Give Advice, Selectively – Letter 29

In this series of blog posts I attempt to translate the Moral Letters to Lucilius by Seneca into modern English. In letter 28 Seneca describes why giving advice is important. As long as people want to hear it.

You’ve been asking how our friend Marcellinus is doing. Well, I can’t tell you. This is because he doesn’t want me to tell him some harsh truths so he never comes to see me. Of course, this is his choice. I’d rather speak to someone who wants to listen to what I’ve got to say. Even better, someone who will take my comments on board as a means to improve themselves. After all speaking to a person, one-on-one, is better than speaking to a crowd. I’m guessing that most people in a crowd only hear what they want to hear. They don’t hear what you have to say. Most of these people will simply react to what the crowd reacts to. But I suppose if you speak to enough people, with enough frequency, then maybe some of my words will make a positive impact?

I find that when speaking to a crowd you spend more time trying to please them, then getting your message across. What’s more, if they don’t recognise you as one of their own, then this lack of affinity means its an uphill struggle. But beware as if you walk on stage to speak, and you’re met with excessive clapping and cheering, then you’ve become an entertainer. This sort of learning is so important that people shouldn’t consider as trivial entertainment. And, remember, being popular doesn’t make you a good teacher.

So, in summary giving advice can be a good thing if there is a genuine interest. If there is a clear intention of helping people to achieve their goals. If you listen to the other person and if you are qualified and competent to help. I mentioned goals and its my belief that you should have a goal, or an aim. Focus on those aspects of your life that you need to improve. Or perhaps focus on these people who you want to try to help. Having vague goals, and unclear plans on how you will reach an end point means you’ll frustrate yourself. You won’t see any progress. Of course, you won’t be successful all the time in striving to reach your goals. But on these occasions use failure as a way of improving. And my final point is that be wise enough to see when progress towards a goal is hopeless. Abandon these at the right time, and then focus an alternative goal. Likewise with giving advice. There will be a moment at which you may suspend, even abandon your giving advice. This is where the other person is unwilling to listen to you any more. When you are not getting any response from the other person at all.

Getting back to Marcellinus, I have not yet lost hope. I’m still going to try to help him. I only hope that I don’t become too despondent at his lack of progress. But I’ll keep on giving him constructive feedback. I’m sure he’ll laugh off my comments. It usually starts with self depreciating humour, then he makes me the butt of the joke. He does this by questioning the underlying soundness of our philosophy. He accuses philosophers of hypocrisy and acting in a way you wouldn’t expect a role model to. But after a while he’ll calm down and he’ll listen to reason.

So my parting comments to you before I sign off are:

  • review progress in reaching your goals. Do this regularly.
  • maintain a sense of self-control. This will show other what a great character you have.
  • face up to your fears, and be courageous.

Take care.

I recommend you read all of the most influential Letters in this new Penguin Classic book. It is the best translation, in my opinion, because it captures Seneca’s humour and style. It is also the easiest to read. My copy is full of highlighted lines, margin notes and tabs. A treasure chest of profound, practical advice which you can apply immediately.

Warning: this is not an academic text; it describes a hands-on philosophy of life. Discover powerful, instantly helpful wisdom. The complete guide to improving your day-to-day activities, thoughts and actions.

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