Reflections On Letters From A Stoic, by Lucius Seneca
Judging from what you tell me and from what I hear, I feel that you show great promise. You do not tear from place to place and unsettle yourself with one move after another. Restlessness of that sort is symptomatic of a sick mind. Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.
Be careful, however, that there is no element of discursiveness and desultoriness about this reading you refer to, this reading of many different authors and books of every description. You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind. To be everywhere is to be nowhere. People who spend their whole life travelling abroad end up having plenty of places where they can find hospitality but no real friendships. The same must needs be the case with people who never set about acquiring an intimate acquaintanceship with any one great writer, but skip from one to another, paying flying visits to them all. Food that is vomited u as soon as it is eaten is not assimilated into the body and does not do one any good; nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent changes of treatment; a wound will not heal over if it is being made the subject of experiments with different ointments; a plant which is frequently moved never grows strong. Nothing is so useful that it can be of any service in the mere passing. A multitude of books only gets in one’s way. So if you are unable to read all the books in your possession, you have enough when you have all the books you are able to read.
And if you say, ‘but i feel like opening different books at different times’, my answer will be this. Tasting one dish after another is the sign of a fussy stomach, and where the foods are dissimilar and diverse in range they lead to contamination o the system, not nutrition. So always read well-tried authors; and if at any moment you find yourself wanting a change from a particular author, go back to ones you have read before.
Each day, too, acquire something which will help you to face poverty, or death, and other ills as well. After running over a lot of different thoughts, pick out one to be digested thoroughly that day. This is what I do myself; out of the many bits I have been reading I lay hold of one. My thought for today is something which I found in Epicurus (yes, I actually make a practice of going over to the enemy’s camp – by way of reconnaissance, not as a deserter!). ‘A cheerful poverty,’ he says, ‘is an honorable state.’ But if it is cheerful it is not poverty at all. It is not the man who has too little who is poor, but the one who hankers after more. What difference does it make how much there is laid away in a man’s safe or in his barns, how many head of stock he grazes or how much capital he puts out at interest, if he is always after what is another’s and only counts what he has yet to get, never what he has already. You ask what is the proper limit to a person’s wealth? First, having what is essential, and second, having what is enough.
It took about 10 readings of this letter before parts of it started to really hit home.
I’d always read it quickly and moved onto the next letter. A few weeks ago I happened to be in the right situation to really hear it. I’d just arrived in Thailand on a last minute, spontaneous trip because I was feeling burnt out and lost.
So the first paragraph hit me hard. I was tearing from place to place. My mind was unsettled and I knew it. I think there is something to the idea. I meet a lot of people overseas, all of us far from our homes, and this “unsettled mind” feels like a common thread through all of us.
But deeper reflection caused me to remember the following quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”
I like both ideas. And they’re a clear contradiction. I have a lot of contradictions. My heart draws me more towards Emerson. But I don’t know what he really means?
When my mind gets sick, traveling to a foreign land for 1 month or longer seems to provide some real lasting remedy. It change my perspective. It disconnects me temporarily. It changes my routine. This is all valuable.
That being said, there can be a fleeting aspect to all of it. A chase that never ends. Chasing the next party, the next beach, the next girl, the next high. It seems to be a double edged sword that I don’t yet understand how to properly wield.
My thought is to aim for “sort of settled.” A state where most of the time, I am settled. And then when I start to feel unsettled in my settling I relocate myself for a period of time to a new area before returning to my settled area.
It’s important to note that travel in 2015 is a different animal than travel at the time of Christ. In Seneca’s days the world was still flat and America didn’t exist. So maybe he didn’t know everything about Vagabonding.
On the matter of books and spending more time with one author versus jumping from one to another constantly. I think there is real merit and it’s led me to change, for the better, my reading habits.
I’m creating lists of “anthology authors”. These are authors who I have or am actively involved in, reading everything they’ve written, multiple times. I do this with music and other art forms as well. It’s a short list still and will likely always be. But the conscious effort to build a deep and intimate relationship with the work of a particularly brilliant author. The only authors that I’ve achieved this with (unintentionally) are JK Rowling, JRR Tolkien, Robert Greene, and Tim Ferriss. I’m currently working on Salman Rushdie. I’ve not just read all of their books, but I’ve read them all more than once. I still learn and see new things on every read through and enjoy the works differently every time.
It’s made me a bigger fan and enriched the experience of reading (and listening to music) immensely.
I don’t think that ONLY (as Seneca advises) reading from the same authors over and over again is very clever. New exposure to new concepts matters. Variety is good. And it isn’t one or the other. I aim spend a little more than half of my time reading and re-reading the works of genius authors that I love. I aim to spend a little less than half of my time reading new, carefully sourced material.
It’s a timing thing again. In 1 AD there weren’t a lot of great writers. In 2015 we have a wealth of literary talent collected through out the ages and more being produced every day. It’d be an unfortunate poverty to limit yourself to the works of only a few for your entire life.
The concept of picking one thought for the day and digesting it thoroughly is nice. It sticks with you that way.
Onto the wealth and poverty. I think that Seneca is offering us a cap on wealth, which excites me. “You ask what the proper limit to a man’s wealth is? First, having what is essential, and second, having what is enough.”
When you recognize that there is “enough” at some point, and you define it you protect yourself against toiling away for the ever elusive more. What is enough changes over time, but taking the time to calculate what is enough for you right now in the various aspects of life is a powerful move. It restrains your thinking and planning.
No one needs $1,000,000,000 for anything. If you want to really live an all out, uber rich, .001% lifestyle, it can be had in the most lavish fashion for 1-2% of that. You don’t need a billion dollars, you don’t need 10,000 sex partners, you don’t need 100,000 calories per day. Those are all lethal doses.
As soon as you hit the cap on what is enough, everything is gravy. Would you work to make money if you had all of the money you ever needed? Only if you loved doing the work. Would you work to get food if you had all the food you could ever want/need? Only if you loved farming/hunting/foraging. When you have enough, you do what you love. I like the idea of spending my entire life doing the things I love.
- Go really deep with authors whose genius is not in question. Do it lots of times.
- Figure out what is essential and what is enough in your own life.
- Don’t blindly accept everything you read in a philosophy book.