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Book Review: On The Shortness of Life

Book Review: On The Shortness of Life

Md. Rana Mia

The Chinese saying "An inch of time is an inch of gold, but you can’t buy that inch of time with an inch of gold”, and English poet Geoffrey Chaucer's famous quote "Time and tide wait for none" which are hugely used all over the world to make people realize the importance of time.

Moreover, we are accustomed to the sentences that this life is so transient and we will face the limitless life in the hereafter; so utilize your time suitably, never waste this.

After reading "On the Shortness of Life," one gains a profound understanding of the value of time, though it simultaneously challenges the idea that time is inherently short. The book persuades us that life is not brief but rather extensive. By using our time well and pursuing noble goals, we can make even a seemingly abridged life fulfilling and contented.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the author of this essay, was a Roman dramatist and philosopher. Written in Latin as 'De Brevitate Vitae,' was translated into English as 'On the Shortness of Life,' and later, Dhaka University student Sabidin Ibrahim translated it into Bengali, retaining the English title.

Seneca's essay is framed as a letter to his relative Paulinus, who took care of the Roman Empire's grain department. Within this letter, Seneca's philosophies on time unfold. He presents various examples of time management, comparing life to property: a vast estate under a poor manager gets lessened, whereas even a modest property thrives under good ownership. Similarly, our lives can be greatly augmented if managed properly. However, we often squander our time on trivial pursuits, becoming weary from pointless toil, greed, addiction, laziness, excessive ambition, restless aims, and gossip. This misuse of time shortens our lives.

Without dedicating time to meaningful endeavors, we eventually realize too late that time has run out, leaving us with only regret and repentance. Seneca furthermore questions why we blame nature for our plight, arguing that nature is kind to us. Most people are preoccupied with altering others' fates and being controlled by external forces, without personal plans or the determination to implement them through hard work.

Through his philosophical reflections, Seneca distinguishes between merely existing and truly living. In his view, gray hair and wrinkles do not mean someone has lived a long life, only that they have survived. He compares this to a ship being tossed around by currents and waves without a clear direction, which cannot be called a journey. Many people grow old without maturing, feeling a sense of futility if they fail to accomplish anything significant in time.

Seneca advises Paulinus to seek knowledge and take action in this life, to rise above emotions, face reality, and understand the meaning of life and death. He also criticizes those who make grand plans after fifty, questioning the certainty of living to that age.

Seneca decided to live for himself, using Augustus Caesar as an example. Despite his divine status, Augustus longed for relief from his duties, finding comfort in merely imagining a break. Seneca notes that people aspire to high positions only to wish for their end once achieved. Even a renowned lawyer dreams of taking a vacation to spend time on himself. According to Seneca, those who are controlled by others' demands are the most miserable, as their lives are dictated by external forces. They complain about the shortness of life without realizing how little time they devote to themselves.

Reading Seneca's letter sheds light on the interconnected concepts of life and time. Throughout, Seneca stresses to Paulinus the essential role time plays in making life meaningful, using various examples and stories to illustrate his points. Despite its brevity, the essay holds profound significance. A Bengali saying captures this idea: if you die today, it will be two days tomorrow, and in three days, you will be forgotten. Therefore, life is meaningless if one does not leave a lasting impression.

The translator's contribution is invaluable in making the essay accessible to Bengali speakers. Sabidin Ibrahim's simple yet engaging translation enhances the reading experience, and his brief thoughts on Stoicism add depth to the book. Additionally, the inclusion of 25 famous book recommendations and their original stories further stimulates our intellectual curiosity and interest in learning.

Department of Mass Communication & Journalism, Jagannath University

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