Seneca on the Shortness of Life

There’s no point in making the argument that technology hasn’t changed things, but  while it may have changed the way we do business, communicate, or access information, it hasn’t changed people at all. Long before computers and smartphones humans have been short on attention, unfocused, “preoccupied” as Seneca calls us in his essay On the Shortness of Life.

Listen to his description of humans and see if there is any meaningful difference between humans today and the humans of two millenia ago:

But one man is gripped by insatiable greed, another by a laborious dedication to useless tasks. One man is soaked in wine, another sluggish in idleness. One man is worn out by political ambition…Another through hope of profit is driven headlong over all lands and seas by the greed of trading. Some are tormented by a passion for army life, always inflicting dangers on others or anxious about dangers to themselves. Some are worn out by self-imposed servitude or thankless attendance on the great. Many are occupied by either pursuing other people’s money or complaining about their own. Many pursue no fixed goal, but are tossed about in ever-changing designs by fickleness which is shifting, inconstant and never satisfied with itself. Some have no aims at all for their life’s course…

Or how about this:

You will feel sorry for some folk you see rushing along as if to a fire; so often do they bump headlong into those in their way and send themselves and others sprawling…

But he’s not done yet, Seneca goes on to define the “preoccupied”as the man who:

  • “arranges with anxious precisions his Corinthian bronzes, the cost of which is inflated by the mania of a few collectors:
  • “sits at wrestling ring…keenly following the bouts between boys”
  • “pays for the maintenance of the latest athletes”
  • “spends many hours at the barber’s simply to cut whatever grew overnight…or to train thinning ones from the sides to lie over the forehead”
  • “are always drumming with their fingers as they beat time to an imagined tune”

While the specifics have slightly changed, it’s easy to see that we are more like ancient humans than we are different.  Sure, technology makes it easier for us to be preoccupied, but we’ve always been deficient in attention and talented at ignoring the things that really matter. And the end result of this terrible flaw is that we arrive at the end of our lives feeling cheated by the shortness of life. Seneca argues that, for the preoccupied, there is no life that would ever be long enough because:

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were well invested.

In the essay, On Tranquility of the Mind, Seneca again touches on a problem that we’re all painfully familiar with — notifications. Seneca is relating the work practices of an admired orator who worked hard, but disconnected completely when the day was done:

After that time he would not even read his letters, in case something fresh cropped up to be dealt with.

I can’t help but find this terrifically amusing. Here we are, hundreds of years later, thinking that the problems of notifications, full inboxes, and the pressure of being “always on” is somehow unique to us.

It’s easy to point the blame at our external environment — the time we live in, the city, our devices, our job — and say “That is the thing! That is what makes me busy, tired, and stressed.” But it’s not. It never has been. The fault has always been in us. And the answer today is the same that it was in Seneca’s time. The only way to live a good life is to be mindful of the present and invest our time with care:

You will hear many people saying: “When I am fifty I shall retire into leisure; when I am sixty I shall give up public duties.” And what guarantee do you have of a longer life? Who will allow your course to proceed as you arrange it? Aren’t you ashamed to keep for yourself just the remnants of your life, and to devote to wisdom only that time which cannot be spent any business? How late it is to begin to live just when life must end! How stupid to forget our mortality, and put off sensible plans to our fiftieth and sixtieth years, aiming to begin life from a point at which few have arrived!


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