Letter XLIX. On the Shortness of Life
Letter 49 discusses a very relevant theme for Seneca, which he dealt with in depth in his book “On the Shortness of Life“. In this letter we got the main idea, that is, that life is not short, but rather we make bad use of it:
“For this reason I am all the more angry that some men claim the major portion of this time for superfluous things, — time which, no matter how carefully it is guarded, cannot suffice even for necessary things.” (XLIX, 5)
“the good in life does not depend upon life’s length, but upon the use we make of it; also, that it is possible, or rather usual, for a man who has lived long to have lived too little.“(
Seneca also discusses the Stoic technique of “premeditatio malorum,” the premeditation of adversity, which is useful for “inoculating” our minds against misfortune, by bringing satisfaction with what we already have and preparing us for future adversity:
Tell me when I lay down to sleep, “Say to me when I lie down to sleep: “You may not wake again!” And when I have waked: “You may not go to sleep again!” Say to me when I go forth from my house: “You may not return!” And when I return: “You may never go forth again!”(XLIX, 10)
He concludes the letter with a striking phrase:
“At our birth nature made us teachable, and gave us reason, not perfect, but capable of being perfected.”(XLIX, 11)
And he quotes an excerpt from The Phoenicians by Euripides:
“The language of truth is simple.“(XLIX, 12)
Originally published at http://thestoicletters.com on March 12, 2021.
1. A man is indeed lazy and careless, my dear Lucilius, if he is reminded of a friend only by seeing some landscape which stirs the memory; and yet there are times when the old familiar haunts stir up a sense of loss that has been stored away in the soul, not bringing back dead memories, but rousing them from their dormant state, just as the sight of a lost friend’s favourite slave, or his cloak, or his house, renews the mourner’s grief, even though it has been softened by time. Now, lo and behold, Campania, and especially Naples and your beloved Pompeii, struck me, when I viewed them, with a wonderfully fresh sense of longing for you. You stand in full view before my eyes. I am on the point of parting from you. I see you choking down your tears and resisting without success the emotions that well up at the very moment when you try to check them. I seem to have lost you but a moment ago. For what is not “but a moment ago” when one begins to use the memory?
2. It was but a moment ago that I sat, as a lad, in the school of the philosopher Sotion, but a moment ago that I began to plead in the courts, but a moment ago that I lost the desire to plead, but a moment ago that I lost the ability. Infinitely swift is the flight of time, as those see more clearly who are looking backwards. For when we are intent on the present, we do not notice it, so gentle is the passage of time’s headlong flight.
3. Do you ask the reason for this? All past time is in the same place; it all presents the same aspect to us, it lies together. Everything slips into the same abyss. Besides, an event which in its entirety is of brief compass cannot contain long intervals. The time which we spend in living is but a point, nay, even less than a point. But this point of time, infinitesimal as it is, nature has mocked by making it seem outwardly of longer duration; she has taken one portion thereof and made it infancy, another childhood, another youth, another the gradual slope, so to speak, from youth to old age, and old age itself is still another. How many steps for how short a climb!
4. It was but a moment ago that I saw you off on your journey; and yet this “moment ago” makes up a goodly share of our existence, which is so brief, we should reflect, that it will soon come to an end altogether. In other years time did not seem to me to go so swiftly; now, it seems fast beyond belief, perhaps, because I feel that the finish-line is moving closer to me, or it may be that I have begun to take heed and reckon up my losses.
5. For this reason I am all the more angry that some men claim the major portion of this time for superfluous things, — time which, no matter how carefully it is guarded, cannot suffice even for necessary things. Cicero declared that if the number of his days were doubled, he should not have time to read the lyric poets. And you may rate the dialecticians in the same class; but they are foolish in a more melancholy way. The lyric poets are avowedly frivolous; but the dialecticians believe that they are themselves engaged upon serious business.
6. I do not deny that one must cast a glance at dialectic; but it ought to be a mere glance, a sort of greeting from the threshold, merely that one may not be deceived, or judge these pursuits to contain any hidden matters of great worth. Why do you torment yourself and lose weight over some problem which it is more clever to have scorned than to solve? When a soldier is undisturbed and travelling at his ease, he can hunt for trifles along his way; but when the enemy is closing in on the rear, and a command is given to quicken the pace, necessity makes him throw away everything which he picked up in moments of peace and leisure.
7. I have no time to investigate disputed inflections of words, or to try my cunning upon them.
Behold the gathering clans, the fast-shut gates,
And weapons whetted ready for the war.
I need a stout heart to hear without flinching this din of battle which sounds round about.
8. And all would rightly think me mad if, when greybeards and women were heaping up rocks for the fortifications, when the armour-clad youths inside the gates were awaiting, or even demanding, the order for a sally, when the spears of the foemen were quivering in our gates and the very ground was rocking with mines and subterranean passages, — I say, they would rightly think me mad if I were to sit idle, putting such petty posers as this: “What you have not lost, you have. But you have not lost any horns. Therefore, you have horns,” or other tricks constructed after the model of this piece of sheer silliness.
9. And yet I may well seem in your eyes no less mad, if I spend my energies on that sort of thing; for even now I am in a state of siege. And yet, in the former case it would be merely a peril from the outside that threatened me, and a wall that sundered me from the foe; as it is now, death-dealing perils are in my very presence. I have no time for such nonsense; a mighty undertaking is on my hands. What am I to do? Death is on my trail, and life is fleeting away;
10. teach me something with which to face these troubles. Bring it to pass that I shall cease trying to escape from death, and that life may cease to escape from me. Give me courage to meet hardships; make me calm in the face of the unavoidable. Relax the straitened limits of the time which is allotted me. Show me that the good in life does not depend upon life’s length, but upon the use we make of it; also, that it is possible, or rather usual, for a man who has lived long to have lived too little. Say to me when I lie down to sleep: “You may not wake again!” And when I have waked: “You may not go to sleep again!” Say to me when I go forth from my house: “You may not return!” And when I return: “You may never go forth again!”
11. You are mistaken if you think that only on an ocean voyage there is a very slight space between life and death. No, the distance between is just as narrow everywhere. It is not everywhere that death shows himself so near at hand; yet everywhere he is as near at hand. Rid me of these shadowy terrors; then you will more easily deliver to me the instruction for which I have prepared myself. At our birth nature made us teachable, and gave us reason, not perfect, but capable of being perfected.
12. Discuss for me justice, duty, thrift, and that twofold purity, both the purity which abstains from another’s person, and that which takes care of one’s own self. If you will only refuse to lead me along by-paths, I shall more easily reach the goal at which I am aiming. For, as the tragic poet says:
The language of truth is simple.
We should not, therefore, make that language intricate; since there is nothing less fitting for a soul of great endeavour than such crafty cleverness.
- ↑ Probably the birthplace of Lucilius.
- ↑ The Pythagorean. For his views on vegetarianism, and their influence on Seneca, see Ep. cviii. 17 ff.
- ↑ Source unknown; perhaps, as Hense thinks, from the Hortensius.
- ↑ An intentional equivocation on the part of Cicero, who intimates that he will “lose no time” in reading them.
- ↑ Vergil, Aeneid, viii. 385 f.
- ↑ An example of syllogistic nonsense, quoted also by Gellius, xviii. 2. 9. See also Ep. xlv. 8.
- ↑ i.e., the timbers of the ship. Compare the same figure in Ep. xxx. 2.
- ↑ Euripides, Phoenissae, 469 ἁπλοῦς ὁ μῦθος τῆς ἀληθείας ἔφυ.