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014 - On Keeping A Low Profile - Moral Letters for Modern Times

I say this: the mob will hate you if you are wrong, and they will hate you even more if you are right.
Winding canal by Imperial Palace - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

It is worthy to cultivate a sound mind in a sound body. Our peace of mind is threatened most by three types of worry: of the many failures that can afflict our bodies, that we will lack the things we think we need, and what other people think of us. Of these, the interaction with your fellow man creates the greatest potential for trouble.

All that the hermit lacks in possessions, comfort, and interactions, he gains in being freed of the affliction that are neighbors. In solitude you can focus on your own thoughts. In a neighborhood you can scarcely be heard among the din of silently competing boasts: the Pelosis installed a $20,000 refrigerator, the Bidens bought a second home, the Trumps have gilded their very bathrooms. You are making do with a three-year old BMW, and your last vacation was to Boston, not the Bahamas. Oh! for the days when you only had to keep up with the Jones.

Just as you cannot help but notice the crazed consumption of your neighbors, never be lulled into thinking your actions are beneath their regard. And though you feel you must wither under your neighbors’ condescension when you are outdone, that is a faint breeze compared to the furies you will unleash if you temporarily pull ahead on the hedonistic treadmill. Our fellow man hates us least when we know our station, and that is always comfortably below our fellow, wherever the level may be. We can suffer grievous physical injuries and carry on, but an injured pride is fatal to many a friendship.

You cannot hide from prying eyes, short of taking up your own hermit’s cave, but you can try not to draw attention, either positive or negative. Remember, you can be hurt by the one, by the few, or by the many. If you wish not to be mauled, don’t stroll through the zoo wafting meat perfume. Putting a sign on your lawn bearing a political message will draw the ire of different-thinking neighbors like ants to crumbs at a picnic. If you hold opinions that may inflame passions among arsonists, do not blow on them in the hopes of making them grow, because it is you who stands directly in front of the fire. Rather whisper such seditious thoughts to yourself.

“But,” you say “do you really counsel letting the ignorant masses stifle free speech and clear thinking? It is the mob who are mistaken, and by remaining silent, do I not enable mindless tyranny?” I say this: the mob will hate you if you are wrong, and they will hate you even more if you are right. By speaking out as an individual, you threaten the consensus. Nothing is more harmful to the shallow-minded, because they instinctively grasp that their fragile foundations are built on sand. Thus, they cannot permit a wise voice to even puff in their direction.

By withdrawing from the public eye, you must take care not to present yourself as an easy target. A drop of blood in the water attracts sharks from fathoms away. So too is a need for affirmation fatal to your safe passage. You withdraw not because you fear the public’s opinion, whether good or bad, but because it does not concern you.

What concerns you is your well-ordered mind and your self-possession, and this no mob can plunder. In needing only basics and eschewing luxury, you find sanctuary within your own four walls. You then can busy yourself with the job of clear thinking. Much like a road needs to be cleared of all obstacles before you can safely navigate it, your mind speeds along that much more expeditiously when cleared of extraneous fears, worries, and wants.

There is one exception to the basic rule of keeping a low profile: when passions are inflamed to such an extent that you may not be silent, lest a negative inference be drawn. When silence is not an option, neither is meekly submitting to the mob. Though they would tear you limb from limb, you must not say things you do not believe are true. This will erode your soul, and in short order your body as well, as surely as the mob’s pitchforks and torches, but with the difference that you inflict the wound on yourself. You may know a great truth and keep it to yourself because the mob’s ears are shut. Fair enough. But you cannot lend your voice to a mob committing wrong, for this is both to perpetuate the wrong and give the mob power over the one possession that is truly yours, your self-possession.

You eagerly await a final truth that I should now share with you. Such is the quality of this addition to our store of wisdom that we may shout it from the rooftops, hear all who may.

It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, who is poor.

Here I return to our most trusted of guides, the Stoics, and that towering figure among them, Seneca. It was his particular gift to collect, curate, and sift the wisdom of the ages, and his courage to make it available for all with the desire to know it. Man is the only animal that can instantly create both scarcity and abundance, and that with the exact same quantity of material.

You are poor when you think you lack something, and you are as rich as your appreciation for what you have.

Be well.

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