Seneca’s on The Shortness of Life and its implications on identity

In Seneca’s famous essay “On The Shortness of Life”, he declares that life can seem short if you waste it away, but life can be long if you know how to use it. What Seneca is interested in here is how effectively we utilise the spare time we have in our lives. If we spend every day of our lives watching trash television, playing Candy Crush, or drinking heavily, then thirty years down the line we would justly wonder how well we had used this time.

However, if we decide that we are going to organise our time, appropriate the hours of our day to working towards achievements, and give our lives direction, then in thirty years, we will look back and feel much better about how we have spent our lives. You can be fifty years old and have lived a long life, or you can be fifty years old and have lived a short life. Seneca would have been inclined to believe that what divides ‘great people’ from the everyman is in fact how they have decided to fill their lives, what direction that life has taken, and what that life has produced. In other words, the more, or better, you have to show when taking audit of your life at the end of it, the greater and more worth your life.

Seneca’s stoic writings have inspired many people to achieve greatness and to value the precious time they have. For me, there is a much more interesting question to ask of his text, namely the question of personal identity.

When we meet a new person, we might ask them questions to get to know them, such as ‘what do you do?’, ‘what do you like to [read, eat, listen to, watch]?’, and so forth. The question of identity I find interesting could be framed as follows- “given that part of our identity is only knowable from the outside, what do we change in the knowable part of our identity by changing how we manage our time?”.

Many philosophers who study identity argue that continuity of experience is a vital aspect of who we are. Our life has an internal continuity, built up of our thoughts, experiences, moods, memories, likes and dislikes, and so forth. This continuity is unbroken from day one. I don’t mean to say here that every event and thought in our life has an exact and unbroken chronological continuity. What I mean is that, from now, if you look back in your mind, you create a series of memories, with a kind of functional continuity, which you will see to form the identity you currently have.

A bust of Seneca, Roman philosopher
Bust of Seneca, Roman philosopher

I would like to add that I’m not endorsing a view that who we are is entirely a matter of experiences and memories thrown into a chronological series (see John Locke’s Tabula Rasa), there are of course biological factors, for example, which constitute our identity too. However, this could be considered the phenomenological character of our identity. There is, to put it another way, a part of our identity which is definable purely by our conscious experience.

This inner identity is, however, private from the outside world, and from other minds. People create an identity of us from their interpretations of our external life. This is created from how they perceive our actions and words, from the basic facts of our life, and so forth. This will of course be filtered through the lens of their own mind, and each person will consciously and unconsciously create an imagined identity of who we are. This identity will be continuously revised in their minds, but also socially, as people discuss the lives of each other.

What we can see here is that there is an external biography which defines us. This adds obvious implications for Seneca’s view of life. If we are to drastically change our lives to make them more valuable, the choice of how we change our life is inextricable from the question of how we change our external biography. To say “I have decided that I want to work in finance” isn’t merely a choice of how we use our time, it is also a choice of how we define ourselves to other people. If I told someone that I worked in finance, they would have a set of assumptions of what someone who works in finance is like. The change of one biographical detail in the external world transforms our perceived identity by each set of assumptions about that detail.

We chose to take on that set of assumptions and add it to our biography. Our conscious experience of the world contains our conscious experience of our biography in the world, and therefore also in the minds of others. The identity we create for ourselves, at large in the world, is fed back to us. We then assimilate a part of this as a reinforced or revised self identity, like a feedback loop.

When Seneca declared “life is long if you know how to live it”, we can further say that “identity is valuable if we know how to craft it”. Deciding how worthwhile our life is, is just as importantly a decision of who we are to other people. Our obituaries are being written as we are living, not in our deaths.

7 thoughts on “Seneca’s on The Shortness of Life and its implications on identity

  1. Timely. I have been thinking about identity a whole lot these days, specifically the identity I crafted – both inner or outer – through the choices I consciously made over the course of my life. I look back and I have slowly become who I wanted to become by sheer force of will and course corrections along the way. Great post.

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    1. Thank you! Force of will and course corrections sound like the right path to true identity. I believe Zizek when he said that we don’t really want to be happy, we simply because happy when we strive to do what is right for us. I find that inner/outer divide fascinating, and I’d love to understand where they meet and how they interact. I think part of who we think we are is being constantly revised as we see how others see us. Seeing the ‘I’ made real gives us a tangible model to work with, like a feedback loop. I believe so anyway. 🙂

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      1. I agree. But besides how others see us and mold our concept of ‘I’, I also believe that external circumstances (and our choices) shape our identity. When I was younger I thought of identity as somewhat fixed while now I realize it is absolutely fluid. Anyway, I would love to keep on reading what you write on the subject.

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  2. I agree entirely, it’s a complex model. I’m reading a whole number of materials at the moment to add to this debate. Thank you very much for your interest! Hopefully there will be more good discussion to come. 🙂

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  3. We would merely opine on 2 relevant things. 1. The individual will lose freedom if he is too concerned with managing his external identity to measure up to the expectations of others, or to win their approval of him. 2. As Sri Aurobindo said: “Look at what a man has become.” Continuity of personal experience and thinking is important in identity, but the value of how the life was lived lies to a certain degree in the final product and not just in the journey. We have seen individuals that showed no indication of growth in perspective or wisdom or judgement even into their old age. These people are pretty much the same as they were in late adolescence, which seems a waste and a failure of maturation.

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