Seneca on Creativity: Lessons from the Bees
How to ferment our natural gifts into nectar for the world.
By Maria Popova
A founding credo of The Marginalian is what I long ago termed combinatorial creativity — the idea that everything of beauty and substance we contribute to the world is composed of myriad influences and inspirations acquired in the course of being alive and awake to ideas, unconsciously composited into something new. Rilke understood this when he considered what it takes to create, and Einstein understood it when he placed “combinatory play” at the center of his way of thinking.
Millennia before me and you and Rilke and Einstein, the great Stoic philosopher Seneca captured this spirit of combinatorial creativity in Letter 84 from his correspondence with his friend Lucilius Junior, later collected as the indispensable Letters from a Stoic (public library).
Long before we understood the role of pollinators in the creation of life on Earth, Seneca writes:
We should follow… the example of the bees, who flit about and cull the flowers that are suitable for producing honey, and then arrange and assort in their cells all that they have brought in… The materials which the bees have culled from the most delicate of blooming and flowering plants is transformed into this peculiar substance by a process of preserving and careful storing away, aided by what might be called fermentation, — whereby separate elements are united into one substance.
Two thousand years before Audre Lorde drew human wisdom from the way of the bee, Seneca adds:
We also, I say, ought to copy these bees, and sift whatever we have gathered from a varied course of reading, for such things are better preserved if they are kept separate; then, by applying the supervising care with which our nature has endowed us, — in other words, our natural gifts, — we should so blend those several flavors into one delicious compound that, even though it betrays its origin, yet it nevertheless is clearly a different thing from that whence it came.
Complement with David Bowie on creativity, Virginia Woolf on the courage to create rather than cater, and the fascinating science of how time in nature magnifies our creative ability, then revisit Seneca on gratitude, the antidote to anxiety, and the key to resilience in the face of loss.
Published January 4, 2023