On the Shortness of Life by Seneca
Translated by C.D.N Costa


You might remember me having a grumble back in June about the dangers of reading challenges, and how I was currently fighting the urge to start a new project of reading my way through the Penguin Great Ideas little books. This all came up because the new batch out later this month contains some irresistible titles and I was hit by the mad desire to try and improve my mind (ha!) by reading the lot in sequence… Yes, all 120! Now bearing in mind my track record with the Penguin Modern Poets and the Penguin Moderns, that was probably a silly idea. However, during August I *did* manage to get back into the saddle with both of these projects (and I think ‘project’ is the best word to use here as this is going to take me some time…) So feeling emboldened, I have picked up the first book in the series and set forth on my journey – wish me luck….

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.

The Great Ideas sequence starts with Seneca’s “On the Shortness of Life”, and the quote on the front very aptly reads “Life is long if you know how to use it“. A Roman philosopher who lived from approx 4 BC to 64 AD, he was a proponent of Stoicism and as well as his philosophical works was also a dramatist, satirist and statesman. This book contains three works – the title essay, as well as Consolation to Helvia and On Tranquility of Mind. As I believe is common in works of the era (and forgive me if I’m wrong here!), these pieces are all addressed to a particular individual; and they’re drawn from the Penguin volume “Dialogues and Essays”.

… sometimes we are gripped by hatred of the human race.

So – onto the first entry in the book, the title piece. This was addressed to Seneca’s father-in-law Paulinus, and in it he addresses the very human habit of wasting our time… His argument is that if we live our lives wisely and with thought, any life is long enough. Instead of spending all our hours rushing around looking for fame or fortune or approval, or losing chunks of our lives in trivial pursuits, we should spend our time in the present moment, doing things with meaning and purpose. It’s a very timely and sensible philosophy, and I think if we did all pause, take stock and direct our lives sensibly we might be happier. It’s not always that simple, of course, but something to aim for maybe…

… it is easier to bear and simpler not to acquire than to lose, so you will notice that those people are more cheerful whom Fortune has never favoured than those who she has deserted.

The second piece is a letter addressed to Seneca’s mother Helvia. The philosopher had been exiled to Corsica for political reasons, as well as apparently losing his only son; so his letter attempts to console his mother for the death of a grandson as well as the exile of a son. Here, his stoic principles are clearly on view as he assures his mother that he is happy and not suffering, and therefore she should not grieve for him.

No one will bring back the years; no one will restore you to yourself. Life will follow the path it began to take, and will neither reverse nor check its course. It will cause no commotion to remind you of it swiftness, but glide on quietly.

The final essay is one of Seneca’s “Dialogues” and addressed to his friend Serenus who seems anything but serene… The latter is in fact anxious and worried, unsure of his path through life. Seneca advises taking the middle way, steering a course between a life of action and a life of contemplation. He comes up with all manner of sensible suggestions as to choice of friends, austere lifestyle and even ensuring that your collection of books is not just for show! Kind of like Roman therapy, then!

My first experience of both Seneca and Penguin Great Ideas was a really positive one! The Stoic Philosopher really does have some good ideas about how to negotiate the madness of the world, particularly in these turbulent times when so much is changing around us, and his works are full of eminently quotable aphorisms. The translation is excellent and very readable, and the book is a wonderful introduction to Seneca. The book comes with no extra or supporting material, apart from minimal notation within the text, which I assume will be the case with the rest of the GIs; and that’s fine, because I feel these works should be treated as a taster for the author in question. If a reader has been stimulated and their appetite whetted, they can go off and research the author, explore further and even buy a bigger book…

Hey! I think this project could be fun! πŸ˜€