Seneca ON THE SHORTNESS OF LIFE (49)


DON’T SELL YOURSELF SHORT Every summer I do a day’s obligatory service on my dear aunt’s farm, and this year, that meant clearing out the sheep stable as their gross domestic product was by now close to a metre high and densely layered into a rock-hard crust. Even the sheep had to duck under the doorframe to get in. Dirty work, but someone’s got to shovel: my job was to dig down and pitch the manure into a barrow and then tip it into a ditch a short trundle away. After the first fifty barrows or so I began to reflect on Albert Camus’s famous essay on ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ (1942), and found his solution to life's absurdity a little wanting. Camus would have us believe that Sisyphus, condemned by the gods to eternally push that boulder up a mountain only to watch it roll down again, could find satisfaction purely through his commitment to the task and in his refusal to let the ordained punishment get him down. Camus wanted readers to conclude that their defiance of authority is a joy in itself, even if the means of doing so seem futile. But, as the shoveling began to take its toll on my left palm, left heel, right calf and in my rapidly aging gluteus maximus, it seemed to me that Camus’s parable of the rock had human limits. As with the placebo effect, you can’t just con yourself into believing something because you know a belief will keep you healthy; you have to believe in it for reasons which are ultimately rational, i. e., that the claims for the medicine might just be true, or that your work might just be enough to impress the gods and get you off the eschatological hook. Camus’s noble incitement to resistance seems plausible only from the perspective of a mythic figure whose strength never fails and who has all eternity to potter around in. It doesn’t take into account our finite lifespans, our weakening bodies and the possibility that there might be something better to do with our lives than roll a rock or shovel sheepishly. THE BREVITY OF LIFE In his essay ‘On the Shortness of Life’, Seneca exploits these human conditions to great effect. It is fantastic at conveying a sense of terrific urgency. As you’d expect from an essay about life’s brevity, Seneca’s message to posterity is to make us aware of this and show us how it can be best lived, but the occasion for the essay’s composition had a more practical purpose: to console a senior civil servant (presumed to be his father-in-law) whose successful working life as the grain distributor for the Roman Empire was now drawing to a close. How does one enjoy retirement? By learning that a short life can still be good—perfect even—so long as you are doing exactly what you want. Each day should be lived like an ideal complete life in miniature, with time proportioned out for the activities which you find most beneficial, and that way, you’ll be sure to feel contented with what you've done should providence decide to terminate your contract. Do you really want to go and meet your maker after moving a mountain of sheep manure? Or will you stride confidently into Hades knowing you seized the day by the short and curlies? LIFE’S BREVITY It’s a shame to subject Seneca’s rhetoric to tests for consistency when what counts is its power to move. But thegoverning principle of the argument is fairly sound: maximise doing things that you yourself truly value. Superficially, this would appear to license a potentially brutal epicureanism or even anticipate the utilitarians of the nineteenth century if it wasn’t for the fact that Seneca’s philosophical stoicism means that what counts as being of value is refreshingly narrow and prescriptive. For Seneca, you are living your life wisely if a) you spend time in the company of Aristotle, Zeno, Theophrastus, Democritus, etc., b) consider the secrets of nature with the aim of discovering their underlying rational causes, c) live each day in full awareness of the choices you have made, and d) implicitly, establish a healthy routine of rest and exercise so that those higher aims can be pursued most effectively. SHORT-LIFE As far as principles go, these would seem fairly robust, if obviously easier to uphold when the lure of sensuous indulgence is not so keenly felt, for example, when retirement has enabled you to be your own boss and devote all your time to the things that really matter. But what most convinces is Seneca’s contempt for the way in which his contemporaries wasted their lives, and there are many engaging vignettes to this effect. His examples are often surprisingly modern. For Seneca, you are wasting your life if: • You watch young men engaged in Greek wrestling • Spend days getting baked in the sun • Stay at work toiling for someone else’s benefit until the security guards come • Put forward pedantic proofs as to why the Iliad precedes the Odyssey or vice versa • Take pride in your collection of bronzes and polish them at any free moment • Retire from public commercial business only to focus on private commercial business • Play checkers, cards, or ball games of any sort • Watch violent spectacles at the local stadium involving cruelty to animals, especially elephants • Give time to friends who only keep your company for prestige • Live like a sybarite and let yourself be pampered out of existence • Do work that is beneath human dignity, which is like making a racehorse carry coal • Work half a life pursuing greatness to spend the other half worrying your greatness is gone • Believe that you do a great service by turning up to your post exhausted and half-dead • Imagine an exciting future will redeem your dull unaccomplished present • Lounge around sleeping a lot • Host ostentatious parties and take pains to ensure your servants’ uniforms look sexy • Become afraid to reflect on your past through fear that you’ll recognise yourself a wastrel • Visit the hairdressers daily so that every ringlet is perfectly curled and cut • Drink or feed the appetites of the flesh, and that goes for sex too, which is unmanly • Attend to your bucket-list at fifty or sixty when there’s no guarantee you’ll even be alive. If, for Seneca, drinking and carousing with women are the most shameful wastes of time, and intrinsically figured as feminine insofar as they involve ingestion and the satisfaction of the belly (yeah…), then it is for procrastination that he reserves his worst spleen. Postponement is the most maddening vice of all because then you are not even wasting your time indulging lesser pursuits, but merely persisting; buffeted by the waves of impulse from below and obligations from above, all the while living under the grotesquely naïve illusion that you have endless time. As a child or teen, such an outlook is plausible, but as an aging adult it’s worse than pathetic. And today, it’s hard not to be taken in by Seneca’s account given, that we want to believe that the ancients can still speak to us directly, because if their concerns seem important to us now, then perhaps our present concerns are equally of substance. SHT LVE If what you do isn’t contributing to the goal of human understanding through science or a generalised notion of philosophy, then you are not living in accordance with your dignity as a rational human being. Nor are you helping others achieve this through setting a good example. Even if deliberate as opposed to passively accepted, living a life consciously devoted to the lower passions is not good enough for Seneca because such pursuits are constitutively irrational. Only rational pursuits stand the test of time, he would argue, and only rational pursuits truly do service to others and are inherently moral.


Now, if by rational pursuits Seneca means contemplating the laws of the universe through philosophy and science, then what are we to make of this task today, given that specialisation precludes the possibility of realising Marx and Engel’s old joke on the fully developed individual in ‘The German Ideology’ (1845-6) as someone who can ‘hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening and criticises after dinner’ without being identified with any one separate role? More simply, how do we know in advance whether our work or activities are heading in the right direction in terms of deciphering nature’s laws or uncovering some of the essential metaphysical mysteries of humankind? What if, in short, it was necessary for me to have physically toiled in the sheep stable so that I could ponder these ideas while my aunt treated herself to a nice cup of chai and contemplated the greening of the grass? Alas, such thoughts as these can only be achieved come bathtime.

© 2020 Matthew Travers—website design by Mano Kapazoglou