Seneca the Younger was a philosopher.
Seneca the Younger was incredibly rich.
It seems that the two statements cannot co-exist. Philosophers are supposed to be disdainful of wealth—ascetic even—and aware of its adverse effect on the serenity of a mind and the goodness of a person’s character. Nassim Taleb has a different idea. He says that a man can be wealthy and be a philosopher. In Antifragile, whilst discussing this apparent contradiction in the life of Seneca the Younger, he describes how it can be done: the adoption of “aggressive Stoicism”, which can be translated into the following directive:
Use it if it’s there; don’t miss it if it’s not.
The “it” in this directive can be wealth, comfort, stability, connections, authority, whatever. But let’s stick with wealth. Imagine I’m a poor philosopher with no wealth to my name and minimal material possessions. By the whim of Fortune, I inherit an eight-figure sum. I am now rich, but I wish to stay a philosopher. What do I do? Do I become a proliferate spender, throwing an endless succession of parties and buying useless things that I don’t need? Do I ignore my newfound wealth entirely? Do I disdain it, giving it away without thought or meditation? No, no and no. I use it to further my ends, but do not become dependent on it. I keep in mind that whilst I have it I can leverage it to accomplish certain things, but if or when it goes, I steel myself to not miss it. Ultimately, to be an “aggressive Stoic” is to divorce my wellbeing from external circumstance. If I’m poor, I’ll be happy and do as my means allow. If I’m rich, I’ll be happy and do as my means allow.
This is what Nassim Taleb derived from the life of Seneca the Younger, and what many—myself included—have derived from the work of Taleb. But what is not covered by Seneca or by Taleb is how this idea of “aggressive Stoicism” applies to social media use.
Twitter, Facebook, Instagram et al. are, like wealth, great for certain things, but hazardous in their own special ways. I was of the opinion that serenity, creativity and insight were incompatible with constant connectivity to these services. My stance regarding these things mimicked certain people’s approach to philosophy and wealth; they cannot co-exist. I no longer think that.
Now, I’ve realised that it’s possible to approach social media the way a pragmatic philosopher would approach wealth; use it, but do not come to depend on it. Such a stance goes beyond the false dichotomies of “Social media is amazing!” and “Social media is evil!” These services exist and will continue to exist for a long time, so use them, but don’t become attached. Example: Twitter is a great way for me to find interesting people and expose myself to a diverse array of ideas and perspectives. It can also be a source of nourishing relationships. So that is what I use it for, nothing else. And if it shut down, if I couldn’t use it? I know I’d be okay. The same goes for Facebook. I use it for certain things, but nothing more, and I know I’d be okay if I never got to witness its news feed again.