How to Torture your Dinner Guests

julius caesar marble statue
Not Seneca, but someone who probably knew him.

Somewhere around 40AD, the Roman philosopher Seneca (also tutor to the young Emperor Nero) told the story of Calvisius Sabinus, who though very rich, was lazy mentally and struggled with his memory. The names of Greek and Trojan heroes that should have been on the tip of his tongue were routinely forgotten or butchered. (Imagine a rich American  unable to remember ‘George Washington’ or ‘Benjamin Franklin.’) What should be the remedy? Buckle down and learn the names. Create a stack of flash cards and review them every day. Create a little song to the tune of Three Blind Mice or something to help do the hard work of memorizing.

But what did he do instead? Seneca tells the story.

“This did not stop him wanting to appear a well-read man. And to this end he thought up the following short cut: he spent an enormous amount of money on slaves, one of them to know Homer by heart, another to know Hesiod, while he assigned one piece to each of the nine lyric poets. That the cost was enormous is hardly surprising… After this collection of slaves had been procured for him, he began to give his dinner guests nightmares. He would have these fellows at his elbow so that he could continually be turning to them for quotations from these poets which he might repeat to the company, and then – it happened frequently – he would break down halfway through a word….”

Ok this is just weird. It’s like a guy reading quotes off his phone from Wikipedia all throughout a meal. Maybe once or twice is interesting, but then it gets annoying. But Seneca explains the worst part: “Sabinus was none the less quite convinced that what anyone in his household knew, he knew personally.”

When one of his friends started urging Sabinus, who was pale and skinny and whose health was poor, to take up wrestling, Sabinus retorted, “How can I possibly do that? It’s as much as I can do to stay alive.” Statellius answered, “Now please, don’t say that! Look how many slaves you’ve got in perfect physical condition!”

Seneca concluded, “A sound mind can neither be bought nor borrowed.”

It can be bought no more than a fit body can. It’s only through hard work that one actually shapes one’s own mind or body. There are no shortcuts. There might be tips or tools or tricks that can help the process, but there is no way to outsource the work of your own mind and body. Neither Wikipedia, google assistant, Siri, or Slavepedia will make you more smarter.

Why is this important? Because the goal is not the accumulation of knowledge. Or the goal is not six-pack abs. Both of those are the results or byproduct of the goal – or of the process. If the goal is to simply ‘appear as one well read’ as with Sabinus, then you’ll never get the real results. Appearances won’t hold up over time. They are a façade that can bear no actual load.

I’ve fallen into this trap at times. I’ve read books to be able to say that I’ve read them. To appear well read. And I read them so fast that I barely even remembered the title, let alone any of the content. So yes, I ‘read’ them, but what was the gain? To impress someone? Yet if the very person I sought to impress would have pressed me at all on the contents of the book, I would have been exposed.

The goal is not the appearance of knowledge, but the shaping of character – developing the inner person. That’s why there’s no substitute for memorizing Scripture. Sure, I can have my Bible with me at all times on my phone, but the goal is not a quick reference, but the shaping of my heart and soul – the ‘etching’ of my character. The word ‘character’ comes from the Greek word that means ‘to etch or mark’ – like cutting into a stone tablet or create a likeness of the emperor on a coin. Etching your character is slowly leaving its mark on your mind, soul, and character.

Seneca says it this way: “A good character is the only guarantee of everlasting, carefree happiness. Even if some obstacle to this comes on the scene, its appearance is only to be compared to that of clouds which drift in front of the sun without ever defeating its light.”

He says, “If you want to be successful [in the shaping of character] you must devote all your waking hours and all your efforts to the task personally. This is not something that admits of delegation.” (and thus the madness of the Sabinus story).

Seneca’s main point is that you can never run from the person you are. You are always with you. Traveling the world won’t help. And gathering smart or fit people around you won’t solve the issue. You must develop your own soul. “How can you wonder your travels do you no good, when you carry yourself around with you? You are saddled with the very thing that drove you away.” “A change of character, not a change of air, is what you need.”

Of course, surrounding yourself with people you want to be like can help shape your character, and traveling inspiring places can shape your character, but these are no replacement for the hard work of the soul.

So instead of rushing to Google for an answer at every inclination, sit with the unknown for a minute. Let your mind struggle with the idea for a while. Let it work in your soul – and be ok with the unknown. It’s this very struggle to acquire real knowledge that shapes the character and the soul. The answer quickly gained is lost just as quickly. It’s the struggle that shapes the character.


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