A Meaningful Life 500 Years Ago

October 8, 2015 by Charlie Hedges − 0 Comments

500 years ago essays of more than 140 characters could actually hold reader’s attention. No kidding! And for those that couldn’t read, a speech of 1-2 hours was normal.

And then came salvation: TED and Twitter. We no longer have to devote all that time to pondering about life, the universe and everything. All we need is one pithy, thought-provoking quote. Yippee! My philosophical diet for the day is complete.

When “More” is Better

500 years ago was the time called the Renaissance in which philosophers had returned to the thinking of the classical Greeks. This thinking enormously impacted art, architecture, politics, science and literature. It was indeed a Golden Period, (well… I guess you have to kind of ignore The Inquisition.)

Now, we live in a novel time in history where the “crowd” is drawn mostly by whatever is new and short, or brief. Our schedules are so cluttered that we really haven’t time for much of anything “in depth.” That’s too bad because throughout history people have sought the deep (and sometimes long) writings of “the ancients” for wisdom.

My point is this: educated people 500 years ago truly desired a virtuous life of meaning and influence. And you know what? Many of their conclusions not only apply to us today, they inform us on how to live what we might call The Good Life.

For instance, while reading Seneca: Letters from a Stoic, I discovered a reference to the Renaissance classical scholar, Erasmus, offering advice on life to a friend. Erasmus encouraged his friend with 6 behaviors to live a steady and good life. When I read it I was almost shocked by how relevant it is today.

Six 500-Year-Old Habits for a Meaningful Life

So, here are six suggestions from 500-year-old Renaissance scholar, Erasmus, intended for his friend. See if they work for you today.

  1. Be regular at your work.

Consistency and diligence with your work (at the job or home or volunteer) pays off like an investment in your future. I often have trouble with this one. I get anxious about some task and put it off until later. Or I tend to simply procrastinate and wait until the last minute, which is not really bad if I have enough minutes at the last minute. I usually do. But the procrastination causes me so much anxiety. I am certain that if I were more “regular” I would indeed be happier with far less anxiety. So here’s the first one that might need a little more effort on my part. How about you?

  1. Keep a journal.

So many successful and influential people keep diaries. I only started about a year ago. OMG. Now, I really can’t complete my morning without writing down my thoughts for the day.

It was awkward in the beginning. I didn’t know what to write. I was told to “write anything,” the first thoughts, whatever they may be, write them down, even if they feel petty or more like gibberish. Just keep it up and soon it will begin to make sense. And after a couple of months they will actually make sense. It is a great time for 1) self-analysis, 2) gratitude, 3) dreams, 4) concerns, 5) ideas, or 6) just thoughts for what is coming up on that day. I find it so settling. It’s a chance to put my soul on paper (or on my computer).

  1. Remember that life is short.

This is huge. As I’ve written before, the only thing we know for sure in life is that we will die. The older you get the truer this becomes. I know now that my time remaining is limited. So I plan my coming year and current day as if that is it, all I have. I refuse to think, “Oh when I retire I’ll…” No. I will do cool things, NOW.

I go to ballgames. I paint and write, go to museums, visit friends, and travel to new places frequently. For me, two things seem to work in harmony: learning and just having fun. Often both occur at the same time. We are a hungry people—hungry for knowledge and for doing something new. We are hard-wired for it.

When you always keep in the back of your mind that life is short, you will be reminded to live now because “now” is all you can be sure of. But please know, I am still marginally reasonable. I save, I keep to a budget and I do important tasks. But I also LIVE.

  1. Study Plato and Seneca.

Give me a “C-” on this one. I read short bits of philosophy and poetry and psychology and theology. But I don’t really study them as Erasmus suggests. In the next 2-3 months I plan to study the Stoics (Seneca and Marcus Aurelius) and the Epicureans (Epicurus).

I’m reading Letters from a Stoic, by Seneca right now. His words are so applicable today and he was born the same time as Christ! Once again, Erasmus is right on the money.

  1. Love your wife.

I think I can safely say that he means for wives to love their husbands as well. Why would he put “love your spouse” as one of life’s essentials? It just doesn’t seem to fit, like it’s not quite as highbrow as the others. Really. Apart from the Bible, how many times do philosophers talk about loving your spouse? Like never?

Well, once again I think Erasmus is revealing his unusual wisdom. Your home is the foundation of your life, like it or not, it is! If things are not well at home, things are not well elsewhere. I won’t go into detail here because it would be more than an entire blog. Suffice it to say, love is a choice—of each party. Much more often than not you can choose to do acts of love.

  1. Disregard the world’s opinion.

My favorite. These words allow folks like me (and probably you) to be the iconoclasts that we are (or long to be). I’ve never been very good with rules and laws that invade my privacy. What I do in private is no business of the “world.” Besides the world is usually wrong. I love the adage, “When everyone is turning to the right, perhaps it’s time for you to go left!”

It is best when you listen to the voice of your soul, not to the clamor of the world. How many great artists were not considered great until they died and a whole new generation “got” what they were trying to do? But during their life, the world mocked and scorned and disapproved.

The lesson is to think widely, read voraciously, travel and discover how much the “world” does not know!

So… What Now?

Hey. Erasmus wrote these words 500 years ago, and they STILL work. No matter how much circumstances, business, science and technology change, your soul doesn’t. Basic human needs and behaviors are the same today as they were two thousand years ago.

Here is your assignment. Look at the 6 suggestions by Erasmus and (1) Decide which will work for you, and (2) what you need to stop, start or continue doing that will assist you in living your Good Life.

  1. Be regular at your work,
  2. Keep a journal,
  3. Remember that life is short,
  4. Study Plato and Seneca,
  5. Love your wife,
  6. Disregard the world’s opinion.


Wisdom Given Yesterday

Is Still Wisdom of Worth Today


Photo courtesy of Brigida_Soriano at istockphoto.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Next Chapter Podcast
Living a life of meaning Living a life with adventure Living a life with awe