“When a person spends all his time in foreign travel, he ends by having many acquaintances, but no friends.”– Lucius Seneca, “Letters from a Stoic”
I’ve always felt uncomfortable reading the Roman Stoics – Seneca in particular, because I am nothing like the ideal man they describe. Confucianism, in a similar vein, describes the ideal gentlemen as a man of few words, reserved and disciplined, focused and private, passionate in controlled bursts and only with the closest of confidants. Women and children are rarely mentioned, and when they are mentioned, they’re described as charges at best, or bad influences at worst.
I might be doing both philosophies a disservice with that last sentence, but it sure feels as if women and children get in the way of the disciplined repose of the learned man, as far as the Stoics and Confucians are concerned.
Lets take this first quote above, about foreign travel. According to Seneca, too much of it results in a shallow situation. A flat, broad take on the world that, in the end, leaves one unrooted and alone. I can relate to that feeling very well. There aren’t too many people who have traveled to and lived in more places than me. They exist, to be sure, but I am in the top echelon no question. I can attest to this shallow situation in regards to friendships that Seneca warns against. I too, am unrooted and often find myself floating alone through spaces seeking connections with people who, to my mind, can sometimes feel my need and it isn’t always received well. I can charm, but after the charm is done, what then? The circles I am trying to enter are rooted in soil that doesn’t recognize me. Invasive plants are met with resistance.
Of course, much of this is my own anxiety at entering groups, but why the anxiety? Because, I am the charming mover through many circles with no roots and no circle of my own. The sorrow of the traveling bard, right? The guy who moves from inn to inn telling stories, trying to fuck the maid, maybe getting into some farmer’s wife’s panties and then skidaddling before the shit hits the fan? That’s one way to view it. Another is just … what happens to the traveler when it’s time to go home? What happens to the wanderer when he’s old? And this, I believe, is what Seneca warns against – and many ancient/classic philosophers with him – they warn against frivolity and discursive living that, when the lights go out, leave a man alone and groping in the dark for a hand to hold onto.
For these ancients, the community and the tribe and the village were paramount. For them, foreign travel was not only ill advised, but also incredibly difficult. It took months to do what today takes hours. The very first page of “Letters from a Stoic,” lays out Seneca’s basic premise:
“The primary indication, to my thinking, of a well-ordered mind is a man’s ability to remain in one place and linger in his own company.”
I have never done the former, but I always find myself, eventually, doing the latter. As much of a gadfly as I am, I feel often alone. Moving through social circles doesn’t actually make me feel loved and held and part of something, it just makes me a little high off that quick communal fix. It’s the village and the family and the ancestors and the friends who’ve known you since poopie hood that, should at least, make one feel less alone. I would have to hear from someone who has that in order to know. I know many people, however, who grew up in one place, are close to the fam, have many childhood friends, and still feel super alone.
Maybe that’s just the signs of these times, and this culture we live in (American). I mean, that’s a whole ‘nother topic, but I would love a Stoic appraisal on the way America treats community.
“There is a class of men who communicate, to anyone whom they meet, matters which should be revealed to friends alone, and unload upon the chance listener whatever irks them.”– Seneca again.
Seneca hates babblers. Hate is a strong word. In his letters, he’s telling the -presumably young – man whom he’s writing to that babblers are to be avoided and never mimicked.
I am, without question, a babbler. A traveling babbler. Seneca would definitely turn his nose up at me. I have OFTEN found myself divulging persona details of my life and my thoughts on those details to people whom I do not know and definitely could not trust to hold space for those feelings and ideas and facts. I don’t think I’m alone in that regard, but I for sure don’t know many people who babble to strangers more than I do. I often walk away, slightly high off the telling, ashamed, wondering why I just poured everything out to someone like that.
Even if that person genuinely appreciates my sudden, unasked for, uncommon attempt to connect deeply despite shallow roots, the relationship formed still lasts only for a brief moment. Even if we text each other a few times afterward, it’s still only as a polite period of thin grief for a friendship built on one single word vomit session. I have felt those brief connections, seen the love in someone’s eyes, felt the heart beat of a human who understood and loved that I too, understood. And I have also forgotten countless such connections, truly countless, because once that magic moment passes it’s gone forever like fluff in the wind.
A Sufi might say, that is all that matters. One second encounters are brushes with the divine and we should pour ourselves into every such encounter as if it were our last. It does not matter how anyone else reacts, as long as we hurl ourselves into this divine creation with abandon and wonder and love and curiosity and passion and courage, then nothing else matters. Travel everywhere, babble to everyone; exude at every chance.
I find both impossible at length: neither stoic discipline nor wild abandon rule me for long. I flux between the two – and if I’m honest, I’m as stoic as I am wild; and both make me feel uncomfortable, each in their own way, when I truly sink into one or the other.