed.

To be engrossed prevents one from thinking deeply about his life, reflecting on his past, planning his future, or pursuing something singular and meaningful.

“Life is divided into three periods—that which has been, that which is, that which will be. Of these the present time is short, the future is doubtful, the past is certain. For the last is the one over which Fortune has lost control, is the one which cannot be brought back under any man’s power. But men who are engrossed lose this; for they have no time to look back upon the past, and even if they should have, it is not pleasant to recall something they must view with regret. They are, therefore, unwilling to direct their thoughts backward to ill-spent hours, and those whose vices become obvious if they review the past, even the vices which were disguised under some allurement of momentary pleasure, do not have the courage to revert to those hours.”

“The engrossed are concerned with present time alone, and it is so brief that it cannot be grasped, and even this is filched away from them, distracted as they are among many things.”

The engrossed are not just those who are busy; one can be idle and engrossed if they over-indulge in frivolous things.

“Even the leisure of some men is engrossed; in their villa or on their couch, in the midst of solitude, although they have withdrawn from all others, they are themselves the source of their own worry; we should say that these are living, not in leisure, but in busy idleness. Would you say that that man is at leisure who arranges with finical care his Corinthian bronzes, that the mania of a few makes costly, and spends the greater part of each day upon rusty bits of copper?”

People are diligent when it comes to guarding their wealth, but frivolous when it comes to defending their time.

“In guarding their fortune men are often close-fisted, yet, when it comes to the matter of wasting time, in the case of the one thing in which it is right to be miserly, they show themselves most prodigal… See how these same people clasp the knees of physicians if they fall ill and the danger of death draws nearer, see how ready they are, if threatened with capital punishment, to spend all their possessions in order to live! So great is the inconsistency of their feelings.”

Aside: the above is a better articulation of my rant (quoted below) against wasted time in Time Crimes.

“I believe our values on this topic are off the mark. If I stole an expensive vase from a friend’s house, I’d be a thief (and a bad friend). They could rightfully tell our mutual friends to watch out. But if I’m half an hour late to dinner and left my friends waiting, why are they expected to be understanding? In our last moments, there’s nothing we’ll want more than more time. Why can’t we be livid if it’s being robbed from us right now?”

Seneca rails against those who espouse the virtues of working until retirement age and enjoying life afterwards. How can one be sure they’ll make it that far?

“What foolish forgetfulness of mortality to postpone wholesome plans to the fiftieth and sixtieth year, and to intend to begin life at a point to which few have attained!”

“They spend life in making ready to live! They form their purposes with a view to the distant future; yet postponement is the greatest waste of life; it deprives them of each day as it comes, it snatches from them the present by promising something hereafter. The greatest hindrance to living is expectancy, which depends upon the morrow and wastes to-day.”

Chasing luxury and fame often results in limiting one’s freedom and ability to live.

“Look at those whose prosperity men flock to behold; they are smothered by their blessings. To how many are riches a burden! From how many do eloquence and the daily straining to display their powers draw forth blood! How many are pale from constant pleasures! To how many does the throng of clients that crowd about them leave no freedom!”

Seneca unleashes quite the diss against a life of luxury:

“…these pampered people—provided that you can call it pampering to unlearn the habits of human life…”

To indulge in worldly items is to indulge in temporary items. Unlike virtue or philosophy, possessions and fame will fade.

“The very pleasures of such men are uneasy and disquieted by alarms of various sorts, and at the very moment of rejoicing the anxious thought comes over them: “How long will these things last?” This feeling has led kings to weep over the power they possessed, and they have not so much delighted in the greatness of their fortune, as they have viewed with terror the end to which it must some time come… And why is it that even their joys are uneasy from fear? Because they do not rest on stable causes, but are perturbed as groundlessly as they are born.”

He expresses disdain for those who over-indulge in “wine and lust”, listing these as the most “shameful engrossments”.

“Those who are plunged into the pleasures of the belly and into lust bear a stain that is dishonorable. Search into the hours of all these people, see how much time they give to accounts, how much to laying snares, how much to fearing them, how much to paying court, how much to being courted, how much is taken up in giving or receiving bail, how much by banquets—for even these have now become a matter of business,—and you will see how their interests, whether you call them evil or good, do not allow them time to breathe.”