Nassim Nicholas Taleb, whose thinking I much admire, seldom reads a newspaper; he prefers, on the whole, to read texts which have been around for a few hundred years. And it was Taleb who recommended the work of Seneca, whose writings are the best part of two thousand years old.
Seneca was born around 4 BC. Despite ill-health, he rose to prominence in Rome, the city which was then the centre of a mighty empire. He was active both in the courts and in politics. Later in life he was, among other things, a tutor to the boy who, in AD 54, would become the Emperor Nero. When Nero came to power, Seneca was for some eight years his unofficial chief minister.
After retiring from public life, Seneca devoted himself to philosophy. He was a member of a group known in ancient times as the Stoics, and he is chiefly remembered as the author of Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium, generally known in English as Letters from a Stoic.
The Stoic philosophy calls upon man (a term which, as the old joke has it, embraces woman) to live in line with nature’s laws, and to accept uncomplainingly whatever fate may send him. It is considered important to rise above the wounds inflicted upon you by the goddess of chance, Fortuna.
Seneca’s Letters is a good book to leave in the bathroom, because it contains some 124 short essays, in the form of letters to Lucilius. On average each letter is perhaps a couple of pages long, and thus it can be read while waiting for nature to take its course.
In content, the letters are remarkably down to earth, and not at all difficult to comprehend. They relate to the problems of everyday life, and it would be pointless to quote from them at any great length. They have been read with interest, and the readers have found them valuable, for about twenty centuries, so there is little reason for not sampling them yourself.
Just occasionally, I have spotted something in Seneca which might be particularly relevant to the writing life. In letter VII, for example, Seneca refers to a craftsman who was asked why he took so much trouble over something that would never reach more than a very few people. ‘A few is enough for me,’ said the craftsman. ‘So is one; so is none.’
Would that all writers could be as Stoical as that, for reaching a very few people is usually their fate.
In letter IX, Seneca points out that there is often more pleasure to be had from painting a picture than from having completed it. When the artist is at work, and ‘his whole attention is absorbed in concentration on the work he is engaged on, a tremendous sense of satisfaction is created in him by this very absorption.’
The habit of speaking too quickly is criticised in letter XL. Gabbling, says Seneca, is to be deplored. The wise man is a slow-speaking person. CNN reporters please note.
Enough. It would, as I say, be invidious to quote any more bits and pieces. Particularly as Seneca himself, in letter XXXVI, warns us against the practice. ‘It is disgraceful,’ he says, ‘to go hunting after gems of wisdom.’
Read him yourself.