Summary: On the Shortness of Life by Seneca

Summary: On the Shortness of Life by Seneca

Quick Summary

One of the most prominent Stoic philosophers delivers his thoughts on the shortness of life and how to spend meaningful time living it. Seneca provides his unique perspective on living in the present and not allowing the past or future to interfere with our immediate experience – as he argues, it’s not that we have a short time to live, it’s that we’re wasting a lot of it. This book helps the reader to focus on the moment and live life to its fullest.

Full Summary

In one of his most famous writings, Seneka, one of the prominent figures in the philosophy of Stoicism, deals with the concept of time, arguing that people who feel the passage of time experience that due to their poor time management, and suggest solutions and things to focus on in order to live the life to its fullest and become immersed in every second they spend on this world.

While barely over 100 pages in length, this book delivers powerful and thought-provoking messages that will require readers’ full attention and create a need to keep coming back to it. Most of the people who read this book couldn’t just finish it and leave it on the shelf – instead, they take this book in their bags to read in the bus or in a waiting room, keep it on their nightstand, and continually digest the dense material delivered in the book.

The book is divided into three writings: “On the shortness of life,” “Consolation to Helvia,” and “On tranquility of mind.” Each of these writings deals with different aspects of the author’s life and life overall but maintains the Stoic view of the world as a binding block for all three parts of the book.

In “On the shortness of life,” Seneka explores how the perception of life passing by someone is a direct consequence of poor time management and prioritization of things that don’t improve their well-being. The author argues that life is often wasted on useless activities that don’t achieve anything, on bad habits developed over the years, pleasing other people, working too much, and thinking about the past and the future.

The solution, the author claims, is to use your time more efficiently, and for Seneca, the most time-worthy thing to do is study philosophy and gain wisdom from the world’s greatest thinkers. He also points out that living in the moment makes time pass slower while wasting it on thinking about the past and projecting the future only speeds up the passage of time and creates a feeling of a wasted life.

Excerpt of On the Shortness of Life by Seneca

The second part, “Consolation to Helvia,” is dedicated to Seneca’s mother during the period when the author was exiled from Rome. This is a consolation to the mother whose son went away from her, where the author tries to explain that he still has a lot to live for, and can gain a different perspective on life now that he’s poor, like having more freedom that rich people usually don’t have and that he’ll keep studying philosophy and nature.

The last part of the book, “On tranquility of mind,” starts with the question posed by Seneca’s friend – how to change the feeling of other people having better and more fulfilling lives than him, even though he chose his life path according to things he values and prioritize. The author gives some solutions, like helping people, even with just a smile, choosing the people we want to be around wisely, having fewer possessions, and keeping only things that are really valuable to us.

What does the book promise to deliver?

A well-known book based on the Stoic philosophy, “On the Shortness of Life” deals with the most indispensable resource we have – time. Seneca will guide the reader through ways we waste our time and delivers solutions on how to use the limited time we have and make it worthwhile.

In a true Stoic manner, this philosophical book contains practical advice on how to manage your time and eliminate all the unnecessary things that take this precious resource away from you. It will teach you how to avoid the trap of thinking about the past and projecting our future, but instead, start living in the moment.

Seneca delivers numerous examples of the ways we spend our time and explains why they are usually completely useless and counterproductive. Essentially, what the reader will take away from this book is that philosophy is the only thing worth spending your time and that studying great philosophers adds years and years to your life.

The tone of the book

Even though “On the Shortness of Life” is barely over 100 pages long, the material is extremely dense and hard to digest on the first read. Each sentence is complex and demands readers’ full attention, often requiring the reader to get back to them and think them over several times.

For this reason, this book is not a fast read. One hundred pages of this book will require time and focus as it the book was several times longer, and the reader needs time to ponder over the thoughts expressed by the author and let the words and sentences sink in for a while.

It’s not a surprise that this dense material got the reputation of being “extremely quotable,” and many readers feel like each sentence can find its way on some of the inspirational posters. According to readers, the concentration of value within such a short book is immense, which is why most of them read it over and over again and keep coming back to it. 

Spine of On the Shortness of Life by Seneca

What type of reader would enjoy this book?

“On the Shortness of Life” is a philosophical book, one of the great writings on Stoicism by one of its greatest proponents. Every reader interested in this branch of philosophy needs to read this book, as it’s one of the rarely kept writings on this topic.

Considering the nature of the messages in the book, centered around guides to minimize the unnecessary waste of time by eliminating recollections of the past and projection of the future and embracing the current moment, “On the Shortness of Life” works very well as a self-help book and readers in demand for this type of literature can benefit from reading it.

This is also a book about time management, and even though written 2,000 years ago, some of its ideas and messages are still very relevant today. Some readers even describe this book as a contemporary self-help book, considering its evergreen nature applicable to a significant degree in modern life.

How well does “On the Shortness of Life” compare with other titles in this field?

Seneca’s work is widely regarded as one of the most influential books on Stoic philosophy and, as such, is among the highest-rated works in this category. The way the author explores and deals with the concept of time is unique and relevant still to this day, even though the book originated over 2,000 years ago.

Readers that liked this book often put it at the same level as works of other great Roman philosophers of Stoicism, such as Marcus Aurelius and his “Meditations” or “Manua” by Epictetus. Each of these books explores Stoic principles from a slightly different angle, but all three are regarded as essential literature on this branch of philosophy.

Back of On the Shortness of Life by Seneca

Audiobook review

The audiobook version of “On the Shortness of Life” is narrated by Clint Arthur and runs for 1 hour and 13 minutes. The overall feedback for the audiobook is positive, with the readers’ high praise for the narrators’ performance considering the complexity of the content delivered in such a condensed way.

Listeners agree that the book, while only just over 1 hour long, was very difficult to process as it contains numerous thought-provoking messages that force the reader to keep questioning themself. Most of the readers also found it difficult to listen to this book, as it challenged them to think about the way they’re spending their day, often accepting the fact that they waste a lot of their time on unnecessary things.

The narrator was particularly praised for his pronunciation, which some listeners regarded as “flawless.” Arthur had a difficult task delivering short but powerful sentences in just over 1 hour, and his tone, while some listeners found “flat” and “monotonous,” suited the seriousness and the overall spirit of the book.

What do readers say about “On the Shortness of Life”?

Still relevant

Readers that found this book fascinating often point out how Seneca’s writing aged well – “On the Shortness of Life” were written over two millennia ago, but its content and messages remain relevant even to this day. Some of the concepts are clearly behind us, like slavery, but things that Seneca talks about regarding the utilization of time and means to maximize the experience of life still resonate with the readers.

This is one of the reasons why people keep coming back to this book – you can open it at any point in time, any point in someone’s life, and be able to find valuable information that will help people take another perspective on what to focus on and what’s the most important and what’s worth their time.


A lot of people stated that they were challenged by this book, and for this reason, this wasn’t an easy read for many of them. It’s challenging to read something that will force you to rethink how you’re spending your time and think about all the things you do every day that don’t have any actual use for your well-being and life overall.

Some people even said that they “hate this book” because of that, as it was hard for them to go through Seneca’s words and not feel affected and start questioning their daily decisions. It was amazing for many readers how the author was able to affect their thinking and the way they contemplate the time and priorities in life even centuries after he was long gone.

Great for time management

Many readers consider “On the Shortness of Life” a very valuable self-help book as it helps them realize how the amount of time someone has depends on personal choices of what they’re gonna spend their time on. One of the most quoted sentences from the book is about the perception of time, explaining that it’s not that life is short, it’s that we’re wasting a lot of our time on unimportant things.

While people disagree with Seneca on things he states as the only important and worth spending time on, like philosophy, they universally agree that this sentence really helped them understand how time can be relevant and how the feeling of it passing too fast is often caused by their bad choices. This forces many of the readers to introspect and start thinking about the things they do every day but are not really productive nor help them improve any aspect of their life.

Reading of On the Shortness of Life by Seneca

A lot of knowledge packed into a short read

“On the Shortness of Life” is barely over 100 pages long, and this puts it among the shorter reads. Still, according to most of the readers, the amount of wisdom and knowledge built into this book is amazingly big and disproportionate to the length of the book.

This is another reason why so many readers kept coming back to this book. While you can read 100 pages in a couple of hours, some readers spend days, weeks, or even months going through this material and analyzing each sentence in detail.

Is philosophy the only important thing?

While most of the readers agree with the author that most of the things they regularly engage with on a daily basis are not really worth their time, they generally disagree with Seneca about what is the only thing worth spending time on. For the author, this is philosophy, as Seneca argues that reading, learning from, and contemplating the writings of the great philosophers is the only valuable thing worth your attention.

This is where most of the readers part away from the author and argue that there are much more things they prefer doing and consider valuable than just philosophy. Regardless of what they think is worth their focus and attention, people still agree with the author that there are a lot of aspects of their life that are easily replaceable and distracting.