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If You Had a Year Left: Stoicism and the Shortness of Life

vita brevis

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

Every week we share two emails to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. Each email includes one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found.

🏛️ Theory

Time is a central focus of the Stoic Seneca’s writing.

Nothing is properly ours except the time we have. Yet so many of us spend hours and hours on trivial matters.

Seneca advises us to save time and use it thoughtfully. He asks:

What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily?

Seneca, Moral Letters 1

Our time is limited.

This is an obvious fact, but so many of us live like we deny it.

If you had a year left to live, would you live differently? You likely would. You would focus on what matters, savor the good, and put your best effort into being who you were meant to be.

Would you do the same if it were two years? Three? Five? Ten?

The fact of the matter is that no one knows the day or the hour of our death.

Time is the one loan which even a grateful recipient cannot repay.

Seneca, Moral Letters 1

The first step to using time well is to account for it.

If we know what we spend our time on, we can better budget it. In that way, it is no different from a financial budget.

After a full accounting, we must be sure to waste less time. We cannot balance our time budget immediately, but we can make serious improvements each day.

Seneca ends his letter On Saving Time with the following note:

I do not regard a man as poor, if the little which remains is enough for him. I advise you, however, to keep what is really yours; and you cannot begin too early.

Seneca, Moral Letters 1

🎯 Action

Pause during your day – perhaps at its end – and look back on how your day was spent. You don’t need a full system to do this. Simply catalog what happened.

Then identify one way to spend your time better. Don’t stop there, but follow through and act.

🔗 Links

📜 Read the full letter On Saving Time from Seneca here. Most free versions of the ancient Stoic works available online are not ideal, however, wikisources’s Seneca translation is quite good.

📓 The idea that “life is short” is commonplace. Like most cliches it is true, but its truth is less visible than it should be. The investor Paul Graham writes:

Is life actually short, or are we really complaining about its finiteness? Would we be just as likely to feel life was short if we lived 10 times as long?

Since there didn't seem any way to answer this question, I stopped wondering about it. Then I had kids. That gave me a way to answer the question, and the answer is that life actually is short.

Paul Graham

Read the rest of his piece Life is Short here.

📙 A motivating piece from Derek Sivers: There’s no speed limit.

Kimo’s high expectations set a new pace for me. He taught me that “the standard pace is for chumps” — that the system is designed so anyone can keep up. If you’re more driven than most people, you can do way more than anyone expects.

Derek Sivers

How do you deal with life’s finitude? Savor it and treat it with the urgency it demands.

The classical man's worst fear was inglorious death; the modern man's worst fear is just death.

Nassim Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes

💬 I’ll leave you with one last line from Seneca, reminding his friend Lucilius:

While we are postponing, life speeds by.

Seneca, Moral Letters 1

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1 Referral — Cheatsheet on The Most Important Stoic Concepts— get access to our list of the most important Stoic concepts with links and instructions for putting each into practice.

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