He who is not even looking

Don’t expect, then, that you can sample the masterpieces of great minds by way of summaries; you must examine the whole, work over the whole. Their structure is a totality fitted together according to the outlines of their special genius, and if any member is removed the whole may collapse.

That is why we give boys apothegms, what the Greeks call chriai, to learn by heart, because the childish mind, which cannot comprehend more, is able to grasp them. But for a man advanced in study to hunt such gem is disgraceful; he is using a handful of clichés for a prop and leaning on his memory; by now he should stand on his own feet. He should be producing bons mots, not remembering them. It is disgraceful for an old man or one in sight of old age to be wise by book. “Zeno said this.” What do you say? “This Cleanthes said.” What do you say? How long will you be a subaltern? Take command and say things which will be handed down to posterity. Produce something of your own. All those men who never create but lurk as interpreters under the shadow of another are lacking, I believe, in independence of spirit. They never venture to do the things they have long rehearsed. They exercise their memories on what is not their own. But to remember is one thing, to know another. Remembering is merely overseeing a thing deposited in the memory; knowing is making the thing your own, not depending on the model, not always looking over your shoulder at the teacher. “Zeno said this, Cleanthes that”—is there any difference between you and a book? How long will you learn? Begin to teach! One man objects, “Why should I listen to lectures when I can read?” Another replies, “The living voice adds a great deal.” It does indeed, but not a voice which merely serves for another’s words and functions as a clerk.

There is another consideration. First people who have not rid themselves of leading-strings follow their predecessors where all the world has ceased to follow them, and second, they follow them in matters still under investigation. But if we rest content with solutions offered, the real solution will never be found. Moreover, a man who follows another not only finds nothing, he is not even looking. What is the upshot? Shall I not walk in the steps of my predecessors? I shall indeed use the old path, but if I find a shorter and easier way I shall make a new path. The men who made the old paths are not our suzerains but our pioneers. Truth is open to all; it has not been pre-empted. Much of it is left for future generations.

~ Senece, from Letter 33, Maxims

This is Seneca at his mic-drop best. (Unlike the borderline torturous silver point style you also see quoted from on occasion.) Here he’s writing a personal letter to one of his long-time students.

If it’s made you perk up, I recommend digging into this letter further by reading, On the Futility of Learning Maxims, overs on the Stoic Letters web site. That’s also a great introduction to the nuance of translating these very old works; there are significant differences between M. Hadas’s translation circa 1958 and whatever translation Stoic Letters is using, (I looked, but it’s not clear to me.)

Obviously the thread I’m tugging on here is meta: It’s one thing to nod along in the audience of a performance— “yes yes yes I agree I’m doing that yes.” It’s quite another to stand up, and ask to speak next. It was about 10 years ago that I began this blog, and about 5 years ago that I began seriously devoting intentional effort to creating something here.

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I’m not sure that I’m setting much of an example. But trying to walk-the-walk has definitely helped me.

In the spirit of the season: Go read this next, What do you do for fun?

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