No One Who Is Serious Writes Their Best Ideas Down

Plato, Epistle 7 344c-e

“For this reason it is necessary that every serious person does not write about serious subjects so that they might not end up an object of envy or confusion among regular people. Simply, when you look at someone’s written work, whether it is a law by a legislator or anything by anyone else, you need to understand that this is not the person’s most serious work even if the author is very serious. Instead, his best works remain in the most noble part of his own realm. But if it turns out that the most serious works are those they have been written down, it is surely not the gods, but mortals themselves “who have totally ruined their senses.”

Anyone who has been following this story and my digression will clearly know that whether Dionysus has written anything about the ultimate and primary truths of nature or some lesser or greater mind has done the same, according to my argument nothing of what he has written is sound thanks to what he has learned or what he has heard. For, he would have the same respect for these things as I do and would not dare to make them available for inappropriate or unacceptable reception.

Dionysius did not write those things for the sake of reminding himself. For there is no danger of anyone forgetting a thing once he has obtained it with his soul, where it is settled among the smallest of all places. But it was for shameful pride, if truly he did write, either as a way of establishing the ideas as his own or to demonstrate that he was an initiate in great learning for which he proved himself unworthy by delighting in the reputation he might gain from it. If this happened to Dionysius because of our single interaction, it could be the case. But how, Only Zeus knows, as the Theban says. For, as I said before, I went through my ideas with him only once and never again afterwards.”

Διὸ δὴ πᾶς ἀνὴρ σπουδαῖος τῶν ὄντως σπουδαίων πέρι πολλοῦ δεῖ μὴ γράψας ποτὲ ἐν ἀνθρώποις εἰς φθόνον καὶ ἀπορίαν καταβάλῃ· ἑνὶ δὴ ἐκ τούτων δεῖ γιγνώσκειν λόγῳ, ὅταν ἴδῃ τίς του συγγράμματα γεγραμμένα εἴτε ἐν νόμοις νομοθέτου εἴτε ἐν ἄλλοις τισὶν ἅττ᾿ οὖν, ὡς οὐκ ἦν τούτῳ ταῦτα σπουδαιότατα, εἴπερ ἔστ᾿ αὐτὸς σπουδαῖος, κεῖται δέ που ἐν χώρᾳ τῇ καλλίστῃ τῶν τούτου· εἰ δὲ ὄντως αὐτῷ ταῦτ᾿ ἐσπουδασμένα ἐν γράμμασιν ἐτέθη, Ἐξ ἄρα δή οἱ ἔπειτα, θεοὶ μὲν οὔ, βροτοὶ δὲ φρένας ὤλεσαν αὐτοί.

Τούτῳ δὴ τῷ μύθῳ τε καὶ πλάνῳ ὁ ξυνεπισπόμενος εὖ εἴσεται, εἴτ᾿ οὖν Διονύσιος ἔγραψέ τι τῶν περὶ φύσεως ἄκρων καὶ πρώτων εἴτε τις ἐλάττων εἴτε μείζων, ὡς οὐδὲν ἀκηκοὼς οὐδὲ μεμαθηκὼς ἦν ὑγιὲς ὧν ἔγραψε κατὰ τὸν ἐμὸν λόγον· ὁμοίως γὰρ ἂν αὐτὰ ἐσέβετο ἐμοί, καὶ οὐκ ἂν αὐτὰ ἐτόλμησεν εἰς ἀναρμοστίαν καὶ ἀπρέπειαν ἐκβάλλειν. οὔτε γὰρ ὑπομνημάτων χάριν αὐτὰ ἔγραψεν· οὐδὲν γὰρ δεινὸν μή τις αὐτὸ ἐπιλάθηται, ἐὰν ἅπαξ τῇ ψυχῇ περιλάβῃ, πάντων γὰρ ἐν βραχυτάτοις κεῖται· φιλοτιμίας δὲ αἰσχρᾶς, εἴπερ, ἕνεκα, εἴθ᾿ ὡς αὑτοῦ τιθέμενος εἴθ᾿ ὡς παιδείας δὴ μέτοχος ὤν, ἧς οὐκ ἄξιος ἦν ἀγαπῶν δόξαν τὴν τῆς μετοχῆς γενομένην. εἰ μὲν οὖν ἐκ τῆς μιᾶς συνουσίας Διονυσίῳ τοῦτο γέγονε, τάχ᾿ ἂν εἴη· γέγονε δ᾿ οὖν ὅπως, ἴττω Ζεύς, φησὶν ὁ Θηβαῖος· διεξῆλθον μὲν γὰρ ὡς εἶπόν τότε ἐγὼ καὶ ἅπαξ μόνον, ὕστερον δὲ οὐ πώποτε ἔτι.

enough about plato

After the Body, The Mind Fades Away

Seneca, Moral Epistle 26.1-3

“I was recently explaining to you that I am in sight of my old age—but now I fear that I have put old age behind me! There is some different word better fit to these years, or at least to this body, since old age seems to be a tired time, not a broken one. Count me among the weary and those just touching the end.

Despite all this, I still am grateful to myself, with you to witness it. For I do not sense harm to my mind from age even though I feel it in my body. Only my weaknesses—and their tools—have become senile. My mind is vigorous and it rejoices that it depends upon the body for little. It has disposed of the greater portion of its burden. It celebrates and argues with me about old age. It says that this is its flowering. Let’s believe it, let it enjoy its own good.

My mind commands that I enter into contemplation and I think about what debt I owe to wisdom for this tranquility and modesty of ways and what portion is due to my age. It asks that I think about what I am incapable of doing in contrast to what I do not wish to do, whether I am happy because I don’t want something or I don’t want something because I lack the ability to pursue it.

For, what complaint is there or what problem is it if something which was supposed to end has ended? “But,” you interject, “it is the worst inconvenience to wear out, to be diminished, or, if I can say it properly, to dissolve. For we are not suddenly struck down and dead, we are picked away at! Each individual day subtracts something from our strength!”

But, look, is there a better way to end than to drift off to your proper exit as nature itself releases you? There is nothing too bad in a sudden strike which takes life away immediately, but this way is easy, to be led off slowly.”

Modo dicebam tibi, in conspectu esse me senectutis; iam vereor, ne senectutem post me reliquerim. Aliud iam his annis, certe huic corpori, vocabulum convenit, quoniam quidem senectus lassae aetatis, non fractae, nomen est; inter decrepitos me numera et extrema tangentis.

Gratias tamen mihi apud te ago; non sentio in animo aetatis iniuriam, cum sentiam in corpore. Tantum vitia et vitiorum ministeria senuerunt; viget animus et gaudet non multum sibi esse cum corpore. Magnam partem oneris sui posuit. Exultat et mihi facit controversiam de senectute. Hunc ait esse florem suum. Credamus illi; bono suo utatur. Ire in cogitationem iubet et dispicere, quid ex hac tranquillitate ac modestia morum sapientiae debeam, quid aetati, et diligenter excutere, quae non possim facere, quae nolim †prodesse habiturus ad qui si nolim quidquid non posse me gaudeo.† Quae enim querella est, quod incommodum, si quidquid debebat desinere, defecit? “Incommodum summum est,” inquis, “minui et deperire et, ut proprie dicam, liquescere. Non enim subito inpulsi ac prostrati sumus; carpimur. Singuli dies aliquid subtrahunt viribus.”

Ecquis exitus est melior quam in finem suum natura solvente dilabi? Non quia aliquid mali est ictus et e vita repentinus excessus, sed quia lenis haec est via, subduci.

seneca strength

Cranky about the State of the Country

Cicero, letters to Atticus 375 (11 May 44)

“I have no doubt that our state is looking at war. This affair has been managed with a man’s bravery and a child’s planning. Can’t everyone see that a king was removed but his heir was left on the throne?

What is more ridiculous? To fear this but not to consider that a risk at all! There is still in this moment much which is crooked. That the house of Pontius near Naples is held by the mother of that tyrannicide! Oh!

I should read the “Cato the Elder” I made for you more often. Old age is making me rather cranky. I am annoyed by everything. But, certainly, I have lived. Let the young men see to these things. You will care for my affairs as you do.”

Mihi autem non est dubium quin res spectet ad castra. acta enim illa res est animo virili, consilio puerili. quis enim hoc non vidit, <regem sublatum>,2 regni heredem relictum? quid autem absurdius? ‘hoc metuere, alterum in metu non ponere!’ quin etiam hoc ipso tempore multa ὑποσóλοικα. Ponti Neapolitanum a matre tyrannoctoni possideri! legendus mihi saepius est ‘Cato maior’ ad te missus. amariorem enim me senectus facit. stomachor omnia. sed mihi quidem βεβíωται; viderint iuvenes. tu mea curabis, ut curas.

cranky cicero

Pliny’s Guidelines for A Retirement Well-Spent

Pliny, Letters 3.1 to Calvisius Rufus

“I am incapable of recalling a time I spent as pleasantly as I just did when I went to see Spurinna—and, in fact, I cannot imagine anyone I would rather imitate more in my old age, should I be allowed to grow old. For no way of living is better designed than his. A well-planned life pleases me as much as the circuit of the stars. This is especially true when it comes to the old—for while a limited amount of chaos and excitement is not inappropriate for the young, a completely calm and ordered life is better for the elderly. Their public service is over and any aims for advancement is perverse at this point.

Spurinna insistently follows this rule and even in small things—minor if they did not happen daily—he follows a plan as if an orbiting body. He lies abed a bit every morning but then asks for his shoes in the second hour and takes a three-mile walk to exercise his mind no less than his body. If his friends are present, they have the most earnest conversations. If they are not there, he has a book read—something he also does at times when his friends are there if it will not annoy them too much. Then, once he sits down, the book is read again or, even better, the conversation continues. Then he climbs into his carriage and takes his wife—a model of her gender—or some friend—recently, me!—along with him.

How fine it is, how sweet a secret! How much of the past one finds there—what deeds and what heroes you hear of! What principles you absorb! He bows to his own modesty, however, and does not seem to give orders. After he has been driven seven miles or so, he walks another mile, and then returns to sit again or he goes back to his writing. For then he writes the most learned lyric lines in both Latin and Greek—they are amazingly sweet and impressive as well for their charm, humor, and grace which the taste of the one who writes them only increases.”

Nescio an ullum iucundius tempus exegerim, quam quo nuper apud Spurinnam fui, adeo quidem ut neminem magis in senectute, si modo senescere datum est, aemulari velim; nihil est enim illo vitae genere distinctius. Me autem ut certus siderum cursus ita vita hominum disposita delectat. Senum praesertim: nam iuvenes confusa adhuc quaedam et quasi turbata non indecent, senibus placida omnia et ordinata conveniunt, quibus industria sera turpis ambitio est.

Hanc regulam Spurinna constantissime servat; quin etiam parva haec—parva si non cotidie fiant—ordine quodam et velut orbe circumagit. Mane lectulo continetur, hora secunda calceos poscit, ambulat milia passuum tria nec minus animum quam corpus exercet. Si adsunt amici, honestissimi sermones explicantur; si non, liber legitur, interdum etiam praesentibus amicis, si tamen illi non gravantur. Deinde considit, et liber rursus aut sermo libro potior; mox vehiculum ascendit, adsumit uxorem singularis exempli vel aliquem amicorum, ut me  proxime. Quam pulchrum illud, quam dulce secretum! quantum ibi antiquitatis! quae facta, quos viros audias! quibus praeceptis imbuare! quamvis ille hoc temperamentum modestiae suae indixerit, ne  praecipere videatur. Peractis septem milibus passuum iterum ambulat mille, iterum residit vel se cubiculo ac stilo reddit. Scribit enim et quidem utraque lingua lyrica doctissima; mira illis dulcedo. mira suavitas, mira hilaritas, cuius gratiam cumulat sanctitas scribentis.

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Going Hunting? Don’t Forget Your Notebooks

Pliny, Letters To Cornelius Tacitus 6

“You will laugh—and it is right to laugh. I, that friend of yours, have gotten three boars and they’re really great ones too. “That guy?” You ask. Yes, this guy, and I did it without taking a break from my rest and relaxation. I was just sitting by the hunting nets and next to me weren’t spear or lance but my pen and notes because I was thinking about something and was trying to write a bit, supposing that even if I returned with empty hands I would still have full notebooks.

There’s no reason to scoff at this kind of research—for it is a wonder how the mind is inspired by the agitation and movement of the body. For solitude somewhere in the woods and the silence needed for hunting bring many opportunities for thought. So, whenever you are hunting next, take me as an authority and bring your notebooks with your picnic basket and your flask. You will discover that Minerva wanders the hills no less than Diana does.”

Ridebis, et licet rideas. Ego, ille quem nosti, apros tres et quidem pulcherrimos cepi. “Ipse?” inquis. Ipse; non tamen ut omnino ab inertia mea et quiete discederem. Ad retia sedebam; erat in proximo non venabulum aut lancea, sed stilus et pugillares; meditabar aliquid enotabamque, ut si manus vacuas, plenas tamen ceras reportarem. Non est quod contemnas hoc studendi genus; mirum est ut animus agitatione motuque corporis excitetur; iam undique silvae et solitudo ipsumque illud silentium quod venationi datur, magna cogitationis incitamenta sunt. Proinde cum venabere, licebit auctore me ut panarium et lagunculam sic etiam pugillares feras: experieris non Dianam magis montibus quam Minervam inerrare. Vale.

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Writing to Teacher While on a Walk

Marcus Aurelius to Fronto Ad M. Caes. v. 47 (62) (54–156 a.d).

“Greetings, my teacher,

I hope that now, finally, my teacher, you may tell me something more comforting. For your letter tells me that you were in pain at the very time you were writing to me. I have dictated this letter while walking. For my present state has been longing for this movement. But I will only feel gratitude for this harvest season when your greater health begins to be clearer to me. Be well, my most comforting of teachers.”

Magistro meo salutem.

Nunc denique opto, mi magister, iucundiora indices. Nam doluisse te in id tempus, quo mihi scribebas, litterae declarant. Haec obambulans dictavi. Nam eum motum in praesentia ratio corpusculi desiderabat. Vindemiarum | autem gratiam nunc demum integram sentiam, quom tua valetudo placatior esse nobis coeperit. Vale mi iucundissime magister.

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How We Spend Our Days–Do Nothing Rather Than Something Useless

Pliny, Letters 9 To Minucius Fundanus

“It is amazing how the schedule is or seems on individual days in the city when they all blend together. If you ask anyone “what did you do today?” He may say, “I went to a toga-ceremony, an engagement, or a marriage. I was the witness at a will-signing, or at court as a witness or supporter.” These things which you do seem necessary on the day that you do them but empty if you remember that you have done the same kind of things every day and they seem even sillier if you consider them when you are away.

Then the realization comes over you: “How many days have I wasted in trivial pursuits!” This occurs to me whenever I am reading or writing or taking some time to exercise, to keep my mind fit for my work, at my Laurentum. I hear nothing and I say nothing which later on it hurts me that I said or heard. No one troubles me with evil rumors. I find no one to blame but myself when I write with too little ease. I am troubled by no hope, no fear; I am disrupted by no gossip. I speak only with myself and my little books.

What a fine and sincere life! What sweet and honest leisure, finer than nearly any business at all. The sea, the beach, my own true and private museum—how much you discover for me, how much you have told me!

Take the first chance you can to leave that noise, the empty conversation, and so many useless tasks and dedicate yourself to studies or relaxing. For our friend Atilius put it most elegantly and intelligently when he said “it is better to do engage in leisure than to do nothing.”

Plinius Minicio Fundano Suo S.

1Mirum est quam singulis diebus in urbe ratio aut constet aut constare videatur, pluribus iunctisque

Nam si quem interroges “Hodie quid egisti?,” respondeat: “Officio togae virilis interfui, sponsalia aut nuptias frequentavi, ille me ad signandum testamentum, ille in advocationem, ille in 3 consilium rogavit.” Haec quo die feceris, necessaria, eadem, si cotidie fecisse te reputes, inania videntur, multo magis cum secesseris. Tunc enim subit recordatio: “Quot dies quam frigidis rebus absumpsi!” 4 Quod evenit mihi, postquam in Laurentino meo aut lego aliquid aut scribo aut etiam corpori vaco, cuius fulturis animus sustinetur. Nihil audio quod audisse, nihil dico quod dixisse paeniteat; nemo apud me quemquam sinistris sermonibus carpit, neminem ipse reprehendo, nisi tamen me cum parum commode scribo; nulla spe nullo timore sollicitor, nullis rumoribus inquietor: mecum tantum et cum libellis loquor. O rectam sinceramque vitam! O dulce otium honestumque ac paene omni negotio pulchrius! O mare, o litus, verum secretumque μουσεῖον, quam multa invenitis, quam multa dictatis! 7 Proinde tu quoque strepitum istum inanemque discursum et multum ineptos labores, ut primum fuerit occasio, relinque teque studiis vel otio trade. 8 Satius est enim, ut Atilius noster eruditissime simul et facetissime dixit, otiosum esse quam nihil agere. Vale.