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Seneca on Busyness, Obtaining Wisdom From the Past, and The Shortness Of Life

How do we learn to live well? Who can we turn to for that kind of wisdom—knowledge that matters, that is governed by a moral compass, and considers the human condition?

The Roman statesman and philosopher Seneca wrote a timeless letter to his friend, Paulinas, on the shortness of life. Within this letter, he admonishes to look at the past for wisdom; our access to a multitude of thinkers allows us to cross-pollinate ideas and worldviews to develop our own understanding. This strategy of looking into the past was relevant 2,000 years ago as it is today:

“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. We are excluded from no age, but we have access to them all; and if we are prepared in loftiness of mind to pass beyond the narrow confines of human weakness, there is a long period of time through which we can roam. We can argue with Socrates, express doubt with Carneades, cultivate retirement with Epicurus, overcome human nature with the Stoics, and exceed its limits with the Cynics. 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?”

“A partnership with every age” is a beautiful sentiment, one truer than ever before because of the internet. But as we get more and more access, it is easy to think less and less about what we’re consuming. As Maria Popova said in her fantastic meditation on knowledge versus wisdom:

“We live in a world awash with information, but we seem to face a growing scarcity of wisdom. And what’s worse, we confuse the two. We believe that having access to more information produces more knowledge, which results in more wisdom. But, if anything, the opposite is true — more and more information without the proper context and interpretation only muddles our understanding of the world rather than enriching it.

This barrage of readily available information has also created an environment where one of the worst social sins is to appear uninformed. Ours is a culture where it’s enormously embarrassing not to have an opinion on something, and in order to seem informed, we form our so-called opinions hastily, based on fragmentary bits of information and superficial impressions rather than true understanding.”

Alongside a culture that is fearful of appearing uninformed is another issue rooted in our fetish for productivity and all its hacks: busyness and the belief that life is too short.

Seneca counters this beautifully in the inception of his letter to Paulinas:

“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 of 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.”

Nowadays, the student boasting about studying for 8 hours straight is a sign of a dedicated, hardworking mind. The employee flashing around their badge that showcases a lack of sleep and the amount of coffee consumed is somehow an aspiration to follow? Let’s not sugar coat it: busyness is a farce and a profound lack of respect for how our bodies function day to day. It’s like believing that drinking a gallon of milk a day will somehow turn your bones into adamantium.

Seneca admonished to Paulinas to see things as they are and not as they appear to be:

“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. 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.”

The reason why life seems short, according to Seneca, is that we’re consumed in our vices, passions, and delusional busyness. What’s worse, we’re unaware of it [emphasis mine]:

“Why do we complain about nature? She has acted kindly: life is long if you know how to use it. But one man is gripped by insatiable greed, another by a laborious dedication to useless tasks. One man is soaked in wine, another sluggish with idleness. One man is worn out by political ambition, which is always at the mercy of the judgement of others. Another through hope of profit is driven headlong over all lands and seas by the greed of trading. Some are tormented by a passion for army life, always intent on inflicting dangers on others or anxious about danger to themselves. Some are worn out by the self-imposed servitude of thankless attendance on the great. Many are occupied by either pursuing their other people’s money or complaining about their own. Many pursue no fixed goal, but are tossed about in ever-changing designs by a fickleness which is shifting, inconstant and never satisfied with itself. Some have no aims at all for their life’s course, but death takes them unawares as they yawn languidly—so much so that I cannot doubt the truth of that oracular remark of the greatest poets: ‘It is a small part of life we really live.’ Indeed, all the rest of life is not life but merely time. Vices surround and assail men from every side, and do not allow them to rise again and lit their eyes to discern truth, but keep them overwhelmed and rooted in their desires. Never can they recover from their true selves.”

Later in his treatise, he uses Stoic principles to focus on nature and death and uses that to put life into perspective:

“That is the feeling of many people: their desire for their work outlasts their ability to do it. They fight against their own bodily weakness, and they regard old age as a hardship on no other grounds than that it puts them on the shelf. The law does not make a man a soldier after fifty or a senator after sixty: men find it more difficult to gain leisure from themselves than from the law. Meanwhile, as they rob and are robbed, as they disturb each other’s peace, as they make each other miserable, their lives pass without satisfaction, without pleasure, without mental improvement. No one keeps death in view, no one refrains from hopes that look far ahead; indeed, some people even arrange things that are beyond life—massive tombs, dedications of public buildings, shows for their funerals, and ostentatious burials. But in truth, such people’s funerals should be conducted with torches and wax tapers, as though they had lived the shortest of lives.”

To celebrate his work with a standing ovation, Seneca beautifully captures the one element that dyes our perception, for good or ill:

“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.”

Seneca’s On The Shortness of Life is 100 pages, a short and beautiful read on topics that should be more readily ruminated—on our attention, our bravado for boasting about busyness, and everything in between such as friendship, philosophy, death, overcoming grief, and more. These philosophical ideas have influenced thinkers from many generations, reverberating throughout time and revealing its practical application in modern times. Perhaps learning how to live requires us to deeply think about what we give our attention to, how we spend our time and for whom, and how much of that is used mindfully or wastefully.