“On the brevity of life” questions mortality
For this week’s column, I’m deviating from my usual plan of writing about a novel one month, followed by a traditional non-fiction the following month.
Today I am writing my column on an essay by the great Roman philosopher Seneca, who lived from 1 BC. empire of the following years. Seneca was trained in rhetoric and philosophy, just like the famous Greek philosophers who preceded him by several hundred years.
Lucius Annacus Senecca was a tutor, one of his teenage students being Nero. Later, he will become adviser to Nero when Nero becomes emperor. In the end, Nero became dissatisfied with Seneca’s advice, accused him of complicity in Nero’s murder, and ordered Seneca to take his own life.
Seneca was also a playwright with a dozen popular plays to his credit. However, his main legacy for us are his shorter writings, which he called moral essays or dialogues. Among his essays, one of the most famous, is the one entitled “On the brevity of life”, which will be the subject of my column today.
In order to better enlighten readers of this column, I will let Seneca speak for itself most of the time. So be careful with quotes.
Seneca begins the essay with these words: “Most people … complain that life is too short.” late.
“The problem … is not that we have a short life, but that we waste time. When time is wasted in the pursuit of pleasure or in vain idleness, when it is spent without real purpose, the death is fast approaching and it is only then, when we are compelled to do so, that we finally take a hard look at how we have spent our lives – just as we realize that it is death. end. “
The passage of time has not solved this puzzle for us. Some people see life as a game or entertainment; some that we need to change our minds with drugs; certain that religion has all the answers; some of that money will buy the answers.
The Greeks developed a very philosophical society, mingled with perpetual wars. The Romans based their society more on discovery and conquest and are therefore much less known for philosophy. Today it seems that we have tens of thousands of philosophers, each of them writing several self-help books.
“Even though the brightest thinkers of all time have reflected on this theme, none of them have been able to adequately explain the paradox of human nature. People don’t let others steal their property, and they rush to defend themselves vigorously if there is even the slightest controversy over the demarcation of land borders, yet they allow others to encroach upon their very existence – in fact, they are colluding themselves with those who will end up owning him his life?
“We all rush through life torn between a longing for the future and a weariness for the present … A wrinkled man with gray hair hasn’t necessarily lived long. More to the point, he’s been around for a long time.”
Seneca also comments on the lessons of history that we seem to forget. He concludes that it seems that countries never seem to learn from the past, but that individuals can learn from the past if they want to.
I particularly like these words of Seneca. “Life is divided into three parts: what was, what is and what will be. Of these three periods, the present is short, the future is uncertain and the past is certain. It wasn’t until the last one that fate lost control; the past cannot be determined by any man.
“During this time, the occupied steal and are stolen; they interrupt and hinder each other, making their lives miserable and getting nothing from all this hubbub, neither profit nor pleasure, and no benefit for the improvement of his mind … We have left the ground to see the whole world.”
Great thinkers “will show you the way to immortality and lead you to heights from which no man can be brought down. This is the only way to extend mortality – truly, by turning time into immortality. Honors , statues and all other mighty monuments to the ambition of man set in stone will crumble, but the wisdom of the past is indestructible Age cannot wither or destroy the knowledge that serves all generations.
With these words, Seneca makes one of the most powerful arguments ever about the value of education.
“The philosopher (replacing the educated) alone is not hampered by the limits of humanity but lives forever, like a god. He embraces memory, uses the present and anticipates with relish what is to come. He prolongs his time on Earth by merging the past, present and future into one. “
I strongly encourage you to read the essay for yourself. Remember, however, that each translation will have a different flow, different words. The translation I used for this column was by Damian Stevenson, revised and modernized in 2018. Most copies of this essay can be purchased in the range of $ 14 to $ 17.
Next month, I plan to rewatch Clare McIntosh’s latest thriller titled “The Hostage”.
Donus Roberts is a former teacher, current ABC Book Club Advisor, avid book reader / collector, owner of ddrbooks, and encourages contact with readers at [email protected]