Befriending Thought

If the lesson of Seneca’s first letter to Lucilius is to recognize, in light of the fact that we are “dying daily,” that our time is precious (see this post), the second letter cautions Lucilius to avoid what is no doubt a likely consequence of this recognition: namely, the conclusion that we ought to hurry up and live intensely and in haste for there is precious little time. This is the opposite of how we are to live if we are to live to our “purpose” (Letter 1). For Seneca to live in such haste, to hurry about from place to place, person to person, and book to book, “is the sign of a disordered spirit.” The key is for one to “remain in one place and linger in one’s own company,” be content with a few friends, and read just a “limited number of master-thinkers.” Hurrying about from place to place, person to person, text to text, may give one a vast number of acquaintances but no friends, and yet if we are to live to our purpose and fulfill “today’s task” (Letter 1), we will become a friend to ourselves, persons, and texts. In short, and most importantly, we will become a friend to thought.

To befriend thought, however, it is first and foremost essential that we become selective, that we exercise taste. As with food, one should not “toy with many dishes” for although such toying may delight the palate, these delightful dishes may “cloy but [they] do not nourish.” The same is true for reading. Although access to a vast number of texts may indeed be delightful and lend a sense of empowerment, such empowerment is illusory for the reading of too many texts will result in making one “discursive and unsteady.” Thought, therefore, is not to be confused with its discursive formations, with its textual manifestations, and it is the conflation of thought and discursive formation that leads one to the false belief that the more texts one knows, the more textual acquaintances one has, the more thoughtful one has become. And yet thought is inseparable from these textual manifestations, so the question becomes how one enters thought by way of texts.

To this question Seneca has a ready answer: confine one’s reading to a few “standard authors” and texts (the “master-thinkers”), and from the many thoughts to be found in these texts “select one to be thoroughly digested that day.” As with time, which is ours more than anything else (Letter 1), the well-digested thought also comes to be ours. To befriend thought, therefore, is to lay a claim to thought as one’s own, much as well-digested food becomes properly and fully incorporated into one’s body (unlike the food that “leaves the stomach as soon as it is eaten”). Seneca then concludes this letter with an example “thought for today,” drawn from the enemy camp (aliena castra) of Epicurus: “Contented poverty,” as Seneca cites Epicurus, “is an honorable estate.” Epicurus is thus an example for Seneca of one of the master-thinkers, despite his enemy status, and it is the thoughts of such thinkers that one should befriend, although selectively so. If one thus has “what is necessary,” and if one has “what is enough” – in short, if one has befriended thought – then one will have a contented, well-nourished poverty.

Key to this contentment, however, is the taste that enables us to make the proper choice, whether of the proper, nourishing dish or the proper text. It is this taste that enables us to discern the best dishes, texts, etc. In other words, it is taste that allows us to acquire true friendships. But have these choices not already been made for us? Has the boundary between those who are and are not the “master-thinkers” already been decided and handed over to us as the canon? Has the boundary between the true and the false not been drawn already? In part, yes, but today’s task is to assimilate the thought in these texts as our own, and this is no easy task – it’s the hardest task – and we can still become a false friend to even a classic text. Not surprisingly, this concern for true as opposed to false friendship becomes the theme of the third letter.


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