Saturday, July 24, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 84 - On Gathering Ideas

On Gathering Ideas

In the aim of loving wisdom, we must expose ourselves to many ideas, make some of them our own and add to those that need enhancing.  And in that quest for wisdom, we must read and write.  Seneca correctly observes:

I have not stopped my reading in the slightest degree. And reading, I hold, is indispensable – primarily, to keep me from being satisfied with myself alone, and besides, after I have learned what others have found out by their studies, to enable me to pass judgment on their discoveries and reflect upon discoveries that remain to be made. Reading nourishes the mind and refreshes it when it is wearied with study; nevertheless, this refreshment is not obtained without study.  We ought not to confine ourselves either to writing or to reading; the one, continuous writing, will cast a gloom over our strength, and exhaust it; the other will make our strength flabby and watery. It is better to have recourse to them alternately, and to blend one with the other, so that the fruits of one's reading may be reduced to concrete form by the pen.

I've written a bit more extensively on the topics of reading and writing as methods of learning and gaining wisdom (see Applied Stoicism essay on Education).

Seneca sees natural processes, such as bees making honey, as analogous to how humans can gather various ideas from many sources (flowers / books) to produce good ideas (i.e. honey).

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.

As a side note, I recommend this video for learning the amazing process of how bees make honey, and how they work and socialize.

Seneca applies the analogy to humans and how we ought to learn.

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 ...  blend those several flavours into one delicious compound.

We are not merely to learn and copy, but to comprehend, assume the mindset and improve upon it where we can.

we should see to it that whatever we have absorbed should not be allowed to remain unchanged, or it will be no part of us.  We must digest it; otherwise it will merely enter the memory and not the reasoning power.

And while at times we may mimic others, we should strive to add our unique perspective on it, so as to not be identical.

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.

We add our unique perspective to the chorus of those who have added previously, and it is blended into a harmony.

how many voices there are in a chorus? Yet out of the many only one voice results.

And our mind should similarly be like the chorus - to take in many voices and blend them into one.

I would have my mind of such a quality as this; it should be equipped with many arts, many precepts, and patterns of conduct taken from many epochs of history; but all should blend harmoniously into one.

He concludes with a plea to not pursue indifferents for the sake of them, but rather to use them well - to demonstrate wisdom; to demonstrate an excellent soul.  Don't focus on the low (indifferents), but focus on the high - take the view from above - as you approach indifferents.  While others will regard the indifferents as "the goal" of life, you will see that those things are a means to an end.  The end is wisdom - the wise use of indifferents - not possession of indifferents.

direct your course hither to wisdom, and seek her ways, which are ways of surpassing peace and plenty. Whatever seems conspicuous in the affairs of men – however petty it may really be and prominent only by contrast with the lowest objects – is nevertheless approached by a difficult and toilsome pathway. It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness; but if you desire to scale this peak, which lies far above the range of Fortune, you will indeed look down from above upon all that men regard as most lofty, but none the less you can proceed to the top over level ground. 

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