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)
“…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..”
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.
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…