On Longevity: This Seneca Quote Puts Its Value in Perspective

A long life ought not be our ultimate pursuit

Young and old
Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

“As it is with a play, so it is with life — what matters is not how long the acting lasts, but how good it is.” Seneca the Younger, in Letters from a Stoic

It’s torture to sit through a movie or play that’s both bad and long. By contrast, it’s thrilling to watch a short, brilliant, performance.

In the same way, a life of greatness has nothing to do with how long it is.

Think, for example, of Irving Berlin, Simon Bolivar and Ann Frank. They lived, respectively, 101, 47 and 15 years.

Composer and lyricist, Irving Berlin wrote some 1,500 songs, including “White Christmas” and “God Bless America.”

Bolivar liberated -or had a central role in liberating- not one, not two, but six countries from Spain: Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Panama and Bolivia.

Through the act of writing, Anne Frank conveyed -in a way everyone can understand- both the sublime goodness and the depths of evil humans are capable of.

Clearly, these individuals’ greatness is not proportional to their longevity.

No good life need be long either. And yet we devote much more physical and mental energy to lengthening it rather than elevating it.

Even when we care for loved ones, we’re compelled to prioritize length of life over how good the life is.

Hence we’ll make decisions for parents with dementia, for example, that prolong life, yet detract from quality and enjoyment of life (which, to my mind, are part of a good life).

A good life, to me, is a life lived based on coherent ideals that guide your actions. Whatever these values may be, we need to focus on them every day, every hour. The more we do so, the more our life will be a good life.

However old or young you are and feel, you may live two more months, five more years, or even 93 more years. You may live to, say, 37, 49, 81 or even 118. No one knows!

Let’s obsess less on longevity and put our energies into living a good life today. That’s what matters.

This is my 4th piece for a 30-day writing challenge on a single topic: Quotes from Seneca the Younger’s Letters from a Stoic.

Why this topic? Because I can’t get over how timely and brilliant Seneca’s words are -2,000 years after he wrote them.

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On Vice: Will You Devote Yourself to What Is Right?

What Seneca tells us about vice and about devotion to right and wrong

Hand feeding a bird
Photo by Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash

“Vices are manifold, take countless different forms and are incapable of classification. Devotion to what is right is simple, devotion to what is wrong is complex and admits of infinite variations.” Seneca the Younger, in Letters from a Stoic

How many vices can you think of in 30 seconds? Here are the ones I managed to write down in that many seconds: drugs, smoking, alcohol, finger picking, eating, using laxatives, aggression, bullying, caffeine. Vices are indeed manifold.

Vices, addictions and compulsions are in fact so numerous that, just when you think you’ve seen them all, you come across a new one. Which brings me to my one visible vice at the moment: finger picking, aka Dermatillomania or excoriation disorder.

We all crave pleasure, gratification, and being free from pain -both physical and psychological. Vices often stem from our desire to escape the psychological kind of pain: regret, shame, feelings of inadequacy, anxiety.

And so we fall into vices which, by their very nature, compound our suffering. I can’t think of a better example than the drunk in Saint Exupéry’s The Little Prince, who drank to forget that he was ashamed of drinking.

I finger pick because it gives me momentary relief from anxiety. Some time after the finger picking episode’s over, though, the picking itself causes me shame and further anxiety.

The same applies to most vices. We bully because we feel insecure. We eat to ease our hurt. We drink to forget our shame. We accumulate (shoes, money, lovers, gold) to feel important. Yet we’re never satisfied.

What is right? The Stoics delineated certain virtues: wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. You may espouse others.

Devotion to the virtues you view as supreme may be simple in that the path is straight, narrow and clear. It doesn’t, however, mean that it’s easy or achievable.

This is why we devote ourselves to what is right. We don’t achieve it.

What virtues are important to you? How are you pursuing them?

This is my third piece for a 30-day writing challenge on a single topic.

Topic: Quotes from Seneca the Younger’s Letters from a Stoic

Why this topic? Because I can’t get over how timely and brilliant Seneca’s words are -2,000 years after he wrote them. 

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