Why does life always seem too short to us? Why does the passage of time escape us so much, to the point of having the impression that when we take stock of it, we have done nothing with our lives? Why do we never have time to live? ” We think it’s noon but the day is ending », sings Gérard Manset in relivewhen Johnny Hallyday sings, ” I forgot to live », and Georges Brassens, « time to learn to live and it’s already too late “.
To these stubborn questions, of which contemporary popular culture bears the traces, reading a brief text by the Latin philosopher Seneca, Of the brevity of life, written almost two thousand years ago (around AD 49), sheds an invigorating light. Suffering from the passage of time, the feeling of alienation and dispossession of oneself, form universal problems, which the words of a stoic thinker from ancient Rome captured entirely, without anything in history having fundamentally changed the problem.
“Life is not too short, we are the ones who lose it”
The reissue by 1001 Nuits editions of this text by Seneca addressed to his father-in-law Paulinus invites us to draw on the ancient wisdom of never-dry resources to get out of lamentation in the face of life which passes too quickly; a lamentation that is all the more vivid today as it is marked by the famous acceleration of history, analyzed by Hartmut Rosa. Reflecting on this common experience of short life, Seneca shifts the question to a meditation on the concept of time, and the need to make intelligent and appropriate use of it. Thanks to philosophy, the pain of a short life will give way to the joy of an intense life.
The great waste of time
Too short, life? Shortened by our fault, rather. According to Seneca, life is not too short, we are the ones who lose it “. From the beginning, the philosopher affirms: We don’t really have a short existence, but we waste a considerable part of it […] ; as soon as it scatters through luxury and inadvertence, as soon as it is not spent on any work of quality, finally cornered by the ultimate and fatal decree, without having realized that it was going away , we feel that it has passed. »
We thus waste our time running after illusory and ephemeral pleasures.by attaching ourselves to the chains of professional life and the gains it is supposed to generate… All those who are busy in repeated, time-consuming occupations – the debauched, delivered to the pleasures of the flesh and drunkenness, the misers , the choleric, the socialites, who go from banquet to banquet, businessmen slaves to their work… – get lost and go around in circles, like the insane of modern times that the situationist Guy Debord would describe almost two thousand years later in his film In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (nineteen eighty one) : “We go around in circles in the night and we are devoured by the fire. »
“Nothing is a more difficult science than to live”
Seneca observes all these lost beings, “idle, depressed”, in the service of an external cause which diverts them from themselves. ” Thin is the part of life we live », stresses Seneca. “Nothing is less the business of busy people than living: nothing is a more difficult science”, he insists. From stupid joy to greedy desire: too much vanity wastes our time and impoverishes the meaning of our existence.
“Seneca tries to assess what a truly lived life is and to declutter our existence from all sorts of trivialities that monopolize it”
Xavier Bordesauthor of the new translation of Of the brevity of life, states in his afterword “Taming emotion”: “Seneca tries to assess what a truly lived life is and to declutter our existence from all sorts of trivialities that monopolize it without bringing it additional richness. “. As he discusses in one of his other texts, Of happy life, Seneca suggests that, to achieve happiness, we must precisely devote the time we have to a wise and reasoned use rather than wasting it in futile or addictive activities. A time regained, in short. That is to say, a time from which one learns to taste the very present.
The present, above all
For Seneca, “ life is long enough and amply granted to enable the greatest undertakings to be completed, provided that it is entirely put to good use”; “it extends far for those who have good use of it”. Life is only short because it is attributable to our way of life, to our blind choices. Short is the life we make for ourselves, believes the philosopher for whom it is important to invent a subtle use of time. If time is given to us, like a gift, it is up to us to do something with it, to retain it, to transform it into an experience, to take it in hand.
The Stoic sage invites us to invest time, in a centripetal movement, which opposes the centrifugal movement of social life, which pushes us outside of ourselves. It is this movement towards our interiority that constitutes the practical method aimed at seizing the present time: an awakening of thought, an awareness of the value of the present, of sharing the present with others.
Let us learn, with Seneca, to build an existence where we are waiting “the love of the virtues and their practice, the forgetting of the passions, the knowledge of life and death, and the haughty peace of things”
With Seneca, we understand better how much regaining control of one’s inner time means better governing one’s life, to alleviate fears, expectations, judgments of others. While it is obviously up to everyone to define the framework of quieter, safer and nobler pursuits posed as conditions for a wise and liberated life, Seneca’s invitation still resounds today, in a time whose rhythms and movements lead us astray and exhaust us. Instead of rushing the rhythm of our lives, let us learn, with Seneca, to ” adhere to the coming day “, in perfect attention to the present, building a life in which await us” the love of the virtues and their practice, the forgetting of the passions, the knowledge of life and death, and the haughty peace of things “.