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033 - On Instagram-Worthy Quotes - Moral Letters for Modern Times

You mustn’t take the headline for the whole of the message, but rather read on.
Hilltop lined with yellow-flowered bushes - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

What has become of my closing quotes, you wonder, where I shared wisdom collected from sages across the ages. Am I no longer able to reinforce each letter with the lessons duly noted from earlier masters?

Fear not, my store of pithy sayings has not been depleted. The Stoics alone numbered many who became adept at condensing their knowledge into rich kernels, making them easy to pass on and share. One sees their influence across the intervening centuries, in students as diverse as Shakespeare, C.S. Lewis, and Steve Jobs. The Stoics, in turn, represent but a fraction of notable thinkers who have grappled with great truths. Thus, from sources without end, we have a rich menu of maxims to choose from. Moreover, for any single idea, you can call upon ten or twenty formulations, each of which either reiterates or reformulates a central theme.

The sayings we collect and repeat do serve laudable purposes: they whet our appetites to know more, they refresh our memory of what we have already studied, and they provide a glimpse through an opened window of what truths lie beyond. But just as the container is not the content, the maxim is not the full message, only a key for interpreting the map. Though one may memorize a thousand sayings, and repeat them back in any setting, are they any better than a trained parrot? A chatbot may respond to any of a hundred programmed questions, but are you having a meaningful interaction? Alexa on your countertop has become your daily conversationalist, but if you probe beneath the surface will you find anything of substance?

Thus I caution you, my dear Deuteros, that to know why an idea is worthy of study at all, you need to digest more than Instagram-worthy morsels. Such light fare may be eagerly sought by the masses, but not the sincere student.

You mustn’t take the headline for the whole of the message, but rather read on. Read widely and deeply. I want you to walk the grounds that gave root to an idea, wallow in the soil that nourished it, and be drenched by the summer storms that gave it strength. If you tend to the garden of ideas in this way, you will know not only how the fruits there came to ripen, but you will enjoy an abundant harvest.

Now consider this: no matter how strong the seedstock you start with, would you be a mere tender of another’s crop, or will you add something new to the storehouse of humankind’s bounty? When you are master of your garden, you can cross-pollinate ideas and bring whole new lineages of thought into being. I think that although you may start out with what others thought, you need to end up with what you think.

Be well.

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