On why Seneca is better than Aurelius
A letter to my friend Bing Bong about how Ryan Holiday is wrong
Regarding our dialogues about stoicism, on your last letter you pressed me on whether I agreed with Ryan Holiday that Meditations is the greatest book ever written.
I do not agree. I do not even agree that it is the greatest stoic work ever written.
Them may be fighting words indeed, dear Bing Bong, and yet I am bound to be truthful with you. For while stoicism produced many philosophical and ethical masterpieces, if the subject is ranking the greatest of them, then rank the greatest of them we shall.
I shall present to you my reasons below. Let us begin by entertaining another obvious possibility for the greatest work: Epictetus’ Enchiridion.
Epictetus’ Enchiridion is too commanding
“Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.” — Epictetus
The Enchiridion is one of the greatest works of stoicism, there is no doubt about that, dear Bing Bong. Everyone should read it at least once in their lifetime.
Consider how he discusses the importance of self-control in face of insults, in this passage: “Remember that what insults you isn’t the person who abuses you or hits you, but your Judgment that such people are insulting you. So whenever anyone irritates you, recognize that it is your opinion that has irritated you. Try above all, then, not to allow yourself to be carried away by the impression; for if you delay things and gain time to think, you’ll find it easier to gain control of yourself.”
Truly chilling, isn’t it? So much fodder for one’s thought. And yet, it’s very authoritative, is it not? Some might even call it “bossy”, in modern parlance.
That “bossiness”, Bing Bong, is its main issue. For while the reasoning for it is perfectly understandable, written as it was in the then-popular “Soldier’s Manual” format, and not even by Epictetus himself, it does demand a degree of surrender that may not be simple for those of us who are used to be bossed around. You may not understand it, abandoned as you were in Riley’s unconscious, but trust me for it to be true.
So let us now consider our original subject: Meditations.
Aurelius’ Meditations is also too commanding, albeit for different reasons
“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.” — Marcus Aurelius
It is doubtless, my dear friend, that Meditations is yet another work of art that everyone should read. But it also suffers from the same issue that might make it insufferable for some: its pushiness.
And yet in this case it is much more understandable. For, unlike the Enchiridion, Meditations was not even written as to be a published book or a manual for anyone except its author. When the emperor states this: “If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.” It is not for any outside reader’s benefit, but his own, for the writer’s!
And nevertheless, some may be turned off by the author’s style. And others may also be unable to reconcile the author’s wisdom with his privileged position: of course he could afford to be so wise, he was the head of the greatest empire on Earth! So let us consider a different style altogether: Seneca’s letters.
Seneca’s letters strike the best balance
“It’s not that we have a short time to live, Paulinus, but that we waste much of it. When life is squandered through soft and careless living, and when it’s spent on no worthwhile pursuit, death finally presses and we realize that the life which we didn’t notice passing has passed away.” — Lucius Annaeus Seneca
For me, my dear Bing Bong, Seneca’s works strike the very best balance between wisdom and format. For while Epictetus and Aurelius provide just as much enlightenment, Seneca does it by advising friends and family through his letters. We can portray ourselves as his readers, not as students receiving great knowledge from a manual, or a privileged diarist reminding himself of his personal advice, but as an attentive listener hearing the guidance of a dear friend.
And the most amazing part is that we don’t even need to know anything about the letters’ intended recipients, for Seneca’s advice is so humanistic and generally applicable that we see ourselves in each of his themes! Who among us has not struggled with anger? Or with the finality of death, and what it means for how we should manage our lives?
Consider that maybe his recipients weren’t even struggling with these issues to the extent that he writes. Maybe they were more alike imaginary friends, immaterial people to whom he could address his deep thoughts and pretend to have profound conversations he would indeed like to have with others. That would be fantastic, wouldn’t it, Bing Bong?
“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”, after all. And yet, even if I believe his letters to be the greatest work among the three we just considered, I have to say it is still not the greatest one. Let us return to Meditations in search of a conclusion.
The greatest book
Aurelius wrote Meditations as a reminder to himself. What if we read it like that?
Try it, my friend. Read Meditations indeed, not as the authoritative book it seems to be, but as an example of a work that every practitioner should develop on their own, for their individual benefit.
If every person wrote their own unique ever-under-revision version of a personal Meditations-a-like, if every human had it by their night table, would not the world be a much better place?
And if they got published once each of us shed our physical bodies — at least those of us who have one, my dear Bing Bong — how amazing some of these personal Meditations might not turn out to be?
I would certainly like to read Bing Bong’s Meditations, for sure. But also those from dozens of others, from the renowned elite to anonymous family people beloved by their kind, to those unfortunate ones who struggle alone. How much wisdom and how many experiences lost in time!
That, my friend, is what I’d consider the greatest book ever written. A unique one for each of us, and yet for everyone too.