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008 - On The Teacher’s Duty - Moral Letters for Modern Times

Just because I am alone does not mean I am wasting my hours away.
Slanting rays of sun over a smooth lake with sailboats - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

“Do you advise me,” you ask, “to ghost the public sphere, and to be happy with my thoughts alone? How am I helping improve the world by withdrawing from society?” This is not the contradiction that first appears. My aim in seeking seclusion is to create space for great work. Just because I am alone does not mean I am wasting my hours away. I hope that by taking time to think clearly, I can add to the storehouse of ideas as a service to all who come after me.

For all those who cannot see where they are walking because their faces are planted in their iPhones, it is my life’s labor to remove stones from the path, that we not needlessly stumble. Here is what I would tell them: Don’t worry about what others think, and decide for yourself what success and happiness mean.

Rather than rejoicing in your latest raise, ask whether you are painting your silver handcuffs now with gold. Do you call your gilded shackles progress? If you wish to live happy, your every thought must be to disdain the normal trappings of success that hold so many in their spell. We think possessions will satisfy us, when all they really do is whet our appetites for more. The most unfulfilling meal is the lavish one you have given your very life to obtain. And worse, maintaining your standard of living at the highest level chains you to a treadmill whose controls only ratchet upwards.

This shall be your rule of thumb – strive for functionality over form. Your feet and a bicycle will get you most places as quickly or better than a Rolls Royce, and they’re easier to park. A picnic lunch of a cheese sandwich by the lake will satisfy you as much or more than a feast of foie gras and lobster. Your Patek Philippe grand complication chronograph tells time not a whit better than a Timex automatic. Adapt your circumstances to succeed with simple things, and you will train your mind in sufficiency.

I hear you asking “How do I reconcile a life of contemplation with the need to pay my bills?” Just as the opposite of busyness is not idleness, so too when you give up wants you do not become free of needs. It is noble to work according to your nature and abilities to sustain yourself. The satisfaction of a job well done is its own reward, besides keeping your ledger in the black, and is also one of the paths to finding meaning.

When I tease out such lessons for myself and future generations, am I not providing a greater service than when I review the hundredth sales contract, draft the latest annual report, or rage on in Twitter wars? Rather trust that at least some who are seen least in the public eye are engaged in higher pursuits.

But now I stop and balance the scales with a contribution in kind. I pay not with my own currency, but with that of the Chinese philosopher Confucius:

The more man meditates upon good thoughts, the better will be his world and the world at large.

I expect you are wondering why I am quoting other philosophers to such an extent, rather than relying on the established Stoic canon. Can the Stoics lay claim to being the only ones to have laid bare and mined a rich vein of wisdom? If the Greeks and Romans themselves never pretended to have had every worthy thought, then why should we? Nothing brings me greater joy than to know that great thoughts have emerged and re-emerged from every corner of the globe, across time and distance. I trawl willingly the waters of Asia, Europe, and the Americas, and my travels have not gone unrewarded. You, my sincere student, may take this as a free gift, for it is not mine to hoard but the world’s to share.

From the Japanese Zen, my nets have hauled up this treasure, reminding us that it is not only the teacher who has a duty:

To a sincere student, every day is a fortunate day. Time passes but he never lags behind. Neither glory nor shame can move him.

Be well.

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