On the Shortness of Life - by Seneca

On the Shortness of Life

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 all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death's final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it. Just as when ample and princely wealth falls to a bad owner it is squandered in a moment, but wealth however modest, if entrusted to a good custodian, increases with use, so our lifetime extends amply if you manage it properly.

People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.

You are living as if destined to live for ever; your own frailty never occurs to you; you don't notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply -- though all the while that very day which you are devoting to somebody or something may be your last. You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire. 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 on any business? How late it is to begin really to live just when life must end!

Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present. But the man who spends all his time on his own needs, who organizes every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day. For what new pleasures can any hour now bring him? He has tried everything, and enjoyed everything to repletion. For the rest, Fortune can dispose as she likes: his life is now secure. Nothing can be taken from this life, and you can only add to it as if giving to a man who is already full and satisfied food which he does not want but can hold. So you must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long.

Can anything be more idiotic than certain people who boast of their foresight? They keep themselves officiously preoccupied in order to improve their lives; they spend their lives in organizing their lives. They direct their purposes with an eye to a distant future. But 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. You are arranging what lies in Fortune's control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.

Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only those are really alive. For they not only keep a good watch over their own lifetimes, but they annex every age to theirs. All the years that have passed before them are added to their own. Unless we are very ungrateful, all those distinguished founders of holy creeds were born for us and prepared for us a way of life. By the toil of others we are led into the presence of things which have been brought from darkness into light. Since nature allows us to enter into a partnership with every age, why not turn from this brief and transient spell of time and give ourselves wholeheartedly to the past, which is limitless and eternal and can be shared with better men than we?

Whatever comes our way by chance is unsteady, and the higher it rises the more liable it is to fall. Furthermore, what is doomed to fall delights no one. So it is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil. They achieve what they want laboriously; they possess what they have achieved anxiously; and meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return.

Consolation to Helvia

We are born under circumstances that would be favourable if we did not abandon them. It was nature's intention that there should be no need of great equipment for a good life: every individual can make himself happy. External goods are of trivial importance and without much influence in either direction: prosperity does not elevate the sage and adversity does not depress him. For he has always made the effort to rely as much as possible on himself and to derive all delight from himself. Never have I trusted Fortune, even when she seemed to offer peace. All those blessings which she kindly bestowed on me -- money, public office, influence -- I relegated to a place whence she could claim them back without bothering me. I kept a wide gap between them and me, with the result that she has taken them away, not torn them away. No man has been shattered by the blows of Fortune unless he was first deceived by her favours. Those who loved her gifts as if they were their own for ever, who wanted to be admired on account of them, are laid low and grieve when the false and transient pleasures desert their vain and childish minds, ignorant of every stable pleasure. But the man who is not puffed up in good times does not collapse either when they change. His fortitude is already tested and he maintains a mind unconquered in the face of either condition: for in the midst of prosperity he has tried his own strength against adversity.

How little have we lost, when the two finest things of all will accompany us wherever we go, universal nature and our individual virtue. Believe me, this was the intention of whoever formed the universe, that only the most worthless of our possessions should come into the power of another. Whatever is best for a human being lies outside human control: it can be neither given nor taken away. The world you see, nature's greatest and most glorious creation, and the human mind which gazes and wonders at it, and is the most splendid part of it, these are our own everlasting possessions and will remain with us as long as we ourselves remain. So, eager and upright, let us hasten with bold steps wherever circumstances take us, and let us journey through any countries whatever: there can be no place of exile within the world since nothing within the world is alien to men.

There is no evil in poverty, as anyone knows who has not yet arrived at the lunatic state of greed and luxury, which ruin everything. For how little is needed to support a man! And who can lack this if he has any virtue at all? As far as I am concerned, I know that I have lost not wealth but distractions. The body's needs are few: it wants to be free from cold, to banish hunger and thirst with nourishment; if we long for anything more we are exerting ourselves to serve our vices, not our needs.

If you have the strength to tackle any one aspect of misfortune you can tackle all. When once virtue has toughened the mind it renders it invulnerable on every side. If greed, the most overmastering plague of the human race, has relaxed its grip, ambition will not stand in your way. If you regard your last day not as a punishment but as a law of nature, the breast from which you have banished the dread of death no fear will dare to enter. If you consider that sexual desire was given to man not for enjoyment but for the propagation of the race, once you are free of this violent and destructive passion rooted in your vitals, every other desire will leave you undisturbed. Reason routs the vices not one by one but all together: the victory is final and complete. Do you think that any wise man can be affected by disgrace, one who relies entirely on himself and holds aloof from common beliefs?

It is better to conquer our grief than to deceive it. For if it has withdrawn, being merely beguiled by pleasures and preoccupations, it starts up again and from its very respite gains force to savage us. But the grief that has been conquered by reason is calmed for ever. I am not therefore going to prescribe for you those remedies which I know many people have used, that you divert or cheer yourself by a long or pleasant journey abroad, or spend a lot of time carefully going through your accounts and administering your estate, or constantly be involved in some new activity. All those things help only for a short time; they do not cure grief but hinder it. But I would rather end it than distract it. And so I am leading you to that resource which must be the refuge of all who are flying from Fortune, liberal studies. They will heal your wound, they will withdraw all your melancholy. They will comfort you, they will delight you; and if they genuinely penetrate your mind, never again will grief enter there, or anxiety, or the distress caused by futile and pointless suffering. Your heart will have room for none of these, for to all other failings it has long been closed. Those studies are your most dependable protection, and they alone can snatch you from Fortune's grip.

On Tranquility of Mind

They are all in the same category, both those who are afflicted with fickleness, boredom and a cealess change of purpose, and who alwas yearn for what they have left behind, and those who just yawn from apathy. There are those too who toss around like insomniacs, and keep changing their position until they find rest through sheer weariness. They keep altering the condition of their lives, and eventually stick to that one in which they are trapped not by weariness with further change but by old age which is too sluggish for novelty. There are those too who suffer not from moral steadfastness but from inertia, and so lack the fickleness to live as they wish, and just live as they have begun. In fact there are innumerable characteristics of the malady, but one effect -- dissatisfaction with oneself. This arises from mental instability and from fearful and unfulfilled desires, when men do not dare or do not achieve all they long for, and all they grasp at is hope: they are always unbalanced and fickle, an inevitable consequence of living in suspense. They struggle to gain their prayers by every path, and they teach and force themselves to do dishonourable and difficult things; and when their efforts are unrewarded the fruitless disgrace tortures them, and they regret not the wickedness but the frustration of their desires. Then they are gripped by repentance for their attempt and fear of trying again, and they are undermined by the restlessness of a mind that can discover no outlet, because they can neither control nor obey their desires, by the dithering of a life that cannot see its way ahead, and by the lethargy of a soul stagnating amid its abandoned hopes. All these afflictions are worse when, through hatred of their toilsome failure, men have retreated into idleness and private studies which are unbearable to a mind aspiring to public service, keen on activity, and restless by nature because of course it is short of inner resources. In consequence, when the pleasures have been removed which busy people derive from their actual activities, the mind cannot endure the house, the solitude, the walls, and hates to observe its own isolation. From this arises that boredom and self-dissatisfaction, that turmoil of a restless mind and gloomy and grudging endurance of our leisure, especially when we are ashamed to admit the reasons for it and our sense of shame drives the agony inward, and our desires are trapped in narrow bound without escape abd stifle themselves. From this arise melancholy and mourning and a thousand vacillations of a wavering mind, buoyed up by the birth of hope and sickened by the death of it. From this arises the state of mind of those who loathe their own leisure and complain that they have nothing to do, and the bitterest envy at the promotion of others. For unproductive idleness nurtures malice, and because they themselves could not prosper they want everyone else to be ruined. Then from this dislike of others' success and despair of their own, their minds become enraged against fortune, complain about the times, retreat into obscurity, and brood over their own sufferings until they become sick and tired of themselves. For the human mind is naturally mobile and enjoys activity. Every chance of stimulation and distraction is welcome to it -- even more welcome to all those inferior characters who actually enjoy being worn out by busy activity.

How much happier is the man who owes nothing to anybody except the one he can most easily refuse, himself! But since we have not such strength of will, we must at least curtail our possessions, so we may be less exposed to the blows of Fortune. The ideal amount of money is that which neither falls within the range of poverty nor far exceeds it. Moreover, we shall be satisfied with this limit if we previously practised thrift, without which no amount of wealth is enough, and no amount is not ample enough. Let us get used to banishing ostentation, and to measuring things by their qualities of function rather than display. Let food banish hunger and drink banish thirst; let sex indulge its needs; let us learn to rely on our limbs, and to adjust our style of dress and our way of living not to the newfangled patterns but to the customs of our ancestors. Let us learn to increase our self-restraint, to curb luxury, to moderate ambition, to soften anger, to regard povert without prejudice, to practise frugality, even if many are ashamed of it, to apply to nature's needs the remedies that are cheaply available, to curb as in fetters unbridled hopes and a mind obsessed with the future, and to aim to acquire our riches from ourselves rather than from Fortune. It is not possible that all the manifold and unfair disasters of life can be so repelled that many storm winds will not still assail those who spread their sails ambitiously. We must restrict our activities so that Fortune's weapons miss their mark; and for that reason exiles and calamities have proved to benefit us and greater disasters have been mended by lesser ones. When the mind is less amenable to instruction and cannot be cured by milder means, why should it not be helped by having a dose of poverty and disgrace and general ruin -- dealing with evil b evil?

The wise man does not have to walk nervously or cautiously, for he has such self-confidence that he does not hesitate to make a stand against Fortune and will never give ground to her. He has no reason to fear her, since he regards as held on sufferance not only his goods and possessions and status, but even his body, his eyes and hand, and all that makes life more dear, and his very self; and he lives as though he were lent to himself and bound to return the loan on deman without complaint. Nor is he thereby cheap in his own eyes because he knows he is not his own, but he will act in all things as carefully and meticulously as a devout and holy man guards anything entrusted to him. And whenever he is ordered to repay his debt he will not complain to Fortune, but he will say: 'I thank you for what I have possessed and held. I have looked after your property to my great benefit, but at your command I give and yield it with gratitude and good will. If you want me still to have anything of yours, I shall keep it safe; if you wish otherwise, I give back and restore to you my silver, both coined and plate, my house and my household.' Should Nature demand back what she previously entrusted to us we shall say to her too: 'Take back my spirit in better shape than when you gave it. I do not quibble or hang back: I am willing for you to have straightaway what you gave me before I was conscious - take it.' What is the harm in returning to the point whence you came? He will live badly who does not know how to die well. So we must first strip off the value we set on this thing and recon the breath of life as something cheap. To quote Cicero, we hate gladiators if they are keen to save their life by any means; we favour them if they openly show contempt for it. You must realize that the same thing applies to us: for often the cause of dying is the fear of it. He who fears death will never do anything worthy of a living man. But he who knows that this was the condition laid down for him at the moment of his conception will live on those terms, and at the same time he will guarantee with a similar strength of mind that no events take him by surprise. For by foreseeing anything that can happen as though it will happen he will soften the onslaught of all his troubles, which present no surprises to those who are ready and waiting for them, but fall heavily on those who are careless in the expectation that all will be well.

'What can happen to one can happen to all.' If you let this idea sink into your vitals, and regard all the ills of other people (of which every day shows an enormous supply) as having a clear path to you too, you will be armed long before you are attacked. It is too late for the mind to equip itself to endure dangers once they are already there. 'I didn't think it would happen' and 'Would you ever have believed it would turn out so?' Why ever not?

The next thing is to ensure that we do not waste our energies pointlessly or in pointless activities: that is, not to long either for what we cannot achieve, or for what, once gained, only makes us realize too late and after much exertion the futility of our desires. In other words, let our labout not be in vain and without result, nor the result unworthy of our labour; for usually bitterness follows if either we do not succeed or we are ashamed of succeeding. We must cut down on all this dashing about that a great many people indulge in, as they throng around houses and theatres and fora: they intrude into other people's affairs, always giving the impression of being busy. They wander around aimlessly looking for employment, and they do not what they intended but what they happen to run across. Their roaming is idle and pointless. So let all your activity be directed to some object, let it have some end in view.

I imagine that Democritus had this in mind when he began: 'Anyone who wishes to live a quiet life should not engage in many activities either privately or publicly' -- meaning, of course, useless ones. For when they are essential, then not just many but countless things have to be done both privately and publicly. But when no binding duty summons us we must restrain our actions. For a man who is occupied with many things often puts himself into the power of Fortune, whereas the safest policy is rarely to tempt her, though to keep her always in mind and to trust her in nothing. Thus: 'I shall sail unless something happens'; and 'I shall become praetor unless something prevents me'; and 'My business will be successful unless something interferes.' That is why we say that nothing happens to the wise man against his expectation. We remove him not from the chances that befall mankind but from their mistakes, nor do all things turn out for him as he wished but as he reckoned -- and above all he reckoned that something could block his plans. But inevitably the mind can cope more easily with the distress arising from disappointed longings if you have not promised it certain success.

We should also make ourselves flexible, so that we do not pin our hopes too much on our set plans, and can move over to those things to which chance has brought us, without dreading a change in either our purpose or our condition, provided that fickleness, that fault most inimical to tranquility, does not get hold of us. For obstinacy, from which Fortune often extorts something, is bound to bring wretchedness and anxiety, and much more serious is the fickleness that nowhere restrains itself. Both are hostile to tranquility, and find change impossible and endurance impossible. In any case the mind must be recalled from external objects into itself: it must trust in itself, rejoice in itself, admire its own things; it must withdraw as much as possible from the affairs of others and devote its attention to itself; it must not feel losses and should take a kindly view even of misfortunes.

But there is no point in banishing the causes of private sorrow, for sometimes we are gripped by a hatred of the human race. When you consider how rare is simplicity and how unknown is innocence, how you scarcely ever find loyalty except when it is expedient, what a host of successful crimes you come across, and all the things equally hateful that men gain and lose through lust, and how ambition is now so far from setting limits to itself that it acquires a lustre from viciousness -- all this drives the mind into a darkness whose shadows overwhelm it, as though those virtues were overturned which it is not possible to hope for and not useful to possess. We must therefore school ourselves to regard all commonly held vices as not hateful but ridiculous, and we should imitate Democritus rather than Heraclitus. For whenever these went out in public, the latter used to weep and the former to laugh; the latter thought all our activities sorrows, the former, follies. So we should make light of all things and endure them with tolerance: it is more civilized to make fun of life than to bewail it. Bear in mind too that he deserves better of the human race as well who laughs at it than he who grieves over it; since the one allows it a fair prospect of hope, while the other stupidly laments over things he cannot hope will be put right. And, all things considered, it is the mark of a greater mind not to restrain laughter than not to restrain tears, sincle laughter expresses the gentlest of our feelings, and reckons that nothing is great or serious or even wretched in all the trappings of our existence. Yet it is preferable to accept calmly public behaviour and human failings, and not to collapse into either laughter or tears. For to be tormented by other people's troubles means perpetual misery, while to take delight in them is an inhuman pleasure; just as it is an empty show of kindness to weep and assume a solemn look because somebody is burying a son. In your own troubles too, the appropriate conduct is to indulge as much grief as nature, not custom, demands: for many people weep in order to be seen weeping, though their eyes are dry as long as there is nobody looking, since they regard it as bad form not to weep when everyone is weeping. This evil of taking our cue from others has become so deeply ingrained that even that most basic feeling, grief, degenerates into imitation.

We should withdraw a lot into ourselves; for associating with people unlike ourselves upsets a calm disposition, stirs up passions again, and aggravates any mental weakness which has not been completely cured. However, the two things must be mingled and varied, solitude and joining a crowd: the one will make us long for people and the other for ourselves, and each will be a remedy for the other; solitude will cure our distaste for a crowd, and a crowd will cure our boredom with solitude.