On the Shortness of Life by Seneca

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On the Shortness of Life by Seneca

The Book in Three Sentences

We all fear death, but life is long if you know how to use it. Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future: live immediately. In any situation in life you will find delights and relaxations and pleasures if you are prepared to make light of your troubles and not let them distress you.

On the Shortness of Life summary

This is my book summary of On the Shortness of Life by Seneca. My notes are informal and often contain quotes from the book as well as my own thoughts. This summary includes key lessons and important passages from the book.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Life is long if you know how to use it.
  • 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.
  • You are living as if destined to live for ever; your own frailty never occurs to you; you don’t notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply – though all the while that very day which you are devoting to somebody or something may be your last.
  • 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, and to devote to wisdom only that time which cannot be spent on any business? How late it is to begin really to live just when life must end! How stupid to forget our mortality, and put off sensible plans to our fiftieth and sixtieth years, aiming to begin life from a point at which few have arrived!
  • No activity can be successfully pursued by an individual who is preoccupied.
  • Living is the least important activity of the preoccupied man; yet there is nothing which is harder to learn.
  • For being an extremely thrifty guardian of his time he never found anything for which it was worth exchanging.
  • Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present. But the man who spends all his time on his own needs, who organizes every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day.
  • You must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long.
  • Each of us could have the tally of his future years set before him, as we can of our past years, how alarmed would be those who saw only a few years ahead, and how carefully would they use them!
  • Life will follow the path it began to take, and will neither reverse nor check its course. It will cause no commotion to remind you of its swiftness, but glide on quietly. It will not lengthen itself for a king’s command or a people’s favour. As it started out on its first day, so it will run on, nowhere pausing or turning aside. What will be the outcome? You have been preoccupied while life hastens on. Meanwhile death will arrive, and you have no choice in making yourself available for that.
  • But putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future.
  • The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.
  • Life is divided into three periods, past, present and future. Of these, the present is short, the future is doubtful, the past is certain.
  • Some men are preoccupied even in their leisure: in their country house, on their couch, in the midst of solitude, even when quite alone, they are their own worst company. You could not call theirs a life of leisure, but an idle preoccupation.
  • Again, do you call those men leisured who spend many hours at the barber’s simply to cut whatever grew overnight, to have a serious debate about every separate hair, to tidy up disarranged locks or to train thinning ones from the sides to lie over the forehead.
    Notes: 1) Ha. How interesting that they tried to hide baldness back then too.
  • On the value of reading and writing philosophy: This is the only way to prolong mortality – even to convert it to immortality. Honours, monuments, whatever the ambitious have ordered by decrees or raised in public buildings are soon destroyed: there is nothing that the passage of time does not demolish and remove. But it cannot damage the works which philosophy has consecrated: no age will wipe them out, no age diminish them. The next and every following age will only increase the veneration for them, since envy operates on what is at hand, but we can more openly admire things from a distance. So the life of the philosopher extends widely: he is not confined by the same boundary as are others.
  • Life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future.
  • It is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil.
  • There will always be causes for anxiety, whether due to prosperity or to wretchedness.
  • In this kind of life you will find much that is worth your study: the love and practice of the virtues, forgetfulness of the passions, the knowledge of how to live and die, and a life of deep tranquillity.
  • Everlasting misfortune does have one blessing, that it ends up by toughening those whom it constantly afflicts.
  • I’m afraid that habit, which induces firmness in things, may drive this fault more deeply into me: long association brings love of evil as well as good.
  • Let no one rob me of a single day who is not going to make me an adequate return for such a loss.
  • Bias always affects our judgment.
  • I imagine many people could have achieved wisdom if they had not imagined they had already achieved it, if they had not dissembled about some of their own characteristics and turned a blind eye to others.
  • There are those too who suffer not from moral steadfastness but from inertia, and so lack the fickleness to live as they wish, and just live as they have begun.
  • We must realize that our difficulty is not the fault of the places but of ourselves. We are weak in enduring anything, and cannot put up with toil or pleasure or ourselves or anything for long.
  • Often a very old man has no other proof of his long life than his age.
  • I would not deny that one has to yield sometimes – but by a gradual retreat, and holding on to our standards and our soldier’s honour.
  • Truly, I believe, Curius Dentatus used to say that he preferred real death to living death; for the ultimate horror is to leave the number of the living before you die.
  • You must consider whether your nature is more suited to practical activity or to quiet study and reflection, and incline in the direction your natural faculty and disposition take you.
  • 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!
  • You must especially avoid those who are gloomy and always lamenting, and who grasp at every pretext for complaint. Though a man’s loyalty and kindness may not be in doubt, a companion who is agitated and groaning about everything is an enemy to peace of mind.
  • It is easier to bear and simpler not to acquire than to lose, so you will notice that those people are more cheerful whom Fortune has never favoured than those whom she has deserted.
  • Yet when Diogenes was told that his only slave had run away, he did not think it worth the trouble to get him back. ‘It would be degrading,’ he said, ‘if Manes can live without Diogenes and not Diogenes without Manes.’
  • How much happier is the man who owes nothing to anybody except the one he can most easily refuse, himself!
  • What is the point of having countless books and libraries whose titles the owner could scarcely read through in his whole lifetime? The mass of books burdens the student without instructing him, and it is far better to devote yourself to a few authors than to get lost among many.
  • In any situation in life you will find delights and relaxations and pleasures if you are prepared to make light of your troubles and not let them distress you.
  • So you have to get used to your circumstances, complain about them as little as possible, and grasp whatever advantage they have to offer: no condition is so bitter that a stable mind cannot find some consolation in it.
  • Think your way through difficulties: harsh conditions can be softened, restricted ones can be widened, and heavy ones can weigh less on those who know how to bear them.
  • Should Nature demand back what she previously entrusted to us we shall say to her too: ‘Take back my spirit in better shape than when you gave it. I do not quibble or hang back: I am willing for you to have straightway what you gave me before I was conscious – take it.’ What is the harm in returning to the point whence you came? He will live badly who does not know how to die well. So we must first strip off the value we set on this thing and reckon the breath of life as something cheap. To quote Cicero, we hate gladiators if they are keen to save their life by any means; we favour them if they openly show contempt for it. You must realize that the same thing applies to us: for often the cause of dying is the 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. For by foreseeing anything that can happen as though it will happen he will soften the onslaught of all his troubles, which present no surprises to those who are ready and waiting for them, but fall heavily on those who are careless in the expectation that all will be well.
  • ‘What can happen to one can happen to all.'
  • ‘What can happen to one can happen to all.’ If you let this idea sink into your vitals, and regard all the ills of other people (of which every day shows an enormous supply) as having a clear path to you too, you will be armed long before you are attacked.
  • Know, then, that every condition can change, and whatever happens to anyone can happen to you too.
  • The next thing to ensure is that we do not waste our energies pointlessly or in pointless activities: that is, not to long either for what we cannot achieve, or for what, once gained, only makes us realize too late and after much exertion the futility of our desires.
  • We should also make ourselves flexible, so that we do not pin our hopes too much on our set plans, and can move over to those things to which chance has brought us, without dreading a change in either our purpose or our condition,
  • We should also make ourselves flexible, so that we do not pin our hopes too much on our set plans, and can move over to those things to which chance has brought us, without dreading a change in either our purpose or our condition, provided that fickleness, that fault most inimical to tranquillity, does not get hold of us.
  • So we should make light of all things and endure them with tolerance: it is more civilized to make fun of life than to bewail it.
  • The mind should not be kept continuously at the same pitch of concentration, but given amusing diversions.
  • We must indulge the mind and from time to time allow it the leisure which is its food and strength. We must go for walks out of doors, so that the mind can be strengthened and invigorated by a clear sky and plenty of fresh air. At times it will acquire fresh energy from a journey by carriage and a change of scene, or from socializing and drinking freely. Occasionally we should even come to the point of intoxication, sinking into drink but not being totally flooded by it; for it does wash away cares, and stirs the mind to its depths, and heals sorrow just as it heals certain diseases.

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