Life Is Not Short
The most surprising thing is that you wouldn’t let anyone steal your property, but you consistently let people steal your time, which is infinitely more valuable.
If you want to learn how to live a good life, there are few sources better than Seneca. He’s one of the most popular Stoic philosophers, alongside Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.
His life was filled with crazy highs and lows. He was born into a noble family, wrote some influential plays, got exiled to an island for eight years, became the chief advisor to the Roman emperor, then got sentenced to death by forced suicide.
In between all of that, he did a ton of philosophy.
In this interview, I talk to Seneca about the shortness of life, and how we can best spend our limited time.
(This is a historically accurate interview with Seneca based on his essay "On The Shortness Of Life". His responses are either direct quotes, or based on his writings. Citations are included so you can see the original context for each response.)
DKB: What do you think is the biggest mistake people make with their lives? What do we consistently get wrong?
Seneca: Everyone complains about how short life is, but that perspective is broken. Life is not short. The real issue is that we waste so much of it.
Life is long enough for you to achieve your wildest dreams. You’re just so busy wasting it that you get to the end without living much of it.1
The most surprising thing is that you wouldn’t let anyone steal your property, but you consistently let people steal your time, which is infinitely more valuable.2
No one is willing to hand out their money randomly, but that’s exactly what you do with your time. You’re very frugal with your physical possessions, but when it comes to your time, you’re wasteful of the only thing in the world that you should actually be frugal with.3
Even if you had a thousand years to live, it would feel short to you, because all the distractions and random things that pop up would swallow any time that you have.4
DKB: It’s true that we all waste a lot of our time. Why do you think this happens? We all know that our time is limited, but many of us continue to make this basic mistake.
Seneca: In your mind, you genuinely think you’re going to live forever. You think you have an infinite supply of time, and you keep spending it on the first thing that pops up without giving it much thought.
You act like a mortal in all that you fear, and an immortal in all that you desire.5
You can’t touch or feel time, so it’s hard for you to really grasp it. If your doctor told you that you had a deadly illness, you’d spend every cent you have to try to stay alive. That’s how much your time is actually worth to you. But on a day to day basis, you treat it like it’s completely worthless, just because you can’t see it.6
It’s even worse when people come up with deferred life plans. They’ll say something like “When I’m forty, I’m going to retire and write a book” or “I’ll do this thing I hate right now so I can make money, then in ten years I’ll do what I really love”.
Seriously? You think that the universe is going to let your life proceed the way you want it to? What guarantee do you have of making it to that age?
Putting things off for the future is the biggest waste of a life. You deny yourself the present by promising the future. You’re relying on the future, which is outside of your control, and abandoning the present, which is the only thing you can control.
The whole future lies in uncertainty – live immediately.7
DKB: To be fair, depending on your circumstances, you might legitimately need a deferred life plan. You might need to delay following your dreams because you have to deal with challenging financial circumstances.
Seneca: That’s a fair point, but you still have to recognize that your time is finite, and you’re spending it on a path where you only care about the end point and not the journey.
The real failure mode to avoid is intentionally pursuing a path that doesn’t bring you any joy. Let’s take the great emperor Augustus as an example. He was the most powerful man in the world. He had all the social status, all the money, and he could do anything he wanted.
Even with all that, he was looking forward to the day that he could step down and retire from it all. The man with all the power in the world was happiest when he thought about the day he could let go of all the power.8
How foolish is it to spend your life chasing fame, riches, and power, while being unhappy the entire time, even after you achieve it? What is the point of it all? To impress other people? Is that really worth it in the end?
At the same time, people who get caught up in power and status games are at least somewhat excusable. They’re facing a lot of social pressure to do it, and being deceived into thinking these goals are worthy.
On the other hand, people who waste their time pursuing empty pleasures and escapism are dishonorable and depressing. There’s nothing good to say about them.9
DKB: So what would constitute a good life for you? You’re saying we shouldn’t pursue status and power, but we also shouldn’t pursue empty pleasures.
Should we just lay down on the beach and do nothing?
Seneca: I’m not saying you should lay down on the beach all day. I’m saying you should find something that’s enjoyable to you, and valuable for the world.10
You should live your life intentionally, instead of having your time stolen from you little by little. You should organize each day as if it were your last, so that you neither need to long for nor fear the next day. You should avoid spending time on people and things that don’t really matter to you.
You should be very thrifty with your time, because you know there’s nothing for which it is worth exchanging.11
What I was trying to say before was just because someone’s always busy, and lives to an old age, doesn’t mean they’ve lived long. They’ve just existed long.
Imagine if you left for a voyage, got caught in a raging storm as you left the harbor, and got tossed around in circles until you came back. You haven’t had a long voyage, just a long tossing about.12
You should stop spending your time on things that don’t matter, and focus on the few things that do.
On top of that, there’s one thing you can do to extend your life. By studying the philosophies of those who came before you, you absorb their experiences. Every philosophy book you read, you’re adding the author’s lifespan to yours. There’s no better way to spend your time than studying philosophy.13
You can argue with Socrates, express doubt with Carneades, cultivate retirement with Epicurus, overcome human nature with the Stoics, and exceed its limits with the Cynics. You can give yourself wholeheartedly to the past, which is limitless and eternal.14
People from the past also make great friends. Pythagoras, Aristotle, and all the others, will never be too busy to see you. They will always leave you better than they found you. None of them will force you to die, but all of them will teach you how to die. None of them will waste your years, but each will add their years to yours. You can consult with them daily, and they’ll always tell you the truth.15
This is the only way to extend your life. Buildings and monuments in your honor are all soon destroyed. The passage of time demolishes everything except the great works of philosophy. No age will wipe them out or diminish them. They will only become more respected with time.16
DKB: Do you have any last words of wisdom?
Seneca: The part of life we really live is small.
All the rest is not life, but merely time.
"It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested."
"Men do not let anyone seize their estates, and if there is the slightest dispute about their boundaries they rush to stones and arms; but they allow others to encroach on their lives – why, they themselves even invite in those who will take over their lives."
"You will find no one willing to share out his money; but to how many does each of us divide up his life! People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy."
"Assuredly your lives, even if they last more than a thousand years, will shrink into the tiniest span: those vices will swallow up any space of time."
"So what is the reason for this? You are living as if destined to live for ever; your own frailty never occurs to you; you don’t notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply – though all the while that very day which you are devoting to somebody or something may be your last. You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire."
"They are trifling with life’s most precious commodity, being deceived because it is an intangible thing, not open to inspection and therefore reckoned very cheap – in fact, almost without any value. People are delighted to accept pensions and gratuities, for which they hire out their labour or their support or their services. But nobody works out the value of time: men use it lavishly as if it cost nothing. But if death threatens these same people, you will see them praying to their doctors; if they are in fear of capital punishment, you will see them prepared to spend their all to stay alive."
"Can anything be more idiotic than certain people who boast of their foresight? They keep themselves officiously preoccupied in order to improve their lives; they spend their lives in organizing their lives. They direct their purposes with an eye to a distant future. But putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately."
"So valuable did leisure seem to him that because he could not enjoy it in actuality, he did so mentally in advance. He who saw that everything depended on himself alone, who decided the fortune of individuals and nations, was happiest when thinking of that day on which he would lay aside his own greatness."
"But among the worst offenders I count those who spend all their time in drinking and lust, for these are the worst preoccupations of all. Other people, even if they are possessed by an illusory semblance of glory, suffer from a respectable delusion. You can give me a list of miserly men, or hot-tempered men who indulge in unjust hatreds or wars: but they are all sinning in a more manly way. It is those who are on a headlong course of gluttony and lust who are stained with dishonour."
"I am not inviting you to idle or purposeless sloth, or to drown all your natural energy in sleep and the pleasures that are dear to the masses. That is not to have repose. When you are retired and enjoying peace of mind, you will find to keep you busy more important activities than all those you have performed so energetically up to now."
"Believe me, it is the sign of a great man, and one who is above human error, not to allow his time to be frittered away: he has the longest possible life simply because whatever time was available he devoted entirely to himself. None of it lay fallow and neglected, none of it under another’s control; for being an extremely thrifty guardian of his time he never found anything for which it was worth exchanging."
"So you must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long. For suppose you should think that a man had had a long voyage who had been caught in a raging storm as he left harbour, and carried hither and thither and driven round and round in a circle by the rage of opposing winds? He did not have a long voyage, just a long tossing about."
"Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only those are really alive. For they not only keep a good watch over their own lifetimes, but they annex every age to theirs. All the years that have passed before them are added to their own."
"We can argue with Socrates, express doubt with Carneades, cultivate retirement with Epicurus, overcome human nature with the Stoics, and exceed its limits with the Cynics. Since nature allows us to enter into a partnership with every age, why not turn from this brief and transient spell of time and give ourselves wholeheartedly to the past, which is limitless and eternal and can be shared with better men than we?"
"You should rather suppose that those are involved in worthwhile duties who wish to have daily as their closest friends Zeno, Pythagoras, Democritus and all the other high priests of liberal studies, and Aristotle and Theophrastus. None of these will be too busy to see you, none of these will not send his visitor away happier and more devoted to himself, none of these will allow anyone to depart empty-handed. They are at home to all mortals by night and by day. None of these will force you to die, but all will teach you how to die. None of them will exhaust your years, but each will contribute his years to yours."
"This is the only way to prolong mortality – even to convert it to immortality. Honours, monuments, whatever the ambitious have ordered by decrees or raised in public buildings are soon destroyed: there is nothing that the passage of time does not demolish and remove. But it cannot damage the works which philosophy has consecrated: no age will wipe them out, no age diminish them. The next and every following age will only increase the veneration for them, since envy operates on what is at hand, but we can more openly admire things from a distance."