On the Shortness of Life (De Brevitate Vitae)

A treatise on the art of living

On the Shortness of Life, written by Roman stoic philosopher Seneca (5BC-65AD), is a short treatise covering a range of subjects including morality, reason and the art of living. Key musings from the book include:

On living

‘You must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long.’

On worry

‘There will always be causes for anxiety, whether due to prosperity or to wretchedness. Life will be driven on through a succession of preoccupations: we shall always long for leisure, but never enjoy it.’

On Suffering

‘In any situation in life you will find delights and relaxations and pleasures if you are prepared to make light of your troubles and not let them distress you. In no respect has nature put us more in her debt, since, knowing to what sorrows we were born, she contrived habit to soothe our disasters, and so quickly makes us grow used to the worst ills. No one could endure lasting adversity if it continued to have the same force as when it first hit us.’

On envy

‘Let us not envy those who stand higher than we do: what look like towering heights are precipices.’ ‘What can happen to one can happen to all’

On sources of happiness

‘We are born under circumstances that would be favourable if we did not abandon them. It was nature’s intention that there should be no need of great equipment for life: every individual can make himself happy. External goods are of trivial importance and without much influence in either direction: prosperity does not elevate the sage and adversity does not depress him.’...‘How then can you think that it is the amount of money that matters and not the attitude of mind?'

On greed

‘Just as no amount of fluid will satisfy one whose craving arises not from lack of water but from burning internal fever...in every desire which arises not from a lack but from a vice...However much you heap up for it will not mark the end of greed, only a stage in it. So the man who restrains himself with the bounds set by nature will not notice poverty; the man who exceeds these bounds will be pursued by poverty however rich he is.'

On grief

‘It is better to conquer our grief than deceive it. For if it has withdrawn, being merely beguiled by pleasures and preoccupations, it starts up again and from its very respite gains force to savage us. But the grief that has been conquered by reason is calmed forever.’

On approach to life

‘Unless you regard anything that can happen as bound to happen you give adversity a power over you which the man who sees it first can crush.’…’that is why we say that nothing happens to the wise man against his expectations.’ ‘no condition is so bitter that a stable mind cannot find some consolation in it.’

On work

‘Just as you must not force fertile farmland, as uninterrupted productivity will soon exhaust it, so constant effort will sap our mental vigour, while a short period of rest and relaxation will restore our powers.’

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