It’s early morning at RebelBio, the SOSV biotech accelerator nested in the basement of a futuristic glass tower at Imperial College London. Soon I’ll be given a tour of the facilities by its Associate Director, but in the meantime I’m chilling on a semicircular blue cotton couch in a surprisingly modest atrium. With this welcomed spare time, I turn the last few pages of a legendary series of letters written two millennia ago.
“Letters from a Stoic” by Lucius Annaeus Seneca was introduced to me by @richardrobinson during a Chinaccelerator event in Beijing back when my company, Mobio Interactive (MI) first accepted SOSV’s timely investment. Given how much work MI does in the field of mindfulness, and the link between stoicism and equanimity, I figured I had sufficient motivation to take Richard up on the recommendation.
And I’m grateful for it.
In reading Letters from a Stoic, I feel like I’m getting intimate with one of the strongest champions for both stoic ideas and stoic ideals. It is rumoured that when faced with death, Seneca self-professed that the greatest value he left to his surviving contemporaries and all of us in prosperity, was the very example of his own life.
Strikes one as a little self-important, for sure — but then you remember how calmly Seneca took his own life even when convicted by his former pupil (the emperor of Rome) of a crime for which Seneca was probably innocent.
As tutor and advisor to Nero, as a playwright, as a businessman and as an influential philosopher, Seneca did in fact lead an exemplary life. Plus, as someone exceptionally well educated, we can just about take his word on any topic he discusses.
This brings me to some of the greatest parts of the book. Seneca writes of major historical events and shows us the experiences and beliefs of ancient man, through an ancient voice. Of the grief felt by his friend when the entire city of Lyon burned to ashes, Seneca writes “It is a disaster by which anyone might be shaken, let alone a person quite devoted to his hometown. This event has left [my friend Liberalis] groping for that staunchness of spirit which, naturally enough, he cultivated when it was a case of facing what to him were conceivable fears.”
Seneca writes phrases that appear to demonstrate his awareness of an Earth that is spherical in geometry. “Their way of life, if not their geographical situation, resembles the state of those people whom nature, as Virgil says, has planted beneath our feet at the opposite side of the world.” The spherical nature of Earth even comes across as an accepted banality, just as it would had his judgmental words been written today. (By the way, the “they” referred to in “their way of life” are night owls. Seneca was apparently fonder of those who rose, and slept, early. He called these ghastly night owls, “antipodes”.)
Yet the most intriguing slice of insight into the knowledge of ancient man is when Seneca hints at how our species discovered metallurgy: “when the earth had been scorched by a forest fire and had melted to produce a flow from surface veins of ore.” Imagine a time when the educated person could explain, without admiration, how metallurgy was invented! Seneca cheekily concludes that the invention of metallurgy was not in fact made by a “wise man,” but instead by “the kind of person that makes it his business to be interested in just that sort of thing.” Clearly for Seneca, abstract reasoning and philosophy were more important (because they are more wise) than practical discover or scientific invention. I appreciate reading his point of view precisely because I ardently disagree with it.
Even in philosophy, Seneca reaches far beyond stoicism itself. While illuminating his ancient universe, he treats us to lectures on stoic-independent, and even stoic-contrary, morality. Seneca questions the age of consent (or rather the age at which old people ought to stop sleeping with young people). He questions self-indulgence, pride, cruelty, slavery and, towards the end, he questions men who wear women’s clothing. Personally, I feel that it is precisely because of these extra-stoic aspects, that “Letters from a Stoic” has tremendous value. Despite not-infrequent disagreement with Seneca’s clearly subjectively morality, he has given me a ton to think about.
There’s also something truly extraordinary that is simply inherent to reading a series of letters penned nearly two millennia ago. The very age of these letters makes them more than anything Seneca could have intended. They are indeed much more than a personal take on stoicism, life, love and lust. They are indeed much more than an example of a man’s life. They are a time machine. They provide us with perspective on perspective.
Naturally, though an impressive individual still widely revered, the man Seneca, like us all, was neither infallible nor omniscient. His teachings leave me wanting. He fails to meaningfully explain many of his ideas. Yes, he was wise for his time. But each of us today, with more knowledge at our disposal than Seneca could fathom, have all that is required to most definitely be wiser still, even if it consumes our lifetimes. I for one, find wisdom in everyone I meet.
More than anything, Seneca has helped me with a warning: With “…terrors to be quieted, incitements to be quelled, illusions to be dispelled, extravagances to be checked, greed to be reprimanded: which of these things can be done in a hurry?”.
At MI we are committed to a robust disruption of the healthcare economy. We don’t want the size (or growth) of the healthcare market to change, we just want effective and accessible healthcare to reach an order of magnitude more of us, until it reaches every human.
So might I add to Seneca’s list of that which we are unlikely to accomplish in a hurry: healthcare to be disrupted.