De Brevitate Vitae: Highlights and thoughts | Day 59 of 100

6min read

As a precursor, I am only referring in this post to the essay 'De Brevitate Vitae' (On the shortness of life) by Seneca and not the entirety of the book/translation (here). Which also includes some letters on the topic from the writer to his mother, and another essay 'On Tranquility of Mind'. This post will serve as a synopsis for key quotes that resonated with me.

For those unfamiliar with Seneca and his writings, he was a Roman philosopher around between 4BC and 65AD. He focused on the Stoic school of philosophy and wrote a number of essays and letters on his thinking.

I feel the essence of the essay is well portrayed in one of the early passages. So to reuse the quote I have used before, and to help you get the gist of the topic and Seneca's view, see below.

Even if all the bright intellects who ever lived were to agree to ponder this one theme, they would never sufficiently express their surprise at this fog in the human mind. Men do not let anyone seize their estates, and if there is the slightest dispute about their boundaries they rush to stones and arms; but they allow others to encroach on their lives – why, they themselves even invite in those who will take over their lives. You will find no one willing to share out his money; but to how many does each of us divide up his life! 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.

Seneca compares the frugality of money against the frugality of time. The contrast being that one is more tangible than the other. Though they both embody each other. Time being required to create money, and money being acquired to spend on a not-so-gauranteed future. So even if we held the value of money above all else (which is not what is being suggested here), it is perplexing as to why we would not also hold our time in the same, if not higher, regard. The observation being that we are happy to spend our time in ways we may not find fulfilling or in our best interests, even calling out the people 'encroaching' on our lives. I often find myself giving my time to others for little if any return (thinking about it, it must have some sort of return). Which sounds selfish, but are we doing ourselves and others an injustice by letting ourselves be ineffective by consuming our collective time without an outcome in mind?

Similarly using the term 'wasteful' with respect to our time illustrates the finitism of this resource. A resource which we often forecast probabilistically or view near infinitely. For example, Seneca uses the below to explain.

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...

Going on to say:

How late it is to begin to really live just when life must end!

Now I do not think this is a free pass to live as you wish. The stoics had/have four core virtues of to live by; Wisdom, Courage, Temperance and Justice. They believed that by upholding these values the outcomes would naturally lead to happiness, success, honour, love etc. All the positive outcomes we can appreciate. By having this code or compass to follow, the living becomes easy. Here Seneca tries to show us as readers how foolish we would be to plan our time this way, focusing and deferring to a fickle future state.

They lose the day in waiting for the night, and the night in fearing the dawn.

Even belittling the 'many people' who do not wish to live their lives now, by mocking the uncertainty that they even think they would even get a chance to live a longer life. Again encouraging living presently which is another staple of stoicism, only being concerned with that which you can control. In the case of time, we can control what we are doing right now and by living in a virtuous way we can ensure that we are proud of what we did. Should we have the opportunity to look back at it.

The man who must fear his own memory is the one who has been ambitious in his greed, arrogant in his contempt, uncontrolled in his victories, treacherous in his deceptions, rapacious in his plundering, and wasteful in his squandering.

So by all means 'live presently' but do so in tandem with a set of considered values and morals. Understanding that the brevity of our life is not unending nor pre-defined, so spend it wisely or even frugally. Memento Mori.

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