Philosophy 9 min read

A Scythian Funeral

Seneca on the shortness of life.
Detail from Carstian Luyckx’s Memento Mori, circa 1650. Memento mori (Latin: remember death) is a creative genre focused on reminding us of our mortality.

In The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky has one of his characters—Prince Myshkin—recount a tale of a mock execution that bears a striking resemblance to a mock execution the author endured himself in 1849, before being sent to a hard labor camp in Siberia for the crime of reading banned literature. The prisoners were lead out before a firing squad. There were three posts, to which the prisoners were tied. A cloth was then placed over their heads. Our prisoner was eighth in line, so he estimated that he had about five minutes left to live. He thought about what to do with the time he had left. He decided to use two minutes to say goodbye to his comrades, two minutes to think, for the last time, about himself, and then use the last minute to take one final look around him. He recalls doing these three things just as he had calculated:

Then, after he said goodbye to his comrades, came the two minutes which he had counted out to think about himself; he already knew what he was going to think about: he wanted to imagine to himself as vividly and clearly as possible how it could be that right now he exists and is alive, and in three minutes he will be something else, someone or something—who then? and where? He thought about solving all this in these two minutes! There was a church not far away, and the top of the cathedral with a golden dome was shining in the bright sun. He remembers staring fixedly at this dome and at the rays coming from it; he couldn’t tear himself away from the rays; he felt that these rays were his new nature, that in three minutes he’d somehow merge with them… The unknown, and the rejection of this new state that will happen and was about to happen, were terrible; but he says that nothing oppressed him more than the ceaseless thought: “If only I didn’t have to die! If only I could get my life back—what an eternity! And all this would be mine! I would turn every minute into a whole century, I would lose nothing, I would keep count of every minute, I would waste nothing!” He says that this thought exasperated him so much that he wanted them to shoot him already.

But he was not shot. The prisoners were spared. Did he change the way he lived? Did he waste nothing? Did he “turn every minute into a whole century”? “Oh no,” replies the narrator, “he didn’t at all live like that and lost many, many minutes.” You cannot live your life counting out each minute. And yet, an experience like this cannot be forgotten.

In one of his letters to a friend, the Stoic philosopher Seneca talks about the shortness of life.1 Seneca argues that the common complaint that life is short isn’t actually true. Life is short only if we make it short by being wasteful of it. Take, for example, the paradox of how we are greedy with possessions, but liberal with time:

Men do not let anyone seize their estates, and if there is the slightest dispute about their boundaries they rush to stones and arms; but they allow others to encroach on their lives—why, they themselves even invite in those who will take over their lives. You will find no one willing to share out his money; but to how many does each of us divide up his life! 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.

How much more important is this today when we carry devices in our pockets that allow the world to barge into our lives? Along with the immeasurable benefit of connectivity comes the blight of perpetual distraction. And what do we do with the time we keep? We fritter it away on a myriad diversions or spend it pursuing goals that do not make us happy:

… life is long if you know how to use it. But one man is gripped by insatiable greed, another by a laborious dedication to useless tasks. One man is soaked in wine, another sluggish with idleness. One man is worn out by political ambition, which is always at the mercy of the judgement of others. Another through hope of profit is driven headlong over all lands and seas by the greed of trading. … Many are occupied by either pursuing other people’s money or complaining about their own. Many pursue no fixed goal, but are tossed about in ever-changing designs by a fickleness which is shifting, inconstant and never satisfied with itself. Some have no aims at all for their life’s course, but death takes them unawares as they yawn languidly—so much so that I cannot doubt the truth of that oracular remark of the greatest of poets: “It is a small part of life we really live.” Indeed, all the rest is not life but merely time.

In another place, Seneca compares life to a voyage in a ship. An old man with many wrinkles and white hair has not necessarily lived a long life, in the same way as a ship which has been caught in a powerful storm that has tossed it around in circles has not traveled very far. Just as the ship has not gone anywhere but was merely tossed about, a person may not have lived their life but have merely existed.

Seneca points out that neither riches, nor status, nor power will make you happy. As we acquire more wealth and status, our goals will simply keep shifting, what seemed a great amount yesterday will seem a pittance tomorrow, and what we have acquired will need ever more time and effort to maintain. It’s worth noting that Seneca was very wealthy and was also an advisor to the emperor, so this insight doesn’t come from a place of resentment, as he lacked neither wealth nor status.

To preserve prosperity we need other prosperity, and to support the prayers which have turned out well we have to make other prayers. Whatever comes our way by chance is unsteady, and the higher it rises the more liable it is to fall. Furthermore, what is doomed to fall delights no one. 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. They achieve what they want laboriously; they possess what they have achieved anxiously; and meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return.

When you see a person in high office, Seneca writes, don’t envy him—he has won his position at the cost of his life. So why do we live like this? Because we think we’ll live forever:

You are living as if destined to live for ever; your own frailty never occurs to you; you don’t notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply—though all the while that very day which you are devoting to somebody or something may be your last. You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire.

We deceive ourselves because, unlike material things, time is invisible, so we don’t assign to it its proper worth. If anything, we think very little of it. Most lives, Seneca writes, are like a container without a bottom. All the effort they pour into the container just flows out. Nothing settles, nothing remains. “Their lives vanish into an abyss.” So what should we spend our time on if not the pursuit of wealth, status or diversion? What is it that will remain? The answer is philosophy:

Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only those are really alive. For they not only keep a good watch over their own lifetimes, but they annex every age to theirs. All the years that have passed before them are added to their own … We are excluded from no age, but we have access to them all; and if we are prepared in loftiness of mind to pass beyond the narrow confines of human weakness, there is a long period of time through which we can roam. We can argue with Socrates, express doubt with Carneades, cultivate retirement with Epicurus, overcome human nature with the Stoics, and exceed its limits with the Cynics. Since nature allows us to enter into a partnership with every age, why not turn from this brief and transient spell of time and give ourselves wholeheartedly to the past, which is limitless and eternal and can be shared with better men than we?

Seneca points out the foolishness of planning your life ahead, putting things off until later, as if you have the foresight to know how long you will get to live. This squanders life as it “denies us the present by promising the future.” Epictetus asks: “How long will you wait before you demand the best of yourself, and trust reason to determine what is best?” If we do not pursue philosophy now, then when? Why let the harvest of the ages rot and neglect your own mental and spiritual development? In one of his letters, Flaubert, writing on the subject of reading, says that one should not read “as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction.” No, he writes, we must “read to live.” Philosophy, and by extension all great literature, isn’t a field of study, it is life itself.

In a lecture titled “Of Kings’ Treasuries,” John Ruskin paints a visual metaphor that illustrates how a blind pursuit of worldly ambitions at the cost of your own intellectual development leads to a kind of gradual, permature death:

My friends, do you remember that old Scythian custom, when the head of a house died? How he was dressed in his finest dress, and set in his chariot, and carried about to his friends’ houses; and each of them placed him at his table’s head, and all feasted in his presence? Suppose it were offered to you in plain words, as it is offered to you in dire facts, that you should gain this Scythian honour, gradually, while you yet thought yourself alive. Suppose the offer were this: You shall die slowly; your blood shall daily grow cold, your flesh petrify, your heart beat at last only as a rusted group of iron valves. Your life shall fade from you, and sink through the earth into the ice of Caina; but, day by day, your body shall be dressed more gaily, and set in higher chariots, and have more orders on its breast—crowns on its heads, if you will. Men shall bow before it, stare and shout round it, crowd after it up and down the streets; build palaces for it, feast with it at their tables’ heads all the night long; your soul shall stay enough within it to know what they do, and feel the weight of the golden dress on its shoulders, and the furrow of the crown-edge on the skull;—no more. Would you take the offer, verbally made by the death-angel? Would the meanest among us take it, think you? Yet practically and verily we grasp at it, every one of us, in a measure; many of us grasp at it in its fulness of horror. Every man accepts it, who desires to advance in life without knowing what life is; who means only that he is to get more horses, and more footmen, and more fortune, and more public honour, and—not more personal soul. He only is advancing in life, whose heart is getting softer, whose blood warmer, whose brain quicker, whose spirit is entering into Living peace. And the men who have this life in them are the true lords or kings of the earth—they and they only.

  1. The quotes are taken from the Penguin edition translated by C. D. N. Costa, published under the title On the Shortness of Life