De Brevitate Vitae: Thoughts at Fifty

It just so happens I read De Brevitate Vitae (On the Shortness of Life) a few days before turning fifty. Although it’s not a book of maxims, Seneca does tend to boil his thoughts down to simple, straightfoward expressions. If you were inclined to make a desk calendar of Stoic reminders to live each day to the fullest, Seneca would be your man. So, here, at the very witching hour of my birthday (Mom says I was born around three), is a list of things Seneca says to do to live an excellent life. I’ll take them as a kind of checkup.

  1. Live with purpose. Seneca tells Paulinus, his correspondent, “The problem is not that we have a short life, but that we waste time. Life is long and there is enough of it for satisying accomplishments if we use our hours well. But when time is squandered, . . . when it is spent with no real purpose, the finality of death grips us.”
  2. Just pick something. Seneca says you need a central focus to your life, and he even seems to imply that it doesn’t matter what it is. The point is to be anchored to a single pursuit. “Those who have no real purpose in life are ever rootless and dissatisfied, tossed by their aimlessness into ever-changing situations.” I can honestly say that just picking something worked for me. Although my career is not my life, I can say that once I picked it, unglamorous as it is, and stuck with it, everything else that brings happiness, like love, family and well-spent leisure, had the opportunity to fall into place. My twenties and early thirties, by contrast, were a series of being tossed aimless into ever-changing situations.
  3. Be wary of public life. Seneca reminds us that celebrities (yes, Rome had them) spend all their time being sponged off by sycophants, and politicians, even if they are good, are constantly exhausted by the weight of their work. Seneca’s decription of the trials of the “god-like Augustus” prefigure Abraham Lincoln, who toward the end of his war complained pitiably that he wished he could shed his burden. He had a “tired spot” deep inside him, he said, that nothing could touch. Augustus, similarly, “never stopped praying for rest and to gain release from public affairs.” I have truly taken Seneca to heart on this matter; I do nothing but tend my private garden.
  4. Focus. This one is hard. Our easy, prosperous world today presents a myriad of opportunities—for leisure, work, study, what have you–and some of us would like to consider ourselves polymaths, trying to excel at everything, even if we cannot. Seneca anticipates one of the most important conclusions of 20th century cognitive psychology, that attention is a scarce commodity, and the more you divide it, the poorer you perform. His words on the matter: “No single worthwhile goal can be successfully pursued by a man who is occupied with many tasks, because the mind, when its focus is split, absorbs little in depth and rejects everything that is, so to speak, jammed into it.”
  5. Mind the mortal horizon. There is no need to dwell on death, but Seneca reminds us, tersely and directly, of something Heidegger muddied up by writing an impossibly long, unintelligible book about—the certain approach of death, and the philosophical consequences of that certainty for how we live in the here and now. Seneca proposes the following meditation: “If each man could see the number of years he has left ahead, just as he can see the years he ha left behind him, . . . how careful he would be with them!”
  6. Manage your expectations. This is possibly the central tenet of Stoicism. If you don’t get your hopes up, they won’t be dashed, even by tragedy. Mostly what Seneca means here is that you should avoid being carried along by a passive kind of hope, “by thoughts of a distant tomorrow” and that you should act purposefully today. In a somewhat deeper vein, Seneca seems to have it in for religious supernaturalism and its capacity to drain life of meaning: “Postponing life is the greatest waste of time; it deprives you of each new day life brings: it steals from the present with the promise of the hereafter.” Can there be a better summing up of the deliberate vacuousness of religion? I determined 17 years ago not to let religion steal from my present, and I have never been happier.
  7. Virtue clears the mind. The main reason to be morally excellent is, of course, for the sake of others. I avoid murder, theft, loudly playing Hair Metal, etc., because I wish to avoid harming others. But Seneca emphasizes that treating others well also brings internal rewards; it makes us better at introspection. “A clear conscience,” he writes, “gives the tranquil mind power to explore all parts of its existence; but the mind that is preoccupied, as if burdened by a yoke, cannot turn and look back.”
  8. Don’t be a fop. My beautiful wife would probably say I carry this rule too far, but it runs deep in me. I observe the principle of simplicity in appearance right up to the edge of slovenliness. Here is Seneca, weighing in rather emotionally on my side: “What would you say of those men who waste time getting their hair cut once a week, debating how each lock should appear? How angry they get if the barber makes a mistake! Which of these fops would care more if his country was in disarray than his hair?” Priorities, gentlemen! At the risk of taking things over the top, I tend toward Seneca’s final judgment on letting oneself be victimized by fashion: “Such a life of luxurious despair is below human dignity.”
  9. Shun cruelty. This one seems a no-brainer, but it was a real issue for Seneca, who was all too aware that the government he served was in the habit of staging death orgies for the entertainment of the masses. Is it not enough, he asked, that condemned men must be put to death by the state? “Must they now be crushed alive by monsters?” Elephants were the new thing. Although Roman civilization had a long way to go, Seneca was looking in the right direction. Today, in the liberal, prosperous, democratic parts of the world, we are starting to grasp the truth that cruelty, in the words oft he philosopher Richard Rorty, ist he worst thing we do. Not blasphemy, not offenses ancient social codes, not sins against the gods or their representtives on earth, the ruling class, but cruelty is the worst thing, and that which we should avoid above all else.
  10. Be conservative. What?—Am I not the partisan of the liberal left I appear to be? Of course I am, comrades, but I also realize that reform and progress proceed on the back of the past and by way of insitutions built by our ancestors. Anticipating Edmond Burke and Roger Scruton, Seneca abjures us to be very careful about dismantling structures we have inherited and which have been shaped over the course of centuries. “Unless we are complete ingrates,” he reminds us, “the lives of those men that preceded us should be seen as sacred. Their collective existnce paved the way for our own time on Earth.“ It is precisely this debt that the (reformist) Geroge Eliot has in mind as she closes Middlemarch with these imperishable lines: “For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
  11. Study history. Seneca says we can positively cheat the passage of time by communing with the ages. “Why not turn the tables on this absurdly short and fleeting span of time we are endowed with by spending some of it in the past, which is boundless and inhabited by men better than ourselves.” Although I feel I am just catching up in this area, I am giving it a serious go. Nothing clears up the myths of the present by going back and studying the past. I try to work in a book of serious history between every four or five novels I read.
  12. Pick a hero and copy him. This I have done, or at least I am in the process of doing. Orwell is my guiding star. Seneca says, “Select a genius and make yourself their adopted son.” There are really too many candidates to choose from. I could bore you with a list of fifty minds whose works are worthy of close study, but as I approach the top of the list, the virtue that stands out is intellectual courage–Socrates, willingly accepting the death sentence pronounced on him by the very laws he respected; Jan Hus, smiling from the stake as the cardinals and bishops burned his books before they turned to burn him. Orwell, for me, occupies the top rank. Although he was never put to the harrowing trials Socrates and Jan Hus faced, he survived the rather more drawn out challenges to moral decency posed by things more familiar to me—commericalism, propaganda, tyranny, the threat of total war. He also wrote these beautiful lines, which I think are the best a mere book reviewer and radical journalist can do in the way of summing up the meaning of life:

“This attitude [of ascetic saintliness] is perhaps a noble one, but, in the sense which — I think — most people would give to the word, it is inhuman. The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.”

Orwell’s thoughts on this matter ultimatley address the most gracious way to greet death, by living a full, decent life, with the right kind of loyalties—people over principles, moderation over extremism, hope over despair, and, of course, love over detachment. I’m not sure whether Orwell ever read Seneca, but he lived, and wrote, as if he knew well this reminder of the old Roman: “There is no surplus [of time]. The amount is fixed like the soul. Though small, the amount is sufficient, and thus when his last day comes, the man who knows this will greet death appropriately.” Cultivting that ability seems to be what all our choices are about.

Today I start down the backside of what Jorge Luis Borges called our first hundred years, our allotted time of mortal life, and I feel lucky to have stumbled on Seneca’s words at this witching hour.




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