Reading from Seneca’s Letters: Letter II
Written by: Michael Lucana
This article is part of a semi-regular series in which I read from Seneca’s Letters and explain how they relate to my own life experiences. In the letter under analysis below, Seneca gives his thoughts on how to have a self-disciplined reading experience. You can read the letter in question here. As for myself, I am reading from the translation found in the Penguin Classics edition of “Letters from a Stoic.”
I used to have a massive book collection years ago. It was so massive that it took up multiple shelves throughout my apartment, and once those filled up, I started just shoving books anywhere I could fit them, under the bed, in the closet behind my clothes, anywhere you can think of. Despite the unease of never knowing what to read, I was actually pretty proud of my collection at the time and took any opportunity I could to brag about how many books I owned. To anyone that remembers me doing that, sorry.
However, due to major upheavals in my life afterward, I lost, sold, or donated almost every single book that I owned. In fact, I hardly really read for years after, just occasionally skimmed through a random book but only a few pages here or there. Now it’s many years later and I’m in a place in my life where I’ve settled down and have enough quiet time to get back into my old habit. Especially since I’m a practicing philosopher now, you can bet I read quite a bit on a regular basis.
But I’ve noticed more and more lately that often I’m reading something in one book that refers to something written somewhere else and that usually ends up with me visiting a bookstore or looking online for a particular book. Invariably, I wind up overextending myself, I go down the book rabbit hole yet again, jumping from Aristotle, to Dante, then Schopenhauer with some sprinkling of Heidegger thrown in. Needless to say, my book collection has grown quite rapidly over the last year and is in danger of becoming a disorganized mess again.
But how many books is too much? Now, I’m not a minimalist per se, but I’ve grown to appreciate the calmness that comes with a relatively organized reading and study area, as well as the tranquility of mind when I’m focused on only a few texts. Jumping around chasing references in different books does not make for a very calm and reflective mindset.
The Stoic Philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 4 BC-AD 65) wrote that restlessness in reading of the kind that I am describing, is “symptomatic of a sick mind,” of a mind that is not well-organized. For Seneca, in order for anyone to derive any actual benefit from the act of reading, they should limit themselves to a small selection of books and writers at any given time, in order to be able to really be able to absorb what they are reading, or as he puts it, for the words to , “find a lasting place in your mind.”
This seems basic enough right? I mean, it seems obvious enough to us that overextending yourself in any activity is a recipe for disaster. But even having that knowledge doesn’t stop me from continuing to be pulled in various directions by what I’m reading, to continue piling up the books. Seneca next goes on to use a variety of metaphors that compare the act of reading to eating which I find very interesting. In one particular portion of the letter he says, “tasting one dish after another is a sign of a fussy stomach, and where the foods are dissimilar and diverse in range they [don’t lead to] nutrition.”
Now, I have also been quite a lover of alcohol most of my life. In fact, in the past, I’ve never really known when to say no to just another beer or another shot of vodka. Of course, not knowing when to say no to the drink always leads to trouble doesn’t it? Aside from not remembering exactly what you did the night before, there’s also the physical toll it takes on your body and, as you get older it becomes even more apparent that your appetites don’t really know what’s good for you.
That’s where self-discipline, or moderation in appetites comes in. For the Stoics, moderation (sometimes called Temperance) in appetites was one of the prime Virtues that one should cultivate. But your moderation didn’t need to just be for appetites of the physical variety. That’s why Seneca, in this particular text, is advocating a form of moderation in reading, an act that he finds very similar to eating.
It makes sense when I think about it though. After all, when I pick up a book and read it, in order for me to really latch on to the ideas present, to really get a sense of what is meant, I have to sit with it and digest it slowly. If another book (or many books) presents itself in my mind and I jump to that one and so on and so on I have a triple loss. Not only have I lost out on being able to really savor the ideas of one book, but now I’m weighed down by multiple ideas from different books that might not necessarily complement or inform each other. Finally, I’m just left feeling disappointed and kind of disoriented, not really having gotten anything positive out of the whole reading experience.
Seneca next goes on to provide a sort of checklist by which we can navigate through the reading experience. And I find it quite useful for myself at least:
- Only read “well-tried” or “genius” authors.
This can even include writers who you don’t agree with. Seneca says it is important to have a well-rounded view of things and this sometimes means “going over to the enemy’s camp.” As to what qualifies as a “well-tried” author, Seneca isn’t clear, but he also mentions that whatever we read should be something that helps us to “face poverty, or death, and other ills as well.“
- Pick out one thought to digest thoroughly per day.
Back to the eating metaphor. How clearly we understand an idea is dependent on how well we have examined it. Give yourself time to really get to know an idea, to really understand all the implications of an argument you have read, and finally, to see how that idea relates to you.
- If you want a change from a particular author, go back to one you have read before.
I find this tip extremely helpful because not only does it help me curb my spending, but I often go back to read a different writer and I’ll find new insights and ways of looking at things that I didn’t see there before. And I wouldn’t have noticed this if I didn’t follow Seneca’s advice.
So what does this mean for you? Should you give up your book collection? Should you go minimalist? I would say that if, you find yourself in the same predicament as me, following Seneca’s advice might not be a bad idea. But we all drive at different speeds so to speak. Maybe you are the kind of person that just likes having multiple books throughout your house, maybe it fits with your aesthetics for life and you don’t find yourself being pulled in various directions and weighed down like I do. That might just be a “me” problem. For you, the amount of books you have is just the right amount. If that’s the case, then keep on doing you. As Seneca says, regarding the things we own, “You ask what is the proper limit [?] First, having what is essential, and second, having what is enough.”
If the topic of this discussion seems like something you would like to investigate further on your own, please feel free to contact me in order to schedule a Philosophical Counseling session. All Philosophical Counseling sessions are conducted via Zoom and single-person. If you are located in the San Francisco Bay Area and are interested in conducting an in-person session, please get in touch with me via e-mail. For any other inquiries contact me via e-mail as well.