Boris Smus

interaction engineering

On the Shortness of Life

Seneca lies at the intersection of Roman history, stoic philosophy and Buddhism. Despite many endorsements, I haven’t had the time to sit down and read any of his writings. So I picked up this short volume of three letters, two to his friends and one to his mother.

There are almost no clarifying notes in the book, no context about Seneca's life, events he references, or any of the many names he mentions in supporting his points with exemplars. The Wikipedia page provided some of that, but I missed having annotations in the book.

Overall the letters are very quotable and read easily, with the exception of a few convoluted sentences. I was surprised by how modern ancient Rome sounds, with a surprising plurality of cultures & peoples. Seneca himself was born in Córdoba and moved to Rome.

What are Greek cities doing in the midst of barbarian territories? Why do we hear the Macedonian language among Indians and Persians? Scythia and all that wide region of fierce and untamed tribes reveal Achaean cities established on the shores of the Pontus. [...] Tyrians live in Africa, Phoenicians in Spain; Greeks penetrated into Gaul and Gauls into Greece; the Pyrenees did not block the passage of the Germans...

Much of the letters are dedicated to the fallacy of material attachment:

Petty is the mind which delights in earthly things: it should be led away to those things which appear everywhere equally[...] Fate has cast you into a land where the most luxurious shelter is a hut.

Because of the inevitability of loss, Seneca suggests to celebrate that which is always with you, the human mind:

Whatever is best for a human being lies outside human control: it can be neither given nor taken away. The world you see, nature's greatest and most glorious creation, and the human guide, which gazes and wonders at it, and is the most splendid part of it, these are our own everlasting possessions and will remain with us as long as we ourselves remain.

Despite great advice, Seneca is often accused of profound hypocrisy because he himself was a very wealthy man and as a teacher of Emperor Nero, who was famous for his tyrannical reign. Seneca can also come off very curmudgeonly as he disparages those that don’t live according to his standards:

They seek to stock their pretentious kitchens by hunting beyond the Phasis, and they aren't ashamed to ask for birds from the Parthians, from whom we have not yet exacted vengeance. From all sides they collect everything familiar to a fastidious glutton. From the furthest sea is brought food which their stomachs, weakened by a voluptuous diet, can scarcely receive. They vomit in order to eat, and eat in order to vomit.

Overall a worthy, very quotable read, a peek into the world of Seneca's Rome, while contemporary sounding in some ways, also quaint and antiquated, for example in their celestial worldview:

The sun glides constantly, moving on from place to place, and although it revolves with the universe its motion is nevertheless opposite to that of the firmament itself: it races through all the signs of the zodiac and never stops; [...] All the planets forever move round and pass by: as the constraining law of nature has ordained they are borne from point to point.

I’ll have to revisit more of his writings, perhaps Letter to Lucretius next?