Book review: On the Shortness of Life

Book cover for On the Shortness of Life by Seneca (Penguin Great Ideas)

Over the last couple of years, I’ve developed an interest in Stoicism. I’m not sure how it started, although I’d bet it had a lot to do with Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman’s book The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living, which I read in 2018. What triggered me to dig further was the relevance of the passages in the book. They were written by philosophers over 2,000 years ago and are just as applicable today as they were then. It’s a testament to the constant of human nature. The times, the problems, and the technologies change, but the way we are wired is constant.

To develop a better understanding of Stoicism, I decided it was time to read the writings of the more notable Stoic philosophers from ancient Rome and Greece. I’ve read plenty of quotes from Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Seneca, Socrates, Zeno, Cato, and others, but I wanted to read the books and letters where the quotes originated since it’s not uncommon for quotes to be taken out of context.

For my first in depth reading, I choose On The Shortness of Life, which is a collection of three letter written by Seneca.

On the Shortness of Life is a short read, but it’s not a light one. It consists of three letters – On the Shortness of Life (written to Paulinus), Consolation to Helvia (Seneca’s mother), and On Tranquility of Mind. Each letter has an overarching theme, which is generally embodied in the titles they’ve been given, but all are loosely related as well. While you could easily plow through the book in an hour or two, it’s not meant to be read that way. It’s a meditative read that forces you to examine your thoughts and actions. What amazes me is that the letters would be just as applicable if there were written over the last six months rather than 2,000 years ago.

For example, take these passages that I stitched together from Seneca’s letter, On the Shortness of Life:

People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy…. You are living as if destined to live for ever; your own frailty never occurs to you; you don’t notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply…. 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! And yet it is easy to organize an amount, however small, which is assured; we have to be more careful in preserving what will cease at an unknown point…. 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 its swiftness, but glide on quietly. It will not lengthen itself for a king’s command or a people’s favor. As it started on its first day, so it will run on, nowhere pausing or turning aside….

And this is just a sampling of what you will find in each of the letters. The thoughts are deep, the observations on life poignant, and the lessons invaluable.

Is it a book you must read? I’d say it depends. If you’re just getting into Stoicism, I’d say this is a book you want to wait on. I’d suggest building a foundation first. On the other hand, if you’ve been interested in the philosophy, have started studying it, and are ready to swim into the deep end, then you’ll enjoy On the Shortness of Life. I certainly did.