I’ve been wary (even scared) of the repetitive nature of life for a while. (See this and that for proof.) Then The Art of Manliness ran an excerpt from the Stoic philosopher Seneca. His letters are worth moving to the top of your reading list (unless you of Nietzsche or Taleb there).
Once again words have created tangible change in my life (a good feeling for someone who loves smashing fingers into keys) by giving form to something I couldn’t believe in before.
Both excerpts are from Letter 94 to Lucius.
People say: “What good does it do to point out the obvious?” A great deal of good; for we sometimes know facts without paying attention to them. Advice is not teaching; it merely engages the attention and rouses us, and concentrates the memory, and keeps it from losing grip. We miss much that is set before our very eyes. Advice is, in fact, a sort of exhortation.The mind often tries not to notice even that which lies before our eyes; we must therefore force upon it the knowledge of things that are perfectly well known.
The economist Tyler Cowen has repeated this sentiment a couple thousand years later (Seneca was born 5 AD) in his most recent book Average is Over. He believes that marketing – motivating people to action – is going to be the industry of the next couple decades. When machines are making all the physical stuff so cheaply… the humans can only compete in the ability to tell compelling stories.
Religions understand the importance of repetition as well. The philosopher Alain de Botton writes in Religion for Atheists about how religions effectively repeat the same lessons in various ways. They ram the basics down your throat your entire life. Our schools teach for the test.
We remember barely anything from our intellectual and philosophical endeavors because of our obsession with novelty. It’s more impressive. It feels like progress to know something new. The harder work is in putting the knowledge you have to use.
This is obvious – you know that cigarettes, sitting, sugar, and Snooki are bad for you. You know veggies, exercise, and reading something that isn’t written for Young Adults is healthy. We know these things… we just don’t learn the basic lessons thoroughly enough.
Because we don’t repeat them. Knowing is useless without application. We feel we already know, and we do…
The soul carries within itself the seed of everything that is honorable, and this seed is stirred to growth by advice, as a spark that is fanned by a gentle breeze develops its natural fire. Virtue is aroused by a touch, a shock. Moreover, there are certain things which, though in the mind, yet are not ready at hand but begin to function easily as soon as they are put into words. Certain things lie scattered about in various places, and it is impossible for the unpracticed mind to arrange them in order. Therefore, we should bring them into unity, and join them, so that they may be more powerful and more of an uplift to the soul.
I’m working on editing an entire book about taking action. It’s about simplifying your intellectual life to create more space to take powerful actions.
At first it doesn’t make much sense. It’s a bunch of words about action. Just get up and take action!
But sometimes we need somebody to provide permission. It’s not ideal. Ideally we’d just do what we know we should every time.
Sometimes we need to believe, though. The right words help belief.
Even if we’ve heard them a million times before.