For the most part I am unfamiliar with the works of the Roman philosopher Seneca but became intrigued after reading an article by Adam Townsend. Mr. Townsend’s reference was to Seneca’s Moral Letters to Lucilius and was in regards to being mindful of what you read. Here is the excerpt from his blog which is the Seneca passage:
“Judging by what you write me, and by what I hear, I am forming a good opinion regarding your future. You do not run hither and thither and distract yourself by changing your abode; for such restlessness is the sign of a disordered spirit. The primary indication, to my thinking, of a well-ordered mind is a man’s ability to remain in one place and linger in his own company. Be careful, however, lest this reading of many authors and books of every sort may tend to make you discursive and unsteady. You must linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind. Everywhere means nowhere. When a person spends all his time in foreign travel, he ends by having many acquaintances, but no friends. And the same thing must hold true of men who seek intimate acquaintance with no single author, but visit them all in a hasty and hurried manner. Food does no good and is not assimilated into the body if it leaves the stomach as soon as it is eaten; nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent change of medicine; no wound will heal when one salve is tried after another; a plant which is often moved can never grow strong. There is nothing so efficacious that it can be helpful while it is being shifted about. And in reading of many books is distraction.
Accordingly, since you cannot read all the books which you may possess, it is enough to possess only as many books as you can read. “But,” you reply, “I wish to dip first into one book and then into another.” I tell you that it is the sign of an overnice appetite to toy with many dishes; for when they are manifold and varied, they cloy but do not nourish. So you should always read standard authors; and when you crave a change, fall back upon those whom you read before. Each day acquire something that will fortify you against poverty, against death, indeed against other misfortunes as well; and after you have run over many thoughts, select one to be thoroughly digested that day. This is my own custom; from the many things which I have read, I claim some one part for myself.
The thought for today is one which I discovered in Epicurus; for I am wont to cross over even into the enemy’s camp, – not as a deserter, but as a scout. He says: “Contented poverty is an honourable estate.” Indeed, if it be contented, it is not poverty at all. It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor. What does it matter how much a man has laid up in his safe, or in his warehouse, how large are his flocks and how fat his dividends, if he covets his neighbour’s property, and reckons, not his past gains, but his hopes of gains to come? Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? It is, first, to have what is necessary, and, second, to have what is enough. Farewell.”
I really found the idea of limiting oneself to a handful of authors intriguing. Mainly because this idea appears to fly in the face of modern thought where diversity of thought and ideas are praised. Just yesterday I was reading an article criticizing the ego and recommending that all authors be treated equal from the perception of the reader. The article was on an emerging platform, so I had given this idea some thought. However upon deep consideration it just doesn’t seem to stand up to rational thought. Similar to the free market, authors are curated and gain a following over time based on their accomplishments and consistent performance. It seems that by removing the filter of individual accomplishment, readers run the risk of dithering from one author to the next as warned by Seneca.
The Seneca passage also reminds me of a saying from the writings of Ayn Rand where she would discuss the importance of having an active mind as opposed to an open mind. The idea being that one should not open their mind to everything and anything that comes along, but should actively probe the foundation of new ideas based on concretes. This idea of linking abstract ideas to concretes is also echoed by Dr. Leonard Peikoff in his course The Philosophy of Education.
The ideas of open-mindedness and diversity are not only present societal norms but are also extensively lectured in business schools. This makes the Seneca passage even more intriguing as it appears to counter traditional accepted societal norms and professional teachings. Which brings me to another of Rand’s ideas which I will use to conclude this piece:
“The battle of philosophers is a battle for man’s mind. If you do not understand their theories, you are vulnerable to the worst among them.”
The idea of limiting myself to the teachings of a handful of master thinkers makes sense to me, especially given my interest and tendency towards rational and logical thought. I am curious to know if there are others out there with the same perspective. If so, have you purposefully limited your readings and perspectives to a handful of master thinkers as recommended by Senecas and how has this approached worked for you? Who are your preferred master thinkers?
For additional information refer to the inspiration for this article, Wisdom From Seneca On What To Read by Adam Townsend.
Image Credit: It’s Orange Not Red