True worth

Here’s a final quote from letter 88:

It is at the cost of a vast outlay of time and of vast discomfort to the ears of others that we win such praise as this:  “What a learned man you are!” Let us be content with this less fashionable recommendation:  “What a good man you are!”

Does education make us into better people? (Part 4)

Seneca grudgingly concedes that education may be necessary for the attainment of wisdom, but even so the relationship is only indirect:

… you cannot attain virtue without food, either; and yet food has nothing to do with virtue. Wood does not offer assistance to a ship, although a ship cannot be built except of wood.

And in some cases education may not be needed at all:

What reason have I for supposing that one who is ignorant of letters [books] will never be a wise man, since wisdom is not to be found in letters?  Wisdom communicates facts and not words; and it may be true that the memory is more to be depended upon when it has no support outside itself.

(This also recalls Socrates, who is said to have mistrusted writing as a medium.)

Seneca then argues that the search for wisdom is too big and important an undertaking to be cluttered up with a lot of superfluous details.

[People] fail to learn the essentials just because they have learned the non-essentials. Didymus the scholar wrote four thousand books.  I should feel pity for him if he had only read the same number of superfluous volumes.

He finishes the letter with a rather delicious (though non-stoical!) rant (satire?) about the failings of philosophers themselves, and the perils of obsessive hair-splitting:

Protagoras declares that one can take either side on any question and debate it with equal success — even on the question of whether every subject can be debated from either point of view! Nausiphanes holds that in things which seem to exist, there is no difference between existence and non-existence.  Parmenides maintains that nothing exists of all this which seems to exist, except the universe alone. Zeno of Elea removed all the difficulties by removing one; for he declares that nothing exists.  The Pyrrhonean, Megarian, Eretrian, and Academic schools are all engaged in practically the same task; they have introduced a new knowledge, non-knowledge… If I cleave to Protagoras, there is nothing in the scheme of nature that is not doubtful; if I hold with Nausiphanes, I am sure only of this – that everything is unsure – if with Parmenides, there is nothing except the One; if with Zeno, there is not even the One.

Earlier in this passage, Seneca criticises philosophers who have “[by] their own accord … descended to determining the true meaning of conjunctions and prepositions”. This is significant because one of the three branches of classical Stocism — now largely forgotten in contemporary, popular treatments of the subject — was logic. The Stoics actually made advances in propositional logic, so Seneca’s attitude is interesting. I’ll return to the ‘forgotten Stoic logicians’ in a future post.


Does education make us into better people? (Part 3)

I’m back after an unplanned break, which is mainly owing to a detour into Buddhist thought (on which more later, perhaps) . But now back to what I know better.

Seneca’s complaint about the liberal studies is that they teach us nothing that helps us achieve wisdom; instead they just distract us with tangential details:

Do you raise the question, “Through what regions did Ulysses stray?” instead of trying to prevent ourselves from going astray at all times?  We have no leisure to hear lectures on the question whether he was sea-tossed between Italy and Sicily, or outside our known world … we ourselves encounter storms of the spirit, which toss us daily, and our depravity drives us into all the ills which troubled Ulysses.

He also gives a prescient warning about the dangers of trying to measure everything:

You [geometers] know how to measure the circle; you find the square of any shape which is set before you; you compute the distances between the stars; there is nothing which does not come within the scope of your calculations.  But if you are a real master of your profession, measure me the mind of man!  Tell me how great it is, or how puny!

Does education make us into better people? (Part 2)

I quoted Seneca yesterday on what he doesn’t like. What type of study does he like? Again from letter 88:

But there is only one really liberal study: that which gives a man his liberty.  It is the study of wisdom, and that is lofty, brave, and great-souled. All other studies are puny and puerile.  You surely do not believe that there is good in any of the subjects whose teachers are, as you see, men of the most ignoble and base stamp?  We ought not to be learning such things; we should have done with learning them.

Does education make us into better people? (Part 1)

Seneca has another long letter (88) about the use and abuse of “liberal studies”, which seem roughly to correspond to the modern notion of education (examples given include music, literature and geometry).  He doesn’t like education for money:

I respect no study, and deem no study good, which results in money-making.  Such studies are profit-bringing occupations, useful only in so far as they give the mind a preparation and do not engage it permanently.  One should linger upon them only so long as the mind can occupy itself with nothing greater; they are our apprenticeship, not our real work.

And he doesn’t like education for education:

Certain persons have made up their minds that the point at issue with regard to the liberal studies is whether they make men good; but they do not even profess or aim at a knowledge of this particular subject.  The scholar busies himself with investigations into language, and if it be his desire to go farther afield, he works on history, or, if he would extend his range to the farthest limits, on poetry.  But which of these paves the way to virtue?  Pronouncing syllables, investigating words, memorizing plays, or making rules for the scansion of poetry, what is there in all this that rids one of fear, roots out desire, or bridles the passions?