40. How to Speak ?


How to speak?

Your speech

like your life

should be measured



Eloquence flows gently as honey flows, thus soothing my irritations, quieting my terrors, shaking off my illusions, checking my indulgences, thus rebuking my greed.

Dispatch your eloquence with ease

rather than haste & I bid you to

slow your discourse.

On the Proper Style for a Philosopher’s Discourse

I thank you for writing to me so often; If the pictures of our absence friends are pleasing to us, though they only refresh the memory & lighten our longing by a solace that is unreal & unsubstantial, how much more pleasant is a letter, which brings us real traces, real evidences, of an absence friend!

For that which is sweetest when we meet face to face is afforded by the impress of a friend’s hand upon their letter, – Recognition.

You write me that the philosopher Serapio, “He is wont,” you say, “to wrench up his words with a mighty rush, & he does not let them flow forth one by one, but makes them crowd & dash upon each other; For the words come in such quantity that a single voice is inadequate to utter them”

I do not approve of this in a philosopher; their speech, like their life, should be composed; & nothing that rushes headlong & is hurried is well ordered.

That is why, in Homer the rapid style, which sweeps down without a break like a snow-squall, is assigned to the younger speaker; from the old person, eloquence flows gently, & is sweeter than honey.

Therefore mark my words; that forceful manner of speech, rapid & copious, is more suited to a mountebank than to a person who is discussing & teaching an important & serious subject.

Although I object just as strongly that one should drip out their words as that one should go at top speed; One should neither keep the ear on the stretch, nor deafen it.

For that poverty-stricken & thin-spun style also makes the audience less attentive because they are weary of its stammering slowness; nevertheless, the word which has been long awaited sinks in more easily than the word which flits past us on the wing.

Finally, people speak of “handing down” precepts to their pupils; but one is not “handing down” that which eludes the grasp, Besides, speech that deals with the truth should be unadorned & plain.

This popular style has nothing to do with the truth; its aim is to impress the common herd, to ravish heedless ears by its speed; it does not offer itself for discussion, but snatches itself away from discussion.

Yet how can that speech govern others which cannot itself be governed?, May I not also remark that all speech which is employed for the purpose of healing our minds, ought to sink into us?

Remedies do not avail unless they remain in the system, Besides, this sort of speech contains a great deal of sheer emptiness; it has more sound than power.

My terrors should be quieted, my irritations soothed, my illusions shaken off, my indulgences checked, my greed rebuked.

And which of these cures can be brought about in a hurry?, What physician can heal his patient on a flying visit?, May I add that such a jargon of confused & ill-chosen words cannot afford pleasure, either? 

No; but just as you are well satisfied, in the majority of cases, to have seen through tricks which you did not think could possibly be done, so in the case of these word-gymnasts, – to have heard them once is amply sufficient.

For what can a person desire to learn or to imitate in them?, What is One to think of their souls, when their speech is sent into the charge in utter disorder, & cannot be kept in hand? 

Just as, when you run down hill, you cannot stop at the point where you had decided to stop, but your steps are carried along by the momentum of your body & are borne beyond the place where you wished to halt; so this speed of speech has no control over itself, nor is it seemly for philosophy; since philosophy should carefully place their words, not fling them out, & should proceed step by step.

“What then?”, you say; “should not philosophy sometimes take a loftier tone?”, Of course they should; but dignity of character should be preserved, & this is stripped away by such violent & excessive force.

Let philosophy possess great forces, but kept well under control; let them stream flow unceasingly, but never become a torrent, & I should hardly allow even to an orator a rapidity of speech like this, which cannot be called back, which goes lawlessly ahead; for how could it be followed by jurors, who are often inexperienced & untrained?

Even when the orator is carried away by their desire to show off their powers, or by uncontrollable emotion, even then One should not quicken their pace & heap up words to an extent greater than the ear can endure.

Fabianus, a person noteworthy because of his life, his knowledge, &, less important than either of these, his eloquence also, used to discuss a subject with dispatch rather than with haste; hence you might call it ease rather than speed.

I approve this quality in the wise person; but I do not demand it; only let their speech proceed unhampered, though I prefer that it should be deliberately uttered rather than spouted.

However, I have this further reason for frightening you away from the latter malady, namely, that you could only be successful in practising this style by losing your sense of modesty; you would have to rub all shame from your countenance, & refused to hear yourself speak.

For that heedless flow will carry with it many expressions which you would wish to criticize, &, I repeat, you could not attain it & at the same time preserve your sense of shame.

Moreover, you would need to practise every day, & transfer your attention from subject matter to words; And words, even if they came to you readily & flowed without any exertion on your part, yet would have to be kept under control.

For just as a less ostentatious gait becomes a philosopher, so does a restrained style of speech, far removed from boldness.

Therefore, the ultimate kernel of my remarks is this:

I bid you be slow of speech.

Farewell, Seneca, StoicTaoist.