Seneca had a word for men who were consumed with the chase after worldly riches and pleasures to the exclusion of everything else. He called them occupati, the past participle of the verb occupare. They were so busy in this obsessive, single-minded pursuit of the phantoms of prosperity that they never properly set aside time for themselves. The word occupati means engrossed, preoccupied, or obsessed. And I think this word is a fitting description.
We all know people like this. They think they have the world all figured out. That is, until they’re lying on a hospital bed from a heart attack. They spend all their time amassing wealth, without any thought of how they might enjoy it. The higher they climb on the social or economic ladder, the more furious the pursuit of wealth and pleasure becomes, until they are teetering on the top of the totem pole. And then comes the fall: which it always does. And the higher the height, the greater the fall. Marilyn Monroe–a far more astute observer of human behavior than is generally believed–once said, “gravity catches up with all of us.” It does.
It usually does no good trying to explain things to The Engrossed. They will smile their little Cheshire-cat smiles at you, smug in the knowledge that it is you who is deluded. Philosophy, they think, is a waste of time. All that matters is to accumulate as many things as one can, and that is all. Everything else is just conversation. And when I hear this sort of talk, I do not respond. Because I know that the world will teach them far more effectively than I can.
It goes without saying that The Engrossed do not understand the concept of time. Time has three divisions: past, present, and future. All of them have their purposes. The Engrossed do not read many books, and for this reason they have little sense of history. And having no knowledge of the past is like walking through life with a blindfold on. One gets no sense of the real depth of things, or how things in the world interrelate to each other. The present is in many ways nothing except the past rolled up into one large bundle that we carry about on our backs. Sometimes you have to stop and see what your knapsack holds.
Our sense of mortality forces us to confront these truths. The eighteenth-century traveler Constantin François de Volney, who had ruminated over many a ruin of vanished empires in the Middle East, understood well the tomb’s power to mock our mortal pretensions. In his philosophical classic Meditations on the Revolutions of Empires, he warns us (in American president Thomas Jefferson’s translation):
O Tombs! What virtues are yours!…You punish the powerful oppressor; you wrest from avarice and extortion their ill-gotten gold, and you avenge the feeble whom they have despoiled; you compensate the miseries of the poor by the anxieties of the rich…
Aware that all must return to you, the wise man loadeth not himself with the burdens of grandeur and of useless wealth; he restrains his desires within the bounds of justice; yet, knowing that he must run his destined course of life, he fills with employment all its hours, and enjoys the comforts that fortune has allotted him…You free the soul from the fatiguing conflict of the passions…
You thus impose on the impetuous sallies of cupidity a salutary rein!
So the first step in extricating yourself from the ranks of The Engrossed is to read. You almost certainly have heard the saying about how we cannot choose our family or our birthplace. This is true. But we can choose what books we read. If we want to be surrounded by good things, we have to read good books. Books are time-machines. They can transport us back across centuries or millenia of experience; we can converse with the greatest minds who ever lived, and take them as our teachers. We can explore the South Seas, the Arctic regions, the steaming Amazonian jungles, and the mysterious waters of the Nile, whose source lies in the deepest heart of Africa. We can stand there, along its turbid shore, and listen to the reeds sway in the wind, as they sigh one into the other.
These great men of the past can teach us both how to live and how to die. We will begin to realize how the most precious commodity is time, and that to squander it in useless pursuits is the height of folly. Wasting away the weekends in idleness then seems more like a crime than it does bad judgment. It is because our time here is so brief that we must make the most of every moment. Associating with clowns or fools does nothing to advance this purpose. We may not be able to choose our family or birthplace, but we can certainly choose our friends in books and in real-life.
My bookshelves are filled with intimate friends, I am proud to say; they are all friends of proven worth. I speak with them often. And I practice the same principle with flesh-and-blood friends. I do not like to waste time with bad people; they do nothing but drain one’s energy and offer nothing in return. The Engrossed only care about themselves and what you can do for their frantic pursuits of ever-receding goals. I can certainly pick my friends arranged on my bookshelves, and I always pick the best. They neither hound nor oppress me with nonsense.
One of the best pieces of advice from the original film Rocky was when Sylvester Stallone tried to counsel a young girl in his neighborhood. She was hanging around a group of kids who were headed nowhere. He told her, Hang around good people, and you’ll do good things. But hang around idiots, and you’ll go nowhere. If you remember, she did not like to hear this advice. The Engrossed only respond to the sound of their desire’s music.
The other way to climb out of the pit of The Engrossed is to have the right sort of job. For me it makes no difference what a man does. The important thing is that his job should provide the means to support himself in a reasonable way, and that it should allow him some leisure. Now when I say leisure, I do not mean leisure to squander oneself in chasing after self-destructive, illusory pleasures; I mean the leisure to spend some time in speculative thought. To be free, a man must be able to think.
This is the reason why The Engrossed are so enslaved. They spend all their time and effort on that material goods treadmill. They spend all their time during their waking hours slaving away for no good end. And at the end of the day they are nothing but spent, dry husks. There is nothing left of them. I am not saying that a man should not try to reach the top of his profession; I am not saying that wealth is necessarily evil. Far from it. I applaud it and have been fortunate in my own life to achieve material success. But wealth is nothing unless it is put to the service of wise and prudent goals. And even when you have it, you will realize that it wears on you, slowly but surely: you spend much time preserving and maintaining it, and fret over its loss.
The Engrossed also sin against time itself. We have already observed that time is the past, present, and future. The Engrossed only live in the present, with no thought to either the past or the future. The past to them is irrelevant; and the future, they believe, will take care of itself. And as life and its inevitable hardships close in on them, they are left bewildered. Only too late do they find out the truth of things. Some of them never do. Some men do not want to be edified.
The ideal job to me is the job that a man enjoys doing, provides him a reasonable income, and give him the opportunity for speculative thought. The Engrossed are the way they are because they never think about what they are doing, whether by choice or by necessity. They never think about life and how it might best be lived. And they certainly never think about death, which is far closer and more intimate a presence in our lives than any of us would care to admit.
But this is how it is. The Engrossed share much in common, in point of fact, with the slave. Slaves were always kept busy. Slaves were never encouraged to read: most were even forbidden to learn how to read. And there is a reason for this. The reason is that a thinking slave is dangerous. A man who thinks–who can engage his cerebrum–is a man who will eventually begin asking dangerous questions. These questions may lead to subversive answers.
I was talking to someone recently who was trying to impress me with the quantity of material goods he had, with his status-symbol toys, and similar such things. It was clear that he was from the ranks of The Engrossed. He noticed that I was not much impressed with his litany of luxuries. My inner reaction was actually more like pity than anything else, although I did not overtly show any emotion.
I thought to myself, the occupati are all the same. Their lives are battle-grounds between the competing spirits of Enlightenment and Self-destruction. The avoidance of ruin will depend on each man’s ability to keep his negative, acquisitive urges in check until Wisdom can accomplish her positive work.
Read more on these themes in Stoic Paradoxes.
Read more about ethics and perseverance in my ground-breaking, original translation of Cicero’s “On Duties”: