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039 - On Drinking Deeply - Moral Letters for Modern Times

Think of a summary as but a sip, nourishing if it comes after a full meal, but leaving you empty if you have consumed nothing before it.
Trail through forest with mountains in background - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

You have requested that I outline for you the main teachings of philosophy that we are discussing, and I am happy to do so. A summary of key points is surely useful, if it is in the hands of one who has intimate experience with what is being summarized. But what of the one who wishes merely to memorize the list, and confuses the aphorism for the underlying wisdom? A nail is useful to hold two pieces of wood together, and fix a point between them. But if your toolbox is filled only with nails, you will be an impoverished carpenter. Better the one who knows why this piece of wood and not another, why this length, and how these beams support the weight of the structure. And better still the one who can tell you what it is that they are building.

If you would be a capable builder, you must learn the complete skills of the trade. It is not enough to strap on the toolbelt, because all this does is put you in proximity to dangerous implements. We do not let lawyers loose with but a book of quotes, or give doctors access to our bodies if they’ve had access to no more than a season of Dr. House. Serious work requires serious study, and a summary is best in the hands of the accomplished student and not the novice. Think of a summary as but a sip, nourishing if it comes after a full meal, but leaving you empty if you have consumed nothing before it.

You are an accomplished student, Deuteros, because you are comfortable drawing directly from the sources of wisdom. When you read the writing of the great philosophers who have labored for our benefit before us, you are drinking deeply from wells that never run dry. You also know that by slowing down your pace, you advance your progress. Rather than flitting from one thought to the next like a bee on an endless hunt for pollen, you can dwell in one place until your needs are met. To know the difference between needs and wants is to start to bend your will to obtaining the one and avoiding the other. What most people seek most avidly, you avoid assiduously.

The greatest risk is getting what you want too quickly. If you are met with early success, in your studies, in your career, in relationships, you have no cause to question what you are doing. The established path – finish your studies, earn money to care for yourself and loved ones, and strive to be a person worthy of love and respect – exists for a reason, and you do not better yourself by being contrarian for the sake of it. But nor should you blindly accept the fare put in front of you. Taste what is on offer, and decide for yourself which parts are to your liking.

Know that what you consume daily will become your habit, and left unobserved your habit will become your vice. Many take pleasure not only in the vice itself, but in surrendering to the vice. For surrendering means you have made your decision and no longer need to think about what you want, but only to pursue it. And because thinking for oneself is the hardest thing, it is no surprise that so many wish to be done with it as soon as possible.

But to give in to wants because it is easy is to expose yourself to a life of hardship. If losing access to a vice will make you sad or mad, you are mad not to cut it from your life. I say excise the want, not the thing. You can still enjoy all that you eat and drink and have, so long as you will not miss them when you do not have them. Always observe what you are doing, and ensure that you are doing it of your own choosing. In this way, your habits become the summary of your prior deep thinking, and not evidence of your absence of thought.

Be well.

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