On the Shortness of Life – Seneca

On the shortness of life came across to me as a recommendation from the book How to Live on 24 Hours a Day. I wanted to read Seneca for a long time so I decided to start with this one. This is a very small book with 105 pages, but it carries the best content that I read this year.

This book is divided into three parts. First one is the essay “On the shortness of life”. Seneca shares his views on how to live a life to the fullest. You cannot expect any sugar coated words from a stoic so you might feel sometimes that the words are hitting you very hard. But towards the end you will realise how relevant his ideas are even today. This is my favourite essay in this book.

The second part is Seneca addressing his mother on the occasion of his exile. In “Consolation to Helvia” he refers to his exile as a benefit not a punishment. This is historically an interesting essay, you will understand the attitude of society towards women in that era. For me this essay was not as interesting as the other two because It had many references to other stories and events happened in that era.

“On Tranquility of Mind” is Seneca responding to his friend Serenus’s letter. Serenus seeking Seneca’s advice on how to cure him of anxiety, worry and disgust with life. Seneca talks about self-knowledge, ordering priorities, public service and mastering fear in this part.

Here is few of my favourite quotes from this book.

“You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire.”

“The pain of a wound is the same in the largest and the smallest bodies. Plucking out hair hurts bald people just as much as those with hair.”

“They loose the day in waiting for the night, and the night in fearing the dawn.”

“No man has been shattered by the blows of fortune unless he was first deceived by her favours.”

“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.”

“And so there is no reason for you to think that any man has lived long because he has grey hairs or wrinkles, he has not lived long – he has existed long. For what if you should think that man had had a long voyage who had been caught by a fierce storm as soon as he left harbour, and, swept hither and thither by a succession of winds that raged from different quarters, had been driven in a circle around the same course? Not much voyaging did he have, but much tossing about.”

“The evil of taking our cue from others has become so deeply ingrained that even the most basic feeling, grief, degenerates into imitation”

“It’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it’s been given to us in generous measure for accomplishing the greatest things, if the whole of it is well invested.”

“What does it matter what ground I stand on.”

“I shall never ashamed to go to a bad author for a good quotation.”

Sapiens – A brief history of humankind

Once in a while you will read a book and it will bring a radical shift in your perspective, sapiens is a book like that. This books tells us how an animal born with no significans grown to become god like. It is the brief history of humankind. Dr. Yuval Noah Harari did a great job writing the entire human history in just 400 pages. His simple writing style and presentaton with illustrations explains each and every concept perspicuously.

This book is divided into four major sections The Cognitive Revolution, Agricultural Revolution, Unification of Humankind and Scientific RevolutionIn each of these sections Harari explains how human beings lived in that era and how this lifestyle affected their environement.

1. The Cognitive Revolution

Cognitive revolution started about 70,000 years ago. Unlike other animals Sapiens have the gift of imagination. No other animal can live in an imagined reality. They live in pure reality where a cow is a cow, but in human society we have different meaning for cow. It is no longer a normal cow it is considered as a mother and in some part of the world we worship it. Imagined reality opened new realms in human behaviour. Now if you look around you see most of the things that we use daily like money, religions, companies, bank, nations, organisations are not real objects. You cannot touch and feel these things. They exists only in our collective imagination. We use myths and stories to build this universe of imagined reality.

“Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals.”

It is very difficult for one million apes to work together towards a common goal, because they don’t have this web of imagined reality. For them trusting each other takes a lot of time. But for sapiens trusting each other is simple because of imagined reality. If two people believe in one imagined reality there is a higher chance of them trusting each other. And today imagined reality is far more powerful than anything else. We can say that the existence of reality itself is depended on this imagined reality. As Harari put it

“As time went by, the imagined reality become ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as United nations and Google.”

Harari is saying many of our present day social and psychological characters are developed during pre-agricultural era. For example we might have got craving for high calorie food from hunter-gatherer ancestors. At that time when you get some high calorie food the only way to use it was to eat more. There was no guarantee that you will get this again tomorrow.

“Today we may be living in high-rise apartments with over stuffed refrigerators, but our DNA still thinks we are in the savannah. That’s what makes us spoon down an entire tub of Ben&Jerry’s when we find one in the freezer and wash it down with a jumbo Coke.”

2. The Agricultural Revolution

The first chapter of this section is called History’s Biggest Fraud. Well, there is a reason behind it.

Agricultural revolution started around 10,000 years ago. Sapiens who hunted wild animals and gathered wild plants started sowing seeds, watering plants and domesticated animals. It was a revolution in the way humans lived. We heard many stories about how this revolution fuelled the progress of humanity but there is no evidence that this actually made any progress in their life. Sapiens used to have a very good diet, they ate wide variety of food gathered from wilderness, but agriculture restricted it to very few. Also farming took a lot of effort and reduced time for leisure.

“The agriculture revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food does not translated into better diet or more leisure. Rather it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The agriculture revolution was history’s biggest fraud.”

Harari is saying

“We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.”

May be this is true. Agriculture could be a trap that our ancestors fallen into and we still haven’t came ou of it. But we should also see the other side. Why they fell for this trap in the first place?. Before farming food was the first priority and they spend almost their entire life for gathering food. But after agriculture started sapiens finally got some time to do other business as well. This paved the way for an entire new style of living. It is hard to say that agriculture changed the lives of sapiens for good or bad. If it didn’t happened we would be seeing it in a different perspective.

Agriculture solved the availability of food. People settle down around farms and this started bringing hierarchies in their social order.

Imagined Order
Harari is trying to see the world we live in as a combination of two things, imagination and reality. The reality around us is the trees, animals, minerals etc and the imaginary order is woven into this reality very closely.

The moment we are born society around us will start telling us stories about imagined order. Most of the people who believe in these stories think that their worth depends on their position in social hierarchy and what other people think about them. Most of our present day desires are created by romantic, nationalist, capitalist and humanist myths. It is very difficult to change an imagined order because it requires changing of collective imagination of billions of people. Harari is saying

“Inorder to change an existing imagined order, we must first believe in an alternate imagined order”

After agriculture revolution with the help of myths and stories humas organised themselves in imagined orders. Racism was one such thing created as a result of this ordering. Harari underlines that biologically and logically there is negligible difference between people in different social orders. So racism can be the result of chance events supported by myths.

Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible by definition also natural. A Truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition.

3. Unification of Humankind

Now if you look around humankind is a one big family above the globe. We communicate and work together for the progress of this big family. But after agriculture revolution it was not like that. Humans were spread across different continents, cultures and societies. So what brings them together. There are three things that united human beings

1. Money and Trade
Trade started with barter system. But it had its own flaws. When money came into picture it became a universal medium of exchange also it became the most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.

2. Imperialism
Rise and fall of empires played a large role in uniting human kind. Throughout the history empires ruled over large geographical areas and united them under common myths. In this process they did a lot of bloodshed. We can fill pages with good things and bad things about imperialism but the end result is that this process helped in uniting humankind.

3. Religion
Harari is defining religion as a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order. One theory about the origin of gods is that gods gained importance because they offered a solution to the problem of communication with plants and animals. This further led to the formation of polytheistic religions. Originated from polytheistic religions monotheists religions believed only in one supreme power. Over time it went through a lot of transformation.

“The monotheists religions expelled the gods through the front door with a lot of fanfare, only to take them back in through the side window.”

Religion is often considered as the source of discrimination and disunion but it was one of the three important things that united human beings in a larger scale.

4. Scientific Revolution

In this section Harari talks about the scientific revolution which begins 500 years ago. Scientific revolution triggered industrial revolution and that triggered information revolution and currently the biotechnological revolution. He is concluding this section with the mention of replacing natural selection with intelligent design and suspect that biological revolution might saw seeds for the end of Sapiens.

Overall I enjoyed reading this amazing book. It really connected many dots in the evolution of human beings. I would love to  recommend this book to anyboady who is interested in the story of sapiens.