9 Ancient Life Tips from Seneca (Truer Than Ever Today)

9 Ancient Life Tips from Seneca (Truer Than Ever Today) July 28, 2023

Life tips Seneca
Bust of the philosopher Seneca, Sanssouci Palace, Germany, via Wikimedia Commons.

How many more years will you be alive? And what will you do with them? A US government life expectancy calculator gives me a little more than 20 years on this earth; another calculator allots me a more generous 75% chance to live 25.4 additional years.

Yet we never really know how much time we have left.

I have written about the business executive who at the age of fifty-three discovered he had terminal cancer and three months to live (he survived five months). I have also written about a college buddy of mine, who at the age of fifty-five had a sudden, massive heart attack, dead before his body hit the ground. And while some of us get to live a good long life, like my friend John who passed away at age eighty-six, nothing is promised to us.

The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote an essay on the specter of death called The Shortness of Life. In the first century AD, about the time of Jesus of Nazareth, life expectancy was about thirty-five years of age, though if you survived past the age of ten, you might expect to live to sixty.

For Seneca, time was precious, a resource more valuable than any earthly possession. And the lessons he taught, taking into account our harried 21st-century lifestyles, may be even truer today. I’ve broken down his thoughts into nine key teachings; Seneca’s precise words appear in italics.

  1. Life is long if you use your time wisely.

Seneca believed that the biggest enemy of a life well lived is our misuse of time. While we may place high value on money and property, we often don’t properly value our time, an asset every bit as important as our 401K retirement account or the home we live in.

“People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.”

  1. Live life in the present, one day at a time.

Even more than two thousand years ago, Seneca preached the idea of mindfulness and living in the present moment. He asks that we live each day as if it were our last.

“Everyone hustles his life along and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present. The (person) who organizes every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day.”

  1. Procrastination is our biggest enemy. Seize each day.

 “Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes and denies us the present by promising the future. You are arranging what lies in fortune’s control and abandoning what lies in yours. The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”

  1. Don’t waste time.

Imagine if Seneca could see us today and observed the amount of time we waste watching inane TV programs, mindlessly scrolling on the Internet, and constantly checking and rechecking our social media pages.

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough … 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.”

  1. Life is always moving forward. Keep pace or be left behind.

“You must match time’s swiftness with your speed in using it, and you must drink quickly as though from a rapid stream that will not always flow. (In the) unceasing and extremely fast-moving journey of life—the preoccupied become aware of it only when it is over.”

  1. Keep good company.

 “(One needs) friends whose advice he can ask on the most important or the most trivial matters, whom he can consult daily about himself, who will tell him the truth without insulting him and praise him without flattery, who will offer him a pattern on which to model himself.”

  1. The quality of our time is important.

Seneca wrote that those who made time for contemplation and the reading of philosophy “are really alive” for they “keep a good watch over their own lifetimes.” He also thought that by reading “holy creeds” and books, we are made better people.

“By the toil of others, we are led into the presence of things which have been brought from darkness into light … Why not turn from this brief and transient spell of time and give ourselves wholeheartedly to the past, which is limitless and eternal.” 

  1. It’s not about living a long life; it’s about living a life of value.

What value are you bringing to your time here on Earth?

“You must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long.”

  1. The biggest fear? Looking back at our life with regret.

There’s an old adage that says, “No one ever went to their death bed wishing they had spent more time at the office.” It’s the same with any time-consuming activity that doesn’t add value to your life or the lives of those you love.

“No one will bring back the years … life will follow the path it began to take and will neither reverse nor check its course. It will cause no commotion to remind you of its swiftness, but glide on quietly. As it started out on its first day, so it will run on, nowhere pausing, or turning aside.”

It’s all about the precious resource of time and how we use it. Take a moment to pause and reflect: Are you using your time wisely? Are there changes you can make to put your limited time to better use?

This story will appear in my new book Wake Up Call, being released 1.1.24 by Wildhouse Publishing.

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