As someone who is 20 years old, somewhat financially independent, and witnessing the erosion of the industry I want to enter (journalism), I have resigned myself to the fact that I might have to follow a career trajectory different from that of Susan Sontag or Martha Gellhorn.
Last semester, rankled by internship rejections and writer’s block, I began to doubt that I wanted to (or could) be financially solvent and work in something like media or entertainment. So, I did what anyone with access to career services and an alumni network would: I attended a “Consulting 101” event.
Or, at least, I tried to. I ended up misreading the room number on Facebook and found myself at a lecture about Seneca and Ovid held in Hamilton Hall and delivered by a professor in the Classics department. This seemed hilariously apt: Seneca, after all, was a stoic who asked us to relinquish ourselves to the whims of the universe, accept what may come in our path, and deride materialism. Here’s a Senec-ism:
What is most important in human existence? Not to have filled the seas with ships or to have fixed a flag on the shore of the Red Sea … , but to have seen the all with your mind and—the greatest victory of all—to have conquered your vices. There are countless people who have mastered nations and cities, very few who have mastered themselves.
But if you examine Seneca’s life, it’s a bit dubious whether he wholeheartedly embraced his own axioms. In fact, I might even go so far as to say that Seneca was an establishment-friendly consultant who nimbly toed the party line between philosopher and John Podesta. Seneca was born into a wealthy Roman family, educated in proto-stoic philosophy, and cavorted with the ruling class so closely that he was exiled to Corsica after the emperor Claudius suspected he was sleeping with Julia Livilla, the sister of former emperor Caligula.
If that sentence confuses you, this picture might help clarify things.
Upon his return to Rome, Seneca acted as a close political aide to the emperor Nero, whom he served for years before Nero began to go rogue, killing members of his family and consolidating power for himself. It’s speculated that Seneca helped plan a failed coup to oust Nero. Seneca, widely deemed a threat to Nero’s reign, was then forced to commit suicide.
Do these sound like the machinations of someone who believes that mastering oneself is more impressive than mastering “nations and cities?” From the looks of it, Seneca was a lover of the elite, happy to preach asceticism while reveling in the decadence of Roman aristocracy.
The reality of being at Barnard and Columbia is that we are all put in positions to become a modern-day Seneca or Nero. One of the biggest ironies of the liberal arts education is that you’re expected to simultaneously grasp Seneca and his proverbial flag in the Red Sea. You are told on one hand that money and prestige aren’t the sources of happiness, yet you’re also presented with numerous opportunities to secure both. You’re expected to both separate yourself from the material world and engage with it so ruthlessly that you change it, perhaps even for the better. A lot of times, I think that this demand becomes a bit overwhelming. And then we return to that eternal scourge: the passion versus money dilemma.
This past summer, on a particularly scrupulous LinkedIn spree, I realized that a large portion of men at Columbia have identically lit, framed, and color-retouched profile pictures. This was interesting—not because of the aesthetic uniformity and cool professionalism of the photos, but because, for a second, I felt like I had just gleaned some forbidden insight into the grand industrial complex that is the financial job market: Down to their photos, these boys (the modern-day Tetrarchs of America) plan.
This is not an observation limited to Columbia, finance, or men. But, for me, this moment represented a feeling that had only emerged since a few months prior: the suspicion that, I, a humanities major, was doing it all wrong. And that they—the ones courageous and brazen enough to wholeheartedly embrace capitalism and its multi-stepped miasmic ubiquity—were right. Or at least, they were all following a script that didn’t have any lines I could read.
Or were they? Last week I had dinner with a close friend of mine who just got an offer from a top consulting firm (he is also the proud owner of a LinkedIn daguerreotype). He was thrilled to have gotten the job offer and even admitted that, at one point, he was so anxious about his future that he mournfully smoked an entire pack of cigarettes while fretting the prospect of working in middle management for the rest of his life. But, setting aside his new job, he said that he was excited for this coming summer because of his plans to rent a van and drive around the United States.
Is this an attempt at Seneca-like stoicism: the romantic embrace of nature at the expense of the material world? When I asked him why he was going on the trip, he said that it was fulfilling a sort of nomadic fantasy of his, one that would be a welcome respite between school and the start of his work in consulting. In fact, for all of the meticulous planning that led to the offer, he wasn’t even sure how happy the job would make him.
Does this mean that facing the financial life requires a certain kind of stoicism, too? Maybe Seneca started writing this story long ago, and now we’re just doomed to form LinkedIn profiles in his image.
Elena Burger is a Barnard College junior majoring in history with a cautious minor in economics. You can follow her on Twitter @VirtualElena. Unaccompanied Data Miner runs alternate Wednesdays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com.