You must focus your reading time

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My default reading strategy is to peruse multiple online news aggregators, blogs and social media sites. I’m going to change that after reading what Seneca says. He was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman and dramatist. He is known for his letters of instruction to Lucilius, procurator of Sicily.

In the second letter“On Discursiveness in Reading,” he urges Lucilius to focus his reading.

Be careful, however, lest this reading of many authors and books of every sort may tend to make you discursive and unsteady. You must linger among a limited number of master-thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind. Everywhere means nowhere.

When a person spends all his time in foreign travel, he ends by having many acquaintances, but no friends. And the same thing must hold true of men who seek intimate acquaintance with no single author, but visit them all in a hasty and hurried manner.

Accordingly, since you cannot read all the books which you may possess, it is enough to possess only as many books as you can read. So you should always read standard authors; and when you crave a change, fall back upon those whom you read before.

And then this instruction:

Each day acquire something that will fortify you against poverty, against death, indeed against other misfortunes as well; and after you have run over many thoughts, select one to be thoroughly digested that day.

Pause to select one thing to carry through the day.

~ Elfdalian

How many guests should you invite?

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Do you want serious conversation? Stick to four. Just ask Shakespeare.

Researchers who have time on their hands have figured out that four is the right number for chatting. If you invite more, the quality of discourse will decline and the stress level of the participants till increase.

This is all related to the ability to understand that other people do not necessarily know or intend the same things that we ourselves do, Frank McAndrew, a psychology professor, writes. If two people are engaged in conversation, each must understand what his or her partner intends and what each person understands about the other’s state of mind. So the more people you add the harder this juggling gets.

Other researchers with nothing better to do have determined that this is evolutionary.

If there are three people in the conversation, there are three possible pairs, only one of which excludes you. If there are five people, there are 10 possible pairs, and the majority—six—don’t include you, which makes it harder to get your point across.

What if, the researchers argue, there was an evolutionary advantage to not being “outnumbered” in a conversational group? The physical danger of being an isolated outcast is clear: exclusion from society in early human history could easily be a death sentence, and even most observed cases of lethal chimpanzee violence have happened when aggressive groups encounter a lone chimp.

Here’s the Shakespeare angle.

They analyzed the conversations in 10 different plays by William Shakespeare. Scholars have long been aware that conversational patterns in Shakespearean plays accurately reflect the dynamics of real-life social interactions — which is one reason their appeal has endured over time. If this is the case, it would be interesting to find out if Shakespeare applied the “maximum size of a conversation” rule to the characters in his plays. Krems and her colleagues discovered that no conversation in any play they analyzed ever involved more than five characters,

Finally, when inviting people over, remember The Bard’s rule: ““Better a witty fool, than a foolish wit.”

~ Excursus

You don’t want to blend in

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In the fabric of society it’s best to stand out. From The Daily Stoic written by Ryan Holiday:

In a famous exchange, Agrippinus explained why he was spurning an invitation to attend some banquet being put on by Nero. Not only was he spurning it, he said, but he had not even considered associating with such a madman.

A fellow philosopher, the one who had felt inclined to attend, asked for an explanation. Agrippinus responded with an interesting analogy. He said that most people see themselves like threads in a garment—they see it as their job to match the other threads in color and style. They want to blend in, so the fabric will match. But Agrippinus did not want to blend in. “I want to be the red,” he said, “that small and brilliant portion which causes the rest to appear comely and beautiful…’Be like the majority of people?’ And if I do that, how shall I any longer be the red?” He wanted to be red even if it meant being beheaded or exiled.  Because he felt it was right. Because he wouldn’t be anything other than his true self. 

It’s like Mark Twain’s line: When we find ourselves on the side of the majority, we should pause and reflect. Because it means we might be going along with the mob. We might have turned off our own mind. We might be muting our true colors. Our job as philosophers, as thinkers, as citizens, is not to go along to get along. We are not just another replaceable thread in an otherwise unremarkable garment. Our job is to stand up. To stand out. To speak the truth. To never blend in. 

Tough going in our cancel culture.

~ Excursus