Seneca: On how to live & die

“Learning how to live takes a whole life, and, which may surprise you more, it takes a whole life to learn how to die.”

               A beautiful little book by Seneca (4BC-AD 65) fell into my hands called On the shortness of life, title which - I must say - caught my attention straight away. As for a woman in her forties - thinking about life&death has become a daily activity of mine. This mainly means searching for ways to live life with acceptance towards ageing and death and perceiving it as a meaningful progress of my human condition. Accepting the uncomfortable abyss of existence and even developing an amor fati can be beautifully challenging though, beautiful in a poetic way. Learning to perceive that death is as necessary as life - shouldn’t be overlooked. Our western culture doesn’t wish to hear about death and would rather turn towards anything else which makes one forget about it, hence the fear of it is beyond our control. Focusing on what lies around (what is palpable) with an openness towards nature itself could help perceiving our and our loved one’s existence - with its ascent and descent - as our maturing and our return to where we came from. I can’t help but quote Epictetus: what you love is nothing of your own: it has been given to you for the present

Find below the synopsis of what I’ve found meaningful in Seneca’s book On the shortness of life.

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is [..] spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realise that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it.

[…] It is generally agreed that no activity can be successfully pursued by an individual who is preoccupied […] since the mind when distracted absorbs nothing deeply, but rejects everything which is, so to speak, crammed into it. Living is the least important activity of the preoccupied man; yet there is nothing which is harder to learn. But learning how to live takes a whole life, and, which may surprise you more, it takes a whole life to learn how to die.

Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present. But the man who […] organises every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day[…] Nothing can be taken from this life, and you can only add to it - as if giving to a man who is already full and satisfied - food which he does not want but can hold. So you must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long. For suppose you should think that a man had had a long voyage who had been caught in a raging storm as he left harbour, and carried hither and thither and driven round and round in a circle by the rage of opposing winds? He did not have a long voyage, just a long tossing about.

[…] Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow, and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.

[…]We are all tied to Fortune, some by a loose and golden chain, and others by a tight one of baser metal: but what does it matter? We are all held in the same captivity, and those who have bound others are themselves in bonds - unless you think perhaps that the left-hand chain is lighter. One man is bound by high office, another by wealth; good birth weighs down some, and a humble origin others; some bow under the rule of other men and some under their own; some are restricted to one place by exile, others by priesthoods: all life is a servitude. So you have to get used to your circumstances, complain about them as little as possible, and grasp whatever advantage they have to offer: no condition is so bitter that a stable mind cannot find some consolation in it.

[…]Think your way through difficulties: harsh conditions can be softened, restricted ones can be widened, and heavy ones can weigh less on those who know how to bear them. Moreover, we must not send our desires on a distant hunt, but allow them to explore what is near to hand, since they do not submit to being totally confined. Abandoning those things which are impossible or difficult to attain, let us pursue what is readily available and entices our hopes, yet recognise that all are equally trivial, outwardly varied in appearance but uniformly futile within. And let us no envy those who stand higher than we do: what look like towering heights are precipices.

[The wise man] does not have to walk nervously or cautiously, for he has such self-confidence that he does not hesitate to make a stand against Fortune and will never give ground to her. He has no reason to fear her, since he regards as held on loan not only his goods and possessions and status, but even his body, his eyes and hand, and all that makes life more dear, and his very self; and he lives as though he were lent to himself and bound to return the loan on demand without complaint. Nor is he thereby cheap in his own eyes, because he knows he is not his own, but he will act in all things as carefully and meticulously as a devout and holy man guards anything entrusted to him. And whenever he is ordered to repay his debt he will not complain to Fortune, but he will say: “I thank you for what I have possessed and held. I have looked after your property to my great benefit, but at your command I give and yield it with gratitude and good will. If you want me still to have anything of yours, I shall keep it safe; if you wish otherwise, I give back and restore to you my silver […] my house and my household.”

Should Nature demand back what she previously entrusted to us, we shall say to her too: Take back my spirit in better shape than when you gave it. I do not quibble or hang back, I am willing for you to have straightway what you gave me before I was conscious – take it.” What is the harm in returning to the point whence you came? He will live badly who does not know how to die well. So we must strip off the value we set on this thing and recon the breath of life as something cheap.” (Seneca, On the shortness of life)

The barricade (I’m still far from being what I want to be),/oil on canvas/120x90cm

Notes from the attic is exactly what it says. I’m living in a tiny attic, the place of the creative joy and struggle of my life. These blog notes are timely fragments of the books that make me wonder about life, about the journey between my birth and death. This journey seems to have only one purpose: to find the way to myself. You are welcome to explore my paintings on this website  and connect with me through instagram or facebook, or you can subscribe to my monthly newsletter to hear about new works or notes from the attic.


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