Death Contemplation 3: On the Shortness of Life by Seneca
This past week I read Seneca's essay titled On the Shortness of Life, and I wanted to share my thoughts on the critical existential themes discussed in the book.
my rating - overall Score: 4.6/5.0
- quality of writing (5/5) — an embarrassment of riches in just 41 pages.
- quality of the content (5/5)
- impact on my perspective (3/5)
- personal resonance (5/5)
- rereading potential (5/5)
the context surrounding my reading :
A co-worker recommended and bought the book, so I could discuss it with him. Thanks to the anonymous co-worker! The motivation for reading the book was simple: I respect Stoicism and Seneca was the ninth leader of the Stoic school.
Seneca argues most people waste their lives on idle occupations because they are chained to sense desires (lust) and have lost their capacity to live a meaningful life based on self-reflection and intentionality.
He argues that life is not short but we frequently make that comment due how the subjective perspective of time gets warped when we indulge in the world's bait and get lost in sensual pursuits.
He elaborates further that although time is more valuable than material wealth or social status it is not given much attention because it is immaterial and invisible.
Those who are engrossed in life only become aware of this mistake only at the end. - Seneca
His call to action for the reader to is to invite him/her to give time for philosophy. The idea is simple. Instead of floundering in the present moment—like a fish floundering on the seashore gasping for water, use the human superpower of self-reflection to read and study the great philosophers on learn how to live a meaningful life.
He provides a bold claim that philosophy is a way to prolong mortality and even become immortal.
"The life of the philosopher, therefore, has wide range, and he is not confined by the same bounds that shut others in. He alone is freed from he limitations of the human race; all ages serve him as if a god. Has some time passed by? This he embraces by recollection. Is time present? This he uses. Is it still to come? This he anticipates. He makes his life long by combining all times into one."
I already knew I would enjoy the book before starting it, but the attention given to human beings' mortality was a nice treat.
As a side note, I have given up trying to discuss the topic of death with others—especially during the pandemic—and I have accepted it is not something the general public is interested in discussing. I have started to realize that I can discuss death with the dead (through books). These discussions seem like a more useful way to spend my time as I can find the answers I am seeking and I can avoid depressing people not interested in the topic, a real win-win.
The big takeaway from the book is to put more intention into my life. I gave this book a 3 out of 5 in the impact on perspective rating because I have already spent a lot of time reflecting on this during 2020.
I am reminded my mortality several times each day thanks to my handy Death Focus Google Chrome extension.
I don't talk about death for clout; my impending and uncertain death is the anchor for my daily mindfulness.
When I wake up, I think about death. It fills my mind as I go through my day as I perform the mundane and meaningful habits that make up my life. The certainty of my death is strangely the source of my motivation for life. Although I am a practicing Buddhist, the only figure I worship is Death (Grim Reaper). He does not tell me how to live life; he simply reminds me that time is quickly passing through my hands, and I need to act with awareness right now.
my disagreements with Seneca
1. Seneca seems to preach that outside of philosophy, all activities are a waste of time. It is hard to avoid the inherent bias trying to tell the general public to philosophize. I guess my disagreement is that I don't find philosophy as being qualitatively better than other activities. Compared to chess or watching sports, the activity of philosophy doesn't seem all that different for me when looking at it from a human life time perspective. These activities seem to have the same drawbacks for me, that they can quickly become compulsions, beliefs, and ideological frameworks.
2. Shaming people for sleepwalking their life is not the way to convince them to wake up. The initiative gets mucked up further by the current contrarian movement that has captured modern America's imagination, where everyone feels the need to feel extraordinary in the quest to soothe their egos. Showing the path you preach and inviting others to join is probably a more convincing way of approaching the topic.
defining meaningful leisure
Seneca's main point was to convince the public to pursue high-quality leisure instead of mind-numbing idle occupation that dominated most people's daily life. The advice is extremely practical as capitalism has morphed our free time into infinite jest.
The discussion gets more nuanced because there is a subjective element to this discussion, and people can view the same activity vastly differently. For example, the purest form of leisure, in my opinion, is sitting in a room and closing my eyes and doing nothing. For those chasing sense enjoyable activities out in the external world, my activity might seem borderline psychotic, lol. Vipassana mediation is my most prized possession because it is foundational for my core values and my character. I also find my inner world much more appealing than the external world.
I am more liberal when it comes to labeling activities as meaningful. If the activity supports your core values and you decide to do it through intention, then, by all means, live your life. The only thing that gives me pause is to make sure the activity is genuinely coming from you and has not been insidiously fed through Western culture.
I was very diligent about keeping track of my high-quality leisure activity during 2020!
overcoming sense pleasures in the quest for meaningful leisure. is there enough inertia for buy-in by the majority?
Short answer: no
Long answer: Excuse me while I get on my "fuck capitalism soapbox", it is hard to blame the individual given how modern society is set up.
Companies in our civilization are set up to consume limited resources for the sake of money. While it is obvious to see this unfold by looking at our current biosphere, it is not too much of a reach to see this process occurring in the biosphere of individual human minds. For the individual, the most limited resource is time, and social media companies are currently ruthlessly mining and monetizing our time. For most people, checking Twitter or Instagram is not intentional; it is purely a compulsion, a drug hit.
I am reminded of two quotes by the Buddha that are relevant to this discussion:
Death sweeps away the person obsessed with gathering flowers, as a great flood sweeps away a sleeping village. The person obsessed with gathering flowers, insatiable for sense pleasures is under the sway of Death. -Dhammapada, Flowers
Surrounded by craving, people run around like frightened hares. Held by fetter and bonds, they suffer, repeatedly, over a long time. -Dhammapada, Craving
The flowers and craving described by the Buddha are the biological drives of human nature that moves us anything pleasing and away from anything unpleasing. I want to clarify that I am not stating this as a belief system but as a frame of reference. My personal questions around Death is how to escape it. The path seems pretty clear, drop craving.
Does the general public have the motivation or tools to control and reign over these senses to pursue a meaningful life? That question might be too leading; maybe the better question is, do we really want to drop idle occupations?
If that is done, then what else is there to do and think about other than Death? Our compulsion to chase sense pleasures might just be a coping mechanism to avoid that fact that we are the only creature of this planet that knows we will die in the not too distant future.