Sunday, July 24, 2016


I don't want to get to the end of my life
and find that I have lived just the length of it.
I want to have lived the width of it as well.

Diane Ackerman

People seem to be increasingly obsessed with longevity.  Indeed, the variety of products and programs advertised in the daily media suggest that people will pay almost anything for the promise of more length in their lives.  As Diane Ackerman reminds us, however, the width of life is no less important, and perhaps more important, than its length.  It is yet another example of where quality is more rewarding than quantity.

On this issue, as with so many other questions involving the art of living, some of the best advice comes from the Stoic writings of Seneca, the great Roman philosopher, dramatist, and essayist.  In his perceptive essay On the Shortness of Life, Seneca begins by noting that "most human beings . . . complain about the meanness of nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, and because this spell of time that has been given to us rushes by so swiftly and rapidly that with very few exceptions life ceases . . . just when we are getting ready for it."  He then lucidly states why the problem lies with our individual choices, not with some flaw in biological design: 

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 wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death's final constraint to realize 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.  Just as when ample and princely wealth falls to a bad owner it is squandered in a moment, but wealth however modest, if entrusted to a good custodian, increases with use, so our lifetime extends amply if you manage it properly.
Why do we complain about nature?  She has acted kindly: life is long if you know how to use it.
* * * * *

There are many instructors in the other arts to be found everywhere . . . 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.  So many of the finest men have . . . made it their one aim up to the end of their lives to know how to live.  Yet most have died confessing that they did not yet know — still less can those others know.  Believe me, it is the sign of a great man, and one who is above human error, not to allow his time to be frittered away: he has the longest possible life simply because whatever time was available he devoted entirely to himself.  None of it lay fallow and neglected, none of it under another's control; for being an extremely thrifty guardian of his time he never found anything for which it was worth exchanging.
* * * * *

Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present.  But the man who spends all his time on this own needs, who organizes every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day.

Selections from
On the Shortness of Life:
Life is Long if You Know How to Use It
(Penguin Books, Great Ideas Series)

Lucius Annaeus Seneca 
(Socrates on back side of bust)
Courtesy of Pergamonmuseum, Berlin


  1. "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" - WELL-SAID sir.

  2. Thanks, OE. Glad this resonated with you.

  3. Quality rather than quantity, George! Though I'm keen on a long life if I'm reasonably healthy.

    1. The key for me would be having sufficient health, both physically and mentally, to find a modicum of quality in my remaining days. If, for whatever reason, the quality became irretrievably lost, I would probably be happy to say "adios" with a wave of gratitude. I recognize, of course, that we never know the answers to these questions until they move beyond abstractions to something more immediate and concrete. In response the the question of "who on earth would want to to be 100 years old," someone has said, "everyone who is 99 years old."