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Seneca on Social Media

March 11th, 2016 · 22 comments


Seneca on the Myth of Free

In Letter 42 of his Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, Seneca touches on the hidden costs of seemingly “free” pursuits. In doing so, he offers to his correspondent — Lucilius, the procurator of Sicily — a warning that resonates strongly today:

Our stupidity may be clearly proved by the fact that we hold that “buying” refers only to the objects for which we pay cash, and we regard as free gifts the things for which we spend our very selves.

These we should refuse to buy, if we were compelled to give in payment for them our houses or some attractive and profitable estate; but we are eager to attain them at the cost of anxiety, of danger, and of lost honour, personal freedom, and time; so true it is that each man regards nothing as cheaper than himself.

(– From Letter 42, Paragraph 7 of the Richard Gummere translation)

Over a billion people currently use Facebook — many at the cost of anxiety, lost honor, personal freedom, and certainly time. If asked why, however, many would reply, “why not?”

The service is free, conventional wisdom tells us, so no matter how minor the benefits (which tend to orbit around a generalized fear of missing out), they’re still more substantial than the cost.

But as Seneca points out, this assessment is misguided because it ignores the human toll of social media.

Unless we find value in our personhood, our attention autonomy, and our potential for real connection and creation, we’ll continue to be pushed around by media companies who convince us to throw this all away for trinkets.

(For a concrete alternative to this state of affairs, see Rule #3 from Deep Work, which details an approach to tool selection which forces you to consider the role of a new digital service in the full picture of a life well-lived before it can claim your time and attention.)

Until then, it seems, as Seneca warned Lucilius: each man truly does regard nothing as cheaper than himself.

(Hat tip: Steve A., who sent this to me, and Tim Ferriss, who [likely] brought this quote to Steve’s attention / photo source)

22 thoughts on “Seneca on Social Media

  1. Jeffrey says:

    I recently heard this letter read on Tim Ferriss’ podcast and thought it relevant to your work. I love the way he relates the idea that we only value things that cost money and not things that cost time. And, ultimately, time is the only truly limited resource.

    I almost sent the link to you then. Here it is now:

  2. Moin Rahman says:

    Excellent! Thanks.

  3. Dave Small says:

    Cal: Excellent excerpt from Seneca and worth “buying” this lesson by spending time reflecting on his insightful words.

    Also, I enjoyed your latest book Deep Work. Thanks for the great post and book.

  4. Elaine says:

    Also really enjoyed Deep Work. It sets out an thoughtful program to maximize the chances of engaging in DW, without leaving it to, well, chance. The insight of scheduling times for distraction rather than times for focus is very helpful.

  5. Angela says:

    I’m coming across you more and more at the moment and yes I get the tim feriss emails too. I also came across a guy called thomas frank on youtube and he has some interesting ideas too.

  6. Ryan says:

    “It is useful to remember that a lot of the apps and tools and services and products that we use and that have been wonderful in many ways for our sense of connection and so on, are also designed to be very addictive because those free apps and services are operating on an attention economy, so the profit is made out of monetising human attention. And so in order to get a lot of human attention you have to make services that are very addictive so that people will spend lots of their time on those services…

    And I just see a lot of people who maybe aren’t so conscious of the value of their own attention, really how precious that is, and really that our attention is the same thing as our life. I mean, what we choose to pay attention to from moment to moment is our life, that is life. And so to give away attention is to give away life, and that struck me as kind of tragic, in a way, but also full of potential because at any moment there is the potential for each of us to reclaim that attention and to redirect it towards something that we find more nourishing.”

    – Jonathan Harris, on Future Tense, ABC Australia Radio National

  7. ZenBen says:


    It was Silvia’s book “How to Write a Lot” that got me started on the road to more productivity, but your book “Deep Work” was the Gladwellian-style message that hammered the lesson home. Now I am producing about 5X more publications than before and the most of anyone in my organization. Never felt like writing you until the Seneca quote, though. Powerful stuff.

  8. Brian J. says:

    “And furthermore, remember that you have come to see a cobbler, a vegetable-dealer, a man who has authority over nothing great or important, even if he sell it for a high price. You are going, as it were, for heads of lettuce; they are worth an obol [a small amount of money], not a talent [a sizable amount of money]. So it is in our life also.”
    —Epictetus, Discourses, III.48

  9. Aaron says:

    Pardon me, this is not a comment on the Seneca post. However, I decided to reread Aesop’s Fables to my daughters. We speak Spanish and the first fable that I came across was this one;

    One day a Jackdaw saw an Eagle swoop down on a lamb and carry it off in its talons. “My word,” said the Jackdaw, “I’ll do that myself.” So it flew high up into the air, and then came shooting down with a great whirring of wings on to the back of a big ram. It had no sooner alighted than its claws got caught fast in the wool, and nothing it could do was of any use: there it stuck, flapping away, and only making things worse instead of better. By and by up came the Shepherd. “Oho,” he said, “so that’s what you’d be doing, is it?” And he took the Jackdaw, and clipped its wings and carried it home to his children. It looked so odd that they didn’t know what to make of it. “What sort of bird is it, father?” they asked. “It’s a Jackdaw,” he replied, “and nothing but a Jackdaw: but it wants to be taken for an Eagle.”
    If you attempt what is beyond your power, your trouble will be wasted and you court not only misfortune but ridicule.

    It reminded me of Chapter 9 The First Control Trap in “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” and the illustrations used therein.

    All the best,


  10. John says:

    Does anybody know or have an example of what Seneca was talking about in his day? I imagine that facebook and twitter weren’t on his radar yet.

    1. Tom Mackey says:

      Having read all of Seneca’s letters, he is to me the most modern of writers. He was a very rich man and powerful. His Rome is similar to our world – demagogues and all. Life was full of the extraneous.

  11. João Coelho Garcia says:

    Regarding the disconnection between price and value, another interesting perspective is expressed in “The School of Life”‘s recent video available here:

  12. Tom Mackey says:

    i have had an interesting experience with social media. While I was working as a VP of Sales of various software companies I was all over the ESPN site to which I added Twitter and Instagram (but not Facebook). Upon an attempt at retiring I dropped Twitter and Instagram and barely touched ESPN. My time seemed too valuable to waste.

    Now that I am consulting I have not gone back to social media and feel free to do … Deep Work! Love the book.

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  14. Darya says:

    One day I thought to myself – exams are coming up, I should really delete my social media. Right away, this deep feeling of loss and fear came over me and I suddenly realized how difficult the process would be; especially not being able to go on with my daily routine without checking in on various platforms of the many social media accounts in which I was currently enrolled.

    This turned out to be a personal challenge, and long story short – everything is deleted and the amount of freedom that flows through me on a daily basis, I could not be happier! The true cost….so obvious yet so ambiguous.

  15. Sz.Zs. says:

    I really like how people are rediscovering stoic philosophy nowadays. You would think, for example, that life-long learning is a new idea, but no: consider Cato the Younger, who, on becoming questor, studied rigorously what it meant to be a questor, and did the same when he became praetor and so on (his studying is emphasized in ancient sources, because, well, most people saw the magistratus as a quick way of getting rich, not bothering being the best if they got the money anyway). Instead of letting things happen, they actually had a strong sense of purpose, and a sense of duty as well. But this is not why I am writing this comment. In your new book, Cal, you write about the necessity of dividing the day into work and everything else that’s not work. I have just come across something like this in Seneca’s essay “On Tranquillity of Mind”. It goes as follows:

    “[A]mong great men, as I have remarked, some used to set aside fixed days every month for a holiday, some divided every day into play-time and work-time. Asinius Pollio, the great orator, I remember, had such a rule, and never worked at anything beyond the tenth hour; he would not even read letters after that hour for fear something new might arise that needed attention, but in those two hours laid aside the weariness of the whole long day. Some break off in the middle of the day, and reserve some task that requires lighter effort for the afternoon hours. Our ancestors, too forbade any new motion to be made in the senate after the tenth hour. The soldier divides his watches, and those who have just returned from an expedition have the whole night free.”

    Well, they got it right there. You make the same point: no thinking about work outside of work. And the whole essay is about how to be the best that you can be, just like all the things that Seneca wrote. I love how your ideas really update these stoic writings for us, moderns.

  16. Geraldine says:

    I deleted my FB account, same with Google+ (never even asked to be a member there, just suddenly discovered I was), never was connected to Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and all this other crap. There are studies showing that people feel significantly worse after having used FB, because they compare their life with the glitter fake-life displayed by their ‘friends’, hence, FB promotes unhappiness.
    But I think there are a lot more reasons than personal ones to quit FB. One is their ouright immoral business model, people not only pay with their time, they pay with their privacy. Often being quite unaware what this really entails But the straw that broke the camel’s back for me is that FB uses all tricks in the book to ‘legally’ avoid to pay taxes. Most of their profits end on the Cayman Islands, hence, in f.ex. the UK FB pays less corporate tax than an average employee pays in income tax.

  17. Zach says:

    “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” Henry David Thoreau

  18. gauthma says:

    I though this post might appropriate to also mention Chomsky’s thoughts on facebook, and social media more generally (see the next two minutes):

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