In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes, “give over hoping that you can skim, by means of epitomes, the wisdom of distinguished men. Look into their wisdom as a whole; study it as a whole. They are working out a plan and weaving together, line upon line, a masterpiece, from which nothing can be taken away without injury to the whole.”
I really like this quote and the idea that Seneca presents. He is saying that simple quotes and sayings are insufficient if we hope to actually build knowledge and construct a concrete mental framework for thinking about life. There are many inspirational quotes from famous and influential people, but reading them in isolation is often inadequate for developing a real philosophy of life.
This is an idea that I agree with. I actively try to avoid individual quotes, even though I present quotes from books, writers, and thinkers on this blog. My hope is that diving deeper into the meaning for an interesting quote and exploring the ideas it represents will help the quote be more valuable and meaningful for me and anyone else. I try to present some context and how a quote may or may not relate to different aspects of life or perspectives on the world. Based on Seneca’s quote, I suspect he would approve of this approach. What he would not approve of is simple quotes in isolation, or layered over background sunrises.
Individual quotes in isolation become trite, and trying to attach undue meaning to an individual quote or phrase can be harmful, especially when it is taken out of context or applied in an overly broad way. Quotes can only truly be helpful when we consider them within the larger body of work of the individual or culture from which they originate.
Seneca’s writing is less valuable on its own than when it is considered alongside other stoic thinkers such as Marcus Aurelius or modern day writers who have a similar focus like Colin Wright or Ryan Holiday. Deep study is what helps us truly understand the world and develop a better understanding of how ideas relate to the world around us. Deep study is necessary if we want to develop our own framework for the world – an amalgamation of quotes from across the web won’t do.