Below are some of my favorite passages from Seneca’s letter On the Shortness of Life. These passages sung to me and I encourage anyone and everyone to read the letter in its entirety. Here they are.
“It’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it’s been given to us in generous measure for accomplishing the greatest things, if the whole of it is well invested. But when life is squandered through soft and careless living, and when it’s spent on no worthwhile pursuit, death finally presses and we realize that the life which we didn’t notice passing has passed away.”
”So it is: the life we are given isn’t short but we make it so; we’re not ill provided but we are wasteful of life. Just as impressive and princely wealth is squandered in an instant when it passes into the hands of a poor manager, but wealth however modest grows through careful deployment if it is entrusted to a responsible guardian, just so our lifetime offers ample scope to the person who maps it out well.”
“Many who have no consistent goal in life are thrown from one new design to another by a fickleness that is shifting, never settled and ever dissatisfied with itself Some have no goal at all toward which to steer their course, but death takes them by surprise as they gape and yawn.”
“No one lets anyone seize his estates, and if a trivial dispute arises about boundary lines, there’s a rush to stones and arms; but people let others trespass on their existence-or rather, they go so far as to invite in those who’ll take possession of their lives. You’ll find no one willing to distribute his money; but to how many people each of us shares out his life! Men are thrifty in guarding their private property, but as soon as it comes to wasting time, they are most extravagant with the one commodity for which it’s respectable to be greedy.”
“Your sort live as if you’re going to live forever, your own human frailty never enters your head, you don’t keep an eye on how much time has passed already. You waste time as if it comes from a source full to overflowing, when all the while that very day which is given over to someone or something may be your last. You’re like ordinary mortals in fearing everything, you’re like immortals in coveting everything. You’ll hear many say: “After my fiftieth year I’ll retire to a life of leisure; my sixtieth year will bring release from all my duties.” And what guarantee, may I ask, do you have that your life will last longer?”
“Believe me, it’s the mark of a great man, and one rising above human weakness, to allow no part of his time to be skimmed off. Accordingly, such a person’s life is extremely long because he’s kept available for himself the whole of whatever amount of time he had. None of it lay fallow and uncultivated, and none of it was under another’s control; for being a most careful guardian of his time, he found nothing worth exchanging for it.”
“Everyone sends his life racing headlong and suffers from a longing for the future, a loathing -of the present. But the person who devotes every second of his time to his own needs and who organizes each day as if it were a complete life neither longs for nor is afraid of the next day.”
“So there’s no reason to believe that someone has lived long because he has gray hair and wrinkles: he’s not lived long but long existed. For suppose you thought that a person had sailed far who’d been caught in a savage storm as soon as he left harbor, and after being carried in this direction and that, was driven in circles over the same course by alternations of the winds raging from different quarters: he didn’t have a long voyage, but he was long tossed about.”
“I am always astonished when I see people requesting the time of others and receiving a most accommodating response from those they approach. Both sides focus on the object of the request, and neither side on time itself; it is requested as if it were nothing, granted as if it were nothing. People trifle with the most precious commodity of all; and it escapes their notice because it’s an immaterial thing that doesn’t appear to the eyes, and for that reason it’s valued very cheaply-or rather, it has practically no value at all.”
“No one will bring back the years, no one will restore you to your former self. Life will follow the path on which it began, and it will neither reverse nor halt its course. It will cause no commotion at all, it will call no attention to its own swiftness. It will glide on in silence. It will prolong itself at neither a king’s command nor his people’s clamor; it will run on just as it started out on the first day, with no diversions and no delays. And the outcome? You’ve been preoccupied while life hurries on; death looms all the while, and like it or not, you have to accommodate it.”
“Yet the greatest waste of life lies in postponement: it robs us of each day in turn, and snatches away the present by promising the future. The greatest impediment to living is expectancy, which relies on tomorrow and wastes today. You map out what is in fortune’s hand but let slip what’s in your own hand. What are you aiming at? What’s your goal? All that’s to come lies in uncertainty: live right now.”
“Why are you holding back?” he says. “Why are you slow to action? If you don’t seize the day, it slips away.” Even when you’ve seized it, it will still slip away; and so you must compete with time’s quickness in the speed with which you use it, and you must drink swiftly as if from a fast-moving torrent that will not always flow.”
“Life is divided into three parts: past, present, and future. Of these, the present is brief, the future doubtful, the past certain. For this last is the category over which fortune no longer has control, and which cannot be brought back under anyone’s power. Preoccupied people lose this part; for they have no leisure to look back at the past, and even if they had it, there’s no pleasure in recalling something regrettable. And so they’re unwilling to turn their minds back to times badly spent, and they dare not revisit the past because their vices become obvious in retrospect-even those that insinuated themselves by the allurement of momentary pleasure. No one gladly casts his thoughts back to the past except for the person whose every action has been subjected to his own self-assessment, which is infallible”
“Days are present only one at a time, and these only minute by minute; but all the days of time past will attend you at your bidding, and they will allow you to examine them and hold on to them at your will-something which preoccupied people have no time to do”
“It takes a tranquil and untroubled mind to roam freely over all the parts of life; but preoccupied minds, as if under the yoke, cannot turn around and look backward. Their life therefore disappears into an abyss”
“So the preoccupied are concerned with the present alone, and it is so fleeting that it can’t be grasped, and even that little amount is stolen away from them because they’re pulled in many different directions.”
“But why should life not be ample for people who spend it far removed from all business? None of it is made over to another, none scattered in this direction or that; none of it is entrusted to fortune, none wasted through neglect; none is lost through being given away freely, none is superfluous; the whole oflife yields a return, so to speak. And so, however short, it is amply sufficient; and for that reason, whenever his last day comes, the sage will not hesitate to go to his death with a sure step.”
“The very pleasures of such people are anxious and disturbed by various kinds of alarm, and at the very moment when they are rejoicing the agitated thought steals in on them: “How long will this last?” It is this feeling that has caused kings to weep over. their own power; the extent of their prosperity gave them no pleasure, but the prospect of its eventual end terrified them.”
“Everything that comes our way by chance is unsteady, and the hi’gher our fortunes rise, the more susceptible they are to falling. But what must inevitably collapse gives no one pleasure; and so the life of those who acquire through hard work what they must work harder to possess is necessarily very wretched, and not just very brief.”
“The plight of all preoccupied people is wretched, but most wretched is the plight of those who labor under preoccupations that are not even their own, whose sleep schedule is regulated by somebody else’s, who walk at somebody else’s pace, and who are under instructions in that freest of all activities-loving and hating. If these people want to know how short their life is, let them reflect on how small a part of it is their very own.”
Your time on this earth is so short yet the great majority of people do not treat their time as preciously as they should. The above passages are an excellent reminder that one should not postpone “living” for retirement or some future date. Live now.
The present moment is all we have. The future is uncertain and the past is set and stone. To look back is to let regret rob your present. To be worried about tomorrow is to let the future steal your present. Cherish the present because it is all you truly have.
Do not assume that you will reach a certain age. There is always the possibility of an early exit. Do not forget it. Do not wait for retirement to pursue your dreams.
Urgency is the essence of Seneca’s letter. Live your life with urgency! Your time is more valuable than gold! Cherish your seconds more than your dollars.
Procrastinate no more. Action is the nature of living. To postpone is to deny living. For what joy would success bring if not for the contrasting taste of failure.
Remember what Confucius said.
“We have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we only have one.”
Seneca’s letter “On the Shortness of Life” is the perfect reminder that we all possess the chance at a second life…and that chance is now.
I encourage you to reread this letter once a month. The importance of its message cannot be underestimated. It has restored my urgency to seize the day…I hope it does the same for you.
Link to full letter: here