60 in 60: #1 – Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life (Penguin’s Great Ideas)

This blog post is part of my ongoing “60 Books in 60 Days” encounter with the Penguin Great Ideas series. From mid-December to mid-February, I will read one book in the series each night and post a blog entry about it the next morning. For more on this beautifully designed series, visit Penguin’s page about the books.

On the Shortness of Life; Life Is Long If You Know How to Use It
by Lucius Seneca (c. 4 BC – 65 AD)

Memorable Line
“…the minds of the preoccupied, as if harnessed in a yoke, cannot turn round and look behind them. So their lives vanish into an abyss; and just as it is no use pouring any amount of liquid into a container without a bottom to catch and hold it, so it does not matter how much time we are given if there is nowhere for it to settle; it escapes through the cracks and holes of the mind..”

The Skinny
We let others waste our own time, compromise our happiness in the present for a time of leisure in the future that may never come, and yet cannot abide living in our own skulls so vehemently that we scramble to fill what leisure time we do have between events, activities, or commitments with the equivalent of wasteful distraction. (Seneca: “the man who fears his own memory.”) At the same time, we do not allow the past, personal or public, to influence our personal here-and-now as much as we should; if we did, we would perhaps be able to face the moment with more calmness and perspective.

Relevance? Argument?
Although written almost two thousand years ago, “On the Shortness of Life” could have been written in this century because it offers prescient advice on combating the shortcomings of a modern life in which personal technology like cell phones and computers, coupled with internet addiction, have given human beings ever more ways to distract themselves from the fundamental questions of their existence, including the fact that all of us will eventually be dust. The fragmentation of one’s attention–of one’s brain–that Seneca discusses in this essay is a serious problem in modern society because we have so many more ways to distract ourselves and others than in the past. The same internet that gives us knowledge also obscures or falsifies it, makes all information oddly equal, and further allows others to waste our time for us.

Preservation of the self is a major point of Seneca’s essay, including the critical point that it is not a selfish act to shield ourselves from people who waste our time without giving us anything–it just points to a truth that we don’t want to admit sometimes. While we may think that we are truly connecting with other people through the internet or in the “snail” world, most of those connections are superficial, and many of them can be seen, from at least one perspective, as moving each of us a step closer to death without any (nonmaterial) gain on the individual’s part. As Seneca writes, some complain that “It is impossible to live,” to which he replies “Of course it is impossible. All those who call you to themselves draw you away from yourself.” Seneca’s essay is in some ways a validation of individual sovereignty, that giving away too much of ourselves is not generosity but instead a kind of ever-encroaching insanity. I’m deliberately overstating the point about the internet, of course–and we will always find ways to distract ourselves from our eventual annihilation–but Seneca provides good guidance on ways to be better, more fulfilled, less fragmented people.

This edition also includes the essays “Consolation to Helvia” and “On Tranquility of Mind”.

If alive today, Seneca would not have wasted time googling himself.

Questions for Readers>
Have you wasted your life in some way? If so, how? (And what are you going to do about it?) If not, how can you be so sure?

Next up, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations…

20 comments on “60 in 60: #1 – Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life (Penguin’s Great Ideas)

  1. Magess says:

    There are times when I think so. 27 and no career seems like a waste. Or at least a wasted education and bunch of years following it, because shouldn’t I be well on my way by now?

    The what to do about it is harder. I could give up the conception I have of myself as someone who is and should be an editor and instead just have a job because jobs give you money and money is what you need. I don’t know that that would result in NOT feeling like I and my life are being wasted, though. Giving up feels like failure. And if you’ve put a lot of effort into something only to fail at it, that’s wasted effort, right?

    Since “wasted” implies an active squandering, I’m not sure that any other area applies. Can’t say I’ve wasted my life being alone as simply that’s how it’s been, despite any effort I may make. It may be “a waste” if my friends’ opinions are to be believed, but not because I’ve invested effort in avoiding finding someone.

  2. I don’t know, Magess. Seneca focuses very much on the *now*. Which is to say, I believe he’d think that a person who lives successfully in the moment, without giving in overmuch to pettiness or other base emotions, is therefore successful in some guise.

    I think being alone is often a fine thing, made not good by a society that defines people by their relationships too much. I remember being very much alone during certain years of college, but I never felt lonely. I liked being alone.

    For my own part, I feel I’ve squandered time on the internet–thus my emphasis in the short review–and I am working hard to change myself in that regard. Seneca is very calming to me–very practical, too.


  3. Bill Ectric says:

    I have always wanted to be a writer as long as I can remember, but got side-tracked.

    I started college in 1978 as an English Major, but someone recommended taking english education classes so I could “fall back on” teaching if writing didn’t pay the bills. Once introduced to the education faculty, I let some well-meaning prof talk me into changing my major to elementary education with the prospect of “helping kids learn how to read.” I got my elementary education degree but soon discovered I don’t have the patience for 20 little kids, so I gave up teaching, worked at a myraid of manual labor jobs, and finally got an office job with the State of Florida.

    It does no good to mourn the past, so I’ve been writing and studying how to write for the few five years, and gleaning good tips from blogs like Ecstatic Days.

    I may yet go back to school for a Masters in English, but in the meantime, I can do exactly what I would do if I were in college, which involves the analyzing literary conventions, traditions, and developments in contemporary lit theory, lots of reading of course, and synthesizing it all into some original writing of your own, which maybe gets published.

    Some time ago I gave up caring if people thought I was either obsessed or self-centered about all this. Like the song says, “I’ve made up my mind . . . I ain’t wastin’ no more time . . .”

    Thoreau must have been familiar with Seneca.

  4. Bill Ectric says:

    Now if I could only learn to prrof-read my blog entries so I don’t come off like a dumb-ass.

  5. Cheryl says:

    I know people who think that every second I have spent reading, writing about or talking about fiction has been wasted. I beg to disagree.

  6. Grant Stone says:

    The wifi off switch (or pulling out the network cable) is a sweet, sweet thing. Both with writing and in my day job I’ve seen great results by single tasking, which is really just your good old Zen being present in the moment stuff.

    Strangely enough, I get far more done now, with three kids and having to find spare 30-40 minute chunks of free time than I ever did when it was just me. The years I spend lying on a couch watching Star Trek and eating Pringles? I’ll never get them back.

  7. Larry says:

    Gotta love the Stoics, huh? :D One thing I’d add to the Seneca commentary is (and I’m speaking from short quips I had to read in Latin class 15 years ago) that he favors reflection as well. Balancing out being “in the moment” and reflecting on what is transpiring is very difficult to do; it is also very worthwhile.

    As for my own life, I have viewed it as a series of transformations that is still incomplete. If I learn, then it is good (regardless of the badness of the means of that learning being delivered). That being said, there have been opportunities that have been missed; those hopefully won’t be missed a second time. After all, I will have only so many times to save up money for a voyage into an alien culture for a lengthy amount of time, no?

  8. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Cheryl: I think the only waste is to contemplate that question.

    Larry: Thanks for that additional comment. Alas that these are blog entries and I’m only reading the books once. But it should be interesting grist for discussion. I hope you’ll weigh in a lot.

  9. Larry says:

    I’ll do my best. Should have more time in a few days, as the semester ends on Friday. Some of the works I’m familiar with, others I’m not at all. Seneca is an author I know only via excerpts and others’ commentaries, alas. Would buy the entire set if it were affordable.

  10. Magess says:

    Jeff: If that means making the most of what you have and trying to improve upon it for the sake of mastery, then I guess I could count myself successful, which is an interesting thought.

    The Internet is made for squandering time. But that doesn’t always mean nothing comes of it.

  11. This is true, Magess. Two posts I did last year led to book deals, oddly enough. Both were kinda throw-aways at the time. But I know what you mean, because I’ve met so many creators and possible collaborators through this medium.

  12. Sir Tessa says:

    I think I’m still too young to have had a chance to properly waste my life. There are plenty of things I wish I could say I’ve done, and when I compare the events of my life to others my age I occasionally get the moment of “I am a saaaaad panda”…but then, I’m not living their life, I’m living mine, and the only person who has any right to judge whether or not my time is wasted is me, and I don’t feel wasted.

    I like “validation of individual sovereignty”. I suspect I’m guilty of pursuing it.

    Later, I may judge my life wasted. There are some areas of time I consider wasted, but then I look at the person I was then, where my head was at, and I understand that that was all I could do then, and that can’t be changed – I’m the product of past decisions, be they waste or meaningful. There is no wrong or right way to live, however, and when I’m dead there will be no consciousness left to indulge in regret.

  13. Bill Ectric says:

    Sir Tessa, I see on your blog that you’re a “writer wannabe.”
    Take the advice of a grizzled old codger . . .

    well, I shouldn’t talk about Jeff that way . . .


  14. Jim Bullock says:

    “If alive today, Seneca would not have wasted time googling himself.”

    That’s gold. And “wasted your life”, has two answers. I’ve done a lot of dumb stuff in hindsight. In the moment, nearly all the time I’m doing the best I know how to do at that time. So, any “waste” is ignorance vs. intention, incomplete information about the world vs. disengagement with it or myself.

    Seneca I suspect would get that distinction.

  15. Mike says:

    I love this series and Seneca is one of my favs from it.

  16. Great post Jeff, first time reader and not last time.

    I find amazing how relatable Seneca is to these days, regardless of a couple of millenia that seperate him from us. The reason why his writings are still as alive as when he first wrote them is the atemporality of his themes, and how he digs them to its core.

    Thanks for your succint summary and relevant comments.

    Life is indeed neither long nor short, for what measure stick to compare could you use?

    You are given what you are given. And that should be enough to be grateful for.

  17. Can share with my colleagues at work as we begin blogging from a corporate perspective.

  18. Jessica says:

    Reading On the Shortness of Life and Tranquility of Mind as companion pieces is a great way to gain a little perspective, especially in these trying times. I’ve re-read On the Shortness of Life at least three times within the past two years and find it as refreshing as a dip in the sea on a scorching day. Scenes change but the challenges that we face as humans remain the same – that’s why reading the classics is always an excellent use of our time.

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