Farnam Street helps you make better decisions, innovate, and avoid stupidity.

With over 400,000 monthly readers and more than 93,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.

Seneca on Letting the Eminent Dead Guide You

“One who can so revere another, will soon himself be worthy of reverence.”
— Seneca


There’s a core part of Charlie Munger’s operating system for life that we adhere to: Learn deeply from the eminent dead. Bathe in the wisdom of great people who lived before you. He calls it a form of love:

A second idea that I got very early was that there is no love that’s so right as admiration-based love, and that love should include the instructive dead. Somehow, I got that idea and I lived with it all my life; and it’s been very, very useful to me.

Munger has commented that he’ll frequently be in a room with live people while mentally conversing with the dead. While you might not want to pick up on that particular habit unless you’re a 90 year old billionaire (and perhaps not even then), the point still stands.

This advice is, of course, not new. Munger echoes the Stoic philosopher Seneca, who echoes Epicurus in recommending his pupil Lucilius learn from the best as well, except Seneca takes it a step further. In his classic Letters Seneca instructs Lucilius not only to study the greats, but to keep them in front of him at all times, as a way to strengthen his nature. To let the eminent dead watch over his actions.

Cherish some man of high character, and keep him ever before your eyes, living as if he were watching you, and ordering all your actions as if he beheld them.” Such, my dear Lucilius, is the counsel of Epicurus; he has quite properly given us a guardian and an attendant. We can get rid of most sins, if we have a witness who stands near us when we are likely to go wrong. The soul should have someone whom it can respect, – one by whose authority it may make even its inner shrine more hallowed. Happy is the man who can make others better, not merely when he is in their company, but even when he is in their thoughts! And happy also is he who can so revere a man as to calm and regulate himself by calling him to mind! One who can so revere another, will soon be himself worthy of reverence.

Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.

Munger himself seems to have done this very thing with Ben Franklin, using him as a model of honesty, thriftiness, self-improvement, business savvy, and wit. Heck, the book of his speeches was titled Poor Charlie’s Almanack, in homage to Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack.

One might ask what use there is living in the shadow of others: Why not forge your own path? We can use a bit of simple algebra to solve this one. If (A) is [Direct life experience] and (B) is [Learning through the experience of others], and both have a positive value, then is A+B not greater than A alone? How could it be otherwise?

Seneca address this well in the same letter to Lucilius:

“Epicurus,” you reply, “uttered these words; what are you doing with another’s property?” Any truth, I maintain, is my own property. I shall continue to heap quotations from Epicurus upon you, so that all persons who swear by the words of another, and put a value upon the speaker and not upon the thing spoken, may understand that the best ideas are common property.

His final words echo our mantra: Don’t be ashamed to pay heed to the best of what other people have already figured out. We don’t need to think up all the wisdom of the world ourselves. Master the best of what the world has figured out.

Still Interested? Check out the mental models approach, or check out some of our posts on Seneca.