In one of his letters, Seneca tells us of an old Roman pleasantry that friends would exchange when greeting each other: “If you are well,” one would say after inquiring how someone was doing, “it is well and I am also well.”
It’s a nice little custom, isn’t it? If you’re good, I’m good, and everything is good. Nothing else matters.
But of course, because this is Seneca, he couldn’t just leave it there. In fact, telling us about this old expression was just a device to make a point. A better way to say it, he writes, is “‘If you are studying philosophy, it is well.’ For this is just what ‘being well’ means. Without philosophy the mind is sickly, and the body, too, though it may be very powerful, is strong only as that of a madman or a lunatic is strong.”
The point is that to the Stoics, the practice and study of philosophy was the only way to make sure all was well, no matter what was happening in the world. At war like Marcus Aurelius? Study philosophy in your tent at night. Unable to submit to Caesar’s tyranny like Cato? Read a little Socrates before your dramatic suicide. Shot down over Vietnam like James Stockdale? Say to yourself, as he did, “I am leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.” As in…even in a POW camp, I can still practice and pursue philosophy…and be well for it!
Nobody knows what the day or the week has in store for us. As much as we take care of ourselves and eat well, so much of our health is outside of our control. But the one way we can make sure that we are always well, that we are always getting better (mentally, spiritually, if not physically) is by the books we read, the questions we ponder, and the conversations we have.
Now get studying!