LETTER VI

Letter six starts with Seneca in an excited state. He is talking about a major step that he has made in terms of personal development. This letter has some interesting comments on the process and motivation of learning along with the interplay between friendship and learning.

I know from my own experience that my analysis of myself is a schizophrenic one at best: there are stages of denial, stages of despair and stages of amazing arrogance - often all taking place in quick succession. There is no doubt that this inner turmoil is not helpful to living well - it destroys inner tranquillity and means that I cannot focus on the external experience effectively.

Seneca’s cause for excitement that he keeps for the end of the letter is that I am beginning to be my own friend. This, he says, is progress indeed - it gives you the ability to be comfortable alone as well as been a friend to all. To be honest I have experienced this type of transformation myself over the last few years. The voice in my head in the past was far more worried and shrill then it is these day. I now have a calmer and more humorous commentator. It is a sign of how insane us humans really are when I feel uncomfortable even mentioning how the internal chatter of my mind sounds - mentioning the voices in our head is a taboo really.

What I got from this letter was how the internal experience of life mirrors the external. If I want to have friendships with other people, I need to be my own friend - if I don’t enjoy my own company, how will anyone else enjoy mine? I was thinking about my internal thought processes (the voices) as flatmates. What type of environment do I want to have in my apartment? In real life (external) I would not put up with a shrill bitter flatmate who screamed at me all the time - why would I put up with one in my mine (internal)?

Seneca’s point on this issue - a hugely positive note - is that all we need to do is be aware of our mind and its thoughts. The mind is like a group of flat mates - we cannot control them - we can only influence over time. This is a lot easier through calm non-judgemental observation.

The letter goes on to link the process of learning with that of teaching.

There is no enjoying the possession of anything valuable unless one has someone to share it with.

There is no point in learning if you cannot pass it on effectively. This is an over looked area as we have identified - how many intelligent people do we know who are not able to pass on their knowledge? According to Seneca they are missing out on the most important part of the learning experience. In the past I thought of the teaching part of the easy bit - I fill my mind with knowledge, and then I share easily from my marvelous mind. This is not the case - sharing effectively is every bit as challenging as learning. When done to the smallest degree, however, I think it changes learning into an addictive personal experience.

Seneca points out

you should really be here and on the spot, firstly because people believe their eyes rather more than their ears, and secondly because the road is a long one if one proceeds by way of precepts but short and effectual if by way of personal example.

He then points out that the great philosophers of the past learned from their teachers by actually living with them and seeing everything that went on. The link between deep friendship and knowledge is a recurring theme with Seneca, and here he presents it as the only way to engage with learning.

The focus on Personal Converse as opposed to the way of precepts is something that I love. It gives me renewed enthusiasm to continue to communicate better with people - not because it’s a problem I need to get over - but because it is the way to have a balanced learning experience.