Over the weekend I read “De Brevitate Vitae” – known as “On the Shortness of Life” in English – an essay written by a Roman Stoic philosopher called Lucius Annaeus Seneca, to his friend Paulinus. Described as a “moral essay”, Seneca provides a thought provoking perspective on how we look at life, drawing attention to man’s wasteful nature when it comes to the most valuable commodity of all, time.
Amazingly, over 2000 years have passed since the writing of this essay, but Seneca’s insights have endured. In fact, one could argue that his wisdom resonates even more in Western society today, a consumer driven world shaped by corporations, social media obsessed, where living in the present is becoming a lost art.
Below I have shared my favourite quotes including my own brief thoughts on these powerful words:
When the author talks about forgetting the past, he speaks of individuals so “preoccupied” in the present that the now cannot be appreciated enough to grasp, to actually form a past to reflect on, a period of time which he describes as an “everlasting possession”.
“It is the mind which is tranquil and free from care which can roam through all the stages of its 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; and just as it is no use pouring any amount of liquid into a container without a bottom to catch and hold it, so it does not matter how much time we are given if there is nowhere for it to settle; it escapes through the cracks and holes of the mind.”
Ironically, while the author has not explored it, for some people the source of the preoccupation in the present can be the past. This applies in all walks of life, including the world of investing, where investors scarred by a stock market crash can become overly risk averse for the rest of their life.
It can be a hard truth to accept, but once you accept it, you stand a better chance of investing your time more wisely to reach your full potential with your life.
The above quote is particularly relevant when it comes to retirement planning. Clearly, providing for your future is important but life does not begin at the end point, it is happening now. A balance must be struck between preparing for an uncertain future and experiencing life in the present.
I think this quote is a powerful reminder of what life is all about, living. Obviously, more than a few rock stars have taken this to the extreme, but life is for living new experiences, not just existing. This becomes increasingly difficult as we get older and society pushes us in a certain direction – secure the job, get married, buy the house, have the kids, (order may vary but you get the point) – but with the right mind-set life can remain an adventure. I hear too many people make excuses for why they can’t do the things they want to do in life.
The above is an interesting insight into how we value our time. People give their best years to climbing the ladder, corporate or political, be it vaulting ambition or just consensual participation in the rat race. However, there is an opportunity cost. Valuing your time correctly is the only way to really appreciate that cost before it is too late. I believe that being aware of this can help you make more informed decisions for the path your life takes.
Some people might consider this quote a bit morbid, but it is not. We all face the same end, but we have the freedom to choose the journey!
His final word of advice? Read the great philosophers. Seneca argues that “of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only those are really alive”. “By the toil of others we are led into the presence of things which have been brought from darkness into light.”
“So the life of the philosopher extends widely: he is not confined by the same boundary as are others…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.”
* About the Author: “Lucius Annaeus Seneca, statesman, philosopher, advocate and man of letters, was born in Spain around 4BC. He rose to prominence at Rome, pursuing a double career in the courts and political life, until Claudius sent him into exile on the island of Corsica for eight years. Recalled in AD49, he was appointed tutor to the boy who was to become, in AD54, the emperor Nero. Seneca acted for eight years as Nero’s unofficial chief minister until Nero too turned against him and he retired from public life to devote himself to philosophy and writing. In AD65, following the discovery of a plot against the emperor, he and many others were compelled by Nero to commit suicide.” www.amazon.co.uk/TheShortnessofLife