Sunday, August 16, 2015

From Digital Distraction to Stoic Serenity: What can Seneca teach us?

Since my teenage years when I eased my adolescent angst by reading Friedrich Nietzsche, I liked philosophy.  But philosophy came into bad repute because of its jargon.  Some philosophical writing got SO BAD that a “Bad Writing Competition” awarded ‘prizes’ to academic malarkey.  A famous/infamous ‘winner’ was this bizarre sentence from academic philosopher Judith Butler:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Don’t even try to understand it.  When writing gets this ridiculous, there’s a fine line between philosophy and hot air.

It wasn’t always this way.  In ancient times, philosophy was well written and practical, laying out guidelines for living a good, happy life.  So do age-old philosophers have anything to teach us in the Digital Age?  You bet they do.


Bust of Seneca, Stoic Philosopher  
Part of The Double Herm of Socrates and Seneca  
(Image from Wikipedia)  

Here’s an example of ancient wisdom that resonates with me: Roman Stoicism.  Although the word ‘stoic’ nowadays means emotionless or indifferent, it had a different meaning in Classical times.  To be Stoic meant to be virtuous and prudent—you didn’t lack emotions, but you calmly controlled destructive ones by using wise judgment or “Reason.”  (Stoic virtue is similar to what Buddhists call mindfulness.)

Stoic philosophers, then, taught peace of mind by controlling negative emotions such as anger or anxiety.  Consider what we, in the age of social media, may learn from Seneca, an ancient Stoic philosopher.

Anyone on Twitter or Facebook knows that anger and anxiety can easily explode over social media (usually referred to as ‘flaming’).  Some folks (‘flamers’) seem to be searching for something to be offended about so they can write online vitriol, which often screams of trivialities—like the latest insane thing Ted Nugent blurted.  Seneca had many recommendations for controlling anger and anxiety, but a common theme that runs through his letters (to his friend Lucilius) and essays (e.g., “On Anger”) can be summed up thus:


(Image from Amazon)

don’t get distracted by petty things.

Long before the Internet, Seneca felt that people already suffered from information overload, which distracted them from important matters (imagine how he would feel now).  We must filter out irrelevant stuff.  To quote the man himself (from Letter 88, Elaine Fantham’s translation):

Whatever part of human and divine matters you grasp, you will be wearied by a vast abundance of things to be investigated and learned.  In order to give free hospitality to these many and great themes, you must remove superfluous thoughts from your mind.  Therefore, “Measure your life; it cannot contain so many distractions.

Now in the age of abundant, instantaneous information, removing minutia isn’t easy, especially when so much salacious chatter pollutes the web.  Some people love to offend and get offended by viral videos, celebrity gossip, and memes, which just inflate unhealthy egoism.  As Seneca points out (in Letter 48):

We are not harmed by anything that offends us, but self-indulgence drives people to a frenzy, so that anything which does not answer their whim calls forth their rage.

So, Seneca advises, ignore the superfluous.  Instead, concentrate on matters that involve moral self-improvement and perfecting the mind, including virtue and civic knowledge.

(Image from Amazon)

(Image from Amazon)

Two millennia later, Seneca’s message has made a comeback.  The writer William Powers devotes a chapter to Seneca in Hamlet’s Blackberry, which modernizes Seneca’s distraction-avoiding philosophy for the Digital Age.

By eliminating digital distractions and concentrating on virtue, we experience serenity, or what the author William Irvine calls “Stoic Joy” in his accessible book A Guide to the Good Life.  This is how ancient wisdom becomes modern philosophy of technology.

Basically, the message is to get our priorities straight.

Unlike a lot of academic philosophy, Seneca’s wisdom was practical and came from his own experience.  He was not just a teacher, having tutored Emperor Nero (who eventually, and ironically, had him killed).  Seneca was also a statesman who effectively administrated the Roman Empire while Nero was distracted by seductions of excessive wealth.

(For anyone interested in Seneca’s life, I highly recommend Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero, by the historian James Romm—as the title suggests, the details of Seneca’s life are gripping and sometimes gruesome, as life and death in ancient Rome often was.)

(Image from Amazon)

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