On the Shortness of Life – Part I – Finiteness

by Jessica Dang rss | t f | g+

On the Shortness of Life is a moral essay written by Seneca the Younger, a Roman philosopher who lived between 4BC – 65AD. In his letter to his friend Paulinus, he lays out Stoic principles that have lasted centuries in teaching us about the value of life itself.

1. life is long if you know how to use it


Inspired by this essay, I have written a series of posts on my interpretations on the different themes that occur in his writing (Parts II-V to be published). Even if you haven’t heard of the Stoics before, in just a few short pages, a lifetime of lessons can be learned.

life is long if you know how to use it

“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.”

Seneca introduces the contradictory life lead by most men, in that it is a common belief that the human lifespan isn’t long enough to achieve everything we want to do. Yet, we squander so much of it on things that don’t matter, or don’t contribute to the things that we want to achieve in the first place.

If only we could learn how to use time more appropriately, perhaps then we wouldn’t feel that it is too short, but instead it is a brilliant miracle that we have even the few years that we are given.

“Just as there is no use pouring any amount of liquid into a container without a bottom to catch and hold it, so it does not matter how much time we are given if there is nowhere for it to settle.”

There will never be enough time. We will always find ways to fill up whatever we were given. Even on a daily basis, whether we have an hour to do something, or 30 minutes, we are very capable of using up whatever time we’re given to achieve the same thing.

From my own experience, I can easily find ways to put something off for entire weeks or months, and yet when it comes to the deadline, I manage to do finish it all in one day. Why did I not just take a single day to do it?

Because, despite knowing that my time is finite, for some reason I choose to live as if it’ll last forever. Much of my time is spent at my desk job not being present in the moment, or spent being idle, and ultimately not contributing to my one amazing thing.

Like most people, I have a bucket list, which I’m working on, but I still see myself putting things off way into the future, even though I don’t even know if I’ll be alive five or ten years from now.

I’m not the only one. Life can be a difficult thing to figure out. Seneca thought so too.

“Living is the least important activity of the preoccupied man, yet there is nothing which is harder to learn.”

When we’re asked the question, “What do you do for a living?” we tend to answer with our job titles. Hundreds of years of social conditioning has taught us to. But our one chance to walk this earth isn’t for working.

Distracted by the mundane interruptions of daily life, we forget our main purpose. It’s simply to live.

We don’t have to do something huge and exciting every day to ‘live’. We all have commitments and we’re constrained to an extent by society and the reality of having to earn a living, or take care of those who rely on us. But the very least one could do is to enjoy each and every day that we are still breathing, each day that we have above ground, where we can smell the delicious scent of coffee and feel the sunlight on our cheeks.

The biggest regret I could have is to reach the end of my life, whenever that may be, and felt that I had not lived it fully.

Even if it takes a lifetime to learn how to live, the best (and only) thing you could do is to spend it trying.

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  • Hi Jessica,
    Thanks for taking the time to write this series on the writings of Seneca.
    I call myself a Syncretic Philosopher, in that I am not a strict adherent to any one thought or practice, but draw on what I learn from many different philosophies and belief systems.
    That said, I have to agree that the Stoics had a lot to offer, along with the Buddhist philosophers.
    I touch on these concept in my blog as well, and expect I can take inspiration from your writings and interpretations.
    Thanks and look forward. I will be sure to tweet, repost and link to this series!

    • Hi Archie,

      Thank you so much for your lovely comment. I hope you’ve enjoyed some of my other Seneca posts as well. I checked out your blog and I think it’s wonderful! Please let me know if there is a particular post you would like me to share on my Twitter with other readers 🙂