You know those people who can quote passages of Shakespeare, have read all the great novels, and who always seem to have an aphorism to hand? Well, fuck them. Having a moribund storehouse of other people’s knowledge isn’t the same as being smart, let alone creative.
In Letter 33, Seneca doesn’t want us to learn the Cliff Notes version of anything; he doesn’t want us to post brief quotes on Instagram; and he certainly doesn’t want us to keep hiding behind other people’s wisdom, however valuable it might be.
Or, to put it another way:
It’s good to know, dog, but don’t be trippin’!
But wait a minute – is it really so bad to know a few useful, guiding quotes or summaries of the greats? We can’t all read the complete works of Shakespeare… But Seneca has a point. The summary might seem powerful, but if we don’t know how the artist got there, we can’t appreciate the full meaning, resonance or impact of those words.
There’s also a danger to thinking that everything said by someone we admire is important or insightful. So we play a ‘guess who said this inspirational quote’ game – because ‘bad’ people sometimes say great things, and vice versa.
Wisdom out of context isn’t wisdom at all. It can even become evil. The words don’t have the wisdom, but they can help us unlock what we’re ready to learn.
So what if we use maxims and quotes not as the end point, but as the starting point for us to find out more? What if we let them pique our interest rather than do our thinking for us?
Seneca wants us not to just parrot the opinions of others, but put something of our own forward – to create something new, believe that you have something to offer, but still appreciate that everything we say and do is part of the broader context of what’s come before.
What’s the use of knowledge if it’s not being put to use?
Thinking and learning is only meaningful if it has some resonance in your life
We do need to practise, we do need to learn the basics. But there’s a turning point when that knowledge becomes alive, when you’ve internalised the concepts and can now become creative.
It’s time to step out of the masters’ shadows, just as they had to in their own time.
Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides.
This is one of our favourite episodes to date; let us know what you think and if you’re ready to take the leap and contribute what you think.
- Why Epicurus was a girly-man
- Music and truth
- The real meaning(s) of ‘The Prodigal Son’
- Why forgetfulness is important for creativity
- Thesaurus Hunting!