You may recall from A Quiet Moment #9 (if you’ve read it, of course) that I’ve been listening to The Tim Ferriss Show podcast. One of the things he and his guests mention again and again is a collection of letters now referred to as Letters from a Stoic, written by a Roman named Lucius Annaeus Seneca (the younger), around 65 A.D. As one fairly familiar with classical literature, and curious about such things, I decided to pick it up.
I’m only a few letters in, and they’re quite short–perhaps a page of written text, if it were actually in letter form–but I’m already thoroughly captivated by the concise way Seneca manages to express essential parts of our existence. I have two examples:
First, in his letter “On Saving Time,” he notes the disproportionate value people place on material wealth over time, when time is the only thing we can actually have full ownership over, and the only thing we can never get back: “the major portion of death has already passed. Whatever years be behind us are in death’s hands.” This makes it essential that we value our time, lest we grow old and find that “it is too late to spare when you reach the dregs of the cask. Of that which remains at the bottom, the amount is slight, and the quality is vile.”
The second piece that really struck me was in “On Discursiveness in Reading,” and again deals with material wealth: “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?”
The last bit I’d like to share is less about his encapsulation of wisdom, perhaps, than his wittiness, but I think it’s worth including. In “On True and False Friendship,” he is gently chiding the letter’s recipient for speaking of the person bearing the letter both as his friend, but as someone not to share confidences with. He suggests that one should be more careful with who one deems a friend, unless you’re using the term in a popular sense, “in the same way in which we speak of all candidates for election as ‘honorable gentlemen.'”
Ouch…but pretty fitting for our current political environment.