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.”
“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.