Seneca – On the Shortness of Life. How much time do I have left, and have I spent it properly? These are questions that we all eventually ask ourselves.
To think about time is, in many ways, to think about mortality, and there’s nothing more difficult to face than our own destruction. But, the most difficult problems to face are often the ones most worth solving. If we can learn to face time courageously, what can’t we face? If we can overcome the fear of all fears, what can’t we overcome?
In this article, I want to share with you three ways of seeing time—from the Stoic philosopher Seneca’s point of view—that I found useful. Seneca starts by viewing time as money. Let me ask you a question: how much money is a lot? Is it $100 000, $1 000 000, or maybe $1 000 000 000?
Seneca would say that the answer actually lies within the person who carries it and not within the money itself. When we have a certain amount of money, we have to choose where to invest it. For example, we can put it into a bank, a stock, a business, a good, or a service, and some investments are better than others. We can invest money in ways the brings us more wealth or joy.
On the flip side, we can invest money in ways that bring us less wealth or joy. Because of this, it’s hard to say how much money is a lot. For a person who doesn’t know how to wisely invest their money, no amount will be enough. They’ll never accumulate wealth or find joy because they spend it poorly. But, give money to a wise person, and they can always make the most of it.
Seneca says that time is the same way. A good investor can always make the most out of any amount of time. In this view, life isn’t short in any absolute sense. Instead, it’s length is really a function of how we choose to spend it. One might ask, “what’s the right way to invest our time?” Before we get to that, let me present you with the second image.
Imagine time as a river. We’re carried along by its current, and eventually, it’ll come to an end. We have no idea how long we’ll be carried for because we have no idea where the river ends. Whether you like it or not, the river will continue to carry you. It continues to flow regardless of how you feel about it.
Seneca reminds us not to sacrifice every present moment worrying about the future. We can’t be certain when we’ll meet our end, so it would be a real shame to sacrifice every present moment for a future one that never comes. The future is uncertain, but the present is guaranteed. Let each moment be complete in itself and enjoy the flow.
So, now we have two images: money and a river. Time is flowing, and it must be spent, but where should we spend it? Imagine that you are given a bucket of water and a set of cups. You must choose which cups to pour the water into. The bucket of water represents the time that you are given in life. Each cup represents an event: a thing you could do in the present moment. When you pour the water into a cup, you create a memory.
How good we perceive our lives to be often depends on our memories. Good memories, good life. Bad memories, bad life. Which cups should we pour our water into? Where should we spend our time? What memories should we create? Seneca argues that most cups are a waste of time. They’re bad investments because they’ll decay over time: the glass will crack, the water will leak out, and we’ll look back and realize that we’ve spent our time poorly. In other words, we’ve created bad memories.
No amount of water is enough for the person who pours it into glasses that will crack because, whenever they go to drink it, they find that nothing is left. The only cup that will not decay, for Seneca, is philosophy: the study of virtue, Truth, life, and death. Everything in the world decays, except for maybe Truth.
The Philosopher seeks truth about the way the world is and how we ought to act. Seneca argues that following the path of the Philosopher is the best way to spend our time because it’s the best chance we have at pouring our water into cups that won’t decay.
For Seneca, life is not short in itself but in how we choose to spend it, and the best way to spend our time, in each present moment, is in the pursuit of truth and virtue. In other words, the best way to spend our time is in becoming timeless.
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