On the Shortness of Life

Life Is Long If You Know How to Use It
by Seneca | Penguin Books © 2005 · 105 pages

Seneca was an old-school Roman statesman and one of history’s leading Stoic philosophers. In this book he tells us that life is only short if you don’t know how to use it and also gives us some tips on how to deal with challenging times and cultivate tranquility. Big Ideas we explore include making T.O.D.A.Y. the day, how to deal with being exiled (never know when it could happen ;), and why flexibility is the virtuous road to tranquility (and how to avoid the detours).

But if each of us could have the tally of his future years set before him, as we can of our past years, how alarmed would be those who saw only a few years ahead, and how carefully would they use them!

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it. Just as when ample and princely wealth falls to a bad owner it is squandered in a moment, but wealth however modest, if entrusted to a good custodian, increases with use, so our lifetime extends amply if you manage it properly.”

~ Seneca from On the Shortness of Life

This is our second Note featuring Seneca’s wisdom.

Check out our Notes on Letters from a Stoic for more. (And, while you’re at it, check out our growing collection of Old School Classics + Stoic wisdom.)

Seneca was born around the time of Jesus in the ancient city of Cordoba which, at the time, was the most prominent city in ancient Spain. He was a Roman statesman and tutor of Nero who is one of history’s most prominent Stoic philosophers (along with Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus). He is credited as the originator of the essay and is an extraordinarily lucid, compelling writer—sharing timeless wisdom with remarkable power.

This book isn’t an easy read. It’s not a book you pick up when you’re feeling tired or looking for a refreshing break. It’s a book you read early in the morning when you’re feeling energized and ready to chat with one of the world’s master teachers. (At least that’s how I approached it.)

The book is composed of three long essays: “On the Shortness of Life,” Consolation to Helvia” (a remarkable letter Seneca wrote to his mother to console her regarding his exile), and “On Tranquility of Mind.” (Get a copy here.)

Entire pages of my copy are underlined with “wow”s. I’m excited to share a few of my favorite Ideas we can apply to our lives today so let’s jump in!

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About the author



One of the Great Roman Stoic Philosophers