One does not have to jump into the Great Books by starting at the beginning. One does not have to start with the longest most difficult Philosophical work, or an 800 page literary masterpiece. It might be wise to begin with one of the shorter, richer selections.
A teaching found throughout Scripture and the Great Books is the theme of a most insightful writing by Seneca. The idea is that life is short. However, Seneca takes a most unique perspective on this theme. “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested.”
Seneca elaborates, “so it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill–supplied but wasteful of it.” There are a number of things Seneca suggests that add up to a terrible use of one’s life, including, but not limited to, the slavish dedication to monetary pursuits, useless endeavors, sluggish and lazy behavior, idle preoccupations, constant distractions, being bogged down in expectancy, and engaged in indolent activities. One could only imagine what he would think of television and games.
While some may read this essay and think that Seneca is reflecting on life and its brevity, the truth is Seneca is offering up a vision of a life well lived. Throughout the essay, Seneca calls the reader to engage in a life of leisure. Leisure does not mean simply lying around in a slothful manner, but rather an ongoing reflective contemplative notion of living the good life.
Throughout, Seneca also makes references to Liberal studies and the value of a liberal education and how this can lead one to wisdom by supplying a free mind. Dealings with liberal studies allows one to become wise throughout one’s leisurely endeavors. And this is the ultimate training for living a good, although, be it relatively short life (especially for the unwise). Similar to the modern existentialist, Seneca frequently distinguishes between a well lived life and a biologically long existence.
Of all of the relevant insights that Seneca offers in this essay, possibly the one most pertinent to the modern mind is Seneca’s numerous reflections on time. He speaks wisely of our relationship to time: the past, present, and the hoped-for future. In more than one place, Seneca reminds us that time is a most precious gift and should be used wisely.
The essay is replete with quotable quotes that one could post at one’s work station, or on the refrigerator reminding one of the wisdom within this work. A particular quote that I have thought about a number of times over the last few days is this insight, “But learning how to live takes a whole life, and, which may surprise you more, it takes a whole life to learn how to die.”
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.