There is considerable material available about Seneca’s life and I won’t delve into it other than to say he was a high-ranking Roman who acted in effect as Emperor during the first few years of Nero’s reign, restraining the worst impulses of the young Emperor and doing a good job of governing along with his military counterpart, an army officer called Burrus. Their work was considered by many to be the finest governance of Imperial Rome, until Burrus was murdered and Nero took over. Seneca lived in dangerous times and survived a good long while.
The text I’m using for now is from the Penguin Classics series, titled Seneca: Letters from a Stoic, translated by Robin Campbell, published in 1969, ISBN:978-0140442106. The letters were written in the last year or so of Seneca’s life and were directed to Lucilius Junior, procurator in Sicily, essentially a high ranking civil servant. They are considered more a statement of his beliefs than meant as actual letters in a correspondence.
Campbell includes only 40 of the 124 letters, selecting those he considered most germane and illustrative as he attempted to weed out those that were repetitive. He starts with Letter 2, which I’ll use in this post. Somewhere in the pipeline that delivers books to me is a later translation containing more of the letters.
In this post I’ve copied the whole letter to provide a sense of Seneca’s style. In the future I’ll excerpt and paraphrase.
The letter follows, interspersed with commentary:
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.
Much of this letter strikes me as completely relevant to life today in Western technological civilization. Consider that the order of the day seems to be distraction, to distract oneself as much as possible with the latest toys, or with bigger and better toys. Television is the most obvious candidate, and ironically rather than unsettling yourself with one move after another television makes it possible to unsettle yourself without lifting more than a finger to push a button on the remote control. I know. I’ve been there until recently. Four or five months ago I quit television, cancelled the cable, took the batteries out of the remote, and I haven’t looked back. But it isn’t just television.
I see people jogging or running to get their exercise, or working out in the gym, and in their ears sit the ubiquitous earplugs to music devices, and on their faces a blank stare.
I see people with telephones stuck in their ear, or holding them to their ear while driving or shopping or walking about.
And there is also the wealth of distraction available on our computers. The world wide web! The whole world at your fingertips. More than you might ever want to know about anything.
And none of this is enough, it seems. People seem always to want more: the latest, the fastest, the shiniest. And still it’s not enough.
I remember days when I would spend hours watching television, not really enjoying it other than in scattered moments, and yet not wanting to turn it off, not able to take my eyes and my scattered mind away from the images, from the stories, from even the things that made me angry. But at some point it came time to push the button and stop the noise, and in that moment I would feel alone, disconnected, and more, I would feel suddenly connected with myself. It was a disconcerting feeling.
The sounds and sights actually, I think, stopped my brain from functioning normally. Thoughts quite literally did not have time to fully form before being pushed out to make room for a new image, a new sound. And when the box went dead at the end of the day, my brain would quite literally find itself gasping for what passes for breath in its tissues and synapses.
I think it is much the same, to some degree or other, with those who must have music in their ears when running or doing whatever else; and with the phone as constant companion; and with hours spent working the internet. If you turn all those things off in your life, if you do that and sit still in a chair, in silence, alone, you confront what you can never escape, what you can only hide and suppress: yourself. If you cannot spend time with yourself, you can’t learn anything. You can’t reflect on the world, on your place in it, on the wonders of it.
The distractions in Seneca’s time were, I suspect, not as pernicious as ours today, but it was certainly possible to flit from one thing to another, one relationship to another, one home to another, one acquaintance to another, one place to another, in a quest to, consciously or not, avoid one’s own company. I wonder whether if they had television Rome would not have fallen sooner and farther than it did.
I take from what he says here a thought along these lines: If you don’t listen to your thoughts, to yourself, if you don’t make time to do that in a serious way, how can you know who you are, or what is of true value in your life? Nobody can tell you these things.
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 traveling abroad end up having plenty of places where they can find hospitality but no real friendships.
Seneca’s prescription here seems to be to focus, to go deep into a few things rather than skim the surface of many things. He specifies books, but I think his thought is applicable even more so today. We get buried under surfaces presented via modern media, and seldom get depth, and that only whatever depth the media purveyors choose. Horatio Alger said to go west. Seneca is saying go deep.
And the last sentence of that paragraph? It could well apply to venues like Facebook, could it not? To have ten thousand friends and to know no one. More surface. No depth.
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, playing flying visits to them all. Food that is vomited up 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 it if it 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 of 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.
Oh, that stings!
I have a book obsession. I love having them around me. And I’ve managed to amass at least three thousand, likely more, books. I buy them because I’m interested in the subjects, or I like to have a complete set of something or other, or because a given book is simply so aesthetically pleasing in design and feel. They range from thrillers by Furst, Sandford, and Burke, to the complete works of Aristotle in two hefty volumes in dark blue dust covers. Most of what I have are first edition hardcovers, and I protect the covers with a study cellophane and paper cover called Durafold.
And yes I do like to browse through them, to hold them, to run my fingers over the type, and even to sniff them to smell the ink.
Reading, however, is quite a different matter. When I was young I could easily read three or four novels a week, and often took my shots at substantive works – Don Quixote, for example. My teachers seemed to think I was cheating somehow, reading cribs instead of actual texts. But I never did that. I went after the real thing.
But now I can’t read that much, not even close. My reading synapses have slowed down, I tire considerably more easily, I have to work harder to understand what I’m reading. So the chance of getting through all my books in the time I have left? Zero.
So yes, my books have gotten in my way, nutritionally speaking, and I am guilty of doing what Seneca says not to do, and I will continue to carry on as I have. I will still enjoy the company of books and I will still read and barring accident or mischance, my books will, after I’m gone, find a home in a good public library or a good home in a good home.
I have to add that when I walk into a home where books are absent I feel as if I have walked into a cold storage locker from which all the food has been removed and only barren shelves and flat white walls are left, along with the chill that goes right to the bone.
Recently I refurbished my living room and moved into it well over a thousand books, as well as a couple of wonderful big chairs of rattan from Pier One and some colorful quilting and curtains. I would have no problem dying in that room, surrounded by my books.
So here I am not with Seneca, though some part of me would dearly love to be. I recognize now, and have recognized for years, my own shallowness in this matter, but I am also shallow enough to embrace it. My books are dear to me.
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 honourable 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.
Seneca is encouraging the Stoic practice of each night reflecting on the day’s events and trying to learn something from them that will improve your life, your relations with life. It means, of course, making the time to do that rather than just collapsing into bed after a thrilling evening of channel hopping on the television.
His final question, and the answer he gives, would certainly find relevance in today’s world, where everyone seems to want more and more, and the more they gather the less they have of value. But his comment also points at another factor important to Stoics, and that is to find pleasure in what you have while you have it, and not worry after what you do not have, or what others have. He’s asking us to find our own answer to the questions, ‘What is essential?’ and ‘What is enough?’
Which brings us around to turning off the television and the music player and the cellphone and listening to ourselves.