“On the Shortness of Life” is the title of an essay ; an essay written some two thousand years back by Seneca, a Spanish born Roman. The magnetic title itself is an indication of what is to come.
The most-interesting thing is that we become really and positively aware of the “shortness of life” only when we enjoy a particular habit of mind. This habit of mind while finding a conducive environment gives rise to a state of being that is acutely aware of our mortality as well as the infinite potential hidden in spite of it.
We need to read this essay when we are too distracted, too much interested in “improvements”, “upgrades” and other foibles of Life as the Life itself continues its course which no billionaire, no celebrity, no power can alter. Seneca – adviser of emperor and friend of very rich men, finally fell victim to the favours of the great and says before dying : “Do not fret over the part of Life, think of the whole of it.”
The wisdom from the “Shortness of Life” is s bright yet that two thousand years could not dim neither its brightness nor its power to pierce the deepest delusion : “You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire”
Leisure is a priceless commodity : Seneca lived at a time when general life expectancy was low and the shadow of death followed any political ambition. Moreover, he was a very insider in the corridors of imperial power. He remembers that the divine Augustus ( perhaps the only man in history of humanity to have enjoyed such temporal power for such a duration) longed for leisure. He died after a supremely busy life ad till lamented that he did not get leisure and later consoled that perhaps mortals are denied of it by the gods (higher powers above an emperor who was a divinity while he lived). “You will notice that the most powerful and highly stationed men let drop remarks in which they pray for leisure, praise it, and rate it higher than all their blessings.”
Tragedy of being a preoccupied man : In our times, being successful is synonymous with being “preoccupied”. Such men do not belong to themselves but to their profession or the area of specialization. They devote their life to the area of specialization and do not even start with the question of living. The first question a true philosopher asks is : “What is living well” and such professional men laments at the end of their life with a curiosity which none can answer but can only console : “Did I live at all ? “ “A grey-haired wrinkled man has not necessarily lived long. More accurately, he has existed long.” and the conclusion “Living is the least important activity of the preoccupied man;”
Life as a servitude : When one is young, one tends to think to rise in Life. In democracy where each citizen by by definition equal and free in equal measure, any thing one needs must be equated in the equation of universal equalizer : money. Money related intelligence and crass materialism combine to make a potent brew by which we are all drunk. In its final evolution where we are now, all wealth asymptotically approach the measure of Money. Some men never come out of this intoxication and as they lie in their Death Bed or their considerable wealth being trickled away just like the drips in the expensive hospitals at ICU or Super ICU, they ponder but do not ponder on the great lack of their life of not reflecting. He passes away without even aware of being the slave he was. The first and the last light of freedom – the awareness of not being free – the only gift fortune has granted us in our journey in Life. Young men must reflect while they are vigorous and less encumbered by the demands of wife and children on the essentials of Life – career is not some grand start of Life but an eternal servitude in disguise. Young ears of our times may gather some wisdom of pessimism as a man speaks across two thousand years : “We are all tied to Fortune, some by a loose and golden chain, and others by a tight one of baser metal: but what does it matter? We are all held in the same captivity, and those who have bound others are themselves in bonds – unless you think perhaps that the left-hand chain is lighter. One man is bound by high office, another by wealth; good birth weighs
down some, and a humble origin others; some bow under the rule of other men and some under their own; some are restricted to one place by exile, others by priesthoods: all life is a servitude.”
In our times, pessimism, decline, decay, death are anathema. We all try to present ourselves as cheerful and try to cheer our fellow citizens. We visit medics and take medications to become cheerful. We hate depression. We are ever anxious to evade the anxiety of being a mortal. We try to improve our lot and delude ourselves by naming us as optimists.
But Life is not governed by our wish or desire but we are subjected to its Laws which are not completely known to us. What we know for certain is that we run the risk of doing everything except Living.
Works of Seneca and many of his fellow Stoic thinkers do not let us forget this through their works which startle and strengthen us.