Seneca: Men learn as they teach

You must inevitably either hate or imitate the world. But the right thing is to shun both courses: you should neither become like the bad because they are many, nor be an enemy of the many because they are unlike you. Retire into yourself as much as you can. Associate with people who are likely to improve you. Welcome those whom you are capable of improving. The process is a mutual one: men learn as they teach.

–      Seneca, Letter VII

This ‘Quote of the Week’ is slightly late. It should in fact have been the quote of last week, but evidently I have yet to master that manner of self-disciplined and proactive idleness that I spoke of in my last post. I can only apologise to my many, many readers, who have all undoubtedly been worrying and speculating as to what might have caused this delay, and who may, upon learning of my failure to live up to my own ‘teachings’, be inclined to call me HYPOCRITE.

Having touched upon self-discipline and hypocrisy, it is apt that my quote this week comes from the Stoic philosopher Seneca – one of the most compelling writers on the subject of leading a disciplined and equanimous life, and (some argue) also one of history’s most infamous hypocrites.

It is certainly somewhat hard to reconcile his writings (which preach the virtues of moderation, and cast aspersions on wealth) with the fact that he amassed one of the largest fortunes in the history of the Roman empire, largely as a result of his involvement with the corrupt regime of the very immoderately tyrannical Nero.

We love to seek and point out the hypocrisies of others, especially as a basis to criticise or reject what someone says or writes. Yet we would do well to consider the words of one of Seneca’s more enduringly popular contemporaries, Jesus Christ:

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

The proverbial ‘mote’ in Seneca’s eye was something in the region of 300 million sestercii (which would easily have placed him in the top 0.1% of the wealthiest people in society). I can’t even begin to fathom the vast riches that would constitute the beam to Seneca’s mote, but I would welcome that beam right into my eye as surely as ‘the meek are blessed, and will inherit the earth’… As it is, though, I can’t afford to move out of my parents’ house, so I don’t think I’m at any particular risk of Seneca’s brand of hypocrisy.

Anyway, to draw this to something like a conclusion, I will endeavour to actually address the quote at hand. I think I have always been more inclined to ‘hate’ than to ‘imitate’ the world, as I think is the case with anyone of a cynical mind. There is, indeed, much to hate in the world, but as tempting as it is to bore you with a list of my personal abhorrences, I will deign to focus on the more optimistic side of Seneca’s words. I chose the above quote not only because it seems like sound advice, but also because I think it speaks to what I hope to do with Quote of the Week; a way for me to ‘associate with’ (through reading) authors whose words are ‘likely to improve’ us, and to ‘welcome’ anyone else who might be interested in doing the same. I don’t know if rambling about a quote once a week exactly entails ‘teaching’, but I certainly hope to learn from doing it…



Reading List

My only recommendation this week is that you buy a copy of Seneca’s Letters. They are all the evidence you need that philosophy needn’t be irrelevant to everyday life. The letters are short, almost essayistic (Montaigne and Seneca have much in common), and you will be able to come back to them again and again for doses of both sound and useful advice, relating to all aspects of life.

For further reading in Stoic philosophy, see the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. (This is on my personal reading list!)

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