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Should We Follow a Person’s Words... or Actions?
What should we do with Seneca?
Dear Classical Wisdom Reader,
If you are looking to only accept wisdom from perfect humans, you will be sorely disappointed. You won’t find a single one in the lot... alive or dead.
While I feel the current trend of revisiting history’s greatest minds is fine - after all I am certainly a proponent of seeking the truth in every and all cases - we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater either. You can still profit from nuggets of wisdom that can be found in filth.
Saying that, some flaws are worse than others...so where do we draw the line? What can we learn from some of the more... complicated characters from the Classical world? And how can we ever even know the truth about them in the first place?
Let’s take Seneca, for instance. Famed for his Stoic death - indeed it was immortalized many times by artists for him - his actions were often incongruous with his philosophy. A flatterer to a murderer, a shill to the emperor, his praise of the Roman Nero is difficult to read:
You, Caesar, can boldly say that everything which has come into your charge has been kept safe, and that the state has neither openly nor secretly suffered any loss at your hands. You have coveted a glory which is most rare, and which has been obtained by no emperor before you, that of innocence. Your remarkable goodness is not thrown away, nor is it ungratefully or spitefully undervalued. Men feel gratitude towards you: no one person ever was so dear to another as you are to the people of Rome, whose great and enduring benefit you are. — Seneca, On Clemency
His writing, however, has been hugely essential to Stoicism. Discussing both ethical theory and practical advice, his works have resounded through the ages, aiding the reader in the never ending path of philosophical and virtuous inquiry.
So how do we square this circle (if it’s a circle at all)? If the pen is mightier than the sword but actions speak louder than words: How can we determine what we need to take away from history’s examples?
Essentially: should we follow a person’s words... or actions?
You can reply to this email or comment below - you can also join Classical Wisdom and Plato’s Academy Centre for our conference on Seneca this Saturday, August 19th at Noon EST. An excellent roster of professors and authors, we’ll delve into who Seneca was... and what we can learn from him.
I hope you can join us!
Now... read on below for A) a CRAZY coincidence and B) the replies to last week’s question on whether or not we need stuff, the Curse of Cassandra... and one final reader mail that brings the whole issue full circle.
All the best,
Founder and Director
P.S. Long term readers probably recognize the name -and/or face- of Ben Potter. I met him twenty years ago when I directed Sophocles’ play Philoctetes and I cast him as the eponymous character. He then joined the Classical Wisdom team ten years ago - writing articles, creating our Ebooks as well as hosting our Symposiums.
But despite working together for a decade, I hadn’t actually seen him since university....
Until last week when I ran into him and his wife on the street... in Tbilisi, Georgia.
What a crazy world!!
Ben Potter is also the main author for our Essential Greeks Course - and has co-hosted our Course Q&A webinars throughout the years. We will be opening up the Essential Greeks Course to Members very soon! In fact, I had actually mentioned Ben’s name to Sean the morning I ran into him because we have been testing and preparing to re-release this course… What are the chances??
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When I walked the 500 miles of the Camino Frances across north Spain to Santiago de Compostela, I was taught a huge lesson about owning stuff. I carried my pack the whole way, 5 weeks of walking, staying in pilgrim hostels, mixing with fellow pilgrims or spending hours alone in my thoughts. The weight I carried was 10 kilos. No more, no less. I was literally carrying my world on my back. It was enough. Others carried far more. Many had to shed much of their load after a few miles (with varying degrees of anxiety), others plodded on with increasing back ache, blisters and exhaustion. I also had these symptoms but they strengthened me, made me feel lighter, fitter.
The lessons: only carry what you need, what you carry should have more than one use, be willing to give up stuff and share what you have. So many anecdotes, so many amazing experiences.
Of course I have too much stuff at home. But the Camino taught me how much of a burden it can be and while I won’t willingly give up our home (my wife would not be too pleased!) I do share it with refugees whose needs are far greater than mine.
That's a great question. I admire your minimalistic approach with processions. I have always liked collecting stuff. But as I am getting older I want to give it all away for others to enjoy. Having less leaves the mind clean and allows focus on people, nature, relationships and personal interests.
From the Epicurean viewpoint, the question of owning possessions is neither about mere acquisition nor rejection, but about a careful balance that contributes to a life of simple pleasure and tranquility. The philosophy of Epicurus offers an intriguing lens to view the ownership of things, ranging from stunning gold turtle necklaces to flat-screen TVs, presenting a nuanced understanding of material wealth.
Epicurus taught that pleasure is the ultimate good, focusing on genuine contentment and joy, rather than hedonistic indulgence. This pleasure centers around simple and refined joys, devoid of extravagant possessions. A gold necklace or flat-screen TV wouldn’t necessarily contribute to happiness in Epicureanism if they lead to unnecessary desires or fears. Thus, the approach towards pleasure is not in amassing material wealth but in cherishing the simple and profound joys that life offers.
Furthermore, Epicurus emphasized living with simplicity and wisdom, valuing modest shelter, simple food, and the company of friends. Wealth beyond what is needed for these simple pleasures could become a source of anxiety, deterring from a tranquil life. The Epicurean way aligns with enjoying utility and beauty without being chained by possessions, promoting non-attachment and contentment in what one has. The focus is not on the rejection of material goods but in embracing them in a manner that complements a simple and pleasurable life.
Investing in future things or leaving something behind can also be aligned with Epicurean principles if they bring comfort without undue attachment or anxiety. The focus is always on the pursuit of a pleasurable life, guided by wisdom and simplicity. A contrast with Stoicism emphasizes the unique Epicurean concern with pleasure rather than virtue, though both philosophies might agree on not being controlled by possessions. It underscores that owning possessions is not inherently wrong, but it’s the attachment or unnecessary desires they might foster that should be avoided.
In conclusion, Epicureanism provides a thoughtful and nuanced approach to the ownership of possessions, emphasizing pleasure, prudence, and simplicity. It neither condemns nor exalts material goods but guides us in a balanced relationship with them. The timeless wisdom of Epicurus invites us to reflect on what truly contributes to contentment, reminding us that simplicity and thoughtful enjoyment can lead to a fulfilled life. The philosophy encourages us to consider not just what we own but how we relate to our possessions, guiding us towards a life rich in joy, not just in material wealth.
“Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.” (1 John 2:15).
Christians in the Kingdom of God are in the world but not of it. That includes most especially all the things in the world. I realized ten years ago that I was a slave to things. I got rid of them and never looked back. Glorious freedom and release ensured.
However, the Kingdom dwellers are also to be harmless as doves but wise as serpents. That goes with dealing in this world and possessions. Money and things are not evil. The lust and love for them is.
How much is enough and how much is too much? Who rules whom? Should we own stuff yes but only until it possesses us!
While, according to the law and custom of our times, I own a lot of stuff, I consider what I have to be a stewardship. I firmly believe that when I leave this life I will have to give an account of my stewardship - have I used the means I have been blessed with to do what God would want me to do with it? - and the answer to that question will determine my joy and happiness in the hereafter.
I have discovered that as I try to share wisely what I have to bless and help others, I already find joy and happiness here. There are times that I have been taken advantage of, but I lose no sleep over that, as I am sure that they will also have to answer for their use of their stewardship. I work to grow and increase my stewardship, not because I crave more stuff, but because it enables me to have more options to do good. And no matter how much I may accumulate here, it is certain that I will take no stuff with me when I die.
I don’t think she had a “bargain” with Apollo on which she reneged, as even this sympathetic article claims. Just the usual god offering a gift and expecting his quid pro quo which she chose not to give.
Re “Poor Cassandra really got the rough end of the stick every single time.”
There is no such thing as “the rough end of the stick”; the expression is actually the SHORT end of the stick.
And as for: “Markedly, Cassandra never married... and so perhaps this was reason enough to distrust her. After all, she was a free agent. No man had any authority over her.”
“No man,” really? What about Priam? He was her father AND he was king.
And finally, a thoughtful response to our previous email “Do you need to be Good to be a Good leader?” a fantastic question... that actually ties in with today’s!
Thank you so much for your emails every week on great topics that broaden my very limited knowledge of classical history. I feel it comes to me, a true laywoman, in a form that makes it most understandable and entertaining. I find myself clicking "open" quite often amongst the myriad of options within my inbox.
There was a statement from one of your readers that caused me to ponder what she was trying to get across and when I was reading a book on integrity this morning I happened upon a statement that I believe she may have been trying to state and possibly reversed the words.
Her statement was: "...people may forget what you did but they will never forget what you said."
The quote I read this morning was:
"People may doubt what you say, but they will believe what you do." Lewis Cass
I asked myself, do people truly remember our words or our actions more? I believe to be an effective leader, good actions and motives are the foundation. At times my words did not match my actions. I either provided too little or much more than I had promised. I believe the action was remembered and my hope is that even beyond my behavior, I leave the world with others feeling that I possessed something good and they felt it...even if my words didn't always come out right.
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