One thing I appreciate about Seneca is how timely his words are, even today. I’ve been contemplating the negative effects of hanging out on the internet, especially the “noisy rooms” of Twitter and Reddit, and I ran across Seneca’s letter to Lucilius where he talks about the dangers of crowds.
Do you ask me what you should regard as especially to be avoided? I say, crowds; for as yet you cannot trust yourself to them with safety. I shall admit my own weakness, at any rate; for I never bring back home the same character that I took abroad with me. Something of that which I have forced to be calm within me is disturbed; some of the foes that I have routed return again. Just as the sick man, who has been weak for a long time, is in such a condition that he cannot be taken out of the house without suffering a relapse, so we ourselves are affected when our souls are recovering from a lingering disease.
To consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith. Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger.
And as I was thinking about the way various players seem to take joy in trashing one another online, I read this section of that same letter:
By chance I attended a mid-day exhibition, expecting some fun, wit, and relaxation, – an exhibition at which men’s eyes have respite from the slaughter of their fellow-men. But it was quite the reverse. The previous combats were the essence of compassion; but now all the trifling is put aside and it is pure murder. The men have no defensive armor. They are exposed to blows at all points, and no one ever strikes in vain.
In the morning they throw men to the lions and the bears; at noon, they throw them to the spectators. The spectators demand that the slayer shall face the man who is to slay him in his turn; and they always reserve the latest conqueror for another butchering. The outcome of every fight is death, and the means are fire and sword. This sort of thing goes on while the arena is empty.
You may retort: “But he was a highway robber; he killed a man!” And what of it? Granted that, as a murderer, he deserved this punishment, what crime have you committed, poor fellow, that you should deserve to sit and see this show?
(emphasis mine – text is shortened for brevity)
While it’s true that Twitter is not a show of physical violence in the same way that the Coliseum games were, when I read Seneca’s words on the danger of crowds and eager, violence-craving mobs, I can’t help but draw a parallel between the Coliseum of old and the psychological blood-sport happening online.
What then do you think the effect will be on character, when the world at large assaults it! You must either imitate or loathe the world. But both courses are to be avoided; you should not copy the bad simply because they are many, nor should you hate the many because they are unlike you. Withdraw into yourself, as far as you can. Associate with those who will make a better man of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; for men learn while they teach.
Good stuff, right? You can peruse Seneca’s letters at this link, and if you’re interested in picking up a physical copy, I like the Campbell translation from Penguin Classics in Hardcover. It’s not too big and it rests lightly in the hand.
I looked at the inch of snow that dappled the sagebrush. It looked like a Morse code of white dots and dashes leading down the road. If I could read the message, would it tell me the story I wanted to hear?
The story gets a little boggy in the middle, but Johnson’s descriptive powers make me envious. Yes, I’m taking notes. 🙂