Quotes from “De Brevitate Vitae” (“On the Shortness of Life”)


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:

  1. “Life is divided into three periods, past, present and future. Of these, the present is short, the future is doubtful, the past is certain.….Life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future.”

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.

  1. “Why do we complain about nature? She has acted kindly: life is long if you know how to use it….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. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it.

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.

  1. You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire. You will hear many people saying: ‘When I am fifty I shall retire into leisure; when I am sixty I shall give up public duties.’ And what guarantee do you have of a longer life? Who will allow your course to proceed as you arrange it?”

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.

  1. 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.

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.

  1. 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. So inconsistent are they in their feelings. But if each of us could have the tally of his future years set before him, as we can of our past years, how alarmed would be those who saw only a few years ahead, and how carefully would they use them!

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.

  1. No one will bring back the years; no one will restore you to yourself. Life will follow the path it began to take, and will neither reverse nor check its course. It will cause no commotion to remind you of its swiftness, but glide on quietly. It will not lengthen itself for a king’s command or a people’s favour. As it started out on its first day, so it will run on, nowhere pausing or turning aside. What will be the outcome? You have been preoccupied while life hastens on. Meanwhile death will arrive, and you have no choice in making yourself available for that.

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!

  1. 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.


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

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