Seneca poses a funny hypothetical. If you stopped the average successful, wealthy Roman patriarch as he left his home in the morning and asked him, “Where are you going? What are you doing today?” Their answer would be something like, “I don’t know…stuff.”
They knew they were supposed to be doing things and saw their peerings running around doing things, so they followed suit. They just did what they felt like they were supposed to be doing. This sort of unthinking activity, Seneca says, is essentially a form of “busy idleness.” It is of no purpose whatsoever.
Marcus Aurelius admonished himself similarly. “Get used to winnowing your thoughts,” he said, “so that when someone asked you what you were thinking, you could answer straightforwardly.” If you can’t do this, it means you’re just thinking for the sake of thinking, you’re not being purposeful or disciplined.
This is a good test for us today as we run around busy and preoccupied by our thoughts. If someone asked us, “What are you doing? What are you thinking about?” would we have a good answer? If not, we’ve got some cleaning and refining to do. We should know why we’re busy, we should know what we’re thinking about. If we don’t…well, why the hell are we doing it?
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