Lucius Annaeus Seneca on the Shortness of Life
Marble bust from the 3rd century, after an original bust of the 1st century
(Staatliche Museen, Berlin)
Continuing my occasional theme of the value of pursuing the liberal arts, here are some excerpts from Seneca the Younger's essay, "On the Shortness of Life" . . .
It is a general complaint among mankind ... that Nature is niggardly: our allotted span is brief, and the term granted us flies by with such dizzy speed that all but a few exhaust it just when they are beginning to live. And it is not only the unthinking masses who bemoan what they consider the universal evil: the same sentiment has evoked complaints even from men of distinction. Hence the cry of that prince of physicians (Hippocrates), "Life is short, art long." ...
It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much. Life is long enough and our allotted portion generous enough for our most ambitious projects if we invest it all carefully. But when it is squandered through luxury and indifference, and spent for no good end, we realize it has gone, under the pressure of the ultimate necessity, before we were aware it was going. So it is: the life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully. Kingly riches are dissipated in an instant if they fall into the hands of a bad master, but even moderate wealth increases with use in the hands of a careful steward; just so does our life provide ample scope if it is well managed.
Why do we complain of Nature? She has behaved handsomely; life, if you know how to use it, is long. One man is possessed by an insatiable avarice, another by assiduous application to trifling enterprises. One man is sodden with wine, another benumbed by sloth. One man is exhausted by an ambition which always depends on the votes of others, another is driven over every land and sea by the trader's urge to seek profit. Some are plagued by a passion for soldiering, and are incessantly bent upon threatening others or anxious about others' threats. Some are worn out by self-imposed and unrequited attendance upon the great; many busy themselves with the pursuit of other men's estates or in complaints about their own. Some follow no plan consistently but are precipitated into one new scheme after another by a fickleness which is rambling and unstable and dissatisfied with itself; some have no objective at all at which to aim but are overtaken by fate as they gape and yawn. I cannot, therefore, question the truth of the great poet's dictum, uttered with oracular impressiveness: "Slight is the portion of life we live." [The name of this poet is now unknown.] All the residue is not living but passing time.
[. . .]
Many a man will say, "After my fiftieth year I shall retire and relax; my sixtieth year will release me from obligations." And what guarantee have you that your life will be longer? Who will arrange that your program shall proceed according to plan? Are you not ashamed to reserve for yourself only the tail end of life and to allot to serious thought only such time as cannot be applied to business?
[. . .]
The only people really at leisure are those who take time for philosophy. They alone really live. It is not their lifetime alone of which they are careful stewards: they annex every age to their own and exploit all the years that have gone before. Unless we prove ingrate, it was for us that the illustrious founders of divine schools of thought came into being, for us they prepared a way of life. By the exertions of others we are led to the fairest treasures, raised to the light out of the darkness in which they were mined. No age is forbidden us, we have admittance to all, and if we choose to transcend the narrow bounds of human frailty by loftiness of mind, there is a vast stretch of time for us to roam. We may dispute with Socrates, doubt with Carneades, repose with Epicurus, transcend human nature with the Stoics, defy it with the Cynics. Since Nature allows us to participate in any age, why should we not betake ourselves in mind from this petty and ephemeral span to the boundless and timeless region we can share with our betters? ...
Source: philosophical society.com
Labels: Critical thinking