June 4, 2009
By Gary Hayden
'It takes a great man, and one who has risen far above human weakness, not to allow any of his time to be filched from him."
- Roman philosopher Seneca
Last week, I celebrated my 45th birthday. I found myself reflecting, not for the first time, on just how quickly life flashes by. My teenage years are still fresh in my mind, yet they have now receded 30 years into the past. Statistically speaking, my death is closer than my birth.
These sobering thoughts prompted me to read something that was recommended some time ago by an MYB reader: Seneca's essay, On The Shortness Of Life. It has inspired me.
Seneca was a Roman politician and philosopher who lived from 4BC to 65AD. In his essay, perhaps his most celebrated work, he hammers home a simple yet profound truth: that life is plenty long enough provided we use it wisely.
The trouble, of course, is that very few of us do use it wisely. We treat time, our most precious commodity, as though it were of little value.
How we squander time
People often bemoan the shortness of life, said Seneca. In fact, time is not short; we make it so because we waste it.
'Princely wealth is scattered in a moment when it comes into the hands of a bad owner,' he wrote. In the same way, our allotted time, though quite sufficient if managed properly, is all too often squandered.
Much of his essay is taken up describing the many ways in which men and women fritter away their time. Space permits me to mention only a few, but I hope they will be sufficient to illustrate his point.
One of the biggest time-wasters is the pursuit of riches. We all must work to earn money to live, of course. We have little choice in that. But many people become, in Seneca's words, 'possessed by greed that is insatiable'. The acquisition of wealth comes to dominate their lives.
Often, these people are fully aware of their loss. 'You will hear many of those who are burdened by great prosperity cry out... 'I have no chance to live'," said Seneca. Yet their greed drives them on and on.
It is not only our working hours that can preoccupy us and filch away our time. Our leisure activities can be just as unrewarding. 'Would you say that that man is at leisure,' wrote Seneca, 'who arranges with [OBSESSIVE] care his Corinthian bronzes... and spends the greater part of each day upon bits of rusty copper?'
I myself learnt this lesson the hard way some years ago, when I played competitive chess. At first, I played simply for the joy of the game. As time went on, I became obsessed with improving and began to spend many irksome hours studying strategy, tactics, openings and end-games. What started out as a pleasure became a burden and a self-imposed one at that.
Another only-too-common way of squandering time is to sacrifice it to the whims of others. 'Men do not suffer anyone to seize their estates,' wrote Seneca, 'yet they allow others to trespass upon their time'.
These words strike a very deep chord in me. I can look back on many occasions when I have wasted precious hours, days and weeks on activities that hold no value for me. Why? Simply because someone else roped me into them.
'All those who summon you to themselves turn you away from your own self,' wrote Seneca. This is not to say that we should never offer our time to others. But we should do so only when we feel that the time is well spent.
In his essay, Seneca identified a host of other ways in which we fritter away the time of our lives. Interested readers can read all of them at: www.forumroma-num.org/literature/seneca_younger/brev_e.html
'Look back in memory,' he urged, 'and consider when you ever had a fixed plan, how few days have passed as you had intended, when you were ever at your own disposal, when your face ever wore its natural expression, when your mind was ever unperturbed, what work you have achieved in so long a life...'
This week, I leave you with these challenging words and will resume the discussion of Seneca's ideas in my next column.
Gary Hayden is a freelance writer who specialises in education, science, philosophy, health, well-being, travel and short fiction.