Friday, July 4, 2014

Seneca, On the Shortness of Life

I recently read Seneca's essay, On the Shortness of Life.  In one of those coincidences that make you wonder about some other-worldly force, I came upon this bust of Seneca, by Guido Reni, just before the Palazzo Venezia was closing.  I wasn't even intending to go to the museum -- my goal was to get to the famous balcony where Mussolini delivered his epic speeches to the thousands of people who gathered in Piazza Venezia.  In typical fashion, there is not a word about the balcony anywhere, and no access to it.  I guess this compelling bust was compensation for my failed search.

Here are some quotes from the self-help guide of two thousand years ago.

Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested.

Look at those whose good fortune people gather to see:  they are choked by their own blessings.  How many find their riches a burden!  How many burst a blood vessel by their eloquence and their daily striving to show off their talents! much you have lost through groundless sorrow, foolish joy, greedy desire, the seduction of society; how little of your own was left to you.

Call to mind when you ever had a fixed purpose; how few days have passed you had planned; when you were ever at your own disposal; when your face wore its natural expression...

But learning how to live takes a whole life....

So you must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long.

But putting things off is the biggest waste of life...the whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.

But life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future.

Let us turn to private possessions, the greatest source of human misery.

But nothing delights the mind so much as fond and loyal friendship.  What a blessing it is to have hearts that are ready and willing to receive all your secretes in safety, with whom you are less afraid to share knowledge of something than keep it to yourself, whose conversation soothes your distress, whose advice helps you make up your mind, whose cheerfulness dissolves your sorrow, whose very appearance cheers you up!


  1. Superbe picture. Do you have other views/side? And why this is Seneca? It does not look like Seneca is portrayed by artists as Rubens and others.

  2. OK, the Museo Veniziano saying in their files: " La cosiddetta Testa di Seneca, attribuita a Guido Reni"...the so-called head of Seneca. While not of any importance in the context of your article it has to be said that this does not represent Seneca, nor that ever Guido Reni was involved in creating this head....the both a creation af an Art Historian long ago.

  3. Here’s the first audio version of this classic work by Seneca