Seneca: On Choosing Our Teachers, Letter 52

Seneca The Younger, or more popularly knows as Seneca was one of the most prolific stoic philosophers this world has every seen. He was also an advisor to King Nero.

He wasn’t just another academician from 50 AD who used to teach people about philosophy. No. He lived his teachings. He was a famous playwright and a writer.

One of the richest men in Rome, and of course an advisor to the king.

He had seen his fair share of hardships in life to the tune of being exiled to Corsica for 7 years. His life ended with a stoic suicide that was ordered by none other than King Nero himself.

He wrote mostly about tragedy and is most popularly known for a compilation of his letters which mention Lucillus quite a few times who was the governor of Sicily in around 65 AD.

Letter 58, By Seneca The Younger

His letters are an amazing resource for someone living in the 21st century.

Surprised?

I was too.

The letters have a very high applicability in our times as well. This is because he talks about loss of a friend, of a loved one, being rich and being poor, on contemplating our mortality and more real life day to day problems.

His philosophy, Stoicism in general is not an esoteric philosophy. It is very well connected to our daily lives.

In a letter on choosing your teachers he talks about quite a few prominent ideas that I thought of sharing with you guys.

How mad is he who leaves the lecture-room in a happy frame of mind simply because of applause from the ignorant! Why do you take pleasure in being praised by men whom you yourself cannot praise?     Pythagoras made his pupils keep silence for five years; do you think that they had the right on that account to break out immediately into applause? 

Seneca, Letter 52: On Choosing Our Teachers

              
The applicability of the above line in 2020 from the letter comes as no surprise to me.

In this day and age of online course creators, and people who make videos and write articles teaching other people for social media followers and views, bangs right on.

It makes me wonder how the 1st Century Rome was. We might think that the world has changed drastically, but by this sentence alone, I know there were teachers preaching only for the claps and applause.

Teachers must lead by example and not just by word. That does not mean you cannot share what you are learning while you’re learning something but it is always better to apply before you teach.

Those are the types of teachers we should seek. A real teacher does not live for the applause but for the transfer of the knowledge itself so that when he dies, his knowledge is passed on.

These outcries should be left for the arts which aim to please the crowd; let philosophy be worshiped in silence. Young men, indeed, must sometimes have free play to follow their impulses, but it should only be at times when they act from impulse, and when they cannot force themselves to be silent. Such praise as that gives a certain kind of encouragement to the hearers themselves, and acts as a spur to the youthful mind. But let them be roused to the matter, and not to the style; otherwise, eloquence does them harm, making them enamored of itself, and not of the subject.

Seneca, Letter 52: On Choosing Our Teachers

I love that he says philosophy is worshiped in silence. I believe that real work in life gets done when nobody is watching.

We all put a mask on when people are watching us. Stoic philosophy is not a mask we can wear that easily.

Principles and teachings of Stoicism need to be contemplated upon, studied and applied to the situations in life.

If we start getting aroused by the way a teacher teaches, by how that person dresses and portrays himself, we are on the wrong path.

As a student we must get charmed by the subject matter and it’s application rather than just the style of the person teaching the subject. especially when it comes to practical philosophy of living life.

Upper Cover Of The Published Letters by Seneca

I should accordingly deem more fortunate the man who has never had any trouble with himself; but the other, I feel, has deserved better of himself, who has won a victory over the meanness of his own nature, and has not gently led himself, but has wrestled his way, to wisdom.

Seneca, Letter 52: On Choosing Our Teachers


This is classic Seneca. Tragedy teaches us more than the good times.


It is fine to choose to follow people who never had a conflicting opinion with themselves.


Maybe they have never wanted to do too many things or loved many things and had to choose only one or two of them.


The experience of letting go of something that you love, the experience of fighting with your own self, makes you a better teacher and a better student.

There are obstacles in our path; so let us fight, and call to our assistance some helpers. “Whom,” you say, “shall I call upon? Shall it be this man or that?” There is another choice also open to you; you may go to the ancients; for they have the time to help you. We can get assistance not only from the living, but from those of the past. 

Seneca, Letter 52: On Choosing Our Teachers

              
When looking for teachers, let’s look at the people who have lived in the past and have passed on their teachings, their philosophies on life and their experiences are going to be the first ones to choose.

Those guys have nowhere to go, so you practically have an unlimited amount of time with those people and their teachings.

I get a lot of people who ask me about finding a mentor.

Lo and behold, I give you unlimited resources at your disposal.

Let the Marcus Aurelius teach you leadership, let the President Lyndon Johnson teach you politics, let John Bogle teach you investing, let Charles Darwin teach you evolution and let Da Vinci teach you how to watch closely and think.

Choose as a guide one whom you will admire more when you see him act than when you hear him speak. 

Seneca, Letter 52: On Choosing Our Teachers

              
And when you have chose from the dead, choose a teacher from the living.


But don’t choose too many teachers at once. Look for one or two sources and then dive deep into those sources, building upon what you learn from them.


The real teaching does not happen while listening to the teacher. It happens when you think about what the teacher taught.


The best way to find a great teacher is by observing at what they do and not what they say.


Follow people who were in a similar situation as you in their lives and progressed from there.


Look at what they did to come out victorious on the other end.

Pay The Plumber

Working on a project is certainly not the hardest thing to do in our lives.

We might feel otherwise at times.

This reminds me of an anecdote.

A guy calls a plumber to fix his sink.

plumber

The plumber takes a pair of pliers and lightly taps the pipes twice and says it’s done.

It will be $100, the plumber says.

A $100, are you crazy? For tapping on the pipe twice? The man exclaims.

The Plumber goes like, Well, tapping on the pipes is $5, knowing where to tap them is another $95.

The hard part is not the work itself.

It is knowing what to work upon. Once you have this figured out, getting the actual work done is a mere triviality.

I hope you pay the plumber.

Evils Of Envy: Robert Greene And Others On Using Envy For One’s Benefit

We humans are naturally compelled to compare ourselves with one another. We are continually measuring people’s status, the levels of respect and attention they receive and noticing any differences between what we have and what they have. For some of us, this need to compare serves as a spur to excel through our work. For others, it can turn into deep envy – feelings of inferiority and frustration that lead to covert attacks and sabotage. Nobody admits to acting out of envy.

You must recognize the early warning signs – praise and bids for friendship that seem effusive and out of proportion; subtle digs at you under the guise of good-natured humor; apparent uneasiness with your success. It is most likely to crop up among friends or your peers in the same profession. Learn to deflect envy by drawing attention away from yourself. Develop your sense of self-worth from internal standards and not incessant comparisons.

Robert Greene, The Laws Of Human Nature: The Law Of Envy
Laws Of Human Nature By Robert Greene


I went through an interview of the author Robert Greene talking about his book, The Laws Of Human Nature.


The daily stoic team had to visit Robert personally at his house for the interview as opposed to the regular thing; getting Robert to type out the answers to their questions and sending them via a simple email.

Why?


Robert had a stroke sometime before the launch of his book and was unable to properly use the left side of his body. So he was unable to simply type and send over his answers. He had to learn quite a few things right from the start, like getting his body used to using the left hand once again.


The reason Robert’s writing stands the test of time is because of his storytelling. Most of his examples span centuries back, so these stories have stood the test of time themselves.

Hence Robert’s work has always had the charm of feeling like an evergreen piece. The information in these would be applicable to our current and the future decades as well.


Robert put special attention to envy in his book and the interview.

In this book he explores envy and mentions it as one of the most poisonous human characteristics.

Envy

To take Envy next: we can see on what grounds, against what persons, and in what states of mind we feel it. Envy is pain at the sight of such good fortune as consists of the good things already mentioned; we feel it towards our equals; not with the idea of getting something for ourselves, but because the other people have it.

We shall feel it if we have, or think we have, equals; and by ‘equals’ I mean equals in birth, relationship, age, disposition, distinction, or wealth. We feel envy also if we fall but a little short of having everything; which is why people in high place and prosperity feel it-they think every one else is taking what belongs to themselves.


Also if we are exceptionally distinguished for some particular thing, and especially if that thing is wisdom or good fortune. Ambitious men are more envious than those who are not. So also those who profess wisdom; they are ambitious to be thought wise. Indeed, generally, those who aim at a reputation for anything are envious on this particular point. And small-minded men are envious, for everything seems great to them.


The good things which excite envy have already been mentioned. The deeds or possessions which arouse the love of reputation and honor and the desire for fame, and the various gifts of fortune, are almost all subject to envy; and particularly if we desire the thing ourselves, or think we are entitled to it, or if having it puts us a little above others, or not having it a little below them. It is clear also what kind of people we envy; that was included in what has been said already: we envy those who are near us in time, place, age, or reputation.


Hence the line:
“Ay, kin can even be jealous of their kin. “

Rhetoric by Aristotle, 350 B.C.E.

Aristotle in Rhetoric goes to great lengths talking about envy, it’s ill effects as well as how envy can take seed in someone’s thoughts to nurture into a fully grown cactus that can harm the people around it if not handled carefully.


(Fun Fact: Aristotle was Alexander the Great’s Teacher from the age of 14, and it is because of Aristotle that Alexander didn’t really force Greece’s culture over the kingdoms he later conquered in his life.)


Aristotle explains envy very simply. Envy being an emotion that we can feel when others get something in their lives that we may not have. It can be success, better job, better spouse, more money.


People can also feel envious in general if they fall short of having everything they dream about. Now this can even be a good thing as for a lot of successful people this type of envy has acted as a catalyst to work hard towards what they want to achieve.


This type of envy is relatively easier to control and use for our benefit. The other however, is extremely poisonous.

Friedrich Nietzsche

I know the hatred and envy of your hearts. Ye are not great enough not to know of hatred and envy. Then be great enough not to be ashamed of them!

Friedrich Nietzsche

For a person to confess that they have envy against someone is almost impossible. Confronting someone about them harboring envy can turn into an ugly situation as these people act enraged, and it is not a surprise that there have been many a criminal cases of violence committed by such people when confronted.


This non acceptance is because envy has been allotted the prestigious position within the 7 deadliest sins of mankind by many religions.


As Nietzsche points out, just accepting the hatred and envy we might feel for someone is a great deed in itself.


In order to overcome the negative effects of envy, we must accept it. Accepting that we can be envious of our friends or family at times is the first step of being able to use it to our advantage.

Once we know that someone else’s progress makes us envious, we can use it as fuel to push ourselves to do better. This turns the feeling of envy into a healthy competition against the people we feel envious about.


We must learn to be okay with these emotions and we need to realize that they are a part of human nature. This puts us in the right frame of mind to digest and being empathetic with someone’s progress or problems.

Cain murders Abel

According to  Gen 4:1-16, Cain murders his brother Abel, which is also called as the first murder and then lies to God when asked “Where is your brother?”

This first murder has it’s roots deeply dug into envy. Cain envied that God had regard for Abel’s offering of his firstlings or first flock and that God didn’t have any regard for Cain’s offerings of the fruit of the ground.


A classic example of how we can lose everything comes from Genesis 4:1-16, where Cain murders his brother Abel and lies to God about his brother’s whereabouts.

The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.

Cain and Able, Book of Genesis

A simple emotion of envy dooms Cain as he is left to wander the earth. All because of the bout of insanity that came over him because of envy against his brother.

We too if don’t control our envy, can result in losing ourselves only to realize it too late that our lives are ruined by the emotion we failed to accept and work upon.


Robert Greene warns us of the poisonous envy that some people might harbor against us. An envious person is quite dangerous and we should always be aware of such people.

On hearing of the interesting events which have happened in the course of a man’s experience, many people will wish that similar things had happened in their lives too, completely forgetting that they should be envious rather of the mental aptitude which lent those events the significance they possess when he describes them ; to a man of genius they were interesting adventures; but to the dull perceptions of an ordinary individual they would have been stale, everyday occurrences.

This is, in the highest degree, the case with many of Goethe’s and Byron’s poems, which are obviously founded upon actual facts; where it is open to a foolish reader to envy the poet because so many delightful things happened to him, instead of envying that mighty power of fantasy which was capable of turning a fairly common experience into something so great and beautiful.

 Schopenhauer, The Wisdom of Life, and Other Essays

According to Arthur Schopenhauer being washed with envy is an emotion for the lesser minds, for the dull, for people who do not understand themselves and human emotion.

For the geniuses, listening to someone else’s interesting experience feels like an adventure in itself.

Envy in a group setting

Schopenhauer also talks about recognizing the envious people around us by telling these suspected people good news or bad news about you on purpose.

The people who harbor toxic envy are adept at disguising it. They have done it so often in their life that they can control their feelings and body language when given the positive or the negative news.

Human beings can become masters at controlling our major bodily response to such bouts of envy publicly, however as nature intended our species to survive even without the use of language, micro-expressions are one thing that are almost impossible to hide.

When you tell them a piece of good news about yourself, for a microsecond you might see a slight disgust or a negative reaction in their lips and their eyes before they put on the happy mask once again and vice versa.

Noticing the eyes is important.

One way to keep others from envying you is by downplaying your own success and pushing the role that luck or chance played in you getting where you are now. We see this with a lot of successful people in their interviews.


Although there is always some luck or serendipity involved but an interesting fact about people who work hard and learn a lot is that they tend to be luckier than the rest and fall upon great opportunities quite a bit more often than others.

When Napoleon Hill went to interview Andre Carnegie in 1908, Carnegie mentioned the following when asked about luck and success.

A man may, and sometimes men do, fall into opportunities through mere chance, or luck; but they have a queer way of falling out of these opportunities the first time opposition overtakes them.

Andrew Carnegie

Carnegie then goes ahead and downplays the role of luck a bit and highlights that along with luck there are 10 more things that define “power” according to Carnegie.

Carnegie means, a person is not always going to be lucky, and if they are lucky and unprepared, they are overtaken easily.

Human history has thousands if not hundreds of thousands of examples where someone got power or success by mere luck only to lose it all the next second to an uprising as they were not prepared for what comes with the power.

One of the most recent examples is that over 70% of lottery winners go broke within months of receiving their winnings.

We only excite envy in a child by telling him to compare his own worth with the worth of others. He ought rather to compare himself with a concept of reason…’See how such and such a child behaves himself!’

An exclamation of this kind produces only a very ignoble mode of thinking; for if a man estimates his own worth by the worth of others , he either tries to elevate himself above others, or to detract from another’s worth. But this last is envy.

We then only seek to impute faults to others, in order that we may compare favorably with them. Thus the spirit of emulation, wrongly applied only arouses envy.

On Education, Immanuel Kant

Working on such deep rooted basic laws of human nature, we must work upon ourselves and start noticing these things for us and people dependent upon us. As parents we must take into account what culture are we building for our children.

It is by our mistakes the children and their future can be ruined.

It follows from this that we are attached to our fellows less by the sentiment of their pleasures than by the sentiment of their pains, for we see for better in the later, the identity of our natures with theirs and the guarantees of their attachment to us.

If our common needs unite us by interest, our common miseries unite us by affection. The sight of a happy man inspires in others less love than envy. They would gladly accuse him of usurping a right he can not have in giving himself an exclusive happiness; and amour-propre suffers, too in making us feel that this man has no need of us.

But who does not pity the unhappy man whom he sees suffering? Who would not want to deliver him from his ills if it only cost a wish for that? Imagination puts us in the place of the miserable man rather than in that of the happy man.

We feel that one of these conditions touches us more closely than the other. Pity is sweet because in putting ourselves in the place of one who suffers, we nevertheless feel the pleasure of not suffering as he does. Envy is bitter because the sight a happy man, far from putting the envious man in his place, makes the envious man regret not being there. It seems that the one exempts us from the ills he suffers, and the other takes from us the good he enjoys.

Do you wish, then, to excite and nourish in the heart of a young man the first movements of nascent sensibility and turn his character towards beneficence and goodness? Do not put the seeds of pride vanity, and envy in him by the deceptive image of the happiness of men.

Emile, Jean-Jacques Rousseau

We must teach our children to weigh their own worth on the work they do instead of just the material possessions.

If you did a piece just for money, and the money never comes, you’re left with nothing. But if you make art because you love to work, and money doesn’t show up, at least you’re left with your art.

Neil Gaiman in the 2012 commencement speech at University of the Arts in Pennsylvania

This sentence was used by Neil in a different context, but it highlights the very real fact that we must weigh our worth through our work and the difference we make in the world and this is the quality we must ingrain in our children right from infancy.

Perhaps a more uncomfortable emotion is at the source—such as envy or paranoia. You need to look at this square in the eye. Dig below any trigger points to see where they started. For these purposes, it might be wise to use a journal in which you record your Self-assessments with ruthless objectivity. Your greatest danger here is your ego and how it makes you unconsciously maintain illusions about yourself. These may be comforting in the moment, but in the long run they make you defensive and unable to learn or progress.

Robert Greene, The Laws of Human Nature

Robert Greene suggests we can get started with overcoming our envious nature by using self assessments, journals and noticing small things in our nature and the people around us.

We can use this even for our kids. Get them to self assess their work, rate it and develop a habit of thinking about themselves under the light of the work they do, things they make and problems they solve.

Robert explores 17 other laws in his book, The Laws Of Human Nature