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Re-Reading Epistula II, Seneca the Younger

Probatos itaque semper lege, et si quando ad alios deverti libuerit, ad priores redi.

One should always read sound literature, Seneca advises, and when one begins feeling the urge to pass on to new reading material, return to the books or authors already read.

I recall Lewis saying something similar in An Experiment in Criticism. In that book, Lewis describes the difference between the few and the many when it comes to reading books, listening to music, or viewing art. The few will read the same book several times, whereas the many pull a book from the shelf, notice that they have already read it, and quickly place the book back on the shelf.

I love books, and over the years I have collected hundreds of them in the hope of reading them and of building my own personal library. Yet after twenty years, how many of these books have I read compared to the number of books added? Am I collecting more than I can possibly or realistically read? And what is worse, have I grown to see books as consumable objects?

I suppose much of my acquisition has resulted from a fear of deprivation—that I have somehow deprived myself of a wealth of knowledge and wisdom during my years of literary fasting. I feel as though I have impoverished my soul through this lack and thereby justify my consumption as an effort to re-nourish and nurture myself back to health.

Interestingly, Seneca closes the letter with a reflection on poverty. He states that it is not the one who has little who is poor, but the one who wants more—non qui paurum habet, sed qui plus cupit, pauper est.

My lack is not what has impoverished me. Rather, my unchecked desire to consume is making me poor. What, then, am I to do? Should I somehow learn to settle for less? How does one proceed along this road?

First, Seneca instructs, acquire what is necessary, then what is sufficient—primus habere quod necesse est, proximus quod sat est.

We live in a time when information is literally at our fingertips. We are drawn daily to endlessly consume information, but to what end? Seneca warns that such consumption fails to nourish the soul. Skipping across endless pages of data forbids the restful time needed to allow wisdom and virtue to take root. It is like someone who has many acquaintances but no friends—ut multa hospitia habeant, nullas amicitias.

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