Summary of On the Shortness of Life by Seneca

  • Post category:Summaries
  • Post last modified:November 1, 2022
On the shortness of life book cover

Summary: 5 min

Book reading time: 1h04

Score: 9/10

Book published in: -49

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  • The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today.

What On the Shortness of Life Talks About

On the Shortness of Life is a short book by Seneca (the Young). Seneca was a Stoic philosopher, politician, satirist, and writer.

On the Shortness of Life talks about…the shortness of life.

It’s a good book that makes a good point, but I wonder if it’s really wise to follow. Seneca encourages people to stop doing a range of activities he deems are “a waste of time” such as business or politics, and to focus wholeheartedly on “living”.

It’s a problem, because business or politics can be meaningful for a lot of people.

Seneca is right when he’s talking about the negative effects of constantly being preoccupied and not enjoy the present a little bit more. But he’s wrong when he says the future shouldn’t be planned because it cannot be influenced.

I guess he also wrote his essay back to a time when indeed, you shouldn’t have planned as much as you can plan now.

Be careful therefore, when you’re reading this book. Seneca compels you to drop everything you’re doing to “learn how to live”.

I don’t believe it’s good advice. Rather, you should find an activity that fulfills you and that you won’t regret having done in 30 years.

Oh, and of course, you should definitely stop wasting time with things that don’t bring anything and people you don’t like.


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Summary of On the Shortness of Life Written by Seneca

Everyone complains they don’t have enough time on earth.

This isn’t true. It’s not that we don’t have enough time, but that we waste a lot of it. We have more than enough time to achieve anything we set ourselves to.

We are not given a short life but we make it short.

You can extend your lifetime if you manage it properly. Most people can’t do that. They are after useless pursuits (money, power, politics, battles), vices, or they don’t know what to pursue at all.

None of this is life.

It is a small part of life we really live.

People will fight if anyone tries to take their money or house, but they don’t mind anyone taking their time.

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.

People live like they were going to live forever. They don’t notice how much time passed, and keep on wasting it as if they had an infinity of it.

You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire.

You think you can retire when you’re old? But who says you’ll live up to then? Aren’t you ashamed to keep only a few years of your life to yourself, and to dedicate most of it to others?

Your life could last a thousand years old, it will still be short if you waste it. Partying, wars, all of these activities are a waste of time.

Being preoccupied with problems is also a waste of time, as people who are preoccupied are too preoccupied to actually live.

Living isn’t easy. It takes a whole life to learn how to live. The wisest among us refused riches, power, and wars and dedicated their lives to learning how to live.

The man who takes care of his needs and lives every day as if this was his last day has no regrets.

An old man isn’t necessarily one who lived long. He’s one who has existed long, this is different.

It’s surprising to see people that demand the time of others. They don’t understand that time is the most important and valuable resource of life, so they waste it because it seems at first notice, free.

But nobody works out the value of time: men use it lavishly as if it cost nothing.

Yet as soon as their lives are threatened, they pray to have more time.

But time does not reverse its course.

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.

Looking at the future is a waste of time as it is out of your hands. Worse! When you look at the future which you cannot control, you voluntarily give up control of the present, which you do control.

Leave the future. If you don’t grasp time now, it will flee. In fact, it will flee regardless of whether you grasp it or not.

The preoccupied find life very short.

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

The past cannot be changed.

Preoccupied people don’t look at it due to the things they did they are ashamed of.

The man who must fear his own memory is the one who has been ambitious in his greed, arrogant in his contempt, uncontrolled in his victories, treacherous in his deceptions, rapacious in his plundering, and wasteful in his squandering.

Yet the past is the one thing we control and have full access to. Those who do not want to revisit it have their lives vanishing.

The present is short, so short that few people are aware of it.

The preoccupied don’t live long because when death awaits, they know they have been wasting their lives.

Then they reflect how pointlessly they acquired things they never would enjoy, and how all their toil has been in vain.

Those who dedicated their lives to living don’t fear death, they know they have lived plenty and are happy with having done so.

They are not at leisure whose pleasures involve a serious commitment.

Those that engage in pointless literary studies, that want to know every fact possible, are not truly living either. They’re just looking for ways to be busy.

Only those that study philosophy can really live life when looking for leisure time. This is because philosophy is knowledge from former times, and by studying it, they add these former times to their own lives.

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?

We can choose whose children we would like to be. There are households of the noblest intellects: choose the one into which you wish to be adopted, and you will inherit not only their name but their property too.

A man stops being a judge and becomes president of a court. He has grown old in the job of managing the property of others for a salary, and then spends all his time looking after his own.

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.

Some men, after they have crawled through a thousand indignities to the supreme dignity, have been assailed by the gloomy thought that all their labours were but for the sake of an epitaph.

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