AWESM: Ancient Wisdom for Everyone from Seneca & Marcus #1

Reflection One: Books and Reading

"Last Words of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius" --Eugène Delacroix (1844).
“Last Words of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius” –Eugène Delacroix (1844).

The philosophers, poets, and playwrights of the ancient world, specifically from Greece and Rome, have so very much to teach us. Sure, they may have lived centuries ago, on the other side of the globe and from a very different time than our own, but truth is truth. Human nature hasn’t changed, and we can draw upon their wisdom to motivate us and improve our lives if we are willing to open our hearts and minds to their words and commit to acting on them. This is to be the first in a series of articles examining the philosophies of Lucius Annaeus Seneca and Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, both prominent Roman Stoics. We will examine their words and work to discuss and apply them to our day to day lives as we work to navigate through our hectic, increasingly technological world. With luck and effort, we can bring new life to these old words, and come to understand the importance of not losing touch with the wisdom of the ancients.

This first installment will discuss the importance of reading. This would have to be one of the most important skills a human being can cultivate. Now, I may be somewhat biased here being an English teacher, but honestly, I cannot think of a skill I possess that has brought me greater pleasure or has enhanced my understanding of the world and my place in it more than reading has. I read constantly, there never being less than two books on my nightstand; real BOOKS mind you, as electronic versions just aren’t my preference. I want to hold the book in my hands, listen to and feel its pages turn, and smell the paper (especially if the book is an older one). Call me old-fashioned or sentimental if you wish, but that is how I choose to interact with the written word.

The ancients had little choice in the matter. Books, usually written in the form of scrolls, would have been labor-intensive and time consuming to produce, and no doubt very expensive as a result. They would not have been as readily available or exist in anywhere near the quantity we take for granted today. Had I lived in ancient Rome, I could imagine my “domus” lined wall to wall with cubby holes, each packed with as many scrolls as I could afford to obtain. I would go to great lengths to protect them, each the result of a scribe’s painstaking, handwritten labors. How Seneca and Marcus Aurlelius must have loved their books! Or did they? Let’s take a look at a couple of passages regarding books and reading, one from each man, and see what we can take from them.

In Letter 2 from Seneca’s “Letters From A Stoic,” he offers this piece of advice to a correspondent named Lucilius: “You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind…The same must needs be the case with people who never set about acquiring an intimate acquaintanceship with any one great writer, but skip from one to another, paying flying visits to them all. Food that is vomited up as soon as it is eaten is not assimilated into the body and does no one any good…(Seneca 33).

Okay. Let’s unpack that one. I’ll bet Seneca could never have belonged to my wife’s book group, where different books are chosen every month at the whims of the club members. The man needed some consistency. I can understand this on many levels, though I disagree in at least one way. First, here’s how I can sympathize. I am an English teacher, as mentioned earlier, and I have never been a fan of the “well, at least they’re reading” philosophy. It very much matters what kids read; just letting them read pop culture, mass-market drivel targeting whatever the current fad is among young people at the time is doing them a great disservice. They need to read age appropriate yet quality literature; works that stretch their minds and help them see the world from different perspectives. They need to interact with writers whose, as Seneca put it, “genius is unquestionable.” Teachers need to be trained in how to guide them to works of this kind, rather than succumbing to the pressure to just get them reading using anything that might motivate them on a shallow or materialistic level. Parents need to invest themselves in this as well, as they will have a much greater impact on their child’s reading habits than any teacher could hope to. There are so many good books out there, and so much tempting yet intellectually numbing trash. Informed mentorship on what to read, and when, is crucial during a child’s formative years. So, seeking the unquestionable geniuses and “deriving constant nourishment from them” is a practice I would wholeheartedly endorse.

Seneca also encourages us to delve deeply and repeatedly into the works of those geniuses, which I also think is pretty sage advice. As a teacher, I am more on the “depth” side of the “breadth vs. depth” debate. I would sooner have my students read three to four works in a school year, and read them deeply and well, taking the time to interact with them on many levels and in many ways, than have them read as many works as I could shoehorn in to the year in some vain effort to somehow expose them to every author, literary era, or tradition out there.   Only through deep immersion can an author’s work or the culture from which that work springs be truly understood and appreciated. Howard Gardner, an American developmental psychologist and the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education at Harvard University, once said “Coverage is the enemy of understanding.” The more you cover or the faster you cover it, you pretty much guarantee that your students will understand less and less of it. I too benefit from covering fewer works of very careful selection; the repeated teaching of those works year after year only deepens and intensifies my understanding of them. I could never become bored with a classic such as The Odyssey, which itself contains a lifetime of revelations and lessons worth revisiting on a regular basis. I feel I have developed that “intimate relationship” with Homer that Seneca would have us develop with great authors, and as a result, I am better prepared to share that work with young students in ways that will ensure their deep understanding of it, and lifelong relationship with it. Always come back to the geniuses; reading them once doesn’t cut it.

Now, I am not saying to only read a small selection of authors and never deviate from their works at all, and I don’t think Seneca is saying that either. He would have us “extend our stay” among them, and granted in his time there would not have been nearly as many alternatives, or distractions, as in ours. Lucilius could not likely have been overwhelmed by thousands of scrolls available in the Roman Forum’s equivalent of Barnes and Noble. We just need to discriminate carefully; review author credentials, read book reviews, and select only the best from a particular era or tradition to broaden our experience and understanding. Every now and then, we can pick up some lighter fare of perhaps lesser quality just for entertainment’s sake, so long as we don’t “extend our stay” among such “works.” My wife, once a fifth grade teacher, termed some books “hearty and nutritious” and others as “dessert books.” Eating only dessert would not lead to long-term healthy results for anyone.

Let’s take a look at what Marcus Aurelius has to say on the subject of books. His Meditations survives to our time, called by many the worlds first “self-help book.” Several passages in its twelve chapters concern the topic at hand. The first we’ll talk about is found in Book Two, Entry Two in a 1964 edition of The Meditations, translated by Maxwell Staniforth: “Forget your books; no more hankering for them; they were no part of your equipment” (45). So when I first read this passage as a new reader of The Meditations well over a decade ago, I about dropped the book on the floor. “Forget…my BOOKS! Are you KIDDING ME!!” Yeah, that was kind of my first reaction. I know, I know. I needed to call in the stoic maxim of not getting so attached to anything that you cannot bear to lose it. There’s more to it than that, though; I was also misinterpreting the passage. When it was written, Marcus Aurelius was nearing the end of his life, and he knew he had little time left in which to live as the stoic he had worked most of his life to become. He was admonishing himself to set aside books that merely described how to be a good man, and just be one. He also did not intend the advice for anyone but himself; he would probably be pretty horrified to learn that his personal stoicism exercises had not only gone public, but survived as a source of wisdom from which others draw information almost 2,ooo years later. Sorry, Marcus, but thanks!

At any rate, today we have no shortage of books that give us advice on how to be happy or live satisfying lives. In the end, without action, no plan to change one’s life can be brought to fruition. We have to begin. It’s like wanting to learn to garden. I can check out as many books on gardening from the library as they have available, but until I get my hands in the soil, no garden is going to appear. I can’t say “Yeah, I want to lose weight, but that chocolate cake looks SO good. I’ll start watching what I eat tomorrow.” In all too many cases, that tomorrow will never come, as I will always have a new excuse not to begin ready to employ. Marcus doesn’t hate books, he just recognizes their ultimate limitation; they can inspire us to action, but only we can act.

Marcus revisits this concept in Book Three, Entry 14: “Mislead yourself no longer; you will never read these notebooks again now, nor the annals of bygone Romans and Greeks, nor that choice selection of writings you have put by for your old age. Press on, then, to the finish…” (60). Again he chastises himself for wanting to review books he has already read many times before, for they have nothing new to offer him and only hinder him from acting as those very books advise by causing him to drift and not live actively according to the lessons they teach. This would seem to contradict Seneca, who advised us to revisit the great geniuses, though it is possible that Marcus was so close to the end of his life that he truly saw no use in reading much of anything, even the works of the “geniuses” he had clearly valued when younger. At his advanced age, action mattered far more to him.

The “notebooks” Marcus references in the passage refer to his “commonplace books.” A commonplace book is a notebook in which one can record wise sayings one comes across to reflect on periodically. In Colonial times, we know that several of the Founding Fathers kept such books, as obtaining their own copies of certain texts might have not been possible; they took notes in their commonplace books while reading original texts in a library (though if Thomas Jefferson had wanted a copy of any book he came across, he would have found a way to get it). The Commonplace Book is also referenced in “Hamlet” : “My tables—meet it is I set it down/That one may smile and smile and be a villain” (Act One, Scene Five, Lines 107-08). Here Hamlet is reminding himself to record the fact that even those who smile at us can be villains; he needs to set that bit of wisdom down in his “tables,” or commonplace book, to remember it for the future. I would highly recommend keeping a small notebook around to record the bits of wisdom you encounter in books that you read, and then revisit that notebook from time to time. What a perfect element of an end of day reflection or meditation session. We can’t buy all of the books we come across that contain bits of wisdom we want to recall (we’re supposed to FORGET OUR BOOKS, remember?). Having a collection of wisdom from multiple sources all in one handy location to review when we need a taste of “adversity’s sweet milk, philosophy” is wisdom itself.

There is one more passage from Marcus Aurelius to review here, revisiting the importance of taking action on what we have read. Yes, he seems like he is repeating himself here, and he is. The Meditations is just that; a collection of maxims the Emperor valued, rephrased and revisited over and over to help him keep what was important to him at the forefront of his mind. Here is Passage Eight from Book Eight: “You cannot hope to be a scholar. But what you can do is curb arrogance; what you can do is to rise above pleasures and pains; you can be superior to the lure of popularity; you can keep your temper with the foolish and ungrateful, yes, and even care for them” (123).

It would seem that in all three passages, Marcus Aurelius must not have been much of a reader, as he repeatedly tells himself to throw the books away or not take the time for them anymore. We must remember that he was the Emperor of Rome, the most powerful man on the face of the Earth in his time. He was not disparaging the act of reading itself, but rather its usefulness to him given his declining health and the limited time he had left to live. He shares with us in that passage what he feels he must take time for, rather than reading about others who did those things.

The lesson we can take from this as modern readers is that books, just like The Meditations, are receptacles of the greatest thoughts to have passed through some of history’s greatest minds, and we would be madmen and madwomen not to take as much advantage of that collective wisdom as we can in the time given to us. As Marcus Aurelius came to recognize, our allotted time in this world is short. Macbeth reminds us of this: “Out, out, brief candle!/Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more” (Act Five, Scene Six, Lines 23-26). Given that we will not live forever, we cannot afford not to read, and we must apply both book wisdom and experiential wisdom toward forging meaningful and fulfilling lives for ourselves. We must ground our reading in the works of the great geniuses, and then be sure that their wisdom lives again through our actions.

I would like to close with a passage from Mark Baurlein’s 2008 book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future. The passage is on the longer side, but it illustrates the challenges we face when trying to motivate young people to read and keep the flame of civilization burning. Here, Baurlein is discussing his thoughts following a panel discussion at the University of Maryland in 2004, addressing reading trends for young adults and implications for the future. “Facing 250 students, I told them the truth, reciting the findings of several knowledge surveys as the inevitable outcome of not reading. Their interests lead them in polar directions, their knowledge running to zero in areas of civics, history, etc., while rising to a panoramic grasp of the lives of celebrities, the lyrics of pop music, and MySpace profiling. They wrinkle their brows if offered a book about Congress, but can’t wait for the next version of Halo. ‘Let’s get specific,’ I goaded. ‘You are six times more likely to know who the latest American Idol is than you are to know who the Speaker of the U.S. House is.’ At that point, a voice in the crowd jeered, ‘American Idol is more important.

“She was right. In her world, stars count more than the most powerful world leaders. Knowing the names and ranks of politicians gets her nowhere in her social set, and reading a book about the Roman Empire earns nothing but teasing. More than just dull and nerdish reading is counterproductive. Time spent reading books takes away from time keeping up with youth vogues, which change every month. To prosper in the hard and fast cliques in the schoolyard, the fraternities, and the food court, teens and 20 year olds must track the latest films, fads, gadgets, YouTube videos, and television shows. They judge one another relentlessly on how they wear clothes, recite rap lyrics, and flirt. Having career goals may not draw their mockery, but a high school guy found by his buddies reading The Age of Innocence on a summer afternoon never regains his verve, and a girl with Bowling Alone in hand is downright inscrutable. The middle school hallways can be as competitive and pitiless as a Wall Street trading floor or an episode of Survivor. To know a little more about popular music and malls, to sport the right fashions and host a teen blog, is a matter of survival.”

I work with members of this generation every day, and the trend Baurlein identifies is very much alive in American secondary schools. I do what I can as an English teacher, but to change the course of this tide and bring reading, real reading, back to its necessary place in the society, we need to all do what we can to model and encourage the habits of deep, thoughtful, and reflective reading of quality texts, among all citizens of all ages. If the families and institutions of a culture do not value a practice or ability, it will fade away. Should genuine reading do so, we may well lose all sense of who we are. So go grab a favorite book, a classic, and start reading; even better, read to a child, and show him the wonder that truly great books possess.

Read AWESM #2: On Pain


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Works Cited

Antoninus, Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. Trans. Maxwell Staniforth. New

York: Penguin Books, 1964. Print.

Baurlein, Mark. The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies

          Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future. New York: Penguin

Books, 2008. Print.

Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. Letters From A Stoic. Trans. Robin Campbell. New

York: Penguin Books, 1969. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Four Great Tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear,            

          Macbeth. Ed. Sylvan Barnet. New York: Penguin Books, 1982


4 thoughts on “AWESM: Ancient Wisdom for Everyone from Seneca & Marcus #1”

  1. Aurelius’ advice is a beautiful thing in a business environment, addressing all manner of rambunctious personality types and getting them to help more than hinder. It’s very practical. It feels like the advice of a kindly and very wise if world-weary old grandfather – relentlessly honest and level-headed. It makes it easy to look at our world of infotainment addicts and see how hard it is to maintain representative government of and for meaningfully informed citizens vs. a empire by oligarchs of people rather like many of the Roman Empire, fixating on things that at the end of the day are essentially nothing but circuses.

    • Hi, Roger. You are absolutely right. I face a generation of the infotainment addicts you mention every day in the work that I do, and I have used Marcus Aurelius in many discussions with them, working to help them see where true happiness lies, and how to look at the world through a much clearer lens than the skewed one our modern culture forces them to look through. Thanks for reading.


  2. I very much enjoyed this article. You have a very readable style and a balanced hand in sharing information without overload. I have been reading since the age of three and books are my first love. Unfortunately, many of my books are “dessert books” now, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a meaty one now and again. Thank you for letting us share the wisdom of the ancients through your words.

    • Thanks, Jean! I very much enjoyed reading your comment, too 🙂 Dessert books are okay, so long as, like you say, we tackle the meaty ones too. I teach classical Greek and Roman literature, but like to indulge in the occasional movie-tie in, graphic novel, or whatever else might help me take a break now and then from the more intellectually dense material I regularly guide teenagers through. I recently finished Pride and Prejudice, having tackled that for the first time, and wow, could Jane Austen put a sentence together. Time for dessert! I’ll be back in October with another AWESM article, and I hope it connects with you as this one did. Take care, and thanks for reading.



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