Life isn’t short: But we’ve learnt to squander our time like spendthrifts

SUMMER’S lease is drawing to a close again. With less than a month until the autumnal equinox on 22 September, we’re running out of time to complain about the disappointing weather or attempt to cook burgers in one another’s backyards. Or, from another point of view, there’s four weeks left before the summer of 2012 is over: what shall we do with all that time?

Two thousand years ago, Lucius Anneus Seneca, the Roman philosopher who tutored the Emperor Nero, wrote to his friend Paulinus about this dilemma. His essay, known today as On The Shortness of Life, is a short, brilliant argument for the latter school of thought. Its message can be summed up as: life isn’t short.

“So it is – the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we lack time, but we waste it. A fortune can be lost in a night if it comes into the hands of a bad owner, while wealth, however limited, grows if the capital is carefully invested. Our life is long enough for anyone who uses it well.”

Seneca’s bold assertions turn the table on our comfortable assumptions that scarcity of time is a problem we inherit. Instead, he sees it as a moral failing that we bring upon ourselves: “Why blame Nature? She’s everyone’s angel investor. Life, if you spend your days right, is enough to make you rich. But one woman is consumed by greed she can’t satisfy, another slaves away completing jobs that are pointless; one man drowns his passion in claret, another can’t get out of bed.”

Those two quotes, admittedly somewhat freely translated, reveal another surprising side to Seneca’s argument – his return to the metaphor of finance throughout the essay. Seneca was a wealthy man himself, who knew the value of money. He argues that we have a mental blind spot when it comes to our time, that we waste it as we never would our fortunes. We understand that money is scarce and has to be put to its best uses. We understand that there are property rights in money, and we have the right to spend our own money as we see fit. But, says Seneca, most of us fritter away our limited supply of days like the worst kind of spendthrift government. Worse still, we’re practically communist in the way we leave the disposal of our own time to the whims of others: “No one asserts his claim to himself, everyone is wasted for the sake of another.”

It’s no surprise that Seneca’s words continue to have resonance in our world of time-poor, always-on lives. Tim Ferriss, the author of the bestselling advice book The Four-Hour Workweek, admits that On The Shortness of Life is one of his favourite books. Nassim Taleb of Black Swan fame is another Seneca fan. For City-dwellers readjusting to the rigours of work after the long holiday, the ancient philosopher is a useful touchstone to remind us to treat our precious time with the same respect we give to money.

First published: City A.M., 24/8/12

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Filed under Human nature, Liberal education, Literature

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