Friday, January 29, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 49 - On the Shortness of Life

On the Shortness of Life

Just last night, my wife and I were watching an episode from The Crown which had such an insightful scene.  The princess Alice and her brother Lord Mountbatten share a quiet moment in her bedroom - both of them very elderly having lived full lives and now both are contemplating their lots in life.  Lord Mountbatten had recently tried to start a coup of the government and was told to stop by the Queen.  He who commanded armies and lived a life for his country and who was trying to help his country again, was told to stop, by his niece.  Princess Alice tells him that around the age of 70, she realized she was only a participant in life, to which he replies that he's discovered that himself!  But here are these two royals, one who lived the royal life and the other as a nun, and at the end of their long lives, they realize that indeed, much is out of their control.  But they still fought and did their best for what they thought was right.

Another thought struck me as I watched this scene again - it was like watching two children talk in contemplation after the return from a long day of play and they chat and laugh and then go to bed.  Life can seem long, but it can also seem short, when you watch two elderly people talk and you realize that you could be watching your grandparents talk or they could be your parents and one day, they will be you!

Seneca writes:

Infinitely swift is the flight of time, as those see more clearly who are looking backwards.

Everything slips into the same abyss.

The time which we spend in living is but a point, nay, even less than a point.

We must always be keen about time.  It slips from our hands every second and it never stops.  We can either waste it or use it; it cannot be saved.  Seneca is angered by those who waste their time.

I am all the more angry that some men claim the major portion of this time for superfluous things, – time which, no matter how carefully it is guarded, cannot suffice even for necessary things.

Even if we guard our time and use it as wisely as possible, the amount of time we have still won't be enough for "necessary things."  For this reason, one should, as soon as possible, educate himself on philosophy and understand what his philosophy is and then get on with it.  Seneca does not approve of the dialecticians who "believe that they are themselves engaged upon serious business" but in fact are engaging in foolishness.  He does admit,

one must cast a glance at dialectic; but it ought to be a mere glance, a sort of greeting from the threshold, merely that one may not be deceived, or judge these pursuits to contain any hidden matters of great worth.

Later on he advises that we solve problems that are worth solving.  It is better to not solve a foolish problem.

Why do you torment yourself and lose weight over some problem which it is more clever to have scorned than to solve?

I believe a modern concept of this idea is: pick your battles.  You and I need to be like soldiers where the enemy (time) is pressing us from the rear.  Drop the useless, the superfluous, the un-wise and foolish, the low-value, the clutter, the mindlessness, the minutiae, the trash and junk, the lies and fake news of the day.  Spend your time wisely and usefully.  At the very least, think about what you want to accomplish with your time and then spend it accordingly.

Seneca rants about the dialecticians a bit.  He would rather they spend time helping him solve serious problems rather than "tricks constructed after the model of this piece of sheer silliness."  He would prefer they solve problems such as dealing with troubles, hardships and death.

teach me something with which to face these troubles. Bring it to pass that I shall cease trying to escape from death, and that life may cease to escape from me. Give me courage to meet hardships; make me calm in the face of the unavoidable. Relax the straitened limits of the time which is allotted me. Show me that the good in life does not depend upon life's length, but upon the use we make of it; also, that it is possible, or rather usual, for a man who has lived long to have lived too little. Say to me when I lie down to sleep: "You may not wake again!" And when I have waked: "You may not go to sleep again!" Say to me when I go forth from my house: "You may not return!" And when I return: "You may never go forth again!"  You are mistaken if you think that only on an ocean voyage there is a very slight space between life and death. No, the distance between is just as narrow everywhere. It is not everywhere that death shows himself so near at hand; yet everywhere he is as near at hand.

Rid me of these shadowy terrors; then you will more easily deliver to me the instruction for which I have prepared myself.  At our birth nature made us teachable, and gave us reason, not perfect, but capable of being perfected.  Discuss for me justice, duty, thrift, and that twofold purity, both the purity which abstains from another's person, and that which takes care of one's own self.

The time we have is enough.  What we need to focus on is the wise use of it.  We must realize much is out of our control and we should focus our moral choice and good on that which is beneficial for us and others.  We should look to Nature and live accordingly.

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