Most busy people put great value on their finances and success, but very little on their own time. Ironically, the more successful we become, the more demands are made on our time and attention, a result that not only diminishes our productivity but is the root cause of stress and exhaustion. Like so many issues that confront us even in our technological age, this tension has existed for millennia. Lucius Annaeus Seneca — a Stoic writer and philosopher but also a man of action who was one of the wealthiest and most powerful politicians in the court of the Emperor Nero — offers his thoughts on the subject in one of antiquity’s great essays.
Excerpted and adapted from De Brevitate Vitae, tr. John W. Basore, 1932.
The majority of mortals complain bitterly of the spitefulness of Nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, because even this space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live.
Though all the brilliant intellects of the ages were to concentrate upon this one theme, never could they adequately express their wonder at this dense corner of the human mind. Men do not suffer anyone to seize their estates, and they rush to stones and arms if there is even the slightest dispute about the limit of their lands. Yet they allow others to trespass upon their life — nay, they themselves even lead in those who will eventually possess it. No one is to be found who is willing to distribute his money, yet among how many does each one of us distribute his life! In guarding their fortune men are often tightfisted, yet when it comes to the matter of wasting time — in the case of the one thing in which it is right to be miserly — they show themselves most prodigal.
And so I should like to lay hold upon someone from the company of older men and say: “I see that you have reached the farthest limit of human life, you are pressing hard upon your hundredth year, or are even beyond it; come now, recall your life and make a reckoning. Consider how much of your time was taken up with a moneylender, how much with a mistress, how much with a patron, how much with a client, how much in wrangling with your wife, how much in punishing your employees, how much in rushing about the city on social duties. Add the diseases which we have caused by our own acts, add, too, the time that has lain idle and unused; you will see that you have fewer years to your credit than you count. Look back in memory and consider when you ever had a fixed plan, how few days have passed as you had intended, when you were ever at your own disposal, when your face ever wore its natural expression, when your mind was ever unperturbed, what work you have achieved in so long a life, how many have robbed you of life when you were not aware of what you were losing, how much was taken up in useless sorrow, in foolish joy, in greedy desire, in the allurements of society, how little of yourself was left to you; you will perceive that you are dying before your season!”
“You live as if you were destined to live forever, no thought of your frailty ever enters your head, of how much time has already gone by you take no heed.”—Lucius Annaeus Seneca
What, then, is the reason of this? You live as if you were destined to live forever, no thought of your frailty ever enters your head, of how much time has already gone by you take no heed. You squander time as if you drew from a full and abundant supply, though all the while that day which you bestow on some person or thing is perhaps your last. You have all the fears of mortals and all the desires of immortals. You will hear many men saying: “After my fiftieth year I shall retire into leisure, my sixtieth year shall release me from public duties.” And what guarantee, pray, have you that your life will last longer? Who will suffer your course to be just as you plan it? Are you not ashamed to reserve for yourself only the remnant of life, and to set apart for wisdom only that time which cannot be devoted to any business? How late it is to begin to live just when we must cease to live!
You will see that the most powerful and highly placed men let drop remarks in which they long for leisure, acclaim it, and prefer it to all their blessings. They desire at times, if it could be with safety, to descend from their high pinnacle; for, though nothing from without should assail or shatter, Fortune of its very self comes crashing down. Finally, everybody agrees that no one pursuit can be successfully followed by a man who is busied with many things. The mind, when its interests are divided, takes in nothing very deeply, but rejects everything that is, as it were, crammed into it. There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living: there is nothing that is harder to learn. It takes the whole of life to learn how to live. Believe me, it takes a great man and one who has risen far above human weaknesses not to allow any of his time to be filched from him, and it follows that the life of such a man is very long because he has devoted wholly to himself whatever time he has had. None of it lay neglected and idle; none of it was under the control of another, for, guarding it most grudgingly, he found nothing that was worthy to be taken in exchange for his time. And so that man had time enough, but those who have been robbed of much of their life by others have necessarily had too little of it.
And there is no reason for you to suppose that these people are not sometimes aware of their loss. Indeed, you will hear many of those who are burdened by great prosperity cry out at times in the midst of their throngs of clients, or their pleadings in court, or their other glorious miseries: “I have no chance to live.” Of course you have no chance! All those who summon you to themselves, turn you away from your own self. Of how many days has that defendant robbed you? Of how many that candidate? Of how many that old woman wearied with burying her heirs? Of how many that very powerful friend who has you and your like on the list not of his friends but of his retinue? Check off, I say, and review the days of your life; you will see that very few, and those the dregs, have been left for you.
Everyone hurries his life on and suffers from a yearning for the future and a weariness of the present. But he who bestows all of his time on his own needs, who plans out every day as if it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the morrow. There is no reason for you to think that any man has lived long because he has grey hairs or wrinkles; he has not lived long — he has existed long. For what if you should think that that man had had a long voyage who had been caught by a fierce storm as soon as he left harbor, and, swept hither and thither by a succession of winds that raged from different quarters, had been driven in a circle around the same course? Not much voyaging did he have, but much tossing about.
So tear yourself away from the crowd and, too much storm-tossed for the time you have lived, at length withdraw into a peaceful harbor. The condition of all who are engrossed is wretched, but most wretched is the condition of those who labor at engrossments that are not even their own, who regulate their sleep by that of another, their walk by the pace of another. If these wish to know how short their life is, let them reflect how small a part of it is their own.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca was a Roman philosopher, dramatist, and statesman.