The Great Conversation
I get excited by the area of study known as “The History of Ideas”. This is partially because it gives me an excuse not to pick one subject to study, but instead to let my mind freely roam through the annals of all the arts and sciences. But also, to recognize that there is such a thing as the history of ideas is to see all literature, art, and other cultural artifacts as one big conversation.
I was going to say, “One big conversation among history’s great minds.” But then I realized that part of its beauty is that anyone can participate in this conversation. Sure, some voices are louder, or are more refined, or last longer than others, and thus become part of “the canon”, but really anyone, in their own small way, even the independent scholar conversing with his book in the solitude of his living room, can enter into this Great Conversation. It’s like a secular Communion of Saints, and I just think that’s a beautiful idea (as is its religious counterpart, for the record).
Of course, you can see where this is going. I want to be a part of the conversation too. I want to commune with the Saints and the saints. And I want to do it in a more active and public way than merely talking to myself and my books in my living room (though I still do plenty of that). So here I am.
I’m going to jump into the conversation at Seneca the Younger, who inspired this post.
Letters From a Stoic
Seneca the Younger (4 BC- 65 AD) wrote his Letters From a Stoic as a series of letters addressed to a young man named Lucilius, who presumably had asked to be guided in the ways of Stoicism. In each letter, Seneca expounds on some subject such as friendship or solitude. And then as he concludes, he shares a quote from another philosopher, whomever he happened to be reading that day, calling it his daily contribution to Lucilius. He also describes it as paying a debt — that is, recognizing that he owes much to the thinkers who came before him, and ensuring that he doesn’t hoard the wisdom he has found through his studies.
Several of the quotes he shares come from Democritus (the Pre-Socratic), Hecato (a fellow Stoic), and Pomponius, but a great — a surprising — number of them come from Epicurus. You might remember (and if not, I will remind you) that Stoicism and Epicureanism were rival philosophies, so it is interesting that most of the bits of wisdom that Seneca chose to share came from the founder of the rival school.
But of course he foresaw our and (probably) Lucilius’ surprise, and had this to say about the nature of truth:
It is likely that you will ask me why I quote so many of Epicurus’ noble words instead of words taken from our own school. But is there any reason why you should regard them as sayings of Epicurus and not common property? How many poets give forth ideas that have been uttered, or may be uttered, by philosophers! – Letter 8
Here, he gets at two thoughts worthy of consideration: First, that truth does not belong to only one school at the expense of others. Second, that poets and philosophers are striving after the same truth, they just go about expressing it in different ways. (This is a subject I will explore in more detail in other posts.) That is, truth is not limited. Truth is available to anyone who is willing to devote himself to it. I think what he is implying and is trying to instill in Lucilius is the warning to not be proud and pompous regarding your own way of thinking, your own mode of expression, or your own school of thought. There is truth to be found everywhere, but you must seek it out, tease it out, and not be easily led astray by outward appearances.
And later he says:
Any truth, I maintain, is my own property. And I shall continue to heap quotations from Epicurus upon you, so that all persons who swear by the words of another, and put a value upon the speaker and not upon the thing spoken, may understand that the best ideas are common property. –Letter 12
Thomas a Kempis echoes this in The Imitation of Christ:
We ought not to be swayed by the authority of the writer, whether he be a great literary light or an insignificant person, but by the love of simple truth. We ought not to ask who is speaking, but mark what is said.
I thought this was a fitting topic for my inaugural post, because my goal, my project, for this site is to go out, read, look, think — and then sift out the True, the Good, the Beautiful. Highlight it, point it out to inspire and delight you and hopefully weave a thread through humanity’s great ideas.
Of course, this is not to detract from the greatness of the great thinkers themselves, but it is a reminder to us not to be distracted by the person, and not to judge the idea solely on account of the thinker who shared it. Keep truth as the highest goal, and you may be surprised where you find it.