Tag: Seneca

Seneca on Wisdom

In Seneca’s Morals: Of a Happy Life, Benefits, Anger, and Clemency, the famous stoic philosopher Seneca, who brought us combinatorial creativity, illuminates real wisdom.

Wisdom is a right understanding, a faculty of discerning good from evil, what is to be chosen and what rejected; a judgment grounded upon the value of things, and not the common opinion of them. It sets a watch over our words and deeds, and makes us invincible by either good or evil fortune. It has for its object things past and things to come, things transitory and things eternal. It examines all the circumstances of time, and the nature and operation of the mind. It stands to philosophy as avarice to money — the one desires and the other is desired; the one is the effect and the reward of the other. To be wise is the use of wisdom, as seeing is the use of eyes, and speaking of the tongue. He that is perfectly wise is perfectly happy; nay, the very beginning of wisdom makes life easy to us. It is not enough to know this; we must print it in our minds by daily meditation, and so bring a good will to a good habit.

Philosophy, after all, is a guide to living your life.

We must practice what we preach, for philosophy is not a subject for popular ostentation, nor does it rest in words, but in deeds. It is not an entertainment to be taken up for delight or to give a taste to our leisure, but it should fashion the mind, govern our actions, and tell us what we are to do and what avoid. It sits at the helm and guides us through all hazards; nay, we cannot be safe without it, for every hour gives us occasion to use it. It informs us in all the duties of life: piety to our parents, faith to our friends, charity to the poor, judgment in counsel; it gives us peace by fearing nothing, and riches by coveting nothing.

A wise man will always be happy …

… for he subjects all things to himself, submits himself to reason, and governs his actions by counsel, not by passion. He is not moved with the utmost violences of fortune, nor with the extremities of fire and sword; whereas a fool is afraid of his own shadow, and surprised at ill accidents, as if they were all levelled at him. He does nothing unwillingly, for whatever he finds necessary, he makes it his choice. He propounds’ to himself the certain scope and end of human life: he follows that which conduces to it, and avoids that which hinders it. He is content with his lot, whatever it be, without wishing for what he has not, though of the two, he had rather abound than want.

The business of his life, like that of nature, is performed without tumult or noise: he neither fears danger nor provokes it; but from caution, not from cowardice; for captivity, wounds, and chains he looks upon as unreal terrors. He undertakes to do well that which he does. Arts are but the servants whom wisdom commands. He is cautious in doubtful cases, in prosperity temperate, and resolute in adversity; still making the best of every condition, and improving all occasions to make them serviceable to his fate.

Some accidents there are which, I confess, may affect him, but they cannot overthrow him; such as bodily pains, loss of children and friends, or the ruin and desolation of his country. One must be made of stone or iron not to be sensible of these calamities; and besides, it were no virtue to bear them if one did not feel them.

There are three degrees of proficiency in the school of wisdom:

The first are those that come within the sight of it, but not up to it: they have learned what they ought to do, but they have not put their knowledge into practice; they are past the hazard of a relapse, but they are still in the clutches of disease; by which I mean an ill habit, that makes them over-eager upon things which are either not much to be desired, or not at all. A second sort are those that have conquered their appetite for a season, but are yet in fear of falling back. A third sort are those that are clear of many vices, but not of all. They are not covetous, but perhaps they are passionate; firm enough in some cases, but weak in others; perhaps despise death, and yet shrink at pain. There are diversities in wise men, but no inequalities; — one is more affable, another more ready, a third, a better speaker; but the felicity of them all is equal.

Learn more about Seneca.

Commonplace Books as a Source for Networked Knowledge and Combinatorial Creativity

Common Place Book

There is an old saying that the truest form of poverty is “when you have occasion for anything, you can’t use it, because you know not where it is laid.”

The flood of information is nothing new.

“In fact,” the Harvard historian Ann Blair writes in her book Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age, “many of our current ways of thinking about and handling information descend from patterns of thought and practices that extend back for centuries.” Her book explores “the history of one of the longest-running traditions of information management — the collection and arrangement of textual excerpts designed for consultation.” She calls them reference books.

Large collections of textual material, consisting typically of quotations, examples, or bibliographical references, were used in many times and places as a way of facilitating access to a mass of texts considered authoritative. Reference books have sometimes been mined for evidence about commonly held views on specific topics or the meanings of words, and some (encyclopedias especially) have been studied for the genre they formed.

[…]

No doubt we have access to and must cope with a much greater quantity of information than earlier generations on almost every issue, and we use technologies that are subject to frequent change and hence often new. Nonetheless, the basic methods we deploy are largely similar to those devised centuries ago in early reference books. Early compilations involved various combinations of four crucial operations: storing, sorting, selecting, and summarizing, which I think of as the four S’s of text management. We too store, sort, select, and summarize information, but now we rely not only on human memory, manuscript, and print, as in earlier centuries, but also on computer chips, search functions, data mining, and Wikipedia, along with other electronic techniques.

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The Florilegium and Commonplace Books

One of the original methods to keep, share, and remix ideas was the florilegium, which was a compilation of excerpts from other writings taken mostly from religion, philosophy, and sometimes classical texts. The word florilegium literally means a gathering of flowers — flos (flowers) and legere (to gather).

The leading Renaissance humanists, who experienced perhaps the first wave of information overload, were fans of commonplace books as a method of study and note-taking. Generally, these notebooks were kept private and filled with the likes of the classical Roman authors such as Cicero, Virgil, and Seneca.

“In his influential De Copia (1512),” writes professor Richard Yeo, “Erasmus advised that an abundant stock of quotations and maxims from classical texts be entered under various loci (places) to assist free-flowing oratory.”

Arranged under ‘Heads’ and recorded as ‘common-places’ (loci communes), these commonplace books could be consulted for speeches and written compositions designed for various situations — in the law court, at ceremonial occasions, or in the dedication of a book to a patron. Typical headings included the classical topics of honour, virtue, beauty, friendship, and Christian ones such as God, Creation, faith, hope, or the names of the virtues and vices.

The aim of these books wasn’t regurgitation but rather combinatorial creativity, as people were encouraged to improvise on themes and topics. Gathering raw material alone — in this case, information — is not enough. We must transform it into something new. It is in this light that Seneca advised copying the bee and Einstein advised combinatorial play.

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A Move Away From Memory

Theologian Jean Le Clerc, writing about John Locke’s use of commonplace books, said:

In all sorts of learning, and especially in the study of languages, the memory is the treasury or store-house, … but lest the memory should be oppressed or over-burthen’d by too many things, order and method are to be called into its assistance. So that when we extract any thing out of an author, which is like to be of future use, we may be able to find it without any trouble. For it would be of little purpose to spend our time in [the] reading of books, if we could not apply what we read to our use.

Commonplace books, during the Renaissance, were used to enhance the memory. Yeo writes,

This reflected the ancient Greek and Roman heritage. In his Topica, Aristotle formulated a doctrine of ‘places’ (topoi or loci) that incorporated his ten categories. A link was soon drawn between this doctrine of ‘places’ (which were, for Aristotle, ‘seats of arguments’, not quotations from authors) and the art of memory. Cicero built on this in De Oratore, explaining that ‘it is chiefly order that gives distinctness to memory’; and Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria became an influential formulation. This stress on order and sequence was the crux of what came to be known as ‘topical memory’, cultivated by mnemonic techniques (‘memoria technica’) involving the association of ideas with visual images. These ideas, forms of argument, or literary tropes were ‘placed’ in the memory, conceived in spatial terms as a building, a beehive, or a set of pigeon holes. This imagined space was then searched for the images and ideas it contained…. In the ancient world, the practical application of this art was training in oratory; yet Cicero stressed that the good orator needed knowledge, not just rhetorical skill, so that memory had to be trained to store and retrieve illustrations and arguments of various kinds. Although Erasmus distrusted the mnemonic arts, like all the leading Renaissance humanists, he advocated the keeping of commonplace books as an aid to memory.

While calling memory “the store-house of our ideas,” John Locke recognized its limitations. On the one hand, it was an incredible source of knowledge. On the other hand, it was weak and fragile. He knew that over time, memory faded and became harder to retrieve, which made it less valuable. In something the internet age would be proud of, Locke’s focus was retrieval, not recall. His system was a form of pre-industrial Google.

Locke saw commonplace books not as a means to improve memory but as an aid in recollecting complex information gathered over years from multidisciplinary subjects. If only Farnam Street existed in his day.

Yeo writes:

Locke sometimes refers to his bad memory. This might seem to endorse the humanist conception of commonplace books as memory aids, but Locke does not believe that memory can be trained in ways that guarantee transfer across subjects and situations. This separates him from many of his near contemporaries for whom the commonplace book was still a stimulus in training memory to recall and recite selected quotations.

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Creativity

In his essay “Extraordinary Commonplaces,” Robert Darnton comments on the practice at the time, which was to copy pithy passages into notebooks, “adding observations made in the course of daily life.”

Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality. … The era of the commonplace book reached its peak in the late Renaissance, although commonplacing as a practice probably began in the twelfth century and remained widespread among the Victorians. It disappeared long before the advent of the sound bite.

Commonplace books are thus to be mined for information, not only on how people thought but also as a source of creativity. Darnton continues:

By selecting and arranging snippets from a limitless stock of literature, early modern Englishmen gave free play to a semi-conscious process of ordering experience. The elective affinities that bound their selection into patterns reveal an epistemology — a process of knowing — at work below the surface.

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The Art of Putting Things in Order

As for what to write in the commonplace books themselves, Le Clerc advised that we: (1) extract only those things which are “choice and excellent,” for either the substance or the expression; and (2) don’t write out too much, and mark the place where we found it so we can come back to it:

At the entrance indeed upon any study, when the judgment is not sufficiently confirm’d, nor the stock of knowledge over large, so that the students are not very well acquainted with what is worth collecting, scarce anything is extracted, but what will be useful but for a little while, because as the judgment grows ripe, the things are despis’d which before were had in esteem. Yet it is of service to have collections of this kind, both that students may learn the art of putting things in order, as also the better to retain what they read.

But here are two things carefully to be observed; the first is, that we extract only those things which are choice and excellent, either for the matter itself or else for the elegancy of the expression, and not what comes next; for that labour would abate our desire to go on with our readings; neither are we to think that all those things are to be writ out which are called … sentences. Those things alone are to be picked out, which we cannot so readily call to mind, or for which we should want proper words and expressions.

The second thing which I would have taken notice of, is, that you don’t write out too much, but only what is most worthy of observation, and to mark the place of the author from whence you extracted it, for otherwise it will cause the loss of too much time.

Neither ought anything to be collected whilst you are busied in reading; if by taking the pen in hand the thread of your reading be broken off, for that will make the reading both tedious and unpleasant.

The places we design to extract from are to be marked upon a piece of paper, that we may do it after we have read the book out; neither is it to be done just after the first reading of the book, but when we have read it a second time.

These things it’s likely may seem minute and trivial, but without ’em great things cannot subsist; and these being neglected cause very great confusion both of memory and judgment, and that which above all things is most to be valued, loss of time.

Some who otherwise were men of most extraordinary parts, by the neglect of these things have committed great errors, which if they had been so happy as to have avoided, they would have been much more serviceable to the learned world, and so consequently to mankind.

And in good truth, they who despise such things, do it not so much from any greater share of wit that they have than their neighbours, as from what of judgment; whence it is that they do not well understand how useful things order and method are.

Locke also advised “to take notice of a place in an author, from whom I quote something, I make use of this method: before I write anything, I put the name of the author in my commonplace book, and under that name the title of the treatise, the size of the volume, and the time and place of its edition, and the number of pages that the whole book contains.”

This number of pages serves me for the future to mark the particular treatise and the edition I made use of. I have no need to mark the place, otherwise than in setting down the number of the page from whence I have drawn what I have wrote, just above the number of pages contained in the whole volume.

(Image source)

Seneca on Gathering Ideas And Combinatorial Creativity

Bees

“Combinatory play,” said Einstein, “seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.”

Ruminating on the necessity of both reading and writing, so as not to confine ourselves to either, Seneca in one of his Epistles, advised that we engage in Combinatorial Creativity — that is, gather ideas, sift them, and combine them into a new creation.

We should follow, men say, the example of the bees, who flit about and cull the flowers that are suitable for producing honey, and then arrange and assort in their cells all that they have brought in; these bees, as our Vergil says,

Pack close the flowing honey,
And swell their cells with nectar sweet.

It is not certain whether the juice which they obtain from the flowers forms at once into honey, or whether they change that which they have gathered into this delicious object by blending something therewith and by a certain property of their breath. For some authorities believe that bees do not possess the art of making honey, but only of gathering it … Certain others maintain that the materials which the bees have culled from the most delicate of blooming and flowering plants is transformed into this peculiar substance by a process of preserving and careful storing away, aided by what might be called fermentation,— whereby separate elements are united into one substance.

But I must not be led astray into another subject than that which we are discussing. We also, I say, ought to copy these bees, and sift whatever we have gathered from a varied course of reading, for such things are better preserved if they are kept separate; then, by applying the supervising care with which our nature has endowed us,— in other words, our natural gifts,— we should so blend those several flavors into one delicious compound that, even though it betrays its origin, yet it nevertheless is clearly a different thing from that whence it came.

Montaigne, perhaps echoing Seneca, reasoned that we must take knowledge and make it our own, Seneca comments:

We must digest it; otherwise it will merely enter the memory and not the reasoning power. Let us loyally welcome such foods and make them our own, so that something that is one may be formed out of many elements, just as one number is formed of several elements whenever, by our reckoning, lesser sums, each different from the others, are brought together. This is what our mind should do: it should hide away all the materials by which it has been aided, and bring to light only what it has made of them. Even if there shall appear in you a likeness to him who, by reason of your admiration, has left a deep impress upon you, I would have you resemble him as a child resembles his father, and not as a picture resembles its original; for a picture is a lifeless thing.

The Loeb Classic Library collection of Seneca’s Epistles in three volumes (1-65, 66-92, and 92-124), should be read by all in its entirety. Of course, if you don’t have time to read them all, you can read a heavily curated version of them.

Footnotes

The Best Stoic Reading List: Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus and More

The Stoic Reading List

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

— Marcus Aurelius

You know the section of the book after the last chapter? The one that everyone ignores? That’s one of the first things I read as part of a systematic skimming, which allows me to get a feel for the author’s vocabulary, a sense of what the book is about, and references and sources. It’s also a good place to find new reading material.

In the back of The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph I came across something I wish I had found a few years ago when I first started reading philosophy, a stoic reading list.

The Stoic Reading List

Stoicism is awesome because the original, primary texts are often easier to read than whatever has been put out since. This is why we’ve read the same books for thousands of years.

The Big Three.

1. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

I loved this book. I had read it before but it wasn’t the Hays translation, which made a world of difference for me.

There is one translation of Marcus Aurelius to read and that is Gregory Hays’s amazing edition for the Modern Library. Everything else falls sadly short. His version is completely devoid of any “thou’s” “arts” “shalls.” It’s beautiful and haunting. I’ve recommended this book to literally thousands of people at this point. Buy it. Change your life.

2. Letters of a Stoic by Seneca (see also: On the Shortness of Life).
This is one of the 5 books I recommend everyone read before their 30th birthday.

Seneca or Marcus are the best places to start if you’re looking to explore Stoicism. Seneca seems like he would have been a fun guy to know—which is unusual for a Stoic. I suggest starting with On the Shortness of Life (a collection of short essays) and then move to his book of letters (which are really more like essays than true correspondence).

3. Discourses by Epictetus.

Of the big three, Epictetus is the most preachy and least fun to read. But he will also from time to time express something so clearly and profoundly that it will shake you to your core.

But wait … there’s more.

Holiday points us to some other great authors too, who are in line with some stoic thinking.

To which we can add

Other Books that Holiday Recommends:

Some articles and online resources:

I’d also add — thanks to the hundred or so emails I’ve received on this — two books that keep popping up. First, Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Second, William Irvine’s A Guide To The Good Life.

Seneca On Reading

The more I read Seneca the more I like the man.

I read Susanna Braund’s translation of De Clementia in 2011 but never got around to reading more. My mistake.

Writing in Antifragile, Nassim Taleb says of Seneca:

His work has seduced people like me and most of the friends to whom I introduced to his books, because he speaks to us; he walked the walk, and he focused on the practical aspect of Stoicism, down to the how to take a trip, how to handle oneself while committing suicide (which he was ordered to do) or mostly, how to handle adversity and poverty and, even more critically, wealth.

Searching my bookshelf for what I could find on Seneca, I settled on the epistles, in which he writes about moral and ethical questions, relating to personal experiences.

While many of these have been lost, 124 exist.

On Discursiveness in Reading

I thought this brief passage, from Seneca, IV, Loeb Classical Library Edition, offered something to think about this weekend.

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.
[…]

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.

Nassim Taleb: We Should Read Seneca, Not Jonah Lehrer

For those who didn’t follow him, Jonah Lehrer has a gift for turning science into a great story. His beautiful writing made it hard to resist the narrative fallacy.

The recent news about him fabricating quotes and generally offering a tenuous commitment to the truth caught me by surprise. But one question that we should have asked ourselves long ago — should we have avoided Lehrer and other pop-science journalists altogether?

Nassim Taleb argues yes.

In his book Anti-Fragile, he writes:

We are built to be dupes for theories. But theories come and go; experience stays. Explanations change all the time, and have changed all the time in history (because of causal opacity, the invisibility of causes) with people involved in the incremental development of ideas thinking they always had a definitive theory; experience remains constant.

…what physicists call the phenomenology of the process is the empirical manifestation, without looking at how it glues to existing general theories. Take for instance the following statement, entirely evidence-based: If you build muscle, you can eat more without getting more fat deposits in your belly and can eat plenty of lamb chops without having to buy a new belt. Now in the past the theory to rationalize it was “Your metabolism is higher because muscles burn calories.” Currently I tend to hear “You become more insulin-sensitive and store less fat.” Insulin, shminsulin; metabolism, shmetabolism: another theory will emerge in the future and some other substance will come about, but the exact same effect will continue to prevail.

The same holds for the statement Lifting weights increases your muscle mass. In the past they used to say that weight lifting caused the “micro-tearing of muscles,” with subsequent healing and increase in size. Today some people discuss hormonal signaling or genes, tomorrow they will discuss something else. But the effect has held forever and will continue to do so.

On Facebook, Taleb writes:

When it comes to narratives, the brain seems to be the last province of the theoretician-charlatan. Add neurosomething to a field, and suddenly it rises in respectability and becomes more convincing as people now have the illusion of a strong causal link—yet the brain is too complex for that; it is both the most complex part of the human anatomy and the one that is the most susceptible to sucker-causation and charlatanism of the type “Proust Was A Neuroscientist”. Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons brought to my attention in their book The Invisible Gorilla the evidence I had been looking for: whatever theory has a reference in it to the brain circuitry seems more “scientific” and more convincing, even when it is just is randomized psycho-neuro-babble.

Taleb’s point, I think, is that most of Lehrer’s writing on science, while narratively sexy, derived from theories based on very little data. Most of these theories, won’t be around or even talked about in 100 years. Seneca, on the other hand, explained things that are still true today. Lehrer is noise. Seneca is signal.

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Still curious? A great way to start reading Seneca is to pick up Letters of a Stoic and Dialogues and Essays.