How to study stoicism?
On the Futility of Learning Maxims
You wish me to close these letters, with certain utterances taken from the chiefs of our school, however they did not interest themselves in choice extracts; the whole texture of their work is full of strength.
There is unevenness, you know, when some objects rise conspicuous above others; A single tree is not remarkable if the whole forest rises to the same height.
Poetry is crammed with utterances of this sort, & so is history; You need not call upon me for extracts & quotations; such thoughts as one may extract here & there in the works of other philosophers run through the whole body of our writings.
Hence we have no “show-window goods”, nor do we deceive the purchaser in such a way that, if they enter our shop, they will find nothing except that which is displayed in the window.
We allow the purchasers themselves to get their samples from anywhere they please.
Suppose we should desire to sort out each separate motto from the general stock; to whom shall we credit them?
To Zeno, Cleanthes, Chrysippus, Panaetius, or Posidonius?, We Stoics are not subjects of a despot: each of us lays claim to their own freedom.
In others, those brotherhood, everything that any person utters is spoken under the leadership & commanding authority of one alone.
We cannot, I maintain, no matter how we try, pick out anything from so great a multitude of things equally good; Only the poor person count their flock.
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; For this reason, give over hoping that you can skim by means of epitomes, the wisdom of distinguished people.
Look into their wisdom as a whole; study it as a whole; They are working out a plan & weaving together, line upon line, a masterpiece, from which nothing can be taken away without injury to the whole.
Examine the separate parts, if you like, provided you examine them as parts of the person themselves, She is not a beautiful woman whose ankle or arm is praised, but she whose general appearance makes you forget to admire her single attributes.
If you insist, however, I shall not be niggardly with you, but lavish; for there is a huge multitude of these passages; they are scattered about in profusion, – they do not need to be gathered together, but merely to be picked up.
Doubtless they would be of much benefit to those who are still novices & worshipping outside the shrine; for single maxims sink in more easily when they are marked off & bounded like a line of verse.
That is why we give to children a proverb, or that which the Greeks call Chria, to be learned by heart; that sort of thing can be comprehended by the young mind, which cannot as yet hold more.
For an adult, however, whose progress is definite, to chase after choice extracts & to prop their weakness by the best known & the briefest sayings & to depend upon their memory, is disgraceful; it is time for them to lean on themselves.
One should make such maxims & not memorise them; For it is disgraceful for one who has sighted old age, to have a note-book knowledge.
This is what Zeno said, yet
This is the opinion of Cleanthes, however
How long shall you march under another person’s orders?, Take command, & utter some word which posterity will remember; Put forth something from your own stock.
For this reason I hold that there is nothing of eminence in all such people as these, who never create anything themselves, but always lurk in the shadow of others, playing the rôle of interpreters, never daring to put once into practice what they have been so long in learning.
They have exercised their memories on other people’s material;
Remembering is merely safeguarding something entrusted to the memory; knowing, however, means making everything your own; it means not depending upon the copy & not all the time glancing back at the master.
Thus said Zeno, thus said Cleanthes, indeed!, Let there be a difference between yourself & your book!
Yet why, one asks, should I have to continue hearing lectures on what I can read?
The living voice, one replies, is a great help; Perhaps, although not the voice which merely makes itself the mouthpiece of another’s words, & only performs the duty of a reporter.
Consider this fact also; Those who have never attained their mental independence begin, in the first place, by following the leader in cases where everyone has deserted the leader; then, in the second place, they follow him in matters where the truth is still being investigated.
However, the truth will never be discovered if we rest contented with discoveries already made; Besides, One who follows another not only discovers nothing but is not even investigating.
What then?, Shall I not follow in the footsteps of my predecessors?
I shall indeed use the old road, however, if I find one that makes a shorter cut, & is smoother to travel, I shall open the new road.
Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized, & there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover.
People who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, they are our guides.
Farewell, Seneca, StoicTaoist.