Poem of the Day: from De brevitate vitae (On the shortness of life) by Seneca

Chapters I-II-III

I. The majority of mortals, Paulinus, complain bitterly of the spitefulness of Nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, because even this space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live. Nor is it merely the common herd and the unthinking crowd that bemoan what is, as men deem it, an universal ill; the same feeling has called forth complaint also from men who were famous. It was this that made the greatest of physicians exclaim that “life is short, art is long;” it was this that led Aristotle, while expostulating with Nature, to enter an indictment most unbecoming to a wise man—that, in point of age, she has shown such favour to animals that they drag out five or ten lifetimes, but that a much shorter limit is fixed for man, though he is born for so many and such great achievements. It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested. But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing. So it is—the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it. Just as great and princely wealth is scattered in a moment when it comes into the hands of a bad owner, while wealth however limited, if it is entrusted to a good guardian, increases by use, so our life is amply long for him who orders it properly.

II. Why do we complain of Nature? She has shown herself kindly; life, if you know how to use it, is long. But one man is possessed by an avarice that is insatiable, another by a toilsome devotion to tasks that are useless; one man is besotted with wine, another is paralyzed by sloth; one man is exhausted by an ambition that always hangs upon the decision of others, another, driven on by the greed of the trader, is led over all lands and all seas by the hope of gain; some are tormented by a passion for war and are always either bent upon inflicting danger upon others or concerned about their own; some there are who are worn out by voluntary servitude in a thankless attendance upon the great; many are kept busy either in the pursuit of other men’s fortune or in complaining of their own; many, following no fixed aim, shifting and inconstant and dissatisfied, are plunged by their fickleness into plans that are ever new; some have no fixed principle by which to direct their course, but Fate takes them unawares while they loll and yawn—so surely does it happen that I cannot doubt the truth of that utterance which the greatest of poets delivered with all the seeming of an oracle:“The part of life we really live is small.” For all the rest of existence is not life, but merely time. Vices beset us and surround us on every side, and they do not permit us to rise anew and lift up our eyes for the discernment of truth, but they keep us down when once they have overwhelmed us and we are chained to lust. Their victims are never allowed to return to their true selves; if ever they chance to find some release, like the waters of the deep sea which continue to heave even after the storm is past, they are tossed about, and no rest from their lusts abides. Think you that I am speaking of the wretches whose evils are admitted? Look at those whose prosperity men flock to behold; they are smothered by their blessings. To how many are riches a burden! From how many do eloquence and the daily straining to display their powers draw forth blood! How many are pale from constant pleasures! To how many does the throng of clients that crowd about them leave no freedom! In short, run through the list of all these men from the lowest to the highest—this man desires an advocate, this one answers the call, that one is on trial, that one defends him, that one gives sentence; no one asserts his claim to himself, everyone is wasted for the sake of another. Ask about the men whose names are known by heart, and you will see that these are the marks that distinguish them: A cultivates B and B cultivates C; no one is his own master. And then certain men show the most senseless indignation—they complain of the insolence of their superiors, because they were too busy to see them when they wished an audience! But can anyone have the hardihood to complain of the pride of another when he himself has no time to attend to himself? After all, no matter who you are, the great man does sometimes look toward you even if his face is insolent, he does sometimes condescend to listen to your words, he permits you to appear at his side; but you never deign to look upon yourself, to give ear to yourself. There is no reason, therefore, to count anyone in debt for such services, seeing that, when you performed them, you had no wish for another’s company, but could not endure your own.

III. Though all the brilliant intellects of the ages were to concentrate upon this one theme, never could they adequately express their wonder at this dense darkness of the human mind. Men do not suffer anyone to seize their estates, and they rush to stones and arms if there is even the slightest dispute about the limit of their lands, yet they allow others to trespass upon their life—nay, they themselves even lead in those who will eventually possess it. No one is to be found who is willing to distribute his money, yet among how many does each one of us distribute his life! In guarding their fortune men are often closefisted, yet, when it comes to the matter of wasting time, in the case of the one thing in which it is right to be miserly, they show themselves most prodigal. And so I should like to lay hold upon someone from the company of older men and say: “I see that you have reached the farthest limit of human life, you are pressing hard upon your hundredth year, or are even beyond it; come now, recall your life and make a reckoning. Consider how much of your time was taken up with a moneylender, how much with a mistress, how much with a patron, how much with a client, how much in wrangling with your wife, how much in punishing your slaves, how much in rushing about the city on social duties. Add the diseases which we have caused by our own acts, add, too, the time that has lain idle and unused; you will see that you have fewer years to your credit than you count. Look back in memory 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, how many have robbed you of life when you were not aware of what you were losing, how much was taken up in useless sorrow, in foolish joy, in greedy desire, in the allurements of society, how little of yourself was left to you; you will perceive that you are dying before your season!” What, then, is the reason of this? You live as if you were destined to live forever, no thought of your frailty ever enters your head, of how much time has already gone by you take no heed. You squander time as if you drew from a full and abundant supply, though all the while that day which you bestow on some person or thing is perhaps your last. You have all the fears of mortals and all the desires of immortals. You will hear many men saying: “After my fiftieth year I shall retire into leisure, my sixtieth year shall release me from public duties.” And what guarantee, pray, have you that your life will last longer? Who will suffer your course to be just as you plan it? Are you not ashamed to reserve for yourself only the remnant of life, and to set apart for wisdom only that time which cannot be devoted to any business? How late it is to begin to live just when we must cease to live! What foolish forgetfulness of mortality to postpone wholesome plans to the fiftieth and sixtieth year, and to intend to begin life at a point to which few have attained!

translated by John W. Basore


I. Maior pars mortalium, Pauline, de naturae malignitate conqueritur, quod in exiguum aevi gignamur, quod haec tam velociter, tam rapide dati nobis temporis spatia decurrant, adeo ut exceptis admodum paucis ceteros in ipso vitae apparatu vita destituat. Nec huic publico, ut opinantur, malo turba tantum et imprudens1 volgus ingemuit; clarorum quoque virorum hic affectus querellas evocavit. Inde illa maximi medicorum exclamatio est: ‘vitam brevem esse, longam artem’; inde Aristotelis cum rerum natura exigentis minime conveniens sapienti viro lis: ‘aetatis illam animalibus tantum indulsisse, ut quina aut dena saecula educerent, homini in tam multa ac magna genito tanto citeriorem terminum stare.’ Non exiguum temporis habemus, sed multum perdimus. Satis longa vita et in maximarum rerum consummationem large data est, si tota bene collocaretur; sed ubi per luxum ac neglegentiam diffluit, ubi nulli bonae rei impenditur, ultima demum necessitate cogente quam ire non intelleximus transisse sentimus. Ita est: non accipimus brevem vitam, sed facimus, nec inopes eius sed prodigi sumus. Sicut amplae et regiae opes, ubi ad malum dominum pervenerunt, momento dissipantur, at quamvis modicae, si bono custodi traditae sunt, usu crescunt, ita aetas nostra bene disponenti multum patet.

II. Quid de rerum natura querimur? Illa se benigne gessit; vita, si uti scias, longa est. At alium insatiabilis tenet avaritia, alium in supervacuis laboribus operosa sedulitas; alius vino madet, alius inertia torpet; alium defatigat ex alienis iudiciis suspensa semper ambitio, alium mercandi praeceps cupiditas circa omnis terras, omnia maria spe lucri ducit; quosdam torquet cupido militiae numquam non aut alienis periculis intentos aut suis anxios; sunt quos ingratus superiorum cultus voluntaria servitute consumat; multos aut affectatio alienae fortunae aut suae querella detinuit; plerosque nihil certum sequentis vaga et inconstans et sibi displicens levitas per nova consilia iactavit; quibusdam nihil, quo cursum derigant, placet, sed marcentis oscitantisque fata deprendunt, adeo ut quod apud maximum poetarum more oraculi dictum est, verum esse non dubitem: “Exigua pars est vitae, qua vivimus.” Ceterum quidem omne spatium non vita sed tempus est. Urgent et circumstant vitia undique nec resurgere aut in dispectum veri attollere oculos sinunt, sed immersos et in cupiditatem infixos premunt. Numquam illis recurrere ad se licet; si quando aliqua fortuito quies contigit, velut profundum mare, in quo post ventum quoque volutatio est, fluctuantur nec umquam illis a cupiditatibus suis otium stat. De istis me putas dicere, quorum in confesso mala sunt? Aspice illos, ad quorum felicitatem concurritur; bonis suis offocantur. Quam multis divitiae graves sunt! Quam multorum eloquentia et cotidiana1 ostentandi ingenii sollicitatio2 sanguinem educit! Quam multi continuis voluptatibus pallent! Quam multis nihil liberi relinquit circumfusus clientium populus! Omnis denique istos ab infimis usque ad summos pererra: hic advocat, hic adest, ille periclitatur, ille defendit, ille iudicat, nemo se sibi vindicat, alius in alium consumitur. Interroga de istis, quorum nomina ediscuntur, his illos dinosci videbis notis: ille illius cultor est, hic illius; suus nemo est. Deinde dementissima quorundam indignatio est: queruntur de superiorum fastidio, quod ipsis adire volentibus non vacaverint! Audet quisquam de alterius superbia queri, qui sibi ipse numquam vacat? Ille tamen te, quisquis es, insolenti quidem vultu sed aliquando respexit, ille aures suas ad tua verba demisit, ille te ad latus suum recepit; tu non inspicere te umquam, non audire dignatus es. Non est itaque, quod ista officia cuiquam imputes, quoniam quidem, cum illa faceres, non esse cum alio volebas, sed tecum esse non poteras. 

III. Omnia licet, quae umquam ingenia fulserunt, in hoc unum consentiant, numquam satis hanc humanarum mentium caliginem mirabuntur. Praedia sua occupari a nullo patiuntur et, si exigua contentio est de modo finium, ad lapides et arma discurrunt; in vitam suam incedere alios sinunt, immo vero ipsi etiam possessores eius futuros inducunt. Nemo invenitur, qui pecuniam suam dividere velit; vitam unusquisque quam multis distribuit! Adstricti sunt in continendo patrimonio, simul ad iacturam temporis ventum est, profusissimi in eo, cuius unius honesta avaritia est. Libet itaque ex seniorum turba comprendere aliquem: “Pervenisse te ad ultimum aetatis humanae videmus, centesimus tibi vel supra premitur annus; agedum, ad computationem aetatem tuam revoca. Duc, quantum ex isto tempore creditor, quantum amica, quantum rex, quantum cliens abstulerit, quantum lis uxoria, quantum servorum coercitio, quantum officiosa per urbem discursatio. Adice morbos, quos manu fecimus, adice et quod sine usu iacuit; videbis te pauciores annos habere quam numeras. Repete memoria tecum, quando certus consilii fueris, quotus quisque dies ut destinaveras processerit, quando tibi usus tui fuerit, quando in statu suo vultus, quando animus intrepidus, quid tibi in tam longo aevo facti operis sit, quam multi vitam tuam diripuerint te non sentiente quid perderes, quantum vanus dolor, stulta laetitia, avida cupiditas, blanda conversatio abstulerit, quam exiguum tibi de tuo relictum sit; intelleges te immaturum mori.” Quid ergo est in causa? Tamquam semper victuri vivitis, numquam vobis fragilitas vestra succurrit, non observatis, quantum iam temporis transierit; velut ex pleno et abundanti perditis, cum interim fortasse ille ipse qui alicui1 vel homini vel rei donatur dies ultimus sit. Omnia tamquam mortales timetis, omnia tamquam immortales concupiscitis. Audies plerosque dicentes: “A quinquagesimo anno in otium secedam, sexagesimus me annus ab officiis dimittet.” Et quem tandem longioris vitae praedem accipis? Quis ista sicut disponis ire patietur? Non pudet te reliquiae vitae tibi reservare et id solum tempus bonae menti destinare, quod in nullam rem conferri possit? Quam serum est tunc vivere incipere, cum desinendum est! Quae tam stulta mortalitatis oblivio in quinquagesimum et sexagesimum annum differre sana consilia et inde velle vitam inchoare, quo pauci perduxerunt!


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