The lesson you don’t get in school: Seneca on learning how to live

My five year old sits at the table, pencil in hand, forming letters on the page. Most are clear enough, although his s’s, p’s and d’s are often reversed. He’s trying to remember to use full stops.

I’m constantly amazed that he is learning to read and write. I probably shouldn’t be.

As a civilisation we’re good at passing on some kinds of knowledge to the next generation. We have institutions with methods and policies for teaching things like literacy, numeracy, arts and sciences.

What we aren’t so good at is teaching — or learning — how to live a good life; to be compassionate, and psychologically healthy and resilient despite our circumstances.

Almost two thousand years ago, the Roman senator and philosopher Seneca saw this disconnect. Some of the most influential, educated and wealthy individuals of his day were unhappy and discontented, lamenting the shortness of life, despite the outward appearance of success and flourishing.

Seneca on the shortness of life book

This Stoic philosopher challenges us to think differently about what it means to live well. He wrote: “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long if you know how to use it.”

In his estimation there are many ways to waste life; all outward symptoms of the same inner malady — that of being preoccupied:

Just as travellers are beguiled by conversation or reading or some profound meditation, and find they have arrived at their destination before they knew they were approaching it; so it is with this unceasing and extremely fast-moving journey of life, which waking or sleeping we make at the same pace – the preoccupied become aware of it only when it is over.

Seneca is eloquent on the subject of the weaknesses and follies that subjectively shorten our lives. Through the lyrical prose he gives hints of an alternative way of being, what we would today call practising mindfulness and gratitude, or exercising control over consciousness.

Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and a weariness of the present.

Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.

He reminds us to allocate our time and attention carefully; to recognise that they are finite resources to be valued higher than our most treasured possessions. Then as now, days full of busy activity distract people while life slips away.

No one will bring back the years; no one will restore you to yourself. Life will follow the path it began to take, and 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 favour. As it started out on its first day, so it will run on, nowhere pausing or turning aside. What will be the outcome? You have been preoccupied while life hastens on. Meanwhile, death will arrive and you will have no choice in making yourself available for that.

We are living longer than ever before but still feel that life is short. Having more time prolongs existence, but doesn’t necessarily add quality or meaning.

The wisdom in this little bookhas been available to humankind for almost two thousand years. Yet we of the Digital Age are busier and more preoccupied than ever.

Why aren’t the lessons of philosophy embedded by now into our cultural DNA? Why aren’t we fed this knowledge as small children, as we are taught to read and write?

It seems that the kind of wisdom that is needed to live well cannot be learned from a book. It must be realised by each person individually through trial, error, and much practice and hard-won experience.

Education and a good upbringing help. Philosophy helps.

But, at the end of the day, as Seneca himself wrote, “learning how to live takes a whole life”.

If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy this piece on living for the future and this on the cognitive errors that make successful people unhappy.


Author: Rachel Linton

Psychologist, reader, writer from Sydney, Australia. On this blog I write about ideas from leading thinkers in a relatable way for our time. Enjoy xx

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