June 08, 2007

Seneca lets me down

Maybe it's my own quirky expectations, but I found the following passage from Seneca to be extremely depressing:

Do you think it is the same thing thing whether you are overseeing the transfer of corn into granaries, unspoilt by the dishonesty and carelessness of the shippers, and taking care that it does not get damp and then ruined through heat, and that it tallies in measure and weight; or whether you take up these sacred and lofty studies, from which you will learn the substance of god, and his will, his mode of life, his shape; what fate awaits your soul; where nature lays us to rest when released from our bodies; what is the force which supports all the heaviest elements of this world at the centre, suspends the light elements above, carries fire to the highest part, and sets the stars in motion with their proper changes -- and learn other things in succession which are full of tremendous marvels?

Seneca is addressing a friend, Paulinus, who was an official involved in one of the man-made miracles of the ancient world -- the trade and distribution system that supported vast urban populations, providing them with their daily bread. For Seneca, such mundane feats as preventing famine by dealing with all the vagaries of ancient trade -- droughts, crop failures, irregular deliveries, budget problems -- were worthless as compared to idle speculation on what cannot be known.

It seems to me that a stoic should accept and relish duty, should understand the thanklessness of the task, and give his best effort to accomplish it (c.f., Camus' Plague). Does the world need one more idle man, or one more who uses his talents to help feed people?

Posted by Ideofact at June 8, 2007 01:28 AM
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