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On the Shortness of Life by Seneca

14 April 2009

Although this review was written after those of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and William Hazlitt’s On the Pleasure of Hating, this volume happens to be the first book (chronologically speaking) in Penguin’s Great Ideas series.

On the Shortness of Life by Seneca (Penguin Great Ideas Series)

The amount of solid historical information on the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 5 BCE – 65 CE) is relatively thin, and most of what is known about him comes from his own writings and from scattered (and not always impartial) sources. What is certainly known is that he came from a distinguished family, and followed in his rhetorician father’s footsteps by getting involved in the turbulent political scene of the Roman Empire in the first century CE. Although his everyday life was caught up in the intrigue and violence that surrounded the affairs of emperors Caligula, Claudius, and Nero, Seneca’s thoughts and writings focused primarily on the contemplative life and bear out his devotion to the ideals of Stoic philosophy. Yet even after he had left public life, the continuing drama of the imperial family was never far away, and eventually Seneca fell victim to rumours that he had been part of a plot to assassinate Emperor Nero. He was ordered to commit suicide, which he did through the traditional method of opening veins to die of exsanguination. Although his personal reputation suffered somewhat from continuing rumours and criticism after his death, many of his writings have survived, including the three essays selected for On the Shortness of Life.

The Great Ideas selection of Seneca’s works contains three essays: De Brevitate Vitae (On the Shortness of Life), Ad Helviam matrem, De consolatione (Consolation to Helvia), and De Tranquillitate Animi (On Tranquility of Mind). The first, an essay written to his friend Paulinus, dwells on the sad condition of those who have little or no idea of how to live their lives, and waste their days and hours in meaningless frivolities or in frenzied and often fruitless activity. Contrary to those who fret about the shortness of a man’s time on earth, Seneca declares that ‘life is long if you know how to use it’, and recommends that Paulinus use his time well by turning to the writers of philosophers to learn more about how to live and die without fears or regrets. Continuing in this vein, the second essay is in the form of a letter addressed to his mother Helvia, providing her with consolation at the news that he would be sent into exile (written when he was banished at the behest of Emperor Claudius in 42 CE). Seneca takes an unconventional approach to dealing with the expectation of his mother’s grief: he informs her, with extensive biographical detail, of all of the sorrows and losses of her life, from the loss of her mother in childbirth to the deaths of her grandchildren and her husband, and then urges her to conquer this new grief as she has conquered others in the past — with patience and reason, neither distracting herself with trivialities or spending her time moaning and weeping over something that cannot be changed. The final essay, in the form of a exchange between Seneca and his friend Serenus, presents the latter as a ‘patient’ seeking a remedy for the frequent distractions of life that trouble his thoughts. Seneca, in keeping with Stoic philosophy, prescribes moderation in all things as physic for an unquiet mind, and cautions his friend that he will have to actively choose that path of moderation, and not be dissuaded from it by the course of events, whether good or ill. In all three selections, Seneca displays the characteristics beliefs of his chosen philosophy: the embrace of reason and harmony with nature, an acceptance of suffering in life and an attempt to learn from those sufferings, and the importance of finding peace within oneself both in life and in death.

On the Shortness of Life is a fine introduction to Seneca’s writings, translated in a very readable style by classical scholar C.D.N. Costa. The only real flaw in this edition is that the texts presented, however straightforward and enjoyable to read in their own right, tend to lack context without even a brief introduction. A simple one- or two-page preface to introduce Seneca as a historical and literary figure and possibly even provide some background information on the three texts included in the book would have greatly improved the edition as a whole. Even so, this first volume is a decent start to the Great Ideas series, and may best be read in conjunction with the later Stoic Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

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One comment

  1. Very good to-the-point review.

    I own Jonh Davie’s translation which does have a significant introduction to set the tone.

    I read Marcus Aurelius “Meditations” before these essays, and while I prefer Marcus’ format for everyday re-reading, there is no doubt Seneca had a firm writting that aced the subject matter time and time again.

    As far as practical philosphy goes, I’ve yet to find better than these stoic authors.



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