Explore a better way to work – one that promises more calm, clarity, and creativity.

Pliny the Younger on Happy and Honorable Seclusion

A reader recently pointed me toward an intriguing letter, reproduced a few weeks ago in the always-impressive Areopagus newsletter, that was originally sent from Pliny the Younger to his friend Minicius Fundanus around 100 AD. Among other topics, the letter touches on the difficulty of completing meaningful work in a distracted world.

As Pliny writes:

“I always realize [that city life is distracting] when I am at Laurentum, reading and writing and finding time to take the exercise which keeps my mind fit for work. There is nothing there for me to say or hear which I would afterwards regret, no one disturbs me with malicious gossip, and I have no one to blame — except myself — when writing doesn’t come easily. Hopes and fears do not worry me, and my time is not wasted in idle talk; I share my thoughts with no one but my books. It is a good life and a genuine one, a seclusion which is happy and honorable, more rewarding than any “business” can ever be. The sea and shore are my private Helicon, an endless source of inspiration.”
Pliny’s advice led me to do some more digging on what exactly he meant when he quipped: “when I am at Laurentum.” It turns out that Pliny maintained a rambling villa on the sea, southwest of Rome. According to an article I found, written by a British architect, Pliny’s property had been specifically configured to support focus:
“Away from the main body of the Villa, but connected to it by means of a covered arcade, is Pliny’s Retreat – a place where he can write in peace away from all distractions…I’ve shown the Retreat as a circular room with arms making the shape of a Greek cross. Pliny could then position himself wherever he liked to catch the light and the view from sunrise to sunset as he wrote.  He valued writing above everything else to him it was the most important part of the Villa.”

We shouldn’t, of course, be too literal in extracting practical advice from the life of Pliny the Younger. As a member of a lower aristocratic order in Classical Antiquity, Pliny’s life, in its details, is far different than, say, the standard middle-class twenty-first century knowledge worker. In other words, me telling you to build an outbuilding modeled after the Greek cross away from the main structures of your seaside villa might not evince appreciation.

But I did find it fascinating that even as far back as two thousand years ago, those who made a living with their mind (Pliny was a magistrate and lawyer) struggled with distraction, and found solace in the pursuit of something deeper.


In other news…

In the most recent episode of my podcast, Deep Questions, I tackle the tension between ambition and burnout, describing a model for pursuing the former while avoiding the latter.

YouTube superstar (and former doctor) Ali Abdaal also released an interview with me in which we discussed the challenges of leaving a well-worn path to pursue something new.

10 thoughts on “Pliny the Younger on Happy and Honorable Seclusion”

  1. Environment is huge being surrounded by people who are working will make you so much less likely to doze off and lay down to watch Netflix. On the other hand, expecting perfect conditions is not ideal its very rare so just start get a crappy job of your work done. Then go back to your work and iterate the quick job you did earlier and you will have new insights to finish it. Lastly make a commitment to the work you want to pursue via public accountability aka a coach,friends,etc. You have the tools now time to GO! woop woop!

  2. I sense new ideas brewing in your notebooks! Maybe something that deepens this Deep Life framework around which Deep Work and Digital Minimalism are organised?

    Also, do you plan to launch Deep Work 2.0 someday, with additional Rules, or a third “Practices” section? Your podcast questions and responses could inform what goes into it.

  3. Ali Abdaal was a med student. He never was a doctor. All his life he was just selling his youtube courses and “lifehacks”.

    • In one of his videos, he said he worked in a hospital full-time, then moved to work part-time to pursue YouTube. He may not have become a fully qualified GP/physician, gynecologist, or other specialty, but I’m almost certain he graduated with a degree in medicine (the UK equivalent of graduating med school).

    • Perhaps you haven’t really watched most of Ali’s early videos before he contemplated whether to go to the USA for residency, also his mentions about his part time as a doctor. He put it succinctly though in his recent podcast with Cal about such exact comments you made. It doesn’t seem like a life hack when he has impacted peoples lives at such a scale using YouTube.


Leave a Comment