In several of Seneca’s letters he speaks about the power of bloodletting as a medical practice. In one, he actually remarks—with some superiority—how earlier generations had not yet discovered bloodletting and suffered for it. Marcus Aurelius hints at some other medical practices. He speaks of the treatment for ophthalmia—inflammation of the eye—and how doctors treated it with a bit of egg yolk. We also know that his doctor Galen gave Marcus opium for various pains and illnesses in old age.
Needless to say, none of these treatments are accepted or prescribed anymore. It’s interesting that the Stoics, who were so good at extrapolating out from the past, didn’t take a lesson from this—that so much of what we are certain about today will be disproven in the future. That the so-called ‘wisdom’ of the present is often embarrassingly wrong and nothing illustrates this better than medicine. Imagine: We used to take really sick people, cut open their veins and pour their blood out as a form of healing. Do you think it finally occurred to Seneca as he was forced to commit suicide using basically that exact methodology just how absurd the practice was?
The point is (and it’s a point well made in Chuck Klosterman’s book But What If We’re Wrong?) that we should always be questioning the status quo—and majority opinion. Not because it’s always wrong, but because it sometimes is. We should be intellectually humble because science and time have a way of humbling us. So too do history and ethics. Seneca thought he was superior to his fellow Romans because he treated his slaves kindly...a distinction we no longer give much credit for.
Take it as fact that much of what we think we know will be proven wrong. Much of what we think makes us vastly more informed than the generation of our parents will not hold up well by the time our children are our age. Question everything. Don’t be too attached to anything.
It’s all changing. And we are so, so wrong.