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Four Things I’ve Learnt from Seneca – ‘On the Shortness of Life’

This time last year, I wouldn’t have believed myself if I’d said that I’d just finished reading a philosophy book, and not just any old philosophy book, but the stoic writings of Seneca namely “On the Shortness of Life”. I wrote a little introduction to the book in a previous post introducing my first pile of books for my 2016 reading list.

Peter bought me this book as a little Christmas gift after realising quite how much I get scared about the whole ‘life is precious’ thing. There are so many daily reminders to us, that our time here is short.

That freaks me out, as there’s so much I want to do, so much time I want to spend with loved ones and so many places to see.

But it’s something which I’m slowly making peace with, thanks to, in part, becoming a little older and wiser (?!), talking with Peter and through reading Seneca. I’m slowly becoming open and accepting to the idea that, if used wisely, there’s plenty of time out there to do what we’d like to do, it’s just a question of understanding what it is that we’d like to do and not becoming embroiled in something that really doesn’t matter or interest us.

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Although it’s only a small book, Seneca certainly packs a punch in pretty much every line of ‘On the Shortness of Life’. It’s actually made up of three letters:

  1. De Brevitate Vitæ (On the shortness of life)
  2. Ad Helviam matrem, De consolatione (To Helvia, On consolation)
  3. De Tranquillitate Animi (On tranquillity of mind)

What struck me the most when reading this was just how on beat Seneca is about life, human ways and how Man manages to preoccupy himself in so many different ways. I had to keep pinching myself that these writings and thoughts are over 2000 years old.  Yes, you did read that correctly, 2000 years old! And yet Seneca still notes how people become attached to items and activities that really are only distractions and which don’t fix our desire for something else, “Let us turn to private possessions, the greatest source of human misery” – when I read this quote, I see gadgets like mobiles and iPods/Pads. Yes, they’re great fun and very useful, but what we do on them, for example spending time on Facebook or Twitter, can lead to us living other people’s lives.

Seneca’s writings really highlight to me that although our surroundings might have changed and we’re mostly living in a more civilised world, our lust for change, mental stimulation and stature hasn’t really changed much in the last 2000 years. (A few photos of the Roman Forum which Seneca might have strolled.. perhaps!)

So in brief, here are four things I’ve learnt from Seneca, and a few quotes:

The importance of living your own life

Throughout the book, Seneca provides a number of examples of how we manage to preoccupy ourselves and how we can end up living a life that isn’t truly ours. He cites the example of spending time with people you don’t necessarily want to be with, and this rings true of the ‘you are the 5 people you spend the most time with‘ point. Life is short, so why spend it with people you don’t really get on with or perhaps don’t sit well with? Sometimes spending time with these groups of people can bring you down or even mean you lose time in their worries, dilemmas and life.

“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 all 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.”

Minimalism and Tranquility of Mind

A point which I picked up on quite a lot within the book is that, even 2000 years ago, Seneca realised that people often chose activities and objects which preoccupied the mind. To entertain themselves and numb the realities of their life. Today, this rings true about most of us – I looked around my District Line Tube to Wimbledon the other day and noticed that the majority of commuters were either plugged in and glued to their mobile phone, reading the Metro or browsing a magazine. I’m certainly not preaching because on any other day, I would have been browsing my phone, but for that journey, I just stared out the window. Why do we feel the need to preoccupy our minds with gadgets or buy lavish objects to fill our home, even though they don’t really serve a purpose?

“How can you excuse a man who collects bookcases of citron-wood and ivory, amasses the works of unknown or third rate authors, and then sits yawning among all his thousands of books and gets more enjoyment out of the appearance of his volumes and their labels?”

Seneca identifies that if we could achieve ‘tranquility of mind’ and appreciate that nature only gave us our bodies and our surrounds, we’d be happier and freer people. I quite often feel a slave to my phone and screen, it’s often a blessing when the battery dies!! Seneca points out that the less poverty has, the less it has to lose and therefore the less hurt it will feel.

Let us learn to increase our self-restraint, to curb luxury, to moderate ambition, to soften anger, to regard poverty 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 if in fetters unbridled hopes and a mind obsessed with the future, and to aim to acquire our riches from ourselves rather than from fortune.”

Seneca believes that people often preoccupy themselves because they don’t like spending time in their own company and their mind hates to observe their isolation and solitude. I’m definitely a victim of this, so it really rings true. When Peter is out for the evening and I have nothing planned, instead of hitting the keyboard to type up a blog or two, I often end up watching a couple of hours of mind-numbing tele… and I think it’s because I don’t enjoy the solitude. When I work from home, I’m absolutely fine, focussing on my reports… but as soon as 6pm strikes and Peter’s not home, I’m finding something to preoccupy and quieten my mind. I wonder if meditation would help, something to try!!

Being Kind

To live a happy, long life, Seneca highlights the importance of being kind and forming relationships which a loyal, helpful and useful.

I adore this quote especially:

But nothing delights the mind so much as fond and loyal friendship. What a blessing it is to have hearts that are ready and willing to receive all your secrets in safety, with whom you are less afraid to share knowledge of something than keep it to yourself, whose conversation soothes your distress, whose advice helps you make up your mind, whose cheerfulness dissolves your sorrow, whose very appearance cheers you up!”

How true this is! It’s amazing how a good honest friendship can make you feel so bright and happy. Having that type of relationship helps your mind and enables you in turn to be kind to others.

Remembering it Could and Will Happen to Me

This is probably the point which has really stayed with me. I quite often find myself thinking, ‘well, it’s ok, it won’t happen to me’, but Seneca writes that, of course, chance and probability suggests that anything could happen to me. The second letter of the book is one which he writes to console Helvia on her grief of losing her son, where he reminds her of the unfavourable circumstances that nature can deal. And in the last letter, a point which I think will stay with me, makes us realise that if we just accept the fact of life, that death will happen to us and that this deal was dealt to us when we entered the world, we will be able to achieve more in life than those who live in 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.”