On the Shortness of Life

A collection of three of Seneca’s essays: On the Shortness of Life, Consolation to Helvia, On Tranquility of the Mind, all of which deal with ways of thinking and living life. Consolation is written to his mother, to assuage her grief at his death, and contains thoughts which may help those who are grieving. Tranquility is written to his friend Serenus, and reinforces the Stoic philosophy that happiness comes from within ourselves, do not reach for external trappings, guard your time for valiant pursuits, do good work and sprinkle in a bit of relaxation. The title essay, Shortness of Life, continues these themes with many quotable bits.

You hear many people saying: ‘When I am fifty I shall retire into leisure’… 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 on any business? How late it is to begin really to live just when life must end!

Learning how to live takes a whole life, and… it takes a whole life to learn how to die… Believe me, it is the sign of a great man, and one who is above human error, not to allow his time to be frittered away: he has the longest possible life simply because whatever time was available he devoted entirely to himself. None of it lay fallow and neglected, none of it under another’s control.

You must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long. For suppose you should think that a man had had a long voyage who had been caught in a raging storm as he left harbour, and carried hither and thither and driven round and round in a circle by the rage of opposing winds? He did not have a long voyage, just a long tossing about.

Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today.

Now while the blood is hot you should make your way with vigour to better things. In this kind of life you will find much that is worth your study: the love and practice of the virtues, forgetfulness of the passions, the knowledge of how to live and die, and a life of deep tranquility. Indeed the state of all who are preoccupied is wretched, but the most wretched are those who are toiling not even at their own preoccupations, but must regulate their sleep by another’s, and their walk by another’s pace, and obey orders in those freest of things, loving and hating. If such people want to know how short their lives are, let them reflect how small a portion is their own.