On The Shortness of Life: An Introduction to Seneca

Samurai and Seneca agreed: comfort with death brings better living. (Photo: Kalandrakas)

“We don’t beat the Reaper by living longer. We beat the Reaper by living well.”

— Randy Pausch (1960-2008), The Last Lecture at Carnegie Mellon

This week, one of my friends died after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was in his early 30’s.

Several hours after I learned of his passing, I received an e-mail from my parents: the 10-year old daughter of a dear high school coach had been diagnosed with liver cancer. The Reaper does not discriminate. Too often, we spend time focusing on the trivial with people who contribute nothing but their own self-interest.

How do we balance protecting time with protecting relationships? How do we conquer guilt and do what is truly most important?

I often read “On The Shortness of Life,” one of Lucius Seneca‘s most famous letters, whenever I succumb to social pressure to treat time as less valuable than income, or whenever I find myself agreeing to help those who make unreasonable requests and get upset otherwise.

Seneca’s masterful diatribe hit me like a much-needed sledgehammer, and I’ve included it below. He soon became my favorite Stoic philosopher—to the point that I created The Tao of Seneca—and this will help you understand why…

For a quick 4-minute overview, read the bolded passages, which I highlighted when I read it the first time. That said, I implore you to print out the entire 12-page piece and read it over the weekend or one slow evening. I’ve found that each person identifies with different passages. Take the time — it is something you could well refer to for the rest of your life.

This version was translated by John W. Basore (London: William Heinemann, 1932) and is in the public domain. I’ve shortened and edited some passages to reflect more idiomatic modern English, but it is otherwise unchanged. My favorite translation, though it omits some outstanding anecdotes I’ve included here, is by C.D.N. Costa and featured in “Seneca: Dialogues and Letters.”

Time is non-renewable, and “On The Shortness of Life” helps put this in practical context with real situational examples, all as relevant now as during the reign of Nero.

I hope you find this as helpful as I have.

Total read time (bolded highlights): 4 minutes

Total read time (comprehensive): 25-30 minutes

On The Shortness of Life – Lucius Seneca

The majority of mortals, Paulinus, complain bitterly of the spitefulness of Nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, because even this space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live.

Nor is it merely the common herd and the unthinking crowd that bemoan what is, as men deem it, an universal ill; the same feeling has called forth complaint also from men who were famous…

It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested. But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing. So it is—the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it. Just as great and princely wealth is scattered in a moment when it comes into the hands of a bad owner, while wealth however limited, if it is entrusted to a good guardian, increases by use, so our life is amply long for him who orders it properly.

Why do we complain of Nature? She has shown herself kindly; life, if you know how to use it, is long. But one man is possessed by greed that is insatiable, another by a toilsome devotion to tasks that are useless; one man is besotted with wine, another is paralyzed by sloth; one man is exhausted by an ambition that always hangs upon the decision of others, another, driven on by the greed of the trader, is led over all lands and all seas by the hope of gain; some are tormented by a passion for war and are always either bent upon inflicting danger upon others or concerned about their own; some there are who are worn out by voluntary servitude in a thankless attendance upon the great; many are kept busy either in the pursuit of other men’s fortune or in complaining of their own; many, following no fixed aim, shifting and inconstant and dissatisfied, are plunged by their fickleness into plans that are ever new; some have no fixed principle by which to direct their course, but Fate takes them unawares while they loll and yawn—so surely does it happen that I cannot doubt the truth of that utterance which the greatest of poets delivered with all the seeming of an oracle: “The part of life we really live is small.” For all the rest of existence is not life, but merely time.

Vices beset us and surround us on every side, and they do not permit us to rise anew and lift up our eyes for the discernment of truth, but they keep us down when once they have overwhelmed us and we are chained to lust. Their victims are never allowed to return to their true selves; if ever they chance to find some release, like the waters of the deep sea which continue to heave even after the storm is past, they are tossed about, and no rest from their lusts abides. Think you that I am speaking of the wretches whose evils are admitted? Look at those whose prosperity men flock to behold; they are smothered by their blessings. To how many are riches a burden! From how many do eloquence and the daily straining to display their powers draw forth blood! How many are pale from constant pleasures! To how many does the throng of clients that crowd about them leave no freedom! In short, run through the list of all these men from the lowest to the highest—this man desires an advocate, this one answers the call, that one is on trial, that one defends him, that one gives sentence; no one asserts his claim to himself, everyone is wasted for the sake of another. Ask about the men whose names are known by heart, and you will see that these are the marks that distinguish them: A cultivates B and B cultivates C; no one is his own master. And then certain men show the most senseless indignation—they complain of the insolence of their superiors, because they were too busy to see them when they wished an audience! But can anyone have the hardihood to complain of the pride of another when he himself has no time to attend to himself? After all, no matter who you are, the great man does sometimes look toward you even if his face is insolent, he does sometimes condescend to listen to your words, he permits you to appear at his side; but you never deign to look upon yourself, to give ear to yourself. There is no reason, therefore, to count anyone in debt for such services, seeing that, when you performed them, you had no wish for another’s company, but could not endure your own.

Though all the brilliant intellects of the ages were to concentrate upon this one theme, never could they adequately express their wonder at this dense darkness of the human mind. Men do not suffer anyone to seize their estates, and they rush to stones and arms if there is even the slightest dispute about the limit of their lands, yet they allow others to trespass upon their life—nay, they themselves even lead in those who will eventually possess it. No one is to be found who is willing to distribute his money, yet among how many does each one of us distribute his life! In guarding their fortune men are often closefisted, yet, when it comes to the matter of wasting time, in the case of the one thing in which it is right to be miserly, they show themselves most prodigal. And so I should like to lay hold upon someone from the company of older men and say: “I see that you have reached the farthest limit of human life, you are pressing hard upon your hundredth year, or are even beyond it; come now, recall your life and make a reckoning. Consider how much of your time was taken up with a moneylender, how much with a mistress, how much with a patron, how much with a client, how much in wrangling with your wife, how much in punishing your slaves, how much in rushing about the city on social duties. Add the diseases which we have caused by our own acts, add, too, the time that has lain idle and unused; you will see that you have fewer years to your credit than you count. Look back in memory and consider when you ever had a fixed plan, how few days have passed as you had intended, when you were ever at your own disposal, when your face ever wore its natural expression, when your mind was ever unperturbed, what work you have achieved in so long a life, how many have robbed you of life when you were not aware of what you were losing, how much was taken up in useless sorrow, in foolish joy, in greedy desire, in the allurements of society, how little of yourself was left to you; you will perceive that you are dying before your season!” What, then, is the reason of this? You live as if you were destined to live forever, no thought of your frailty ever enters your head, of how much time has already gone by you take no heed. You squander time as if you drew from a full and abundant supply, though all the while that day which you bestow on some person or thing is perhaps your last. You have all the fears of mortals and all the desires of immortals. You will hear many men saying: “After my fiftieth year I shall retire into leisure, my sixtieth year shall release me from public duties.” And what guarantee, pray, have you that your life will last longer? Who will suffer your course to be just as you plan it? Are you not ashamed to reserve for yourself only the remnant of life, and to set apart for wisdom only that time which cannot be devoted to any business? How late it is to begin to live just when we must cease to live! What foolish forgetfulness of mortality to postpone wholesome plans to the fiftieth and sixtieth year, and to intend to begin life at a point to which few have attained!

You will see that the most powerful and highly placed men let drop remarks in which they long for leisure, acclaim it, and prefer it to all their blessings. They desire at times, if it could be with safety, to descend from their high pinnacle; for, though nothing from without should assail or shatter, Fortune of its very self comes crashing down.

The deified Augustus, to whom the gods vouchsafed more than to any other man, did not cease to pray for rest and to seek release from public affairs; all his conversation ever reverted to this subject—his hope of leisure. This was the sweet, even if vain, consolation with which he would gladden his labours—that he would one day live for himself. In a letter addressed to the senate, in which he had promised that his rest would not be devoid of dignity nor inconsistent with his former glory, I find these words: “But these matters can be shown better by deeds than by promises. Nevertheless, since the joyful reality is still far distant, my desire for that time most earnestly prayed for has led me to forestall some of its delight by the pleasure of words.” So desirable a thing did leisure seem that he anticipated it in thought because he could not attain it in reality. He who saw everything depending upon himself alone, who determined the fortune of individuals and of nations, thought most happily of that future day on which he should lay aside his greatness. He had discovered how much sweat those blessings that shone throughout all lands drew forth, how many secret worries they concealed. Forced to pit arms first against his countrymen, then against his colleagues, and lastly against his relatives, he shed blood on land and sea.

Through Macedonia, Sicily, Egypt, Syria, and Asia, and almost all countries he followed the path of battle, and when his troops were weary of shedding Roman blood, he turned them to foreign wars. While he was pacifying the Alpine regions, and subduing the enemies planted in the midst of a peaceful empire, while he was extending its bounds even beyond the Rhine and the Euphrates and the Danube, in Rome itself the swords of Murena, Caepio, Lepidus, Egnatius, and others were being whetted to slay him. Not yet had he escaped their plots, when his daughter and all the noble youths who were bound to her by adultery as by a sacred oath, oft alarmed his failing years—and there was Paulus, and a second time the need to fear a woman in league with an Antony. When be had cut away these ulcers together with the limbs themselves, others would grow in their place; just as in a body that was overburdened with blood, there was always a rupture somewhere. And so he longed for leisure, in the hope and thought of which he found relief for his labours. This was the prayer of one who was able to answer the prayers of mankind.

Marcus Cicero, long flung among men like Catiline and Clodius and Pompey and Crassus, some open enemies, others doubtful friends, as he is tossed to and fro along with the state and seeks to keep it from destruction, to be at last swept away, unable as he was to be restful in prosperity or patient in adversity—how many times does he curse that very consulship of his, which he had lauded without end, though not without reason! How tearful the words he uses in a letter written to Atticus, when Pompey the elder had been conquered, and the son was still trying to restore his shattered arms in Spain! “Do you ask,” he said, “what I am doing here? I am lingering in my Tusculan villa half a prisoner.” He then proceeds to other statements, in which he bewails his former life and complains of the present and despairs of the future. Cicero said that he was “half a prisoner.” But, in very truth, never will the wise man resort to so lowly a term, never will he be half a prisoner—he who always possesses an undiminished and stable liberty, being free and his own master and towering over all others. For what can possibly be above him who is above Fortune?

When Livius Drusus, a bold and energetic man, had with the support of a huge crowd drawn from all Italy proposed new laws and the evil measures of the Gracchi, seeing no way out for his policy, which he could neither carry through nor abandon when once started on, he is said to have complained bitterly against the life of unrest he had had from the cradle, and to have exclaimed that he was the only person who had never had a holiday even as a boy. For, while he was still a ward and wearing the dress of a boy, he had had the courage to commend to the favour of a jury those who were accused, and to make his influence felt in the law-courts, so powerfully, indeed, that it is very well known that in certain trials he forced a favourable verdict. To what lengths was not such premature ambition destined to go? One might have known that such precocious hardihood would result in great personal and public misfortune. And so it was too late for him to complain that he had never had a holiday when from boyhood he had been a trouble-maker and a nuisance in the forum. It is a question whether he died by his own hand; for he fell from a sudden wound received in his groin, some doubting whether his death was voluntary, no one, whether it was timely.

It would be superfluous to mention more who, though others deemed them the happiest of men, have expressed their loathing for every act of their years, and with their own lips have given true testimony against themselves; but by these complaints they changed neither themselves nor others. For when they have vented their feelings in words, they fall back into their usual round. Heaven knows! such lives as yours, though they should pass the limit of a thousand years, will shrink into the merest span; your vices will swallow up any amount of time. The space you have, which reason can prolong, although it naturally hurries away, of necessity escapes from you quickly; for you do not seize it, you neither hold it back, nor impose delay upon the swiftest thing in the world, but you allow it to slip away as if it were something superfluous and that could be replaced.

But among the worst I count also those who have time for nothing but wine and lust; for none have more shameful engrossments. The others, even if they are possessed by the empty dream of glory, nevertheless go astray in a seemly manner; though you should cite to me the men who are avaricious, the men who are wrathful, whether busied with unjust hatreds or with unjust wars, these all sin in more manly fashion. But those who are plunged into the pleasures of the belly and into lust bear a stain that is dishonourable. Search into the hours of all these people, see how much time they give to accounts, how much to laying snares, how much to fearing them, how much to paying court, how much to being courted, how much is taken up in giving or receiving bail, how much by banquets—for even these have now become a matter of business—, and you will see how their interests, whether you call them evil or good, do not allow them time to breathe.

Finally, everybody agrees that no one pursuit can be successfully followed by a man who is preoccupied with many things—eloquence cannot, nor the liberal studies—since the mind, when distracted, takes in nothing very deeply, but rejects everything that is, as it were, crammed into it. There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living: there is nothing that is harder to learn. Of the other arts there are many teachers everywhere; some of them we have seen that mere boys have mastered so thoroughly that they could even play the master. It takes the whole of life to learn how to live, and—what will perhaps make you wonder more—it takes the whole of life to learn how to die. Many very great men, having laid aside all their encumbrances, having renounced riches, business, and pleasures, have made it their one aim up to the very end of life to know how to live; yet the greater number of them have departed from life confessing that they did not yet know—still less do those others know. Believe me, it takes a great man and one who has risen far above human weaknesses not to allow any of his time to be filched from him, and it follows that the life of such a man is very long because he has devoted wholly to himself whatever time he has had. None of it lay neglected and idle; none of it was under the control of another, for, guarding it most grudgingly, he found nothing that was worthy to be taken in exchange for his time. And so that man had time enough, but those who have been robbed of much of their life by the public, have necessarily had too little of it.

And there is no reason for you to suppose that these people are not sometimes aware of their loss. Indeed, you will hear many of those who are burdened by great prosperity cry out at times in the midst of their throngs of clients, or their pleadings in court, or their other glorious miseries: “I have no chance to live.” Of course you have no chance! All those who summon you to themselves, turn you away from your own self. Of how many days has that defendant robbed you? Of how many that candidate? Of how many that old woman wearied with burying her heirs? Of how many that man who is shamming sickness for the purpose of exciting the greed of the legacy-hunters? Of how many that very powerful friend who has you and your like on the list, not of his friends, but of his retinue? Check off, I say, and review the days of your life; you will see that very few, and those the refuse. have been left for you. That man who had prayed for the fasces, when he attains them, desires to lay them aside and says over and over: “When will this year be over!” That man gives games, and, after setting great value on gaining the chance to give them, now says: “When shall I be rid of them?” That advocate is lionized throughout the whole forum, and fills all the place with a great crowd that stretches farther than he can be heard, yet he says: “When will vacation time come?” Everyone hurries his life on and suffers from a yearning for the future and a weariness of the present. But he who bestows all of his time on his own needs, who plans out every day as if it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the morrow. For what new pleasure is there that any hour can now bring? They are all known, all have been enjoyed to the full. Mistress Fortune may deal out the rest as she likes; his life has already found safety. Something may be added to it, but nothing taken from it, and he will take any addition as the man who is satisfied and filled takes the food which he does not desire and yet can hold. And so there is no reason for you to think that any man has lived long because he has grey hairs or wrinkles; he has not lived long—he has existed long. For what if you should think that that man had had a long voyage who had been caught by a fierce storm as soon as he left harbour, and, swept hither and thither by a succession of winds that raged from different quarters, had been driven in a circle around the same course? Not much voyaging did he have, but much tossing about.

I am often filled with wonder when I see some men demanding the time of others and those from whom they ask it most indulgent. Both of them fix their eyes on the object of the request for time, neither of them on the time itself; just as if what is asked were nothing, what is given, nothing. Men trifle with the most precious thing in the world; but they are blind to it because it is an incorporeal thing, because it does not come beneath the sight of the eyes, and for this reason it is counted a very cheap thing—nay, of almost no value at all. Men set very great store by pensions and doles, and for these they hire out their labour or service or effort. But no one sets a value on time; all use it lavishly as if it cost nothing. But see how these same people clasp the knees of physicians if they fall ill and the danger of death draws nearer, see how ready they are, if threatened with capital punishment, to spend all their possessions in order to live! So great is the inconsistency of their feelings. But if each one could have the number of his future years set before him as is possible in the case of the years that have passed, how alarmed those would be who saw only a few remaining, how sparing of them would they be! And yet it is easy to dispense an amount that is assured, no matter how small it may be; but that must be guarded more carefully which will fail you know not when.

Yet there is no reason for you to suppose that these people do not know how precious a thing time is; for to those whom they love most devotedly they have a habit of saying that they are ready to give them a part of their own years. And they do give it, without realizing it; but the result of their giving is that they themselves suffer loss without adding to the years of their dear ones. But the very thing they do not know is whether they are suffering loss; therefore, the removal of something that is lost without being noticed they find is bearable. Yet no one will bring back the years, no one will bestow you once more on yourself. Life will follow the path it started upon, and will neither reverse nor check its course; it will make no noise, it will not remind you of its swiftness. Silent it will glide on; it will not prolong itself at the command of a king, or at the applause of the populace. Just as it was started on its first day, so it will run; nowhere will it turn aside, nowhere will it delay. And what will be the result? You have been engrossed, life hastens by; meanwhile death will be at hand, for which, willy nilly, you must find leisure.

Can anything be sillier than the point of view of certain people—I mean those who boast of their foresight? They keep themselves very busily engaged in order that they may be able to live better; they spend life in making ready to live! They form their purposes with a view to the distant future; yet postponement is the greatest waste of life; it deprives them of each day as it comes, it snatches from them the present by promising something hereafter. The greatest hindrance to living is expectancy, which depends upon the morrow and wastes to-day. You dispose of that which lies in the hands of Fortune, you let go that which lies in your own. Whither do you look? At what goal do you aim? All things that are still to come lie in uncertainty; live straightway! See how the greatest of bards cries out, and, as if inspired with divine utterance, sings the saving strain:

The fairest day in hapless mortals’ life

Is ever first to flee.

“Why do you delay,” says he, “Why are you idle? Unless you seize the day, it flees.” Even though you seize it, it still will flee; therefore you must vie with time’s swiftness in the speed of using it, and, as from a torrent that rushes by and will not always flow, you must drink quickly. And, too, the utterance of the bard is most admirably worded to cast censure upon infinite delay, in that he says, not “the fairest age,” but “the fairest day.” Why, to whatever length your greed inclines, do you stretch before yourself months and years in long array, unconcerned and slow though time flies so fast? The poet speaks to you about the day, and about this very day that is flying. Is there, then, any doubt that for hapless mortals, that is, for men who are engrossed, the fairest day is ever the first to flee? Old age surprises them while their minds are still childish, and they come to it unprepared and unarmed, for they have made no provision for it; they have stumbled upon it suddenly and unexpectedly, they did not notice that it was drawing nearer day by day. Even as conversation or reading or deep meditation on some subject beguiles the traveller, and he finds that he has reached the end of his journey before he was aware that he was approaching it, just so with this unceasing and most swift journey of life, which we make at the same pace whether waking or sleeping; those who are engrossed become aware of it only at the end.

Should I choose to divide my subject into heads with their separate proofs, many arguments will occur to me by which I could prove that busy men find life very short. But Fabianus, who was none of your lecture-room philosophers of to-day, but one of the genuine and old-fashioned kind, used to say that we must fight against the passions with main force, not with artifice, and that the battle-line must be turned by a bold attack, not by inflicting pinpricks; that sophistry is not serviceable, for the passions must be, not nipped, but crushed. Yet, in order that the victims of them nay be censured, each for his own particular fault, I say that they must be instructed, not merely wept over.

Life is divided into three periods—that which has been, that which is, that which will be. Of these the present time is short, the future is doubtful, the past is certain. For the last is the one over which Fortune has lost control, is the one which cannot be brought back under any man’s power. But men who are engrossed lose this; for they have no time to look back upon the past, and even if they should have, it is not pleasant to recall something they must view with regret. They are, therefore, unwilling to direct their thoughts backward to ill-spent hours, and those whose vices become obvious if they review the past, even the vices which were disguised under some allurement of momentary pleasure, do not have the courage to revert to those hours. No one willingly turns his thought back to the past, unless all his acts have been submitted to the censorship of his conscience, which is never deceived; he who has ambitiously coveted, proudly scorned, recklessly conquered, treacherously betrayed, greedily seized, or lavishly squandered, must needs fear his own memory. And yet this is the part of our time that is sacred and set apart, put beyond the reach of all human mishaps, and removed from the dominion of Fortune, the part which is disquieted by no want, by no fear, by no attacks of disease; this can neither be troubled nor be snatched away—it is an everlasting and unanxious possession. The present offers only one day at a time, and each by minutes; but all the days of past time will appear when you bid them, they will suffer you to behold them and keep them at your will—a thing which those who are engrossed have no time to do. The mind that is untroubled and tranquil has the power to roam into all the parts of its life; but the minds of the engrossed, just as if weighted by a yoke, cannot turn and look behind. And so their life vanishes into an abyss; and as it does no good, no matter how much water you pour into a vessel, if there is no bottom to receive and hold it, so with time—it makes no difference how much is given; if there is nothing for it to settle upon, it passes out through the chinks and holes of the mind. Present time is very brief, so brief, indeed, that to some there seems to be none; for it is always in motion, it ever flows and hurries on; it ceases to be before it has come, and can no more brook delay than the firmament or the stars, whose ever unresting movement never lets them abide in the same track. The engrossed, therefore, are concerned with present time alone, and it is so brief that it cannot be grasped, and even this is filched away from them, distracted as they are among many things.

In a word, do you want to know how they do not “live long”? See how eager they are to live long! Decrepit old men beg in their prayers for the addition of a few more years; they pretend that they are younger than they are; they comfort themselves with a falsehood, and are as pleased to deceive themselves as if they deceived Fate at the same time. But when at last some infirmity has reminded them of their mortality, in what terror do they die, feeling that they are being dragged out of life, and not merely leaving it. They cry out that they have been fools, because they have not really lived, and that they will live henceforth in leisure if only they escape from this illness; then at last they reflect how uselessly they have striven for things which they did not enjoy, and how all their toil has gone for nothing. But for those whose life is passed remote from all business, why should it not be ample? None of it is assigned to another, none of it is scattered in this direction and that, none of it is committed to Fortune, none of it perishes from neglect, none is subtracted by wasteful giving, none of it is unused; the whole of it, so to speak, yields income. And so, however small the amount of it, it is abundantly sufficient, and therefore, whenever his last day shall come, the wise man will not hesitate to go to meet death with steady step.

Perhaps you ask whom I would call “the preoccupied”? There is no reason for you to suppose that I mean only those whom the dogs that have at length been let in drive out from the law-court, those whom you see either gloriously crushed in their own crowd of followers, or scornfully in someone else’s, those whom social duties call forth from their own homes to bump them against someone else’s doors, or whom the praetor’s hammer keeps busy in seeking gain that is disreputable and that will one day fester. Even the leisure of some men is engrossed; in their villa or on their couch, in the midst of solitude, although they have withdrawn from all others, they are themselves the source of their own worry; we should say that these are living, not in leisure, but in idle preoccupation. Would you say that that man is at leisure who arranges with finical care his Corinthian bronzes, that the mania of a few makes costly, and spends the greater part of each day upon rusty bits of copper? Who sits in a public wrestling-place (for, to our shame I we labour with vices that are not even Roman) watching the wrangling of lads? Who sorts out the herds of his pack-mules into pairs of the same age and colour? Who feeds all the newest athletes? Tell me, would you say that those men are at leisure who pass many hours at the barber’s while they are being stripped of whatever grew out the night before? while a solemn debate is held over each separate hair? while either disarranged locks are restored to their place or thinning ones drawn from this side and that toward the forehead? How angry they get if the barber has been a bit too careless, just as if he were shearing a real man! How they flare up if any of their mane is lopped off, if any of it lies out of order, if it does not all fall into its proper ringlets! Who of these would not rather have the state disordered than his hair? Who is not more concerned to have his head trim rather than safe? Who would not rather be well barbered than upright? Would you say that these are at leisure who are occupied with the comb and the mirror? And what of those who are engaged in composing, hearing, and learning songs, while they twist the voice, whose best and simplest movement Nature designed to be straightforward, into the meanderings of some indolent tune, who are always snapping their fingers as they beat time to some song they have in their head, who are overheard humming a tune when they have been summoned to serious, often even melancholy, matters? These have not leisure, but idle occupation. And their banquets, Heaven knows! I cannot reckon among their unoccupied hours, since I see how anxiously they set out their silver plate, how diligently they tie up the tunics of their pretty slave-boys, how breathlessly they watch to see in what style the wild boar issues from the hands of the cook, with what speed at a given signal smooth-faced boys hurry to perform their duties, with what skill the birds are carved into portions all according to rule, how carefully unhappy little lads wipe up the spittle of drunkards. By such means they seek the reputation for elegance and good taste, and to such an extent do their evils follow them into all the privacies of life that they can neither eat nor drink without ostentation.

And I would not count these among the leisured class either—the men who have themselves borne hither and thither in a sedan-chair and a litter, and are punctual at the hours for their rides as if it were unlawful to omit them, who are reminded by someone else when they must bathe, when they must swim, when they must dine; so enfeebled are they by the excessive lassitude of a pampered mind that they cannot find out by themselves whether they are hungry! I hear that one of these pampered people—provided that you can call it pampering to unlearn the habits of human life—when he had been lifted by hands from the bath and placed in his sedan-chair, said questioningly: “Am I now seated?” Do you think that this man, who does not know whether he is sitting, knows whether he is alive, whether he sees, whether he is at leisure? I find it hard to say whether I pity him more if he really did not know, or if he pretended not to know this. They really are subject to forgetfulness of many things, but they also pretend forgetfulness of many. Some vices delight them as being proofs of their prosperity; it seems the part of a man who is very lowly and despicable to know what he is doing. After this imagine that the mimes fabricate many things to make a mock of luxury! In very truth, they pass over more than they invent, and such a multitude of unbelievable vices has come forth in this age, so clever in this one direction, that by now we can charge the mimes with neglect. To think that there is anyone who is so lost in luxury that he takes another’s word as to whether he is sitting down! This man, then, is not at leisure, you must apply to him a different term—he is sick, nay, he is dead; that man is at leisure, who has also a perception of his leisure. But this other who is half alive, who, in order that he may know the postures of his own body, needs someone to tell him—how can he be the master of any of his time?

It would be tedious to mention all the different men who have spent the whole of their life over chess or ball or the practice of baking their bodies in the sun. They are not unoccupied whose pleasures are made a busy occupation. For instance, no one will have any doubt that those are laborious triflers who spend their time on useless literary problems, of whom even among the Romans there is now a great number. It was once a foible confined to the Greeks to inquire into what number of rowers Ulysses had, whether the Iliad or the Odyssey was written first, whether moreover they belong to the same author, and various other matters of this stamp, which, if you keep them to yourself, in no way pleasure your secret soul, and, if you publish them, make you seem more of a bore than a scholar. But now this vain passion for learning useless things has assailed the Romans also. In the last few days I heard someone telling who was the first Roman general to do this or that; Duilius was the first who won a naval battle, Curius Dentatus was the first who had elephants led in his triumph. Still, these matters, even if they add nothing to real glory, are nevertheless concerned with signal services to the state; there will be no profit in such knowledge, nevertheless it wins our attention by reason of the attractiveness of an empty subject. We may excuse also those who inquire into this—who first induced the Romans to go on board ship. It was Claudius, and this was the very reason he was surnamed Caudex, because among the ancients a structure formed by joining together several boards was called a caudex, whence also the Tables of the Law are called codices, and, in the ancient fashion, boats that carry provisions up the Tiber are even to-day called codicariae. Doubtless this too may have some point—the fact that Valerius Corvinus was the first to conquer Messana, and was the first of the family of the Valerii to bear the surname Messana because be had transferred the name of the conquered city to himself, and was later called Messala after the gradual corruption of the name in the popular speech. Perhaps you will permit someone to be interested also in this—the fact that Lucius Sulla was the first to exhibit loosed lions in the Circus, though at other times they were exhibited in chains, and that javelin-throwers were sent by King Bocchus to despatch them? And, doubtless, this too may find some excuse—but does it serve any useful purpose to know that Pompey was the first to exhibit the slaughter of eighteen elephants in the Circus, pitting criminals against them in a mimic battle? He, a leader of the state and one who, according to report, was conspicuous among the leaders of old for the kindness of his heart, thought it a notable kind of spectacle to kill human beings after a new fashion. Do they fight to the death? That is not enough! Are they torn to pieces? That is not enough! Let them be crushed by animals of monstrous bulk! Better would it be that these things pass into oblivion lest hereafter some all-powerful man should learn them and be jealous of an act that was nowise human. O, what blindness does great prosperity cast upon our minds! When he was casting so many troops of wretched human beings to wild beasts born under a different sky, when he was proclaiming war between creatures so ill matched, when he was shedding so much blood before the eyes of the Roman people, who itself was soon to be forced to shed more. he then believed that he was beyond the power of Nature. But later this same man, betrayed by Alexandrine treachery, offered himself to the dagger of the vilest slave, and then at last discovered what an empty boast his surname was.

But to return to the point from which I have digressed, and to show that some people bestow useless pains upon these same matters—the man I mentioned related that Metellus, when he triumphed after his victory over the Carthaginians in Sicily, was the only one of all the Romans who had caused a hundred and twenty captured elephants to be led before his car; that Sulla was the last of the Roman’s who extended the pomerium, which in old times it was customary to extend after the acquisition of Italian but never of provincial, territory. Is it more profitable to know this than that Mount Aventine, according to him, is outside the pomerium for one of two reasons, either because that was the place to which the plebeians had seceded, or because the birds had not been favourable when Remus took his auspices on that spot—and, in turn, countless other reports that are either crammed with falsehood or are of the same sort? For though you grant that they tell these things in good faith, though they pledge themselves for the truth of what they write, still whose mistakes will be made fewer by such stories? Whose passions will they restrain? Whom will they make more brave, whom more just, whom more noble-minded? My friend Fabianus used to say that at times he was doubtful whether it was not better not to apply oneself to any studies than to become entangled in these.

Of all men they alone are at leisure who take time for philosophy, they alone really live; for they are not content to be good guardians of their own lifetime only. They annex ever age to their own; all the years that have gone ore them are an addition to their store. Unless we are most ungrateful, all those men, glorious fashioners of holy thoughts, were born for us; for us they have prepared a way of life. By other men’s labours we are led to the sight of things most beautiful that have been wrested from darkness and brought into light; from no age are we shut out, we have access to all ages, and if it is our wish, by greatness of mind, to pass beyond the narrow limits of human weakness, there is a great stretch of time through which we may roam. We may argue with Socrates, we may doubt with Carneades, find peace with Epicurus, overcome human nature with the Stoics, exceed it with the Cynics. Since Nature allows us to enter into fellowship with every age, why should we not turn from this paltry and fleeting span of time and surrender ourselves with all our soul to the past, which is boundless, which is eternal, which we share with our betters?

Those who rush about in the performance of social duties, who give themselves and others no rest, when they have fully indulged their madness, when they have every day crossed everybody’s threshold, and have left no open door unvisited, when they have carried around their venal greeting to houses that are very far apart—out of a city so huge and torn by such varied desires, how few will they be able to see? How many will there be who either from sleep or self-indulgence or rudeness will keep them out! How many who, when they have tortured them with long waiting, will rush by, pretending to be in a hurry! How many will avoid passing out through a hall that is crowded with clients, and will make their escape through some concealed door as if it were not more discourteous to deceive than to exclude. How many, still half asleep and sluggish from last night’s debauch, scarcely lifting their lips in the midst of a most insolent yawn, manage to bestow on yonder poor wretches, who break their own slumber in order to wait on that of another, the right name only after it has been whispered to them a thousand times!

But we may fairly say that they alone are engaged in the true duties of life who shall wish to have Zeno, Pythagoras, Democritus, and all the other high priests of liberal studies, and Aristotle and Theophrastus, as their most intimate friends every day. No one of these will be “not at home,” no one of these will fail to have his visitor leave more happy and more devoted to himself than when he came, no one of these will allow anyone to leave him with empty hands; all mortals can meet with them by night or by day.

No one of these will force you to die, but all will teach you how to die; no one of these will wear out your years, but each will add his own years to yours; conversations with no one of these will bring you peril, the friendship of none will endanger your life, the courting of none will tax your purse. From them you will take whatever you wish; it will be no fault of theirs if you do not draw the utmost that you can desire. What happiness, what a fair old age awaits him who has offered himself as a client to these! He will have friends from whom he may seek counsel on matters great and small, whom he may consult every day about himself, from whom he may hear truth without insult, praise without flattery, and after whose likeness he may fashion himself.

We are wont to say that it was not in our power to choose the parents who fell to our lot, that they have been given to men by chance; yet we may be the sons of whomsoever we will. Households there are of noblest intellects; choose the one into which you wish to be adopted; you will inherit not merely their name, but even their property, which there will be no need to guard in a mean or niggardly spirit; the more persons you share it with, the greater it will become. These will open to you the path to immortality, and will raise you to a height from which no one is cast down. This is the only way of prolonging mortality—nay, of turning it into immortality. Honours, monuments, all that ambition has commanded by decrees or reared in works of stone, quickly sink to ruin; there is nothing that the lapse of time does not tear down and remove. But the works which philosophy has consecrated cannot be harmed; no age will destroy them, no age reduce them; the following and each succeeding age will but increase the reverence for them, since envy works upon what is close at hand, and things that are far off we are more free to admire. The life of the philosopher, therefore, has wide range, and he is not confined by the same bounds that shut others in. He alone is freed from the limitations of the human race; all ages serve him as if a god. Has some time passed by? This he embraces by recollection. Is time present? This he uses. Is it still to come? This he anticipates. He makes his life long by combining all times into one.

But those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear for the future have a life that is very brief and troubled; when they have reached the end of it, the poor wretches perceive too late that for such a long while they have been busied in doing nothing. Nor because they sometimes invoke death, have you any reason to think it any proof that they find life long. In their folly they are harassed by shifting emotions which rush them into the very things they dread; they often pray for death because they fear it. And, too, you have no reason to think that this is any proof that they are living a long time—the fact that the day often seems to them long, the fact that they complain that the hours pass slowly until the time set for dinner arrives; for, whenever their distractions fail them, they are restless because they are left with nothing to do, and they do not know how to dispose of their leisure or to drag out the time. And so they strive for something else to occupy them, and all the intervening time is irksome; exactly as they do when a gladiatorial exhibition is been announced, or when they are waiting for the appointed time of some other show or amusement, they want to skip over the days that lie between. All postponement of something they hope for seems long to them. Yet the time which they enjoy is short and swift, and it is made much shorter by their own fault; for they flee from one pleasure to another and cannot remain fixed in one desire. Their days are not long to them, but hateful; yet, on the other hand, how scanty seem the nights which they spend in the arms of a harlot or in wine! It is this also that accounts for the madness of poets in fostering human frailties by the tales in which they represent that Jupiter under the enticement of the pleasures of a lover doubled the length of the night. For what is it but to inflame our vices to inscribe the name of the gods as their sponsors, and to present the excused indulgence of divinity as an example to our own weakness? Can the nights which they pay for so dearly fail to seem all too short to these men? They lose the day in expectation of the night, and the night in fear of the dawn.

The very pleasures of such men are uneasy and disquieted by alarms of various sorts, and at the very moment of rejoicing the anxious thought comes over them: “How long will these things last?” This feeling has led kings to weep over the power they possessed, and they have not so much delighted in the greatness of their fortune, as they have viewed with terror the end to which it must some time come. When the King of Persia, in all the insolence of his pride, spread his army over the vast plains and could not grasp its number but simply its measure, he shed copious tears because inside of a hundred years not a man of such a mighty army would be alive. But he who wept was to bring upon them their fate, was to give some to their doom on the sea, some on the land, some in battle, some in flight, and within a short time was to destroy all those for whose hundredth year he had such fear. And why is it that even their joys are uneasy from fear? Because they do not rest on stable causes, but are perturbed as groundlessly as they are born. But of what sort do you think those times are which even by their own confession are wretched, since even the joys by which they are exalted and lifted above mankind are by no means pure? All the greatest blessings are a source of anxiety, and at no time should fortune be less trusted than when it is best; to maintain prosperity there is need of other prosperity, and in behalf of the prayers that have turned out well we must make still other prayers. For everything that comes to us from chance is unstable, and the higher it rises, the more liable it is to fall. Moreover, what is doomed to perish brings pleasure to no one; very wretched, therefore, and not merely short, must the life of those be who work hard to gain what they must work harder to keep. By great toil they attain what they wish, and with anxiety hold what they have attained; meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return. New distractions take the place of the old, hope leads to new hope, ambition to new ambition. They do not seek an end of their wretchedness, but change the cause. Have we been tormented by our own public honours? Those of others take more of our time. Have we ceased to labour as candidates? We begin to canvass for others. Have we got rid of the troubles of a prosecutor? We find those of a judge. Has a man ceased to be a judge? He becomes president of a court. Has he become infirm in managing the property of others at a salary? He is perplexed by caring for his own wealth. Have the barracks set Marius free? The consulship keeps him busy. Does Quintius hasten to get to the end of his dictatorship? He will be called back to it from the plough. Scipio will go against the Carthaginians before he is ripe for so great an undertaking; victorious over Hannibal, victorious over Antiochus, the glory of his own consulship, the surety for his brother’s, did he not stand in his own way, he would be set beside Jove; but the discord of civilians will vex their preserver, and, when as a young man he had scorned honours that rivalled those of the gods, at length, when he is old, his ambition will lake delight in stubborn exile. Reasons for anxiety will never be lacking, whether born of prosperity or of wretchedness; life pushes on in a succession of engrossments. We shall always pray for leisure, but never enjoy it.

And so, my dearest Paulinus, tear yourself away from the crowd, and, too much storm-tossed for the time you have lived, at length withdraw into a peaceful harbour. Think of how many waves you have encountered, how many storms, on the one hand, you have sustained in private life, how many, on the other, you have brought upon yourself in public life; long enough has your virtue been displayed in laborious and unceasing proofs—try how it will behave in leisure. The greater part of your life, certainly the better part of it, has been given to the state; take now some part of your time for yourself as well. And I do not summon you to slothful or idle inaction, or to drown all your native energy in slumbers and the pleasures that are dear to the crowd. That is not to rest; you will find far greater works than all those you have hitherto performed so energetically, to occupy you in the midst of your release and retirement. You, I know, manage the accounts of the whole world as honestly as you would a stranger’s, as carefully as you would your own, as conscientiously as you would the state’s. You win love in an office in which it is difficult to avoid hatred; but nevertheless believe me, it is better to have knowledge of the ledger of one’s own life than of the corn-market. Recall that keen mind of yours, which is most competent to cope with the greatest subjects, from a service that is indeed honourable but hardly adapted to the happy life, and reflect that in all your training in the liberal studies, extending from your earliest years, you were not aiming at this—that it might be safe to entrust many thousand pecks of corn to your charge; you gave hope of something greater and more lofty. There will be no lack of men of tested worth and painstaking industry. But plodding oxen are much more suited to carrying heavy loads than thoroughbred horses, and who ever hampers the fleetness of such high-born creatures with a heavy pack? Reflect, besides, how much worry you have in subjecting yourself to such a great burden; your dealings are with the belly of man. A hungry people neither listens to reason, nor is appeased by justice, nor is bent by any entreaty. Very recently within those few day’s after Gaius Caesar died—still grieving most deeply (if the dead have any feeling) because he knew that the Roman people were alive and had enough food left for at any rate seven or eight days while he was building his bridges of boats and playing with the resources of the empire, we were threatened with the worst evil that can befall men even during a siege—the lack of provisions; his imitation of a mad and foreign and misproud king was very nearly at the cost of the city’s destruction and famine and the general revolution that follows famine. What then must have been the feeling of those who had charge of the corn-market, and had to face stones, the sword, fire—and a Caligula? By the greatest subterfuge they concealed the great evil that lurked in the vitals of the state—with good reason, you may be sure. For certain maladies must be treated while the patient is kept in ignorance; knowledge of their disease has caused the death of many.

Do you retire to these quieter, safer, greater things! Think you that it is just the same whether you are concerned in having corn from oversea poured into the granaries, unhurt either by the dishonesty or the neglect of those who transport it, in seeing that it does not become heated and spoiled by collecting moisture and tallies in weight and measure, or whether you enter upon these sacred and lofty studies with the purpose of discovering what substance, what pleasure, what mode of life, what shape God has; what fate awaits your soul; where Nature lays us to rest When we are freed from the body; what the principle is that upholds all the heaviest matter in the centre of this world, suspends the light on high, carries fire to the topmost part, summons the stars to their proper changes—and ether matters, in turn, full of mighty wonders? You really must leave the ground and turn your mind’s eye upon these things! Now while the blood is hot, we must enter with brisk step upon the better course. In this kind of life there awaits much that is good to know—the love and practice of the virtues, forgetfulness of the passions, knowledge of living and dying, and a life of deep repose.

The condition of all who are preoccupied is wretched, but most wretched is the condition of those who labour at preoccupations that are not even their own, who regulate their sleep by that of another, their walk by the pace of another, who are under orders in case of the freest things in the world—loving and hating. If these wish to know how short their life is, let them reflect how small a part of it is their own.

And so when you see a man often wearing the robe of office, when you see one whose name is famous in the Forum, do not envy him; those things are bought at the price of life. They will waste all their years, in order that they may have one year reckoned by their name. Life has left some in the midst of their first struggles, before they could climb up to the height of their ambition; some, when they have crawled up through a thousand indignities to the crowning dignity, have been possessed by the unhappy thought that they have but toiled for an inscription on a tomb; some who have come to extreme old age, while they adjusted it to new hopes as if it were youth, have had it fail from sheer weakness in the midst of their great and shameless endeavours. Shameful is he whose breath leaves him in the midst of a trial when, advanced in years and still courting the applause of an ignorant circle, he is pleading for some litigant who is the veriest stranger; disgraceful is he who, exhausted more quickly by his mode of living than by his labour, collapses in the very midst of his duties; disgraceful is he who dies in the act of receiving payments on account, and draws a smile from his long delayed heir. I cannot pass over an instance which occurs to me. Sextus Turannius was an old man of long tested diligence, who, after his ninetieth year, having received release from the duties of his office by Gaius Caesar’s own act, ordered himself to be laid out on his bed and to be mourned by the assembled household as if he were dead. The whole house bemoaned the leisure of its old master, and did not end its sorrow until his accustomed work was restored to him. Is it really such pleasure for a man to die in harness? Yet very many have the same feeling; their desire for their labour lasts longer than their ability; they fight against the weakness of the body, they judge old age to be a hardship on no other score than because it puts them aside. The law does not draft a soldier after his fiftieth year, it does not call a senator after his sixtieth; it is more difficult for men to obtain leisure from themselves than from the law. Meantime, while they rob and are being robbed, while they break up each other’s repose, while they make each other wretched, their life is without profit, without pleasure, without any improvement of the mind. No one keeps death in view, no one refrains from far-reaching hopes; some men, indeed, even arrange for things that lie beyond life—huge masses of tombs and dedications of public works and gifts for their funeral-pyres and ostentatious funerals.

But, in very truth, the funerals of such men ought to be conducted by the light of torches and wax tapers, as though they had lived but the tiniest span.

“It’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.”

-Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Related and Suggested Posts and Resources:

The Tao of Seneca: Practical Letters from a Stoic Master

Stoicism 101: A Practical Guide for Entrepreneurs

Seneca on Trial: The Case of the Opulent Stoic The Classic Journal, Vol. 61, No. 6 (1966)

Harnessing Entrepreneurial Manic-Depression: Making the Rollercoaster Work for You

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339 Replies to “On The Shortness of Life: An Introduction to Seneca”

  1. This post inspired me to create an iPhone ebook app for Seneca’s “On the Shortness of Life”

    It’s free so if you want to take this essay with you on your iPhone or iPod Touch just search for “Seneca” on the App Store.

  2. Thank you Tim. This is truly inspiring, I’m really in interested in Seneca after watching your latest “best 5 book list” video with KRose. I saw you speak at BizTechDay last October but strangely enough it took me this long to check out your site. Your posts are varied, entertaining and most of all useful, keep up the brilliant work brother. Look forward to your next post.

  3. Tim,

    I’m so sorry for the loss of your friend and to hear about your coach’s daughter. Death is something we all have in common but that doesn’t make grief easier.

    My husband and I have been talking a lot lately about the shortness of life. He’s reflecting on how sad it is that our time is finite, while I’m coming to feel that the deadline we all have together is part of what should motivate us not to waste the gift of our time on earth.

    I’ve blogged about this topic a few times, including sharing Randy Pausch’s last lecture, but I’d never read On the Shortness of Life. Thank you for sharing it.

    And thank you for your talk at MediaBistro Circus this week, too. It was a great way to open the conference.

  4. Tim,

    My condolences on the loss of your friend and the bad news about the coaches duaghter.

    I’m so glad you’re profiling the Stoics…I have been a student of the Stoics for about 10 years now, and their philosophy has helped me tremendously. Epictetus is my favorite. I’m also fascinated by the Cynic Philosophers such as Diogenes of Sinope, and would be interested in what you think about the Cynics. Through history Cynacism has gotten a bad rap and developed a negative connotation, but it was, and is a serious, credible, and legitimate philosophy, with much to be learned and gained form it’s study.


  5. like everyone else thanks, Tim.

    i’ve been inspired as well as modivated by your book and this blog. Like buddha and the samurai way of life it is pretty much the same i guess. live life breath by breath, be aware of your whole being and so on and so on.. i guess im on a quest for that state of mind/life and if it could combine that with my social and money matters that would be a trifecta right?

  6. I honestly do not see the point of trying to make evry momnet great.

    I am not a pessimist, but every moment in life is not going to be great. A good deal of life is either going to be boring or stressful. There is really no way around it. I believe that people need to learn how to tolerate their lives instead of trying to change things.

    It is nearly impossible to make effective change in life. There are just too many obstacles in the way. We all have to just learn how to take the bad with the good. The bad is going to come one way or another. Why try to act like it can be avoided?

  7. Thanks for the post Tim. What I got out of his letter was a critical view of various ‘career’ routes in addition to the delightful ‘Seize the Day’ quote. This got me thinking. What can I do with my life that is socially, ecologically, and personally responsible while meaningful in the utmost?

    So here’s the simplest way I could devise of such a life…by learning from what others are doing:

    Social: http://www.leavingmicrosoftbook.com/index.html

    Ecological: http://www.inhabitat.com/

    Personal: http://www.menshealth.com/

    Add Meaning:

    I. http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&client=safari&rls=en-us&q=meaningful+life&aq=f&oq=&aqi=g10

    Please excuse the slight bit of google sarcasm, it is intended to humour 🙂 If I ever have kids I think I’ll read them, “Why do you delay,” says he, “Why are you idle? Unless you seize the day, it flees.” every morning as a breakfast story. I wish I had stumbled upon Seneca earlier in life, good thing its not too late =P Thanks again!

  8. “Are you not ashamed to reserve for yourself only the remnant of life, and to set apart for wisdom only that time which cannot be devoted to any business?”

    Seneca’s passion was this “wisdom” he spoke of, but I think you could readily replace this word with “your true passions.” I don’t believe that those who live best are necessarily those who devote their lives to the study of living well (or wisely). I think those who live best (you go ahead and define ‘best’ any way you want to) most often simply devote their lives to an activity or cause that they love.

    (Just as long as your devotion doesn’t harm others…)

  9. This is thought-provoking and I appreciate that you introduced me to the philosophy and practice of Stoicism. What fascinates me is that Seneca’s letter reads as if it were written in 2009; it seems that people are still facing the same challenges today (being ego-driven, a misunderstanding of productivity versus activity, the need for status, the deferred enjoyement of life until x or y has been done) as they were so many years ago…

    Thanks for these insights and the many others you have shared in the two years since I read your book.

  10. These new topics on life that you have really bleed into just about every area, and are fascinating to absorb.

    I like to say my own twist on an Annie Dillard inspired quote, “Why spend life so quickly, you can’t get it back.” To live well, to love well, and to grow is really what makes life most enjoyable and worthwhile, to me. Besides good health, the rest is mostly baubles and trinkets.

    With all of the focus on efficiency, and time-saving, in our era, I think it tends to make people feel they have to get more done, and, in general, make them more frenetic. How important to truly enjoy life, and others! I’ve been exploring the discipline of “slowing,” being unhurried. And trying John Ortberg’s experiment to test this by finding and waiting in the longest checkout line, to see if I really see many things in life as just a means, and/or frustrating wait, instead of an opportunity, or something to enjoy for its own sake or benefit.

    Do you have to force this discipline for your well-being? Speaking of that, time to get off the laptop. Ciao.

  11. Sorry, but I had to stop when I hit “willy nilly”: the goofiness of the modern word juxtaposed with the Roman philosophy pulled me out of the essay. I’ll have to try one of the other translations Ferriss recommended.

    @Yadgyu: I don’t believe Seneca sought to “make every moment great,” rather, that we see the greatness in every moment. Your Cynicism is well placed in refute of those posts of “seize the day”; “watch every sunset”; “life is too short”; or other such nonsense or spiritual quotes. I believe the subtle difference would be to learn how to genuinely appreciate the sunset when you see it: some may ponder scientifically on the processes that maintain it while others would meditate on the art of the event, but anything more than seeing it and saying “the sun is up again” would be progress.

    @JLL: I thought you were a Cynic but you turned out to be a Cynic’s proof.

    Somewhere else up there, somebody posted about reading the 4-hour workweek and trying to get everyone at work to listen to the concepts (good for Ferriss): does this improve that person’s life? Maybe the hope of somebody else finding the book useful, attributing the discovery to this person in question, and then becoming lifelong friends compels them. How would I envision Seneca approaching this? I believe he would have read the book out of curiosity, possibly adopted some of the techniques to fit his own life, and then wrote about them during times of self-inflection but only telling another when asked to explain a certain ritual attributable to the book. Idea! “What Would Seneca Do?” WWSD?

    I’m not trying to debate anyone here; I’m just curious whether Ferriss (or others) also see the loose threads in this, ahem, thread. From Ferriss’ bold marks in the passage, I can glean some of his values; but I understand he could never acknowledge a disagreement with a poster because we represent his clientele. Actually, that would be a good test for a Stoic…

  12. Tim,

    I am interested in the philosophy of Aristotle and Sun Tzu and naturally read this blog when it came out a while ago. Since then, I lost my father to cancer (at 56 years old). This post now means much more to me. Life is short and unexpected events occur. We must make every moment count. You might like this quote from Albert Einstein:

    “How strange is the lot of us mortals! Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though he sometimes thinks he senses it. But without deeper reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other people — first of all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness is wholly dependent, and then for the many, unknown to us, to whose destinies we are bound by the ties of sympathy. A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving…”

    Take care,

    Carrington Dillon

  13. Back again, with a link to an excerpt from Emerson’s ‘Essays.’ When I read it, I thought of this post (he mentions the Stoics). I connect with Seneca, but honestly, not quite as much as I do with our American Transcendentalists. It’s ’cause I’m simple folk:


    This essay has something in it for everyone — Stoics, Existentialists, Libertarian Anarchists, whateva! Even, gasp, the Law of Attraction/Manifestation people (as we all know, there’s nothing new under the sun). Emerson is American Badassery personified, and frankly gives me a bit of a warm ‘n fuzzy…. not unlike the misty-eyed patriotism I feel when I see pics of my cousins lounging in a giant plastic bag full of water in the back of their pickup at a NASCAR event.

    You can find Emerson’s works in their entirety for free on Project Gutenberg (gutenberg.org).

  14. The letter is elequent and with well-honed edge. Thank you!

    “Getting Out of My Own Way” is my challenging pursuit of living fully and being awake. I have so much to learn (and unlearn)!.

    I guess I could name some of the obstacles, Conditioning, Inhibition, Illusion, etc.. This implies I have everything I need within. Pls allow me to quote from the book “Meditation and Prayers on 101 Names of God” by Michael Kovitz, One of the 101 names is Sanaea, here’s the first part:


    When You awoke,

    You because the Knower of Yourself,

    and because You are Everything,

    You became the Knower of All things


  15. Seneca makes some good points, but he also surely knows how to expand what could have been perfectly described in a few sentensces into a few pages and he is so good at it that you won’t even notice that he gives you countless examples about the same point.

    1. Seneca is pretty concise by the standards of his time. Another Stoic philosopher, Chrysippus, quoted the whole of Euripedes’ “Medea” in one of his works.

  16. Hi Tim,

    An amazing post – thank you so much. Although I am someone who left conventional full time employment nearly 18 months ago, I can’t say that I have always practised Seneca’s teachings – often choosing to prioritise income generation over time.

    However, this post has really touched me – the line about it is better to know your own life than the corn market rings so true.

    I also love the final quote: “It’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.”

    Thanks for this great Post Tim – I know my life has been deeply impacted by it.

    Cheers, Niro

  17. “The part of life we really live is small.” For all the rest of existence is not life, but merely time.

    Wow – I’ll be honest, I only read the short version (bolded) but the first sentence (and the last) is powerful. The statement is so simple and we all KNOW it to be true, but to exercise the discipline needed to cut the cord and leave the “bad habits” behind is easier said than done. This letter is an eye-opener and I look forward to reading more about how you combat “frittering it all away.”

    Thanks for the great post and keep them coming!


  18. Here’s something I like, and think about quite often….

    “Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming —

    WOW–What a Ride!!!” (author unknown)

    But it doesn’t seem adequate to Just ‘think about’.. to revel in the resonance or cleverness of the words. Doesn’t knowing involve experience?


  19. Pingback: | Markings
  20. This particular quote grabbed my attention:”It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested.”

    After reading this quote, I thought about time as a commodity–something to be monitored and looked after. We monitor our investments and check our portfolios but how often do we check our time?

    “Just as great and princely wealth is scattered in a moment when it comes into the hands of a bad owner, while wealth however limited, if it is entrusted to a good guardian, increases by use, so our life is amply long for him who orders it properly.”

  21. A great essay, but there is one small fly in the ointment. Seneca knocks all activities alike, including, it seems, those who labour for their daily bread and (maybe) butter, without which labour the bread-winner and his family would go hungry. he also knocks those who labour for the truly common good, whether social workers or professionals. He advocates retirement to indulge in philosophy, which is quite laudable as one of many options, but is surely not the only option. And, does it need some 30 pgdns to express it all just as succinctly without Seneca’s sin of reptitiveness. Let us give the stoics their due, but not overdo it.

  22. Tim,

    The Gerson Therapy for cancer treatment was mentioned in one of the other comments and if you haven’t looked further into this and other alternative therapies, I implore you to do so. I don’t know whether it would fit within the scope of your new book, but I have come to understand how fundamental nutrition is to our health. My wife was recently diagnosed with colon cancer and likely has a rare genetic predisposition to cancer called Lynch Syndrome. This event has instigated a broad self-education into alternative therapies.

    Most people could tell you that a diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, and fruits will reduce your risk of cancer, but there is no critical mass of thinking for what seems to be clear – not eating that way CAUSES cancer. Of course, there are other factors at play, probably the most important of which is genetics. Everyone has a 100 year-old uncle who drinks black russians for breakfast, eats a little steak with his salt, smokes 2 packs a day, and shows absolutely no sign of dying anytime soon. I believe the body has an extraordinary ability to heal itself, but some are genetically more gifted in defending against the toxic load we put on it.

    Anyway, what we really need is someone with influence, powerful friends, and money (you) to champion the collection of real, verifiable data, that can be presented to the world in a way that garners mass media attention. Picture a website with video testimonials from 100 cancer survivors who were told there was no hope. There is extra footage from the movie Food Matters where a doctor currently curing end-stage cancer patients in Mexico (because it’s illegal to treat cancer patients in the U.S. with anything other than surgery, radiation, and chemo) describes how another doctor from New York spent $50k of his own money to follow up with patients who received treatment from these facilities in Mexico and found absolutely amazing results. The problem is you can’t double-blind, placebo control trial the administration of vegetable and fruit juices! And, of course, pharmaceutical companies can’t make any money selling healthy diets so there is no drive to find and present the truth.

    If this topic is of interest to you, I’d be happy to give you more information from the research I’ve already done.

    Your content is incredibly inspiring. Thanks for all you do.

  23. In my life, thinking about what is Important and what is Not. Death… trumps everything. Does this fact not insist on a place at the head of the table? Yet my preoccupation with denying it, with not even allowing it at the table, is astounding limited, if not numb to me. Who then but sleepers are at my table? And is that living?

    To be unaware of the dispassionate even-handed beauty of the cycle and balance of life and death seems to deny intelligence beyond my own limited self. Oh, and surely this is conditioned arrogance, and can I help myself, you may ask?

    If I have never actually experienced the vast ocean, can I know it? If I am an ox in my yolk, do I see the deer running freely in the forest as vagrant? Maybe I can only see that all knowledge is limited… as is my knowing.

    Personally, I am a seeker to be open to death… and therein to life, for no reward, just truth. Perhaps in this I can Realize something.


  24. Seneca was ordered to commit suicide and it was his final gift to those who followed his ways, without regret or emotion he faced his death. he cut his wrists and ankles and drank poison to make it hurt. A true testment of Stoic Mastery.

    A bit like ras al ghol in Batman begins, knowing he’s finished he closes his eyes and accepts it. I love that scene, it says alot.

  25. Very insightful Tim. I am in the process of reading The 4-Hour Workweek right now. Just as I have suspected all along! We all waste so much of our precious time here. Putting off happiness until “later” just does not work for me. The time to live life and enjoy life is NOW.

    “Life is like a roll of toilet paper. The closer you get to the end, the faster it goes!”

    The trick is to use each “piece” wisely. :^)

  26. Hi Tim,

    I was wondering if you have a way to download your posts such as this one so I can load them on my eReader and read them.

    I know I can copy and save as a text file but I was curious if you had considered it as an option to have your posts (especially the longer ones) as down-loadable files at the top or bottom of the post.

  27. Wow. Really good read.

    I’m really in love with the idea that life is actually very long, but people just waste all their time. It’s quite true.

    You know the phrase “The Grass is always greener on the otherside”–I hate this phrase with all my passion, yet it always seems to the be the most true thing of life. We always want what we don’t have, and this is something that’s very human. And even though we don’t have control of our urges or our wants, to be able to not waste time on them is the ultimate key.

  28. It must be over a year or two now since I first read this. The topic has also appeared in my awareness and in contemplation from time to time. It’s wonderful to notice how my thinking has wandered and expanded over time against this solid background of Seneca’s description of brief or long life.

    For some time now I’ve pondered the words of Meher Baba, Avatar who said: “What you think important is all unimportant. What you think unimportant is important.” I have found this to go deep into the bowels of everything I do, who I think I am and how I live. This seems true though I can’t prove it… it resolves a lot of problems for me… it affects my desires in the way it weakens or diminishes them.

  29. Tim,

    You deserve the riches you have surely gotten through the Four-Hour Workweek for putting Seneca’s message in a contemporary, appealing form. Well done and I hope you continue to inspire people to think about doing the most with their lives.

  30. Wow,

    I graduated from a top liberal arts college with a degree in philosophy and I’m ashamed to say I’ve never been familiar with his works.

    It’s a very important point he makes here isn’t it?

    “They lose the day in expectation of the night, and the night in fear of the dawn.”

    This is just true for so many people. It’s amazing to see a philosopher from such a long time ago still can identify the way we feel in today’s world.

    I question whether the whole world is slowly turning into a world like this; a place full of people who lose the day waiting for the night and spend the night fearing and loathing the next morning.

    If only the world was full of more people who had a real passion for living but the world today makes it so hard.

    Thanks Tim

    I really feel like I’ve learnt something very important today. I appreciate it.

  31. I remember discovering Seneca while in college. It’s interesting to note that Dante put him on the first circle of hell with the rest of the philosophers.

  32. My focus is to be fully present in every moment – here, now. It’s only work if you think it’s work. There is nothing that is “work” – the work is the job of living consiously

  33. I had read this post before and it really lifted me at the time. I bookmarked it and decided to come back and read it again as things not going so great . It has once again lifted me!

  34. Wow, Seneca really is inspiring and hard hitting. How much of life have I squandered, and how much is left to live? I’d better get on with it!

    Your book, The 4HWW, has also been an inspiration. Never has it seemed so possible to achieve things that I once thought were beyond my reach or ability.

    Thank you for sharing, I hope one day to be able to contribute half as much to the lives of others as you have to mine.

  35. Wow – the reality of these words hit like a bucket of iced water! It is central to a lot of truths in the world.. i.e. concepts that are not illusion, seem to have come from these notions. Surprisingly, I thought it would be depressing to read, but was quite liberating as I have felt these ideas to be true for a while now. What we do with our time is stupid & I don’t care if the whole world has to be stupid for me to be right.

  36. I was very impressed when my father said to me recently: “I am 85 and a sportsman!” He is.

    He always joked that those who were so busy and stressed on the golf course never seemed to get to their golden years of retirement. I never got him as a kid because I thought all the meaningless wasting of time my friends’ parents did was such a big deal. Dad didn’t seem bothered about others, meeting expectations or speaking unkindly. Now I see that he was a Stoic in the true sense of the word. I don’t think he ever took offence and he had enough opportunity to get very irritated.

    Perhaps the prime reason for his way of being was the years he spent in the 2WW. The war generation were a special group and it may be that Stoicism is best achieved through seeing the realities of conflict and the abuse of power.

    Nevertheless, I do feel that one has to do what one enjoys for employment. It is hard to be authentic if you have to manufacture your passion day after day. But onn the gold course, my friends and I often call a time-out to appreciate the wonderful moments we have together in nature.

    I do think it is difficult for many people to find themselves if they have no passion or goal. This might explain the time wastage- they are like flotsam tossed around by the waves of others expectations. I am also guilty at times.

    Thanks Tim, my students have a link to the blogg. They deserve it.

  37. What a great read! Reading this was like taking a big breath of fresh air. Many thanks to you Tim, once again!

  38. You always write about the most intriguing subjects that have me hooked from the beginning. Not only do I learn from your wisdom, I’ve learned from checking out those who have commented on your work as well. Thank you Tim and continue to inspire!

  39. Thanks, Tim, for exposing me to the Stoics, which I missed while studying philosophy.

    On another topic, those ten books not to miss. May I suggest one more? I promise you can hunt me down if you you don’t really feel you have personally benefitted from reading it. It is a book, written soon after 1900, published in over 25 languages and even given out by militaries to their troops and by the Japanese government to students. It is called “Pushing to the Front,” and it is by Orison Swett Marden.

    By the way, I liked 4 Hour Workweek so much I gave copies to a bunch of my friends and relatives so they would not miss your unique message!



  40. is it possible for someone to explain how Seneca uses the past to develop his argument and about the past as division of life

  41. Thanks Tim, for posting one of Seneca’s greatest works.

    Readers might also be interested to take part in International Stoic Week (November 25th-December 1st). Participants will be able to sign up, input data onto wellbeing scales before and after the week, and there will be a Handbook (released November 18th) with each day having a key Stoic theme, backed up with ancient texts and with specially created guided audio exercises.

    The week is being run by the Stoicism Today team, a public outreach project of academics in ancient philosophy and psychotherapists. It is funded by the AHRC.

    For more information, see the Stoicism Today blog: http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/stoicismtoday/stoic-week-2013/

    Please join in this world-wide celebration of the Stoic way of life, and please help spread the word!

  42. I love Seneca! I read him about two years ago over the Christmas holidays and couldn’t put the book down. Very much recommended.

  43. Thankyou for posting this i have never seen this piece before. I too attended a funeral last week of a friends hsuband from pancreatic cancer and i work with young people living with cancer. I struggle sometimes with the grim reaper always calling on the good ones but this is helpful.

  44. Hi,

    Tim… sorry for your loss.

    Thank you for this post, it really made me think…I will certainly read it many


    All the best to you and your loved ones.

  45. I hope I read this article wrong.

    Seneca has some great points in here. People will not squander money (a renewable resource) but they will squander time (non-renewable), old age creeps up on all of us, time “glides” by, and many, many more. But is he not saying that time WELL USED is on philosophy? That’s great, but frankly I like doing a lot of other things in life. He slams working for the public, working for someone else, working to get more, but yet the trade he decided to live for (philosophy) is the only one worthwhile?

    Even considering his questionable way he suggests time is most wisely spent, it was a great read. One I feel like I could keep on the forefront of my mind for a month to ensure that everyday I’m using it the way I want to.



  46. 4th time reading this post now, with particular paragraphs resonating for different time intervals, over the past 2 days. ***Thank You.*** You have in one piece addressed some of the deepest pains of my soul throughout a lifetime. Thank you for being who & what you are, what you have done and do for the world, and posting such brilliance consistently. From 2012, 4HB has helped me tremendously, as it has everyone I’ve given it to. A true gift you’ve given to the fortresses of space, time and matter in cracking the puzzles which millions hope to solve and most never do.

    Your mastery is as great as your humanity.

    Gratitude…infinitely…it all has meaning more than is possible to adequately express.

    May every blessing fill you from within outwards, every minute of every day.

  47. on sadness, grief, death and loss:

    It is difficult to not feel sad, ripped apart entirely, crushed cohesively, when someone you love dies.

    For the uber strong, the natural response is to battle the grief with action, seek methods

    of preventing the same trauma from happening ever again upon the face of earth, eradicating the issue

    of “death” itself. Stoicism has long been one method of addressing pain by containing it, hiding it. But what happens to C4 when prevented

    from exploding? Emotions are potent, fire, they must be expunged. In action they can sometimes flower, but in cases of loss and grievance,

    the action-based position of transforming grief into output can weigh down the spirit further. To cry is to feel, to feel is to be human, to be human is to know life. You are allowed to feel pain, you are allowed to shut your self off from the responsibilities of your created self. While the energy amassed into a pro-active activity to distract the self from feeling pain may be useful, it can also be, both in the present and for life longevity of spirit self, counter-productive.

    Allow yourself to feel grief, allow yourself to feel pain, allow yourself time to mourn, to weep, from body, mind, heart, and spirit.

    To cherish every tender moment you felt with the one who is gone, to remember the best parts of that precious bond, and the person.

    One can live on forever in your memory though their physical presence will be absent. There is much we can reconcile and control,

    and much which we cannot. Pain is a necessary thing your body must be allowed to feel, escaping it, resisting it, even attempting to change

    it from its natural state, may cause further pain. Sadness, when unattended and forced to change, mutates into anger, and anger invites darkness.

    Let the tears which build within you fall, as many as necessary, in isolation, quiet, wrapped in a blanket or a chair, staring outside a window

    into the beauty of the world, in a bathtub with the water running peacefully around you, in nature where your physical self may be witness

    to the everlasting presence of nature. All of these will soothe you, but running from the pain will not – it will only hit you later, in unexpected moments.

    To accept that loss is a part of the journey, to accept that the face which enlivened you, the conversations which built you, the person themselves

    is no more accessible to either love or be loved upon this physical plane, is excruciatingly difficult, but you are not abandoned by the flow of time.

    There is a reason for the multitudes of pain which will hit, there are things to be learned within the soul during mourning. In the sadness, find the stillness,

    find the truth in the pain, let it release inside of you, and further still is the serenity and the happiness. The knowingness that the soul which you miss,

    is not truly lost, for you have known of it, that through your being of alive-ness, this soul lives on through you. This soul is not dissipated, for nothing in this universe ever eradicates wholly of itself, its form only changes, transcending or transforming. The body gone perhaps, but the spirit not, for spirit is matter, is form, and the law of balances decrees that any vacuum, whatsoever miniscule, would result in a black hole. Walk upon the earth after loss, see the flowers in bloom, the trees swaying in the wind, feel the waves of the ocean – vast in their constance. The trees speak to us, listen to their voices. Feel a euphoria around the laughter of children if you may pass by a playground or mothers strolling with them in carts, there is life all around us, constantly moving and shifting, irrespective of stop. Find a trail you love and when walking upon it, let out a scream if need be, a yell to the skies – it will be heard. Let the light you see upon architecture you admire, in food which you enjoy the sight and taste of, injest life around you as if it may be the bones of the one who loved lost. The more you live, the more you feel, the deeper is their life embedded into the fabric of universal consciousness. Feel the feelings, do not escape them, they are your salvation not your demise. As the day meets the end of sun each night, the tides of a human life are as such. Remember not that the one you miss is gone, cherish rather how they lived, and your life will be full of light within the melancholia. Sadness can also be combatted through the mind, not in erasing its presence, but accepting it. “This too, shall pass”, as all does. No moment grievious will last forever, no deepest despair will sunder evermore. Grieve and be healed through grieving. All will be well. In the most painful moment in any given situation, think to thy self “In 24 hours, this will have passed.” Transformation, ressurection, rejuvenation, re-birth, the emotions known are gateways to death and to life, to die (within) a million times as often as needed, in order to live anew.

  48. de brevitate vitae… quando ho esperienze purtroppo simili leggere Seneca e Nietszche, con le loro diverse prospettive mi è di aiuto, la parte stoica di seneca vs la parte insensibile di Nietzsche. grazie

  49. Hey Tim

    First time to your blog…fascinated and so inspired by the diversity and wealth of insight it presents! Thank you !

    So here’s what I think….

    Given that we are Eternal, created in the image of God and therefore One with Him….time is meaningless…..however….in our physical manifestation here on earth we should strive to forget our Ego’s, practice living in the moment….aware of our connection to all living things…conscious that our actions affect (positively and negatively) everyone around us. To waste “time” endlessly pursuing material things and engaging in meaningless pursuits (things that don’t give us a sense of joy and inner peace) is not only a disservice to ourselves but a disservice to our Divine purpose!


  50. I guess it all boils down to living the present moment to the fullest. We hear that all the time, and it seems so simple; I think that’s why we are so quick to dismiss it. But in reality that is ALL there is, the present moment. Nothing happens in the past nor in the future, it all happens now. Life is just like that old toy the View-Master, remember it? You put in the slide and see it. That’s how life is, we don’t pay attention to the current slide, we want to put in a slide that was pleasurable from the past, or a future slide we are looking forward to. And what happens is we are completely missing out on the current slide, in which everything lies. Boring as that current slide might be, if only we would devote all our attention to it, we might find what we are all seeking.

  51. Thank you, Tim. A very good read and taken to heart. I wonder if anyone has narrated any of this? Someone with a good voice should.

  52. “It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested.”

    This doesn’t mesh well with me in the context of the seeming viability of biological immortality within our lifetimes, reproduced akin to lobsters, naked mole rats, and 500 other mammalian species. (see programmed aging / negligible senescence)

    These diseases are wicked, nasty things that bring about a great deal of preventable pain and suffering.

    I don’t care how little you waste or well you spend your time, 10 years is too short by any standard.

    That’s why I’m going back to school for biotechnology. If there is a way to do it, this one will have spent his entire lifetime trying to find it. 🙂

    Feel free to connect with me if this falls in line with your interests.

    Much love, and best of luck to you all and your respective endeavors,


  53. I heard a story when I was young that always stuck with me. It went something like:

    ‘An old woman is sweeping her front porch steps. Death comes to her door, warning her she only has 5 minutes left of this life, giving her the opportunity to do what she would like with the remainder. The old woman replies in her action by finishing sweeping her steps.’

    To me, this has always resonated as experiencing joy, solace, mediation, learning, pain, in every moment. Easy to say, extreme consciousness in practice.


    Quiet friend who has come so far,

    feel how your breathing makes more space around you.

    Let this darkness be a bell tower

    and you the bell. As you ring,

    what batters you becomes your strength.

    Move back and forth into the change.

    What is it like, such intensity of pain?

    If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

    In this uncontainable night,

    be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,

    the meaning discovered there.

    And if the world has ceased to hear you,

    say to the silent Earth: I flow.

    To the rushing water, speak: I am.

    ~ Rilke, Part Two, Sonnet XXIX

  54. Interesting read this definitely comes at a good time for me, I’ve been having a big issue of feeling like a few select friends have been wasting my time by having me wait on them in some fashion to the point of getting anxiety from it. Then I hear from another a story of someone they know dying and it makes me feel all the more urgent.

  55. I must say this is my first taste of Seneca and it has left me wanting. He seems to say there are no pursuits but true leisure, that is doing things we ourselves prefer, that constitute a life well lived. He also rejects any and all passions: drink, hobbies of all kinds, lustful pursuits, pursuit of power, etc., the list is long. What he does not directly tell us is what exactly constitutes living. He implies only that we can know it when we look back upon those days we truly lived, with joy and fond remembrance. I kept looking for a lens through which I could see in the now, that my life will be seen as full by the future me. Thought provoking for sure, but not as satisfying as I would have liked. Tomorrow will I be able to look back at the half hour I spent reading this as time well spent? Not sure…

  56. “You must stop spending your thoughts, your TIME or your money. Everything in life must be an investment. To spend is to waste, to squander, to lay out without return. To invest is to lay out for a purpose from which a profit is expected.”

  57. Thank you for sharing this. A friend of mine died a few weeks ago from cancer. He was in his mid-forties. He was.. the most badass mothafucker you never heard of. He was amazing because he just did what he wanted to do despite all the crap he got from everyone else. He looked so weird doing his thing, too. 🙂 Small, white dude with a tiny voice singing funk in rhinestone pants. I shit you not. He was one of the most incredible people in my life and.. I don’t think I knew it until he was sick.

    I found out he was sick with cancer one month before he passed away. It’s cutting me up inside but I always turn to books or something to learn when I’m grieving/enduring heartache of some kind because it gives me hope. And I have to say, your work has really REALLY kept me going over the last few weeks when it was much easier and tempting to sit and be miserable all the time. It’s uncanny how much your work, your posts and especially your podcasts has helped me immensely these past few weeks. I can’t think you enough. I was literally just going to click the Earn 1k link to continue studying when I saw this in my inbox.

    Thank you. Just… thank you. The information, the attitude, the eye for detail.. Your questions are excellent. Thank you for sharing your journey. 🙂

  58. Hi Tim,

    Thanks a lot for this blog. I read Seneca already for some years. Whenever I stumble across one of his statements I always realize that in the 2000 years that passed we gathered a lot of knowledge, but learned very little.



  59. I find it sad to read the comments here … and see Tim struggling with the shortness of time when much of this has been addressed in the Bible. People who live without any hope for the future seem to struggle with the question of ‘the now’. To have confidence in the future especially what is to come after death is indeed the ‘peace that passes understanding.’ Ya I know – most people reading here hate Christ and Christians … but there are a lot of us around and many of us have found that the Bible has provided a far clearer answer to living life than the ‘death is the … end of all’ of Seneca. Would love to see Tim read and think about Ecclesiastes and see that there is ‘nothing new under the sun’ and that ‘all is vanity and vexation of spirit’ (written by Solomon) and see the creator can provide for more than the futility of Seneca.

  60. I find it sad to read the comments here … and see Tim struggling with the shortness of time when much of this has been addressed in the Bible. People who live without any hope for the future seem to struggle with the question of ‘the now’. To have confidence in the future especially what is to come after death is indeed the ‘peace that passes understanding.’ Ya I know – most people reading here hate Christ and Christians … but there are a lot of us around and many of us have found that the Bible has provided a far clearer answer to living life than the ‘death is the … end of all’ of Seneca. Would love to see Tim read and think about Ecclesiastes and see that there is ‘nothing new under the sun’ and that ‘all is vanity and vexation of spirit’ (written by Solomon) and see the creator can provide for more than the futility of Seneca.

  61. Tim: This is the first time I have read or heard someone say that life is long enough… I AGREE! It’s what we do with the time that matters.

    Hint, if you want to make time seem longer then just stop what you are doing daily and reflect on where you are in life, look at your loved ones, remark and embrace that they are in your life and think about that. Daily. It works and life does not seem so speed by.

  62. Hi Tim,

    Intrigued for a few years now by your work and journey.

    Never ceases to amaze me how people respond to the spectre of ‘dropping the body’. Given, that this is, the one given – ‘Old age, sickness and death’, as the Buddha reminded us. Why are we surprised when the GR zaps people around us? ‘Don’t ask for whom …..’ Given that Absolute, you would expect we would put more conscious intention around it. How to approach it, should be a major consideration of everyone’s life, you would think.

    Recently my best childhood buddy decided to terminate. He got Lupis and decided it wasn’t worth it anymore. He made heart-connected video clips for each of his 3 adult children, his two sisters and for his first and second wife. He left clear instructions about what to do with his possessions, and his will.

    (He had serious medical knowledge after being a theatre nurse for several decades.) He left a note for his wife that she would find him by the creek on their property. She went to the creek – he had somehow medically terminated his life, built a funeral pyre, and had so successfully self-cremated that all that remained was the remnants of his spinal column! (If you have ever been to India and sat by the ghats in Varanasi and watched the cremations you’ll appreciate its not easy to burn a body.) His was a very, very, clinical and conscious exit. His wife suggested he actually euthanised.

    Death, it seems to me, requires some reframing in the era of Mindfulness. Seneca’s lament is basically that ‘most of humanity lead lives of quiet desperation’. Its undoubtedly true that a life well-lived allows you to die with less regret and resistance. And when people are completely open hearted and totally express their heart-felt-love-and -appreciation for a dying friend, or family member, there is minimal grief.

    But the real challenge is to not only master living mindfully, whether its a 4 hour working week or a 60 hour working week. An equally important skill to master is how to embrace death, the last big Bungie jump?

    And to do that consciously!!!

    I think the next few decades we’ll see increasingly creative and conscious exits.

  63. Gee whiz, Tim. “Powerful” does not do it justice. “Timely” does not even partially describe its usefulness. As always, thanks for sharing!

  64. Great Post Tim!

    In reference to cancer you have to look into Dr. Simoncini & Gerson Therapy.

    Life is indeed short….. My aunt, my cousin and my best friend all died from cancer. My friend was only 32.

    Since then I have studied cancer for the last 10 years and came to a few conclusions which I wasn’t sure to be honest. But 2 years ago one of my wife’s friends at work got breast cancer. So my wife told her about my “protocol” and she followed it and beat it! The crazy part is that she did not do chemo or radiation therapy. I’m not saying I have the cure for cancer but all the below are actual “cures” for cancer I found in my research.

    Listed in order of importance.

    1) Baking Soda (aluminum free) and molasses. 3’x per day.

    ¼ teaspoon of baking soda

    1 tablespoon of molasses

    1 cup of alkaline/spring water

    Mix in a cup and drink away.

    2) Red Cabbage Juice (as much as possible)

    1-2 heads of red cabbage in a juicer

    **the premise here is that the 2 above are very high in ALKALINE. High levels of alkalinity in the body/oxygen kill cancer cells. I won’t get in to the specifics. Your readers can google “alkaline + cancer” and see for themselves.

    3) Elimanate all sodas and sugared juces. Avoid all sugar products. Cancer lives off sugar.

    4) Drink Green Tea and alkaline water and nothing else.

    5) Drink all teas/drinks with Alkaline water if possible. You can order on the intenet.

    6) Mix whole garlic, habanero or serranos peppers, with all natural grass fed butter of ghee and spread onto whole grain bread. You can also google the effect of peppers on cancer and the human body.

    (New Mexico has 50% less cancer rate than rest of the nation. Seems to be due to higher chile peppers consumption

    7) Deep breathing (fire- breathing, yoga breathing). Deep breathing exercising is the best way to remove toxins from your body and keep the body in an alkaline state.


    I think these are all the natural cures that I found and know of that people have cured themselves with.

    Hope this helps!

  65. If ever there was a support for 4HWW, this Seneca post is it. My dad worked 2 full-time jobs his entire life. Scrimped and saved so he could finally begin to “live” when he retired and move to his beloved cabins in Colorado. Two years before he was to finally retire, he had a stroke. He lived. But you can imagine his quality of life now. He’s under constant care. Life is such a gift and so fleeting. What a beautiful reminder this morning. Thank you.

  66. Tim this is great! I only read the bold and I loved it. I am not one who reads philosophy and a lot of the wording here is still hard for me to understand but I think I got the gist of it. It’s humbling and motivating for sure. I’ll be sure to read this in more detail in the coming week.


  67. Deepest condolences for your loss. Sometimes cancer feels so much like a phantom that creeps silently into our sleeping homes to steal our loved ones and our dreams with them away. Thank you for sharing Seneca’s Letter as a reminder that, however fleeting, is still within our control to create joy and love and friendship which value is not determined by its duration. Again, my deepest condolences.

  68. Hi Tim

    As noble as the stoics are … how perfect do you have to be to handle life?

    Please consider an alternative understanding of life from Dr Tim Keller. Dr Keller has studied the stoics among many great philosophers and I believe these links will provide much food for thought.

    ‘A Reason for Living’:


    ‘The Song of Creation’:


    ‘Christ: The Final Word’:


    Tim, you’ve explored many avenues for answers and these links above may provide something very new for you to digest. What do you have to lose if there’s a chance they may contain what you’ve been looking for?

    All the very best to you!


  69. “How much better to pursue a straight course and eventually reach that destination where the things that are pleasant and the things that are honorable finally become, for you, the same. And we can achieve this if we realize that there are two classes of things attracting or repelling us. We are attracted by wealth, pleasures, good looks, political advancement and various other welcoming and enticing prospects; we are repelled by exertion, death, pain, disgrace, and limited means. It follows that we need to train ourselves not to crave for the former and not to be afraid of the latter. Let us fight the battle the other way around- retreat from the things that attract us and rouse ourselves to meet the things that actually attack us.”

    I bought ‘Letters from a Stoic’ after reading your high regards for it. It is a fantastic read, but should be taken slowly. I chose to read one letter every morning. I would walk my dog to go sit on the same log each day and fully immerse myself with the character that is Seneca. The excerpt above is in the last letter.. and is probably the most empowering piece of literature I’ve ever read at the tender age of 26. It moves me to follow my passions and know at my absolute core that I can survive just about anything. I now live frugally on a sailboat on the coast of California and chasing my dreams of playing professional golf, teaching golf, writing about golf, playing music, and sailing around the world. My boat could sink. I could drift hundreds of miles before rescue or washing ashore, and yet I still have the ability to start anew, a stronger, wiser man.

    Thanks Tim

  70. Tim, sorry for the loss of your friend. It is funny how death teaches us the most about life! A truly meaningful post…thanks for sharing.

  71. Tim, I hope you realize the powerful force of your thoughts and ideas. You honor your friend, your coaches daughter, and the numerous other heartbreaks you may come across, with each inspiring story, thought, and push to see our lives at a slightly different angle.

    “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants” Isaac Newton. One of my favorite quotes. I hope you feel the support of all of those who are under you Tim. My loyalty included.