Seneca on Quotes

Seneca on Quotes

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.
Stimuli, Attention, and What We Notice

Stimuli, Attention, and What We Notice

“Wherever you direct your gaze, you will meet with something that might stand out from the rest, if the context in which you read it were not equally notable,” writes Seneca in Letters From a Stoic.

 

Quite a while back I listened to a podcast interview with the founder of a music streaming service called Focus At Will. The company is different from other streaming services such as Spotify or Pandora in that they don’t provide stations that have your favorite songs from top artists. Instead, they have stations with altered songs and selected tunes that they believe will help you stay on focus. The idea is that our brains are easily distracted by the human voice, by instruments that mimic the human voice, and by lots of changes in our background. Each time we hear a voice, we are distracted for a fraction of second as our brain figures out whether we need to pay attention to that voice or not. And when the sound in the background changes suddenly, like when a song ends, when a car honks its horn, or when a branch snaps, our brains perk up and focus on our surroundings for a second to figure out if we are in danger. Eliminate these background noises and provide a consistent noise, the company argues, and people will be able to focus.

 

Seneca’s quote from above reminded me of Focus At Will and the theories behind their streaming. In particular, one of their stations really aligns with the ideas that Seneca lays out in the quote, but from an audio rather than visual perspective. Focus At Will has a station designed for people with ADHD. Based on neurological studies, they argue that people with ADHD have brains that are too sensitive to background noises. For most of us, when a colleague sneezes from two offices over, the sound is detected by our ears and transmitted to our brain which subconsciously decides the noise was unimportant. Consequentially we don’t even notice the noise because it gets stuck with the unconscious brain, never elevated to the level of conscious awareness. For an individual with ADHD, however, their brain is more sensitive to a sneeze from down the hall, and they consciously recognize that noise and are distracted as they think through whether they need to respond to the stimuli or not. This happens with more than just sneezes, and can be hugely distracting for the individual as they are constantly working through stimuli that are easily ignored and unnoticed for most of us.

 

The solution that most of us would jump to would be to put an individual with ADHD in a completely noise and stimuli reduced environment. The solution of Focus at Will, in line with Seneca’s quote, is to raise the context of other noises to be equally as notable as the disruptions. The streaming service has a station that can be almost overwhelming to individuals without ADHD. There is a flurry of sound (in a musical way – not just random noise) that is somewhere in the neighborhood of heavy metal, demolition derbies, or construction sites. The solution is to raise the level of noise and distraction so that everything is operating at a high distraction level, so that no notable sound stand out.

 

Personally, I listen to stations like the Chilled Cow Lofi Hip Hop Radio Station when I need to focus on important work. But the idea of what stands-out, what we focus on, what we notice among a sea of stimuli is fascinating. Our brains can be overwhelmed by stimuli, and at the same time, an abundance of stimuli can also bring our attention and focus into a single point, drowning out other stimuli. This is just one more example of how reality isn’t. Our brains construct and create the reality we experience, and how we see the world around us is context dependent, with the level of stimuli playing a role in what we observe and experience.
Tall Poppy Syndrome

Tall Poppy Syndrome

“There is unevenness, you know, when some objects rise conspicuous above others,” Seneca wrote in Letters From a Stoic.

 

I’m pretty fascinated with a concept that is known as Tall Poppy Syndrome and is often strongly expressed in Australia and New Zealand (so I understand – I haven’t been there myself to experience the culture fist hand). The idea is this:

 

A tall poppy that rises higher than the rest, that stand out above the others, is more likely to be decapitated than any other poppy. The poppy that is taller than the rest is not an admirable and praiseworthy poppy, it is risking itself and is likely to become a target. It is the first to be cut down because it is the most visible and easiest to see. An average poppy among a sea of poppies is likely to be left untouched and unbothered while the towering poppy next door is likely to have its top chopped off.

 

The idea is a warning against our ego and an argument in support of modesty. It is a polar opposite of current conceptions of the American Dream. Rather than standing out, boasting successful achievements, and always trying to have more, Tall Poppy Syndrome sends a message that it is better to do well, but not to do too well. As Seneca says, when some objects conspicuously rise above others, they create unevenness.

 

The potential of unevenness, or inequality, is an argument in favor of Tall Poppy Syndrome. The United States has never embraced a Tall Poppy Syndrome mindset, and instead we have developed a culture that tells us it is best to standout in all that we do. Have bright, fashionable clothing. Drive a fancy sports car. Own a big home to show your wealth and success. Inequality is a feature, not a bug, within the American system.

 

Today that inequality is reaching boiling points. Racial inequality (particularly within in policing and opportunity for advancement) is fueling protests. Increases in economic inequality has heightened tensions in the United States since the 2008 financial crisis. And as long as I can remember, social cohesion has clashed with our desire to stand out and be ourselves, producing visible and difficult cultural conflicts over gay marriage, free speech, and whether it is acceptable to wear baggie jeans.

 

There may be times where Tall Poppy Syndrome is limiting and reduces innovation and GDP growth. But its absence, and an all out push to stand out as an individual, can have its own consequences. Donald Trump doesn’t become president in a society that strongly discourages status seeking behavior via Tall Poppy Syndrome. In a culture that is all about economic success, bragging about attention and popularity, and ostentatious wealth, Trump and everything he represents, can rise to the top without fear of being cut down and outcast.

 

I don’t think Tall Poppy Syndrome is a perfect solution to the challenges America faces today, but I do think we need to limit the extent to which we worship the eccentric, ego driven entrepreneurs who have developed some of our best tools and technologies, and who to this point have represented the pinnacle of American success. Encouraging more settling at a certain point, more efforts to create a rising tide to lift all boats, rather than encouraging the tall poppy, might be necessary for our country to move forward on more even footing.
Capitalism and Externalities

Capitalism and Externalities

Capitalism has come under fire in the recent years in ways that I would not have predicted as I completed my college degree and entered the workforce. For so many years the idea of capitalism has been central to the American story and to American identity. It may not be perfect, but it has always been held above other economic systems as the best option available. However, recently, people have taken a new look at capitalism to ask if it can be maintained without the plundering of others. Can there be a reasonable sense of equity or equality within a system of capitalism? And in the United States, do we really have a meritorious system of capitalism, or is the American system of capitalism overrun with grift and graft?

 

Allowing people to flourish based on their own talents, allowing people to pursue their own interests, and to accumulate wealth can be a good thing, but it can also be done to excess. Like alcohol, chocolate cake, or Netflix, our pursuit of wealth can essentially be an addiction, and the costs can be born on all of society, not just on ourselves. Our actions and the systems and structures within which we operate have unintended consequences. These consequence, or externalities, can be positive or negative. Within capitalism, positive externalities include new technologies that improve our lives, more efficient markets which minimize waste, and hopefully more goods and wealth for everyone. But negative externalities related to capitalism include pollution, corruption, and extractive processes that harm individuals, communities, and environments.

 

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes to his friend Lucilius, “I myself pray rather that you may despise all those things which your parents wished for you in abundance. Their prayers plunder many another person, simply that you may be enriched.”

 

Seneca is acknowledging that when one person gains resources, often times it is at the expense of another person. The goal of capitalism is for our economic system to be positive sum, meaning that everyone is better off in an exchange – a state known as a Pareto Efficiency. However, this is not always the case. Seneca sees exchanges, or maybe more precisely the accumulation of resources and wealth, as zero sum, meaning that there is a fixed amount of stuff, and that anything that one person accumulates is taken away from another person. This, in my opinion, is where so much of our discontent in the United States and across the globe with capitalism lies.

 

Seneca may not always be correct. There may be Pareto Efficiencies out there and there may be situations in which capitalism builds a positive sum economic system. But it does seem like moderation in our approach to capitalism and wealth accumulation is warranted. At a certain point, for us to have more necessarily mean that we are extracting wealth and resources from other places. Mining, logging, and cattle grazing can have damaging effects on local environments and communities, even if they do help develop industry or increase GDP in the places we take resources from. Beyond a certain level, continuing this trend is likely to make our lives marginally better, while potentially making the lives of others much worse. We should constantly ask ourselves if we are nearing that point, and try to limit our need for more stuff and more wealth when we are at sufficient level where the marginal gain for us is meaningless and effectively just plunders others for our own enrichment. It seems reasonable if we should ask whether limitless growth is really possible, or if capitalism ends in a state of plunder, in which nothing is left for a sustainable existence for everyone.
The End is Always Near

The End is Always Near

The human mind thinks in narratives. Well take in information about the world around us, and we create a story that weaves all of those narratives together in a cohesive manner. The mind creates the reality that it experiences, and it uses narrative to give the story meaning. Unfortunately, sometimes the stories don’t fit the actual world we inhabit very well.

 

One area where the narrative we tell ourselves doesn’t fully match the reality of our lives is with regard to our risk of dying on any given day. As our brains build the narrative of our lives and of who we are, it projects forward into the future of who we will become and the world we will inhabit. My assumption, based on the way I know that I think, is that we project forward a long life with our ending far off in the distant future. I recognize this tendency in myself all the time, and I suspect that even if I do make it to old age, this same tendency will be with me then.  It is hard to imagine that my end is not always going to be far away.

 

The end is always near, however. Or at least, the potential and risk of the end is always near. Our brains believe that we have lots of life left, because that is how the narrative we have crafted in our minds plays out. But the real world doesn’t have to follow the narrative in our minds. The real world is separate from what we think it should be or will be, and it doesn’t much care about how we think about it or understand it (or fail to understand it either).

 

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca wrote, “who is not near death? It is ready for us in all places and at all times.”

 

It is important to remember that the actual course of our lives could diverge from the narrative path we create at any moment on any day. The possibility of a natural disaster, a clumsy mistake, or the malice of another person resulting in our early departure from life is always greater than zero. This means that whatever narrative we create, however far off death is in the story we tell ourselves, the reality is that the end is always near.

 

The take-away is to make our time meaningful, to be content that we have done our best each day, so that if we die, the narrative we lived out will end with us as a confident, complete individual. This is not an excuse for a YOLO way of life, and it shouldn’t be a reason to bury ourselves in work – effectively enslaving ourselves to a job, a cause, or a relationship. Instead, what we should learn from our always near ending is that we should do our best to fully apply ourselves in a way that meaningfully engages in the world to produce more than our own selfish happiness. We should seek opportunities to live a life where we  can develop a strong and fulfilling narrative that helps to lift up others who are doing the same. The end is always near, so we should make sure we have made of our life a narrative we can be proud of.
On Travel as a Cure for Discontent - Joe Abittan

On Travel as a Cure for Discontent

Does travel help us be more happy? Seneca did not think it did. In Letters From a Stoic, he included a quote from Socrates, “Why do you wonder that glob-trotting does not help you, seeing that you always take yourself with you? The reason which set you wandering is ever at your heels.”

 

Seneca writes that escapism is not a path toward happiness. We must focus on ourselves and use self-awareness, Seneca would argue, to become happy with ourselves and our situations wherever we may be. If we cannot be happy as ourselves and with one given situation, then how can physically moving ourselves from one place to another increase our happiness? We will still be ourselves, with all the same troubles that created our discontent where we initially were. On travel as a cure for discontent, Seneca saw little promise.

 

His letter continued, “What pleasure is there in seeing new lands? Or surveying cities and spots of interest? All your bustle is useless. Do you ask why such flight does not help you? it is because you flee along with yourself.”

 

In a narrow sense, Seneca is correct. We bring baggage with us when we travel. We bring baggage in the form of our actual luggage, the stuff we bring to present ourselves to the outside world and to make the environment we find ourselves in a little more familiar. Simultaneously, we bring mental baggage in the form of thoughts, fears, expectations, and anything in our mind when we left the place we were at. We are still ourselves and a simple transplantation cannot solve deeply held fears, anxieties, habits, or behaviors.

 

But even before a global pandemic (I originally highlighted and read these quotes in June of 2019), I recognized that Seneca’s thinking on travel is too narrow and misses an important point. Travel changes our perspectives, disrupts the routine thoughts that occupy our minds, and can serve as a temporal break to allow us to make a change in who we are and what we do. Colin Wright describes it this way in his book Come Back Frayed, “Travel frays. Not just our stuff, but us. It pushes us, rubs us against uncomfortable realities, the friction creating gaps in our self-identity, loosening and then tightening our structure over and over and over again.”

 

It doesn’t matter what (or who) we bring with us when we travel. The journey changes us, alters us physically and mentally, shifts perspectives, and interrupts our experience of the passage of time. Our voyage is not useless if we can use the self-awareness that Seneca prescribes to help us see how travel is changing us and to take away important lessons from where we go. Happiness can be found in travel because we don’t just take ourselves with us, we don’t just flee and escape ourselves and our spot on earth, we literally fray apart who we were, and loosen and tighten the structures which bind ourselves over and over. In the end, travel changes us, and that can help us find new avenues toward happiness.
How to Think It Out

How to Think it Out

Our thoughts are a jumbled mess. Things tend to repeat with subtle variations and they tend to jump around at random points in an inconsistent manner. Keeping our mind on a single thing is hard and our thoughts are not as logically consistent as we might think, despite the fact that our thinking and though processes feel perfectly rational and deliberate to us. We don’t think in a steady, rational, and linear way, even though we usually think that we do. Our thoughts are often incomplete, pick up right to the middle of an idea rather than at the start, and sometimes are just nebulous and hazy.

 

It is funny how often you can pick up on people having trouble with their thoughts, revealing this inner jungle gym, if you look for it. Podcasts and every day conversations are great places to hear people start to organize the thoughts flying through their head. They are not reading from a perfect mental bullet point list, they don’t have an essay prepared in their mind, and their thoughts don’t flow logically in order from point A to point B and down the line. Podcasters will often say things like, “I’m still trying to work this out in my head, so this might not come out right.” In conversation, you may have had the experience where you are talking to someone about something, and they bring up a starting point factor that you had never considered. Often, for me at least, it is a huge factor that I knew about, but just hadn’t quite connected to my larger point and seriously thought about.

 

The reality for people is that our thoughts cannot be orderly and cannot be made sense of if we don’t do something to think our thoughts out. Speaking and writing are great ways to think something out. You have to take your ideas, put actual words to them, and then think about how the words will convey the idea in your head so that the ideas will make sense in the mind of another. You have to start thinking about order and logic, and how you will present what you think and feel for someone else. It is a complicated effort, and if you break down this seemingly natural process, you see how difficult each step can be.

 

Different forms of thinking it out have different advantages. In writing, the great part is that you can do practice messaging in writing, editing and deleting what doesn’t quite fit or doesn’t best communicate your thoughts. Speaking is faster than writing, which is helpful, but leads to more mistakes and isn’t as friendly for trial and error. Nevertheless, it helps us take what is in our head as incomplete and often disconnected thoughts and ideas, and begin to align them in a more stable and rational manner. Sometimes we don’t really know exactly what we think until we go through this process, either speaking or writing out our thoughts to get them out of our head, but also to make sense of them in our head for no audience other than ourselves. As Seneca wrote to his friend Lucilius in Letters From a Stoic“I am admitting you to my inmost thoughts, and am having it out with myself, merely making use of you as my pretext.”
The Challenge with Low N Events

The Challenge with Low “n” Events

There are a handful of things we only do once or twice in our lives. Many of us probably aspire to only get married a single time, only select a single school to attend for college, and only take a vacation to a foreign country one time. These low “n” experiences, or low frequency occurrences,  are hard to predict and prepare for. It is hard to know exactly what we will want, exactly what risks we might face, and how we will respond in experiences that we can’t always practice and experiment with. Sometimes the consequences are huge, as in the case of a marriage or picking the right college major, and sometimes the consequences are rather trivial, like picking the right beach to visit during your Spanish vacation (hey, in the age of COVID-19 we can still dream right?).

 

In the face of these one time experiences (whether big or trivial) we seem to fall into two paths. The first path is one of detailed and conscious study. Some of us will agonize for hours over which beach to go to on our vacation, which food trucks we should hit up, what time of year to travel, and where to stop for that hidden Instagram gem of a waterfall. Others of us will follow the second path, giving almost no thought to the decisions we face, big or small. We will just go with our guy and jump into a career, a relationship, or a lake.

 

On the one hand, these low “n” events don’t offer a lot of room for trail and error. If you are not likely to ever get a second vacation to Hawaii, then you probably want to seize every moment of your trip, making sure you check out whales, enjoy the shopping and beaches, and avoid that long road trip to Hana (it just isn’t worth it – trust me). You only get one shot, so you should do your best to prepare yourself to make the best decision. As Seneca wrote in Letters From a Stoic, “You may deem it superfluous to learn a text that can be used only once; but that is just the reason why we ought to think on a thing.”

 

But at the same time, should we really stress ourselves over a decision that we will potentially only make one time? If we constantly worry about our single decision, will we then second guess ourselves the whole time and wonder if we made the right choice? Will we ever truly move on from that single decision and adjust to the the choice we made and find a way to be happy where we end up? Is it really worth the time to focus all our energy on a single decision point when we know we will have other high “n” events that might be more meaningful than the low “n” event we spend all our time thinking about?

 

Seneca thinks it is worth the effort to think through the big low “n” events, to make sure our decision making is as comprehensive and self-aware as possible. But he, and other Stoics, would likely advise that we don’t put too much pressure on ourselves to make a perfect decision. I think he would simultaneously recommend that we approach low “n” events with an open mind to the outcomes, recognizing that our reactions to the outcomes will often determine whether we find the end state to be unbearable or something where we can still thrive. In the end we should think critically on our decisions, including low “n” events and choices, but we should be flexible in how we respond to outcomes and in how we think the world should be.
Our Few Years on Earth - Joe Abittan

Our Few Years on Earth

Human beings are not always good at planning for the long term, but in general, we do expect to have a long term. I know that in my own life I have always assumed I would live to be at least 100, though I know life expectancy in the United States is not 100 years old and though I know many people who have died in their 70s, 80s, or even much younger from accidents, rare diseases, or from other serious problems. We expect to have a long number of years ahead of us and can make investments to plan for that long future, but we should remember that it is never a guarantee. 

 

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes, “There is no fixed count of our years. You do not know where death awaits you; so be ready for it everywhere.” 

 

This is not to suggest that we should live in paranoia, afraid that we might die at any moment. Instead it is a reminder that the long term plans we hope to live out might not come to pass. It is a reminder to make our lives what we want them to be today, rather than assuming that we have a long future to achieve our desired goals. 

 

The wrong response to the message is the modern day (though kinda dying out) idea of YOLO. The idea, “you only live once,” has been used to justify a lifestyle of partying, of short term thinking, and of extravagant opulence. It almost ignores all long term planning in focus of short term pleasure, but it doesn’t really help us to be ready for death as Seneca suggests. 

 

Another wrong response to the ideas from Seneca is to be overly ambitious and push too hard to for achievements. We don’t have to push our bodies to be perfect physical specimens today. We don’t have to push too hard for the C suit in corporate America before age 40. We don’t have to be ruthless in our pursuit of money, wealth, and things to show how successful we are today. That too doesn’t actually prepare us for death. 

 

What we should learn from Seneca is that it is important to plan ahead, but to remember that our plans may never have an opportunity to come to pass. We should make our lives meaningful and do things today that we can take pride in. This means building real and lasting relationships, focusing our daily lives on things that truly matter, so that if we depart today, we have been focusing in the right direction, and would be satisfied with where we leave the Earth. We cannot procrastinate and assume that we will eventually have time to do meaningful things in our lives. We can’t use our potentially short time to simply puff up our own ego. We have to pause, to  think about a meaningful life, and continually adjust our course so that we are living well, and ready to depart at any unfortunate moment.
Ever Present Perils

Ever Present Perils

We live in a very dangerous world, but we don’t always recognize it. Most of the time we move about our lives without feeling too much threat to our own personal safety and to our lives, but sudden events can remind us of how close death can be. We see terrible car crashes, are forced away from other people due to a global pandemic, or reminded of health risks when a relative dies of cancer. These sudden shocks of mortality can shake us out of a routine and rhythm, and leave us feeling fearful for what evil might befall us. But the reality is that we do live with ever present perils – the dangers are not just there when a pandemic strikes or when we see a traffic accident.

 

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes, “What, have you only at this moment learned that death is hanging over your head, at this moment exile, at this moment grief? You were born to these perils.”

 

For Seneca it is important to recognize how fragile life can be and how we are always living with risk. It is interesting to see is how far back in human history these risks have been with us, how they have persisted, and how we have thought (or failed to think) about the perils we face. It is not only today in the age of the automobile that we can be suddenly reminded of the ever present perils of death and destruction. It is not only in a time of changing demographics and social relationships that people may be afraid of cancel culture – exile has been a threat to humans for a long time. And grief over the loss of a loved one is also nothing new.

 

The reality of ever present perils isn’t new, but we all come to the realization of how fragile and risky life can be at our own pace, at different moments, and it seems to be a realization that we all must reach on our own to truly appreciate. It is important that we pause and reflect periodically on our mortality, to ensure that we are focusing our lives in a meaningful direction, and to ensure that we are using our life, our physical body, and our mental faculties in a way that is worthwhile and valuable. We shouldn’t be shocked into remembering our mortality by sudden events, we should be calm and collected as we reflect on the perils around us, confident that we have used our life in a meaningful way, so that when such evils do occur, we are prepared.