On the Shortness of Life

Rating 8.5 /10 Readability
Read Time 3 hrs Readible On
Published: 2005Read: September 24, 2015Pages: 106
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by Juvoni Beckford@juvoni

Timeliness wisdom. Life is long, if you know how to use it. That is the statement which underlines the essence of these series of letters written by Seneca to his friends and mother. It felt like a was listening to a mentor and friend and the Stoic concepts in this book have impacted my life. This is a character and value building book.

Motivations to Read

I enjoyed reading Seneca's Letters from a Stoic and wanted to dive more into his writing and stoicism. Coming to grips with the reality of death is very important and will allow up to reach new levels of personal growth and development. How can we learn how to live a better and more fulfilling life; Seneca discusses this difficult question with his friends and mother.

3 Reasons to Read

  • Insights into the art of living.
  • The importance of reason and morality.
  • Principles of stoicism that can guide your through life based on simple and timeless wisdom.

Notable Quotes

“Often a very old man has no other proof of his long life than his age.” Seneca

“Life is long, if you know how to use it.” Seneca

“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.” Seneca

“You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire” Seneca

“It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much. ... The life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.” Seneca

On the Shortness of Life Notes & Summary


"It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested."

On the Shortness of Life by Roman Philosopher and teacher Seneca is a collection of three letters. One written to a friend who is caught up in ambition of business and the demands life places on him, locking him into a short term mindset that hinders his long-term happiness.

The second letter is a letter to his mother after he was exiled from Rome. The third letter is to a young stoic who is seeking his advice.

Vices capture an enormous amount of time if we give into them.

Living how to live is difficult, and for many can take a lifetime. Learning how to die can also take a whole life.

Old Age Does Not Equal A Life Lived Well:

"Nothing can be taken from this life, and you can only add to it as if giving to a man who is already full and satisfied food which he does not want but can hold."


"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."

A Preoccupied Mind Cannot Make Good Use Of Time:

"Life is divided into three periods, past, present, and future. Of these, the present is short, the future is doubtful, the past is certain.


this is what preoccupied people lose: for they have no time to look back at their past, and even if they did, it is not pleasant to recall activities they are ashamed of.


In the present we have only one day at a time, each offering a minute at a time.


The present time is extremely short, so much so that some people are unaware of it."

"It is the mind which is tranquil and free from care which can roam though all stages of life: the minds of the preoccupied, as if harnessed in a yoke, cannot turn round and look behind them. So their lives vanish into an abyss a container without a bottom to catch and hold it, so it does not matter how much time we are given if there is nowhere for it to settle; it escapes through the cracks and holes of the mind."

Finding Wisdom Through Past Eras:

"By the toil of others we are led into the presence of things which have been brought from the darkness into light. We are excluded from no age, but we have access to them all; and if we are prepared in loftiness of mind to pass beyond the narrow confines of human weakness, there is a long period of time through which we can roam."


"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?"

Using The Stages of Time:

"Some time has passed: he grasps it in his recollection. Time is present: he uses it. Time is to come: he anticipates it. This combination of all times into one gives him a long life. But life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future."

When Work Takes Life Away:

"So when you see a man repeatedly wearing the robe of office, or one whose name is often spoken in the Forum, do not envy him: these things are won at the cost of life."

"Is it really so pleasant to die in harness? That is feeling of many people: their desire for their work outlasts theirs ability to do it. They fight against their own bodily weakness, and they regard old age as a hardship on no other grounds than that it puts them on the shelf."

Seneca's Consultation to his mother after he was banished from Rome:

"We are born under circumstances that would be favorable if we did not abandon them. It was nature's intention for a good life: every individual can make himself happy. External goods are of trivial importance and within much influence in either direction: prosperity does not elevate the sage and adversity does not depress him."

A wise man who relies on himself won't be affected by disgrace (Seneca's reflect on Socrates imprisonment):

"No man is despised by another unless he is first despised by himself. An abject and debased mind is susceptible to such insult; but if a man stirs himself to face the worst of disasters and defeats the evils which overwhelm others, then he wears those very sorrows like a sacred badge. For we are naturally disposed to admire more than anything else the man who shows fortitude in adversity."

Seneca on the effects wealth has had on him:

"After being long given up to frugality I have found myself surrounded by the lavish splendor of luxury echoing all about me. My vision wavers somewhat, for I can raise my mind to face it more easily than my eyes. And so I come back no a worse but a sadder man; I don't move with my head so high among my trivial possessions; and a secret gnawing doubt undermines me whether that life is superior. None of these things is changing me, but none of them fails to shake me."

Choosing Yourself and Protecting Your Time:

"I decide to restrict my life within its walls, saying, 'Let no one rob me of a single day who is not going to make me an adequate return for such a loss. Let my mind be fixed on itself, cultivate itself, have no external interest - nothing that seeks the approval of another; let it cherish the tranquility that has no part in public or private concerns.'"

In Search of Tranquillity:

"So what you need is not those more radical remedies which we have now finished with - blocking yourself here, being angry with yourself there, threatening yourself sternly somewhere else - but the final treatment, confidence in yourself and the belief that you are on the right path, and not led astray by the many tracks which cross yours of people who are hopelessly lost, though some are wandering not far from the true path."

"We are, therefore, seeking how the mind can follow a smooth and steady course, well disposed to itself, happily regarding its own condition and with no interruption to this pleasure, but remaining in a state of peace with no ups and downs: that will be tranquillity."

Loss from those who have and those who do not:

"Boin aptly remarks that plucking out hair hurts bald people just as much as those with hair. You can make the same point that rich and poor suffer equal distress: for both groups cling to their money and suffer if it is torn away from them. But, as I said, it is easier to bear and simpler not to acquire than to lose, so you will notice that those people are more cheerful whom Fortune has never favored than those whom she has deserted."

Knowledge on display that has not been acquired:

"How can you excuse a man who collects bookcases of citron-wood and ivory, amasses the works of unknown or third-rate authors, and then sits yawning among all his thousands of books and gets most enjoyment out of the appearance of his volumes and their labels?" [..] I would certainly excuse people for erring through an excessive love of study; but these collections of works of inspired genius, along with their several portraits, are acquired only for pretentious wall decoration."

On Being Busy for Busy-ness sake:

"We must cut down on all this dashing about that a great many people indulge in [..] Their roaming is idle and pointless, like ants crawling over bushes, which purposelessly make their way down again. Many people live a life like these creatures, and you could not unjustly call it busy idleness. [..] So let let all your activity be directed to some object, let it have some end in view."

Fake Emotions:

"In your own troubles too, the appropriate conduct is to indulge as much grief as nature, not custom demands: for many people weep in order to be seen weeping, though their eyes are dry as long as there is nobody looking, since they regard it as bad form not to weep when everyone is weeping. This evil of taking our cue from others has become so deeply ingrained that even that most basic feeling, grief, degenerates into imitation."

posted September 12, 2016

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