Saturday, September 30, 2006

On the Shortness of Life

In mid June this year I drove up with my family for a short vacation to picturesque Lake Tahoe on the border of California and Nevada. As is my habit when I visit a new place, I started to investigate if there was a decent bookstore near where we were staying in South Lake Tahoe. After some discouraging conversations with people at the hotel, who seemed to believe Lake Tahoe was devoid of booksellers, I finally located "Neighbors Books & Music" on Lake Tahoe Boulevard.

Browsing in the store I came across a slim paperback volume of three essays by the Roman statesman Seneca (4 BC - 65 AD). The first essay in the book is titled "On the shortness of life" and as I read the first essay in the serene environment of Lake Tahoe I was mesmerized. The essay is addressed to Seneca's friend Paulinus, who the essay seems to suggest is a successful public official. Seneca's Stoic philosophy emphasizes the need for men to face the fact of their own mortality and to prepare for death, to treat time as the most precious and irreplaceable commodity and to use this limited resource for reflection and understanding not frivolous pursuits. What amazed me was the incredible relevance of this ancient essay to modern man's existence. Here are a few passages:

"Can anything be more idiotic than certain people who boast of their foresight? They keep themselves officiously preoccupied in order to improve their lives; they spend their lives in organizing their lives. They direct their purposes with an eye to a distant future. But 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. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune's control, and abandoning what lies in yours." (Pg. 13)
Seneca is bitingly sarcastic about those who seem to have primarily desired, strived for and attained prosperity.

"All the greatest blessings create anxiety, and Fortune is never less to be trusted than when it is fairest. To preserve prosperity we need other prosperity, and to support the prayers that have turned out well we have to make other prayers ... So it is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil ... New preoccupations take the place of old, hope excites more hope and ambition more ambition. They do not look for an end to their misery, but simply change the reason for it." (Pg. 28)
"You must retire to these pursuits which are quieter, safer and more important ... In this kind of life you will find much that is worth your study: the love and practice of the virtues, forgetfulness of the passions, the knowledge of how to live and die, and a life of deep tranquility." (Pg. 31)
Earlier today I was reminded of Seneca's essay as I was reading a poem called "Next, Please" by the British poet Philip Larkin (1922 - 1985). Larkin, too bemoans our tendency to always look to the future, waiting for our proverbial ship to come in. However, unlike Seneca's essay, Larkin's poem is not a plea for the pursuit of virtue. His poem is just an image of stark realism where the essential truth of human life is only death.

Next, Please

Always too eager for the future, we
Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
Something is always approaching; every day
Till then we say,

Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear,
Sparkling armada of promises draw near.
How slow they are! and how much time they waste,
Refusing to make haste!

Yet they leave us holding wretched stalks
of disppointment, for, though nothing balks
Each big approach, leaning with brasswork prinked,
Each rope distinct,

Flagged, and the figurehead with golden tits
Arching our way, it never anchors; it's
No sooner present than it turns to past.
Right to the last

We think each one will heave to and unload
All good into our lives, all we are owed
For waiting so devoutly and so long.
But we are wrong:

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.

3 comments:

Siyaah said...

Enjoyed the Seneca entry.

"Fortune is never less to be trusted than when it is fairest. To preserve prosperity we need other prosperity...

Well said.

E said...

Tulsidas says something similar in the Ramayan when talking about TRavana's heads being reinstated the monet they were severed by Sri Ram. His heads increased just like with every labh (gain)does lobh
(greed). Informative, this blog.

Amy said...

That is really, excessively, depressing. No luminosity of melancholy here. Starkly and darkly depressing. That's my impression.