On the Shortness of Life


Book cover

I really loved this book. As so often happens on Goodreads with books I really loved, I waited forever to write the review because I felt like I really needed time to do it justice; unsurprisingly, the result is that I now have less access to the specifics of the book than if I had just written the damn thing right away.

I bought this book on a total whim. I was in New York for business, and had brunch with my brothers and sister in law the morning before my flight. I had a little time to kill before I needed to be at the airport. I walked to what is probably my favorite bookstore in the world, Unnameable Books in Prospect Heights, and browsed around there a little. I was sort of looking for something to read on the flight, although I think I did have something else that I could have read. Anyway, I came across this slim volume and picked it up, mostly on the basis of having a general interest in Roman Stoicism but never having read Seneca before.

Suffice it to say that Seneca is now one of my favorite dudes! The book actually contains three essays, all of which treat classic Stoic themes: how to use our finite time on earth wisely, how to maintain tranquility of mind, and how to keep setbacks in perspective. I would say that none of the conceptual content will be very new to anyone who has read the other two most famous Roman Stoics, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. But even more so than either of those two others (both of whom are also among my favorite dudes!), Seneca’s writing style is extremely appealing. Each essay is, at least nominally, a letter to a close friend or family member. In keeping with this, Seneca does not spend time developing theoretical propositions, but rather writes in a warm and hortatory style. I obviously don’t know how much to credit the translator (CDN Costa) vs. Seneca himself, but the writing of the essays is extremely accessible and did not feel dated in the least to me (after 2000 years!); neither did it feel overly modern in a forced manner (“Yo Lucilius, sup!”). Much of Seneca’s rhetorical style relies on the use of illustrative analogies, and he is most prolific and imaginative in conjuring these up.

After reading this, I did some reading on Seneca’s life, which is also very interesting. In keeping with the Roman Stoic style, he did not withdraw to a contemplative life but involved himself in public affairs. In fact, he was an adviser to the very disreputable Roman emperor Nero! Seneca by no means comes across as a perfect Stoic sage, and many people use this to paint him as a hypocrite. I found it fascinating though, and it didn’t diminish his appeal to me at all. I just understand him as a very bright but also flawed person.

As a side note, I can also thank this book for bringing me for the first time to the excellent Brain Pickings blog. I was looking on the internet for articles other people had written about this book, and found Maria Popova’s review:


My Goodreads rating: 5 stars