Seneca part 6: Learning from each other

Note: this is the sixth part of a weekly series, discussing Seneca’s Moral letters to Lucilius. A new post will be released every Thursday morning (GMT).


Wisdom is not just an individual insight into the workings of the world and how to deal with them. It is also a collective understanding. By sharing knowledge, we can learn from each other. By discussion, we can sharpen, adapt, or change our views for the better. In other words: interaction with other people improves our wisdom. This is probably why Seneca is so eager to share his knowledge with Lucilius:

And when you say: “Give me also a share in these gifts which you have found so helpful,” I reply that I am anxious to heap all these privileges upon you, and that I am glad to learn in order that I may teach. Nothing will ever please me, no matter how excellent or beneficial, if I must retain the knowledge of it to myself. And if wisdom were given me under the express condition that it must be kept hidden and not uttered, I should refuse it.

Another reason is his friendship with Lucilius, which seems to have grown even stronger after the third letter. Since friendship is in general a good foundation for sharing all kinds of things, sharing knowledge with a friend makes sense.

In this letter, Seneca also teaches us how we can best learn from each other. It can be done by writing letters (or emails, in the 21st century) and by exchanging books and notes, but there is a better way. Rather than following written instructions, it is better to follow real-life patterns.

the way is long if one follows precepts, but short and helpful, if one follows patterns. Cleanthes could not have been the express image of Zeno, if he had merely heard his lectures; he shared in his life, saw into his hidden purposes, and watched him to see whether he lived according to his own rules. (…) It was not the class-room of Epicurus, but living together under the same roof, that made great men.

Face-to-face interaction beats the exchange of written knowledge. In modern science, this could mean that symposiums and debates are probably more effective than scientific papers and books. On the other hand, written articles (especially digital) can reach a huge audience with relative ease, while live debates might be a hassle to organize. One is more effective, while the other is probably more efficient. But if you have a friend with whom you can discuss your insights and issues with stoicism, you might want to give it try.

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