Wisdom comes haphazard to no man

Every now and then I come across interesting content that helps inform my approach to business. The following article was written by Ryan Holiday and arrived in my inbox via his daily newsletter based upon the thinking and writing of The Stoics. It contains some great thoughts about the value of taking a lifelong approach to learning. RM


Late in his reign, a friend stopped Marcus Aurelius as he was leaving the palace, carrying a stack of books. Finding this to be a surprising sight, the man asked where Marcus was going. He was off to attend a lecture on Stoicism, he said, for “learning is a good thing, even for one who is growing old. From Sextus the philosopher I shall learn what I do not yet know.”

That’s right, even as the most powerful man in the world, Marcus was still taking up his books and heading to class. In fact, Sextus was only one of his philosophy teachers. In Book 1 of Meditations, he lists the names and what he learned from six others, including one from a rival school and another, Rusticus, who Marcus thanks specifically “for introducing me to Epictetus’s lectures—and loaning me his own copy.”

You cannot find a Stoic who did not also treat their study of philosophy with this kind of lifelong seriousness. Zeno washed up in Athens and began studying under Crates, a well-known Athenian philosopher. Then, Cleanthes studied under Zeno, for decades. Cato was famous for his philosophical dinners, where invited the smartest and wisest minds of the ancient world to discuss the big philosophical questions he was struggling with. Even his last meal—before his famous suicide—he was debating the very implications of life and death, good and bad, with such teachers. Epictetus was taught philosophy by Musonius Rufus before becoming a teacher himself, of both the emperor Hadrian (directly) and Marcus Aurelius (indirectly).

Part of being a philosopher is being a lifelong learner. School is never out for summer or spring or winter break. You can never be too old or too good at what you do. No, school is for life. And life is school. Learning is a daily thing, wisdom an endless pursuit. You never arrive, you never fill up, you never graduate. Because the world is always revealing new lessons…even in the oldest texts.

Therefore, Seneca said, there is no one more foolish than one who stops learning. Even if you are one of the best at what you do, Seneca writes, “you should keep learning…to the end of your life.” He then points out one of the great things about learning—something that is overlooked. Wisdom is one of the few certainties in life in the sense that it is one of the few areas of growth we have control of. Money, titles, influence, authority, admiration — these are great but for the most part, they’re out of our control. But wisdom, learning, studying, Seneca says, do not fall upon us by chance. “‘How much progress shall I make?’ you ask. Just as much as you try to make. Why do you wait? Wisdom comes haphazard to no man.”

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