Thursday, March 02, 2006


Quo innumerabiles libros et bybliothecas, quarum dominus vix tota vita indices perlegit? Onerat discentem turba, non instruit, multoque satius est paucis te auctoribus tradere, quam errare per multos.

What is the use of countless books and libraries whose titles their owner could scarcely learn in his entire lifetime? Such a collection heaps upon the learner confusion rather than instruction; it is much better to hand yourself over to a few authors than to wander aimlessly among many.

-Seneca's De Tranquillitate Animi (ix.4)

Those of us who love learning know the danger of becoming "jack-a-non"s - dabblers in several areas of learning but masters of none. Seneca points out the danger by pointing (immediately following this reading) to the Library of Alexandria as one of the greatest foibles of human history. Contrary to what you might expect, he does not lament the burning of the Library, but the fact that it was assembled in the first place! He comes off as very nearly a blasphemer to we lovers-of-books when he suggests that burning was a fitting end for such a library: assembled not for learning but for show.

Why do we gather such libraries of teachers around ourselves? I will list a few reasons I have observed in myself:

- As a true son of my generation, I prefer buying a book to actually reading it. Appearance is more important that substance (or there is no real difference). Buying the book gives me a superficial sense of "owning" the information in it, and the gratification is instant (if short-lived).

- There is so much to learn that I imagine I can learn it all. This isn't far from our god-like illusions of immortality. Choosing to specialize means admitting my own limitation.

- Limiting myself to a few teachers means making a commitment to them. To commit in this way gives these authors a certain claim to my time and effort.

- Devoting myself to a few teachers results in an intellectual "tradition" or "lineage" that does not immediately begin with me. So long as I can diffuse my intellectual influences, I can convince myself that I have developed my "very own" world-view.

Of course there are countless other reasons I might prefer to "wander aimlessly among the many" than actually devote myself to true, disciplined learning.

Christians have an ancient library of spiritual masters and teachers - the prophets, apostles, saints, and martyrs. There are four thousand years worth of teachers in the library of our tradition and a lineage that should not be caricatured to include only fishermen and camel-hair clad prophets, but includes kings, bishops, intellectual giants of East and West.

For some reason, we just don't seem to be satisfied with even so expansive a library as this. Instead, men like Dan Brown and a resurgence of movies like Stigmata try to tell us about "other books" and "other teachers" whom the Church would hide from us. Modern writers abound to teach us about genuine spirituality and true knowledge of the Divine who themselves have little or no knowledge of or connection to those who have gone before them.

Seneca's advice is sound. It is better to devote oneself to a small circle of teachers than to wander aimlessly after this one or that one. Is there no room for new knowledge, then? Of course, but let the new teacher be commended by the old even as the Messiah was commended by the Baptist; that way, even in taking to oneself a new teacher, the old is being followed still.

"The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh."

-Heb. Qohelet, "The Teacher" (Ecclesiastes 12:11-12, ESV)

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


Teofilus said...

I suddenly turn from my computer screen to my library (which has grown substantially and rapidly over the last three years)and I am convicted! I have a lot of work to do - either reading or burning!

Steven said...

These are sound words. I noticed that same tendency in myself to accumulate books for the sake of having a lot of books. I have began to sell the books that I have no intention of reading again or for the first time.

Der Bettler said...

I agree completely. This is why I have shifted my accumulation of books from they type that are read cover-to-cover to the type I use for reference (dictionaries, grammars, commentaries, etc.). I find myself trying to master five or six disciplines and in the process I neglect them all.