Monday, January 16, 2006


Librorum istic inopiam esse quereris. Non refert, quam multos, sed quam bonos habeas; lectio certa prodest, varia delectat. Qui, quo destinavit, pervenire vult, unam sequatur viam, non per multas vagetur. Non ire istuc, sed errare est.

"You complain of there being an inadequate supply of books. It is not how many you have, but rather what quality; faithful, constant reading is beneficial, but varied reading is an amusement. Anyone who wants to arrive at his destination will travel a single path and not many. That is not traveling! It is wandering aimlessly."

-Seneca's Moral Epistle XLV

When Seneca's friend Lucilius complains that he suffers from a lack of literature to read, Seneca suggests that he has too much to read. Seneca is of the conviction that it is not desirable to be a "jack of all trades," but rather a master. To be such a master requires concentrated effort in a single sphere, not to mention intense discipline.

I can certainly sympathize with Lucilius, however. As a student of theology, I find myself drawn in many directions. I quickly tire of studying "one book:" the Bible. The Holy Scriptures bore me sometimes. I am confident that I am not alone in this. I study Hebrew and Greek in order to better understand the one book in front of me, but it simply gets old sometimes.

It is much more amusing, as Seneca points out, to read a stack of books by various authors pertaining to some specific epistle of St. Paul than to actually translate the epistle itself, devote myself to mastering its content, and discipline myself with repeated readings of the same epistle. I'd like to say that I am diverted only so far from my text as a stack of books on the text, but in truth I find myself drawn quickly from that stack of books to another topic altogether. Very quickly I realize that I am thoroughly amused by my studies, but woefully far from mastering any single subject.

His condemnation is very appropriate: I am not traveling, but wandering aimlessly. The same may be true of your own studies - of course, I cannot know.

To remain committed to a single study, a single theology, a single philosophy requires great discipline. It is natural to be diverted by ancillary and even non-related studies; these prevent us from serious thought and reflection, instead keeping us in a sort of comfortable and undemanding sphere. Such an escape from discipline and the authority of a particular topic on our time and effort sadly prevents us from ever wielding any authority ourselves.

I find that it is not only in the area of my own theological studies that this tendency can be found. As a martial artist, I encounter countless proponents of "mixed martial arts." Rather than mastering any single discipline, they simply (under the clever guise of "taking the best of each") dabble in several disciplines.

Note: As in any area to which Seneca's principle can be applied, the "aimless wandering" tendency often disguises itself in our own thinking as something noble or desirable, minus any uncomfortable constancy or discipline.

In religion in the broader sense, countless individuals have adopted a similar sort of "eclectic" approach to spiritual travel. There are, they would quickly point out, many paths to the same destination. Seldom do I discover a person so commited to this principle to yet remain on one path very long.

Seneca provides an often unwelcome remedy to our innate wanderlust: put one foot in front of the other and ignore the manifold distractions that seek to entice you from the path you are on. Only in this discipline is true mastery to be found.

"Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air."
-St. Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians (9:24-26, ESV)

Seneca's writings are available from Harvard University Press' Loeb Classical Library:

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