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.