What Kind of Student Are You?
In my many hours spent reading letters by the Stoic Philosopher Seneca I have come to appreciate his many marvelous rants. When it comes to long, detailed, and passionate rants about people, not many come close to those written by Seneca.
One of my all time favorite passages by Seneca is one where he exposes the ways of fake students. In this short post I would like to show you this passage by Seneca and then encourage yourself to ask some hard questions about the kind of student that you are.
Seneca starts by talking about the people who visit philosophers and teachers as a sort of past time, not for any real educational or spiritual benefit. He writes the following:
“Some come not to learn but just to hear him (philosopher, teacher), in the same way as we’re drawn to a theater, for the sake of entertainment, to treat our ears to a play, or music, or an address. You’ll find that a large proportion of the philosopher’s audience is made up of this element, which regards his lecture-hall as a place of lodging for periods of leisure. They’re not concerned to rid themselves of any faults there, or acquire any rule of life by which to test their characters, but simply to enjoy to the full the pleasures the ear has to offer. Admittedly some of them actually come with notebooks, but with a view to recording not the content of the lecture, but the words from it - to be passed onto others with the same lack of profit to the hearer as they themselves derived from hearing them. Some of them are stirred by the noble sentiments they hear; their faces and spirits light up and they enter into the emotions of the speaker, going into a transport just like the eunuch priests who work themselves into a frenzy, to order, at the sound of a Phrygian flute. They are captivated and aroused not by a din of empty words, but by the splendor of the actual content of the speaker’s words - any expression of bold or spirited defiance of death or fortune making you keen to translate what you've heard into action straight away. They are deeply affected by the worlds and become the persons they are told to be - or would if the impression on their minds were to last, if this magnificent enthusiasm were not immediately intercepted by that discourager of noble conduct, the crowd: very few succeed in getting home in the same frame of mind. It is easy enough to arouse in a listener a desire for what is honorable; for in every one of us nature has laid the foundations or sowed the seeds of the virtues.”
When I look back at my time in university studying music I can definitely relate to what Seneca is saying in this rant. I think of my time in class, and I can see that many times I was there for mere entertainment, or for the wilting away of my time. If I had known what I know now I would have taken those classes far more seriously. We all know people like that; those men and women who parade themselves as serious students when they are in fact mere audience members. These people cannot expect to derive any lasting change or benefit out of the books they read, teachers they listen to, or lectures they attend, for they are not real students, and their only aim is to create an illusion of being learned.
Think about the time that you have spent learning in your life, and try to question whether you have been a serious or a fake student. Can you relate to any of the characteristics or actions that Seneca describes? I would encourage you to start, if you haven't already, to take your own self-education very seriously. Mediocrity aims itself at the lives of those people who cannot commit to serious study and inner change. Anyone who wishes to rise to the good life must first become disciplined in the art of being a student, and, as we can learn from Senecas passage, it is not enough to simply attend lectures or read books. A student must be consistent in his efforts to attend to learning, and he must have the ability to take noble teachings and immediately apply them into his life. Without the ability to become what we learn about or to rid ourselves of unfavorable characteristics in light of new teachings we can only ever hope to stay the same and never take anything of value from what we read, listen to, or watch.
Seneca also places a high importance on our need to carry the same excitement that we feel while learning into the real world with us. Too often we are stirred to great passion when we read or listen to great teachers, only to find that this passion soon subsides, just as the skin always returns to its original tone a few weeks after the body has received a tan. The only way to keep the tan is to constantly expose ones body to the sun, and so it is with learning; we must return often to the authors, philosophers and teachers who left the greatest impression on us. The way to remain relevant in our dedication to philosophy and learning is to be consistent in our approach.
So whenever you are endeavoring to learn or grow yourself it would be my suggestion that you look deeply on your efforts and honestly question if you are being a serious student - a student worthy of the results that you wish to see. If you are not really intending to learn and grow then you must now ask yourself this; is it the approval of the crowd that you're looking for, or is it the approval of yourself? Those who appear to be learning may achieve the former, but those who actually do learn and grow will approve of their own efforts, and that is what we call true peace of mind.